Thursday, January 8, 2015

GJJG Game Reviews - Star Realms - by White Wizard Games

Star Realms
Designers: Robert Dougherty & Darwin Kastle
Publisher: White Wizard Games
GJJG Game Reviews - Star Realms - by White Wizard Games

Game Overview:
One of the most talked about little games of last year was a little deckbuilder called Star Realms.  I had intended to initially do a First Play review of the game, but since I bought it on black Friday I've been playing it like crazy.  So I've got enough plays under my belt in the past 5 weeks to do a full review!

If you haven't played a deckbuilder before Star Realms is an excellent introduction game because it's easy to learn and quick to play.  If you've played deckbuilders before Star Realms is an excellent game because it's easy to teach and quick to play.  Star Realms plays in about 20-30 minutes and is for 2 players ages 12+, although my 5 year old plays with no problem (and can be pretty vicious, too), except for needing help with shuffling and sometimes counting up all the abilities.  My 8 year old loves the game, too, and has no problems with any of it.  Officially the game plays with 2 players with a single deck and can play with up to 6 players with 1 or 2 additional decks, but I have a variant that I'll link to after the review that allows for 3-4 players with a single deck.

In Star Realms each player controlls a fleet of space ships and base stations and is attempting to destroy their opponent.  Each player starts with a strength (authority) of 50 and a basic deck of 10 space ship cards.  8 Scout ships have a value of 1 gold and can be used to buy other cards (ships and bases) from a trade row (a set of 5 random, more powerful cards from the main deck or always available Explorer ships that cost 2 gold and give the player 2 gold to use in the future) and 2 Viper ships that each deal 1 attack damage to the opponent.  Players take turns playing the top 5 cards from their deck (3 for the first player on the first turn to balance the first player advantage) and using whatever gold comes up to buy new ships or bases from the trade row or attack points to deal damage to their opponent.  Then the ships are discarded, along with any ships that were purchased.  As a player's draw deck is depleted the player shuffles his discard pile (now with some more powerful cards in addition to the starting cards) and begins drawing from that deck.  This is pretty standard deckbuilder fare and as the game progresses each player's deck becomes stronger and stronger.

What makes Star Realms great is the card interactions.  In the ships and bases that can be purchased there are four factions (Trade Federation, Star Empire, Machine Cult, and Blob aliens).  Each faction has certain strengths and weaknesses.  The Trade Federation generally gives a player gold to spend and helps a player regain authority points (heal damage).  The Star Empire lets players draw additional cards or makes the opponent discard cards in addition to providing gold or attack strength.  The Machine Cult gives players the ability to scrap ships from their hand or discard pile, letting players clear out weak cards from their deck.  And the Blobs are aliens that are very strong when it comes to attacks.

Cards also have Ally Abilities in addition to their standard abilities.  So if two or more cards of the same faction are played on a turn they can enhance each other's abilities.  And scrap abilities can be used on a card one time, then the card is removed from the game permanently.  So scrap abilities may be useful for that critical boost for an attack, or that last bit of gold you need, but it also results in losing a card, so scrap abilities must be used carefully.

In addition to ship cards there are also bases.  Whereas ship cards are discarded after each turn bases remain in play and offer abilities each turn that they are not destroyed.  And some bases are outposts that must be destroyed before a player's authority can be attacked directly.  Bases are great for defensive purposes and increasing a player's abilities.

Components & Packaging:
Star Realms consists of 128 cards and instructions.  That's it.  It comes in a pretty flimsy deck box that is actually pretty difficult to open.  I immediately transferred my cards to an Ultra-Pro deck box because I couldn't see the one included with the game lasting more than a few times of opening and closing.  The cards are pretty standard cards and nothing special as far as thickness.  The artwork on the cards is pretty amazing though.  Each card has a stunning piece of science fiction space painting on it.  The colors are bright and vibrant and each faction's ships and bases have distinct looks and color schemes.  If the game came in a more sturdy box it would be great.

Score: 7/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
At first the rules for Star Realms are a little intimidating, specially if you're not very familiar with deckbuilders.  Particularly the description of the ally abilities and scrap abilities are a little confusing.  They're much easier to teach in person rather than learn from the rules.  Other than that though the rules are pretty simple and only take up a single letter sized sheet of paper (both sides) and a second sheet for multiplayer options (all of which require additional decks - but I have a multiplayer variant that I'll link to below that doesn't require any additional decks).

Score: 8/10 x2

The gameplay is what really makes Star Realms incredible.  It's such a tiny box, but there's so much game inside of it!  Games only take about 20-30 minutes (a bit more if you're playing with slow moving kids) and are generally really fast paced.  Games start out, well, not slow, but not much happens for the first few turns.  It moves quickly since players don't really have a whole lot to do except buy a card or two and maybe do a point or two of damage.  But by about turn 4 players generally have a few cards in their hands and that's when the magic starts happening.  Maybe a player gets to draw an extra card and now has 6 or 7 gold to buy a really awesome ship, or even 3 smaller ships.  Or they have two Blob ships come up in one hand and get to string together 8 or 10 attack points.  During this middle phase players will attack and chip away at each other's authority while continuing to build up their decks.  But eventually players will have enough good cards in their hands that some really awesome combos will happen.  Maybe they'll have 18 gold to spend and will buy 5 or 6 cards.  Or they'll have a series of ships that come out and cause them to keep drawing more and more cards.  So they'll attack with 8 or 9 ships, plus a base (or two) left from the previous turn.  With the ally abilities on cards activated it's not unusual for a player to attack with 18 or 20 points in one turn.  Games usually end rather abruptly with one player getting a cascading series of cards that just demolishes the other player.  Sometimes this happens when both players were down to just a handful of authority points, so it's a nail biting last couple of turns to find out who's armada is going to show up first and finish off the other player.  Sometimes one player will be sitting secure in their knowledge that they have 25 authority and their opponent has 4 only to have the opponent's cards all fall into place and wipe the smirk off the face of that player.  Every game I've played has ended in a frenzy of excitement that is just as fun to dish out as it is to receive.

Aside from the excitement that the game has at the end, getting to that point is just as much fun.  With the four factions, each with ships and bases, and each with particular strengths the game has a depth of strategy that isn't immediately apparent on the first few plays.  While the basic game mechanics are very easy and accessible to just about anyone, after playing longer players will learn what combinations of factions work well.  There's just enough luck involved in the game (in what cards become available in the trade row and what gets drawn out of each player's deck) so that experienced players don't have a significant advantage over new players, but experienced players will appreciate the opportunity to try different strategies of focusing on specific factions.

If I have one criticism of the game it's that you feel a bit helpless when those strings of big attacks come along from an opponent.  I really feel like the game could benefit from having some ships or bases with an additional ability that can be used to defend against attacks.  Something like: Discard this ship to repel all Blob Faction attacks this turn.  Or: Discard this ship to scrap one opponent ship immediately when played, before the ship can use any abilities.  Things like that could be really fun and add a bit of defensive strategy to the game, aside from just having outposts.  There are a few expansions for Star Realms already (the Gambit set and four Crisis sets of cards), but none of them have reactive abilities for any cards.  Hopefully a future expansion will include that; I know I'm not the only one who has expressed this opinion.

I know other people have complained about the method of tracking authority points by using the cards with different values on the fronts and backs, but I feel that's an ingenious way of tracking points while keeping to just cards.  Some people use dice or tokens to track authority instead of the cards, but then you have something else that you need to carry around with you.  So the authority cards are not a detraction in my opinion.

Score: 8/10 x3

Every game I've played, from the first to the most recent, has been exciting and fun.  And I don't see that ending any time soon.  Star Realms is one of the few games that I take with me almost anywhere that I think I might have a chance to play since it's so small, quick, and fun.  In less than 6 weeks I've already played it nearly 20 times and I don't see that pace slowing down much.  I'm itching to get the expansions and really, really hope a future expansion includes reactive abilities.  There's a ton that can be done with this game and, while it doesn't need too many expansions, those that are available should add a ton of variety and replay value to an already fantastically replayable game.

Score: 8/10 x1

General Fun:
It's probably obvious from what I've already written, but this game is incredibly fun.  In the 6 weeks I've had the game it's quickly become one of my favorites.  Even the 3-4 player variant I found for one deck is a blast.  I've played that a few times and never felt like it was unbalanced or any less fun.  The only thing I think that could make it more fun would be to have the reactive abilities I mentioned above.  Add that and I'd easily give this a 10 in this category.

Score: 9/10 x2

Overall Value:
At $15 MSRP the value in this game can't be beat.  And it's readily available for around $10!  I actually got my copy for only $9 on black Friday!  And it's easily the best value for the dollar I've spent on any game.  I recommend anyone pick this up, even at full retail.  You will not be disappointed!

Score: 10/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
I loved Star Realms the very first time I played it.  And I love it still, It's not perfect, but it's darn near close.  And with the expansions that are available, plus hopefully a future expansion with reactive abilities, the game is incredibly varied and fun.  At first I had also been a little disappointed that is was only for 2 players unless you buy an extra deck or two.  That seemed a little odd since if you then wanted to go back to a 2 player game you'd have to separate all the cards again (maybe, I supposed you could play 2 players with 2 decks of cards, just not use all the starting cards).  But then I found a variation on Board  Game Geek that allowed 4 players to play with one deck.  I tweaked that variation a little bit so that it would work with 3 or 4 players.  I've since tried multi-player games with a single deck several times and they're just as fun as the 2 player games, maybe even more so!

So I'm happy to provide a link to a PDF with the variant rules that work great.  All you need to add to the game is a few tokens (pennies, pebbles, peanuts, anything is fine) or a single die (D4 or D6 will be fine).  Then, if you'd like you need a way to track authority since there aren't enough cards in the deck for each person to start with 50 (the 3 player variant can have each player start with 42 authority which works great, but with 4 players you really need something more than the amounts possible with the included cards).    Enjoy!

Overall Score: 83/100

Setup and cleanup is pretty quick and easy for a deckbuilder.

Bases help with ongoing abilities and defense.

The artwork on the cards is thematic, rich, and amazing!

Did you like this review?  Show your support by clicking the heart at Board Game Links , liking GJJ Games on Facebook , or following on Twitter .  And be sure to check out my games on  Tabletop Generation.

GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.


  1. I had never even thought to try multiplayer with only one deck, the rulebook is very insistent about going out and buying more decks. I'm going to have to try this!

  2. It's worked very well for 3 players. I haven't tried it yet with 4. One possible suggestion when playing with 4 players to give the 4th player a little advantage, since they won't ever get the advantage of being the first to play with a certain number of cards, is to have players 1-3 start with their explorers in their discard piles, but player 4 starts with the explorers in their hand. If you find that the 4th player is at a disadvantage you can try that addition to the variant.

    Also, if you don't want to play with player elimination you can end the game as soon as the first player is killed. Then everyone adds up their Authority and the winner is the player with the most Authority. That can mitigate the potential problem of players ganging up on one other player since they'll have to be watching their own Authority level compared to the other survivors as well.