Card games within the board game scene blew up once Dominion made a splash in 2008, just as board games started hitting a certain quality and mainstream appeal. Since then, several released titles built on what Dominion did fifteen years ago, such as Thunderstone, Ascension, various video game intellectual property spin-offs (like Resident Evil), and Hero Realms. Released in 2016, Hero Realms, based in a medieval-fantasy world, bears a striking resemblance to the sci-fi iteration Star Realms, which released in 2014. Both were designed by Robert Doughterty and Darwin Kastle, with Wise Wizard Games serving as publisher.
So, why are we talking about a game back from 2016? In part because the game is still relevant today not just in terms of quality, but in its continuous release of expansions, including a stand-alone title coming up in 2024 titled Hero Realms Dungeons. I’ve had the good fortune to play Hero Realms over the past few weeks with my wife every other night or so, sometimes playing back-to-back games. While four can play, the game definitely feels tighter at two.
For the initiated, most will recognize the flow of gameplay and rules, as the skeleton is structurally similar to Dominion and its ilk. Each player starts with a deck of ten basic cards, mostly money and a couple of attack cards. Players always hold a hand of five cards and play all of their cards on their turn. Cards include money, attacks, champions that sit on the board with a small amount of health that attack or do various abilities, and action cards which act as instant effects. Once the player finishes shopping, attacking, and playing cards, they scoop up everything except their champions and put them into their discard. Draw five more cards, and then the other player takes their turn. Once the deck runs out or players can’t draw up to five cards, they shuffle their discard and form a new deck to draw from, including the enhanced cards they’ve purchased.
In the middle of the board lies an offering of five cards randomly drawn from the shop deck, which includes about a hundred unique cards with a few copies. Each market card has a cost, color type, and one or more various effects. Generally, the more expensive the card, the stronger it is, but what makes Hero Realms an enticing strategic endeavor is that greater is not always better. Creating a deck with synergy and one that enhances your specific strategy is going to outperform someone who always buys the most expensive card they can, though this is always an enticing option.
Aside from the interesting abilities, four color types with unique identities exist, and several of these are further enhanced when other cards of the same color are played in the same turn. For example, a card might offer money innately, but if that red card is played concurrently with another red card, then access to an “ally” ability provides additional attack. Attacks can damage an opponent, with the overall goal being to tear them down to zero health from fifty, though someone leaning into white may heal well beyond fifty health if they use this strategy.
Other colors like green lean into offense and deck manipulation, while red also deals significant offense while pruning your own deck of weaker cards. Blue boasts a heavy coin purse and the ability to instantly destroy an opponent’s creatures. Creatures, while important meatshields that stay in play, are often more expensive than action cards while achieving less in one turn. Some champions have a guard ability, which requires players to attack them first before striking an opponent or other creature.
At first glance, someone might play this game and see surface-level strategy with a heavy reliance on randomness or “luck of the draw.” My wife and I are both strategic people, and one of us found ourselves winning more often than the other after putting several games under our belt. Clearly, wise decision-making and knowing when to pivot on a strategy when the market doesn’t favor you is crucial. I can’t deny that card draws can pull the game in one direction or the other, but these moments can be thrilling when a plan comes together. At the same time, since a round of Hero Realms lasts twenty minutes or less, the ability to do a best of three or five (seven?) takes a significant amount of luck out of the equation. Thanks to the breezy nature of Hero Realms, hopping back in after a stellar victory or disappointing setback is easy.
Hero Realms is a fantastic short card game with enough to chew on to entice most people looking for a medium-to-light gaming experience. I wouldn’t say it’s the best game I ever played, but it serves its purpose as a fun time to trash talk or socialize over. My wife and I had some incredible comebacks where investing in a slow strategy and barely hanging on at single-digit life resulted in a shifting of the tides, basically see-sawing to a victory. These are exciting, memorable moments, and that’s what good gaming is all about. If the base game isn’t enough, several expansions exist, including cooperative and campaign-driven options, as well as one-vs-many challenges, though I haven’t had a chance to play these expansions and can’t speak to their quality. Wherever you land on board games, Hero Realms is a wonderful entry-level investment that will reach and entice a broad number of gamers.