Review: Hero Realms

Today we’re taking a look at Hero Realms, a deck-building, fantasy combat game from White Wizard Games; the spiritual sequel to their space-themed deck-builder Star Realms

In this review we’re looking at the base box – which offers a few competitive game modes for 1-4 players – as well as the character and boss packs, and the co-op campaign mode expansion The Ruin of Thandar.

So What’s it All About?

Hero Realms is your usual deck-building affair – so much so that you probably won’t even need the rulebook to get started! You have a basic starting deck of cards – mainly gold with a couple of weapons – which you will use to draw your hand of cards for the round. 

You use combat to attack your opponents, and gold to buy items from the face-up market in the middle. Market cards you buy go into your discard pile. When you have depleted your deck of cards, you shuffle your discard pile with all the new, awesome market cards in it, and then use that to draw future hands. So far, so standard. 

The game adds depth through the champion and ally features. If you’ve played Star Realms, the champions are the new version of “bases” – once you have drawn them on a turn they are placed face-up next to your playing area and can be used until they are defeated or discarded. Some champions are also “guards” which must be attacked first, preventing your opponent from knocking those precious health points off you directly. This makes the game feel more like Magic: The Gathering, with different tactical choices available to players. 

The next feature to highlight is the “Ally” system. Each market card comes in one of four factions – blue for commerce, red for daemons, green for wild and yellow for imperials – which gives a bit of theme and flavour to the different cards on offer. These affect gameplay through the “ally abilities”. For instance, a blue faction card may have a special ability which can only be triggered if you have another blue faction card in your current hand. 

This means that you would be trying to build a deck with a higher chance of drawing multiple blue faction cards in one hand, so you could get those combo powers activated. It’s a simple tweak that makes each game different, as you groan at the market for not providing you with valuable allies to boost your deck!

What is Hero Realms Like to Play?

It’s a simple but deep game, where the main rules can be explained within a few minutes, but you’ll be trying new strategies for a dozen games or more. The key benefit is the clearly thought-through rules and flow of the game. Being able to pick up the game quickly, but still finding new cards and combos after multiple games is satisfying and rewarding. 

The game is superbly balanced with players taking chunks of health off each other and also healing themselves up. Each of the games we’ve played so far have seen us evenly damaged through to the bitter end. Usually it comes down to a lucky hand giving one player a dominating combo which suddenly overwhelms their opponents. 

When trying to manage combat power, it can get a little confusing keeping track of the damage assigned. Whereas some games use tokens to keep track of your combat or gold during turns, Hero Realms doesn’t include any. While that’s not usually a problem, if you get a cracking combat combo and decide to allocate damage between champions and your opponents, it can get a little messy – particularly when playing with 3 to 5 players.

On the flip side, where you may have tokens for health in other games, Hero Realms comes with two handy health tracking cards. These are a neat and simple way to reduce or increase your health as you progress through the battle. Having just two of these cards on the table can be a little precarious (more than once, I’ve knocked these with my arm and had to quickly remember what health I was on) but they work well as a clear visual aid to see players’ current health.

What About Strategy and Balance?

The game shines once players get their heads around the core strategies. If you are familiar with deck-builder games, it will only take a game or two to see how building up allies and champions in your deck can lead to winning combos, where your actions link together nicely and deal massive damage. It’s even possible to win using a massive healing strategy! I was knocked out in a 2-player game after my opponent had a bunch of Imperial cards that gave her 25+ health per turn, and I was unable to deal anywhere near that much damage!

The game encourages several possible routes to victory – usually dependent on what you can afford from the market during your initial turns -which means that you can see a bunch of interesting cards within the first couple hours of playing. It also means that you will soon get through most of the core set (80 market cards total, 20 per faction). Although with the variety of powers and combinations available, you’ll still be building interesting decks even after many hours of play.

Given the variety of cards and game modes (more on those soon) the decks are very well-balanced. The key takeaway is that you will never feel like one player gets the upper hand through their initial choices or major luck, but rather by playing to their strengths and developing their deck in an efficient way. It’s the main reason I keep coming back to battling my other half; while I will almost inevitably lose, there’s always ways I can improve to tip the odds in my favour for future games.

What Game Modes are Available?

The reason this version excels for me is the sheer range of game modes available – even if you don’t opt for the expansion packs. The base game is set up for 2 to 4 players, and at that player count you have the following game modes:

  • Free-for-all (2+ players) – purely competitive where you try to take out every other player at the table.
  • Hunter – First Blood (3+ players) – similar to free-for-all but you only attack the player to your left, giving an additional tactical layer as you try to wear down just one opponent and win once that player is knocked out.
  • Hunter – Last One Standing (3+ players) – similar to the Hunter mode, except you have to survive until the end, taking out the opponent to your left before moving on to the others around the table.
  • Hydra (4 players, 2 per team) – each pair of players take a shared turn, adding their combat and gold together to strategically get the upper hand.

If you add another copy of the base game or a couple of character packs then you can try Emperor mode, which has 3 players on each team with assigned roles (2 Commanders and their Emperor). Your team must wear down the opposing Commanders before taking down the enemy Emperor! 

There’s a couple extra rules about moving cards from each other’s discards, and also regaining cards from defeated players, but mostly this has a simple flow which fans of the base game will enjoy. The Emperor mode – particularly coordinating three players’ actions – could lead to a longer game, but is a nice twist on the format which gives you more to consider and plan out as a collective.

Once you’ve gotten used to the base game and its various modes, you can try some of the expansions. Each opens up more ways to enjoy the tight gameplay – but some also bring a couple of issues.

The base game

What are the Expansions?

For starters, there are character packs – Wizard, Cleric, Ranger, Fighter, Thief – which give you a new starting deck of cards and health. Each one is slightly different and fits the theme of the character well, but in the standard game modes they tend to feel very samey once you get further into a battle. In some cases, the new starting cards feel like a hindrance rather than a benefit, although you will have to try them out to see which characters you like or dislike. 

The boss packs – Lich or Dragon – are reasonably cheap expansions that I would highly recommend. These packs turn the game into an all-v-one setup. One player will take the role of the boss; their turn comes after the other players, but those turns can be absolutely devastating. 

We played through one with my friend Rich as the Lich, and to defeat him we needed to get through his three Soul Jars (think Horcruxes). His turn consisted of drawing minions – champions but less heroic – which each caused some sort of horrific attack or penalty for us valiant heroes. It was a tough game but we beat him… and then immediately wanted another go (plus the Lich player had started to see some devious combos he could unleash with the right deck). 

There’s a couple extra rules for boss modes which aren’t too tricky to remember, but might take a few games to see the benefits. In particular, the “corruption” in the Lich pack means that once the Lich has a deck of over 20 cards, things get tougher for the heroes. This seems counter-intuitive, as your aim in most deck-builders is to keep your decks as lean as possible, but once you understand the risks and rewards, it gives an extra layer to the tactical choices made by the boss player. 

With this being a cooperative setup, you also need to work together. You can heal “nearby” players, those sat to your left or right, while also salvaging some goodies from your defeated allies’ decks (and with the Lich being quite powerful, this will probably be necessary).

To round off this gargantuan review, there’s also the campaign mode. This is a whole other beast and perhaps the best addition to this fantastic game.

A Campaign Mode, You Say?

Oh boy, yes. This is a fully-cooperative and deviously difficult, separate game mode.  It requires the base game and the character packs in order to work. It’s worth it though – this is where the whole game truly comes together.

The setup is as follows – you are a group of adventurers who find yourselves in the middle of a mysterious tavern brawl and must work together to overcome the challenges thrown at you. There will be encounter-specific hazards, enemies and dangers from all sides as you try to keep yourself and your party members alive.

The campaign works in a significantly different way to the other game modes. The “nearby” rules from the Lich mode are present, so you can only heal or assist players to your left or right. You now also have a “player area”, where some of the game’s enemies and hazards will come to target you specifically. 

These happen during the “master” turns in between each of the players’ turns, where the game fights back. This can cause significant problems for the next player – like having their champions knocked out, or the enemies having more defense. Paired with the usual attacks and enemies swarming this keeps the difficulty level high.

It’s a tense, challenging affair with a lot more to think about than the base game. The rulebook even warns players to wait until they are very comfortable with the base game before starting the campaign. While it’s tricky, and occasionally unfair, the campaign is also strangely addictive – the difficulty somehow makes the game more appealing to me! 

When (or perhaps if) you manage to succeed in the encounter, you will get to level up your character. Characters have ability and skill trees similar to other role-playing games.

You Level Up Your Character?

Yes indeed. Each character has one ability and one spell which they can use during encounters. They start off fairly weak, but by levelling up you get a better version of your ability, which stays with you throughout the rest of the campaign. 

My criticism of the character abilities in the standard game is vindicated by the higher-level versions you can use during the campaign – they make a massive difference! Knowing when to use these abilities is much trickier, as you have no idea how long each encounter will last, but you start to get a feel for it in later encounters. 

You can also choose to level up by increasing your starting health, giving you an extra buffer against the big baddies. During our playthrough we ignored those, as each encounter usually has a “lose condition” which comes around quickly, so focusing on damage output felt more important.

You also get access to treasures and special items – some only for the next encounter – which give players a little bit of an edge against the increasingly-challenging enemies. They tend to be simple one-off effects, but they are still a nice reminder of the progress you’ve made. 

What Does the Campaign Involve?

The campaign plays out over a series of story-based encounters, with each giving players encounter-specific hazards and enemies to overcome. Every encounter has a special win condition – usually beating the “master” – but some also have a slight variant on this. The master cards also radically change the challenges and difficulty, especially if the master manages to “level up” themselves.

Once you finish an encounter, there could be a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style choice to make, where you decide which encounter to take on next. Or perhaps the story will change based on decisions you made within earlier encounters. These give players an even greater sense of choice and progression throughout the campaign, as well as another reason to replay it.

My only criticisms with the campaign mode are that the special cards used could be more distinctive, so that you could separate them from the other decks and set up more quickly. 

There are also a couple of encounter-specific rules which felt a little broken (such as the “ritual” encounter) where it seemed like some outcomes hadn’t been accounted for in the rules as written. This could be easily fixed with a rules errata, and there are one or two typos which could be fixed at the same time.

Finally, while the campaign is definitely replayable, it does end after only 3 main encounters and could have a more satisfying conclusion. The Ruin of Thandar wraps up by offering another quest which requires a separate expansion to play through (The Lost Village). This was a little disappointing as it hasn’t been released yet… But by that point I was fairly hooked so I will probably end up picking up The Lost Village on day one!

Is it Better Than Star Realms?

In terms of the base game, it really comes down to whether you prefer a space or fantasy theme. The mechanics are virtually identical, but personally I find Hero Realms to be slightly less confusing and more approachable. The fantasy setting lends itself well to the style of game, and the cards are varied and well-designed.

The base game for Star Realms only supported 2-players, although it comes in a neat little portable box. However, getting up to 4-player games out of Hero Realms makes it a more appealing prospect for me. On top of that, each of the Star Realms expansion packs simply add new cards, which tweak the gameplay slightly but don’t radically change the experience. In contrast, each of the expansions for Hero Realms offer a totally different gameplay experience, with new rules, different player counts, and the campaign mode is simply excellent.

So for me, getting Hero Realms is an absolute no-brainer and will definitely get played more frequently due to the multitude of options available.

Final Thoughts

Hero Realms is a tight, accessible and rewarding deck-builder with plenty of game modes for various player counts. The base game is great and having a range of gameplay options gives this a good deal of replayability. 

Once you add in the character packs, a Boss pack if you fancy an all-v-one challenge, and the campaign expansion, then this game becomes truly fantastic. Dozens of hours of deck-building fun, lots of different strategies and a richly-rewarding experience for both new and veteran players means that this gets my whole-hearted recommendation!

Pros

  • The base game has a neat and tight rule set which gets you playing quickly
  • Simple and accessible gameplay (in the base game at least!)
  • Nice variety in the card powers with Champion/Guard/Allies offering depth and strategy
  • Health tracking cards are welcome 
  • Lots of game modes for different player counts (up to 6 with 2 core sets or character packs)
  • The campaign mode is satisfying and well-written, with definite scope to replay on a higher difficulty setting… or continue with the upcoming Lost Village box

Cons

  • The base game feels less complex than Star Realms (which I prefer but YMMV)
  • Rules for the campaign/bosses get a little convoluted, there’s a couple of typos and some odd cases where encounter-specific elements really slowed down the gameplay
  • The character packs are neat and work well for the campaign, but feel largely generic when used in standard PvP battles
  • Combat/Gold could perhaps have done with tokens to keep track, especially when smashing big combos
  • Some of the art feels a little “busy” and distracting, and some of the cards for the campaign mode could have done with a little more distinction for quick resetting

Rating: 5 out of 5.
5/5
Matt Tiernan
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