Deck building beginnings
The first ever deck building game I bought was also the first legacy game I ever heard of. It was the amazing Shadowrun Crossfire. Now, honestly just between us gamers (no really, if the game finds out it’ll get upset) it doesn’t get played too much anymore. I really love the game but I sometimes get fed up of having my behind unceremoniously handed to me and then kicked for good measure. Mind you, I am eternally grateful to it for opening my eyes to the genre of deck building games.
Since that time I have bought (but not always kept) a lot of deck building games and a couple of these were made by Darwin Kastle. Aside from having a really cool name that sounds like it belongs in a fantasy novel, he’s a man that really knows how to make a deck building game. His previous accolades that I know of, are the exceptionally well known Star Realms, its subsequent sequel Star Realms: Colony Wars and Cthulhu Realms because as you well know, you can never have a game series without Cthulhu in it somewhere.
I have to admit that when I heard about the newest addition to his repertoire; Hero Realms, I did get pretty excited. In fact, had it worked out worthwhile (which for the record it didn’t) I’d have backed it on Kickstarter.
So why was I so excited? Well, where Star Realms was set in space and grounded heavily in Sci-Fi and Cthulhu Realms was obviously heavily rooted in H P Lovecraft mythos, Hero Realms is firmly set in the high fantasy genre of gaming.
So will Hero Realms make Darwin the king of the Kastle, or will he be surrendering his will to Cthulhu and dwelling in madness? Well…
Welcome to the Hero Realm
First things first, if you have never played a deck builder then Hero Realms is as good a place as any to make a start in the genre. At the beginning of the game, you will receive 10 cards which will give you a mixture of cards to attack another player, or recruit another card into your hand. Admittedly, with Hero Realms the term recruiting is more literal than most games but I’ll get to that shortly.
During setup, you will shuffle the non-starting cards and then put 5 out for form a market between all of the players, and assuming you have collected enough gold from your hand of cards you can purchase stronger cards from the market. These cards will go into your discard pile and will eventually turn up in your hand to be used against your opponents. Once a card (or several cards if you can afford it) are purchased, these are replaced so there’s always a supply of 5 cards in the middle.
The big difference between Hero Realms and something like Star Realms is that most of the cards available to purchase are people, so it’s quite literally recruiting people to your cause once you have bought them. Something that I thought was a nice thematic touch.
To be honest, most of the main game play features will be mentioned throughout the review but sometimes I can waffle like an old fishwife so if there’s anything you’re unsure about, a link to the rules for Hero Realms can be found here, so you’re welcome to go and have a look for yourself.
We are the Champions (or items)
So, you have your starter cards, and you’ve recruited some people to the cause… what now?
There are 3 types of card you can buy from the market. Items, Champions and Guards. This is one of the main things which separates Hero Realms from some other deck building games.
Items are one use affairs; well, you can use them once and then they go into your discard pile to be played at another time anyway. So, if you buy an item, it may give you a set amount of attack points in your turn which you can use and then it’s done. Simple!
Champions once drawn from your hand stay in play in front of you. They will have an ability which can be tapped during your turn and used to your advantage (and generally to someone else’s detriment) every turn. Their “power” resets when all of your cards are discarded and is ready to use on your next turn. All of the champions in Hero Realms are easy to identify in one of 2 ways. 1: They have the word Champion in the text box for their name (big giveaway that one) but the far easier way to identify them (for me at least) is that they will have a grey shield in the bottom right corner of the card.
Guards work in a very similar way to Champions in that they stay in front of you between turns and can be tapped to use their ability (sometimes this can be stronger than a Champions’ power, but sometimes not) but instead of having a grey shield in the corner they will have a black one.
Agents of Shield
The shields in the bottom corners help “attacking” players to decide how to proceed on their turn. Assuming there are no champions in play, you can use your attack points directly against the opposing player to reduce their life (all players start with 50. More can be gained with some cards from the market though) and once their life is reduced to zero, that’s it, you’re a winner.
However, the guards are not called guards for any clever reason. They will protect the player, meaning that no damage can be done against the player until the full amount of damage is done against the guard first. If you have enough attack points to do this, the guard becomes “stunned” and goes back into your discard pile to draw later on.
The reason that champions have the shield too, is that they can also be stunned should the opposing player find them too much of a hindrance to their cause. The best example I can give, is that during my first game, my opponent had a champion which gave him life back every turn. After them gaining a large chunk of life back after a few turns I found I really had to do something about it!
Not quite a Chicken Combo
Another integral feature to Hero Realms is the ability to combo. Most market cards have a colour in the top left corner signifying that cards alliance; red, yellow, green and blue. Some cards also have an additional box on the bottom of the cards (like the one below) which means that if you play a card of the same colour in that turn then you can activate the additional ability of the card.
There’s sometimes also a symbol with a bin meaning that you can take the card out of the game to give you an advantage shown.
When used in combination with your Champions and your hard earned purchases you can do some pretty spectacular things, including being able to buy the entire market (true story) and also being able to get together 20-30 attack points in a round (also a true story) to either impoverish your opponent through virtual kleptomania or outright merciless beating; both of which are really, really satisfying!
We don’t need another Hero… do we?
First things first, how does Hero Realms compare with Kastle’s other games? Well Cthulhu Realms is probably the odd one out of the series. It plays in a similar way and the basic rules are the same but all of the iconography is different. To be fair to Darwin Kastle, it was a stroke of genius in adding some theme to the game, but it just feels a little odd. So Hero Realms and Cthulhu Realms are 2 really different games despite having so much in common. Hero Realms and Star Realms though, well that’s a completely different story.
Despite being different themes, the Hero Realms and Star Realms are very similar. They both have the same iconography, and really they feel a lot like the same game. The biggest difference being, that Star Realms is 2 players only unless you buy Colony Wars and mix 2 sets together, whereas Hero Realms is designed for 4 players straight out of the box.
There’s another nice touch in Hero Realms which I find separates the 2 for the better. In Star Realms you start the game with attack and purchase cards. Whilst Hero Realms is the same, you start with cards which have 2 gold or 2 attack on them, meaning that you actually start STRONGER. It means that with fickle Lady Luck on your side, you can start dominating straight out of the gate.
Admittedly though, Hero Realms felt a little odd the first time I played with more than one other player because it felt so much like Star Realms. Mind you, it didn’t take too long to get used to and I was dominating 3 other people in no time.
Hero Realm or Underwhelm?
Comparisons aside, Hero Realms is a really solid game. Despite what I have said, even the combining of cards and abilities is nothing new, but it’s how it has been implemented in Hero Realms that makes it stand out against something like Legendary Marvel. It just feels easier to play, easier to understand and a little more friendly. I’ve played Hero Realms with my 7 year old son and he thoroughly enjoyed it, but found Marvel a bit too much.
Another thing which Hero Realms has going for it is portability. The box is roughly the same size as Exploding Kittens and a lot of the games I have played, I have managed to squeeze into a lunch break while at work.
The box says that games play in around 20 minutes which is true if you’re well versed in playing this kind of game, but it ekes out to around 40-45 minutes if you’re playing with a couple of new people. Mind you, every “new person” that I have introduced to it, has asked to play it again almost straight away.
All in all, Hero Realms is a really solid and (maybe most importantly) fun game to play. I already have a copy of Star Realms, and Cthulhu Realms but I am not ashamed to have another Kastle game to add to the collection. Time will tell how much table time it gets, but at the moment it’s a lot. Even with all of the other points aside, I’d have been sold when I found out you could have a dragon as a champion!
I give Hero Realms an opponent crushing 8.5 out of 10 and would thoroughly recommend picking up a copy. It could well end up being your next “pocket game”.
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I am just a regular guy that fell into board gaming. That's why I am no longer allowed in my local Toys R Us. I'm a huge fan of deckbuilding games and games with unusual themes or mechanics. OK, maybe I'm not that regular after all.