One of my biggest pet peeves in board gaming is the oversized box. Companies compete for prominence on limited shelf space by putting their games in too-large boxes, and it ends up being an annoyance to literally everyone except the people cashing in by (presumably) increased sales. Machi Koro and Splendor are the worst examples of this I’ve seen. It feels like you’ve only half of a game–like a packaging error has occurred. And I’m not sure what’s worse–that initial impression or the realization that, yes, this is all of the components. I hate it.
All of that to say that White Wizard Games should be commended for Star Realms. It’s a small game (basically a deck of cards) in a small card box. I’ve pocketed it before, and it’s the perfect game to carry with you for spontaneous gaming.
The Realm of Stars
Star Realms is a 2-player (more with multiple copies) deckbuilding game that is extremely simple and streamlined. Players attempt to reduce their opponent’s health (called “Authority” for some reason) to zero before their opponent kills them. Each player starts with some 1 money and some 1 attack cards, and on their turn they can use money to buy more cards, attack to attack their opponent, and eventually armor to increase their own health.
Everything else is essentially contained within the card text itself. The special abilities are clear and easy to understand (which is more difficult to do than you think), and have an adequate amount of variety.
Ok, I’m getting boring here. It’s a deckbuilder. You know how it works–you buy cards to make your deck better, try to get some synergy between the cards, and shoot towards the victory condition. I’m a big fan of deckbuilders, most notably Dominion–the first, and still the best. So when we look at any game in the genre we have to inevitably compare it to that classic. What does it do differently, and does that improve on the formula?
Charting A Unique Path
Star Realms does not improve on Dominion, but it does have its own independent positives going for it. First, it has a unique clan system that allows cards to gain additional powers if they are played on the same turn as another card of that clan. This makes the game much more accessible to people new to boardgaming, as it’s very easy to understand which cards are going to work well with other cards. That prelude to Dominion where everyone is staring at the kingdom cards available, trying to figure out which cards will work well together? It doesn’t exist here.
In fact it really can’t, because instead of fixed piles of cards to choose from, Star Realms provides a rotating display of five choices. As soon as one card is purchased, you just replace it with a card from the deck. I have to be honest, I don’t particularly enjoy this decision. It does make the game easier to pick up and understand, but it also introduces a lot more randomness to the proceedings. I’ve gotten frustrated on a number of occasions by subpar choices, only to see the cards I wanted to see appear for my opponent.
Each of the four factions has their own specializations: Yellow likes to force your opponent to discard cards, Red is all about trashing your own cards to remove inefficiencies, Blue is full of defense and money, and Green is very aggressive on the attack. While some abilities (like Yellow’s discard attacks) are exclusive to the color, mostly their specializations are more of emphasis rather than a strict rule.
The different factions, combined with the synergistic effects, give each game a unique feel. You can rush hard with red and green cards for maximum offense, which actually seems to be a very powerful strategy, or you can play more of a tempo game with blue and yellow cards.
One problem, though, is that more aggressive playstyles, if you get the right cards from the random deck, seem to be more powerful than more conservative playstyles. I think this is because the designers wanted to make sure the game could actually end. There has to be a bit of overall entropy away from life totals on the margin or two defensive playstyles might create a near-perpetual game.
I understand why that’s needed, but it doesn’t necessarily create the best play experience. I think I have a decent handle on the game, though I’m certainly not particularly good by any means, and I find myself inevitably going for a more aggressive strategy unless the cards stack themselves clearly against that.
I’m really curious what competitive, high-level Star Realms is like, because my gut instinct says that it would have more than a healthy dose of luck. Perhaps, since the game is so short, they play to a certain number of wins to round out the variability. End game decks can snowbally incredibly quickly, so random card draws can have an enormous effect on the game.
I also wonder how high-level play differs from my own. Because the design is so streamlined, so well put together and easy to understand, I feel like I’ve gotten a decent grasp on the game almost immediately. Is there a lot of depth to explore here? I’ve played maybe 20-30 times in real life and on the free app, and I have a decent understanding of every card in the deck. What layers of complexity lie beyond that? Is there a sharp learning curve towards mastery at this point? If so, that’s not attractive to me.
Star Realms isn’t a great game, but it certainly is a good one, made better by its cheap price, compact size, short length, and ease of play. It’s the perfect on-the-go game to bring with you while you wait in line for an event, or between heavier games on game night.
Keep It Simple
There are quite a number of expansions that have been released, and I’m not jumping at the bit to get any of them, particularly since the game will quickly outgrow that small box, and once it does that, what’s the advantage of playing it over Dominion? There’s not much else. Furthermore, I think it misses the fundamental mechanical brilliance of Dominion that made it such a great game–victory point cards. In Dominion there is an inherent tension created by the fact that gaining victory points will make your deck weaker.
Star Realms has nothing of the sort. In fact, it sort of enables a snowballing effect towards the winning player. Some of the cards in Star Realms are bases and are played on the table, only to stay there and affect future turns. Some of them even defend against your own life total by forcing your opponent to attack them first before you. However, once they are destroyed they go back into your deck, making it less efficient. Thus a player with a good amount of attack power can keep rotating their opponent’s bases back into the deck, helping their victory. It’s small, but it demonstrates a fundamental difference in design philosophy. I prefer Dominion’s style. It creates more dramatic, more interesting games.
But Star Realms is quick. Games are no more than 15-20 minutes, and it has that addictive quality that keeps you coming back for more. I sort of wish it was deeper and more involved, but part of me likes it how it is. It’s light, easy to play, and fun. Worth the $15.
(I should also note somewhere that the cards provided to keep score create an unwieldy mess. Throw some percentile dice in the box instead.)
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