Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 17 May 2019

Friday Filler: Star Realms

The traditional card game plays from a single deck of cards, with players drawing from the same deck during play, for example, in games like Poker or Braggart. The publication of Magic: The Gathering in 1993 introduced a new type of card game—the collectible card game—in which players not only had their own decks, they could design and build their own decks from the ground up and then bring them to play. In 2009, the publication of the Spiel des Jahres-award winning Dominion introduced another type of card game—the deck builder. Just like the collectible card game, in a deck builder type of game, each player has his own deck, but the difference is that instead of building his own prior to player, each player starts the game with a basic set of cards and then builds and uses his deck during play. Typically, the deck building game will provide a means to purchase or obtain further cards and either attack or affect rival players or affect the game in some way. One good example of the latter is AEG’s Trains in which players acquire cards in order to build a railway network and its associated facilities, whereas a good example of the former is Star Realms.

Published by White Wizard Games in 2014, Star Realms is a spaceship combat deckbuilding game designed for two players. Starting from exactly the same set of base cards, the players will take it in turn to draw cards, generate Trade with which to purchase better spaceships and bases and Combat to attack their opponent and his Bases and Outposts, discard their used cards, and then refresh their hands for their next turn. Each player begins play with fifty Authority or health and since the base Personal Decks only include two cards (Vipers) which generate a point of Combat each, players are going to want to buy Spaceships, Bases, and Outposts which generate more combat and thus inflict more damage. Of course, these cost anywhere between one and eight Trade, and since the base Personal Decks only include eight cards (Scouts) which generate a point of Trade each, players are going to want to purchase Spaceships, Bases, and Outposts which generate more Trade. So from the outset, players are really going to want to buy more and better Spaceships, Bases, and Outposts.

One type of card (Explorers) is available to purchase throughout the game and these generate two Trade when drawn. Five other cards are also always available to purchase in the trade row, being refreshed when a player makes a purchase on his turn. The cards in the trade row are where Star Realms begins to get interesting because they fall into four colour-coded factions each with their unique mechanical focus. The green Blob faction have organic ships and bases with an emphasis on generating Combat and removing cards from the trade row; the red Machine Cult generates Combat and enables cards to be scrapped from a player’s deck; the yellow Star Empire generates Trade and allows a player to manipulate cards, either letting him draw more cards or forcing an opponent to discard cards; and the blue Trade Federation generates Authority for a player to restore his health as well as Trade.

Further, most of the cards have a secondary ability which is only triggered when a card of the same faction is played on the same turn. So play two or cards from the same faction and if they have a secondary ability, then they are all triggered. The effects will vary from faction. Most generate more Combat, but a Trade Federation card will generate Authority, a Blob ship more combat, and so on. One way in which a secondary ability can be triggered is by having a Base or Outpost in play. All four factions have Bases or outposts or a mix of the two which can be purchased and added to a player’s deck. Both have abilities which come into play on a player’s turn, sometimes a choice of abilities which a player can choose from one turn to the next, with both having their health value which represents the cost in Combat for an opponent to destroy them and return them to a player’s discard pile. In addition, the health value of each Outpost also represents their ability to stop Combat getting through to damage a player’s Authority. Until such times as a player can generate Combat to destroy his rival’s Outpost, an Outpost will continue to prevent Combat getting through to his Authority.

Some cards give a player one last option. They can be scrapped and removed from play—rather than go into a player’s discard pile—and grant the player more Combat or more Trade. In general though, a player is unlikely to scrap a card like this, but will probably do so towards the game to generate sufficient Combat to inflict the final blow to an opponent, to get rid of cards that are clogging up a player’s deck, and to generate enough Trade to purchase that a player really, really wants.

One mechanic that is common to many deck building card games is that of clogging up a player’s deck, so preventing him from more frequently drawing the better cards he has purchased. In a game like Trains, it is represented by Waste or pollution as well as the base cards in each player’s starting deck. In Star Realms, what clogs up up a player’s deck are the base cards in starting deck—the Vipers and Scouts. These do not provide much benefit to player later in the game and so a player will probably want to scrap them. Here is where the cards of the Machine Cult come to the fore, providing the means to scrap a card from a player’s hand or discard pile when played. This is one of the primary strategies in the game—essentially getting rid of the chaff in order to bring out the wheat over and over again.

Other strategies in the game are also built around the factions. So play Blob cards to inflict a lot of Combat, Star Empire cards to draw as many cards as possible whilst stopping a rival from doing so, and Trade Federation to gain or restore as much Authority as possible. What is key though, is that a strategy solely focusing on one faction rather than another is difficult to bring into play, so a player will have to mix and match strategies and factions to one degree or another. Whatever strategy a player decides to use, his objective is simple: reduce his opponent’s Authority to zero and so win the game. Mastering these strategies is not difficult and overall, the game is easy to learn.

Star Realms comes in a small, tightly packed—and easily portable—box which contains two ten-card Personal Decks—one per player; an eighty card Trade Deck from which Spaceships, Bases, and Outposts will drawn to fill the Trade Row where the players can purchase them for their decks; ten Explorer cards which provide two Trade rather than the one of the Scouts in the base Personal Decks; eighteen double-sided Authority cards for tracking how much damage a player has; and a pair of rules sheets. The cards not only feel good in the hand, but they are very clearly designed and easy to read. Best of all, their fully painted artwork is excellent, every card type having its own illustration.

With each player just drawing five cards per turn, they only have a few things to do each turn, Star Realms plays fairly quickly from one turn to the next. In fact, a game can be played in just ten minutes, making it easy to play, then set up, and play again. The rules do cover playing with more than two players, up to six, but for each extra pair, another copy of the Star Realms core set is required and that does increase the cost of the game. Plus, as much fun as multiplayer games are, the play of Star Realms feels very much best suited to just the two-player duel of the one core set.

Although there are now plenty of expansions available, the core set for Star Realms offers an incredible amount of game play and depth in terms of strategy in what is a small, inexpensive box. Plus it is really attractive to look at. Easy to learn, quick to play, very well designed, Star Realms is the perfect two-player deck building game and the perfect two-player filler.

White Wizard Games will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between May 31st and June 2nd, 2019 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

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