Board Game Reviews: Star Realms


Nikhil Vyas

Star Realms is a game published by White Wizard Games. It was designed by Rob Dougherty and Darwin Kastle.

It’s a duel to conquer the cosmos. Ready your ships and bases for combat and be prepared to recruit ships for your fleet. You’ll also have to choose which alliances to invest in to be the ultimate victor.

Star Realms is a deck-building combat style game where players start with basic cards and buy more powerful cards  to bring their opponent’s authority down to zero. A single copy of Star Realms allows two players to play, but you can purchase multiple copies to play with up to six players. You can fully enjoy the game experience in just 30 minutes. Let me teach you how to play, and then I’ll tell you what I think of it.

How to Play

Each player will sort their double-sided authority cards so that the total amount face-up is 50. You’ll use these cards during the game to track how much authority you have.

Shuffle the trade deck and place five face-up cards between both players to form the trade row. Put the stack of explorers on one side of that row.

Each player starts the game with a deck of eight scouts and two vipers. (Nikhil Vyas)

Each player will get a 10-card starting deck comprised of eight scouts and two vipers. Scouts have a one trade symbol on them, and vipers have a one combat symbol. Players will have five cards at the start of each turn.

On your turn, you may play cards in your hand, buy cards with trade, and attack the opponent with their combat. You’ll then discard all cards in play and draw five new cards for your next turn. Whenever a player runs out of cards in their deck to draw, they shuffle their discard pile to form a new deck. The first player only draws three cards to start the game.

All your starting cards are weak, so you’ll want to use the trade provided by your scouts to buy new ships and bases. Most of the time, you will buy cards from the trade row. The card’s cost is shown in the upper right corner, faction on the upper left corner, and abilities at the bottom. Whenever you buy a card from the trade row, put the gained card in your discard pile, and immediately replace it with one from the top of the deck. You may buy any number of cards as long as you have enough trade. Explorers are always available to buy.

You can always buy explorers with your extra trade. You also can scrap them for two combat when you no longer want them in your deck. (Nikhil Vyas)

When your deck empties, your discard pile, which includes newly bought cards, forms a new deck. You’ll play cards from the trade row the same way you play your starting cards. Rather than only giving one trade or combat, these cards provide more resources. They also may have other effects, like drawing cards.

Your starting cards and explorers are unaligned ships. The cards you buy from the trade row are part of a faction. Some extra abilities of a card are next to a faction symbol, matching the card played. To get this alliance bonus, you must have another card from the same faction in play.

Some abilities are next to a trash can symbol. Those are scrap abilities, which you can activate by placing the card from your play area into the scrap heap. You can only use a card’s scrap ability once because you remove the card from your deck after using it. You still get the other abilities from the card if you use a scrap ability.

Most cards are played and then discarded at the end of the turn. They are called ships. Bases are read horizontally and differ in that they stay in play every turn. When played, bases can have alliance and scrap abilities, just like ships. At the end of your turn, do not discard any of your bases from play. If those bases are still in play on your next turn, you can use their abilities again.

In this player’s play area, the Missile Bot lets the player scrap a card from their hand or discard pile, removing it from the game. They get one combat from the Blob Wheel, and must choose what to receive from Defense System and Trading Post. The alliance ability on the Missile Bot does not trigger since there are no other red cards in play. However, the player does get two combat from the Defense System’s alliance bonus because the Trading Post is in play. Lastly, the player could scrap the Trading Post and Blob Wheel for additional rewards because they have a scrap ability. During the opponent’s turn, the Trading Post and Defense System must be destroyed before the Blob Wheel and the player’s authority can be attacked, since the Trading Post and Defense System are both outposts. (Nikhil Vyas)

The only way to remove a base from your opponent is to use combat. Before you end your turn, you should count your total combat. Usually, you will attack your opponent directly. They adjust their authority cards so that the new total is one less per combat you attacked with. If your opponent has a base in play, you can use combat to destroy it. The number of combat needed to remove a base is shown in the lower right corner of it. White numbers in a black shield mean that the base is an outpost. You must destroy all outposts before you can attack your opponent’s authority or any of their non-outpost bases. If the base has a black number in a white shield, you are not required to attack it, but you may want to do so that your opponent doesn’t benefit from it every turn. When you destroy a base, it goes into your opponent’s discard pile.

Players will take turns playing cards, buying cards for their deck, and attacking with combat until one player reaches zero authority. The other player wins.

Final Thoughts

Star Realms is a fantastic game, but it will only appeal to certain people. If you are interested in the space combat theme, you will probably like this game. It’s simple enough that non-gamers interested in the theme would like it. From my experience, people who don’t like the theme don’t have much fun playing it.

This game is great because of the deck-building aspect, which makes Star Realms different from other two-player combat games. In other games in this genre, players get a starting deck based on a character and deal with complicated terminology. Ultimately, those games are usually decided by the luck of the draw or difference in experience level.

Each color represents a faction, which has one ability that no other faction can provide. The blue cards allow you to gain authority. The red cards let you scrap cards from your deck. The green cards let you scrap cards from the trade row. The yellow cards can make your opponents discard cards. (Nikhil Vyas)

In Star Realms, everyone starts on an equal playing field and gets to create their deck however they want. I enjoy having the four factions and alliance bonuses because they force you to limit the number of different factions you add to your deck to maximize those bonuses. Each faction has a different feel with the amount of trade and combat it provides and the ability you can only get from each faction. The deck-building nature of the game means that it is up to you to create the most efficient deck.

You don’t need a reference card to know what cards do. While lists of words that each mean different things haunt new players from other games, such as Magic: The Gathering, the only symbols you need to know for Star Realms are the trade, combat, alliance, and scrap abilities, which are all self-explanatory.

Like in most games, experienced players can easily crush new players. While that might sound discouraging, especially for an easy game to learn, it also means that the game has substantial amounts of strategy compared to its luck. The luck in the game comes from how your deck shuffles and what cards appear in the trade row. It’s always nice to get cards of the same faction in the same turn to get alliance bonuses. Still, it’s annoying when you are one combat short of destroying your opponent’s outposts. However, you shuffle your deck enough times for all of that to even out. It’s usually more important that you are buying the best cards for your deck. How you manage the trade row is more significant than the order of the cards in your deck.

The authority cards show each player’s total authority. Using the cards is more difficult than it needs to be. (Nikhil Vyas)

It’s also worth noting the gorgeous artwork. It’s evident that a lot of effort went into designing excellent artwork for each different card in the game. The only minor negative on the components is the authority cards, which are hard to use. You have to overthink about what cards to flip over to show your new value. I am not sure if they have changed it to a two-card system they included in recent Star Realms games.

Another plus for Star Realms is that you can easily find it online for $15. Star Realms advertises that you can play with up to six players by getting multiple copies. However, you should look into other Star Realms expansions before getting many copies of the same game.

Since it is easy to learn, has a unique deck-building mechanism, strategic depth, low price, and brilliant artwork, people interested in space combat, 2-player combat games, or deck-building games should definitely check out Star Realms. For those reasons, I give Star Realms an 8.5 out of 10.

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