Our ‘How to Play’ series teaches you how to play some of the very best board games available on the Zatu store. We also share some handy tips and tricks to help you get one over your opponents. In this edition, we take a look at Star Realms by White Wizard Games.
Star Realms is a science fiction themed deck-building game from designers Darwin Kastle and Robert Dougherty. It’s a fast-paced game of battling space ships and space stations, in which the goal is to reduce all your opponents’ health to zero.
While the game allows for 2-4 players to be involved, it really plays best head to head, so that’ll be the focus of this how to play post. If you’re interested in playing with more people, however, there will be a short section on how to do so a little later.
All of Star Realms’ components are cards, so setting up the game is a matter of separating them out and arranging them in the right way. Start by giving each player a starter deck of 10 cards, featuring eight Scouts and two Vipers. These should be shuffled and placed face-down in front of each player. Then place the pile of Explorers in-between the players and give everyone a set of Authority cards if you’re going to use these (I prefer to use life counter apps that you can download on your phone).
Finally, shuffle the 80 Trade Deck cards together and place the deck face-down by the Explorers, before laying out the top five cards face-up to form the Trade Row. All that’s left is to randomly decide who’s going first, then you’re ready to play!
Playing the Game
Each turn, the turn-player will play as many cards as they want to from a hand of five. They will use the resources these cards generate to take actions. When they decide to end their turn, the player puts every card that they started the turn with in their personal Discard Pile, even if they didn’t use the card that turn.
They then draw a new hand of five cards, before play passes to the next player. If you don’t have enough cards in your deck to draw the full five, you draw what you can, then shuffle your discard pile to reform your deck and draw however many cards you need. You’ll do this multiple times throughout the game. The very first turn is the only exception. In this turn, the player going first is only allowed a hand of three cards.
Buying new cards for your deck
Star Realms is a deck-building game, which means that a key aspect of it is buying new cards from the Trade Row to improve your deck of 10 basic cards. To buy cards, you’ll use Trade, which is shown on the cards as a black number in a yellow circle. Each of your starting Scouts generates one Trade.
Every card in the Trade Row has a Trade cost, shown by the number in the top right corner (this is not the amount of trade that card will generate if you play it; that’s in the centre of the bottom half of the card). To buy a card, you have to be able to pay its full Trade value from the Trade you’ve generated in one turn. If you want to buy it, you pay that much Trade, and add the new card to your face-up discard pile.
Explorers can also be bought in this way – they’re a cheaper, always-available option if players can’t or don’t want to buy from the Trade Row. New cards will be shuffled into your deck once you run out of cards to draw. Unless a card effect specifically states otherwise, a card is never added directly to your hand or face-down deck.
Damaging your opponent
Another resource in the game is Combat. This is shown by a black number in a red symbol that looks sort of like cross-hairs. Combat is straightforward; how ever much you have in a turn is the total damage you can deal to an opponent that turn. You’re not going to win the game if you can’t generate any combat, so you can’t just spend your time buying more cards. Eventually you’re going to need to work out a way to get your opponent from 50 Authority to 0.
Players can also regain Authority from cards that generate Authority as a resource. This is shown by a black number in a green shield symbol.
Ships and bases
There are two types of cards that you’ll be buying to up the power of your deck: ships and bases. Ships play in the same way as the Scouts and Vipers you start with: you play them in a turn, they do something, then they go to your discard pile. You have to wait until you’ve reshuffled your deck to draw them and use them again. Ships, especially the more expensive ones, tend to have very powerful effects, and often generate multiple resources or give you some other abilities.
Bases, on the other hand, tend to be a little weaker in their effects compared to ships of the same cost, but they stick around. Bases don’t get discarded at the end of the turn; your opponent has to destroy them to get rid of them. For every turn they’re on the field, you get to keep using their effects!
For this reason, bases have a stat that ships don’t: Defence. This is a number in either a silver of black shield in the bottom right corner of the base card. To destroy a base, you have to be able to deal that amount of damage to it in one turn, and damage gets wiped at the end of every turn. If a base is destroyed, it’s not gone forever. It simply goes to the discard pile.
Bases with silver shields are regular bases; you can choose to attack them or to attack your opponents directly. If a base has a black shield, however, it’s an Outpost. Outposts have to be destroyed before you can attack anything else, so they have some real defensive merit.
Another key attribute of all Trade Row cards in Star Realms is their faction. This is shown by their colour and the symbol in the top left corner of the card. The factions are as follows:
- Blobs – Green cards with a double-circle symbol.
- Machine Cult – Red cards with a cog symbol.
- Star Empire – Yellow cards with a star symbol.
- Trade Federation – Blue cards with a cross symbol.
Factions are important because playing two cards of the same faction together will unlock bonus faction abilities on many cards. These abilities are shown next to a copy of the faction symbol towards the bottom of the card, and make that ship or base more powerful when activated. These bonus abilities are a big reason to try and focus on one or two factions if you can.
While most cards simply generate one of the three resources I mentioned, there are a couple of other keywords that some of the cards have in their text boxes:
- Scrap – This allows you to permanently get rid of a card from your deck; a great way to weed out your weaker starting cards. Some cards also have scrapping abilities, which means you can permanently get rid of them for an additional boost that turn.
- Discard a card – Some cards force other players to discard cards, which means they must put a card from their hand into their discard pile at the end of your turn.
- Draw a card – Immediately draw a card from your deck (shuffling your discard pile if necessary). You can use that card in the same turn.
Tips and tricks
For such a cheap, compact game Star Realms has a lot of strategic depth. I’m not claiming to be an expert in it, but having played it fairly extensively I’ve picked up a few pointers here and there.
Have a plan
With the ability to buy new cards every turn, it’s tempting to just add whatever looks good to your deck. However, you’re going to be much more successful if you buy cards with a strategy in mind. Some basic strategies include:
- Increasing your deck’s spending power to buy the most expensive (and powerful) cards as soon as possible.
- Buying as many Combat-centric cards as quickly as possible to kill your opponents fast.
- Focusing on specific factions to make use of as many faction abilities as possible.
Good strategies look different from game to game. If you know your opponent is buying better, more expensive cards than you then you probably need to go aggressive to kill them before they get the chance to use them all. On the other hand, if the Trade Row is filling up with six, seven and eight cost cards then the key to winning the game is probably having a deck with enough trade to buy them as soon as possible. Whatever your strategy is in your mind, always be aware of what you have in your deck and where its weaknesses are.
Recognise the phases of the game
The way I played Star Realms was transformed when I read an article by the designers that talked about the phases of play. Essentially, a typical game can be broken down into three phases, or stages, and if you can recognise which phase the game’s in, you can adapt your strategy accordingly.
- Early stages (50-40ish Authority points) – You generally want to be buying better cards for your deck and consolidating your faction choices.
- Mid stages (40-30ish Authority points) – Trade becomes less valuable and you need to be focusing on cards that damage your opponent and keeps you alive.
- Late stages (30-0 Authority points) – You should only be buying new cards that really fit your deck well. Trade is much less relevant and you need to get every ounce of value out of your cards, including scrapping many or all of the ones that have scrapping bonuses.
Don’t forget about your opponent
It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to be so focused on your deck that you forget what your opponent is doing with theirs. Your card choices should take into consideration their strategy. If they’re going aggressive, Outposts and cards that give you Authority should go up in your estimation. If they have a Trade-heavy deck, consider going more aggressive. If they’re clearly gunning for certain factions, try competing with them or using card abilities to scrap cards in the Trade Row.
You shouldn’t let your whole plan be dedicated to countering your opponent, but your chances of winning look a lot better if you’re aware of their plans and can alter your strategy to account for them.
I mentioned earlier that I’d touch on multiplayer variants, so I’ll include some here before we finish. The rule sheet doesn’t give you any variants, assuming that you’ll just play a free-for-all, but the rule sheet for the major expansion, Colony Wars, does give some ideas. The two variants I like best are the following:
- Hunter (for 3+ players) – Players can only attack the Authority of the player on their left and can only attack the bases of the players on their left and right.
- 2-Headed Hydra (for 4 players) – Players are in two teams of two with a starting Authority total of 75. Teams take it in turn, rather than players. Players may pool Trade and Combat to destroy opposing bases and buy cards, but decks are kept separate.
There’s so much more I could go into, but the fun of this game lies largely in discovering it for yourself. Happy space battling!