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Star Realms - iOS Review

Brad Cummings
United States
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The Stats:
Compatibility: iOS Universal, Android
Reviewed On: iPad Air, iPhone 5
Current Price: Free ($4.99 for full game)
Version: 1.0.5
App Size: 94.0 MB
Developer/Publisher: White Wizard Games
Multiplayer: Yes
AI: Yes
Itunes link: Star Realms
Google Play link: Star Realms

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Star Realms has been on of the most anticipated digital board games of the past few weeks, with a steady hype flow coming from early previews. After making debuts on Android, PC, and Mac, Star Realms dropped onto iOS amidst the flurry of GenCon. Having finally had a chance to play this “Ascension killer,” let’s take a look and see if it lives up to all the hype.

Just to start off, Star Realms is a great deck-building game. It takes some mechanics you may know from Ascension while adding many new and interesting things. The game is a head to head sci-fi battle card game. Each player start with an authority total and your goal is to lower your opponents authority to 0. Much like Ascension, you start with a small deck of cards that can give you trade and attack values. Trade is used to buy cards from a center row. When a card is purchased, it is then replaced by one from the draw deck. Attack is used to lower the authority of your opponent. Deciding how to focus on these two resources is key to succeeding in Star Realms (much more so than Ascension).

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The deck of cards to buy is made up of four factions. Each faction has unique cards and a few clear strengths and weaknesses. Almost every card in the game has an Ally ability, which triggers some sort of bonus if another card of that faction is already in play on your turn. It then becomes essential to focus on just one or two factions in any given game. Another interesting mechanic are bases and outposts. These stay on the board from round to round and can give you bonuses each turn. They can also act as buffers for your authority, as with outposts your opponent will have to destroy them before going for your face. Star Realms is an excellent, if iterative, design. It breaths new life into an aging genre.

In converting this design to iOS, they’ve gotten a lot of things right, while stumbling in several places as well. Star Realms is using the freemium model, meaning you can download the game and play for free, as much as you want, with the easy AI. If you want the full feature set, there is a one time purchase of $4.99. This includes online play, more challenging AI opponents, and a full campaign.

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Most of my play so far has been against the AI and it is quite enjoyable. The Easy AI is pretty easy to walk over, though i have been surprised a few times. At the higher difficulties there is certainly some challenge. This single player experience is carried over into a puzzling campaign. Each level provides some sort of rule-breaking foe to overcome, along with normal and hard versions of each. It’s no Naxx, but it does provide a deeper single-player experience.

Of course, most of us will be spending our time playing online, and Star Realms does provide some excellent cross-platform multiplayer. Logging in online will also transfer your full-game purchase from device to device. The online is of course short of the forthcoming Playdek online system, but it gets the job done and can provide hour of entertaining play.

In spite of the all the great content, design is where Star Realms fails as an app. The UI appears to be built cross-platform, sacrificing a lot of finesse for one interface across all platforms. This results in odd commands for iOS, like the inability to scroll through cards and double tap to play something (usually a zoom command on iOS). These will throw you off as a player during the first few matches, I guarantee it. I also had some trouble with hit zones, often pulling up my deck while trying to end a turn on iPad. Some of the flow is also challenging. executing some special abilities can be a several step process.

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It is far from unplayable, and I plan to put many more hours into the game, but it is disappointing to have such a lackluster design after so much hype. The best iOS board game apps feature a great game and great design. Those that only get 50% there fall short of what is required. Star Realms is such a game. It features excellent gameplay and excellent features, but is marred by too many cut-corners (in the service of multi-platform). Be sure to check this one out, as the gameplay is not to be missed. I just hope we see design improvements in its future.

Great game, poor execution.

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