Star Realms is a sci-fi themed deckbuilder game that plays fast and furiously, battling it out between two players using Ships and Bases from four alien and human factions to purchase cards and make attacks. Deckbuilding games are a relatively new sub-genre of strategy card games, and we’ve been seeing a few more digital card games using deckbuilding mechanics recently. “Deckbuilding” as a mechanic is where you actually build your deck over the course of the game instead of before it, so each game starts the same but evolves very differently.
Star Realms is based on the physical card game version that was released first, and the digital app is more recent. So let’s jump in and see how well Star Realms does at living up to the deckbuilding hype – does it capture the huge success of the physical version, or fall flat?
Star Realms is a deckbuilding game boiled down to the genre’s purest essence. Each player’s starting deck of 10 cards has 8 Scouts (which provide 1 Trade each) and 2 Vipers (which provide 1 Combat). Players draw 5 cards per turn, except for the first player who only draws 3 in the first turn.
You use Ships to produce Trade points, which is the currency used to “buy” cards from the shared row of cards supplied from the draw deck. When you use Trade points to buy a card in the Trade Row, it immediately goes into your discard pile. When your draw deck is empty, you shuffle your discard pile to make a new draw deck. This way, over the course of a game you’ll go through your deck many times and get to use the cards you’ve bought many times over.
Cards will give you a range of effects and benefits, from Ships supplying more Trade points, to producing “Combat” points used for attacking, as well as more permanent Bases that can stay in play until destroyed. You use Combat points each turn to attack the opponent player directly, harming their “Authority” which is essentially their life points. However you usually have to attack any Bases they have by directing Combat points there first, as Bases offer a protective buffer between a player and their Authority.
The game’s variance and strategy comes with the fact that all cards belong to one of four factions, representing different human and alien factions in the sci-fi world of Star Realms: the Trade Federation (blue), the Blobs (green), the Star Empire (yellow) and the Machine Cult (red). Most cards have an Ally ability which you only get to use if you play another card of the same faction in the same turn. Bases are kept in play permanently unless an opponent uses Combat points to attack it and send it back into your discard pile, but where Bases are extremely useful is that they also count as “triggering” Ally abilities of cards in your hand.
Ally abilities therefore reward picking one or two factions and buying those cards consistently, but it’s not uncommon for a deck to have some of all of the factions. A big part of the game is watching what the opponent is purchasing as well and modifying your strategy based on that as well as what cards are coming out into the Trade Row. You can’t just go in wanting to buy and play all of the Blob cards because you like them the most – it may not actually be the most optimal strategy for that particular game’s draw sequence of the Trade Row.
Star Realms plays very much like another deckbuilder out there, Ascension, but is a much simpler version of that game. Some may argue it loses the strategic complexity of Ascension, and I’d agree with that. However, in doing so, Star Realms gains something unique – it’s much more streamlined, faster, and more conflict and combat-orientated as a result. Star Realms is incredibly fast and furious which makes it so exciting to play. It’s one of my favorite deckbuilders right after Ascension and Dominion.
Modes and Features
Star Realms features a few ways to play the core game. In the single-player campaign spread over two separate Chapters, there is a brief but well-written story that puts you at the center of intergalactic conflict as the son of a King propelled into political war. I appreciate the effort to create a narrative that evolves over the course of the campaign, which a lot of card games struggle to do well.
The best thing about the campaign though is that many of the missions have modified setups and unique rules that govern each particular match. (See example image below.) This is a great way to alter the core gameplay in a way that I found intriguing and at times incredibly challenging. Even though you can play the missions on Normal or Hard mode, you’ll definitely find yourself struggling against how strong the AI can be at times, but in a fun rather than frustrating way.
If you want to just play a game against the AI outside of the campaign, there’s the option to do that against an Easy, Medium or Hard level AI opponent. There’s also a really good in-game series of tutorials that takes you through how to play and clues you in on some of the strategy as well. It’s always helpful when developers include these features and the tutorials are handled very informatively here.
If you want to play against another person, you have two options. Pass and Play lets you play against someone in the same room, a feature that not enough card games have these days and it really sells the game as a product to people like me that enjoy playing with housemates and friends.
Secondly, you can also play online, starting an open match which anyone can join, but these matches are asynchronous – the opponent doesn’t have to make their move immediately and they have quite a while to respond, so it doesn’t really make it a live game unless both players are present and responding in a timely fashion.
This is my only criticism here because if I want to play a live match, I don’t like waiting around for other people. There also aren’t any Tournaments or other online modes, just this asynchronous PvP mode which is a shame because the physical card game actually supports multiplayer and some other variants as well. I hope to see these in the app’s future development.
Usually this section is called “Deckbuilding and Strategy”, but I’m going to subvert it by eliminating the “and” since there is no building of decks outside of the game! The strategy of Star Realms follows the same pattern as those of similar deckbuilding games like Ascension. However, it is possible to talk about Star Realms’ own strategies that often come up and how to get better at the game overall.
The unique thing about deckbuilders is that everyone comes to the table with an even playing field – we all start with the same cards and have the same opportunities, barring some mild variance due to the random nature at which cards come out of the deck into the Trade Row. This is actually one of the main criticisms of these randomized deckbuilding games, but it’s what I find enjoyable about them; that each player has to respond to the situation they find themselves in on their turn because there aren’t always the same cards in the middle to purchase.
Therefore, the strategy of Star Realms is highly individualized to each game and the way the Trade Row evolves. There’s no use trying to “just” play one faction because you like it. You have to learn to respond to the ever-changing nature of the game as well as paying close attention to what your opponents purchase and play. If your opponent has been buying a lot of Machine Cult cards, you might want to purchase a couple of the better ones next time they come out onto the Trade Row to stop them from acquiring them. This is called “hate buying” because you’re buying a card specifically to counter an opponent’s strategy.
You also want to look out for how to get the most value out of your cards – cards that let you draw more cards are always a good choice, unless their faction heavily clashes with the overall proportions of factions in your deck so far. If a card lets you draw another card as its Primary ability (not requiring any Allies to trigger it) then there is no downside because it will always replace itself with another card in your hand and that’s a good thing.
“Scrapping” is also incredibly important, which is the ability to eliminate cards from your deck permanently. You’re going to want to do this as soon as possible with all of your Scouts and Vipers that start out useful, but decrease in value the longer the game goes as they stop you from drawing more of your powerful Ships and Bases. So the sooner you can get a card with a scrapping ability, the more times you’ll be able to scrap less useful cards from your deck over the course of a match. Creating a lean, fast, powerful deck should be the ideal goal of each game.
It’s hard to miss that I feel strongly about how good this game is, because I am a huge fan of the deckbuilding genre and Star Realms is the purest form of it. There is so much replay potential here for such a small upfront cost. No booster packs, no other in-app purchases, just pure addictive gameplay. Star Realms meets that perfectly with its one-time unlock of all features.
The user interface is perfectly designed for all platforms and it makes really good use of the small space of tablets and phones. It’s still a bit of a squeeze on phone screens, but you can easily enlarge any card to get a clearer view and the bright colored, well-designed iconography of the game makes things easy to read at a glance. The music gets repetitive after a while and there’s not a lot of sound design here, but it’s good enough to get by and the core gameplay shines through regardless.
That said, while the digital version is incredibly strong, it’s not without some faults. I’m a bit upset at the lack of a truly live online mode, but I can live with that. It would be nice to have some of the game’s multiplayer and expansion content as well but I hope that this might come in future updates and releases.
Star Realms is a good gateway game for TCG/CCG players interested in the deckbuilding genre because it simplifies a lot of the core ideas of the genre while also hooking you on how fast and furious it is. It’s also a great game for players unfamiliar with card games entirely because the concepts are simple enough to grasp and the game doesn’t require any complicated building of decks before a match, something that is often a huge barrier to entry for a lot of new players to strategy card games.
It helps that Star Realms has a great theme and artwork to boot, so if you’re at all interested in this game you better waste no time in picking it up immediately. For such a small price, Star Realms returns that investment tenfold in how much gameplay you’ll get out of it.
For more screenshots, click here.
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