Full disclosure: A review copy of Hero Realms was provided by White Wizard Games.
I feel like I fell off the deckbuilding train for a while and only recently got back into it. There have been some good ones, lately! SPQF last year was a delight, Promenade is on Kickstarter now and that’s quite good if you like economy with your deckbuilding, and here I am finally getting into the Second Great City of Deckbuilding with Star Realms and Hero Realms! My first real exposure to this was Hardback, ironically, which is essentially Paperback + Star Realms, and then I played the app for a bit but I have trouble with apps, and now here I am! Let’s dig in a bit more and see how Hero Realms measures up to last week’s Star Realms: Frontiers.
In Hero Realms, you play around the great city of Thandar (making the Campaign The Ruin of Thandar seem a bit more ominous). You’ll trade, buy, sell, and fight your way to becoming increasingly influential (and probably kill someone along the way, but what can you do? It’s fantasy), especially as you continue to trade with various factions that emerge throughout the metropolis. Your opponent(s) plan to do the same, though, so you better beat them to success! Will you be able to rise above and become a titan of Thandar?
This works out pretty simply. Shuffle the Market Cards:
Place five in a row face-up. Put the Fire Gems into a stack next to them:
Give each player a starting deck, which is seven Gold, a Shortsword, a Dagger, and a Ruby:
Have each player shuffle those. Give them a Health Tracking Card set to 50:
In lieu of a starting deck / Health Tracking Card, you may pick up Character Packs, which come with their own Starting Deck and Tracking Cards:
I like the Wizard! Either way, once you’ve done that you’re ready to go:
I’m definitely not copying my Star Realms: Frontiers review section here and changing all the words; that would be ridiculous. So ridiculous that you shouldn’t even bother checking to make sure.
Anyways, like I’ve implied, gameplay is pretty similar to Star Realms: Frontiers. There are a few differences in the game, but the differences are all “this is named somewhat differently”. That said, I love repeating myself, so, let’s do this dance again.
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 Gold Pool. Usually it has a gold symbol with a number on it.
- Add power to your Combat Pool. Usually has a red combat symbol.
- Heal yourself. Usually has a green potion.
- 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 Champions.
Champions are similar to Duration cards from Dominion: Seaside (kind of) or Bases in Star Realms: Frontiers (more apt). They stay in play between turns until they’re defeated and offer a once-per-turn effect, called their expend ability. Some Champions are also Guards, which means that you cannot attack your opponent until they are stunned (sort of like how you can’t attack your opponent’s life points directly in Yu-Gi-Oh if they have monsters on the field … I’m told). When a Champion is stunned, place them in your discard pile.
Certain cards have faction symbols and an effect on the bottom; these effects are known as Ally Abilities, same as Star Realms: Frontiers. 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.
Other cards have a “Sacrifice Ability”, which is the same thing as a Scrap Ability or an on-trash effect. If you choose, you may remove it from the game at any point on your turn (even after you’ve used its printed effect, mind you) to use its Sacrifice Ability.
During your turn, you may spend gold from your Gold Pool to buy cards, which are placed directly into your discard unless otherwise stated. Note that these cards do not activate Ally Abilities or other card effects, again, unless otherwise stated.
Your Combat Pool may be spent to attack your opponent or their Champions; if you do not stun a Champion by dealing their full health as damage, they heal back to full health at the end of your turn. Some cards will let you stun a Champion for free; that happens without using up any of your Combat Pool. Note that Guard Champions must be attacked before other Champions or your opponent, including if you are given the ability to stun a Champion for free.
Once you’ve done everything you want to do during your turn, discard everything but your Champions (including cards in your hand but excluding Skills and Abilities, if you’re using those) and then draw 5 cards. It is now your opponent’s turn.
Play continues until one player is reduced to 0 Health; the other player wins!
Player Count Differences
There are many different modes that you can play with more players, but I opted not to check them out. I generally prefer two-player games anyways, when possible, and the * Realms games are really solid two-player games.
- Do not do the rainbow strategy. It doesn’t work in Star Realms; it won’t work here. You’re going to want to limit your diversification to really two colors, max, unless you can snag a really good card of another color to block your opponent. But that’s just a personal preference.
- The Imperial Faction isn’t bad. I really like their abilities to heal and still come away with money, but naturally you’re not as good at damage output or money generation as, say, the red or blue factions, respectively.
- If you really want to mess with someone, go green. If you play your cards right you can force them to discard most of theirs, which will definitely make it harder for them to mess with you. It’s sort of like the Masquerade Pin from Dominion, but about the same level of cruelty. You can definitely do this to someone you don’t want to play Hero Realms with ever again.
- Only the Red Faction will help you thin your deck, for people who enjoy that kind of strategy. The other factions are generally more concerned with other things.
- Your Guards are going to be very helpful. They force your opponent to hit them first, which is generally very useful unless your opponent is a red-faction-wielding death machine. Then they’re just sorta a paper-thin defense. Watch out for that one; it’s scary.
- Sometimes it’s worth taking out their other Champions. The thing to remember here is that even if their Champions are kind of weak, they contribute towards other cards’ Ally Abilities with their presence, which might be enough to wreck you if you’re not careful. The weaker Champions especially throw you into this mild logical fallacy; if they’re only giving them one coin per turn, you think, why bother taking them out instead of going after your opponent? Then they use that Ally to draw extra cards and drop some serious hurt on you. I generally do it if I’m already dealing a bunch of damage.
- Don’t get too attached to cards. It’s often worth trashing some cards to gain ridiculously powerful abilities. You’ll be able to get cards like those back in the future; there are only a few truly rare cards in the game, anyways. I usually trash like, every other Fire Gem just to make sure I’m consistently dealing damage, especially once my engine is up and running. No point in holding on to them; there are plenty of better cards.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- It’s a very colorful game. I like games with a lot of vibrant colors, and this is definitely that.
- Plays super fast. It’s probably the fastest deckbuilder I’ve played, even beating out Dale of Merchants, which is quite impressive. It’s one of many games that once you put it out you might as well play a few games of it.
- Not that difficult to learn. I mean, if you’ve already played Star Realms, it’s the same thing, with a few substituted names. Mix and match for a very confusing time???
- I appreciate the dynamic market allowing you to choose a different strategy every game. I think they’re all pretty viable, personally, as they all have strengths and weaknesses in their styles and they’ll appeal to different players’ preferences. It’s a nice system.
- If you dislike Star Realms but like the system, Hero Realms will be a good fit for you. Really it’s just an answer to the “fantasy or sci-fi?” question that plagues many people. Here’s the Fantasy option.
- There are a lot of gameplay variants. You can use this with many groups, from solo to 6 players, if you want. I think for solo you might need a Boss Pack and for 6 players you need two copies, though. There were enough variants that I got Mildly Stressed when I first looked at the rules, but it ended up being okay! I’m doing fine, now. I also just focused on the primary game.
- I would have preferred “defeated” to “stunned”, as far as Champions go. Stunned implies they will unstun relatively quickly, like next turn, which confused us a bit. I think we were thinking of “expended”, in that they’re not discarded.
- The difference between this and Star Realms isn’t clear to me. They seem … very similar. I guess it’s just for people who prefer more of a fantasy approach to the game? I mean, to each their own, so, that’s fine and all.
- The random market may make some strategies less viable, randomly. That’s always unfortunate but thankfully it’s also a quick game, so, not a huge deal if you have to shift gears suddenly.
- There are not a lot of people of color in this game. Unless you count green as a color, at which point, you should just block me preemptively. Again, like I said in Cartographers, I think it’s just an Unfortunately Common Fantasy Trope but it’s not a good one. Some of the Character packs offer more options there, which is definitely a relief, but it would have been nice to see a more diverse fantasy world, here.
- Still a lot of shuffling and only so-so health tracking, here. At least the Character Packs come with pictures of the Characters on the Health Trackers, which I do appreciate.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Yeah, overall, I really don’t have a strong preference between this and Star Realms: Frontiers. I like both, honestly. I do agree that this one has a slightly quicker start (since your Shortsword does deal two damage), but I also generally don’t care as much about fantasy themes as I do about space and sci-fi. That’s a personal thing. The few things that annoy me are generally frustrating, sure, but they’re also not enough to keep me from playing if I’m looking for a quick deckbuilder to burn through while I’m waiting for something. I probably lean a bit more towards the Dale of Merchants series for that because the artwork appeals to me personally, but, I mean, if they made Cute Animal Realms I might be able to be pulled back this way (plus, the DoM series is a very different style of game). Either way, if you’re a fan of Star Realms but not sci-fi, Hero Realms is here to help, and if you’re looking for a fun and fast deckbuilder that’s easy to play but hard to play only once, I’d recommend checking it out!