Star Realms

I work in a corporate office.

Sometimes, I’ll get up and leave my cubicle to get a cup of coffee. Sometimes I don’t even want the coffee. I just want to stretch my legs. Sometimes I already have a cup of coffee, and I’ll pour that one out and try a different Keurig blend. Other times, I’ll simply get a cup of water.

Then I go back to my desk.

Sometimes I go out to lunch. Occasionally I’ll walk fifteen minutes down the road to get a Subway sandwich. Sometimes I even go to the Subway store which is only five minutes away. The days where I go to the farther store are random; it’s just how my mood strikes me.

Then I go back to my desk. I always end up back at my desk.

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Star Realms reminds me a bit of these tiny adventures in working a 9 to 5. An assorted group of random actions that, at when viewed in hindsight, seem less random than they actually are. My days in the office always seem to build to something. If you were to view these days at an extremely high level, you’d almost think there was some strategy to it.

There would be times where I’d show up to the coffee machine and discover that some kind soul made cupcakes! Through sheer strategy, I timed my coffee break to coincide with the arrival of a sugary desert!

But then, on the other hand, there would be times when I’d walk to the farthest Subway only to change my mind halfway and grab a bagel instead.

Star Realms is a deck building card game. In a deck builder, the players start with extremely weak cards and use those cards to gain other, stronger cards. This, in turn, strengthens their overall deck. Efficient players will try to shed their weaker cards in order to strengthen their hands. The engine runs on simplicity and strategy is to be efficient. Efficiency is a king maker.

Star Realms is, at its most basic, a two player game. Opponents square off with identical starting decks and use a “Trade Row” of face up cards on the table to strengthen their respective decks. The simple mechanics rely on three stats: authority, trade, and combat. Players start with 50 “authority” (in the normal world we call this value, “health”), and they use trade (money) value to buy more powerful cards from the Trade Row. Combat (damage) values are essentially attack values, and the combat damage that you deal to an opponent results in a reduction in their total authority value. When a player is reduced to 0 authority, the game ends and that player loses.

The cards which are purchased can also have special abilities. They can draw additional cards to your base hand size of five. They can force opponents to discard cards. They can allow a player to “scrap” cards they own, which allows for decks to become more efficient and powerful via the removal of weaker cards. In addition, each card is aligned with one of four factions, and when cards of a similar faction are played together they can sometimes synergize if they have “allied abilities”. Essentially, factions of the same type can allow for additional actions if they are played in the same turn.

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On a turn, a player throws down their hand of cards. Since all cards played perform an action, the order of card play is irrelevant. However, a small advantage lies in having more cards to play, or to cause your opponent to have fewer cards to play. The player then sorts through their hand, enacts card abilities, and determines the sum totals for authority, combat and trade, and then uses those total values against their opponent. They might also choose to “scrap” certain cards in order to gain an additional advantage, at the expense of permanently losing that card.

Once finished, the player discards all the cards they played, removes scrapped cards, and draws five new cards to refill their hand. Then their opponent takes a turn.

It’s a simple process. Games rarely take longer than ten minutes and the individual turns are extremely quick. It’s quick, brisk, and any other adjective for speedy that you can conjure up.

Star Realms sits at an odd crossroads. It’s the sort of game that seems to teeter on the edge of the good/bad divide, and its placement there leaves you with a neither favorable nor unfavorable opinion. I could imagine a few rule changes that would make the game play much worse than it does, and I can also see a few improvements that could be made. The odd thing is that the improvements I would make would change the overall game play and we might end up in an even less favorable spot.

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Let’s discuss a few of the issues with this game.

As I mentioned in the opening, a game of Star Realms feels like a game playing itself through a random collection of actions. The human players are simply there to shuffle and deal cards. The “AI” of the game is disconnected from a physical boy: the game is SkyNet and we are T-100s. SkyNet does all the thinking and we T-100’s are there to do all the heavy lifting and savior-of-humanity assassinating. Random events come and go, and only appear strategic in hindsight (and only for the victor).

There is precious little decision making in Star Realms. Hands of cards are simply dropped on the table (if you’re playing correctly, this is being done in various dramatic ways) and then sorted to figure out what has happened. Cards cannot be held between turns, so what you’re dealt is what you get. At this point, strategy has joined Elvis in leaving the building. Maybe you’ve been strategizing about which factions to purchase from the Trade Row, but at this point it’s all for naught: you drew no matching factions and instead drew too many terrible starting cards.

In addition to this lack of strategy, the Trade Row dominates the flow of the game. There are extremely few cards that allow cards from the Trade Row to be removed, so refreshing your options is largely a matter of bad cards being purchased and clearing room for new options. Since the starting selection of Trade Row cards is random, you can initiate games where the first few options you’re given are simply no good. Or, you can have an opening selection of relatively weak cards and nothing to build towards.

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What then happens is a series of semi-random events. In a manner similar to the events of my work day, players start to buy seemingly random cards. Getting lucky in terms of trade value is a huge boon early on, but your still limited to the options the Trade Row has presented you. Players slowly gain mid value cards and then wait for the next reshuffle to get them back.

At this point, we hit another odd snag. Star Realms has an extremely quick escalation in terms of abilities. The first deck deal is weak, but even then it’s still possible to draw five trade value, which is a sizable number throughout the game. With the first reshuffle and then into the second, the player decks take a drastic jump in output. A player causing their opponent to lose 20% of their total authority (health) on the second or third reshuffle is fairly common. The game plays quickly, but the pace seems to outrun the strategy. Card selection, the random event I keep harping on, is minor in impact when you consider how quickly each player is powering up.

But, you say, why don’t you just increase the amount of authority each player starts with? That would lengthen the game and allow for various strategies to feel more developed! You might even get a chance to buy one of those 7 or 8 value ships that have amazing effects! You don’t typically see them in normal length games because the lesser ships do enough damage to not make the higher priced ones a value proposition! That’d be great, you’d say.

But then, I’d reply, you’re going to push Star Realms out of the good/bad divide. Altering the game this way removes one of the games greatest strengths: its quick pace and overall length. The current length of the game is almost ideal for what it is, even if that length results in games that can sometimes feel inevitable and lacking in any sort of cohesive strategy. It’s a tough trade off to make.

I enjoy Star Realms. However, to do that I have to appreciate the fact that the lack of decision making is just a part of the overall experience. What appears to be a variety of options really isn’t anything of the sort, and removing a players impact when playing their hand just furthers the realization that the game is playing itself. When I win, I can look back at the card purchases I made and talk myself into how smart I was to make those decisions. Ultimately, however, those decisions were made for me: I bought that card because I could afford it, and not because of some greater motive. The game plays too quickly for anything else.

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Star Realms is a game for the determinist, but those who believe in free will might still think that they’re making smart game choices, even if they ultimately end up back at their office “desk”.

With all that said, it plays in ten minutes! And set up is lighting quick!

Just be sure to buy the iOS app that tracks each players’ authority. The authority cards included with the game are truly awful.

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