Matt Carlson: Hero Realms

Hero Realms is a deckbuilder that follows in the footsteps of the hugely popular Star Realms but is more than just the same game with a different theme. There are very strong similarities, but in Hero Realms players can begin with a themed starting deck (based around typical RPG character classes) and have the option of playing in a campaign game and/or fighting a specially designed communal boss monster. While Hero Realms feels very similar to Star Realms, the opportunity to play against specific boss monster decks or try out the co-op campaign game makes Hero Realms a unique experience.

Hero Realms
Designer: Robert Dougherty, Darwin Kastle
Publisher: White Wizard Games
Players: 2-4
Ages: 12+
Time: 20-30 minutes
(review copy provided by publisher)


As is the case with most deckbuilders, players start Hero Realms with a small deck of weak cards that can be used to attack and/or purchase upgraded cards from a central tableau. Throughout the game players purchase additional cards for their deck, shuffling them in when they run out of cards to draw. In this way, a player’s deck of cards becomes increasingly powerful as they continues. Rather than focusing on earning points, Hero Realms (and Star Realms) focuses game play on attacking and eliminating other players (or villains.) The base Hero Realms game does not offer much new from the popular Star Realms. Instead of ships and battlestations generating combat (for damage) and wealth (for buying more cards) Hero Realms has action cards that provide damage and wealth. In Hero Realms, the cards that are persistent from turn to turn are called Champions. These have health and can be attacked directly instead of one’s opponent. Some Champions have the Guard effect which means you MUST attack them before attacking the opponent or the opponent’s other Champions. Both Star and Hero realms have four suits (colors) of cards which have a common theme (force discards, gain life, trash cards, etc…) Many cards have a standard ability but also have a bonus ability that kicks in if a player plays more than one card of that color on their turn. In this way, players are encouraged to specialize their deck towards one or two colors.

Where Hero Realms system diverges from Star Realms is by providing new gaming situations. Character decks change player starting decks, Boss decks allow for a many vs one combat, and a Campaign deck gives players a way to experience a cooperative series of challenges.

In addition to unique and slightly improved starting cards with a central theme, Character packs grant players two special abilities for use during the game (one minor one and another more powerful, single use ability.) The difference in starting cards are somewhat minor, but the special abilities lend a greater sense of differentiation. Character packs exist for Cleric, Fighter, Ranger, Thief, and Wizard. The special abilities lead a character to behave similar to its stereotypical role in a role-playing game, the Cleric has some healing powers, the Thief can do large bursts of damage, the Ranger can attack at distance (you typically can only affect one’s nearby neighbor.)

Boss Decks are designed to give one player a huge advantage such that they then play against other players fighting as a team. They come with their own starting cards and have a larger hand size, but otherwise behave similar to a player. After a character is defeated, that player may give away one of their cards to another once per round. After the Boss takes their turn, all defeated players discard and draw a new hand (from which a card can then be lent out.) Currently there are two bosses, a Dragon and a Lich. The Dragon has a set of Treasure Hoard cards which can be stolen by the other players while the Lich has its life totals broken into several Soul Jars which must be eliminated in turn. Powergamers can even take advantage of modified rules in order to do a boss vs boss fight.

The feature of Hero Realms I was most interested in was the idea of a Campaign Deck. One or more players cooperatively play through a series of scenarios as they follow a branching storyline. The only campaign deck released so far is The Ruin of Thandar. Players begin with a simple scenario teamed against an uncontrolled (not player controlled) opponent. The “opponent” takes its own turn (between each other player’s turn) and plays cards according to set rules. Rather than purchasing additional cards as the game goes on, the opponent uses its own custom deck with additional powers kicking in depending on the color of card it plays. If the players manage to defeat the scenario, they may then choose to follow up the story with one of two new choices that dictate their opponent for the second game. Most paths take three games to complete with the final game against a randomized opponent (one for each color in the deck.) Players start each game with essentially their same starting decks although they can earn “rewards” for accomplishing previous scenarios, such as an additional starting card or a minor improvement to a special ability. The Campaign Deck comes complete with a full fledged system of deck and ability improvement for use in longer campaign games. Unfortunately, it only serves to whet one’s appetite for more content as completing the first three scenarios only serves to scratch the surface of possible player upgrades.

Verdict:
I enjoy a good deckbuilder and Star Realms is a great entry in the fast setup-fast playtime category. Hero Realms is similar in style such that I would normally not feel the need to own both, but the new additions to the game (Class Decks with their special powers, Boss fights, and especially the cooperative campaign) are the type of things that raise my interest. I like the class decks enough that I wouldn’t want to play without them. Boss battles are unique experiences but I favor coop play when I can, and I haven’t played either boss enough to make a firm call. (Although a Boss vs Boss battle would interest my power-hungry son.) My main issue with Hero Realms is a common one, the game is often over before I feel like I really get my deck going. The game ends just before I get to use all the “cool toys” I’ve been slowly gaining throughout the game. This is particularly telling in the cooperative campaign. The campaign’s opponent tends to get more powerful over time, so it is a rush to take them out before the players lose. This means short-term strategy is almost always the best option and it seems like some of the classes take much longer to really shine. The problem is increased in the campaign. Most scenarios begin with players’ initial starting decks, so they need to start upgrading all over again. Even the campaign progression is slow. While players are given small advantages for each scenario, one can look at the potential upgrades available later on (listed in the rulebook) and feel like character progression is incrementally slow. Rules (and powers) exist for at least five or six levels of improvement, and the entire Ruin of Thandar Campaign Deck manages to increase player’s level by about one. I would love to see a quicker ramp-up of power, either in-game or over the course of the campaign. As things stand, I feel like it is just minor changes. With a stronger or faster upgrade path, I would be far more tempted to play through the current campaign deck to get a feel for how each character class plays.

This may all seem rather negative (and it is) but Hero Realms remains a solid game. It’s based off a solid game engine (Star Realms) and even if I have qualms with the pace and length of the Thandar campaign deck, I still appreciate its presence and enjoy the cooperative gaming opportunities it provides. Gamers looking for an interesting cooperative deckbuilder should check it out. Powergamers may want to slip into the role of a Boss and take the fight to several frenemies at once. (Shoot, go all out with the whole Boss vs Boss fight!)

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!
I like it. Matt Carlson
Neutral.
Not for me…

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About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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