There’s two genres of games I’m required by law to play at all times: anime fanservice games and dumb card games. I play the former because I’ve been cursed by a mummy to do so until the day I die, while I play the latter because they’re usually pretty fun. The latest deck I’ve unwrapped is Star Realms: Gambits, an expansion to the space-themed deckbuilding title from White Wizard Games.
Star Realms plays a bit like the classic deckbuilding game Ascension – in fact, it could be considered a spiritual sequel to that title, and the lead developer was one of the leads on Ascension. It’s pretty easy to pick up. Unlike most TCGs, deckbuilding in Star Realms takes place during the game itself. Players start with identical decks consisting of resource-building cards, then use the resources generated by those to purchase new cards to add to their deck. As a result, instead of there being a set of killer preconstructed decks that rule the day, each game develops differently based on the cards you pick up and how you use them.
Star Realms differs from Ascension in a few key ways, though. For instance, while Ascension’s victory condition involves collecting Honor Tokens from a central pool that ends the game when it’s emptied, Star Realms uses a more traditional life system where players compete to empty each other’s “Authority.” It also introduces bases, persistent cards which function much like artifacts in Ascension but can be attacked directly and destroyed. Finally, the Unite mechanic from Ascension, which allowed cards that shared the mechanic to enhance one another, is almost ubiquitous in Star Realms which drastically affects gameplay and encourages the on-the-fly construction of themed decks.
The recently-released Gambit expansion adds new cards of every type as well as another new mechanic: the titular Gambits. These are minor “cheat” cards that are given to each player at the start of a match. Only two are available per player and there’s no way to get more, so once you use what you’re given, it’s gone. While the effects of Gambits are fairly minimal or one-use – say, gaining a free attack point every turn, or instantly destroying an enemy base – they add another level of strategy to the game. In particular, they help to make the early game feel a lot more interesting.
All in all, the changes make Star Realms feel much more balanced than Ascension, not to mention there aren’t nearly as many “killer cards” that guarantee a win for whoever grabs them. Matches in Star Realms are also resolved much more quickly than Ascension and your actions feel like they have more “weight” since you’re directly attacking your opponent. It plays like an evolution of the original title in every way. The only feature I missed from Ascension was the option to play against more than one opponent at a time, but this might be added in a future update.
Finally, something needs to be said about the Steam release of Ascension in contrast with Star Realms. The PC version of Ascension is a slapdash port of the game’s Android client. It’s catastrophically buggy, filled with crashes, cards that never disappear from the screen and all manner of similar nastiness. By contrast, Star Realms’ digital client is basically flawless. A friend complained of a crash once when closing the game and…well, that’s about it. It’s solid.
At around $10 for the complete package of both the base game and Gambits expansion, Star Realms is a fantastic value. There’s a single-player campaign mode, sure, but the real fun is in the online multiplayer. If you can talk other card-loving friends into picking it up as well, you’re guaranteed a good time.