- Publisher: White Wizard Games
- Designers: Robert Dougherty, Darwin Kastle
- Players: 2 (There are multiplayer rules for 3 to 6 with more decks – haven’t tried.)
- Ages: 12+
- Playing Time: 20min
- MSRP $14.99
- Release: 2014
- Reviewed by: Mary Dimercurio Prasad
- Game Played: Review Copy
- Number of Plays: 4
Forge your own star realm. Build up your military through shipping and trade, then use your mighty fleet of warships to protect what’s yours and take what isn’t… Star Realms combines the fun of deckbuilding games with the interactivity of trading card game-style combat. As you play, use trade to add new ships and bases to your deck. When played, those ships and bases generate powerful effects, additional trade, and combat to attack your opponent and their bases. If you reduce your opponent’s score to zero, you win! (From the back of the box.)
Each player starts with 50 Authority (life points) and a deck of 10 ship cards, representing their space armada: 8 Scout, 2 Viper. Players play cards from their hands to gain Trade, Combat, Authority, as well as effects to help them in the game. The goal of the game is to reduce the opponent’s Authority to zero.
At the start of the game, ten Explorer (ship) cards are placed in a stack, made available for purchase. Five cards will be drawn from the center Trade Deck and laid out in a display, forming a trade row of cards, also available for purchase. Each time a card is bought it is immediately replaced with one from the Trade Deck.
Players build their decks as they play. Trade, the money in the game, is used to purchase other cards: ships and bases. These cards are used to provide protection (base outposts), gain life (Authority), attack the opponent or his bases (Combat), and gain money (Trade) to buy more ships and bases. All Combat and Trade go into a pool, which may to be spent over the course of your turn.
Bases are the only cards that, once played in front of a player, may stick around from turn to turn (granted they aren’t destroyed). There are two types of bases, non-outpost and outpost. Outposts provide protection since these must be destroyed before an opponent may attack you or your other bases.
Icons, representing factions, on cards give you extra abilities when they match icons on bases or ships in play in front of you. There are four factions in Star Realms: Blob (green), Trade Federation (blue), Star Empire (yellow), and Machine Cult (red). They all have a mix of abilities but blue is the only one that gives a player Authority; it also has a lot of Trade. Red is good for scrapping cards. Yellow is strong at making the opponent discard and allowing you to draw cards. Green has more of the heavy Attack cards.
Players take alternating turns, with each turn having three phases: Main Phase, Discard Phase, Draw Phase. During the Main Phase, the following actions may be performed in any order:
- Play cards from your hand.
- Use the abilities on your ships and/or bases.
- Use Trade to acquire new cards
- Use Combat to attack your opponent and/or their bases
Played cards go face up in front of you. Trade and Combat are pooled and may be used at any time during your turn. Acquired cards go into your discard pile – not into play.
Each ability may be used once per turn and include things like adding Combat or Trade to their respective pools, drawing cards, gaining Authority, acquiring a card (e.g. without having to pay the cost in Trade), scrapping a card, and destroying a base (e.g. without having to use Combat). The Scrap ability allows you to trash a card – removing it from your deck – usually to gain some other ability. Some cards give you a choice of abilities.
During the Discard Phase you lose any remaining Trade and Combat, put all ship cards you played into your discard pile, and put any cards left in your hand into the discard pile. Finally, during the Draw Phase, you draw five cards and your turn ends. If your draw pile becomes empty, you shuffle your discard pile to form a new draw pile.
Full rules are available on the Star Realms website.
Star Realms is a fairly quick deck building game that seems a bit more streamlined in comparison to other games in the genre. Many cards have more than one ability, usually when affiliated with a faction already in play, although some give you the choice to scrap itself for another ability – this is in addition to its other abilities, which may be played before scrapping.
One faction (red/Machine Cult) is particularly strong at scrapping. Scrapping cards helps create a thinner and more efficient deck. This way, cards purchased at the start of the game that may be of less use in the latter part of the game may be removed rather than clog up your deck.
Game play should be fast (as long as players keep it moving) with a lot of decisions along the way. You are rewarded when choosing cards of the same faction (i.e. with more abilities). But even if you don’t get the faction you need into play, the cards are still useful. Having the fixed pile of Explorer cards available from the beginning of the game is also useful for a fairly cheap (cost two) card that gives you two Trade and may be scrapped to add two Combat to your pool.
As with many card games, there is the luck factor in both what you draw and what is on display. This could be (and has been in my case) detrimental at the start of the game if your opponent is first and gets some useful cards but leaves nothing useful for you. Luck may swing back but it may also be too late. At least it’s a fast game. If this is bothersome, you might be able to alleviate the luck a bit by having a smaller display for the start player (haven’t tried it though).
Star Realms is not only a good introduction to deck building games, but also to board gaming in general. It’s about the same difficulty as Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne but usually takes much less time to play. It’s also a surprisingly satisfying game – engaging and fun – with enough depth to interest even hard-core gamers. As a bonus, it’s quite portable; it fits in one fairly small box.
The artwork is really beautiful and very thematic. The icons are easy to read. The text is a bit small – especially if you are trying to read the opponent’s cards, which may be an issue with some players. The flavor text is particularly difficult to read but luckily isn’t necessary for game play. The cards have a clear coat and smooth finish. I did a quick bend test (end to end) – they held up fine. The box may wear out much more quickly than the cards. I actually sleeved my cards and put them all in a tin box. But I’m obsessive about my games.
The only real complaint I have is I wish they did not double-side the Authority point cards: 1/5 and 10/20. While it makes the game slightly more compact and maybe a little less expensive, it is confusing to new players. Even experienced players will muddle around trying to calculate their current score with card flips. Also, if a card gets dropped off the table, it is difficult to remember what side it was on. I would rather have had more cards, double sided with the same value, even if it meant a slightly higher price point and larger deck.
All considered, at just under $15, it’s a real bang for the buck. I highly recommend picking up a copy.
Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:
Mark Jackson: Mary did a wonderful job of summing up the game play and the advantages of the game. I’d like to sing the praises of the excellent iOS/Android/computer app for playing Star Realms. As other OG writers note, it makes playing the game both portable and easy to blow through the game as a “I have 10 minutes to kill” exercise in fun.
The expansions (the Gambit pack and the 4 Crisis decks) can make the game a bit more swing-y… but with the short playing time, I don’t find that to be a problem. My sons and I often play the game a couple of times in a row – and a third game if we split the first two to determine who is the master of the Star Realms universe.
One note: none of us have mentioned that you can play with 3-4 players with a second deck added… but I haven’t played that way as the game feels like it was designed for two players.
Patrick Brennan: It’s a nice two player deckbuilder, with the traditional two currency format – gold for buying new cards from the shared draft (Legendary/Ascension style) and attack value. Instead of killing monsters, you’re inflicting damage directly on your opponent. All the same pros and cons of Ascension … getting lucky on whether synergistic cards are available to buy helps a lot, as does deck thinners. I mark it down a little because of the simplicity of the direct conflict (there’s one less decision point on what to attack each turn) but others will mark it higher for that. It’s fast, the rules are easy. The pool of available cards is probably a little limited for extensive replay, but I’m sure that the inevitable expansions will fix that.
Fraser: I have played the physical version of this a few times and on the iPad on quite a bit more often. Only the base game, two player in both cases. I quite like it and as Patrick has mentioned there are parallels to Ascension. In my experience matching your factions (or suits) seems to be more important than it is in Ascension (except for the most recent expansions anyway).
For me the iOS version pales in comparison to Ascension, that’s not to say it is bad per se, but it is just nowhere near as good as Ascension (which is a poster child for UI design for me along with the ancient Amiga game Deuteros). If I were playing the physical game more often I would replace the Authority point cards with tokens or poker chips. A nice deck-builder with enough differences from the others to be worth trying out.
Greg Schloesser: Star Realms is unabashedly a Dominion derivative. The mechanisms are extremely similar. It actually bears more in common with other Dominion offshoots such as Ascension and the DC Comics Deck Building Game. As with these two games, Star Realms is simpler and easier to play than Dominion, although it is by no means a difficult game. However, Star Realms doesn’t have intricate strategies and myriad of card combinations present in Dominion. But perhaps time will bring it closer, as there are already numerous expansion packs.
The game is quite a nice achievement, capturing the flavor of Dominion and its clones in a purer, fast-paced game that can be played in less than a half hour. Decisions need to be made, but they are usually made quickly. There are strategies and tactics to employ, but they are not too intricate or delicate. While expansions are available, none appear to take the game too far beyond what truly makes it shine: its simplicity and purity.
Matt Carlson: I, too, have primarily played the iOS version (although many games against a human opponent) and have only played the game with two players. I like the compactness of the game (a single small deck) and the price point. The two-resource system (attack and purchase) makes the game slightly more complex than vanilla Dominion. I find the “attacking” mechanic simpler to explain and execute than collecting victory points. Dominion has easier card combos, but has just the one main resource. The “chaining” of faction cards to earn bonuses is a bit more abstract. Thus, I find a wise setup of Dominion a better way to teach deckbuilding mechanics. Star Realms, however, does have the advantage of easy portability. Of note, there are a couple official “suggestions” for playing the game solo or cooperatively vs sort of modified AI. It is fun, useful for introducing the game, and something you don’t see in Dominion (nor, I think Ascension.)
Actual gameplay in Star Realms is very quick, making that transition from early-game crafting a deck into late-game using the deck happen very quickly. In fact, skipping the deck crafting almost entirely and just focusing on a beat-down strategy can sometimes be efficient. I often wish I could have continued the game just a bit longer, as my deck was just getting up to speed. The speed of the game limits the number of interesting card-combos (beyond faction matching) that can be achieved. However, the short timeframe is part of the nature of the game and needs to be taken into account as part of the strategy.
I find Star Realms fun, but second to the deeper, more complex Dominion. However, its portability, its quick setup, and its fast play make it a go-to game in many situations where Dominion isn’t as good a fit. Its size, fast play, and price point earn it a spot in my long-term game library.
Dan Blum: Yet another deckbuilder where the cards you get to buy each turn are random. I haven’t seen one of those yet I thought was much good and this didn’t change my opinion. Combining that source of randomness with the random draws each turn is just too much, and in particular making the available purchases random tends to remove the main decision points of a deckbuilder, namely what’s best to buy each turn. The one time I played, I usually had no option about what to buy, and on most other turns I in theory had a limited choice but the correct choice was obvious. Since actually playing the cards is not that involved… where’s the game, exactly?
I can sort of see the appeal of playing the app version, since I expect a player who knows the cards can blow through a game in a minute or two. Playing with actual cards, forget it.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:
- I love it! Mary Prasad, Mark Jackson
- I like it: Patrick Brennan, Fraser, Matt Carlson
- Not for me… Dan Blum