Hero Realms is a 2-4 player fantasy deck-building game from the masterminds behind the immensely popular Star Realms. White Wizard Games released the core set, designed by Robert Dougherty and Darwin Kastle, in 2016. With the support of the existing Star Realms fan base the game was pretty much an instant hit, but let's not assume that Hero Realms is good because it's predecessor was such a hit. We're here to review the game on its own merits.
A new theme for a new game
Hero Realms is dripping with classic fantasy tropes. You've got elves, orcs, dragons and vampires all featured prominently on the cards. I'll be honest, it's not the most original fantasy theme you're ever going to see. Pretty much every creature in this game has been seen elsewhere many times before. However, the theme tends to fit the cards really well, and Hero Realms' bold, colourful art does a great job of bringing the classic tropes to life without making them seem overused.
These creatures are also divided among four coloured factions that will be familiar to Star Realms fans: yellow (Imperial); blue (Guild); red (Necros); and green (Wild). Some of the factions, situated in the cosmopolitan trading post-cum-city of Thandar, are more innovative than others. The Guild is very cool, featuring human merchants and wizards who pay ogres and other uglies to do their bidding. Imperial and Necros are more or less typical fantasy empire and evil death cult type groups, but the Wild is a great blend of primal, aggressive elves, orcs and wolves.
Unlike Star Realms, the game is thematically carried by characters, called champions in the rules of the game. These champions have recurring abilities and a defence stat that has to be overcome if they're to be removed from the board, but they're much more compelling in terms of the game's narrative than the faceless bases that served a similar mechanical function in Star Realms. In their character pack expansions the designers explored this theme even later, but that's a topic for another article!
The base game of Hero Realms plays identically to Star Realms, but for those who are unfamiliar, I'll run through it quickly. Hero Realms is a deck-building game, so players start with an identical, basic deck of weak cards which they use to acquire more powerful cards throughout the game. The ultimate goal is to reduce your opponents;' health points to 0 (from 50).
The game's cards can generate any of three resources: gold, combat and health. Gold is the trading resource of the game, used to purchase cards from a central market row of five cards that is replenished from an 80 card market deck as soon as one is taken. These cards go into your discard pile, and will be shuffled back into your deck in a few turns. Combat is straightforward: a point of combat equals a point of damage to an opponent, and health is the reverse, allowing you to recoup your own health.
Cards are mostly divided into actions and champions, both of which are played out of a hand of five cards refilled at the end of every turn. All cards played go to the discard pile at the end of the turn (except champions, which we'll come to). When you don't have enough cards in your deck to draw a hand of five, you shuffle your discard pile and draw from it. This is how new cards get into your deck.
Champions are the exception to the discard rule. Every champion has a defence value, and they stay on the battlefield until an opponent can deal damage equal to that value to them in one turn. If 'stunned' in this way, they go to the discard pile. As long as they're on the field, they can continue to use their effects every turn. Some champions can be ignored if you don't have the combat to stun them, but guards must be stunned before you can damage your opponent.
The final key mechanic is the allied bonuses, which are additional effects that some cards have when played alongside another card from the same faction. This is a further reason why it's a good idea to have champions who can stick around for a turn or two, as that's an easy way to turn on allied bonuses.
How good is the game?
Hero Realms is a brilliant game, but it's essentially a re-skin of Star Realms. If, like me, you love Star Realms and you love fantasy themes, you should pick it up without a moment's hesitation. It's not identical, however. The cards are generally more powerful in Hero Realms, making games quicker and more explosive. Its pace makes it very easy to play two or three games in one sitting, with the random market row giving you a different experience each time.
I enjoy the interesting (though admittedly, light) strategy of Hero Realms. With the combat cards being so powerful, there is a very real decision to make as to when you stop buying cards and start doing everything you can to get your opponent to zero. The different factions have different strengths and attack from different angles, so it's also important to be aware of where your opponents' weaknesses are and also what cards would fit best in the deck you've been building. With a play time of just 20-30, Hero Realms is never going to be the heaviest game in the world, but the level of strategy feels just right for the fun, fast card game it's set-up to be.
A complaint I've seen made against the game is the randomness, with no way to control the cards that appear in the market row. I have a couple of counters to that. The first is that randomness is not necessarily a bad thing - Hero Realms is meant to be a lighter, faster game and if players had to calculate every facet of their strategy every single turn it would become much trickier.
The second is that the randomness of the market row is what gives each individual game of Hero Realms a unique flavour, and ensures that you can't just build the same deck every time. I feel that the game is well-balanced, with enough skill that the better players should win most of the time, but enough randomness that everyone should feel like they have a chance to snatch a victory.
In terms of interaction, Hero Realms has a middling amount, which I quite like. Any game which involves directly attacking other players is going to be interactive, but you're fairly limited in the other ways you can affect them. I think the only other major interactive mechanic is forcing opponents to discard, but they still get to choose the card they lose. For me, this is a good balance. The interaction keeps the game exciting, but it's not so overwhelming as to stop each player doing what they want to do most of the time.
Hero Realms beyond the core set
We'll be posting articles on the character packs and possibly some other expansions further down the line, but I wanted to finish this post by saying that the base game is very much just the starting point for Hero Realms. On top of the base game you can add character packs, with unique starting cards and abilities, boss decks for asymmetrical play and a campaign deck for co-op play.
All of these modes take the core idea into a new direction, promoting new and exciting ways to play. I haven't got round to all of them yet, but they look fantastic and I will certainly be getting my hands on them in the future. If you like fantasy, card games and/or deck-building, give Hero Realms a go.