Review: Star Realms20 Aug 2014 0
Review: Star Realms
Released 20 Aug 2014
Deckbuilding has long been the one board game mechanic that never quite lived up to its promise. It was born from the out-of-game experience every Magic player had of building a killer deck but, in practice, never really felt like that. Instead, games like Dominion and Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer use deckbuilding as a means to create a euro-style victory-point generating engine. Compare the feeling you get when your newly crafted Paladin deck in Hearthstone wipes out some poor hunter in ranked play versus the lack of a rush you get as you use a newly crafted Dominion deck to purchase another province. Somehow deckbuilding, an activity closely associated with the most Ameritrashy of genres, had been turned into a euro-styled efficiency engine.
Star Realms changes that. Here is a deckbuilder that actually feels like you’re building a weapon to smash someone in the face with. It feels like Hearthstone, only the deckbuilding takes place while you’re playing instead of outside the game. It’s incredibly simple, and yet layered enough that you can build satisfying combos that are guaranteed to make you grin as you put them together in your hand.
Stop me if you’ve heard this: 5 cards reside in the “trade row” and are available for purchase using one type of in-game currency. The second type of currency can be used for combat. Sound like Ascension? Well, Star Realms plays a lot like Ascension, actually. One of Star Realm’s currencies is Trade which allows you to buy a card from the trade row and, much like Ascension’s Mystics and Heavy Infantry, Star Realms has Explorers, which are always available and can be always be bought if you can’t afford anything else. The second currency is called Combat and can be used to attack but, unlike Ascension in which you use your strength to attack other cards, here you’ll be using your Combat to smack your opponent right in the soup coolers. That brings up Star Realms’ third currency type called Authority, which is a fancy word for player hit points. Get your opponent’s Authority to zero, and you’ve won the game.
The brilliance of Star Realms is how it builds on this simple system. Whereas some games will dump novella-length prose on cards to create diverse effects, Star Realms ingeniously uses a faction system that allows cards to have multiple effects based on other cards in your tableau. You know how, in some deckbuilders, that the best strategy is often to just buy the baddest card you can afford each turn? Not here. In Star Realms you need to select cards based on which other factions you have in your hand because faction powers only proc when another card from that faction is also in play. It’s these faction bonuses that create massive damage dealing combos later in the game. If you simply buy whatever costs the most trade, your deck will be a mish mosh of different factions and you'll get crushed.
The other great innovation Star Realms brings to the table are Bases and Outposts. Similar to Constructs in Ascension, these remain in play and offer both a faction for pulling off combos as well as their own special effects. On top of that, each one has an Authority value that allows it to be attacked by your opponent. In fact, Outposts have an aggro mechanic in which they must be attacked before your authority can be targeted. In effect, they act like a shield to prevent damage to your authority total. What makes them even more powerful is that they cannot be whittled down. They can only be attacked with enough Combat to destroy the Base or Outpost, which add to their longevity and value.
The digital version includes three levels of AI for solo play that are fairly competitive. I’m not ashamed to admit I lose to the hardest level of AI (and medium level, every now and then) and the easy level is perfect for those first few games while you get your bearing. There is also a single-player campaign that exists. It’s not as engaging as playing a real human (how could it be?) but certain battles can be challenging, so it’s good to have something else to do when you don’t want to play online. Of course, why wouldn’t you want to play online? The app has a robust online system that supports asynchronous play, but doesn’t have the timers and bells and whistles we’re used to with games from Playdek.
In fact, that’s really the only negative thing I can say about Star Realms. The iOS version feels like a PC port instead of a native app. Take a look at the Ascension interface and compare it to the UI in Star Realms. One of them looks like like a professionally made app and the other one looks like something I would have thrown together in CardWarden just so I could play the game digitally. It’s not terrible, it’s just not very polished. Triggering powers on the iPad is clunky, as is zooming on cards. Playing on a PC is pretty wonderful, but the move to the iPad wasn’t quite as successful and the move to iPhone is fairly abysmal.
That said, I played Star Realms yesterday for about 3 hours straight on my iPad and never once thought about the UI or bemoaned the fact that I need to touch-and-hold to zoom in on a card. Once you get used to it the UI is fine, if underwhelming. It would take a lot of fail to make a digital version of Star Realms not work, and the app isn’t even close to that threshold. Star Realms is a fantastic game that deserves to be played as much as possible, which is exactly what the app allows you to do. Who could complain about that?