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Time is on my Side: A PSS review of Star Realms

SRlogoThree of my five readers may have noticed it’s been a while since I’ve been able to write something here. Packing, moving, unpacking, parenting, learning to skate, working, working out and fighting crime doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for writing. I’m still trying to make time for this though, much as sometimes it feels like a fool’s errand. In related news, PSS is seeking writers! Seriously. Hit me up for more details. 🙂

I don’t generally have a whole lot of time to devote to one of the great loves of my life, board games. It’s become a sort of catch as catch can arrangement but it’s pretty much always my first go to on those rare occasions where an evening opens up without 8 zillion other things I have to do.

These life circumstances make time scarce, which makes a quality game that plays fast gain top billing among my collection. My love for Chaos in the Old World is well-documented, but there are plenty of times I have to turn down a game of CitOW in favor of a game of The Resistance.

Which brings us to my latest game crush, the explosively popular Star Realms.

I was introduced to Star Realms when someone on my FB feed recommended it as a solid game, and one to get onboard with quickly as it was in high demand and short supply. Someone immediately commented that based on his endorsement, he would buy it sight unseen. What? I clicked the link, and saw that it was made by the same people that made Ascension, a game I am not overly fond of. Further, looking at a brief overview, it looked like an Ascension clone, so my suspicion grew. True to his statement, it was sold out, but said that there would be more soon. I checked back around midnight out of curiosity, there were 4 copies left. I grabbed one and when I looked again in the morning they were gone. It’s my understanding that the game is a little tricky to come by. With good reason.

What is Star Realms?

It’s a two player PvP deckbuilding game. There are no victory points or other abstract goals, you win by reducing your opponent’s Authority (read: hit points) to zero. That simple.

Each player starts with 50 Authority and your standard deckbuilding starter deck of weak cards, 8 Scouts (which produce Trade, the purchasing currency of the game) and 2 Vipers (which drop the beats) similar to Ascension, there is a center row of cards that are replaced by new cards as they are bought. The cards in the deck available for purchase come in two flavors, Ships and Bases. Ships are played with a primary effect and most times an ally ability (more on that later) and discarded at the end of the turn, Bases stay in play until otherwise destroyed and generally provide a small reusable benefit.

Oh yeah, it's pretty too.
Oh yeah, it’s pretty too.

The ships and bases are split up into 4 different factions (another take from Ascension) with individual themes.

The Star Empire has a lot of cards that manipulate hands, either by cantrip effects (drawing a card, effectively making the card you played a free floating effect that didn’t cost you hand size) or by forcing your opponent to discard cards. They’re also pretty cheap, so the cantrips lead to small hordes of attackers. The Star Empire is so-so on Attack power, but you don’t really need to be high-powered if you’re suppressing your opponent’s ability to fight back.

The Trade Federation is the best at generating Trade (doi) and also has the lock on cards that gain Authority, making you tougher to kill. They’re unquestionably the weakest faction in terms of combat, but don’t dismiss them as a weak faction. The turtle strategy is one that can outlast a severe beating to pull out the win.

The Machine Cult focuses a lot on deckthinning, both from hand and discard pile, which makes them one of my favorite factions. They also have a lot of Attack synergy that adds up to some massive damage.

The Blob brings the pain more than any other faction. They have pretty decent draw power, and trade row denial abilities are exclusive to them.

How Do You Play?

Each player is given their deck of space mediocrity and 5 cards are added to the center row for purchase. Starting player is determined, and the game begins. Whomever goes first starts with a 3 card hand instead of a 5 card hand. Going first is typically a powerful advantage in games where the goal is kill or be killed, so this mitigates that advantage both by reducing buying power in the first turn and delaying the first deck recycle.

On your turn, you play as many cards as you like. You tally up your Trade and you may buy as many cards as you can afford, adding them to your discard pile unless stated otherwise. You total up your Attack value and apply it as damage to your opponent, either by destroying their Bases or applying the damage directly to their Authority. Some Bases have the Outpost trait, which forces you to destroy them before you can damage the opponent directly. That’s a turn. Wash, rinse, repeat until someone is dead.

Most of the ships and bases have Ally abilities, extra abilities that trigger when you have a Ship or Base in play of the same faction. Obviously, this encourages you to try to focus on a faction so that your cards are more powerful, but you have no control over what appears in the center row, nor over what your opponent purchases, so most times you’re going to focus on two factions with occasional splashes into the other factions for cards that are just too good to pass up.

Things What I Like:

It’s fast
. A game typically takes between 10-20 minutes tops. To someone who is pretty much always counting minutes, this is a huge plus.

Good tempo – the game’s narrative arc ramps up quickly as you buy biggerer and betterer cards with which to murder your opponent to death. The big cards are satisfying to buy and satisfying to play. You’re going to be on the receiving end of this punishment too. It starts off with tiny skirmishes and little pings of damage and shifts to haymakers and big pendular swings as both players fight to survive.

It’s fast: The action is fast and furious, and the setup and takedown is lightning fast. Separate your starting cards and Explorers, shuffle the shared deck and flip 5 cards. Ready to go.

It scratches the CCG itch. I’m a recovering CCG player. Played MTG for a number of years, played L5R for over a decade, dabbled more in MTG, played the shit out of Doomtown and Warlord, and others. I got out of them because they are huge money sinks, but there’s a definite satisfaction to building your deck to be a well-oiled killing machine, or an impregnable wall of defense that slowly bleeds your opponent out. This deckbuilder captures the feeling of a CCG better than any other that I’ve played.

It’s got training wheels! In games like Thunderstone and Dominion, it’s completely up to the player to decide what all to add to their deck, and to try to build their own combos. This is fine, both are excellent games, and a draw of deckbuilding as a genre is figuring out your own individual strategy, building towards it and seeing it executed. Or not. In Star Realms, the ally abilities give you a tiny nudge in the right direction and encourage you to build your deck well, which is something that most other deckbuilders fail to do. It doesn’t build itself, removing all important decisions, but it does point you in the right way, which actually teaches you to be a better player of this and other games.

It’s fast: Similar to The Resistance, generally speaking the first thing I want to do after playing a game of Star Realms is play another game of Star Realms.

Cute as a button! Star Realms is tiny. Everything you need fits in a box that fits easily into a pocket, although I kinda hate the cards they use to keep track of Authority. Pen & paper, a Magic life-tracking app or dice are superior. It’s extremely portable, even among other small games.

It’s fast – I may have mentioned this already.

Cheap cheap! Fun fun! You get a ton of game for $15. It’s limited to 2 players, but includes rules for 4 or 6 player variants, which just require additional sets which are also inexpensive. I haven’t dabbled with these yet, because I am smitten with the 2 player mode, but it’s really nice that unlike other deckbuilders, you scale how much to buy with your playgroup.

Thoughts as a Designer

There’s not much I would change about Star Realms. The game has a great tempo, is easy to teach, easy to learn, teaches you how to build rewarding combos and is just a lot of fun. It’s a great design. There are still a few things I might have done differently.

As mentioned above, I don’t care for the cards used to track Authority, but other methods are easily accessible, and it’s still very nice that absolutely everything you need is in the box. Adding dice to the box would change the cost radically, and the low price point is a great feature.

I would love to see some cross-faction Ally abilities, though perhaps this is something that will be introduced in possible expansions. I like the idea a lot, but I’m curious as to how it would actually play out in determining strategy. There’s a lot of wackiness to be mined in that idea.

This guy is a BEAST. Damn shame he's a hard to acquire promo.
This guy is a BEAST. Damn shame he’s a hard to acquire promo.

There are promos for the game, but they are (at this point) kinda difficult to come by. I have a love/hate relationship with promos, but mostly hate. I think they make a good stretch goal for a Kickstarter campaign, but not a Kickstarter exclusive.

Final Thoughts:

I didn’t expect to like Star Realms. I really don’t care for Ascension, and in many aspects, this is the same game; but I love Star Realms. Can’t get enough of it. It’s gotten a lot of hype, and in this nerd’s opinion, it’s well deserved. If you’re a fan of CCGs but not a fan of eternal investments, this is seriously a no-brainer. If you’re a fan of the deckbuilding genre, but don’t care much for the setup/takedown time or the wonkiness of Ascension, this is the game for you. If you like fast-paced rollercoaster games that lend themselves well to repeated plays where you and a friend bash each other bloody, have a laugh and do it again, you need to get this game.

Til next time…


7 thoughts on “Time is on my Side: A PSS review of Star Realms

  1. I was excited to see a new post from you, Joe, and this entry reminded me why I miss your blog entries so much (especially your reviews). Thanks for returning to the written world!

    1. Awww shucks. *blush*. I like updates, but counter to the title of this post, time is rarely on my side. I can’t promise to try to make more frequent updates, but I’ll try to try.

      On topic, next time you’re with me, hit me up for a game of Star Realms. It’s good times. 🙂

    1. It’s reasonably fast. It’s not “We Didn’t Playtest This At All” fast, but it’s also not “We Didn’t Playtest This At All” so that’s a bonus. Definitely check it out. Solid game.

  2. Its funny you mentioned that you didn’t think you would like it. I thought the same thing (also not being super fond of Ascension). I changed my mind once I played it 😉 Thanks for the review!

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