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Review: Star Realms

7

Star Realms box

The galaxy is up for grabs. It’s up to you, an opportunist minor warlord, to unite the Machine Cult, Star Empire, Trade Federation, and alien Blob factions in an effort to forge your star realm.

Can you form your empire before your opponent?

How It Works

Star Realms is a two-player deck-building game. The goal of the game is to reduce the opponent’s authority to zero.

Each player starts with fifty authority and an identical deck of weak cards. Players shuffle the trade pile and turn the top five cards up to form the trade row. The Explorer cards are set off to the side in a pile by themselves. The first player draws three cards; the other player draws five cards.

The authority cards in Star Realms are double-sided. They're a little tough to wrap your mind around at first, but it's nice to not have to keep a paper and pencil handy.
The authority cards in Star Realms are double-sided. They’re a little tough to wrap your mind around at first, but it’s nice to not have to keep a paper and pencil handy.

On a turn, players play as many cards from their hands as they want. These cards generate trade, used to purchase Explorers and cards in the trade row, and combat, used to reduce the opponent’s authority and/or destroy bases.

Cards come in two types: bases and ships. Bases stay in front of players until they are destroyed by combat (placed back in the player’s discard pile). Bases generally provide some benefit that can be activated each turn. Ships stay in play until the end of the turn, when they are discarded. Each card, ship or base, gained from the trade row is identified by one of four factions. Each ship has a primary ability, which triggers once played, and most also have an ally ability, which takes effect once another card from the same faction enters play.

The game ends when one player reduces the other player’s authority to zero. That player wins.

(Note: One set of Star Realms cards is enough for two players. Each set of Star Realms can integrate two more players, and the game can support up to six with other game modes, detailed in the rules.)

That's a nice menu of cards from the trade row.
That’s a nice menu of cards from the trade row.

Star Search, or Rule the Stars?

Star Realms is a bit late to the deck-building party. Dominion popularized (and arguably created) the genre, and then came a wave of “Dominion-with-a-twist” games, some of which are still popular, but many of which have fallen into disfavor, and none of which have reached the heights of the genre’s patriarch. And perhaps signaling deck-building’s soon demise is the spate of licensed deck-building games leaning on recognizable brands. All of this to say, it’s a tough time to be a deck-builder–we’ve been there, done that, licensed the T-shirt.

And yet, despite the times being tough, despite having no license to pin its theme to, and despite its small size, Star Realms has carved a unique place in the deck-building genre, ascending the ranks to become one of my favorite two-player experiences–deck-building or otherwise–and my favorite non-Dominion deck-builder.

The Star Empire faction is good at hand management and attack in swarms.
The Star Empire faction is good at hand management and attacking in swarms.

Before I get into the review, allow me to indulge in a little bit of my history as a CCG player, which is pertinent to my opinion of Star Realms. I used to play a lot of CCGs. Most of these involved some manner of destroying your opponent, either through dismantling their deck (Star Wars CCG) or depleting their life/endurance (Magic/Vs.). I stopped playing CCGs, mainly because of the money required to stay current and because opponents were hard to come by–it’s a lot of work to maintain a deck outside the time you play the game. That’s why I was so thrilled by Dominion. Dominion is a Euro take on CCGs, and it doesn’t require lots of buy-in with random expansions, nor is there a cumbersome deck-building process outside the game. The deck-building is the game, and it’s satisfying. But as in so many other Euro takes on genres, the game, while interactive, has very little conflict. Dominion is primarily a resource-management game of carefully fine-tuning your deck so it has just enough of this and not too much of that. And while usually that’s something I like, some days I miss the more obvious back-and-forth of CCGs.

This is where Star Realms comes in. Star Realms is the deck-building successor to CCGs. In Star Realms, there’s nothing but you and your opponent in the cold reaches of space, and your goal is simple: destroy him before he destroys you. No abstract victory points about it. Destroy or be destroyed.

The Machine Cult is good at culling your deck. Their attacks get more powerful in large numbers.
The Machine Cult is good at culling your deck. Their attacks get more powerful in large numbers.

Star Realms closely resembles the Ascension deck-building system, with a central card row, different factions, and common cards that are always available. Ascension was one of the first non-Dominion deck-building games I played, and I didn’t care for it much. (I’ve only played the base set of Ascension, mind you–I had no interest in the game after that–but Andrew’s recent Shelf Wear on Ascension has told me I should give it another chance.) What I didn’t like about it was that, while there are different factions in the game, the factions didn’t feel all that different, nor did there seem to be much reward for building your deck one way versus another.  Most hero cards and constructs were universally good or bad and, with a few exceptions, didn’t seem to provide much additional benefit if they were combined with other cards of the same faction. Also, with the two currencies used to claim cards from the same draft row, I felt I often had to sacrifice getting ideal cards in my deck for getting whatever cards were available at the time. I had some interest in balancing the two currencies, but not much beyond that.

Star Realms addresses the problems I had with Ascension in an elegant way. There are two currencies in Star Realms, but only one of them is used to acquire cards, so the trade row generally has stuff you want in it. The other “currency” is used to directly attack your opponent and his or her holdings. The factions in Star Realms are distinct: the Machine Cult is good for culling your deck, the Trade Federation is good for healing and acquiring new cards, the Blob is a big combat hammer (but light on special abilities), and the Star Empire is good for manipulating your and your opponent’s hand. But beyond this, almost every card in the game has an ally ability, an ability that triggers only if another card of the same faction is in play. What this effectively does is reward players for building their decks well. Obviously, you’ll get lucky sometimes, drawing your only two Machine Cult cards together, but it’s much easier to make your own luck, either buying exclusively from that faction or using its abilities to cull your deck. Star Realms is a race, and in order to win the race, you have to play to hand efficiency. You may get 4 combat if you play these two cards from different factions, but if they were of the same faction, your combat might be as much as 6 or 8. In other words, the game rewards intensifying your deck, which I like. I don’t feel like I’m at a buffet, just eating for calories. Rather, I’m ordering items a la carte from a menu and trying to find the best way to create a balanced meal.

The Trade Federation generates resources for trade and also replenishes your authority, but they're generally weak in combat.
The Trade Federation generates resources for trade and also replenishes your authority, but they’re generally weak in combat.

And balanced is right. I mentioned that the game rewards intensification (buying cards within a single faction), but it also requires diversification. Each faction is optimized for a single task. You could probably still win by purchasing cards of only one faction, but perhaps not while playing against a more efficient opponent who diversifies wisely. For example, if you build your deck using exclusively Trade Federation cards, you might unlock some combat, but not as quickly as if you were playing another faction. The Trade Federation is optimized to replenish authority and generate trade to acquire new cards–important, mind you, but not the only thing.  You might have a better chance at attacking your opponent faster by pairing the Trade Federation with, say, the Blob, or the Star Empire. Similarly, you won’t be able to remove the junk cards you start with (Scouts and Vipers) without enlisting the aid of the Machine Cult, which allows players to scrap cards from their decks, fine-tuning them so that hands become less bogged down with garbage. But the Machine Cult, while being powerful in large numbers, are not very formidable on their own.  The smaller Star Empire ships seem fairly worthless, but they can quickly swarm by allowing you to draw new cards, and they attack more than authority, forcing the opponent to discard cards that might otherwise be used to attack you. All of this to say, the trick of the game is a balancing act between the powerful effects of intensification and the necessity of diversification. I like this quite a bit.

The Blob are very good at combat. They don't do much else, but boy, are they fearsome.
The Blob are very good at combat. They don’t do much else, but boy, are they fearsome.

Mostly I’ve been talking about ships, but bases are powerful tools in the Star Realms universe. Much like constructs in Ascension, bases stay in front of players until they are destroyed or scrapped. Most bases have a special ability that can be activated once per turn, but some don’t. Even without special abilities, however, bases are usually worth the investment because each base has a faction that can trigger your ships’ faction abilities. This makes a grueling choice for players: should they attack their opponents directly (expediting the end game), or should they attack their opponent’s bases to weaken the ally abilities on their cards? It’s tough. Outposts make the decision easier: a player may not attack the opponent directly if the opponent has an outpost base. The outpost must be destroyed first. So the game is a balancing act in intensification and diversification, but it also requires balancing ships and bases. Ships offer more powerful one-time effects; bases provide weaker ongoing abilities that often offer defense and trigger ally abilities more easily.

Another aspect of Star Realms that I really like is the scrap abilities on cards that allow you to remove a card from your deck in exchange for a one-time benefit. No, the cards that start in your deck don’t have scrap abilities; most of the cards that have them are good, ones that you want to keep in your deck, so the scrap ability is a dilemma. Is it worth it to remove this card from my deck for a one-shot boost in trade or combat? It certainly is sometimes; the trick is recognizing when the time is right. The decision is simple to wrap your mind around, but it’s tough to make every time it arises.

Some cards have a scrap ability. You can remove the card from your deck for a one-time special bonus.
Some cards have a scrap ability. You can remove the card from your deck for a one-time special bonus.

Star Realms, like Ascension, uses a simplified, open-flow turn structure. Unlike Dominion’s regimented Action-Buy-Clean up, in Star Realms you can play your hand, activate abilities when you want, buy cards, attack, buy more cards, play more cards, and so on. As I tell new players when I teach them how to play, Star Realms is very forgiving. The fast-and-loose nature of turns makes it very easy to teach, but it also introduces one of the tricky bits of the game: managing your trade and combat. I find myself sometimes having to ask if I already used the trade or combat on a card, or if I already used the ally ability, or whatever. I suppose this is a niggle that comes with the territory, and it’d be possible to make a track if you find yourself always second-guessing yourself, but any solution I come up with is less elegant than just doing your best to keep track. Oh well. As I mentioned before, Dominion is a resource-management game (managing actions like anything else); Star Realms is not, and that’s okay. Managing currencies still available is a by-product.

As I mentioned before, Star Realms uses a trade row, similar to Ascension. I love this, as it really does feel like a trade. One aspect I love about Jaipur is that it simulates a trading game for only two players, which seems odd–two-player trade shouldn’t be compelling. The same principle applies here, and for the same reason. Buying a card from the trade row doesn’t just add another card to your deck: it also opens the market of cards available on your opponent’s turn. It forces you to reconsider: is this card really worth it for what it might open up for my opponent? Similarly, it’s somewhat thrilling to watch your opponent buy a card and wait to see what gets turned up.

The box for Star Realms is small, making it super easy to transport. I love this feature of the game, since it allows me to take it everywhere, even when I usually wouldn't devote space to a two-player-only game.
The box for Star Realms is small, making it super easy to transport. I love this feature of the game, since it allows me to take it everywhere, even when I usually wouldn’t devote space to a two-player-only game.

The components in Star Realms are great. The price point is a mere $15, so you can expect that the components are sparse (cards in a cardboard tuckbox with a fold-out rules sheet). But the cardstock is good, and the art is excellent. For a first-time publisher that funded its game on Kickstarter, the art is really astounding. (I suspect it comes from Rob Dougherty’s involvement with publishing Ascension.) I’m a huge fan of small-footprint games, and Star Realms definitely falls into this category. No space is wasted in the tuckbox, and the tuckbox is small enough to fit into a jacket or cargo shorts pocket. Awesome. (Although the no-wasted-space thing means that you’ll need a new box if you want to sleeve the cards.) This game is super portable, and unlike most other deckbuilding games, super simple to setup. This is good, because the game is quick (20-25m). It’s an excellent lunch game, allowing two or even three rounds to be played in a single lunch hour.

If there’s any misstep in Star Realms, it’s the means of keeping score. The game comes with authority cards to track score, and each card is double-sided. (The 1s have 5s on the back, and the 10s have 20s.) You take cards that add up to 50 and add and subtract as the game goes on. This process is cumbersome, especially at first. But when I’m forced to answer the question, “Well, what would you do instead?” I’m hard pressed to come up with a better solution. Paper and pencil is what the game is trying to avoid, and that’s always available as an option anyway–most games that require it don’t include it, and you wouldn’t be able to fit that in this tuckbox anyway. A scoreboard would destroy the compact nature of Star Realms that is one of its strongest features. The closest I can come up with is the overlapping card system used in Sushi Go!, but others would find this solution equally unacceptable (as is the case for Sushi Go! fans). If you have an old life tracker from your Magic days, you might want to use it. When I play Star Realms at work, I bring another game’s scoreboard along. But the game includes a means of keeping score, and while it’s less than elegant, it gets the job done in a pinch, and it does get easier the more you play.

This is an anticlimactic picture to end on, but this is the starting deck in Star Realms. Those...are pretty weak cards.
This is an anticlimactic picture to end on, but this is the starting deck in Star Realms. Those…are pretty weak cards.

What can I say? Star Realms is excellent. I really didn’t expect to love it as much as I do, but I find myself wanting to play it over and over, although it’s only a two-person game, so opportunities at lunch are scarce (because there are four or so of us who are constantly wanting to play). There are multiplayer modes described in the rules, and with multiple Star Realms sets, you can set up four- or even six-player games. I have a single set, so I don’t know how these other modes play, but I suspect the game is best with two. There were even cards available on Kickstarter that introduced a solitaire mode, which should be available as promos or in expansions. (I’ve tried the solitaire mode using an image of the Nemesis Beast from the Star Realms website: it’s tough and fun.) Star Realms is more aggressive than your typical deck-builder, but it will find an immediate home with (ex-)CCG players. All told, if you are at all interested in a two-player deck-building experience, Star Realms is absolutely a game you should check out.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank White Wizard Games for providing us with a review copy of Star Realms.

Summary

  • Rating 9.5
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Summary

Pros

  • Quick, streamlined play that rewards good deck building
  • Compelling two-player experience
  • Good components in a small-footprint (and price point) package provides incredible value

Cons:

  • Score cards are a bit fiddly
  • Adding more players requires multiple decks (although these are very reasonable)
9.5 Excellent

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion7 Comments

  1. Jeremy VanSchalkwyk

    Great review! I’ve been loving Star Realms since I received it from the kickstarter campaign. Most of my games have been solo (I have STILL not beat the Nemesis Beast yet!), but I have played 2-player during lunch at work a few times. Another suggestion for tracking Authority (health points) is 2 D10s per player (2 10-sided dice)… this lets you track a number from 01-99, which is perfect (since Authority normally starts at 50); just keep them a little off to the side, where you aren’t likely to knock them off the table!

    • That’s a good suggestion for tracking authority. I’ll have to track some dice down–those wouldn’t increase the travel size much at all.

      The Nemesis Beast is TOUGH. I’ve beaten it only a handful of times, and each time I was a turn away from losing myself. The solitaire version is surprisingly compelling. I’m looking forward to when all of the solitaire stuff is available for purchase.

        • No, I don’t think I have ten-sided dice. Sheesh. Only in this community is that a crime!

          I’m trying to think how many games I own that use dice. The answer: NOT MANY. And the ones that do use six-sided ones.

        • Oh you non-euro types are all the same! I have plenty of dice but I’m not sure I have that many d10’s either.

          Now if he had to track down some cubes, THAT would be a crime.

  2. Great review! I remember hearing about this one briefly but it just didn’t seem compelling enough to try since “aggressive” isn’t usually a word that attracts me to a game. You’ve got it on my radar now and I’ll definitely be looking to try it out as soon as I can get my hands on a copy (and I’ll blame you if I don’t like it).

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