Star Realms (2014) is a science-fiction themed deckbuilding game that rather uniquely is built for just two players — which is certainly a different way to create a small deckbuilder, as opposed to the variable play models used by Pergamemnon (2011) and Zeppelin Attack! (2014). However, you can play Star Realms with more players by buying additional decks of cards.
Looking at the deckbuilding tree of design, Star Realms is most clearly a descendent of Ascension (2010) — which is unsurprising because they have a designer in common. Both games allow for the purchase of cards from a random selection of just a few that are available at any time. They’re also both heavily suited and they both feature cards that are left on the table: constructs in Ascension and bases in Star Realms.
More generally, both games are clearly influenced by Magic: The Gathering (1993). However, where Ascension allowed for psuedo-combat by basically turning battle points into a new currency that could be used to “kill” (buy) monsters, Star Realms instead supports a full combat system, not unlike that in Magic: The Gathering: you use your cards to attack the life points of other players. The object is to be the last player standing — which is also pretty unusual in the deckbuilding genre.
Other than that, Star Realms is a fairly standard deckbuilder where you buy cards with currency, add them to your discard pile, then see them improve your deck in future rounds.
Fighting! The most interesting element of Star Realms is the fighting, because it’s what makes it unlike most deckbuilders. However, Star Realms does more than just allow players to do damage to each other. It also includes bases, which are “permanent” cards that are left on the table. When attacking an opponent you can choose to do damage to bases instead of the player and you must if one of those bases is an outpost. The result provides interesting tactical decisions for both the attacker and the defender, increasing the depth of this core game system.
Strong Suits. Each of the cards has a suit, and those suits strongly define what the cards can do — probably moreso than in any other deckbuilder except perhaps Ascension itself. Here, red cards have filter powers, blue cards provide life points, yellow cards attack opponents, and green cards are generally powerful. However, the strong suiting goes beyond that: a card gets more powerful if it’s played at the same time as another card of the same suit. The result of these two elements is that players seriously think about suits when purchasing cards, and buying them appropriately can be the difference between success and failure.
Strong Permanents. A few different games have cards that are “permanently” placed on the table — from the constructs of Ascension to the locations of DC Comics (2012). Star Realms does the same with its bases but they’re much more powerful than most permanents: they not only generate a special power every round, but they also enable cards of their suit, making them better. Much as with Star Realms’ take on suited cards, it feels like other games have included permanents of this sort, but that they haven’t upped the power level to the point where it’s a core part of the game, and Star Realms does.
Great Theming. The fighting, the strong suits, and the permanents all contribute to the strong theming of Star Realms: each of the colors reveals a different galactic empire, while the bases provide evocative locales that sit on the board. Though none of this is important from the viewpoint of the game’s mechanics, it is important to a player’s enjoyment of the game.
Some Overloaded Effects. Finally,the cards also slightly overload effects by sometimes providing a “scrap” power, which allows a player to do something extra by throwing out the card. This sort of ability can give more tactical depth to a game, and I think it’s an important element in moving from a “basic” deckbuilder to one with slightly more depth.
Undeveloped Multiplayer. Star Realms is sold as a two-player game. It was probably developed as a two-player game too, and that shows in the gameplay where multiplayer interactions aren’t as well polished as the rest of the mechanics. A few different variants are suggested for multiplayer play. The one I played only allowed you to attack the player to your left. In theory that’s a good way to solve the problems that naked aggression can introduce to a multiplayer war game. Unfortunately, it doesn’t entirely work in Star Realms because the person to your right has bases that are sometimes attacking you and you can’t do anything about them.
Complexity of Cards. The cards of Star Realms are more complex than many other deckbuilders. Though they tend to focus on just a few iconified powers, many cards have multiple icons, and cards can get even more bonus powers when played with cards of their suit. The result can take some effort to figure out when you play a mess of cards together.
Star Realms generally hits what I think is the sweet spot for deckbuilding: it offers quick play that comes in at an hour or less even with multiple players. I’ve seen much of its gameplay before in Ascension, but Star Realms pushes all of that up to the next level while also offering one unique element — its underlying combat system. The result is fresh, enjoyable, and a great new entrant for the deckbuilding field.
All graphics are from the Star Realms web site.