Regular readers of Geeky Hobbies will know that I was a pretty big fan of CCGs (Collectible Card Games) when I was a kid. I really enjoyed playing CCGs, but the cost of having to purchase individual packs eventually turned me off from the genre. While there are still some CCGs still going strong to this day, a lot of them died off after the initial surge in the genre. In recent years game designers have started to come out with CCG type games that eliminate the booster packs entirely. This has also lead to the creation of a new genre of card games called deck builders which started with the game Dominion. I bring this up because the game I am looking at today, Star Realms, feels like a combination of a CCG with a deck builder. I was really interested in checking out Star Realms as its premise was really interesting. It is also quite impressive that it was able to reach the top 100 board games of all time on Board Game Geek. Star Realms is such an interesting combination of different mechanics that work so well crafting an almost perfect blend between accessibility and strategy.
How to Play Star Realms
- Each player creates their own personal deck which includes eight scout and two viper cards. Both players shuffle their personal decks and place them face down in front of themself.
- Set aside the authority cards. Each player will take authority cards worth a total of 50 points. Players may also choose to just use paper and pencil to keep track of authority points instead of using the cards.
- Place the ten explorer cards face up on the table.
- The rest of the cards are shuffled and form the trade deck. The trade deck is placed face down on the table. Flip over the top five cards from the deck and place them next to the deck. These cards form the “trade row”.
- Choose who will start the game. The player who starts the game will draw three cards. The other player will draw five cards.
Playing the Game
A player’s turn will consist of three phases:
- Main Phase
- Discard Phase
- Draw Phase
During the main phase players have a set of actions that they can perform. The player can perform whichever actions they want, as many times as they want, and in any order. The actions that a player can perform during the main phase are as follows:
- Play cards from your hand.
- Use abilities from your cards in play.
- Acquire cards from the trade row.
- Use combat to attack your opponent.
It costs nothing to play a card and you can play as many cards as you want on your turn. In Star Realms there are two different types of cards that you can play: ships and bases.
Whenever a ship card is played its primary ability (see below) will trigger immediately. Ally or scrap abilities can be activated at any time. All ship cards placed face up in front of you will be discarded to your own discard pile during the discard phase.
Base cards are different from ships in a couple ways. First bases’ primary abilities can be used at any time during the main phase. Bases will stay in play between turns. Bases also have a defense number. In order to destroy/discard a base the other player has to deal enough damage in combat to match the defense number (see below).
There are three different types of abilities in Star Realms: primary, ally, and scrap. Abilities can do a couple different things.
- It can provide combat, trade or authority. Authority points are immediately given to a player. Combat or trade goes into the player’s pool for the corresponding resource. If a card gives a player a choice between different resources, the player has to make the decision of which to choose when they activate the ability.
- The ability can give the player a special action that they can take. For example a player can draw a card.
Primary abilities (top ability on the card with no symbol on the left side) can be used once each turn. No special requirements need to be met for a primary ability to be used. Ships must use their primary abilities as soon as they are played though. Bases can use their primary abilities at any time during the player’s main phase.
Ally abilities are indicated with a faction icon on the left side. This icon indicates which faction the ability corresponds with. If you have another ship or base in play with the corresponding symbol (in the top left corner), you can use the ally ability on the card. Each ally ability can be used once each turn during the main phase.
Scrap abilities are indicated by the trash can symbol. A player can use a card’s scrap ability at any time during the main phase. To use the ability the player will discard the card to the scrap heap (the discard pile in the middle of the table). By scrapping a card the player will not have access to it for the rest of the game. If a card is ever scrapped for a reason other than the use of its scrap ability, the player does not get to use the card’s scrap ability. If an explorer card is ever scrapped, the card is instead added to the pile of explorer cards in the middle of the table.
Through abilities players will receive trade credits which will be added to their trade pool. The player will use their trade pool in order to acquire cards from the center of the table. At any time during a player’s main phase they can use trade credits from their pool to purchase cards from the trade row (the five face up cards in the middle of the table) or the explorer pile.
To purchase a card a player will have to use trade credits equal to the number in the top right corner of the card they wish to acquire. When a card is acquired you reduce your trade pool by the associated number of credits. You will then take the card and add it face up to your discard pile. If a card from the trade row is purchased, a new card from the face down trade deck is turned face up to replace the card that was taken.
If a card’s ability ever says to acquire a card, you can take the card without paying the associated cost. Whenever a card is taken from the trade row though, it is replaced with the top card from the trade deck.
On their turn players will acquire combat points which will be added to their combat pool. You will use these points to attack the other player and their bases. You may make as many attacks as you want during your turn.
If a player wants to attack a base they will declare which base they are attacking. They will then subtract combat points from their combat pool equal to the base’s defense. The base is then destroyed and returned to the other player’s discard pile.
A player can also choose to directly attack the other player. The player chooses how many combat points they would like to use and subtracts it from their combat pool. The other player will then lose the corresponding amount of authority points.
When a player has a base in front of them with the word “outpost” on it (in the bottom right corner), the other player must destroy the outpost base(s) before they can attack any other base or the other player directly.
If a card has an ability that lets a player “destroy target base”, the player chooses a base and that base is destroyed without using any combat points.
In the discard phase players will take the following actions:
- Place all of the cards from your hand into your discard pile. All cards added to your discard pile are placed face up. Either player can look at these cards at any time.
- Discard all of the ship cards in front of you by adding them to your discard pile.
- You will lose all of your remaining trade and combat points that you didn’t use.
In the draw phase you will draw five cards from your own personal draw pile. If your personal draw pile ever runs out of cards you will shuffle your discard pile which will become your new draw pile.
Play will then pass to the other player.
End of Game
The game ends when a player loses their last authority. The other player wins the game.
My Thoughts on Star Realms
I began this review by talking about how Star Realms feels like a combination of a CCG and a deck builder. I think this comparison is pretty accurate as there are elements of both genres in the game.
Let’s begin with the deck building. For those of you not familiar with deck building games, the premise is that while you play the game you are building the deck that you will be using throughout the rest of the game. Neither player brings their own set of cards as the game includes all of the cards you will use in the game. In Star Realms you begin with a set of weak ships that you will draw from each turn. On each turn you will receive some money from your cards which you will use to purchase cards to add to your deck. On future turns you will be able to draw these new cards which provide more benefits than the cards you start the game with. As you progress through the game you will continue to grow your deck with better cards which makes you more and more powerful.
The CCG comparison comes from the combat. In addition to gaining money from your cards you will also acquire combat and authority. Authority is basically your health points. When you run out of authority you lose the game. The way to eliminate a player’s authority to to engage them in combat. The combat in Star Realms reminds me a lot of the combat from CCGs that I played when I was a kid. Basically you will gain attack power from the cards in front of you. You use this power to attack the other player’s bases or their authority points directly.
That is a drastic oversimplification of Star Realms, but it gets to the core of what it is like playing the game. For people that have never played a CCG or deck builder this might seem overly complicated, but it really isn’t. I was actually surprised by how simple Star Realms is. The game can be taught to new players in around five to ten minutes. While I wouldn’t recommend the game for younger children, I can see older children and teens having no problems playing the game. The game shouldn’t even be that difficult for people that don’t play a lot of card games. I personally haven’t played a lot of deck building games, but I would say that Star Realms would work great as an introduction to the genre.
While the game is easy to play it still has a lot of strategy as well. The key to the strategy in Star Realms is how you build up your deck. The cards available to you in the trade row and the money available to you will play a role in what you purchase. You still have a lot of options over how you want to build up your deck. This is where the strategy can really flourish as you can emphasize different things in your deck. You can emphasize money as it will allow you to purchase more and more powerful cards. You can value defense by putting up a lot of defensive bases. Offense is also an option as you can acquire cards with a lot of combat. When you add in the bonus of having cards of the same faction in your deck, there are a lot of different ways to build up your deck.
It might not seem like much at first, but you want to prevent your deck from becoming too large. For players not familiar with deck builders it might sound counterproductive, but it is sometimes beneficial to remove cards from your deck. As you are only allowed to draw a certain number of cards each turn, you don’t want to waste your turns drawing less valuable cards. This is why it is important to scrap your weakest cards early in the game. It might not seem valuable at first, but cards that allow you to scrap other cards from your deck are really valuable. You want to get rid of your starter cards as quickly as possible as they are considerably less powerful than the other cards. Otherwise you will draw your weaker cards instead of your more powerful cards. Managing your deck plays a big role in the game as you have to consider whether it pays to add a card to your deck.
I think the reason that Star Realms succeeds is that it finds the perfect balance between being easy to play and yet providing players with plenty of strategy. I think this comes from a couple areas. First the game is quite streamlined. Instead of having a bunch of resources or abilities to keep track of, you only have three resources in the entire game: authority, combat, and trade. Other than providing these resources, most card abilities are quite straightforward. The game focuses on a few mechanics instead of giving you a bunch of mechanics to keep track of. This focus on a couple mechanics allows the game to maximize those mechanics.
The other reason why I think the game perfectly balances difficulty and strategy comes from the idea that you have to discard all of the cards from your hand and ships in front of you at the end of your turn. This does a good job simplifying the game as it limits how much you have to analyze on a given turn. As I sometimes suffer from analysis paralysis, I can’t imagine how bad it could have been if you got to keep your cards (outside of bases) between turns. As you will lose them anyway, there are very few instances where you wouldn’t just play all of your cards each turn. This allows you to focus on how you want to play them instead of whether or not you want to play them. You have decisions to make, but it does a really good job cutting down on analysis paralysis.
Because Star Realms is streamlined, it leads to the game playing pretty quickly. I was honestly a little surprised by how quickly the game plays. Without as much analysis paralysis as many similar games, it means the game moves quite a bit quicker. Your first game might take longer, but I would say that most games will only take 20-30 minutes. If one player is really lucky, games could be even quicker. This makes Star Realms a great filler card game. If you don’t have a lot of time or want a short break, Star Realms will be perfect for you. The short length also allows you to play a quick rematch if you are so inclined.
All of these things combine together to make Star Realms a great game. I had high expectations for the game and it basically met all of them. The game is just really fun to play. It is just so satisfying starting with basically nothing and building up your deck into a powerful force. If you like card games you should really like Star Realms. The game is a great blend of deck building and CCG mechanics. If the game sounds interesting at all to you, you probably will enjoy the game quite a bit. I could see it turning off players that enjoy more complicated deck building games though as it is quite a bit simpler than some other deck building games.
If it wasn’t enough that Star Realms is a great game, it is also usually quite cheap. A lot of modern board games usually retail for at least $20 with many costing more than twice that. With Star Realms only coming with a deck of cards, the game retails at a low price. It is not hard to find the game for less than $15 online. Unless you have no interest in the game, with such a cheap price there really is no reason not to pick up a copy of the game. The success of the game has also lead to a lot of expansions. I was shocked by how many expansion packs that Star Realms has despite only being 4-5 years old. The game has also received two spinoff games which includes Cthulhu Realms and Hero Realms which are basically the same game with a theme change.
While I really enjoyed Star Realms, it is not quite a perfect game. There are a couple issues I had with the game.
Star Realms has quite a bit of strategy but it also relies on quite a bit of luck as well. Luck in Star Realms comes from a couple areas. Most of it comes from card draw luck. Outside of cheating you have no impact over which cards from your deck you will draw. You will eventually draw all of the cards from your deck, but when you draw certain cards can be quite important. First you probably want to draw your most powerful cards as early as possible so you can use their benefits earlier. Drawing certain cards together can also be pretty important as they can feed off one another.
Another area that luck enters the game is through the cards that get added to the trade row. What cards are available in the trade row on your turn can have a huge impact on your fate in the game. All of the cards in the game are not created equally. Some cards are considerably more powerful than others. Some cards are also better values than others. Some cheap cards can be more valuable than cards that cost quite a bit more. Especially early in the game it is important to get cards that will let you get rid of your starter cards. If you get stuck with your starter cards for a long time you are going to be at a significant disadvantage. You can have a better strategy than the other player, and lose just because they had better luck with the trade row.
The other issue I had with the game comes from the components. For the most part I liked the components. The card artwork is really good and the layout makes it easy to find the information that you are looking for. The problem that I had with the components comes from it being hard to keep track of your resources. First the game gives you no way of keeping track of how much trade and combat you still have available to you. This means that you either have to keep a running total in your head, or you need to do all of your trade and combat at the same time so you can keep track of what you still have available.
While Star Realms comes with cards to keep track of your authority, I am not a fan of them. Maybe it is just me but I found it to be a hassle to use the cards. The cards are double sided so it is a pain to make sure you turn them correctly so you don’t give or take away too many points. The game recommends that you can just use paper and pencil to keep track of your authority. While I think this is better than using the cards, I wish the game could have just used tokens or dice to keep track of your authority. This could have also been used to keep track of your trade and combat that you still have available.
Should You Buy Star Realms?
Being a top 100 board game on Board Game Geek, I had high expectation for Star Realms. I have to say that I was not disappointed by the game. The game is basically a combination of a deck builder and a CCG game. The combat is very similar to what you would expect from a CCG. This is supplemented by the deck builder mechanics where you build up your own deck that you will use for the rest of the game. Your deck is key to the game as it will determine whether you will win the game. You want to fill your deck with powerful cards that work well together, and get rid of your weaker cards. This might sound complicated at first but the game does a great job streamlining things so the game is easy to play even for people that don’t play a lot of card games. Star Realms is the perfect blend between being accessible and having enough strategy. Star Realms does rely on a little too much luck at times though due to card draw luck and what cards are available for purchase. The game also doesn’t do a great job keeping track of your resources. At the end of the day though Star Realms is a fantastic game that is hard to put down.
If you have never liked card games or deck builders in general, Star Realms won’t be for you. People who already have a lot of more in-depth deck builders might also not appreciate Star Realms more streamlined approach. If Star Realms at all interests you though I would highly recommend picking it up as you should have quite a bit of fun with it. With how cheap the game is it won’t break your bank either.