Friday, 25 July 2014

The Best of Origins 2014 - Star Realms

This is the second review in my Best of Origins 2014 series.

I probably rolled a little too low on my initiative roll for this review. I'm guessing most people who read this blog have already heard of Star Realms and have been trying to find a copy for the last month since White Wizard Games can't keep up with demand.

Well this review is for the rest of you, so that you can also become one of the many gamers trying to get your hands on a copy of Star Realms, because it is that good.

Star Realms was my first purchase of Origins. My wife and I did one demo game and I had bought a copy of this excellent deck builder before we finished our first game. I had no idea at the time that I was buying one of a very limited second printing that had just been released that day.

If I had known it was going to be so hard to find I would have brought multiple copies back with me. 

So what's the big deal?

Star Realms is a deck builder that has a lot in common with Ascension. Actually, if you know how to play one game it only takes minutes to explain the other one, they are that similar. The biggest difference between the two is that in Star Realms you attack the other players directly, where as in Ascension you are killing off monsters on the board for Honour (points). Personally I think Ascension meets Magic the Gathering is a pretty apt description of Star Realms.

You've heard the whole peanut butter and chocolate thing; well Ascension is the peanut butter, Magic is the chocolate and Star Realms is the amazing thing you get when you combine them. 

Okay, how do you play?

Like most deck builders players get a starting deck of crappy cards that they use to buy better cards that are then used to buy even better cards and build an even better deck. In this particular game you get eight Scouts which provide 1 Trade each and two Vipers that provide 2 Combat. You use Trade to buy things and Combat to attack the other player. You win by removing all of the opponents Authority.

In the center of the play area (or on your snazzy official Star Realms play mat, available at an extra cost, if you can find them), you lay out five cards which becomes the Trade row. These are the cards you can buy with your Trade points. There are also Explorers, which are ships that are always available to buy (much like the Mystics and Heavy Infantry in Ascension). Each player starts with 50 Authority. The game comes with cards to track these. 

Each turn you will draw five cards and play them in the order of your choosing. The cards with Trade you use to buy new cards by paying the cost in the top right and then putting the bought card into your discard pile. The cards with Combat you use to attack your opponent. The cards you can buy are a mix of ships and bases that come from four different factions. Ships are just like the basic cards and give you Trade, Combat or sometimes both. Some even give you Authority letting you heal. Bases are interesting: they stay in play after used and provide an ongoing bonus. In addition a player can choose to attack another player's Base instead of attacking the player directly. Lastly there are Outposts, these are special bases that must be attacked before attacking another base or a player directly.

The most interesting thing about this system is the way the different cards work together. Each card has a faction ability. This can only be used when you play a second card with that faction symbol on it (or have a Base in play of that faction). What this means is that the game really rewards players for sticking to a low number of factions. While a deck with each faction is playable, I've yet to see one win vs. a deck that is more specialized. 

Each faction has it's own specialty and style of play. The Trade Federation has the most healing abilities. The Biotics are about hand management and drawing extra cards. The Star Empire is all about Combat. The Machine Cult has a ton of Bases and has lots of deck management cards.

Speaking of deck management. One of the card abilities is the Trash ability. This lets you toss the card with the Trash ability out of the game to get a one time benefit. Use of these abilities at the right time is a big part of the strategy of Star Realms. For example the Explorer cards mentioned above, give you 2 Trade, so they are much better than your Scouts but they aren't really all that great compared to the ships from the deck. They have a Trash ability though that provides 2 Combat. This can be extremely useful when you just need a couple more points to take out that Outpost your opponent played last turn.

One last note on number of players: the base game only includes enough cards to play 2 players. That said, there are rules included for playing with up to 6 players. The thing is that you will need a deck for each pair of players. 

Why do I like it so much (more than Ascension)?

I think that the direct confrontation makes a big difference here. I think it's one of the things that makes Marvel Dice Masters more fun than Quarriors! for me. I just enjoy beating the snot out of my opponent over earning a bunch of 'honour.'

The way the cards combo together and the fact the game rewards limiting yourself to a reduced number of factions adds a very different feel to the game. It's no longer: buy the most expensive card out there. It feels more like you are building an engine, and I dig engine building games.

I can't not mention the price: Ascension = $40, Star Realms = $15

I just really dig this game. It's cheap, it's fun, it's easy to teach and it scratches an itch for me that Ascension just doesn't. If you enjoy deck builders at all I have to recommend this one. It's one of the best out there. There is one problem though: It's not currently out there. I hear they are working on a third printing though, so just keep your pants on. It's good, but it's not $60 on Amazon good.

A final note about Ascension,

I don't want this post to come off as overly harsh on Ascension. I still love me some Ascension. It's truly a great game. If I have four players I would actually rather play Ascension than Star Reams. Star Realms hasn't "Jones Theoried" Ascension for me or anything like that. I still strongly recommend the game. Just right now I like Star Realms more. :D

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