Game Review: Star Realms Deckbuilding Game

20131229-143517.jpgFully funded after a wildly successful Kickstarter run, sci-fi deckbuilding game Star Realms hit backers’ mailboxes  just in time for the holidays. In a refreshing change of pace, the White Wizard Games team maintained a receptive and transparent crowdfunding campaign that exceeded expectations by delivering decks, promos, and merchandise within their estimated delivery date. Designed by Magic the Gathering Hall of Famers Darwin Kastle and Rob Dougherty, Star Realms combines the addictive deckbuilding of Dominion with the offensive nature of MTG to create an original, fast-paced, and highly entertaining card game.

In this corner of the universe there exists four factions: Star Empire, Trade Federation, Machine Cult, and the Blobs. Through trade and combat, each faction acquires ships and bases to further its defensive or offensive posture and establish intergalactic dominance. The 128-card deck consists of 18 Authority cards (double-sided numerical cards that represent life), 16 ‘Scout’ cards, 4 ‘Viper’ cards, 10 ‘Explorer’ cards, and 80 trade deck cards (various ships and bases). Starting with 6 Scout cards (representing trade) and 2 Viper cards (representing combat), two players take turns drawing five-card hands, purchasing ships and bases, and attritting their opponent’s Authority from 50 to 0.

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The game mechanics and design decisions as a whole set Star Realms apart from other games in the same genre. For example, playing two cards of the same faction (i.e. two Star Empire ships or one Blob ship and one Blob base) triggers their ally ability which activates a second set of instructions on the card that can generate additional trade or combat. Another unique concept is the trade row, which consists of five cards placed face up that enables players to purchase ships and bases and build their decks (cards are immediately replaced once purchased). Lastly, credit must be also be given to Vito Gesualdi‘s graphic design and the exceptional artwork from various artists. Their vibrant bases, outposts, and locales breathe life into the factions.

This game is great…but it isn’t perfect. A few more openings and closings and I’ve got a feeling the card case is going to go over the rainbow. It appears to be standard card stock compared to similar games, but wear and tear appears imminent (I would have paid more for a better holder). Next, while the instructions come in a nicely folded sheet, after two read throughs, I still had to turn to the internet for a gameplay video. Fortunately, Mr. Gesualdi, the aforementioned designer, posted a thorough 20 minute gameplay video utilizing a beta version of their digital game. Finally, my biggest criticism…the Blob is too strong. In the first three games, the player that chose the Blob faction and all its offensive glory won every time. Maybe it was a shuffling issue or a haven’t-seen-the-whole-deck issue, but we got so frustrated we almost removed the entire faction from the next game. I’m not sure what the solution is (remove some of the most powerful ships?), but hopefully it can be addressed.

I don’t know when this game is supposed to hit shelves, but I do know those I played with are begging to borrow my Kickstarter copy. Star Realms is a near perfect example of what’s right, not just in science fiction gaming or deckbuilding, but in how to successfully conceptualize, launch, fund, and distribute a worthy product to the masses.

Designers: Darwin Kastle, Rob Dougherty
Overall: 9 Recommendation: Buy

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