Star Realms by White Wizard Games is a fast-playing deck building game using the “Center Row” mechanic also used by the popular game Ascension. The game was launched via a very successful Kickstarter and is now seeing a steadily increasing popularity in Boardgamegeek due to it’s combination of affordable price, quick gameplay, interesting decision-making, and confrontational nature. This game was tailor made for me; I’ve toyed many times in the past with developing a deck-building confrontational space-themed game, so even though I missed the Kickstarter finding that one already existed was quite exciting. I really enjoy Rune Age which has a similar confrontational deck-building style, as well as Ascension which uses a very similar Center Row mechanic. After a few plays I can tell this game is a solid gem and one that I’m happy to review and recommend.
Part of the elegant design of Star Realms was the decision to make cards the only component, which allows the game to sell in a tiny deck box and at the incredibly low MSRP of only $14.95. The base game only supports 2 players, but 2 base games (raising the price to $30 MSRP or roughly $20 from online retailers) allows up to 4 players at once which is still a very low price point for the amount of gameplay you get.
The 118 cards in each copy of the game are broken down into 2 10 player starting deck cards (8 scouts and 2 vipers for each player), 10 neutral and always available Explorer cards, 18 cards that can be used to track Authority totals (basically life counters) and an 80 card Trade deck used to populate the center row. The cards in the Trade deck all belong to 1 of 4 factions, with each faction having 20 cards total. The physical card stock is acceptable but I did sleeve mine due to all the shuffling involved; fortunately they are standard trading card size so easy to find sleeves for.
The card art is vibrant and colorful, with a slightly stylized look that suits the feel of the game just right. While this sort of art is very much up to taste, I enjoy it. It is all from the same artist and so has a consistent style. The card layout uses symbols to describe the most common abilities, with text used for the few cards that have more complex abilities. It’s quite easy to tell at a glance what most cards do, which is nice since you are constantly evaluating new cards as they appear in the center row. Overall the design of the cards is nearly perfect and does much to improve the experience of the game while also keeping it easy to teach.
Personally I don’t use the number cards provided to track authority, I prefer to use a counter of some kind such as the Threat Trackers from the Lord of the Rings LCG or just a pad and paper. However the cards are a nice thing to have as they allow the game to be transported and played with just cards alone. They are also kind of necessary to make the game complete in the box so I can understand and appreciate their inclusion even while I choose not to use them myself.
Players play starship cards to gain “Trade” and “Combat”, the two game currencies. Trade is used to purchase new ships and bases from the center row. When a card is purchased from the center row, a new one replaces it from the Trade deck so there are always 5 choices of ships or bases “for sale” but the actual ships available is constantly changing. Combat is used to reduce the opposing player’s “authority” (life) and/or to destroy bases. Base cards are similar to ship cards, but remain on the table with ongoing effects instead until destroyed by an opponent (by spending combat power). Some bases are outposts which must be destroyed before authority can be targeted, so they function as a sort of shield in addition to whatever other bonuses they provide. There are a few other card effects, such as drawing more cards, forcing an opponent to discard cards, gaining back authority, etc. Nearly all the cards are extremely straightforward which helps keep gameplay smooth and fluid without a lot of pauses to try to understand complicated card abilities.
There are two mechanics that really add depth to this simple design. The first is that most cards gain additional abilities when played with at least one other card of the same faction, which strongly encourages players to try to build “combo” type decks focusing on one or two faction. Of course, the cards available “for sale” in the center row on any given turn may or may not end up supporting this deck-building strategy so you are often presented with the difficult decision of whether or not to add a new powerful card to your deck that is a faction you don’t have a lot of cards from. Trying to focus too narrowly may leave you with few options to purchase, or you might be competing with your opponent for a single faction; building a deck with too many factions, on the other hand, reduces the chances of triggering those ally abilities. The other mechanic is the option on some cards to “scrap” them for an additional one-time power; scrapped cards are removed from the game so it’s a tricky decision, but sometimes worth it and this can lead to some more interesting play decisions.
The games tend to last around 30 minutes each, mainly due to the fact that the power curve of the cards is insanely high; new cards added to your deck tend to ramp up the power level of your deck very quickly which leads to fast, bloody games most of the time. Tough there is one faction that excels in “healing” and can drag the game out just a tad in some instances, I find most games last only 20-30 minutes of actual playtime between 2 players who know what they are doing.
It should be pretty obvious by now that I’m a huge fan of this game. However, to be fair I will include a couple criticisms which mostly have to do with the power curve.
The decision to give the trade row cards such a steep power curve has the advantage of accelerating gameplay and keeping the playtime short, but the disadvantage is that the balance between players is more precarious and sometimes one or two good hands can swing the game radically in favor of one player or another. usually there are enough turns in the game that the randomness factor is able to balance out, but I have played a few games where one player obtained a nearly unstoppable advantage due to a lucky early purchase or an incredibly good hand that allowed them to burst out a win. Probably the most noticeable card for this is the Freighter which, if purchased on the first turn or two of the game, can allow one player to gain an insurmountable advantage in acquiring more expensive cards early which is almost impossible to overcome.
These balance complaints aside, this game is an incredibly good package for it’s price. Probably its biggest claim to fame is having one of the Ascension designers on the credits, and the game does share a LOT of mechanics with Ascension. However, it has some key distinctions that I think in some ways make it a better game; or at least a better game for some tastes. I also think it makes a great gate-way or filler type game while still providing sufficient depth for more serious gamers also.
I haven’t even gone into multiplayer and solitaire play as technically they aren’t supported by just owning a single copy of the game but there are rules for both. The solo/co-op play requires the “boss” challenge cards that you are playing against but these can be found online relatively easily. Expansions are also definitely on the horizon and should further improve gameplay options.
Previews for every single card in the game can be found in the old posts at the developer’s blog, as well as more recent news. The game’s Boardgame Geek page is also very well populated with reviews, rules clarifications, and lots of game discussion. As of this writing Star Realms is ranked 8th on the BGG “hotness” list, which is pretty good for originally being a relatively small game from an obscure publisher.