Oh, hey there internet! I probably didn’t see you there because I was too busy owning a copy of Star Realms, nyah nyah. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate the “How’d you manage to get ahold of that!” comments, but let’s be honest: If you’re reading this a couple months after I wrote it, that probably isn’t an issue anymore, the hype has died down, and Star Realms is probably a game that you are ABLE to buy in physical form. The question is… should you?
It’s telling that I was able to buy this game from a store because the store’s clientele was more interested in things that looked like Trading Card Games. Some people have claimed Star Realms is like a TCG-meets-deckbuilder, and despite the design pedigree of two Magic The Gathering Pro Tour vets, that comparison is totally off-base. Star Realms is a deck-builder, perhaps the most streamlined (some might say bare bones) deck-builder I have ever seen. It’s SO streamlined that, if you’ve played any deckbuilder, you probably know 95% of the rules to Star Realms.
You probably know that you start with a deck of ten terrible cards, each of which gives you a piddling amount of one of the game’s two sort-of-currencies, Dollar Money or Laser Money.
You probably know that you can buy cards from a row in the middle that have stronger effects than the cards you started with.
You probably know that removing cards from your deck is powerful, so cards that let you streamline or cycle your deck are in high demand.
You probably DON’T know that in this game YOU CAN DIE.
Okay, well, not TECHNICALLY. The game calls it “influence” and when you have 0 influence you can’t influence anything anymore (because you’re dead) and when you’re the last person influentially alive, you’re the winner. So, Player Elimination and “Direct Conflict?” Sounds like a hook, right? Take THAT eurosnoots! Definitely makes the game attractive to more confrontational gamers, TCGers and AmeriThrashers.
Except it kind of shouldn’t, because shooting your opponent with lasers has never felt more like basic subtraction. Like I said before, this game doesn’t feel much like a TCG, and that extends to the combat. The game is very interested in streamlining DECKBUILDING. To that end, nearly all of the big decisions are about what cards to buy, and what cards to trash… meaning that when you’re actually PLAYING cards, you tend to be on autopilot. With a few exceptions (mostly regarding drawing cards) each turn you can just slap your 5 card hand on the game table, add up the Dollar Money and Laser Money (and occasionally the lifegai- I mean influence gain) and tell your opponent how many points they lose. You’re rarely going to be doing anything clever PLAYING the cards since it doesn’t matter in what order you play your allies, and most of the effects are strictly cumulative no matter how you did them. Your opponent might have some permanent cards called bases that you could choose to damage instead of just slapping them in the face directly… but most of the bases have an ability where they actually FORCE you to kill them first (like taunt in Hearthstone) so you don’t often have big decisions there, either. That’s kind of a drag.
That streamlining isn’t ALL bad though. One thing Star Realms does very well is accelerate the deck-building process by removing some of the genre’s more common bottlenecks. Here’s a good example: A decent chunk of the game’s cards (including the game’s “Silver”) have the ability to remove themselves from your deck in exchange for an additional boost. This allows you to trash a lot of the garbage entry-level cards from your deck as you start to ramp up, while at the same time taking more powerful turns. It also does this without requiring any dedicated trashing cards, meaning that you can optimize your deck even if those cards never show up for you. The game also makes a core mechanism out of Ascension’s “Unite” mechanic. Almost every faction card has an ally ability; for example, a blue card that makes additional Laser Money when another blue card is on your board. Notice the wording differs from “whenever you PLAY another blue card”, so unlike in Ascension where the order you played those cards mattered, here you’ll just get the effects no matter what. This rewards players for focusing on specific factions at specific points in the game, rewarding players who do so (and who draw well) with very powerful effects. The effect of this is that the game snowballs very quickly, which is both an asset and a flaw. On the plus side, the game gets to last 20 minutes and still feel pretty satisfying, but it’s also easy to feel doomed when you haven’t started rolling, likely due to not drawing your ally combos when your opponent did.
One big draw of this game is the small footprint; it’s in a tiny box and plays in very little time. All the components are cards. That’s neat and all, but the actual quality of the cards is not the best… even the life (sorry) influence counter cards have wear on the sides, and they aren’t even shuffled! Just scooted around! I don’t usually sleeve my games, but I’m going to have to sleeve this if I wanna keep it, and if I sleeve it, it won’t go back in the box! SO FRUSTRATING. If you’re the kind of person to be frustrated by that, take note: YOU WILL BE FRUSTRATED.
Anyway, I find it a little hard to recommend this game while Ascension exists. It’s a fine game, but the things it supposedly does better (mostly the direct conflict) don’t make it feel very different from another quite good two-player deckbuilder from SOME OF THE SAME DESIGNERS EVEN and which ALSO has a nice mobile app: Ascension.
Ascension has so many more expansions. Ascension has better component quality (except for maybe the… lets-call-it-unique art style on the first couple sets. I don’t mind that art.) Ascension has clever cardplay to go with its deckbuilding. Most of all, Ascension is AVAILABLE. The Apprentice Edition of Ascension (about the same ‘size’ as this game) is like $9.99 at Barnes and Noble. As of this writing, this game can only be bought in the depths of the White Wizard Temple, after having passed the four trials. Once Star Realms is in circulation, then, it’s kind of a wash. It’s about as good as Ascension, a little shorter but a little simpler, so if you own neither you should try one, and if you own one you don’t need both.
(I reserve the right to change my mind should meaningful expansions come out. The existing promo cards are neat but not game-changers.)