Star Realms – A Neat Card Game
As someone who inherently likes card games, but is put off by the price of stuff like Magic: The Gathering, I thought it looked neat. The last couple of days I’ve been slightly obsessed with it. Let me try to do a brief review/overview before I dive into the details.
Star Realms is, as the title image states, a deckbuilding game. Whenever you start a new match, you are given 10 cards: 8 Scouts that provide 1 resource point each, and 2 Vipers that give 1 attack point each. Each turn you draw five cards to play out, and you use the resource points to buy cards off the table to build you deck. Attack points are used to whittle down an opponent’s Authority (health). First player to get their opponent to 0 Authority wins. (According to Jarenth, the game is similar to Ascension, but I have never played Ascension, so I wouldn’t know.)
There are four different factions to get cards from, and they all have slightly different areas of focus. Blue are the only ones that restore Authority. Yellow are the only ones to force an opponent to discard from their hand. Red are the only ones who can scrap cards from the deck at will. Green are the only ones who can interact with the cards still for sale. There’s more, but I’ll go into that in the detailed section.
After that screenshot, you probably suspect that this game is mobile-focused. And it is. The game is out for PC, Mac, Android and iOS. But the duo at White Wizard Games seem to have thought about usability the whole way. The controls and interface are easy to learn, and I felt it flowed quite naturally after a short while. And for once, the How To Play section actually contains four short tutorials rather than just some pictures and text.
For PC you left-click on a card to play it. Right-click zooms in so you can see the text (and admire the art). Double-click (or click and drag) to purchase cards. Certain cards have special abilities once in play, and these will have a glowing border. You left-click to bring up the card to read the ability, then left-click again to use it. Left-click outside the card to dismiss. There’s a Play All button to just put all your cards on the table automatically (if any cards have card-draw, that includes the cards they draw). And once all your cards are played, you can hit End Turn.
The game does a quick check when you do that, though. Have you spent your resource and attack points? Have you activated all special abilities (short of sacrificing)? If it notices anything it thinks you might have forgotten, it gives you a heads-up. I’m sure some people might find that annoying, but I appreciate it a lot. You can just click OK if you’re fine with leaving things as they are.
For mobile, the controls are basically the same, though you do have to tap-and-drag to play out cards manually rather than just tap the card. And to look closer at a card, you use two fingers and drag them slightly apart. Typical zoom fare, you know?
Considering this is a mobile-focused title, I’m sure many of you start worrying about the business model. The most succinct way of explaining it is simply: fair. The singleplayer is free. You can play through the campaign, or against AI, or even use the Pass-And-Play function without paying anything. It’s only when you try to go online that the game asks for payment. A 5-dollar one-time fee, and you get a code you can use to register an account that you can use across all platforms. No micro-transactions. No ads. Just that one-time payment if you want to play online.
And the online play is pretty good. It’s asynchronous. There’s no time limit on turns. If you have the client open when one of your games is ready for you to take a turn, it will make a little ‘ding’ noise. I think you can basically run as many games at a time as you want. I’ve tried a maximum of six so far. I typically get a match within 10 seconds after hitting New Game. When you go in to check on a game, you will see the last turn play out in a truncated version. It will only show each action taken in order, and cut out any waiting/thinking time inbetween. Once you hit the End Turn button, that is saved and your opponent gets a ‘ding’ that it’s their turn. Even if you have the game open, you don’t get to see in real-time what the other person is doing. You just get the short version once they’re done.
Also, I really like the Next Game button. If a ‘ding’ happens when you’re in one game, you can just click Next Game after you’ve finished your turn, and it hops over to the one that ‘dinged’. If no games have updates when you hit Next Game, it returns you to the lobby to wait for the next ‘ding’.
If I was to raise any criticisms, the main one would be the Settings menu. The resolution options are fine, but the audio options are abysmal. I’d like some audio sliders, please. When the only option is to turn music and/or sound On or Off, that feels a little lacklustre on PC. Especially since this is a perfect game to have on in the background while paying attention to something else. I like the sound effects and the music, but they’re too loud if you want to watch a video or something.
It is also a little strange that even if you put the resolution to 1080p, it’s still a bit hard to read the card text without zooming in. In a way, that makes it good that there’s a small card-pool, so it doesn’t take long to learn most of them by sight.
And maybe a better browser for the Card Gallery. It could be all these things are coming in future updates, and they focused on making it play well first.
Star Realms is small, competent and fun. I highly recommend checking it out.
That’s the short version done. If that was all you wanted, you’re free to go. From here on out, I will be going into excessive detail, with everything from the very basics to more advanced stuff, and even lore speculations around the different factions. You are hereby warned:
At the start of each game, you only have 10 cards. It is always 8 Scouts and 2 Vipers. They are faction-neutral, and you will never get more of them. If you are the starting player, your first hand is three cards. The player who goes second has a starting hand of five. You have to play out all cards in your hand every turn, and then put them in the Discard Pile when you end the turn (except for any bases you played, which stay on the table). When all cards are in the Discard Pile, you draw a new hand of five from your deck before you hand the turn over. If your deck is empty, all the cards in the Discard Pile are shuffled and become your deck, and you draw from that. The other player doesn’t start their turn until you have five cards in hand.
This means that you don’t get to use any cards you have bought until turn 3 at the soonest, if you’re lucky on the draw, as bought cards go in the discard pile.
The bottom centre of the screen is your hand. The bottom right is the Play All/End Turn/Next Game button (not visible in the replay, see earlier screenshots). Above that is your deck on the right, and discard pile on the left. Clicking on either brings up the cards in there. This works for the opponent’s too, as you both started with the same hand, and in theory should know what the other has bought throughout the game. The only thing you’re not allowed to see is which cards are currently in their hand. It will be five from their current deck, and if the only five left are the ones in their hand, the client lets you see them if you click on the 0 where their deck should be.
Above the deck and discard is your portrait and alias (yet to find where to change portrait, not really cared to look that hard), and above the portrait is a green number representing your Authority (health). It starts at 50. To its left is the red number for current attack/combat points in play, and to its left is the yellow number for current resource points in play. While the two players have separate Authority counters, for resource and attack the same counters are used on both turns. The top is the opponent’s side, and is basically a shrunk-down mirror of your own.
Above your hand is the play area. Any ship cards played go there, regardless of whose turn it is. If more than five are played, arrow-scrolling is activated. Base cards are different. If they’re yours, they go to the left of your hand. For the opponent they go above the buying table, right of their discard. If more than three on one side are in play, arrow scrolling is activated.
In the centre, separating you and your opponent’s areas, is the buying table. It always has six cards in a row. To the far left will always be an Explorer shuttle. These cost two to buy, give two resources when played, and can be sacrificed to give you two attack points. As far as I can tell, the game has an infinite number of these. The other five cards are drawn from the main deck at random, and can be from any of the four factions, at any cost level. The Explorer shuttles are basically there just in case the rest of the table only has high-cost cards, so you will at least be able to afford something, even on a bad hand. Cards can cost anywhere from one to eight resource points to buy.
Ships vs Bases
There are essentially two groups of cards. Ships and bases.
Ships are played out for that turn only, and afterwards go into the discard pile until they’re shuffled back into the deck (or scrapped). They tend to have more powerful immediate effects and a lower purchase cost than bases.
Bases start at three resources, and go all the way up to eight. They are a persistent fixture on the field, and stay there even after you end your turn. They can only be removed by being destroyed, at which point they go to your discard pile. (Unless you sacrifice them, then they’re gone for good.) Some bases are outposts, which means they *must* be destroyed before the other player can attack you. Non-outpost bases don’t need to be destroyed, but it is still usually worthwhile to do so. Bases can only be destroyed if your attack points are equal or higher than the base’s authority. So getting an outpost out early can be a good way of stopping your opponent from chipping away at your authority, since even the cheapest outposts have four authority, and it can often take a few turns before you can consistently produce four or more attack points in a turn. Non-outposts tend to have slightly stronger effects and more authority than outposts, in exchange for not necessarily protecting you.
The Factions And Ally Bonuses
As mentioned, the factions all play slightly differently, but due to the nature of the game, it is unlikely you will be able to build a deck from just one of them. Typically I’ve found you end up with two factions you’re focusing on, with maybe a few cards from a third (or even the fourth) thrown in. See, if you play two cards from the same faction on the same turn (or play one when you have a base of the same faction), chances are high that at least one of them will have an ally bonus that triggers from that. This can be something minor, like just a couple of extra attack points, or something potentially huge, like picking any ship you want from the buying table at no additional cost (sucks if there’s only bases there at the time). Getting a good deck synergy going is often crucial.
There are also certain cards that just work well regardless of what sort of deck you’re building. I will cover some of those later.
I also find it very neat how much personality and lore you can extrapolate just from how the cards work (and the occasional bit of flavour-text). So I will be extrapolating a bit, and just hoping I’m not going massively off-base.
Trade Federation (Blue)
By my estimate, these guys are basically the peacekeepers of this galaxy. Their ships tend to give a lot of resources and authority. A lot of the authority comes from ally bonuses, which I take to mean they establish their authority by numbers. While their ships can get quite big and have many effects, like card-draw for most of the bigger vessels, they do not in general have as much raw power as the other factions. They fight more defensively, and make up for it by being able to field and acquire a lot of ships fast through extra card-draw and lots of resource-points.
In fact, the Embassy Yacht specifically states in the flavour-text that they consider war to be bad for their profits, and see it only as a last-resort.
Trade Federation bases typically focus on providing you with extra resources and authority.
Machine Cult (Red)
These guys seem to be the most technologically advanced faction. They’re also the only faction that can scrap cards in your hand and discard pile at will, which says to me that they’re all about efficiency. If you want to trim down the size of your deck, like by getting rid of your starting cards, it’s useful to get a Trade, Missile or Supply bot early on. Maybe even several, since their ally bonuses are quite offensively minded and good for applying early pressure. And the staple of their forces, the Patrol Mech, can choose whether to provide three resources or five attack points when played, which I think speaks both to their versatility and power. And remember; a small, efficient deck can often outplay a larger and technically more powerful one.
They give me this idea of a highly advanced society that dismantles and recycles tech they don’t need rather than keeping it around. There are also hints that they have a somewhat religious attitude towards technology, which might explain the ‘Cult’ in the name.
Machine Cult bases typically build upon the scrapping principle, the higher-cost ones even giving you card-draw in exchange for a scrap or two.
Your fairly typical techno-organic alien menace. The Blob seem to have turned into a bit of a force of nature in this setting. A large reason for the heavy firepower of the other factions is to deal with Blob threats. These guys both have strength in numbers going through several avenues for card-draw, and they tend to have the heaviest firepower of ships their size. They also seem to have the only ships able to affect the state of the buying table via abilities, like the Destroyer removing a card from there both to deny your opponent getting it, and to make room for something else, and the Carrier being able to snatch away entire ships without paying for them.
The Blob are great for fast, aggressive play, and also have the best 2-cost resource ship in the game (in my opinion).
Blob bases aren’t exactly much varied, and tend to provide extra attack power and/or card-draw.
Star Empire (Yellow)
These guys are a bit more of a mystery. Only one of their cards has any flavour-text on it, and that is their biggest base, the Fleet HQ. It basically just says that whenever the empire goes to war, their efforts tend to be coordinated from afar in one of these mobile Fleet HQs.
The way they play give me this idea of a military force that runs on intimidation and numbers. Their ships are rarely that strong on their own, but even the smallest fighter will cause the opponent to have to discard a card from their hand, as if their reputation precedes them, and other forces are reluctant to go up against them. And they quickly get a lot of attack power boosts from ally bonuses. So they clearly work on demoralising the enemy as much as they crush them.
Even so, they do feel like the least developed of the factions.
Star Empire Bases are often quite offensively minded, even having their own ally bonuses for extra attack power.
Certain cards can be sacrificed for some extra effect, be it more attack, resources, or card-draw. This can be triggered after the card has been played, but before it is discarded, and can be found on both bases and ships. If you sacrifice a card, you don’t lose what you gained by playing it, but it is a one-time thing. Once sacrificed, the card is removed from the game instead of sent to your discard pile. Still, it can help give you that little extra you need in a situation, or just help keep your deck light. It seems quite popular to immediately sacrifice the Explorer shuttles after using them the first time, for instance.
The End Turn checklist does not give you any sort of reminders regarding sacrificing.
Good All-Round Cards
While you will typically want to stay within two or three colours when making your picks from the buying table, there are certain cards that just fit in well anywhere. Most of the 7- and 8-cost cards tend to be so good they go with anything, for instance, since it can often be tricky to build up 7 or more resource points on a single turn, and neither resource nor attack points carry over to the next one. There are also lower-cost cards that just seem to fit anywhere.
Here are some of my favourites from the last few days:
Let’s start with my favourite, the Trade Federation Command Ship. Every game I have managed to purchase one of these, I have won. Five attack and four authority are both good, but drawing two cards is huge in this format where your deck is rarely that big. 40% more value to your hand! Potentially, at least. The ally bonus of destroying a target base is just icing on an already scrumptious cake.
Fun fact: It is the only ship in the game to cost 8 resources. All other 8-cost cards are bases.
It took me a while to understand just how good this ship is. The Machine Cult’s Stealth Needle can copy any other ship in the game, and gain all its abilities, so long as you play that other ship first that turn. It can provide a boost in anything you might need, and also trigger all sorts of ally bonuses. I prefer to copy something not Machine Cult so I get double the ally bonus.
Fun fact: I used this to copy a Command Ship once. The effect was quite silly, and extraordinarily excessive.
The fact that the Embassy Yacht can trigger its bonus from any two bases makes it quite versatile. The problem is managing to keep two bases online long enough to use it. But even without that, getting two resources and three authority isn’t bad. And if you also have a Federation Shuttle or Cutter for their resource production, you can use this to trigger nice ally bonuses.
Fun fact: I keep forgetting the name of this thing. It shouldn’t be that hard.
This one speaks for itself, I would think. Play out the Mech World, and suddenly you can trigger all ally bonuses for everyone, and it provides protection for you. It’s a high-priority target, so it can be hard to keep alive, but even just managing to use it for one turn can often be worth it. Definitely goes with every deck, and it’s not that expensive either.
Fun fact: This looks like Cybertron.
Maybe not as exciting as the others, but the Recycling Station can be quite useful. Swapping out one or two cards you don’t really need to potentially get something more useful tends to fit with almost anything, and if it runs out of that usefulness, it can still give you one resource point. Maybe it’s just the one you need? It also helps the efficiency of the Machine Cult’s bots on the first turn after a shuffle, since it lets you put something less useful into the discard pile to be scrapped, yet retain a hand of five to play without sacrificing anything in there.
Fun fact: I am out of fun facts.
I think that should be it. I can’t think of anything else. There are of course more cards that still work well outside their faction. I only listed the ones I like best.
The only thing left saying is stating yet again that I think you should probably go try it out. It’s only 30 megabytes to download, and the free version has a nice chunk of content to it.