My fondness for Ascension‘s brand of deckbuilding is very well-documented, with various editions receiving a place in my year-end favorites list for the last four years running. One of the co-producers of Ascension, Rob Dougherty, has teamed up with fellow Magic Hall-of-Famer Darwin Kastle to create White Wizard Games and its first product, Star Realms. This game brings a new twist to the genre, taking aspects of Ascension and tying it in a bit with its creators’ Magic roots.
Star Realms is exclusively a two-player affair, barring the purchase of additional sets. The set-up is almost identical to Ascension‘s: a five-card trade row of face-up cards to purchase, a stack of always-available ships to the side and each player’s starting deck, containing ten cards consisting of two one-combat cards and eight one-trade. Each player also begins with fifty Authority. In a handicapping twist, the first player only begins with a three-card hand but the genre-standard five-card hand applies at every point thereafter.
Cards come in one of two types: ships and bases. Each has a purchase value that shows how much it costs to acquire them from the trade row in the usual manner. There are no enemies in the deck. So what do you spend combat on? Attacking your opponent directly, reducing their Authority for each point spent! The goal of the game is to reduce your opponent’s Authority to zero.
Ships have an effect that happens whenever you play them, and bases usually have one that you can use once per turn. Both types might also have ally and/or scrap abilities. If you have any other cards in play with the appropriate faction symbol, all of your related ally powers are also active. Scrap powers are one-shot effects, as using them will force you to remove the card from your deck and put it into the trade row’s discard pile (or return an Explorer to their stack).
Ships are placed in your discard pile at the end of your turn, but bases remain in play until they are destroyed or scrapped. Every base has a defense value that will indicate how much combat is required to destroy it. Any base denoted as an outpost (with a black defense shield rather than silver) must be dealt with before your opponent can attack either yourself or another non-outpost base.
That’s the game, really. Buy cards, attack your opponent, repeat until one of you is out of Authority. The streamlined nature really makes the game move along at a great pace, but there are still important decisions to be made. The ally mechanic rewards specializing in one or two of the four factions, but all four have useful effects. The scrap mechanic is perhaps even more important, as you will lose that card forever if you want to gain that additional effect. Being able to thin cards out of your deck is always desirable, and one faction’s specialty, but usually you want to purge the junk starter cards and not the ones you bought intentionally. Although it is amusing that Explorer ships cost the same as the trade they generate, so you can always play them for the trade, scrap them for additional combat, and then re-buy them in the same turn.
Bases offer a different choice. Obviously you have to deal with outposts if you can, but what about the others? Often these are the most powerful, providing some crushing effects turn after turn. Combat spent on them is combat not spent towards winning the game, but if you don’t take them out it winning might not even be an option. And any base not destroyed is not only a recurring nuisance, but it also makes turning on ally abilities that much easier, which can lead to some truly devastating turns. Twenty-point blasts — or even larger — are not uncommon towards the end of a game.
All of this plays out in about twenty minutes, acting as an ideal two-player filler while in between larger games or even possibly between rounds at a Magic tournament. Everything is contained in a standard-sized deckbox (unless you sleeve up), making the game incredibly portable as well. The best part? It all retails for simply $15. That kind of value is almost impossible to beat.
Are there glaring flaws? Only if you have more than two people who want to play and don’t want to buy an additional box. I haven’t tried, because I find the standard two-player so appealing. Sure, sometimes there’s a weird shuffle and too many expensive cards show up early, but that will happen with any game using a central deck instead of a Dominion-like array. Magic players are used to a little variance, and so far every one I’ve played with has absolutely loved Star Realms. If you like a quick-playing game that you can play in under half an hour for less than twenty bucks, I think you will too.