Game Info:

Star Realms
Developed By: White Wizard Games
Published By: White Wizard Games
Released: July 4, 2014
Available On: Android, iOS, Mac, PC
Genre: Deckbuilding
Number of Players: 2 offline, 2 online
Price: $4.99

Thank you to White Wizard Games for sending us this game to review!

Star Realms is a fast-paced, turn-based deck building game set in a science fiction realm many hundreds of years in the future.  Mankind has long since established colonies and outposts in the far reaches of the galaxy.  Eventually, they encounter an alien race called the Blobs.  First contact results in the Blobs silently and ruthlessly destroying several human colonies, which in turn sparks a Human-Blob war.  Three human factions emerge in the aftermath of the first contact attack.  The Trade Federation, The Star Empire, and the Machine Cult.

In game mechanic terms, the rules are simple.  Each player has a starting deck made up of 10 cards.  Both players have the same starting cards in their deck at the beginning (2 ship cards with 1 attack (the Viper), and 8 ship cards with 1 recruit (the Scout).  You start with five cards in hand, as does your opponent.  You use the starting cards in your hand to recruit cards from a row of 5 face-up cards.  These cards represent ships or bases belonging to one of the four factions in the Star Realms story and are selected randomly by the computer from the pool of all the cards available from each of the four factions.  The cards you can recruit are based on what is available in the face up row and what you can afford based on the value of the recruit points cards in your hand.  The cost of cards is between 1 and 8.

Recruited cards are initially placed in your discard pile, but are eventually shuffled back into your deck, and can then enter play by being drawn into your hand.  The goal is to reduce your opponent's Authority from 50 to 0.  Ships and bases with Attack are what you use to damage your opponent's Authority.  Most faction cards have what I would call a synergy bonus effect, which grants a special bonus.  Usually the bonus is more recruit or attack, but sometimes it is a draw effect, or some other special mechanic.  This secondary effect activates on all cards played of the same faction, which means that a sound strategy is to focus on a single faction's ships when recruiting to maximize the synergy effects.

Sometimes the random nature of the recruit options available makes this difficult to achieve.  There is always the option of recruiting a faction-less ship from their own separate deck.  This ship is inexpensive, and is twice as effective as a starting ship, but it doesn't remove any undesirable options from the recruit row, which only changes when a ship from the row is purchased and replaced from the deck.

Star Realms

Strong Points: It is a clever and effective port of a physical card game into a digital medium.  
Weak Points: The size of the cards (at least on my 7" tablet) were too small to be read easily, and the zoom feature was a little clunky.  It got to the point of slowing down the game until I memorized most of the cards and could recognize them on sight and no longer had to zoom in and read what they did.
Moral Warnings: None, unless you find implied space ship combat morally objectionable.

So, players take turns playing cards from their hand which results in a value of attack and recruit points which must be spent that turn or lost.  The player recruits the cards they want from the recruit row, and their opponent's Authority suffers the value of the attack points until one player has their authority reduced to zero.  Then, with a satisfying explosion the winner emerges victorious.

Of course, its not always as simple as that.  Some cards that can be recruited are Bases, which instead of being played and discarded at the end of the turn, they stay in play until destroyed.  And they provide a defensive bonus as well.  Should a player have a number of attack points lower than the defensive value of the Base, well... better luck next round!  No Authority can be targeted that turn.  The defensive Base must be destroyed first, and it must be destroyed in a single attack.  Any remaining points can be turned against the opponent's Authority once the cursed Base is gone.

For another defensive option, one can choose to prioritize recruiting from the Trade Federation faction's ships.  Most of the Trade Federation cards can increase your Authority.  Some do this by default, some give you the option of choosing between an Authority gain or a recruit point, and some give you Authority as the synergy bonus.  This can really make a big difference, especially in the beginning of the game when the most attack anyone can hit you with is 2 or 3 points at a time.  It is even possible to end up with more Authority than the 50 you start with if a lot of Trade Federation cards are recruited at the beginning.

The other factions have their special uses as well.  The Star Empire is what I would classify as a control faction.  Most of their cards have either a draw effect, allowing you to play more than 5 cards in a turn, or a discard effect, forcing your opponent to have a gimped hand going into their turn.  Most of their synergy is in the form of enhanced attack values.  They are extremely handy for building up massive amounts of attack and reducing your opponent's combat effectiveness.

The Machine Cult I would classify as a optimization faction.  Most of their cards contain a scrap effect, which permanently removes a card from your hand or discard pile from the game.  Why in heaven's name would you want to do such a thing?  Because after turn 3, your starting cards serve no purpose but to keep you from drawing your better cards more often.  By specializing in the Machine Cult, you can quickly remove all the now-useless cards that you started with and have hand-after-hand of synergy bonuses and powerhouse effects without the wimpy starting cards ruining your groove.  Oh, and that scrap effect is completely optional.  Once you're done trimming the fat, ignore it and focus on cleaning your opponent's clock instead.

Which brings us to the bullies of the universe, the Blobs.  I would classify the Blobs as an all-out aggro faction.  Their least expensive (read weakest) card has three times (potentially six times with a synergy combo) the attack of the starting attack card, and they only get worse (better) from there.  Their focus is on building up horrifically powerful attack combos and devastating your opponent's Authority with overwhelming attack values.  I do not typically focus on the Blobs much at the beginning, but I was obliterated more than once by allowing my opponent to buy those cards early, and by turn 5 I was being hit with upwards of 30 damage to my Authority.  I did not make it past turn 6 of that match.

Star Realms
Score Breakdown:
Higher is better
(10/10 is perfect)

Game Score - 80%
Gameplay - 17/20
Graphics - 6/10
Sound - 8/10
Stability - 5/5
Controls - 4/5

Morality Score - 98%
Violence - 9/10
Language - 10/10
Sexual Content - 10/10
Occult/Supernatural - 10/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 10/10

Star Realms is, overall, not a very complex game.  It is easy to play a round or two of it, then leave it be for a while and pick right back up where you left off.  I did this myself while waiting for my wife to pick out a pair of pants at the mall.  I mean, what else was I supposed to do?  But I digress.

The lack of complexity does show itself in other areas.  The music is a single looped track.  It's not bad, but its not too impressive either.  It doesn't add much to the game, but at least it doesn't ruin the experience by being noticeably poor.  The only other sound effect is the sound of an explosion that the game makes when Authority gets damaged.  There are two levels of explosions.  The first is a small boom, used when a Base is destroyed or Authority is damaged by 10 or less attack points.  The second is a big, almost two-stage boom, which occurs when Authority is damaged by greater than 10 attack points.  That 30+ hit I took in round 5 of that one game should have been rendered as a nuclear explosion, but the game didn't quite go that far.

Mechanically, the game works well.  Double tapping a card will play it from your hand, and synergy bonuses are automatically applied.  If a card has an effect that can be played that is optional the edges of the card will pulse.  Tapping that card once will bring up the option in question.  It will even remind you if you have unspent attack or recruit, and sometimes it will remind you of unused card effects, when you select the option to end your turn.  

The AI turn goes quickly, almost too quickly to watch sometimes.  The AI is a competent opponent, even on Easy.  I'm not sure what makes the AI Easy or Normal or Hard.  I was able to defeat the AI on Hard, but I'm pretty sure that it beat me on all three difficulty levels at various times as well.  There are a lot of random variables that I think would preclude being able to set a prescriptive difficulty level, unless those difficulties affect the randomization tables that govern how the digital decks are shuffled.  I suppose I could have just said "Stack the Deck," but that's not as fun.

One complaint I did have was that the cards are very small.  On my 7" tablet, one card is probably 1"w x 2"t and hard to read.  There is a zoom function, which involves a tap and hold for 1 or 2 seconds.  Then it shows the card on the full screen.  Now, the game is permanently locked in landscape orientation.  That means that I have roughly 3.5" of space on my 7" tablet.  The end result is that I see the card at about 1.5"w x 3"t.  Which is not really that much bigger.  It's even worse than this on my phone.  Eventually, I was able to memorize what the cards did and could recognize them in small form, but it made learning it difficult.

Overall, I found Star Realms to be entertaining and fast-paced (after I learned what most of the cards did).  It is an excellent port of a physical deck-building game into a digital medium.  If you like deckbuilders, spaceships, and quick fast-paced games, then I recommend giving Star Realms a try!


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