Star Realms is a space combat deck-building game, in which each player has a personal deck of cards to represent their space armada. Each turn they use their turns to gain trade, combat, authority, and other important powerful effects. Players are trying to build up their armada in order to reduce their opponent’s score (Authority) to zero. It was designed by Magic Hall of Famers Darwin Kastle and Rob Dougherty. Rob Dougherty is also the co-designer of my other favorite deck-building game Ascension.
One of the main goals of Star Realms is to offer an inexpensive and portable game. One copy of the game comes with enough cards for two players. Multiple copies of the game may be added together for a four player game. Rules for both two and multiplayer are in included with each game. Because of this I am only going to go over the two player rules.
In one copy of the game there are 80 Trade deck cards, 16 Scout cards, 10 Explorer cards, and 4 Viper cards. For Authority cards there are 12 1/5 Authority and 6 10/20 Authority.
Each player begins the game with a deck of ten cards: eight Scouts and two Vipers. They also begin with 50 Authority. This can be tracked with the Authority cards or any way the players choose. For example you can use a life tracker or dice if you don’t want to use the cards.
The Explorer cards are placed face-up on the table as they are always available to the players. Next to them a space should be left for the scrap heap. The Trade Deck should be shuffled and five of the cards should be laid face up to form the Trade Row.
The starting player is chosen randomly. The first player draws three cards and the second player draws five from their deck. They then alternate taking turns.
A player’s turn has three phases: Main Phase, Discard Phase, and Draw Phase. The goal for players is to reduce their opponents Authority to zero.
During the Main Phase player can perform any of the following actions, in any order they choose. They can play cards from their hand, use the Primary Abilities of in-play Bases, use the Ally/ Scrap Abilities of in-play Ships and Bases, use Trade to acquire cards from the Trade Row, or use Combat to attack their Opponent and or their Opponent’s bases.
There are two types of cards in the deck: Ships and Bases. Cards are simply placed “in-play” or face-up in front of you, there is no cost to play a card. When a ship is played its primary ability immediately triggers. So if it says gain three combat, you immediately gain three combat. If it has an Ability and a Scrap ability, the player chooses which to use. They can use one or both. Ships are discarded at the end of a players turn.
Bases are different from Ships, they are not discarded at the end of the turn, and they remain in play until they are destroyed or scrapped. A player also may choose when, during a turn, they want to use their Bases primary ability.
The base has a Defense number. This is the amount an opponent must hit it with, in a single turn, to destroy it. Bases that are destroyed go into its owner’s discard pile. Outposts are special Bases. If a player has an Outpost, their Opponent must first target and destroy the Outpost. They cannot target any other Base or a player’s Authority until the Outpost is destroyed.
Other than the Primary Ability of a ship, a player can choose to use the different abilities of their in-play ships and bases, but each ability can only be used once. Static abilities are always in effect.
If an ability grants Combat or Trade goes into the resource pool and can be used during the Main Phase. If an ability lets a player choose between multiple effects the player should state what effect they are choosing. When an ability gives a player more Authority, it is immediately added to their Authority.
Ally Abilities – When a faction icon is in the text box an Ally Ability may be used. When a player has another Ship or Base with that faction in-play they may use the Ally Ability.
Scrap Ability – A trash icon on a card represents the Scrap Ability. This ability can be used at any time during the main phase by removing the card from the game and putting it the Scrap Heap.
Acquiring Cards – Cards with the coin icon give players Trade. Trade gained goes into the Trade Pool and can be used at any time during the Main Phase; this allows players to acquire cards from the Trade Row. To acquire a card, subtract the cards cost from your Trade Pool. Acquired cards go into your discard pile. When a card’s ability says to acquire a card, the player may immediately acquire a card without paying the cost. The Trade Row should always have five cards. Whenever a card is acquired, replace it with a new card from the Trade Deck.
Attacking – The red target icon on a card gives a player combat. Like Trade, Combat also goes into a player’s resource pool. Combat lets a player attack their opponent and the opponents Bases.
When a player attacks a base, they subtract Combat from their Combat Pool equal to the defense of the Base. The Bases is destroyed and goes into the players discard pile. A card may have a “Destroy Target Base” ability, when it does the target Base is destroyed and no Combat is subtracted.
You can also attack your opponent’s Authority directly. The amount of the combat equals the amount your opponents Authority that is subtracted.
Remember, a player must first attack an Outpost before they can target their opponents Authority or Bases.
After the Main Phase, discarded cards and cards acquired from the Trade Row are placed face-up in the Discard Pile. During this phase players lose any trade or combat remaining in their pool, they put the in-play ships and any cards still in your hand in the Discard Pile. Bases remain in play.
During the Draw Phase, players draw five cards and then their turn ends. If a players draw deck is empty, they shuffle their discard pile to form a new deck.
Star Realms artwork and graphic design are beautiful and clear. The icons are clear and easy to read whenever they come up in the Trade Row or in your hand. After a round or two, player will be familiar with what each icon represents whether it is trade, attack, Authority, Scrap or a Faction icon. The color coding and graphic design makes each faction distinct and clear. You will quickly recognize a Blob or Trade Federation ship. What I find really amazing is that the colors of each faction card really bring out that the color in the artwork. It makes for a very beautiful game. The writing is white on a black background, I find it easy to read but I know some people have trouble reading white on black. I also like that Star Realms avoids a lot of jargon that is found in other similar card games. There are just the few keywords you need to know (Trade / Attack / Authority/Scrap) and everything else is explained on the cards.
The card quality is nothing exceptional and nothing bad. The cards lay flat very well. Even after sitting in the sun for a bit our set didn’t curl at all. It can be annoying to shuffle cards that curl. The cards will show wear over time so some people will want to use sleeves. I’m not sure the game sleeved will fit back in the original box, but it should in a plastic deck box.
A great quality of the game is its small footprint, both on the game table and for storage. It is highly portable and doesn’t require a lot of space to play. Set-up is quick and easy and lets players get right to playing.
Even if you add a few decks together so more players can join in, it still doesn’t require a lot of room. With it’s good price point, you can easily buy a copy to keep at work and play with friends over a lunch break. One thing I’m not sure about is how to sort out the two copies of the game once they are mixed together. It wouldn’t be hard, just a bit tedious.
There is only one page, front and back, of rules for Star Realms. I think this makes it approachable to almost any player. The rules are easy to read, follow, and understand. There are not a lot of pictures (it’s only two pages long) but the graphic provided clearly explain the game. I do wish that the objective of the game “to reduce your opponent to zero Authority” was clearer at the beginning of the rules. It’s there but it is easy to miss. When teaching games I think it is good to start with how you win and I like when it is clearly stated at the beginning of the rules. This is just a personal preference and Star Realms does state it early in the rules, it just isn’t as clear as I feel it could be for players.
The rules are easy to remember and make sense once you start playing. We only had to look up one rule, to be sure, during our first few games. That rule was only if bases count for faction abilities of ships (they do). Multiplayer rules are included, but I haven’t played multiplayer yet so I’ll wait to talk about them later.
Star Realms has some similarities to other deck-building games but it does have unique qualities that make it different. The player versus player combat is one of the main differences. Instead of attacking monsters, you attack your opponents. I’m not always a fan of this in a deck-building game like Dominion, but I like it a lot in Star Realms. It isn’t as easy to reduce your opponent to zero authority, especially if they have Trade Federation cards that let them regain Authority. The puzzle of just how to outwit you opponent is a big draw of Star Realms.
Another big difference of Star Realms is the interplay and synergy of the Factions. It is pretty amazing how powerful your deck can become, and how different it can become, based on the Factions you use. Each faction has its own unique feel. It has been interesting to learn the strengths and weakness of each. Faction loyalty can make for a very powerful deck but can also leave you weak in other areas. For example, the Blobs are great at attacking, but don’t give you a lot of Trade. Finding the best synergy, with a little bit of luck, is going to be appealing to a lot of players. You can see the designers’ background in Magic coming through in this aspect of Star Realms. You can really mid / max your deck and focus on the best strategy to beat your opponent. But that strategy is going to change every game based on the available cards and what you opponent tries.
The Scraping abilities of cards can be very useful but they need to be used at the right time. What is going to be the best option for you? Scrap a base now to cause remove five of your opponents Authority or keep it for the ongoing ability. Bases and Outposts are great. They help offer defense and interesting abilities, but they don’t seem to last very long.
Turns in Star Realms are quick and there is minimal down-time. Players need to know what your opponent is doing, so you know their strategy and how to respond. The game also ramps up fairly quickly. In many other deck builders getting up to eight gold when take a large portion of the game, but this can be accomplished in a few turns of Star Realms.
The game is pretty straight forward and easy to play. People familiar with deck-building games will play with no trouble at all. New players may take a few turns to fully understand the interplay of the cards. They will pick it up quickly. With its clear icons and little jargon, Star Realms is one of the simpler deck building games to play. Game play is not overwhelming, and like many other great games, the hardest part is the strategy.
The cards for Authority work well and add to the portability of the game. If tokens were used, they may take away from that. It isn’t hard to keep track of your authority. You will need to do a little bit of adding and subtracting.
Star Realms is a unique deck builder with it faction synergies and PVP game play. It offers enough differences from other Deck-builders that it can fit into any collection. The simple rules and iconography will help new players learn the game and veterans build up their strategy.
The space theme is going to appeal to a lot of players. It isn’t my favorite theme, but as I play and look at the artwork I feel like I can build a story for each Faction and how they interact with each other. The theme really works for Star Realms.
The price-point and portability of the game is going to be another big draw. Many will also really enjoy exploring and building on the synergy of the factions. All of these make Star Realms a game with a bright future. I look forward to the first expansion that lets players play co-op or solo and the Gambits that give players unique powers. There is so much possibility for future expansion for anyone who looks for that in their games.
Designers: Robert Dougherty, Darwin Kastle
Publishers: White Wizard Games
Players: 2 (Up to 6 with multiple decks)
Game Length: 20 minutes
Ages: 12 and up