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Subject: Star Realms - my first deckbuilding game rss

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Dianne N.
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Some Background:

I have to preface this with the fact that Star Realms is the first deckbuilding game that I can remember playing, unless you count card games played as a kid (think: War, Slap Jack, Egyptian Ratscrew). I had never heard of Dominion, for instance, and had no idea what to expect when we went to play this game. Please grant me your graces for being a noob to hobby board gaming!

In the game store, my husband was super excited when he saw there was one box of Star Realms left; it was something he had read about online and wanted to try out. The price was right so I didn’t complain (too much) when he bought it. He sold me on the fact it was a 2-player game, though nothing about it appealed to me in any way. I watched him play with friends, and while they enjoyed it and told me it was a great game and the artwork was stellar (pun intended), it took a lot little bit of coaxing to get me to play with him.

The thing is, I’m not a huge fan of space themes (unless they’re cutesy, like Star Munchkin). I like Star Trek well enough, and have seen Star Wars, Stargate, and lots of other things because my husband is so into it, but after giving up the dream of being an astronaut at 8 years old the theme lost its appeal for me. I’d rather play a game of Sid Meier’s Civilization than Galactic Civilization, for instance, even if GalCiv has better mechanics and whatever else my husband tries to explain to me. That being said, I did finally play Star Realms with the hubby after a bit of kicking and screaming, and to my surprise it’s become one of my favorite games!

Gameplay:


The point of the game is to whittle your opponent down from 50 Authority (I call this hit points) to 0, and you do this by attacking your opponent with space ships (I call them cards). You and your opponent use outposts (which I call outposts) as defense so you don’t get hit so hard.

All cards represent one of 4 factions: the Blobs, which seem to be mostly interested in shooting; the Trade Federation, which seems to be interested in money and increasing Authority (which I call healing); the Star Empire, which also seems to focus on shooting but with less power than the Blob, offset by more actions such as your opponent discarding cards or you getting to draw cards; and the Machine Cult which focuses on defense and being able to remove cards from your hand or discard pile, with a little shooting thrown in. Factions work together, so if you have two or more of one faction in your hand you get extra actions; it’s in your best interest to build your deck with specific factions in mind to maximize the odds that you’ll get a hand with > 1 of the same faction.

There are 3 types of cards, spaceships, bases, and outposts. As noted, outposts are mostly for defense since your opponent must attack them first, though they do have actions associated with them which make them useful for more than just defense. Bases are similar to outposts in that you have actions associated with them, but your opponent doesn’t have to attack them first or at all if they don’t want to. Outposts and bases stay on the playing field after your turn is over and don’t get sent to the discard pile until your opponent destroys them, which makes them different from spaceships, which are the majority of the cards. Although spaceships get sent to the discard pile at the end of your turn, they allow you to do some cool things: some are combat cards that let you attack your opponent (I call this a “pew,” as in the noise laser guns make in the movies – and yes, I do make this noise for every attack though I might just say “thirteen pews” instead of making the noise 13 times since my husband seems to tolerate that better); some spaceships allow you to use extra trade, or heal up (increase Authority), or draw more cards, or have your opponent discard cards, or… well you get the picture.

Each opponent starts the game with a deck of 8 Scouts (spaceships that have the value of 1 trade, which I call coins) and 2 Vipers (spaceships that have 1 combat each, or 1 pew if you’re playing with me). You shuffle your deck and draw 5 cards, which become your hand (for the very first round, the first player draws 3 cards for their hand instead of 5). The rest of the cards are shuffled and placed in a pile face down to create the trade pile, and 5 cards are pulled from the top and laid on the table face up to create the trade row.

The 5 cards in your hand determine what you’re able to do this round. At first the only cards you’ll have in your hand are small attacks (again, 1 hit each) and coins. You’ll use these coins to buy cards in the trade deck – you can only buy cards that have a purchase value equal to or lesser than what you have in your hand. If you have enough coins, you can purchase 2 or more cards as long as their total purchase value doesn’t exceed the number of coins in your hand. Once you purchase your cards you’ll lay them face up in your discard pile along with the cards in your hand and draw another 5 cards from the top of your deck, ending your turn. When you can no longer draw cards, you shuffle the discard pile and this becomes your new deck. As the game progresses, the cards you’ve bought become part of your deck and your deck gets bigger (hence “deckbuilding”). This then allows you to use the ships, outposts, and bases you’ve bought to attack your opponent or defend yourself (or other actions as noted on the cards).

Of note, there’s a lot of shuffling in this game (and any deckbuilding game really). That’s fine with me because I’m good at shuffling, but it drives my husband crazy having to shuffle so much, especially at the beginning of the game. He’d rather focus on gameplay.

The game takes on average 15 – 30 mins to play, which is great if you don’t have much time or you want to get in several rounds of play in one sitting. The hubby and I usually play where the winner is the best of 3 or 5 games, which takes an hour to an hour and a half.

Components and Rules:

It’s a deck of cards, there’s not much to it. The game comes in a thin cardboard tuck-box which will wear out quickly, so you’ll want to get something better to hold your deck. The cards are pretty well made, no issues with warping or anything like that, but they will start to show signs of wear over time (they’ve held up for over 50 games so far with signs of wear on the edges from shuffling, but no wear on the card face/back itself). Card sleeves are recommended if you really want to protect your cards, but I’m not that worried about it and the price of the game is reasonable enough that I’d rather just get a replacement deck than deal with card sleeves.

The thing that really makes this game for me is its portability since you can take it pretty much anywhere. While it won’t fit in your pocket, it easily fits in a normal sized purse (or a backpack, or whatever else). It doesn’t take up too much space on a table since most of the cards will be shuffled back into your hand, so you can play almost anywhere. You’d be limited playing next to each other on an airplane, but a table bigger than a couple of those tray tables would suffice.

The game also comes with a set of folded rules which were mostly straightforward and understandable, but there were some things that we had to look up online. For instance, some cards will say “scrap a card in your hand or discard pile” while others might say “you may scrap a card…” and we quibbled over whether you HAD to scrap a card if it didn’t say “may.” [Google says you have to if there’s no “may”] We also quibbled over the rule that says primary actions are resolved immediately, since it didn’t specify which order they’re resolved in. If you have a card that lets you scrap another card in your hand, can you use anther card’s primary ability first and then go on to the action of the card that lets you scrap and scrap the used card? [Google says no, so I guess scrapping comes first] Some of our questions were also resolved by playing the Star Realms app, which acts as an excellent tutorial and is highly recommended for that function.

Theme:

For a space themed game, Star Realms pulls it off well enough. Again, I’m not really into space themed games, but the artwork is nice enough to look at. It’s not super serious artwork with a billion details that almost looks photo-realistic (think EVE Online), but it’s also not cartoonish. Others, including my husband and an artist I know, absolutely love the artwork in this game and I can see why they love it. Personally, I would have preferred something more cartoonish along the lines of FTL, but that’s just my preference (and those who do love the artwork have warned me never to say that again!).

In general the theme is well thought out, the factions work well with and against each other and the actions each faction take are consistent, and I get the feeling I’m in a real space battle when I play. Your bases and outposts staying on the playing field invoke the thought of space stations floating out there in the void, which is a well-done mechanic for this game.

On the other hand, there are a couple of things that just strike me as silly. Spaceships as money, for one, but this integrates well with the rest of the game. Authority as hit points is another. In a space themed game you’d be getting hit by physical guns on the ships attacking you, but they’re hitting a concept (authority). I guess this is resolved by the developers calling the attacks “combat” so you’re doing “combat” and losing “authority” as you lose the war, but that’s a stretch I have trouble with (same with calling the coins “trade” since they look exactly like coins). Also, you aren’t associated with any of the factions, you’re just buying their ships. While you can think of this as hiring them to fight for you, I would feel more invested in the game if you were associated with a faction and got some minor bonus from getting cards of that faction. None of this detracts from the gameplay, though, I’m just nitpicky. As you can see, I call it what I want and have just as much fun as players that take the game seriously.

Strategy:

I’m sure there’s some kind of deeply involved strategy to this game, and others have picked it apart to come up with the best combinations of what to buy and when based on what your opponent is doing, which combinations of factions are best, etc., but I’m not that into it to care about that kind of stuff. My husband will try to figure out the best combos and agonizes over what to buy if he only has so much trade and the cards he wants aren’t available/affordable, but I find myself simply reacting to what my husband buys, either trying not to get pummeled or trying to be the first to strike (eg, he buys a card that’s going to hit me for 8 and I’ll stock up on outposts or healing cards, or I’ll go for big money at first to be able to buy the expensive stuff early on hoping he doesn’t kill me before I get there, or I’ll just buy a card I know he really wants/needs because, well, I can). Reaction alone isn’t the best strategy, but even with the little thought I put into it, I’m still able to win a decent amount of the time. There’s enough luck involved in what cards you draw each round and what’s available for purchase that even the “no strategy” strategy can win you the game sometimes (it doesn’t work against the Star Realms app, though, that jerk beats me on easy every time - we’re not friends anymore).

The Verdict:

Once I got past the theme, I realized I absolutely love this game. The gameplay is fast and fun. There are enough cards that each game feels fresh and the luck factor means even if you (or your opponent) have a strategy going in, you’re constantly adjusting based on the options at any given time. There are lots of different things the cards do, and lots of combinations to be made, so it doesn’t get stale playing game after game. And the playing time is short enough you CAN play game after game (and you’ll want to)!

The portability factor is also great. This game is a camping staple and we even took it with us on vacation to Europe. It’s something you can play on lunch breaks at work, or while waiting at the DMV (no, I haven’t done that… yet).

I think I may have even wore my husband out of this game for a while, which is crazy for a game I refused to touch for weeks after he bought it. I liked it so much we bought all of the expansion packs and Colony Wars too!

I am now sold on deckbuilding games and looking forward to playing more of this type of game.


**Full Disclosure: I paid for this game with my own, hard earned money**
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David
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Nice review of one of our favorites too. Funnily enough, we held off picking it up for a long time and then when we did, it quickly became our most played game.
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Matt
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I'm not sure if it's your entertaining review or the theme and mechanics of this game, but you've encouraged me to buy it I hope my wife enjoys it as much as you do. My daughter is MTG-mad, so I suspect she will enjoy it.

Thanks for taking the time to share this!
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Ben Kyo
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Forward 1, Forward 2, Forward 3... siege attack 5?
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Why for this life there's no man smart enough, life's too short for learning every trick and bluff.
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A quick warning about the deckbuilding genre, for someone who has only experienced Star Realms. I find deckbuilders fall into three categories:
1) Dominion keeps the same short punchy playing time, but without the random trade row it is less luck-based. The limit on actions and buys per turn and the way you have time the moment of starting to clog your hand with useless point-scoring cards makes it far less forgiving of sub-par play.
2) Many other deckbuilders heap on the theme and other extra layers, resulting in much longer play-times. I find they almost invariably outstay their welcome.
3) Then there's Star Realms and a few similar games like Ascension.

So, in summary, it's possible you've found your sweet-spot with Star Realms, and other pure deckbuilders may disappoint.

Personally, Dominion is the only pure deckbuilder that I have any time for, other than Star Realms, but then I consider Star Realms to be a light-weight filler and I prefer limited luck games that punish sub-optimal play.
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corum irsei
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Great Review!

I generally agree with BenKyo, but I'd recommend Core Worlds as a really good deckbuilder with a longer play time, especially with the Galactic Orders expansion.
 
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Ben Kyo
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jhaelen wrote:
I generally agree with BenKyo, but I'd recommend Core Worlds as a really good deckbuilder with a longer play time, especially with the Galactic Orders expansion.

Yeah, Core Worlds is OK - I'd forgotten about it. I've only played it once, but it seemed to be better than all the other long-play options I've tried. I'd definitely play it again. Unfortunately very ugly.
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Tor Iver Wilhelmsen
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Some deckbuilders with themes you might enjoy:

Cuisine a la Card has cooking, is less interactive than Star Realms though. Valley of the Kings or its standalone sequels has an Egyptian theme and a different way of laying out the "market" in a pyramid. Dale of Merchants has various animal families creating shopping stalls of increasing value.

All of those also require you to "thin out" your deck in order to score points, which is different from other deck builders where you mostly try and get rid of the weak starting cards and/or negative cards.

And then there are the cooperative deck builders like Marvel: Legendary and the Legendary Encounters games, plus The Big Book of Madness.
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Pat Wade
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The creators of Star Realms are working on a fantasy version called Hero Realms. This could be something for you to look into in the near future.
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Dianne N.
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Thanks to everyone for the great suggestions! I picked up Dominion recently and will review that one after I've played enough games to have a real feel for the game.
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Jill Hauck
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I actually just discovered that there is a Star Realms app in the iTunes app store, and it's free! So if you aren't sure about this game (I certainly wasn't, this is my first deck builder as well, and I try not to get games that ONLY play two people) but for the price of free, it's a great way to see if you like the game. The tutorial is also really good in the app, to teach you to play. So far I really like, we will see if that translates into me getting the physical game too.
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Dianne N.
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I've used the app, and we have a contentious relationship. On the one hand it's free and includes the main game and, yes, it teaches you how the cards work and how to play the game... on the other hand if you're using it on your phone the cards are about 10 pixels each and impossible to read. Also, if I play against people I can win sometimes, but even on easy I constantly lose against the app. My husband can win against it, so apparently it's just me. I deleted the app once it taught me how to play the game properly, and have no plans for re-installation. I'm also not a huge fan of tabletop games on a computer in general (whether it's an app or simulator) - I feel like it takes the fun out of board games.
 
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PerpetualFX wrote:

I've used the app, and we have a contentious relationship. On the one hand it's free and includes the main game and, yes, it teaches you how the cards work and how to play the game... on the other hand if you're using it on your phone the cards are about 10 pixels each and impossible to read. Also, if I play against people I can win sometimes, but even on easy I constantly lose against the app. My husband can win against it, so apparently it's just me. I deleted the app once it taught me how to play the game properly, and have no plans for re-installation. I'm also not a huge fan of tabletop games on a computer in general (whether it's an app or simulator) - I feel like it takes the fun out of board games.


The app gets much easier to play once you learn to recognize cards by there art. Not saying that you should go out of your way to learn cards, but it happens once you start playing online.
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