Full disclosure: A review copy of Star Realms: Frontiers was provided by White Wizard Games.
I think I’m going to try for a “Realms” microtheme this month (or deckbuilding, I suppose?). Promenade, a artsy deckbuilder, dropped on the 8th, Star Realms: Frontiers this week, Hero Realms the next week, and I suppose the Hero Realms Campaign Deck the week after? That’s an exciting theme that happened to come out of nowhere, so, sure, let’s do what we can to make it happen. Second deckbuilder on my plate is Star Realms: Frontiers, so, here we go!
In Star Realms: Frontiers, you’ve made it to the edge of the galaxy. It’s wide open, unexplored, and still constantly expanding. Naturally, your authority only goes so far, so other civilizations have made it there, too, hoping to gain fortune and supremacy, same as you. It’s like y’all subscribe to the same newsletters, or something. Either way, someone’s got to come out of this victorious, and you figure it might as well be you, so leverage new weapons, new bases, and new abilities to take the fight to your foes. Will you be able to conquer this final frontier? Or will you just end up getting reduced to space dust?
Setup isn’t too bad. Give every player a Health Tracking card set:
Players start at 50. Now, give them a Starting Deck of eight Scouts and two Vipers:
Shuffle the Trade Row Cards and reveal 5:
Also, set the Explorers face-up in a pile near the Trade Row:
You should be all ready to go! First player draws 3 cards from their shuffled Starting Deck; second player draws 5.
So I know the wise thing to do is to talk about how Hardback is just Star Realms but as a word game, but, yeah, Star Realms is just Hardback without any of the word game parts. And more fight! More combat! Yes! It’s a deckbuilder, so, you’re going to do deckbuildy things. If you’ve never played a deckbuilder before, well, I’ll walk you through it anyways.
On your turn, you may play any card from your hand in front of you. This has a few different effects:
- Add money to your Trade Pool. Usually it has a gold symbol with a number on it.
- Add power to your Combat Pool. Usually has a red fight-y symbol.
- Restore your Authority. Usually has a green … symbol of some kind.
- Other effects. These vary wildly.
You can spend from your Gold or Combat pool at any time to buy cards or injure your opponent or their Bases.
So, a base is a card that sits out between turns (sorta like the Champion from Dominion: Adventures) but every turn provides a one-time effect. You can use that ability whenever you want on your turn, or you can use them to activate what’s called an Ally Ability. This is denoted on a card with a faction symbol (and a corresponding effect) on the bottom of the card. If you ever have another card from that faction in play, all Ally abilities for that faction on cards in play activate (cards can activate each others’ Ally abilities). This is partially why you don’t discard cards until the end of your turn. Some cards have Double Ally Abilities, which is exciting; you must have at least two cards from that Faction in play in order to activate them.
Some cards have what’s called a Scrap Ability. It’s similar to trashing a card in Dominion; you remove it from the game and activate its ability. The nice thing about Scrap Abilities is that you can activate them after the card’s main ability.
Similar to other deckbuilders, you also may buy cards. Unlike other deckbuilders, you may buy cards at any point rather than at the end of your turn by spending money from your Gold Pool. When you buy them, they are added to your discard pile, as usual (and they don’t activate any Ally Abilities, which also makes sense).
As far as other pools go, your Combat Pool is used for violence! You can use that to destroy bases and attack your opponent’s Authority directly. Some bases have the Outpost ability, which means that you cannot attack anything except for those Outposts until they are destroyed. Across all Bases, though, you need to spend Combat Power from your Pool equal to their health in order to discard them. If you cannot, they heal back to full health at the end of your turn! Bummer. Some cards let you automatically discard a base; you must discard any Outposts first before discarding other bases, since Outposts are still the first line of defense.
Once you’ve done everything you want to do during your turn, discard everything but your Bases and then draw 5 cards. It is now your opponent’s turn.
Play continues until one player is reduced to 0 Authority; the other player wins!
Player Count Differences
The core game is two-player only, so I really only played that one. There are many other modes that are 1 – 6 players, but those require Command Decks and a variety of other stuff, so I kept things pretty simple. Plus, who has more than one friend?
- Specialize. The whole overarching “thing” of the Star Realms universe is kind of picking one or two colors and sticking with them. The primary reason for this is the Ally Abilities; Frontiers hammers that home even more with the Double Ally Abilities. You might want to even just pick one color and go deep with it; you really do want to be drawing as many of that color as you can on a given turn (usually at least two or three cards of that color). If you diversify too much (typically referred to as the Rainbow Strategy), you’ll draw a bunch of different colors. That’s good for Captain America in Marvel: Legendary, and very bad here. Pretty much the only time you’ll see me argue against diversity in a game.
- You may want to take out opponent’s bases. I’m not just talking about Outposts (because you have to take those out), but rather the nondescript gives-you-a-basic-bonus bases that your opponent will inevitably play. While it’s sometimes more crucial to actually try to attack your opponent, taking out those bases (especially if you can’t deal a critical blow) will slow their ability to play Ally Ability cards each turn (since they won’t have a guaranteed one available via the base). This depends a bit on the base and what its effects are, though, so just consider it when you’re deciding.
- Figure out the type of game you want to play. Blue tends to heal, Yellow tends to draw / discard, Red tends to thin, and Green tends to do a ridiculous violence against your opponent and the Trade Row. Pick a strategy and just kind of go for it, honestly.
- You don’t need to be gun-shy about Scrapping cards. A lot of cards will cycle back around eventually, and Scrapping cards for an extra Combat or Trade boost isn’t necessarily a terrible move. The ones to watch out for are Scrapping Faction cards, since that might reduce your chances of hitting an Ally Ability, but if you’re picking up better cards in their wake it’s usually worth doing it. There are plenty of every Faction.
- Try to pick up a few Outposts. The nice thing is that they block your opponents minor-damage-turns from affecting you, since they absorb that damage. It means that they can’t whittle you down over 10 or so turns; they have to actually develop an offensive strategy or you can just tank all the tiny hits they throw in your direction. It’s good! Plus, the Outposts can also activate Ally Abilities, which can be super useful.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I’m a big fan of the Double Ally Abilities. I think it further incentivizes specialization, which I appreciate, but it’s also a cool way to add additional challenges to the game.
- The art is extremely good. It’s such cool sci-fi art and I really like it. It makes the game super fun to look at.
- Lightning-fast game. It helps that the Blob will literally vaporize you if you’re not careful, I suppose.
- Quick to learn, too. You just want to buy cards and explode your opponent; it’s just like real life.
- Lots of play variant options. This one comes with some of the solo challenges already in the box, but there’s a lot to do with this game; I don’t think players will get bored of it for a long time.
- I like that I can try different strategies across multiple games. Since the Trade Row is randomized, that’s kind of a cool way to do it, as opposed to Dominion, where there are more well-defined strategies based on the Kingdom and cards you have in play.
- The Blob is very aggressive in this version. It may surprise players, but, that’s just how it is. Personally, I don’t mind that much; it just means that I tend to go Blob when I play (and there are ways to block the Blob). I will say that one fun variant we did was No Blobby’s Home, where we basically disallowed players purchasing Blob cards (and would Ticket To Ride-style clear the Trade Row if there were ever 4 or more Blobs). It made the game very interesting, and I’d happily try that again. But yeah it’s just surprising relative to, say, Hero Realms, where the red faction is not nearly as aggressive (or at least it doesn’t feel that way). Maybe it’s just us, though.
- I forgot how much shuffling there is in deckbuilding games. So many cards to shuffle. Just, so many.
- The health-tracking cards are … definitely a thing. I see why people like the app so much; it handles a lot of the bookkeeping (and shuffling) that you have to do yourself.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Yeah, overall, I’m a big fan of Star Realms: Frontiers! Not that it needed much of my opinion, given that it raised literally a million dollars on Kickstarter, which boggles the mind. But let’s dig into why I like it. First off, they really pushed on the art and it shows; it’s cool, vibrant, and very sci-fi. The Blobs are terrifyingly alien, for instance, which I really appreciate. It’s also super easy to learn, even if I did get stressed by all the possible variants when I first read the rulebook (the same thing happened with Hero Realms, to be fair). My only real complaints are really just standard complaints with deckbuilders, so, that’s generally pretty positive. I may also just opt to avoid the Blob when playing with new players , especially if they’re not used to how aggressive the game can be. If you overwhelm them, well, you got one game of Star Realms: Frontiers, but you likely won’t get any more. Besides, most new players play the Rainbow Strategy, so you can likely try a different thing and still be fine. Either way, if you’re looking for a cool sci-fi deckbuilder, Star Realms: Frontiers is one I’ve really enjoyed! I’d definitely recommend it.