The card and board game iOS port market is a land of titans these days. Blizzard and Playdek are monolithic beasts responsible for a huge resurgence of games that traditionally involve holding physical game pieces in your hand. A new star is rising that is edging it's way into this epic struggle. White Wizard Games has brought their Star Realms [Free] to the App Store to challenge deck building games like Ascension [Free]. With a co-creator of Ascension on their staff, White Wizard is on a very familiar playing field. While this single game may not completely dominate the entire landscape, it's absolutely enough to cause a stir with fantastic gameplay that boasts a number of upgrades over it's competition.

Star Realms is a newcomer to the deck building scene. It's creators, however, are not. White Wizards are kind of like the A-Team of the card game universe. The next time I get in trouble and mobsters/the government threaten to steal my house if I can't develop a card game, I'm calling these guys. Stay with me now, my point is that this game has some serious chops. The flow and tempo of the game is amazing. I never feel like I have completely useless rounds even when I draw a bad hand. I also feel less locked into a strategy, a good card can still be a good card if it doesn't 100% match your overall game plan. Instead, the game gives you oppotunities to strategize on the fly that make previously released games, like Ascension, feel like a gridlock by comparison.

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On our forums, I have seen a lot of good natured back and forth on which of these two games has a higher level of strategy. I can't say that I am a tournament winning pro that can give a definitive answer, but my money is definitely on Star Realms. From a 'basic' card that combines currency and damage to a card selection area that is uncluttered by monsters that need slaying, this game opens up a number of viable options each turn. This is where I really see the maturity of the game. The longer you play this game, the more you realize that getting more options doesn't make the game easier. The strategy is just deeper. You have to be much more conscious of the deck you are building because you have so many opportunities to hang yourself. I'll say the magic words that everyone wants to hear about a strategic game. Easy to learn, difficult to master. As cliche as the term is, it applies here. The Dice Tower, unsurprisingly, have a fantastic in depth look at the gameplay:

There is a downside to all this starry eyed talk about Star Realms. The app UI is a bit unwieldy. Font sizes and certain tap targets are a little smaller than I would prefer. I actually first played on the iPad for a few games and then switched over to the iPhone. The iPad is definitely where I will spend my time with this game. I can manage to get through an iPhone game without issue, but I don't generally like having to squint to read text on cards. If I had to, I would still play on the iPhone. If you are on the fence, I highly recommend testing it out if you know you would be confined to playing on a phone. This is probably the only area I feel like Playdek still has an edge. They are renowned for their UI development and frankly have much more practice at it. I think this is the biggest area of potential growth for what White Wizards can conjure up in their game updates.

This game comes with a full compliment of features. Campaign mode pits you against AIs that will focus on specific strategies. The hard mode campaign missions are no push overs either and might require more than just a single game to outwit. It's worth noting that campaign mode, while not the centerpiece of the game, is just another way that Star Realms distinguishes itself. Its not a commonly seen feature in games like this and brings another dimension of gameplay. Once you shell out the $4.99 for the full version, you gain access to an additional mission campaign, additional AI difficulties beyond easy, and online play. Online play offers the ability to search for open games as well as issue challenges to friends. The UI for searching and creating online games is simple and straight forward, bringing each game to the top of your list as your opponent completes their turn and waits on you. Two features I would like to see in future updates would be support for more than 2 players and a competitive ranked online mode separate from random pick up games.

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I don't know if White Wizards have plans on taking a bigger bite out of the iOS card/board game market, but they are well poised to do just that. What used to be a niche corner of the App Store has developed over the last few years as a stable for some of the highest quality games available. Star Realms continues the trend and provides superior gameplay even amongst it's venerable peers.

TouchArcade Rating

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  • dancj

    It looks like the only IAP is a £2.99 full game unlock.

    That's the kind of IAP I can get behind. I'll definitely give this a try.

    • Duranki

      Star Realms is excellent and has completely monopolized my iOS gaming time. I went back to Ascension, after a long hiatus, and I just really prefer the Star Realms flavor: sci-fi setting, strategy that deepens the more you play, and a more clear-cut goal (directly attacking your opponent vs accumulating honor points).

      I'm always up for a game. Username is Duranki.

      • NickyNichols

        Lords of Waterdeep is another absolutely fantastic one.

      • lr1919

        Nice, I'm looking for something to pull me away from ascension... It's funny, that game has actually saved me a ton of money, I don't care to play anything else.

      • DemoEvolved

        Solforge ios also good, has vs ai and f2p

    • SoyGreen

      Not sure when TA started deleting posts... but I'll just put part of my - now deleted post - here...

      The positive about that IAP - not only is it a full game unlock - it will unlock it on any device you want to play it on - cross platform. iOS, Android, PC, Mac - etc. Really sweet to see that.

      My main criticism with the game is in the animations simply taking way too much time up. After a couple plays you get familiar with everything - the game can get a little annoying with those long animations - shuffling, "play all" slowly playing the cards, etc... much improvement could be had if they allowed an option to remove those. I know I know... it's not that big of a deal - but it just feels like it artificially slows down play - and can make it feel drawn out after a while. Comments on BGGs review echoed some similar remarks.

      • crispin

        Check the settings. I think u can change it.

      • SoyGreen

        Nope! You can change the graphics settings, sound volumes, and things like that. But animations isn't an option. Unless it's hidden in the graphics settings - but as I understand that is for how the 3D background etc looks.

      • islesfan

        I liked the game so much on first play that I paid before playing again. I then downloaded to iPad and PC. Money well spent!

  • benadvanced

    Wow I haven't even played yet but I am impressed this is available for iphone. HS still is not which makes me sad.

  • Evan

    Is there a single player option besides the campaign? Im not a huge fan of multiplayer and would also like to play when I have no wifi, so I like a good basic skirmish mode option. I didnt see one though for the brief time I played but didnt know if I missed it

    • Andrew Fretz

      Hi Evan, There sure is. The free version gives you the option of fighting against the Easy AI. Medium and Hard AI are available with the full version.

      • Evan

        So there is, apparently Im blind. One other awesome feature that I have yet to see on many (if any) other games with IAP is the multi-device support. Being both an android and ipad owner that is truly awesome since now it is one single IAP purchase for all my devices

        For 5$, once I saw that, it was basically a no brainer since now I can have it on my phone and ipad

  • Hpmor

    Nice & fair review for a really good game!!!

  • hellscaretaker

    Well comment fans you know what I'm going to say....... Worth a download..... You didn't see that one coming did you ;-)

  • TheGodless

    It may be the ugliest card game on the App Store, but after playing all of these card games and being a long time player of Magic, Warhammer, Star Wars TCG, and a host of other CCGs, my money is still on Dream Quest. I have probably spent 100 hours playing Dream Quest. If it had multiplayer, I'd probably never get off of the game, at least until they get a decent Magic game that isn't just a money hog that you can't even play on an iPhone.

  • imdakine1

    @soygrewn... Are you saying if I DL this for my iPad and can DL the Mac version as well and not pay again? Where did you hear that the iap from the iPad version would allow me to also play it using my Mac without repurchasing the game?

    Excited about the idea but haven't heard this for any other game before??

    • islesfan

      I can personally verify that one purchase on my iPhone unlocked the full game on my iPad and PC (I don't have a Mac, but I'm sure that works too). You just register an account with the developer, then sign in to multiplayer ( you don't have to play multiplayer just sign in) and viola, total unlock!

      • imdakine1

        Cool... Is it out for the Mac already? I guess you just have to use the same email account for the iPad and Mac.

  • scottbailey

    The UI is not fun to interact with on the iPhone. I'll give this a try on my iPad.

  • Hypocrypha

    Nothing beat Kard Kombat

  • Jacob Gehman

    Few iOS games keep me playing for years, but Ascension is one of them. While I defensively bristle at the idea that it could be topped, just the fact that we've got another quality deck builder that people are positively comparing to Ascension is reason for me to celebrate. Insta-download, insta-unlock, o happy day!

  • Eric Ma

    It says a lot that the actual card game plays faster than a game in the app. The animations and interactions are so slow and clunky. Being well experienced in "deck building games", this one does little new. That combined with the UI made for a boring experience for me.

  • http://www.zucchinipeoplegames.com/ Nicholas Yu

    This is a pretty great deck-builder. It's obviously inspired by Ascension (and also co-designed by one of the Ascension designers), but expands in a few new directions by introducing direct combat with the secondary resource and adding in semi-permanent base structures with abilities (seemingly inspired by Magic Planeswalkers). It's fun and quick, but a few cards are clearly not well-balanced. Freighter, the 4-cost card that gives you 4 money, is a quiet bomb and a single one drafted early can swing the game as it will allow you to quickly grab the 6-8 costed cards.

Star Realms Reviewed by Andrew Fretz on . Rating: 4.5