Every designer believes in the potential of success for their idea, why wouldn’t they? It’s both a prerequisite for being able to see an idea reach fruition, and simply an integral part of their DNA. Paradoxically, those same designers I’d imagine are just as often crippled by self-doubt. When Robert Dougherty and Darwin Kastle began to collaborate on Star Realms it’s not hard to visualise the enthusiasm blossoming in those early prototyping sessions, both discussing the what ifs of future triumph. Although both Dougherty and Kastle have published designs behind their names, White Wizard Games was a new studio, not nearly long-lived enough to have cultivated an expectancy for success like an FFG, so when Star Realms rocketed to success I assume partying was done like it was 2199.
What made Star Realms such a success? Timing certainly, smart design for sure, but mainly it was just a perfect distillation of the appeal of deck-builders. Most of the early popular deckbuilders such as Dominion and Thunderstone may have been competitive, but it was a race to victory points that determined the winner. Even Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, which also happens to be partly a Dougherty design and perhaps most resembles an early iteration of Star Realms, was chiefly concerned with earning Honor Points. As veterans of Magic: The Gathering, Dougherty and Kastle must have realised that the key lay in translating the combatative nature of MtG, that feeling of whittling down your enemy’s health until he takes his last metaphorical breath.
Throw in a deceptively simple rule-set, a quick play time, a very wallet-friendly pricepoint and voilà, you have yourself a massively popular deckbuilder.
Learn the rules in five minutes? Yep, totally possible.
Unfortunately, Cthulhu Realms and Epic haven’t performed quite as well. We reviewed Epic last year so you can read about what we enjoyed and what we felt didn’t quite work, but part of what made Epic’s release an uphill battle was the unavoidable fact that, despite making it very clear that it was not a fantasy-themed Star Realms, consumers aren’t always receptive to information and are prone to their own misguided presumptions.
So inevitably in a way, at the beginning of June White Wizard announced a Kickstarter for Hero Realms, which very much is a fantasy-themed Star Realms, albeit with a few tweaks and new ways to play. And I’m sure you, our perceptive and prescient readers, are asking the pertinent question – do we really need a fantasy-themed Star Realms?
We’re Off To See The Wizard
The Fighter character pack
If you’ve played a game of Star Realms, you could probably play Hero Realms without even consulting the rulebook. Well, rule pamphlet. But a quick overview nevertheless, for those who might value one. Players begin with the same deck of 10 cards, drawing 5 of them to form a starting hand (first player only draws three on the first turn). On your turn, you play as many of those 5 cards to the table as you want and utilise their effects to perform various actions. Certain cards give you money which you can use to purchase new cards from the Market (which go directly to your discard pile), others are direct attacks against a player and other still buff and debuff, such as giving health or forcing your opponent to discard. It’s pretty standard stuff for a deckbuilder, the idea being that you optimise your deck to produce the best possible hand each turn. Reduce your opponent’s health to zero, and it’s game over.
Where the Realms series gets interesting is in its adoption of a faction system, essentially the idea that cards belong to a faction of a certain colour, and that being able to play multiple cards of a certain colour will unlock additional abilities. So for Hero Realms, you may have a card that deals 3 points of damage to your opponent that belongs to the yellow Imperial faction, but if you happen to play another Imperial card at the same time, you will do an additional 2 points of damage. These factions are also indicative of the style of card, very much akin to MtG’s colour system. The red Necros faction tends toward nastiness and heavy attack damage, for example.
The other nifty trick the series pulls off is what’s known in Star Realms as Base cards, but has been re-purposed in Hero Realms as the Champions concept. Champions are essentially units that you play to the table which remain there after the rest of your cards go to the discard pile. They all have their own health values and can only be wiped from the table when attacked directly. But if you’re attacking a Champion, you’re not attacking your opponent. Certain Champions also have a Guard ability, which means they must be attacked before damage can be assigned elsewhere. They also have an Expend ability, which is an action that can be performed by soundslikerappingwithaTpleasedontsueme once per round.
If I Only Had A Brain
The Market, with cards ranging from as little as 1 gold to as much as 8
Yes, it plays very much like Star Realms. You get it. But was does it do to set itself apart? A couple things, chief of which is the introduction of Character packs. Hero Realms plays at 2 to 4 straight out of the core box, but if you really want to shake things up you’re going to need to pick up these up. Flavoured as the archetypal fantasy class types, such as cleric or wizard or thief, these provide unique starting decks as well as two unique character abilities that work independently from the core game, as well as varying health totals. So if you were to pick up the Thief, you’d get ten cards for your starting deck, a double-sided male/female character card and two class-specific abilities, in the Thief’s case one of them is a healing ability which also forces your opponent to discard. If you didn’t back the KS campaign, then you’ll have access to five Character packs at launch and White Wizard will no doubt release many more in future.
The other differences come down to the actual experience of playing the game. You have more gold to start with, which means you get to the good stuff a little quicker which in turns means it feels as if you’re making inroads into your opponent’s health a little quicker. And although Champions and Bases work in a similar manner, you’ll be playing far more Champions to the table and there’s a greater sense of urgency and dependability. Perhaps it’s because they are unique characters and the excellent artwork allows them to almost evoke a personality of sorts, which translates into the sense that you’re building up your own unique team.
A Champion, with her Faction icon top left.
I also get the sense, and I’d need to play Star Realms again to jog my memory, that you can hit a little harder for a little less gold and that the overall value of the Market cards is more consistent. And by that I mean that the most AP prone area of the game is deciding what to buy, outside of your starting deck of cards, and the Market never feels bloated by cards that you’re unlikely to ever buy after turn two. Sure, there’s still a power curve at play and more expensive cards tend to be more powerful, but Hero Realms deals with the scenario of ‘I only have two gold this turn’ by adding to the Market a stack of Fire Gems, which provide an additional 2 gold or deal 3 damage if discarded. It’s a smart workaround – underestimate the noble Fire Gem at your peril!
The artwork is mostly excellent if a tad derivative, but Hero Realms is meant to conjure a grand sense of fun so anything other than colourful, larger than life fantasy characters would likely not work as effectively. It is a little inconsistent in spots with certain Champions not looking quite as good as others, but I’m being super nit-picky and it’s likely more a matter of taste than anything else. Also, the black-bordered cards are going to fray from the multiple shuffles they’ll have to endure, making sleeves almost compulsory.
Intimidation – play a card with the Merchant symbol and you’ll get 2 gold as well
The only other area that bothered me slightly was the way in which cards are prepared and expended, but my issue probably arises as a result of playing too many similar card games where traditionally cards remain tapped until after an opponent has had their turn. With Hero Realms, you prepare your Champions at the end of your turn, which means the only time you may be in a pickle is when your opponent uses an ability to expend one of your cards on their turn. Where this becomes problematic is that only a prepared Champion can Guard, but I don’t recall seeing a card that actually did this, which means that your Guards can always Guard. Perhaps in future expansions? There are actions that allow you to prepare an expended hero on the same turn, effectively allowing them to be use twice.
Also, while I appreciate that White Wizard have attempted to provide a better out-of-the-box score keeping system than Star Realms, it remains far less effective than using an app or simply a pair of dice. The box is a big step up from the tuck box which is great, but it’s bulging at the seams with just the base cards and 5 Character packs, so if you’re picking up future expansions expect the inevitable expanded box to go on sale soon. And that’s not a dig at White Wizards, keeping that starter box a certain size helps to keep the cost of the game down, so I can’t begrudge them that.
Damage and deck thinning? Yes please!
Less a criticism and more an observation, Hero Realms can swing dramatically. Just last night, a turn that ended with me on around 35 health and my opponent on 4, was over two turns later with my imminent victory dashed against the rocks. I took a massive 25 damage on that last turn – if you’re the kind of player that doesn’t take well to those sorts of changes of fortune, you may want to pass. Of marginally greater concern, is the number of cards that grant healing. While it’s an aspect that does need to be included, it’s often possible to heal by 10 or more in a single turn, which does inflate game length.
Considering that the Character packs increase base health, that quick 30 minute game may end up drawn out somewhat longer. And it’s not that the game is less enjoyable over a longer period, but the problem with hitting 45 minutes is that it encroaches on the territory of more strategic card games such as Game of Thrones or Ashes. One of Star Realms great strengths is the satisfaction to time ratio and that you could fly through 2 or 3 games with relative ease. This concern may well disappear as I become more experienced, but I haven’t noticed much difference in game length over more than a half dozen games now.
I’m also not quite sure why White Wizard elected not to provide named Characters. When Champions have impressive names such as Torgen Rocksplitter and Rayla Endweaver, it grates just ever so slightly that your own character is simply Thief or Cleric.
You’ve Always Had The Power, My Dear
The Fighter’s two special abilities. Trash the Crushing Blow to deal a massive 8 damage
There’s a lot to like about Hero Realms. It’s been tweaked slightly but not so much that it veers off Star Realms course, the Champions concept works very well and the Character packs are a fantastic addition. And I haven’t even touched on how the game fares with more than two such as the Free For All, First Blood or Last One Standing variants that play up to 4 out of the base box. And White Wizard will soon be releasing a campaign variant, complete with monster decks and boss battles and multiple co-op sessions.
It may not be the deepest card battle around, but the tactical decisions have enough bite to them to keep things interesting. Do I build toward two factions and maximise efficiency? Do I build a heaving hitting army low on synergy but high on damage? Do I deal direct damage to my opponent and risk allowing them to use their Champions ability on the next turn? And when you break out the Character packs, mastering your two unique abilities can be the difference between finding your face in the mud, or wearing the steely sabaton that presses your enemy’s further in.
Do you own and enjoy Star Realms? Unless the fantasy theme is a massive drawcard, it may be best at this point to see how Hero Realms performs over the next few months. Having missed that particular bandwagon however, Hero Realms does enough to warrant a spot on my shelf.
With thanks to Solarpop for the review copy