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Battle of the Deckbuilders: Star Realms vs Dominion

In his first article for the site, Jaya Baldwin – new member of the Naylor Games team, makes a forceful case for both titles

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“Ladies and gentleman welcome to another exciting episode of Boardgamemania! In the blue corner we have long standing heavyweight champion Dominion! The game that started an entire genre and really packs the Donald X factor. Meanwhile iiiin the red corner, we have new kid on the block, featherweight Star Realms!”

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It’s a classic scenario: two games with a certain amount of similarity are pitted against each other, argued over and taken apart in order to figure out which is ‘better’. When those two games are trying to fill exactly the same niche, it’s a legitimate enough approach. But here, it’s not: Dominion is a deep, thoughtful, strategic exercise in building the most finely tuned, ruthlessly efficient engine in all the land. Star Realms is a quick tactical space shoot out.

Both of these games are excellent. But it’s Star Realms which is often labelled as the ‘dumbed down Dominion’. While that’s a) not entirely false nor b) necessarily a bad thing either, these games do things very differently and they both have something unique to offer.

Note: For the purpose of simplicity, I am not discussing any expansion related content as both games can change drastically when those are added.

Trade Row vs Market Cards

Choosing one of 5 simple options in the trade row vs one of 10 in the market doesn’t offer the same consistent depth of decision making. But it is a far friendlier new player experience and it still offers the satisfaction of making an interesting choice. The trade row also offers a sense of discovery that Dominion does not have. Each flip of a new card requires assessing the current game state, its value to your deck, its value to your opponent’s deck and how you will then alter or not alter your play to accommodate it. This adds variance to the game and, as a resul, a greater dependence on luck of the draw. But such luck is already a key component of deck building games either way. The unique quality of of the trade row is that new information is coming at you constantly in bite sized chunks; the hall mark of a tactical game. In Dominion you get all the information front-loaded. Nothing new will appear and the only variance is your opponent’s actions and the way your deck draws. As a result it’s far more a strategic game. Tactical and strategic skills are not the same thing however. So each game is filling a different niche that is more or less appealing depending on how you want to compete.

Actions vs no Actions

Cards in Star Realms are simple: there are only two different types: ships and bases. They provide damage/health/money/cards and the auxiliary effects are mostly limited to scrap/enemy discard/destroy target base. Cards in Dominion are, on paper, sometimes even simpler. But they are practically far harder to evaluate the actual value of. The Dominion card Smithy draws you three cards. That’s a very simple effect that sounds like it’s always useful. But if you filled your whole Dominion deck with them without the support required to use them effectively, you would lose; badly. In Star Realms, if you filled your deck with cards with such a power you would be unstoppable.

All of this is because of actions. The action system in Dominion is one of its hallmarks. It’s both a fascinating puzzle to figure out and a restrictive set of manacles holding you back from your wildest combo dreams. In Star Realms you play everything all the time; no questions asked. A Star Realms hand’s decisions will be ‘where do I assign damage?’ (assuming there are choices) and ‘What do I purchase?’. Any other questions will generally regard scrapping or discarding. In the overwhelming majority of cases the answer will be the same: ‘one of my starting cards’. Most of these decisions are so simple, it puts all the focus on the most complex and influential one: ‘what do I buy?’. It speeds up everything, with players on average only having to make one significant decision per turn. Dominion starts like this. But as time goes by, individual turns can become very complex. You have to to budget actions against the cards in the hand as well as all the cards in your deck you could potentially draw into. It’s a more complex puzzle, so takes longer, generating considerably more downtime in the 4 player game.

This is where the interactivity of the two games is also relevant. In Dominion I can spend a lot of time watching another player lay down large numbers of cards in their bid to buy as many provinces in one turn as possible. In Star Realms my opponent is trying to kill me. One of these is inherently more theatrical than the other and thus more easily grabs my attention. Star Realms also doesn’t demand you study yoir opponent’s turn for anywhere near as long before you are off and doing things once again. By the time a turn of Star Realms is feeling a bit long, the game is usually about to finish anyway; because of the sheer amount of damage a late game hand can deliver.

Four Player Solitaire

What your opponents purchase in Dominion doesn’t affect you nearly as much as it does in Star Realms. Attack and Defence cards exist, but outside of these, it is rare you ever feel that you need to change your playstyle radically based on your opponent’s purchases. In Star Realms, the entire game is decided by reading your opponent’s purchases. If my opponent purchases lots of damage heavy cards right away and I respond by buying slow long term gain scrap cards, I will probably lose before my deck hits its stride. The kind of deck you should build is not determined by what you think the best deck will be in a vacuum but by whether it can survive and beat your the opposing deck. There also tools in the game to destroy potential cards your opponent wanted. You are choosing both the cards you want to obtain and the ones your opponent shouldn’t have. There is also usually only one copy of any given card in the trade row at a time: whoever gets to it first gets to decide its fate. Dominion lacks this layer of interaction most of the time because there will, until quite far into the game, always be another copy of the card available.

Both games stand on their own as interesting experiences. Star Realms is like finger food: it’s quick, easy, tasty and moreish but might still leave you hungry. Dominion is a feast: it’s a far more filling experience but it’s also one that requires more time to prepare, eat and tidy up after. What are you hungry for at the moment?

Filed under: Miscellaneous

About the Author

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I'm a games-obsessed actor/comedian interested in the relationship between game mechanics, theatre and the idea of play. Not as pretentious on the inside as the tin suggests.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for a great article. I have never played Dominion, but I love Star Realms. Given what you say in the article, I think I’ll stick with Star Realms and give Dominion a miss. Mind you, we’ve actually now moved onto Mystic Vale, so maybe I should also look at Dominion after all. We’ll see.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, James — I was particularly drawn to this article because I have been working on what I can only term a ‘pseudo-deckbuilder’ game… in my design you can automatically upgrade your cards on a 2-for-1 or even 3-for-1 basis, but at a potentially short-term disadvantage for a long-term gain… swings’n’roundabouts, as they say. I have played both of these games, and can’t help thinking your article failed to come to a conclusion as to whether one is better than t’other — horses for courses, etc. although I suspect you prefer the immediacy of Star Realms, which I’m pleased to say is the market mine will hopefully be aimed at… Thank you for the article – much appreciated, and some food for thought…

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