Thursday, June 5, 2014

Star Realms, by Rob Dougherty

Star Realms places you in the command of a fleet of ships preparing to do battle on a galactic scale. In this deck-building game, players compete head to head to eliminate their opponent(s) and be the last man (or woman!) standing. This is a departure from the victory-point-based scoring system in most deck-building games like Dominion, DC Deckbuilder, and Ascension, and introduces a few mostly-new wrinkles to a genre I greatly enjoy.

From the co-founder of Ascension (and a successful professional Magic player, at that) this game is well-designed, easy to teach, and easy to play. I submit Star Realms as a game that should be in your fleet - so read on, space captain! 

Star Realms is a deckbuilding game that pits you head-to-head against an opponent in a race to reduce the other player's authority to zero. Each turn you'll play cards (ships and/or bases) from your hand to do damage to your opponent and his or her bases, and use your resources to acquire more powerful cards.

Each player starts with 50 authority (I can't help but call it life, being an old Magic player) and a deck of 10 cards - 8 Scouts, which provide one "trade", and 2 vipers, which provide one "attack". Each of these 10 cards are ships, which are discarded at the end of the turn. 

Trade is used to acquire new cards each turn, just like the main currency in most deckbuilding games. Five cards are always available for purchase in a center area between the two players, and cards are replaced immediately after being acquired during each player's turn. A card's cost in trade is printed in the top-right corner of the card. Whenever a card is acquired it's placed directly into the player's discard pile. Like almost all deckbuilders, once a player's deck is empty, the player shuffles his or her discard pile to create a new deck, and in this way acquired cards make in into a player's deck. 

Attack is used to reduce the opponent's authority, and sometimes to destroy their bases. Bases are the other type of card in the game, and once played, remain on the board until an opponent chooses to attack the base with power equal to its defense (as noted by a shield in the bottom right corner of the card). In some cases, bases MUST be destroyed before the controlling player can be attacked directly. These bases have a black shield with the world "Outpost" in lieu of the normal grey shield. 
It's right in the middle of everything. 
In addition, some cards provide a player with more authority, as indicated by a green shield. When played, the player adds the amount to his or her existing authority total. Many cards (like the Defense Center above) provide players with choices of abilities, and the factions in Star Realms also give players meaningful choices about the direction they'd like to take in the game. There are four factions in Star Realms, and each tends to focus on a different strategy:

Trade Federation (blue): Gaining authority and trade

Blob Faction (green): Attacking opponents
Machine Cult (red): Scrapping (removing from play) cards and drawing cards
Star Empire (yellow): Drawing cards and forcing opponents to discard cards

All four factions have explosions in space!
In addition to their normal printed abilities, many cards have additional abilities that trigger only when other cards of the same faction are in play. These combinations often have powerful effects, like dealing extra damage, drawing extra cards, or generating extra trade. The decision to focus on a specific faction instead of spreading across multiple is a tough one to make, and can lead to great success if players get enough cards with extra faction-specific abilities. 

The blobs are an angry people.
Also, some cards can be scrapped - removed from the game entirely - for a one-time bonus. While it's generally not great to trash your hard-earned ships and bases, it can give you a little extra "oomph" to buy a card you really want, or send your opponent spiraling into oblivion. These extra nuances provide plenty of chances to make hard choices, and reward players who plan and think critically. 

The factions provide the bulk of what I enjoy about Star Realms. Though each focuses on a certain type of mechanic, they often play off each other very well, even when you're not receiving the additional abilities from playing matching faction cards. My experience in most deckbuilding games is that some cards are too bad to play with, and just never get purchased. In Star Realms every card is useful, whether it costs 1 trade or 8, which makes play faster and more interesting as players tend to have fewer "dead" turns. This also means players aren't punished as often for having bad luck when good cards don't come their way. 

Star Realms costs $15 online and at your Friendly Local Game Store, and if you buy two decks, you can combine them to play 3-4 player games. That means the game costs much less than other deckbuilding games on the market, and provides a better experience (in my opinion) because of the depth in the interactions between the cards. This one's a no-brainer, and I think it's a GREAT game to introduce the idea of deckbuilding to a new player, and a fantastic filler for experienced players. It's been a staple in our local game group for months now, so give it a try! 

As a bonus, if you love Star Reams and want to play it in a one-player scenario setting, you can do so by paying $5 in the BoardGameGeek store for the first Promo Set.

Check out the official Star Realms rules (PDF)

The Critical Boardgamer reviews Star Realms

Star Realms reviewed at Graphic Policy

Star Realms on Kickstarter (campaign finished)

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. 

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