Build a Better Star Realm
Star Realms is a purebred deck-building game, descended from deck-building stock and distilled from deck-building ingredients, and completely unburdened (or perhaps “unadvantaged,” depending on your point of view) by the frills that round out most modern deck-builders. There’s no board to explore. No bidding. No hybridization with other genres. Just a bunch of cards, the compulsion to buy them into your deck, and a whole bunch of shuffling. It is, in short, what we would surely call a deck-building game, through and through, nothing more and nothing less.
Or is it?
The answer to that question is Yes. Yes it is. Just a deck-building game.
That doesn’t mean that Star Realms isn’t a very excellent deck-building game though. For one thing — and if you don’t know what deck-building games are all about, I’m afraid you’re going to have to inquire elsewhere — unlike most pure deck-builders, Star Realms is rather straightforward in how adversarial it wants you to be. Rather than merely swiping the choicest cards before your buddies can acquire them or discarding the occasional something from their hand (though of course you can do both), Star Realms is all about attacking each other. Both sides start with 50 “authority” (read: hit points), and then you work to obtain and play the best ships and starbases to gradually erode your opponent’s authority before she can erode yours. For a member of this oft-indirect genre, it’s refreshingly blunt. In place of the usual rush to acquire a set amount of abstract victory points or space-estates, Star Realms is about war, from beginning to end.
The result is fast-paced, as deck-builders tend to be, but in this case it’s a race to inflict more damage per turn than you’re taking. And since you first have to stack your deck with powerful ships, you also need to worry about building an economy and playing cards to boost your authority. Balance is often the key.
To this end, Star Realms pulls a few innovative tricks that push the genre forward ever so slightly.
The least of these are the “bases,” special units that stick around turn after turn and generate some sort of perpetual bonus. There’s the Recycling Station, for example, that lets you dump up to two cards and draw replacements, or the Fleet HQ that gives all your ships an extra point of attack power, or the Defense Center that gives you either a bit of extra attack or a slight bump to your authority. They’re simple but crucial, especially since they also block the damage that will be directed at you turn after turn, shielding your star realm’s authority. At least until they’re destroyed, anyway.
Even cooler are the myriad ways that your cards work together to create some truly dreadful combos. Well over half of the cards you can acquire come with “Ally Abilities,” synergistic boosts that activate once you get more than one of the same nation’s ships or bases onto the table within a single turn. There are four broad factions, each of which correspond with a type of bonus. There are the ships that combo with each other to deal extra damage, the ones that let you draw more cards, the authority-healing faction, and the guys who let you scrap your now-worthless cards. For instance, the “Cutter” is a Trade Federation ship that normally heals four authority and generates two trade (money), but when paired with a second Federation card will also deal four damage. These bonuses are powerful enough that you’ll want to specialize your deck, but since each of the four factions offers something crucial, you’ll probably want one or two representatives from even the factions you aren’t focusing on.
Lastly, many of the cards come with a “Scrap” ability, which lets you permanently remove that card from your deck for another bonus. To illustrate, the Imperial Frigate, which deals damage and makes your opponent discard a card, can be scrapped to draw an extra card, while the Battle Station has no ability until scrapped, at which point it deals some hefty damage. These scrap abilities are a nice quick way to trim down your deck without having to search too hard for specialized scrapper cards, but will also remove that ship’s abilities from your fleet forever. Still, they can often give you the edge you need to destroy that critical base or dip into your draw deck for another bit of cash.
There are a few cards that feel disproportionately powerful, like the above-mentioned Cutter that heals and generates money and pairs with another Federation ship to deal some bonus damage, which only costs two monies for the trouble. I’m no mathemagician, but that seems like a hell of a deal to me. And some will probably find the straightforward gameplay overly streamlined.
Overall, these didn’t prove game-ruining for my group, and I like that Star Realms provides enough options to build some tidy customized decks, or pursue certain avenues to victory, but not so many that the task ever veers into the overwhelming. It’s like most deck-building games in that regard: heavy enough that someone somewhere will play a million games and uncover some optimal strategies, but light enough that the rest of us normal people can have fun without burning out.
Now I’m going to do something kind of unprecedented and boring by praising the business model. If you were to run out and buy Star Realms right this instant, you’d not only discover that it’s rather affordable to buy one of its pocket-sized boxes, but also that each pack only advertizes two players even though the game can be played with up to six. This is because you only have to buy as many packs as you have pairs of players — so one pack will let you play the two-player game, picking up a second pack will let you play with 3-4 people, and a third will bump that number up to a sizable 5-6. This might seem odd at first, but I actually really like what Star Realms is doing here. See, each individual pack is so affordable that buying three is about the same price as buying a complete six-player game anyway, and by separating the game into bite-sized chunks, those folks who only play with a certain number can opt to buy just one or two packs rather than paying for the whole shebang and never really using it.
Anyway. That’s Star Realms. I’m not much of a fan of pure deck-building games, but this is possibly the most fun I’ve had with a nothing-but-deck-building game other than Ascension with all its expansions, and something tells me that Star Realms is just getting started.
Also, it’s always a nice perk when a game can slide right into a pocket or backpack. Star Realms gets eighteen and a half bonus points for that.