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Star Realms

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This has to be one of the easiest and best two-player games ever! Star Realms from White Wizard Games takes a couple of minutes to set-up and learn and then provides so much fun that you will want to play again and again, straight after finishing the first bout. It includes the classic deck builder mechanism where you both start off with the same cards and shuffle, deal and build yo…
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Golden Geek
Great For Two
Golden Pear


  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You Might Like

  • Short set-up and play times.
  • Simple and addictive game mechanic.
  • Well-supported game with a range of expansions available.
  • Travel-friendly.

Might Not Like

  • Makes a packet of Quavers look heavy.
  • Card artwork is at times mediocre.
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This has to be one of the easiest and best two-player games ever! Star Realms from White Wizard Games takes a couple of minutes to set-up and learn and then provides so much fun that you will want to play again and again, straight after finishing the first bout. 

It includes the classic deck builder mechanism where you both start off with the same cards and shuffle, deal and build your space arsenal from there. There are four different factions that you can buy up as and when they become available in the a market. Each of them giving you different advantages and abilities. You’re free to buy any of the cards from any factions but the more of one faction you have helps you in chaining card abilities together for a longer and stronger attack.

Your health starts out at 50 and is knocked down or healed up using the clever double-sided Health Point cards. Space Bases and defences will help you a long the way, that is until your opponent delivers the motherland of an attack and destroys them and injures as well in the process.

What to play this game with four of you? No problem, buy and extra pack and add them both together as this game scales for complete galactic carnage! A good recommendation on this would be to get Star Realms and Colony Wars (its sequel) and smash them together!

The art and design is on point,  keeping the players immersed in the sci-fi theme, and with so many smaller expansions for this game that bring in new twists and space blob turns, this is a game with tons of cosmic replay-ability within it. So much game for so small a price tag! Do it! 

Player Count: 2
Time: 20 Minutes
Age: 12+


Ever fancied destroying an interstellar empire but always found yourself a little short on time? Star Realms provides the solution – pocket-sized galactic annihilation in as little as 15 minutes.

Star Realms is a light, deck-building card game of battling space armadas that plays in 15-30 minutes. Designed by Robert Dougherty, the base deck supports two players but this can be expanded  with multiple decks.

The Colony Wars expansion, or the Frontiers expansion that recently funded on Kickstarter, also facilitate further players.

Star Realms Mechanics

Each player starts with 50 authority (think hit points) and a starting deck of 10 ships. The starting ships provide one of two resources: attack lowers the opposing player’s authority, while trade allows the purchase of one of five randomly drawn cards in a central trade row. Each player draws five cards from their deck and either attacks their opponent, or buys more powerful ships and bases to add to their space fleet. The first to force the other player to drop to 0 authority wins.

There are two types of card. Ships are your standard fire and forget cards, providing bonuses for one turn only. Bases on the other hand, stay in play and provide a bonus each turn until the opposing player destroys them. Some, dubbed outposts, act as a kind of ablative armour and must be attacked before the opposing player can again lower your authority.

Starting cards are very weak, dealing either a single trade or damage. However players can quickly build their fleet into a formidable armada, capable of purchasing the most expensive ships and destroying multiple bases in a single turn.


Aside from the unaligned starting cards and the neutral “Explorer” ships, each of the cards in the game are aligned to one of four races. Most of the cards have a special racial ability that triggers if another card of the same race is played in the same turn.

This influences players to specialise in only one or two races, posing some interesting questions in which new ships to buy. Each race plays very differently and has a unique visual and mechanical identity in the game.

The Blob

An alien race of organic ships, the Blob specialise in sheer damage output combined with several “draw card” abilities, allowing them to swarm opponents. They also have one of the best early game trade-generating cards, and the Blob Destroyer can destroy bases at will. However the Blob completely lack outpost bases.

The Trade Federation

OK, OK, calm down this isn’t the Trade Federation from Star Wars – you’re not going to see Nute Gunray invading Naboo with his “Droidekas.” This Trade Federation is the standard human interstellar empire – its ships and bases specialise in generating huge amounts of trade (surprise, surprise).

They can also “heal” the player by increasing authority. The Federation has a good range of bases, outposts and ships, but has limited damage potential.

The Star Empire

Much like the Blob, the Star Empire can do large amounts of damage and has access to numerous “draw card” abilities. However, unlike the Blob, the Star Empire has more finesse and specialises in deck management.

Special abilities force opponents to discard cards, and allow the player to discard unwanted cards from their own deck. However the Empire has the lowest trade generation capability in the base game.

The Machine Cult

The Cult has a range of tough outpost bases and access to specialist stealth mimicking technology. Most cards allow the player to trash cards in their hand or discard pile, allowing them to  increase the efficiency of their deck. But the Cult has relatively limited damage potential, driven in part by the lowest number of “draw card” abilities of any race.


Inside the small and incredibly portable Star Realms box are 128 cards and a concise leaflet rule book. That’s it, but what did you expect for a game that costs a so little?!

The art on the cards is good. I can’t say great as some of the artwork is perhaps intentionally retro. The rule book suggests numerous modes of play for three or more players, adding to the game’s already good longevity.

Colony Wars expansion

The Colony Wars box set is a standalone expansion for Star Realms. It has the Scout, Viper and Explorer basic cards and a completely new trade deck with some neat new mechanics. Some cards allow the player to purchase the card and play it immediately into their hand, providing some extra firepower. Others allow the player to purchase a card of a set value or less for free.

The balance of the deck is different to the base game – it feels clunkier with fewer draw card abilities. There are also more cards allowing you to eliminate cards from the trade row, denying your opponent certain cards.

I would personally recommend the base game over Colony Wars as an entry to Star Realms’ core mechanics. Each of the races are more unique and characterful in the base game, it plays faster with more draw and discard abilities, and the Colony Wars expansion is a little trickier to play. If you like the base game, you’re going to enjoy Colony Wars too.

Thoughts on Star Realms

Star Realms is excellent, light card game fun. I’ve found it superb for kids (10+) and those unwilling to jump into a rules-heavy game. The short set-up and play times lend Star Realms well to filling in between more challenging or longer games. It isn’t for everyone, the short play times and the lack of long-term and lasting strategy could put hardcore gamers off. The strong element of luck that permeates throughout the game will also not be to everyone’s taste.

But I’m hooked on Star Realms. I keep coming back to it, thinking about different ways of tinkering with my deck, wondering which cards I’ll draw this time. Yes, there is a lot of luck in this game, depending on which cards constitute your hand and what’s available in the trade deck.

There are times when you know your opponent is going to beat you because they have purchased better cards. This is partially driven by a slight imbalance in the game; at identical price points some cards are better than others. But when you turn a dire situation around, when you get a stunning combination of 40+ damage from a single hand, keep Star Realms interesting.


If you enjoy deck builders, card games or light strategy games, give this a go. Alternatively if you are looking for a game to play one-on-one with a friend or family member who isn’t typically a gamer, give this a go. If you want to herald the collapse of your friend’s galactic empire by throwing a handful of cards into their face and shouting “BOOM!”, give this a go.

If you then want the satisfaction of doing that again only 20 minutes later, give this a go. Hell, if you’re interested in space-themed collage, sci-fi card towers, or interstellar DIY place mats, give this a go. After all, what have you got to lose for a shade over a tenner?

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.

The Basics

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.

Faction abilities

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.

Other keywords

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.

Multiplayer variations

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!

Zatu Score


  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You might like

  • Short set-up and play times.
  • Simple and addictive game mechanic.
  • Well-supported game with a range of expansions available.
  • Travel-friendly.

Might not like

  • Makes a packet of Quavers look heavy.
  • Card artwork is at times mediocre.