While I was away on a trip over the last few weeks, I was able to play Star Realms, a deckbuilder that I expected to moderately enjoy but has absolutely blown me away by just how awesome it really is. It honestly takes everything I’ve begun to enjoy about card games (and deckbuilding in particular) and given me more meaningful PvP to go with it. Let’s talk about it in this week’s Fight or Kite!
If Ascension and a dueling game had a baby it would be named Star Realms
With a teaser like that, I just know you are intrigued. Star Realms was designed by Darwin Kastle and Rob Dougherty. Dougherty, of course, was also one of the co-designers of Ascension, so it makes sense that these games are so similar and share much of the same DNA.
Typically thought of as meat space games, Star Realms’ and Ascension’s digital versions are where the games really shine. It takes what you love about actually playing the games and removes all the wasted time of actually shuffling and organizing the cards. Not to mention the time spent with real life people – what a drag, right?
I discussed all the things I enjoyed from Ascension in a previous column, but I also mentioned the main drawback was that despite being a competitive game there were often few ways to actually interact with your opponents directly. In Ascension, there were some ways to force your opponent to discard a card or their Constructs (ongoing effect cards), but typically you were just building your own deck to gain as many points as you could.
In Star Realms, rather than winning by victory points, you need to actually destroy your opponent. Just as in Magic: The Gathering or any number of other dueling games, it’s a one vs. one fight to the death. You and I both have an HP pool, and the winner is decided by total domination. As soon as I realized this, I knew I was in for a good time.
The gameplay is very similar to Ascension. In fact, they are almost identical except for the players’ health pool. Both players begin with an identical deck of ten cards giving you 8 purchasing power and 2 damaging. The market deck is composed of almost the same cards as well, except instead of the card types being Void, Mechana, Enlightened, and Lifebound, they are Machine Cult, Star Empire, Trade Federation, and Blob. Different names, but very similar mechanics.
The main difference I’ve found between the card types of the games is that while some of the Ascension expansions utilize a “Unite” effect (basically playing at least two cards of the same faction will give you some bonus effect), in Star Realms it is an essential mechanic to use. If you don’t focus your deck on a couple of the factions and instead spread yourself thin, then you really don’t have a chance of winning. In Ascension, the bonuses are nice, and focusing can be good, but it isn’t as critical to victory as in Star Realms.
Of course, the primary difference between them is the dueling aspect of Star Realms. Your attack points are used in Star Realms to directly destroy your opponent as well as the Bases they control (equivalent to Constructs in Ascension). The Bases provide ongoing effects, and certain ones must be dispatched before you can attack the player. Moreover, each one also counts as a faction card, so simply having one in play will trigger the bonus effects of the cards you play from your hand as well. While in Ascension you also had some attacking cards, these are used only to kill monsters from the market, which generates VP and often impacts your opponents, but it isn’t the same as directly blowing up the other player’s ships.
There are so many PvE campaign missions to keep you busy between PvP matches or offline
While Star Realms is primarily a dueling game, it offers a ton of campaign missions to play. Honestly, I can’t believe how many there are. While the campaign stories aren’t exactly the most compelling bits of science fiction I’ve ever read, it’s still cool that the game puts them together at all. GWENT barely even tried with its PvE mode, although I believe it rectified that with one of the expansions.
Currently, the game has six story lines with 24 chapters spread through them. Within each chapter are several missions, and each mission is basically a single battle against the AI. In total, there are about 300 PvE battles to play. Of course, that’s not an unlimited number of games, but if you’re playing casually as I do, then it does the trick.
One of the best parts of all is that you can even play Star Realms offline. Just like Ascension, the app was made correctly. I’m telling you, when you’re on a plane flying however many miles away from the nearest wifi (and no I’m not paying for airplane wifi!), you’ll be glad you can just open the app and play to your heart’s content. Not to mention the game includes a Pass and Play mode. With that, you can start up a match, play your turn, hand the phone over to a friend to play her turn, and then rinse and repeat. So simple, but so good.
PvE is great for learning and casually playing while I’m waiting on other things, but my main jam is always going to be in the competitive side of things (this is a PvP column, after all!). Star Realms has a lot of what I’ve seen in other games: You’ve got simple quick matches where you’re randomly paired with another player. The games can be short turns, or you can choose longer ones. The default here seems to be two days, so you can just play your turn when you’ve got a spare moment and then come back the next time you do. You don’t have to feel as if you’re committed to a full match all in one sitting.
There are also Arenas, which are real-time PvP matches where the more you win, the greater the rewards. It’s similar to the Gauntlet mode from Eternal. You want to win six matches for the best rewards, and you’re allowed to lose only twice before you’re booted. It looks as if you get one free entry per Arena tournament, and if you want to compete again, you need to pay some in-game coins. These matches need to be played in a single sitting. It looks like every week or so the type of match the Arena is based on rotates.
Last are the more formal Tournaments; you can see upcoming tournaments, the expansions required to play in them, and who is currently registered to play. These all have an entry fee, so you’re putting up some coin if you want to compete.
It’s basically a buy-to-play game with some light cosmetics
Finally, the monetization of Star Realms isn’t bad at all. I would suspect that it’s largely because it was a physical card game before a digital one, so monetization of the digital game wasn’t front and center of the developers’ minds, but who knows.
Essentially, Star Realms is a buy-to-play game, but it does have a free to play trial or demo. Downloading the game without creating an account lets you play PvE matches against the AI with the basic deck, but not much else. You’re fully able to play though, and it didn’t appear that the game restricts the number of times you can play for free or anything.
If you want to really enjoy the game, though, you need to at least buy the base game, which I think was $5 on Android. This opens up the Pass and Play mode, the rest of the first campaign, and the online PvP modes. The campaign’s matches have three tiers of achievements apiece and even a hard mode, so while it doesn’t seem like much, there is enough to keep you busy.
Beyond that, there are 18 expansions to buy, each adding new decks and additional PvE campaign fights. They range in cost from about $2 to $7 each, but most of them are in the $2 range. As you can imagine, the expansions will add new cards and some new mechanics too. The final note in the monetization bin is some cosmetics that add a “foil effect” to your cards and coins that are used to participate in the tournaments. The graphics in the game are pretty light and almost nonexistent, so maybe the foil effect will do it for you.
That’s really all I have to say about Star Realms right now. It’s been a blast to play, and it’s completely taking up my 5 minutes of idle procrastination time. I really can’t recommend it enough. If you like deckbuilders more than CCGs, then you must give this one a look. It’s available on mobile devices so you can download it now. Like right now, go!