Thursday, April 30, 2015

Saving the CCG

During the collectible card game boom of the 1990s, I tried quite a few of the different games that hit the market, from mainstream games like Decipher's Star Trek and Star Wars, to some of the more obscure titles like On the Edge and Clive Barker's Imajica. I love the concept of building a customized deck of cards with different abilities that would work in combination, and I also enjoyed the way these games (when designed well) would immerse you in their worlds.

Unfortunately, the CCG business model demands a fairly large financial commitment from its players, and the market, combined with a flailing economy, just couldn't keep up with the sheer number of games that were produced. Additionally, many CCGs would continue to add layers of complexity in order to keep players interested, which usually put up a barrier making it very difficult for new players to get into the game. The CCG boom eventually collapsed under its own weight, with only a handful of games such as Magic and Legend of the Five Rings still being produced today.

Fantasy Flight Games pioneered the Living Card Game format in order to keep their Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones CCGs alive, and that has since proved to be a viable format that preserves CCG-style gameplay without the random booster packs. The games are much easier to keep up with in terms of the amount of cards you need to buy, but keeping up with evolving rules and strategy for just one of these games can still be a full-time job.

Enter the deck building game, a sub-genre of card games that is also helping to preserve CCG-style game play, but with the strategic focus on building your deck during the game with what happens to be available, rather than chasing rare cards to build the ultimate card-gaming machine. It's a lighter and much more accessible type of game.

All of which brings us to Star Realms, a science fiction themed deck building game created by a group of professional Magic players. Unlike most deck building games, which tend to involve players racing to achieve a certain number of points or other goal, the object of Star Realms is to knock your opponent out of the game by directly attacking him.

Much like in Magic, each Star Realms player starts with an amount of Authority points, which are whittled away at by opponents' attacking ships. Cards in the game represent ships and bases, with ships making attacks and bases providing defense, as well as other resources. Cards also generate trade, which players use to buy more and better cards for their decks. The universe of the game consists of four spacefaring factions, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Ships and bases from the same faction will often work better in combination, but the factions can be combined as needed.

It's a lot like Magic in a lot of ways, but what makes Star Realms such a great game is its simplicity and accessibility. The rules are incredibly simple, with a loose turn structure and easy to understand game text on the cards, and only a few different card types to keep track of. It's easy to play, easy to teach, but still has a surprising amount of strategic depth, with lots of decisions to be made by players during a game.

Best of all, a base set containing enough cards for two players is only $16 retail, well below the entry point for almost any other game on the market. $5 expansion packs add a few interesting extras like hero characters, event cards that affect all players, gambit cards that give players unique abilities at the start of the game, and even outside threats that make it into a cooperative game, with all the players working together against hordes of pirates or unfathomable space monsters.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Star Realms is very quick to pick up and easy to play, and offers a lot of the strategy and entertainment value of a collectible card game for a fraction of the time and money.

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