Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Space Punching into Galactic Submission with Star Realms

Not all of Star Realms is excellent, I concede. But most of it is extremely excellent.

Setup: exactly the same as every other deckbuilder you have played

Getting Star Realms ready for your first game is a textbook display of non-innovation. Each of the 2 players (there are only ever 2 players) start with a 10 card deck. 8 of the cards are worth a gold coin (universal credits, trade points, whatever). 2 cards are worth a damage point. You buy cards from a river of 5 random cards drawn from the trade deck. 

When you pull the cards out of the box, you can easily separate them into 3 piles. Explorers, Starter Cards, and the Trade Deck.

What is interesting about this non-interesting setup is just how simple it is. There's nothing to this game other than a single deck of cards and another pile of 20 starter cards to make the 2 initial player decks. No counters or markers or spaceship miniatures or anything.

Innovation: Direct Confrontation

More than any other deckbuilder I have played…Star Realms is a quick, mean game. Across the great history of deckbuilders, games like Ascension (and Thunderstone before it) may have thematically been about fighting things. But Star Realms is an actual fight between 2 players.


In Star Realms there are no victory points. No victory points on cards, and no victory point chits. The cards themselves are worthless.

Instead of earning your sweet little VP's, you are reducing your opponent's health each time you attack. And so the only victory in Star Realms is to crush your opponent as fast as possible, preferably before they get a similar death engine constructed on their side.

Each play starts with 50 life points. During the first few turns, this seems like a lot. With only 2 damage cards in your deck (Vipers), each only capable of shaving off a single life point, the war feels like it will go on forever. But it won't. Things in Star Realms escalate quickly.

Combo Damage!

These ships you are buying eventually start hurting your opponent. But to lay down the real hurt, you need to get a couple cards together of the same faction. Because there is often an "ally" ability that will also trigger, ramping up the effect of the card considerably. Play a few allying cards, draw into some more and things explode.

In the DC deck-building game, you often get to watch your opponent engage in elaborate combos of cards as they slowly collect enough power to sweep the board and defeat the current super-villian with ease.

If your opponent in Star Realms gets a long combo going, you are probably dead. A well-developed deck can do 30 or 40 points (theoretically even 50) of damage in one hand if lucky. So if your opponent gets lucky, you are probably dead.

Then you shuffle up the cards and start over again.

Together these 2 cards cause a whopping 10 points of damage, plus makes your opponent discard 2 cards. All for 4 trade coins…a good investment! And you have 3 other cards in your hand.

The Lucky Strike

I mentioned getting lucky. After playing a few games of Star Realms you might expect battles between 2 experienced players might come down to who can get lucky first.

An important way Star Realms tries to mitigate this is by making "trashing" in your deck easy and ubiquitous. Almost all cards of the "Machine Cult" faction can trash your starter cards for you, and many of the cards in other factions trash themselves as an extra ability. You might want to do this if you find your factional flavor switching, thanks to the vagaries of the random card selection.

2 players, working to get rid of their starter cards, will come down to who buys the best collection of cards in the meantime.

All your star bases

We haven't even talked about star bases yet. Star bases are the artifacts and enchantments of Star Realms, deploying and remaining on the board while the rest of the hand gets shuffled back in.

If you can get a star base of a relevant faction, you can easily ramp up the power of your cards since there will always be an ally in play.

Of course, your opponent can attack these star bases, choosing to do direct damage to them instead of to you. You might want to do this if the synergy between the base and the player's deck is sufficiently high.

But then there are other bases marked as "outposts" and these cards MUST be attacked before the player can be damaged. During beginning plays, I came away thinking this effect was inconsequential. But through a skilled player, a couple bases together can create an impenetrable wall…turning a death strike from your armada into a sneeze.


Like your games short and brutal? Like to get rolling on the next game right away without a lot of card sorting? This is what I am feeling with Star Realms. There's probably more to it, and I will certainly post secondary impressions later. Until then, beatings will continue. In space.

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