Skip to main content

Cracked LCD- Star Realms in Review

star realms

When talk of Star Realms, a new deckbuilding game from a Magic Hall of Famer (Darwin Kastle) and one of the guys behind Ascension (Robert Doughtery) started making the internet rounds, I can’t say that I was profoundly interested. We’re now in Year 6 A.D.- that’s After Dominion- and it takes a lot to get me interested enough in a deckbuilder to pursue it. Ascension is pretty much my go-to deckbuilder, but I strictly play it on IOS. I like Dominion and I just traded my way into a pretty large set, but it’s never requested by my gang these days. I had a torrid fling with Legendary, but it was ultimately just too flawed (and ugly) to hold my interest. Most of the others on the market have momentarily held my attention at some point, but these games always tend to leave me wanting more- and not just another expansion.

But the word on the street was that Star Realms was good and the price on the street was even better- this is a game you can pick up for $15 at a FLGS or for about $10 from an online discounter. I’ve been very interested lately in games that deliver big bang for the buck and that come in small packages, especially now that it is quite clear that the “Coffin box” era has passed and some publishers and designers are smartly looking at ways to do more with less. I didn’t feel like $15 was a big enough risk to keep me away from trying a potentially good new card game, so I picked up a copy.

I’m glad that I did, because Star Realms is now my favorite deckbuilding game. Star Realms is what a highly refined, carefully studied and smartly developed game working in a specific mechanical space looks like. More than that, it is by far the deckbuilding game that most feels like playing a classic CCG. As in most games in this genre, the general idea is to build a deck during the course of the game that produces incrementally escalating resources. But you’re not buying VP cards or scoring arbitrary points for your success- you are pointing spaceships at the other player with malicious intent.

Star Realms brings direct combat to the deckbuilding table in a smashingly successful way. Starting with a typical seed deck of eight Scout ships and two Viper fighters, you’ll draw five and play what you’ve got to generate resource points or attack points in a space battle between two or more players. The resources you’ll spend to buy cards from a five-card mutual market or an always-available, low-cost Explorer ship that generates resources and can kamikaze for an attack value. The attack points you’ll use to lay into your opponent to chip away at his 50 “authority” points. In the old days, we called ‘em “life” points.

Nomenclature aside, what happens that is so exciting in Star Realms is that there is a pronounced sense of escalation and rising stakes. It’s much more thrilling to be in a race to generate more damage to the other guy than it is to subtly make an extra VP per turn. If you want to win, you’ve got to beat the curve the other player is generating as damage values get higher and higher each round. Tension is high, and there is no other victory condition. Kill or be killed.

There are some other genius pieces of design gracing Star Realms. There are Base cards, similar to Ascension’s Constructs, that are semi-permanents that you can play and they give you resources, attack points, authority or card draws each turn. Some are labeled Outposts, which means that your attacker must assign damage to it before they can get to you. In Hearthstone language, they are effectively minions with Taunt. The catch is that you’ve got to blow these up in one hand to destroy them- damage doesn’t carry over.

There is also a great concept regarding that now time-honored tradition of deck-culling. There are the usual cards that let you trash others to pare the deck down, but there are also optional scrap abilities on some of the cards and bases that you can use once played. So it may be a strategic decision to scrap a base to get an extra two resources to draft a powerful ship that meshes well with your build. Or you might scrap a ship to get the extra damage you need to destroy a troublesome Outpost and win the game.

Combos and deck synergy are hard-coded into the game. There are four factions, and each has different strengths or weakness. Many faction ships have a bonus effect that occurs if your play for the turn includes another ship of the same faction, which means that there is a greater impetus to focus on one or two factions to get the most out of your deck. The Trade Federation is good for developing an economy and recovering authority. The Blob eats cards from the trade row and have some strong attack capabilities. The Machine Cult is big on bases and the Star Empire is all about cycling cards. Ascension had a similar concept of factional specialization, but Star Realms does a far better job of making the distinctions feel meaningful and complementary. It feels tighter than Ascension in general, but like Ascension it seems to play best head-to-head and it clocks in around 20 minutes once you get going. You’ll want a rematch or three.

One box of Star Realms is all you need for two players and every one you buy beyond that can add two more players to the mix. I appreciate the economy in marketing and packaging this game- just two or three years ago, Star Realms would have come in a large box with superfluous counters and a board, retailing for $40 or more in a box full of air. This little pocket-sized package literally has everything you need to play. You don’t even need a pencil and paper or a die to track authority because it comes with a set of cards to handle that for you.

I liked the game enough to buy another set for four player games and also the “Gambit” mini-expansion that is available through the publisher via It’s a comparatively overpriced $10 set of cards that adds a neat Gambit mechanic, whereby each player can draw an agreed-upon number of Gambits before the game begins. These are secret one-time or persistent effects that can change the flow considerably. The set also includes a couple of solo challenges which are fun but a touch too easy once you’ve cut your teeth playing against a life opponent. I’m definitely looking forward to more expansions, but I do wonder if when the inevitable IOS game hits if I’ll ever pick up the cards again. Even if not, it’s a game I’m happy to have on my shelf.

The illustrations are great, the conflict-oriented gameplay is hot and the price is right. It’s written on a single page of rules with very little ambiguity or confusion. Star Realms succeeds at doing more with less. It’s a leaner, better deckbuilder than anything else out there right now.


Cracked LCD- Looking at Legendary: Kirby Wept.


Upper Deck’s Legendary: A Marvel Deckbuilding Game was released in 2012 and it’s been a successful product line supported by one big box expansions, two small ones and more on the way. Reviews have been mostly positive and for good reason. It’s a fun to play, easy to play deckbuilder that brings forward some of the best elements of previous games in the genre but layered with Marvel Comics characters, an appealing competitive but co-op approach and a touch of storytelling. Fans of Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men and more obscure heroes like Iron Fist and Moon Knight will find a lot to like in this game.

But I’m not here to review the game. I’m already well behind the review curve on and besides that, I just picked it up in a trade and have only just started getting into it. Instead, I’m here to administer a critical beatdown in the name of good taste and aesthetics. Legendary is a visual nightmare, a trainwreck of graphic design that dashes the viewer’s eyes against tacky artwork, horrible layouts, poorly chosen typography, ill-advised effects and an overall failure to visually present a game based upon a highly visual medium.

Off the bat, there is no excuse in the world that would adequately explain why a tabletop game set in the Marvel Universe, using licensed characters and bearing the Marvel brand on each and every card, should feature such dated and tasteless artwork. Sure, this is largely a matter of personal taste and I’m admittedly much more in tune with classic Silver Age comics illustrations than anything drawn by folks like Mark Bagley, Marc Silvestri or Rob Liefeld. Sadly, the artwork skews more to those styles. But it’s not my fault if you have bad taste, and if you do then the remainder of this argument will likely be a moot point for you. Welcome to an opinion piece!

Legendary is a game licensed by a company that takes in great, modern comic book illustrations every single day for its current titles from the top names in the comics art business. But more than that, Marvel also has volumes upon volumes- decades worth- of artwork and illustrations in its library from some the masters of the form. Flip through a Marvel Comic and you’ll see medium-defining artwork by Jack Kirby, John Romita, Frank Miller, John Byrne, Frank Quitely, Walt Simonson, Jim Steranko and countless others. Flip through the cards in Marvel Legendary and you’ll see the same kind of art that you see on the cheaply licensed T-shirts you see at Wal-Mart. If you’ve ever seen a redneck in an Iron Man shirt, you’ve got a sense of how this game looks.

It’s such a missed opportunity. This game could have been a virtual gallery show of the best of Marvel Comics’ artists. Instead, every card in this game is soured by shitty art that exhibits the worst of Marvel Comics’ style. None of it looks modern, it all looks like the kind of aggressive, freakishly shiny ‘roid rage garbage that littered comics racks during the mid 1990s. You’d think that a game made in 2012 with a Marvel Comics license would have some of the great contemporary art that recent- and very popular- Hawkeye and Daredevil books for those cards. Nope. Jacked up, twenty years out of date illustrations. It’s sad that I have boxer shorts that are a better representation of Marvel Comics artwork than this game.

It’s the exact same art issue that sullied Wizkids’ Batman game- not a lick of the great Batman art that’s out there. No sir, the board game gets the exact same art that I’ve seen on dollar store Batman shampoo bottles, notebooks and party favors. And the result was a game that failed to express the visual quality of the characters and stories it was on which it was based.

Compare and contrast to the 2000AD games that Games Workshop released in the 1980s. 2000AD didn’t get some scrub “commercial artists” to crank out artwork to sell to GW to do their Judge Dredd, Block Mania and Rogue Trooper games. Instead, the art in those games- which is awesome- was executed by folks like Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland. The people that actually drew the comics the games were based on. The result was a game that was not only visually successful, but also appealing to comics fans because it featured new art and a sense of authenticity.

But Marvel and Upper Deck couldn’t be bothered with making Legendary look good and it’s the same kind of artwork that you see on dollar store ephemera. It’s a cheap, careless look evidenced nowhere better than the gaudy, lazy dropshadow applied to the game’s title in a half-hearted attempt to separate the cheeseball font from the cover image. What’s more, there is massive, pervasive duplication of artwork throughout the entire product, which retails at a staggering $59.99- a good $20-$30 more than most deckbuilders sell for.

So every Wolverine card in the game has the same picture. Doesn’t matter if he’s using a healing factor or Frenzied Slash. Every villain scheme card- regardless of whether it’s robbing a bank or unleashing the power of the Cosmic Cube- has the same art, regardless if Venom is in your game or not. Every bystander card in the base set is exactly the same with no creative variation to help sell the thematic purpose of them, although in Dark City you get a couple of different ones including a very, very angry looking…news reporter. What’s more, the cardbacks are all the same when there is no reason in the world that the villain cards shouldn’t have had something different on the backs to distinguish them on the garishly ugly play board “watermarked” with an almost indistinguishable morass of Photoshop whatever.

The duplication was a big issue when the game came out and to Upper Deck’s credit, they addressed it with different shitty art for each character’s different card types in the expansions. But that doesn’t forgive what was a careless, sloppy mistake from the beginning probably inspired by a desire for cost savings rather than presenting the best-looking product possible to the consumer. There is a playability issue that results from the recycled artwork as well, which actually damages the theme.

It would be one thing if each card had a clear title and I could easily look and see what a card is called. But many cards have titles that are actually hard to read, and I’m not an grouchy old man with failing eyesight. It’s that the absolutely garbage font that they used throughout the game makes it difficult to read at a glance, let alone that it’s in a gold color against full color artwork. Whatever graphic designer (?) that Upper Deck paid to come up with this layout needs to be sacked and sent back to school. I’ve found that when playing the game, I don’t even look to see what Thor and Nick Fury are doing with their cards. I just read the text. And since the art is the same on every card, there’s no image to hang your imagination on when the text fails you.

I couldn’t help but notice that Richard Garfield’s name was in the playtesters list and the game itself is designed by Devin Low, a veteran of Magic: The Gathering development. Did neither of these guys, one of whom actually created the standard for card layout in hobby games and the other who has had a career looking at said card layout, notice that these cards look like absolute crap? We can assume, charitably, that maybe they were looking at prototype or beta cards and who knows, maybe they didn’t see final art and layout. If this were my game, I would be completely ashamed of how it looks.

How pathetic is that Marvel Comics’ standard for licensing their game to Upper Deck, a company not only with a longstanding history of sports cards but also of success with the Vs. trading card game, falls far below that of a title like Sentinels of the Multiverse? Sentinels is, by comparison, a tiny game made by a tiny company. Yet all of their no-name, made-up superheroes all have original art on their cards and their layouts and overall graphic design are both functional and appealing. You look at Sentinels and you get a sense that the people that made it really cared about the game and put a lot of heart into it. You look at Legendary- even just flipping through the rulebook with its default Arial font- and you get a sense that it’s a game that no one gave a flipping shit about.

Which is a shame, because this is Marvel Comics, True Believers! And it’s a good game, by far the best superhero game on the market today which isn’t really saying a lot since most games of that class aren’t very good, but at least this one has Spider-Man in it instead of “Bug Dude” or whatever. It’s not like a modicum of care and attention to detail would have been wasted on a garbage design, because it is worthwhile and it’s done well in the marketplace.

Whenever the issue of art, layout and aesthetics comes up in game talk, I always hear people say that they don’t really care as long as it’s “functional”. This is an ignorant statement. Perhaps in a soulless, heartless and narrativeless game like Suburbia that’s the case and it is true that a good design is a good design whether it’s illustrated by some kid’s stick figure drawings of superheroes or the hand of Kirby himself. But when a game is trying to convey an atmosphere, story and the essence of a medium that is essentially visual, it is absolutely important that it look current, look right and look good.