All right, I’m pretty sure I’ve made it clear that I am not a fan of Ascension and the millions of Ascension clones that are constantly springing from the woodwork. To sum up: Ascension took the core deck-building mechanic of Dominion and replaced the one strategic element of having a choice on what cards with which to build up your deck and replaced it with something completely random and useless – a parade of cards from a randomized deck that you have no control over. Have I mentioned I’m a fan of control?
Anyway, so why am I sitting here writing a review of Star Realms? Surely one of the endless supply of Ascension clones can’t be worth my time? Well…
Yes, it is an Ascension clone, but where Ascension took a great game and made it bad, Star Realms has taken a bad game and made it…better? Yeah, definitely better. Of course I would still love to have more control over what gets added to my deck, but we’ll just have to get over that aspect of the game. Because it is in the other aspects of the game where Star Realms makes some strong improvements.
The first is the idea of direct competition. Star Realms, much like Ascension, has two main forms of currency – money, which allows you to buy new cards, and attack power. Whereas in Ascension attack power allows you to kill monsters to collect victory points, Star Realms has you using that attack power to directly attack your opponents – reducing their hit points (a sort of secondary currency). Once a player’s hit points are depleted, they’re out of the game, and the last player standing is the winner.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Player elimination? Blerg!” But, really, players don’t typically start go down until the very end of the game. Due to some nice balancing mechanics, even if you’re the first person out, the end of the game is usually only a few turns away.
Though you are only able to do actual damage to the player on your left with your attacks, players can also have bases out in front of them, which absorb damage and give the player a bonus every round until they are destroyed. And you can attack the bases of the players to your left and right. So if you’re in a 3-player situation where the player to your left is almost dead and your real competition is the player to your right, whom you can’t harm directly, there is little point to actually knocking out the crippled player on your left. Instead you’d want to focus all your fire power on taking out the right player’s bases so that the left player has a greater chance to do massive real damage to him. In this sense, it can almost become a 2-on-1 situation against the player in the best position and nobody gets eliminated until they are no longer of use.
Something like this actually happened the second time I played Star Realms. After my first play, I was convinced that the game was unbalanced and bases were terribly over-powered. In my second play, I built as many bases as humanly possible so that I would have huge bonuses and an impenetrable shield against damage. At which point both other players started ganging up on me, which they could because I had so many bases for the player on my left to shoot at. I ended up losing that player on my left, as he was able to better focus on damage and healing himself.
The lesson is that bases are powerful, but they open you up to attacks from your left and right, which is a nice, clever balance.
Anyway, so the other reason that this game shines above other Ascension clones is its versatility. Sure, you’ve got the basic game, but the game is also fine tuned for changing up the setup to create more interesting multi-player situations. You can do team games and I think there may even be a cooperative thing in the works. My third play of Star Realms was a very interesting foray into a team game called “Emperor,” which had teams of 3 sitting on opposite sides of a table. The guy in the middle was the “emperor” of a team and had more health and could attack anyone on the opposite team. The other two were the lieutenants and could only attack the lieutenant sitting across from them (until that lieutenant was eliminated). In addition, players could also pass cards in their discard pile to their neighbors by paying 1 money.
This last rule allowed for a sort of cooperative deck-building that turned out to be pretty interesting. A card that would be great for my deck comes out but I can’t afford it, so a team member buys it and passes it to me. One of my lieutenants is about to die, so I spend a bunch of money to pass him all my crappy cards to make my hands better. And the fact that there was a definite leader – someone who would ultimately be in a 1-on-1 battle with the opposing leader – lent an element of true king-making to the game. The lieutenants wanted to do damage, sure, but they had to balance that against a need to supply the emperor with great cards so that he would be prepared for the final showdown.
And what a final show-down it was! By the end of the game, I had at least 10 bases splayed out in front of me and enough “draw 1 card” bonuses to play my entire deck of (really awesome) cards on a single, glorious turn. I was unstoppable and crushed the opposing emperor. It was a good feeling to have so much power.
Obviously the game was probably less enjoyable for the lieutenants, as they get knocked out quite a few turns before the end of the game, but I still found the whole setup quite slick and ingenious.
One aspect of the game I’m still a little bothered with is the synergy bonuses of the cards. Essentially if you play 2 cards of the same color (there are 4 different colors) on the same turn, the cards usually have a secondary effect that makes them even better. This would be fine if you had more control over what cards get added to your deck, but with the Ascension-style “here are 5 random cards you may or may not be able to buy – have fun” card system, it’s a lot harder to build a coherent deck and it ends up feeling like extra randomness piled on top of randomness. Not only do you have to be able to buy that great card and then draw it into your hand, you need to draw another card of the same color on the same turn to get the full effect of the card. Not so cool.
But, either way, Star Realms has some really nice mechanics and it is a nice step in the right direction away from the horrors of Ascension. For my own personal preference I would love it if these ideas could be incorporated into a game that had Dominion-style deck-building, but I can see how Star Realms could be a top game for other gamers. I’d certainly play it again.