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.
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?