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My 5-Year-Old Son is a Star Realms Automata – or – The Difference Between a Game and a Lottery

Star Realms Frontiers Box CoverBefore we begin, you need a bit of background on what a Star Realms Automata is.

Star Realms, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a expandable, tabletop, deck-building, engine-building, science fiction card game with open drafting and a take-that mechanism.

And for all of you for which the previous sentence made absolutely no sense: Star Realms is a card game where you buy star ships and bases, then use those to buy better star ships and better bases, and use them to damage and destroy your opponent.

An Automata is an algorithm, a way of performing actions for an opponent when you want to play a multiplayer tabletop game on your own.

Put them together, and you get someone who plays Star Realms according to set rules. That’s my son.

He has no idea what an Automata is. He’s got a very limited idea of what Star Realms is, other than the pictures being cool, some numbers dealing damage to me, and other numbers giving life to him, and that both numbers help him win.

Because he does win. A lot.

When he first became interested in playing Star Realms, I gave him a lot of advantages. I removed some crap cards (three scouts and a viper for you Star Realm aficionados) from his starting deck, and gave him a decent card (an explorer). I had to help him read the cards, and explain the concept of damage, trade, and life to him, but he beat me handily. From that moment on, my 5-year-old was a Star Realms fiend.

More background. Cards in Star Realms have a cost that you need to pay, using other cards, to acquire them. Better cards are more expensive. Remember that, it’s important.

As my son kept beating me, he started learning to recognize patterns of words. He can’t read, yet he’s quite comfortable in knowing what “Draw a card,” “Destroy target base,” or even “Target opponent must discard a card” means. Some cards, he recognizes by their image, and the recognition is followed by an enthusiastic exclamation: “this is the ship that copies other ships,” or “this is the good one that blew you up.” As long as he keeps winning, he wants to keep playing.

Therein lies the crux of the matter.

I want my son to keep winning, but I don’t want to throw any games. I hate losing on purpose. Never could stand it. Even when I knew that my wife wouldn’t play games that she didn’t win an overwhelming amount of time, I couldn’t throw the game.  Throwing a game makes it boring to me. Playing Star Realms with my son, I don’t have to.

I just give him an advantage.

He’s got the advantage of being faster (having a smaller deck to cycle through, and a head start on his purchasing engine with the explorer that yields double the amount of trade than the regular scouts.) In his first games, he also got additional heath, 70, instead of the standard 50 life (or authority, if you want to go all in on the Star Realms terminology.)

I stopped doing that after the game where he beat me with 116 life to zero. I’ll get back to that.

After a few games, my son stopped asking me what to do. He developed a very clear strategy:

  1. Buy the most expensive card you can afford.
  2. If you you have any trade left, see 1.

With a faster starting deck, that was enough for him to crush me every single time. So I started decreasing his advantage (he’s got no idea how to prepare the starting decks, and relies upon me to do it, which gives me plenty of opportunity to fine-tune the algorithm for maximum fun and pleasure for us both.)

This allows me to play as good as I can, and him to win consistently.

He still has no idea what he’s doing, only that expensive cards are good. Since I’ve got the Frontiers and Colony Wars expansions, there are too many cards for him to memorize them all (although he is trying). No, he’s playing on a single heuristic: is the card expensive?

And he’s winning.


By now, I’ve cut back his advantage to exchanging a single scout for an explorer – he’s still got 10 cards in his deck, and now, I can occasionally win. Not always, but occasionally.

I don’t claim to be the greatest Star Realms player, but I do have an understanding of how the working parts of the game fit together. I’ve been playing games for over forty years, and I’ve been deigning games, on and off, for over twenty. Some of those games have been interesting enough to garner me positive interest from publishers (haven’t sold any yet, but then, for the past eight years, I’ve been putting my time into writing rather than game design.) I’m not a newb.

I still lose.

Which (since you now have enough background to understand it) brings me to the other part of the title, the “Difference Between a Game and a Lottery.”

We can recognize a lottery when we see it. Spin the wheel, fail to win the giant box of stale chocolates. Buy the scratch card and hand over your loonies (that’s a Canadian term, look it up) for the dream of millions. Sit in on old-people’s bingo night for the chance of an inheritance. Or just decent cake, if your grandparents are the baking kind.

A lottery is luck. You can’t affect it.

A game is something else.

In a game, you have choices. Real choices. You build a ship, or a panzer division, or a Hotel on Park Lane. You focus on engine building, or destroying your enemy, or figuring out where the dropping piece or the flappy bird should go. You act, and the game responds.

You can definitely act in Star Realms. Your actions affect the game, somehow. Except when they don’t.

Star Realms is random. Very random. You might draw a combination of cards that allows you to buy the hyper-mega-uber-good super-ship in the trade row, or you pick up a set of cards that falls just one short, and you’ve got nothing worth buying except crap that will dilute your deck. Random means that a beginner can win against a master.

Because a game should be able to have a master. In a lottery, there are no masters. If you win the lottery, you don’t increase your chances of winning it again (in a fair lottery, there are lotteries that are mathematically unfair, meaning that they can be affected by outside events, which makes the smart mathematician with deep pockets able to game them – look up the concept, it’s a fascinating read.)

Which brings us back to Star Realms. It’s a massively popular game, with millions of games being played online, and statistics available. Great Star Realms players have a win ratio of some 60+ percent.

That means that if you’re the best Star Realms player in the world, you still have a one-in-three risk of losing to a raw beginner.

A simple automata, following the rule of buy the most expensive card with the coolest picture, can beat you.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, when you want to play against someone who doesn’t have your experience with gaming, it’s a great thing. You can do your worst, and, perhaps with a small advantage, they can still beat you. You’re playing on an almost level playing ground.

Which brings us to the line between games and lotteries. A lottery is a perfectly level playing ground. A game is an uneven one. The less randomness and hidden information you’ve got, the more uneven the playing ground. In a perfect information game like Chess or Go, a beginner has no chance against a master. In fact, even slightly better players can pull stunts like playing 32 simultaneous, timed games and winning them all.

There’s no way you could do that in Star Realms. Not without massive amounts of cheating, or selling your soul to that guy hawking those super-sharp knives on late-night TV.

And yet, Star Realms doesn’t feel like a lottery.

Star Realms CardThat’s because there’s an illusion of control. Part of that is real control – you can choose what card to buy. Even if there is an obviously best card, you can choose to buy a different card. In rare cases, that might be the right way to go. That’s what gives a master a slight advantage over a beginner.

But there’s a second aspect to the illusion of control: you’re the one playing your cards.

Even though you’re given the cards by a lottery (shuffled deck.) Even though you have almost no control over what they do (in rare cases, you might not want to use all the abilities on a card, or even not play it.) Even though you don’t actually control much, you feel that you’re the one doing the playing.

You’re the one inflicting that turn of crushing, 34-points-wroth-of, damage to your opponent. Because you bought those cards. Because you prepared for this turn. Because you survived long enough to make the cards count.

There’s a lesson here. Just like a scratch card buyer will pick a card that feels lucky, or is hung on a clothes peg with their favorite number on it, and then feel that they have a hand in their win, Star Realms players feel that they contribute to the win.

We’re wired that way. Our brains are quite willing to accept that any advantage, no matter how random or unfair, is by our doing, and any disadvantage is random chance, or bad luck, or an unfair setup. You don’t need to study the loads of psychology experiments featuring Monopoly that shows players given an unfair advantage accepting it, and thinking the outcomes of the games are due to their own brilliance (and they eat a larger share of the complimentary pretzels, too.)

All you need to do, is watch a 5-year-old.

Anything that goes against them is unfair. Anything where they win is fair. It’s how we’re made. We object to the world not accepting that our wishes should be the literal truth.

As a game designer, you can use that. Give a player enough illusions, and they’ll accept randomness and processes as their control. There’s a different tack to this, too: give a player enough complexity, and they will view the outcome as randomness.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

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