Review: Hero Realms
|Release Date||December 2016|
Designers: Darwin Kastle, Rob Dougherty
Publisher: White Wizard Games
Category: Deckbuilding Game
Player Count: 2 (more with variants)
Price: $19.99 MSRP
I gotta be honest with you all. I’ve been putting this review off. Star Realms is my favorite game of all time. I play 10-20 games of it a day online, and I’m even going to be featured on a future card. So it was with great excitement but also great trepidation that I backed the Hero Realms Kickstarter, which promised to be the next evolution of the Star Realms system, with a highly demanded fantasy setting. When I was sent a redundant review copy, I shipped it off to fellow GUG writer Vince Chapman for an alternate opinion. I knew I couldn’t view the game apart from its comparison to Star Realms. So read on to see my intensely comparative review, and then keep going to see Vince’s thoughts on the game as a Realms newbie.
Some women are dressed in a mildly risque fashion. One faction has cultists, demons, and similar characters. The game is designed for players to kill each other by recruiting heroes, items, and spells (so, there’s also sorcery). There is a lot of violence, but no gore.
Let’s start by talking about the differences between Hero Realms and Star Realms. First and most obvious is the fantasy setting. Star Realms is a zoomed-out science fiction space battle, with ships and bases as the primary card types. Later expansions introduce individual Heroes as cards that go straight into play, but they’re not the central focus of the game. In Hero Realms, ships have been converted to spells, actions, and items, and bases have been converted to champions. Like bases, they stay in play, except they’re people, so they provide lots of opportunities for flavor text and unique names. They also “exhaust” (tap) to use their abilities, giving a much more traditional CCG feel. (The tapping doesn’t make much of a difference yet, but I suspect it will eventually.) The artwork is a strange beast—with the new focus on “story” elements (actions, people) rather than ships and bases in still motion, the art is an opportunity to provide the game with much more narrative than before. At the same time, the actual artwork feels a bit generic compared to Star Realms, in my opinion. I probably have a higher internal bar for fantasy art, due to being far more exposed to it. Hero Realms also comes with cards for four players out of the box, and thus a slightly higher price tag of $20 instead of $15.
However, it was never the art or conventions that made me fall in love with Star Realms, but the gameplay. Hero Realms diverts from Star Realms here in subtle, yet significant ways. The overall power scale is much higher powered than before, and the starting decks are noticeably more powerful. The “color” pie has also been blended together so that different factions are responsible for different mechanisms than before. Perhaps most importantly, the ability to scrap cards from the market (trade row) is completely gone, which I find absurd. This ability was a key component to the strategy of Star Realms, and it wasn’t replaced in any meaningful way. Therefore, you are much more at the luck of the draw in Hero Realms than in Star Realms, in my opinion.
Whereas I felt Star Realms focused on subtle strategies that were not immediately obvious—using scrap and management of the trade row to overcoming the basic luck factors of the game—Hero Realms embraces the luck. There are insanely powerful cards, and games can vary wildly in length depending on what comes out. The gameplay seems more about the flavor and narrative of what happened rather than the strategic elements—although the game’s shell is so good, that there is necessarily still a large strategy element. Hero Realms launched with a set of expansions that are also entirely different than Star Realms‘s expansions. There are five “character packs” that give entirely different starter decks, and unique abilities for each playable character: fighter, ranger, thief, cleric, and wizard. These would have been doable in Star Realms, but they make much more sense here. They’re probably balanced, but they are definitely not equally simple to play (e.g. the fighter is unsurprisingly much less complex than the wizard). I found these to be an excellent addition, but the increase in asymmetry is much stronger than, say, Star Realms’ gambits, and felt like another increase in the “wildness” of the game.
Hero Realms is a very good game. It’s still based on the excellent Star Realms system, and it beats out Star Realms in flavor by a long shot. Furthermore, it has an upcoming cooperative campaign, which should be of huge interest to many people (but not me). But I’m over 6,000 games into Star Realms, and I find it’s the intense, subtle strategic elements—the part Hero Realms seems willing to sacrifice a little bit in favor of narrative—that keeps me coming back to it. I also fear that a successful run for Hero Realms might dilute the progress of both games as White Wizard Games tries to maintain both of them. This feels like an answer to player demands after players erroneously expected Epic Card Game to mirror Star Realms. However, I’m not sure what those players really wanted; there’s not much value in a pure reskin to a different theme, so I understand why Hero Realms has new direction. However, I’d just rather be playing Star Realms and would rather see new content for it, and I’ll be thinking that every time I see more content for Hero Realms.
Second Opinion – Vince Chapman
If you caught one of our Tabletop Tuesday articles a couple of months ago you may remember when we discussed what type of gamers we are. I agreed with Derek in that I love card games. The ability to hold powers in my hand or to have active effects played on the table in front of me is something I greatly prefer over the roll of the dice. This, and the fantasy setting, are my two main draws to Hero Realms with the addition of eliminating players around the table. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s just something about playing a card to stab the person sitting next to me in the back that just brings a smile to my face. I know some deck builders, such as Dominion or Thunderstone, are a race to victory points to determine the winner. While this isn’t a bad way to play, I prefer to be the last man standing over the first to reach the goal.
One of the things I liked best about Hero Realms was the artwork. In a word, I would say it’s stellar. From the heroic knights, to the creepy vampires, and even the coins in your starting deck, it really helps set the theme for this game as you play.
All in all, I greatly enjoyed Hero Realms. It encompasses three of my favorite things: RPG, fantasy, and card games. It’s not the deepest card battle game out there, but the decisions you make in which cards you purchase from the market and how you play them can either make or break you. You’ll have to decide which factions you want to build towards, if you want to deal damage directly to your opponent and risk allowing them to use their champion against you on their next turn, or take out their champions and see what sort of cards they draw on their next turn. There are plenty of different ways to play this game giving it some solid re-playability and longevity on the table. If you haven’t picked up this game, I recommend it. You’ll be battling it out with your family and friends in no time to prove who is the ultimate tactician.
Thank you to White Wizard Games for providing a review copy of Hero Realms and its Character Packs.
The Bottom Line
Hero Realms did not grip me like Star Realms did, but the DNA is so similar that it can't help but be a great game. And for fantasy lovers, it's an inexpensive, wonderful introduction into the world of deck-building.