Star Realms from White Wizard Games might be the best bang for your tabletop buck currently on the market. It's cheap, portable, easy to learn, plays quickly, and is a ton of fun.
What is Star Realms?
Star Realms is a two-player, head-to-head deck-building game that plays in 20 minutes or less. Unlike many other deck-building games where players are in competition to score the most points, Star Realms has players fighting directly against each other to reduce their opponent's Authority to zero. This added level of competition really helps Star Realm stand out.
Players begin the game with a small deck of 10 relatively weak cards. Between the players sits a Trade Row of cards available for both players to purchase, and thus, enhance and strengthen their decks. Players will draw five cards to begin their turn and will use those cards to attack their opponent's Authority, use Trade to purchase cards from the Trade Row, regain Authority, draw additional cards, block attacks from their opponent, or make their opponent discard cards from their hand.
All of the cards in Star Realms, aside from the ten starting cards in each player's deck, belong to one of four factions. Each faction's cards have a color, theme, a focus and often trigger additional abilities on cards from the same faction when played during the same turn. The Machine Cult is the red faction whose cards focus on allowing a player to Scrap cards from their hand or discard piles. Scrapping a card removes it from the game and allows a player to remove the less powerful or less effective cards from their deck. This allows their better and more powerful cards to be drawn more often.
Trading and Enforcing Your Authority
The Trade Federation is the blue faction and focuses on gaining Trade and Authority. This gives them more purchasing power and makes it more difficult to reduce them to zero Authority. The Blob is green, and many Blob cards allow players to draw cards; scrap cards from the Trade Row. Some Blob cards have quite high attack values. The final faction, The Star Empire, tends to be very aggressive and focuses on card advantage and Attack. Trade Federation cards may allow a player to draw cards while others force a player's opponent to discard cards from their hand.
While some strategies, such as building your deck with as many cards of the same color as possible, are always sound, the ever-changing nature of the game keeps it interesting. Since both players buy cards from the same Trade Row and players can never be sure which cards are going to come up during a game, the real meat of the game comes from trying to determine the best cards available against the current game state. Sometimes the best move for a player to take will be to buy or scrap a card that would be great for their opponent to have rather than buying a card for their own deck.
With strategies that need to be adapted on the fly, enough depth to allow for multiple approaches, and an ever-changing battlefield, the game stays fresh even after dozens of plays. Add to this the short playtime, quick setup, excellent theme, great art, and very low price point, and you have a game that I will be recommending as often as I can.
A Few Notes on Star Realms
A Note on Multiplayer
Star Realms comes with rules for Multiplayer variants, although I have not played with more than two players as I only have one copy of the game, and multiple copies are required to play with more than two players.
A Note on Game Length
Games of Star Realms usually take about 20 minutes to complete. Despite this quick play time, the game offers a wide range of options and strategies to pursue and feels like a complete, meaty, satisfying experience every time.
A Note on “Chrome”
The cards in Star Realms are all good quality, and the art is excellent. The rules inserted in my copy were placed in the box at an angle and were a bit torn and creased. The rules themselves are printed on a single, folded piece of paper, and as such, I wasn't as bothered by it had it been a rulebook, but it was still a touch disappointing. I would recommend placing the cards in sleeves as the cards are constantly being shuffled during play. Once sleeved, the cards will not fit back into the retail box but do fit comfortably in an oversized deck box. There is also a nice combination deck box/sleeves set available if you want something a little nicer.
Is Star Realms Worth Your Money?
Star Realms is amazing. I picked it up on a whim because it was cheap, and I'd heard good things, but I wasn't expecting to have it take over my table and take up my time so completely. Even when the game ends in a devastating defeat for one player due to unfortunate/extremely fortunate card draws, we can't wait to shuffle up the cards and play again. It combines the best aspects of deck builders and head-to-head card games in a way that is just pure fun. Star Realms plays quickly and is deep enough to allow for strategic play while being varied enough to stay fresh.
The copy of Star Realms used in this review was purchased by the author. This review was originally published on 03-03-2015. While care has been taken to update the piece to reflect our modern style guidelines, some of the information may be out of date. We've left pieces like this as they were to reflect the original authors' opinions and for historical context.