Cardboard Children – Star Realms/Death Angel

Hello youse.

Last week someone on Twitter said to me “Brother, beloved brother, God of Games, you have been recommending a lot of very expensive board games recently,” or words to that effect. And I was all like – “Have I?” And then I checked and I kinda have been. So this week I want to quickly tell you about two inexpensive little games, one old and one new, that I think are great games for the price. Shall we start with the new one?

STAR REALMS

By now, everyone knows what a deckbuilding game is. Just in case you’ve been living in a bin – it’s a game where you build your own deck of cards as you play, by acquiring new cards and getting rid of cards you find sub-optimal.

Star Realms is a tiny little game in a tiny little box. It’s a good-sized deck of cards, with enough play for two players. If you want to play with 3 or 4 you’d have to buy another set, which is a nice way of keeping costs down for a game that feels like it’s probably best with 2.

Each player starts with a deck of ten cards. Eight of these cards are “Scout Ship” cards that have a trade value of 1. Two cards are “Vipers” that each give 1 attack strength. Each player starts with 50 “Authority”, which acts pretty much like health points. The first player to deplete all of his opponent’s Authority is the winner. In the middle of the table there is a market of cards that can be bought in a turn. You draw five cards into your hand and start playing.

Trade points allow you to buy cards. Play out four scouts for four points and you can buy cards up to that value, right? Any attack cards you play can be directed at your opponent, and they lose that amount in Authority. As you bring cards into your deck you strengthen your abilities. Three trade points is usually enough to send a nastier combat ship cycling through your deck. Once you start generating six or seven trade points, you can buy starbases that stay out on the table when played and generate good stuff every turn.

Once some bases are in play, you and your opponent can start sending attack points to those too, to clear them off the table. It’s one of the best parts of the game – do you attack your opponent directly, or do you get rid of that base first? Do you push for the win or try to cripple your opponent’s chances of recovery? What comes first? (Some bases, by the way, are marked “Outpost” and these need to be attacked and cleared before your opponent can be sent any hits. Every base has a defence value that you need to generate enough attack to take out. Fielding a few Outposts can really keep you out of trouble for a while.)

To make your deck really fizz, you want to try to get some faction alliances happening. Most cards are marked as belonging to a certain faction, and if you can play two or more cards from the same faction then A-BOOM-A-BLAP you can use additional ally abilities on each card and blast massive attacks at your chump enemy. You can also trash some cards for additional effects, but these cards go out of the game forever – more interesting decisions in this short 20 minute game.

I like Star Realms a lot. It’s not anything new. It’s a streamlined, refined deckbuilding knife fight with great art and a fast play time. If you’ve played any deckbuilding games before, you will understand how to play this one instantly and be able to get right down to action. It’s a cheap, fun, solid game you can carry in a coat pocket.

SPACE HULK: DEATH ANGEL

Death Angel has been out for a while, but it’s something that needs to be recommended to anyone who loves great game design. It’s about 20 quid, comes in a small box, and plays brilliantly with 1-4 players.

What Death Angel manages to do, amazingly, is deliver some of the feel of the full Space Hulk board game in a game that uses cards, a few tokens and a die. The rulebook makes the game seem much more complicated than it really is. Essentially, the game has you laying out your Terminators in a column, as if they’re all stacked up in a corridor. Each Terminator will have a position in the column, and will be facing either left or right. Each area of a mission has you laying out some terrain cards beside your Terminators. These terrain cards can be moved to and activated, and they do different things. Some of them might become mission critical too. Every round, Genestealers appear at positions along the column, and the Terminators need to deal with them or face their attacks.

The player has order cards for his squad of Terminators. Some allow movement, some allow attacks, some allow support. (Support lets a player place support tokens on other Terminators, allowing re-rolls – which are essential.) Orders are laid face down by all the players, then revealed, and resolved in initiative order. The Terminators start clunking around, swapping positions with each other, activating special abilities and shooting Genestealers. Any Genestealers surviving at the end of the round attack Terminators at their position.

And Terminators regularly die. Regularly.

The game can be played at different difficulty settings, but it can be tight enough played as it comes, right out of the box. As a solo game it really shines, as a sort of puzzle game about prioritising threats and jockeying for position. When Genestealers are massing at certain positions in the column, you might want a particular Terminator up there to deal with them – it’s your job to work out how to get him up there quickly and safely. And while you’re doing that, some event card will spring more Genestealers out of your arse. Nice.

How do you even design a game like this? All that tension, all that intelligence, all in one little box? Corey Konieczka is a clever bastard.

Anyway, yeah.

Two highly recommended games. Both 20 quid or less.

Aren’t I good to you?

30 Comments

  1. KDR_11k says:

    I’ve been playing Star Realms on my phone, I imagine having to physically shuffle those cards would get annoying.

    • Hensler says:

      Not really any more annoying than any other deckbuilder. I do recommend some nice thin sleeves for Star Realms though, the cards really take a beating after just a few games.

  2. studenteternal says:

    I am a little baffled by the love for death angel. I wanted to like it, but unless I seriously misunderstood the rules, it is literally a single either/or choice every round. A squad has 3 possiable actions,and the one you took last round is unavailable. Mind you I am not upset that people like it, it got me quite a nice game in trade :) but it felt all luck to me, literally flipping a coin to decide what action to take would have about the same win rate.

    • Shadowcat says:

      Sort of, but you’re planning turns in advance, and figuring out the team-work! You don’t just look at the current situation for a single team in isolation and say “I can either attack or support; I’ll just flip a coin”. You look at the whole situation and work out what the best moves are this turn in order that you can make good moves next turn (and maybe the turn after), including how each team is going to interact.

      With several teams in the game, all those “either/or” choices multiply dramatically, and it can get complicated enough as it is. More choices, and I think you’d risk some serious analysis paralysis.

  3. Shardz says:

    I bought the digital version of Star Realms for PC/Android for $5 and love it like everyone else does! So much, in fact, I ran out and bought the physical version. I can’t wait for the Gambit addon for Android this month! I will check out Death Angel (isn’t that a band?) while I’m at it.

  4. Commander Gun says:

    Star Realms is perfect, even better than Ascension and that is saying a lot!

    • DrollRemark says:

      Oooh, them’s fighting words!

      I’ve probably poured far more time into the Ascension app than I have Star Realms, but I guess I’d agree with you, because I’ve only got a physical copy of the latter. I think Ascension probably has more depth, but that’s because it has about eleventy-billion expansions, and some of them are a bit broken. Star Realms is tighter and more focused.

  5. kaffis says:

    Star Realms plays nicely on mobile (though I’d cringe at being introduced to the game on less than a 6″ or 7″ screen — tiny screens aren’t so bad when you’re familiar with all the cards already, but trying to constantly zoom on them to tell whether that’s a 2 or a 3 would be utterly annoying), too!

    I’m going to be rude and step in here — hopefully Mr. Florence will forgive me — and also suggest that Zeppelin Attack! is a delicious little inexpensive snack of a deck-builder. I think I like it best because of two things: for one, it really turns the deck-building genre on its head by subverting the traditional ever-accelerating economic engine thing. Instead, your economy ebbs and flows, as you actually remove the currency cards from your deck when you spend it, and have to perform actions that acquire currency to send it cycling back through your deck.

    Secondly, I love the way the attack system works and sets you up to attack each others’ action economies. Each zeppelin you have deployed stays out from turn to turn, essentially granting you the opportunity to play more cards each turn, but can be attacked by your opponents to send them (and the actions they host) back to your discard pile if you can’t procure the matching defense from your hand to block the attack.

    And now, I’ll return you to your regularly scheduled, Rab-hosted Cardboard Children.

    • Blackcompany says:

      Thanks for posting. That sounds rather excellent and I intend to look into it right away!

  6. tonallyoff says:

    If you want a readable, understandable, not terrible rule summary for Death Angel there’s one at the Order of Gamers, loads better than the FFG rulebook – link to orderofgamers.com

    • Hensler says:

      Thanks for that! I’ve been playing Death Angel for years, and this still cleared things up for me.

  7. Blackcompany says:

    My girl and I have been playing Star Realms for some time now. Really great game. The theme is fantastic and flavorful. The setup and takedown times are absolutely minimal. The game plays quick, with solid mechanics that are easily understood. And every game is different. For that price, what’s not to like.

  8. tlwest says:

    I’ve really enjoyed to iOS version of Star Realms, and I’ve found the medium AI pretty challenging (maybe I should just give in and go base-crazy as it does.)

    After ~100 games, I will say that probably 30% of the games are primarily decided by luck (i.e. one player or the other didn’t really ever have a chance). I find that fully acceptable in a game as light as this, but I do know a number of people for whom this is a deal breaker. For me, the game is over so fast that it’s not a problem tossing 30% of the games and unwinnable or unloseable.

    • shimeril says:

      I found the Hard AI is actually a more fun game. For some reason the medium AI just spaces out at times and gives you a win but the Hard is pretty damn cunning. I play 3 games on Hard every morning before I go to work and its almost never a 3-0 to one of us. I have also bought the card game recently and play my daughter almost every weekend. Best card game I have played in years and could almost knock INWO of the pedestal for best ever in my view. Almost.

      • shimeril says:

        Forgot to add, I play those 30% you mention to the end. Sometimes you can see really early on you haven’t a prayer but it’s fun to see how close you can get anyway.

  9. RipCore says:

    Yes, Star Realms, yes! I picked up the HB card bundle recently, it’s the only game out of the bunch I play regularly (a bit too much according to my gf…), the others on and off.

    I love the speed of the game and once you know the cards, to play on the go on my mobile. I’ve been having a challenge marathon with one guy for a week now, I think we’re about even, all of our games are really close all the time. I wish the MP was a bit more robust, but the basics are solid as frozen water. Can’t wait for Gambit, will shell out for that one without a second thought.

    • shimeril says:

      Yep, I’ll be buying Gambit too as soon as I see it. Cards and iOS versions.

      • DrollRemark says:

        I’m should really pick up the Gambit set at some point. It was a toss-up between that or the Crisis packs just before Christmas, and I went for the latter. Two imported sets was a bit too expensive for me at the time.

    • mmalove says:

      I too, picked up Star Realms off the Humble Bundle a couple weeks ago, and it’s definitely my most played of the bunch, even though I was originally bought it for some cheap dominions expansions and Magic 2015. I’d never even heard of this game before, a definite underrated gem!

      The online multiplayer is a lot of fun because you can run several games concurrently, with a 48 hour move timer. To keep things sane, you can always click on your own or your opponents deck/discard pile to learn what’s available there, so you don’t have to try and memorize everything as you flip between matches.

      What I love about it:
      -It’s fairly fast paced, you can play a turn in under a minute usually, and most games last about 15 turns or so.
      -It’s pretty simple to grasp the rules. A lot of the strategy boils down to balancing economy and aggression, and the tradeoff between trying to stay inside 1-2 factions vs making the most out of your trade in a turn. IE this yellow battle cruiser does nice damage and draws a card to replace itself, but I could also buy 2-3 small blob ships that give me a better chance of pairing green cards in future turns.
      -It’s a deckbuilding game!

      Things you may not like:
      -It’s a relatively small card pool. After a couple games, you’ll have likely seen all the cards.
      -Bad luck in early turns can put you on the back foot, and leads to 14 turns of “I’m gonna lose, this sucks”
      The matchmaking system on online sometimes pairs you against some pretty high level vets. While this provides a great opportunity to see how better players play, it may discourage newer players
      -cards are really small on a samsung galaxy s4. Once you know the card pool this isn’t a problem, but it’d be a lot better learning experience to start on the PC. Fortunately, if you buy an account to play multiplayer the devs have made it so it unlocks across all platforms, and you can even play your multiplayer turns from any device tied to your login.

      • Talismania! says:

        The Star Realms expansion packs are on sale now, for a staggering 5 euro for 12 cards each (in Dublin), with four packs available. Adds some bigger ships and interesting events to the mix. Essential? Probably not really.

  10. Phantom_Renegade says:

    Star Realms the physical card game is fun, but the campaign on the pc/android version is a fucking nightmare of impossible to beat cheating AI’s. I’ve been trying the fifth mission of chapter two for months now and still am unable to beat it. I’ve come very close, having 38 health left and the AI 8 in my last go. I go two hands without drawing significant damage and he suddenly out of nowhere in one round deals me 40 damage. Fuck that.

    • RipCore says:

      True, the cheating is so obvious it makes me replay the first 4 hands repeatedly just so I get the good cards (mech discards usually). Not really the definition of good programming.

      It would’ve been better – in my eyes – to have less health or a different, less powerful starting deck than the AI. The way it’s set up now frustrates me; not skill, but skewed luck decides the outcome of a match.

      • Talismania! says:

        A classic case of giving the AI a big advantage so you don’t have to program it to be adaptive/”smart”. I find the challenges fun as they’re not meant to be fair – figure out how the opponent cheats and what the best answer is for it . . .

  11. MJD8000 says:

    If people are after more recommendations for fun but cheap card games then I wrote up a bunch (including these two) over here – , .

  12. DrollRemark says:

    I’ve got all the Crisis packs for Star Realms a couple of weeks ago and I haven’t touched any of them because my girlfriend and I haven’t found time to play it.

    It’s killing me. I don’t even know what most of the new cards are.

    Wonderful little thing Star Realms is though, almost a perfect introductory game. There’s an easy line from it to other deck builders, card games, and complicated board games beyond that. Just a shame it’s really hard to find in the UK.

  13. Xantonze says:

    I don’t think DEATH ANGEL is particularly good design. It’s standard coop fare, you go through the motions without feeling much. Maybe if you’re a Space Hulk fan, or alone. Otherwise we (4 players) found it pretty unexciting.

  14. cpt_freakout says:

    Please don’t forget to make the MP XCOM article! :)

  15. piffleflop says:

    If you’re looking for a solo game (yeah, yeah, I know) then Death Angel is hard to beat for value for money. Luck does play a large part but not quite so much as it may seem on the first few plays before you’ve got to grips with the how the different abilities interact with the rules. I’ve had a lot of fun with this one and this article has made me want to go back to it.