Monday, 23 February 2015

Star Realms

Plays: 2P x more than 35 games, mostly against AI's, about 5 against humans.

Quite a few fellow gamers recommended Star Realms to me, saying that it's a deck-building game quite similar to Ascension, my most played game ever. I was not particularly eager to try it out the first few times. Recently when I received yet another recommendation I was curious and decided to give it a go. I downloaded the iOS version for free. It is basically a trial version. Unlocking the full version costs USD5.

The Game

If you have played deck-building games, Star Realms will be familiar. Players start with an identical deck of basic cards. On your turn you always draw five cards, play them, and move them to your discard pile. When you buy cards from the central row, they go to your discard pile first and will only get shuffled into your draw deck the next time you exhaust it. The objective of the game is to reduce your opponent's life points to zero, so this is more like Magic: The Gathering than Dominion or Ascension. The central card row works like Ascension. There is one basic card type which is always available, and five cards drawn from a common deck. Whenever a card is purchased, a new one is drawn to replace it.

There are two currencies in the game: (1) trade value means money, and lets you buy cards; (2) attack value allows you to deduct your opponent's life points (called Authority in the game). Cards come in four colours, representing factions (similar to Ascension). Green cards tend to have stronger attack powers, and some allow you to replace cards in the centre row. Yellow cards often force your opponent to discard cards, and sometimes help you draw more cards. Red cards often help you remove cards from your deck, thinning it and making it more efficient by removing weak cards. Blue cards usually give more money and also allow you to increase your life points. There are two types of cards you can buy. Ships are normal cards which are moved to your discard pile at the end of your turn. Bases are kept in play in front of you (like constructs in Ascension), and can protect you. Some bases force your opponent to destroy them first before being able to attack you. Bases in Star Realms differ from constructs in Ascension in that they are often destroyed by your opponent and moved to your discard pile. Constructs are sometimes discarded, but not very frequently.

One important concept is the Ally concept. Many cards have an Ally ability an addition to the basic ability. This Ally ability is triggered if during your turn you have another card of the same faction in play. Bases are very important because of this Ally ability. If you have a base of a certain faction in play, you can trigger the Ally abilities whenever you draw a card of this faction, as opposed to needing to hope for drawing two cards of the same faction.

The six cards in the middle are what you can buy. The leftmost card, the Explorer, is a basic no-faction card which is always available. The other five are drawn from the common deck. In my player area (lower half), the five cards are my hand. The two horizontally placed cards are my bases. The number in the green shields are the life points, called Authority.

The iOS version comes with two campaigns, which are series of scenarios to be beaten one after another. Many of them tweak the rules a little, and are quite interesting. Too bad there aren't more of these.

The Play

I started off only playing against the AI's, and was pleasantly surprised to find them quite decent. I lost most of my early games, and that stirred my curiosity on what I had done wrong and what I needed to do to play better. I have now completed both the campaigns, and I am starting over, this time playing at the hard difficulty level. It is still very challenging. I wish there were more campaigns.

The Ally powers are very strong in Star Realms. Games start slowly, but can build up to huge climaxes. It is not uncommon to come from behind and win by dealing 25 - 30 points of damage to a leading opponent. The game is all about building towards such big turns. Drawing cards of the same factions, and drawing good combos, depends somewhat on luck, but then what cards are in your deck is all up to you.

There is a pacing you need to be aware of - when to switch from money-focus to attack-focus. In the early game you probably want to buy money-making cards to help you buy the more powerful attack cards or bases, but there comes a point when you want to focus on attacking. After all, you need to kill your opponent to win. The confrontation is more direct here than in Ascension or Dominion. One aspect which Star Realms has but the others don't is the variable ending. In Star Realms some cards increase your life points. This can change the tempo and the escalation arc of the game. If both players keep replenishing their life points, the game can become a tough back-and-forth match with both sides needing a big breakthrough to defeat the opponent.

I've always felt the interface design in the iOS version of Ascension is top-notch. The interface of Star Realms is not as slick, but it is serviceable. However there is one thing which I think Star Realms does better - it lets you see your opponent's deck and also your own more clearly. When playing the physical copy it is technically possible to remember what cards your opponent has bought and which ones he has played, so you can tell which ones are still in his draw deck or hand. In practice, most people probably don't bother to memorise this much information. In the iOS version, the app considers that you have perfect memory, and gives you this information. I like this because it allows me to quickly assess the game situation when I come back to a half-played game. I don't need to try to remember where I left off. This is very useful when playing in asynchronous mode, and especially when you have multiple games going on at the same time.

The Thoughts

My first impression of Star Realms is it is even more fun than Ascension. It tends to have more dramatic end games, when players have more powerful hands. You are building up towards these amazingly big moves, and not counting beans and grabbing points here and there. Cards in Star Realms do not have VP values so you are never buying cards because they are worth points. You always buy cards to attack, or to make more money to buy more cards to attack.

The iOS version doesn't have any expansions yet, which is a pity. Naturally there is much less variety than Ascension, which has many expansions now. The Star Realms base game is a complete, self-contained game. I don't feel there is any intentionally omitted element waiting to be filled by expansions. I wonder whether the existence of the digital version is to encourage people to buy the physical version. The physical version has quite a few expansions by now.


Aik Yong said...

I find Starrealms more comborific than basic Ascension. Like yourself, I also blazed through the introductory campaign, but not much incentive to go on further.

Boardgames are like puzzles, more so than electronic games, so after figuring them out, we move on. Even Galaxy Trucker, which I thought was the boardgame app of 2014, I've also stopped playing it.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I think cooperative games can feel like puzzles - once you've "solved" them, you don't feel like playing again. I feel this way with Pandemic: The Cure. Maybe I need to increase the difficulty. However non-coop games should feel less like puzzles. Unless your definition of "solving" them is developing a more-or-less optimal way to play them.

Aik Yong said...

Yes, we do develop more or less an optimal or 'standard' guidebook for playing boardgames as we play them. Boardgames in electronic form only accelerate the process of developing the optimisation due to the ease of play-replay.

My idea was also that boardgames in electronic form are like puzzles - as compared to electronic computer games, which to me are more like story experiences. Or that I derive different forms of entertainment from both these electronic playthings.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Having developed a set of guides to play a game well may not always be a bad thing. People who have mastered a game (think Chess, Go, etc) would have such guides, but that doesn't reduce their enjoyment of the games, because the games themselves have good depth. Having established an internal guide means you know the game very well and can play at a higher skill level, which can be more enjoyable.

Dennis Kam said...

Ive been following your blog for a while now, appreciate the in-depth writeups.

Am living in KL, very keen to join you all over at board game cafe.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Hi Dennis, thank you! has open gaming most Friday nights, and I go quite often. But always best to double-check their Facebook page (the link above) just in case.