Star Realms: Frontiers – Deckbuilding Dumbed Down

For two intoxicated gamers with a lot to talk about, Star Realms is a good way of keeping the hands busy. The extremely quick flow of the competitive game makes it rather entertaining. The latest iteration of the game, Star Realms: Frontiers, comes with solo rules. But as a solo game it leaves a lot to be desired. In this short review I sum up why it’s not staying in my collection.

Star Realms: Frontiers is a follow-up to the vastly successful Star Realms, a compact, simple deckbuilding game by Magic: The Gathering Hall of Famers Darwin Kastle and Robert Dougherty. Frontiers adds a co-op mode as well as solo play. Since I’ve found Star Realms rather enjoyable as a beer and pretzels game, I had to try the solo variant. If you’re not familiar with Star Realms, have a look at the instructional two-minute video by The Rules Girl.

There seems to be a lot to like about this game. It’s affordable. It comes in a great package that actually is the right size for its contents. It has wonderful artwork. The rules are clear and simple (as far as ordinary, duel gameplay is concerned). For anybody who enjoys the game there is additional (cheap) content for it.

Unfortunately, affordable doesn’t mean value for money in this case; as a solo game, Star Realms: Frontiers has few redeeming qualities. To give you some perspective on my opinions I’ll use the unambiguously precise language of BGG ratings: I’ve rated the competitive game a 6 out of 10 – the solo game gets a 2. Let’s have a look at my reasons for this.

What enables both solitaire and cooperative play in Frontiers is the challenge cards, eight oversized “boss” cards with unique abilities not unlike a nemesis in Aeon’s End (a game that I adore).

Each challenge card represents an enemy with unique set-up instructions, rules-exceptions, special abilities and its own sequence of play. Once again: not unlike a nemesis in Aeon’s End. However, to play against one of the challenge cards, you have to keep flipping the card back and forth and consult the section of that specific challenge in the rule book. Constantly. The information necessary to do the challenge upkeep during the game is in three different places.

But why is that so bad? you might ask. Surely it can’t be worse than setting up a game of Aeon’s End?

The answer is all about context. Aeon’s End offers an intriguing challenge, but Star Realms is a VERY simple game. Most decisions are along the lines of “Hm… Should I do this good thing or one of those things that are not as good for me?” The game takes about ten minutes to play! Each boss has to be maintained in its own special way. Not only is the social dimension of playing against an opponent lost, but also any sense of flow. And your turns are the same repetitious cycles of no-brainer decisions and shuffling, no matter what challenge you’re up against.

Never do I stop and think “Wait! What if…” Sure, I can raise the difficulty, but the best course of action is usually obvious anyway. If it weren’t for the tedious upkeep it would have been relaxing. If the difference between the bosses actually had meant that you had to approach the game in different ways, it might have been worth the effort.

The solitaire variant means lots of upkeep and lots of rules-exceptions combined with monotonous gameplay, obvious choices, relatively high impact of luck, relatively low impact of skill… As a simple, accessible two-player deckbuilder, this game isn’t bad, but as a solo game, Star Realms: Frontiers is a joke. This might seem like a harsh judgement, but even if I were partial to lightweight games I wouldn’t have been able to stand all the fiddling around that is required to play this ten minute game.

Other People’s Opinions

In the review by BGG user samlms, the solo mode is described as a “solo filler game” and as such, the writer rates it a 10. The fact that it takes about five minutes to set up is one of the few things we agree about, but in my opinion a game where a third of the time is set-up time has a set-up issue. Nevertheless, it’s always nice to find a well written review that expresses a differing opinion.

Thank you for reading!

4 Responses

  1. Been not a fan of the solo modus with boss cards. Made an easy flow solo variant myself. Is on the Bgg. Besides that Star Realm is with Alien encounter my favorite deck builder.

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