Developer: Hardscore Games
Price: FREE
Version Reviewed: 1.08
App Reviewed on: iPad 2

Graphics / Sound Rating: ★★★★☆
Gameplay Rating: ★★★★☆
Playtime Rating: ★★★★½
Replay Value Rating: ★★★★☆

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

I hate to keep returning to Hearthstone as a point of reference throughout this review, as Hardscore Games’ Star Admiral most definitely stands as a solid offering in its own right, but it quite clearly treads strongly on the path that Blizzard’s wildly successful digital collectable card game has already paved. Take the core CCG formula, strip away excess complexity, and distill what remains into a refined essence wrapped in a visually appealing skin. Only Star Admiral takes it a touch further still.

While Hearthstone replaced the visuals of cards in play on a virtual tabletop with stylish little cameo portraits that shake and thump and slide their way around the virtual tabletop, Hardscore rips the tabletop conceit out completely and tosses the whole mess into deep space. Cards? What do you mean, cards? We’re battling with spaceships, baby!

Star AdmiralWith ships replacing the various monsters and minions, Traps taking the place of Secret cards, and Strikes serving to fill the gap for other generic spells, players of Hearthstone will feel instantly comfortable with Star Admiral’s basic format and pacing. However, it only sports three playable factions: Empire, Moxxu, and Shadow. These factions function kind of like the other game’s character classes in that each one has certain exclusive cards, but they sadly lack any sort of inherent class-specific powers of their own. There’s also a crafting system and a number of Elite variant skins to please the completists and collectors out there.

Where things begin to differ a bit is in Star Admiral’s resource management mechanic. Instead of a steady forward march of one extra mana per turn, the energy pool used to draft units in Star Admiral is increased by sacrificing a card from the player’s hand at the beginning of each turn. This adds some thoughtful consideration to the proceedings. Do I want to scrap this expensive card I drew early in favor of being able to get more of my weaker ships out sooner? Or do I sit on it and instead scrap Traps or Strikes that may be weak now, but could potentially turn the tide later in the game?

Star AdmiralIn its current state, Star Admiral really only suffers in that matches (at least in my experience) tend to be a bit one-sided and the overall presentation is a bit on the dry side. Also, the interface, relying on large graphical elements as it does, can sometimes take a bit of scrolling around (mostly in the crafting and deck… err, sorry, “fleet” management screens). And it would certainly be nice to have more factions on offer, or at least something more than a smattering of exclusive cards to make them feel distinct from one another. But these quibbles are tiny in the face of how much enjoyment Star Admiral provides without demanding a single penny from you.

As more board and tabletop games are making their way into the virtual space with digital adaptations, it’s inevitable that a new generation of natively digital products, built by the players who loved and were inspired by these classics, would follow the groundwork they laid without ever printing a single card, plastic token, or game board. Star Admiral is just one of the offerings on this vanguard crest of the new digital tabletop that exists inside of our smartphones and tablets. And while there may not yet be as much competition in this space as there is in other corners of the App Store, Star Admiral still rides comfortably high on the strength of a well-executed concept.

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