My Wife Always Wins: Star Realms

Brian Shabbott
June 12, 2017

This Week’s Game: Star Realms

         If you’ve read a few of these, you’ll know I have not kept my interest in history a secret. I try to stay away from the history lesson type ramblings that often come with one’s passion for history, but I’ve been so overwhelmed lately that I may not be able to steer clear.

         I moved almost three months ago now, and my new city is Saint Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the United States – founded in 1565 by the Spanish, a full two centuries before the establishment of the United States of America. There is so much to see in this city, and now that we are finally settled I’ve been out several nights each week (and pretty much the whole weekend) to discover more about the history of the place I live.

         Last week, we went to a pirate museum. At the urging of the crown, British privateers had long ravaged Saint Augustine, looking to weaken their Spanish rival’s foothold in North America – in the 17th century the city was burned by Robert Searle. As a result, the Castillo de San Marcos was commissioned, a huge stone fortress that is still standing today – it even served as a United States (and, during the Civil War, a Confederate States) military installation for over 100 years.

         Anyway, I know I am doing that whole rambling thing – I’m just in love with this place. Every day I discover a new site, I learn some new historical fact, and I have a feeling I can live here twenty more years and still not know everything there is to know. But that has been my life lately: explore, study, learn. And it has been blissful.

         But when I find something that interests me, something that makes me happy, my wife, Lyndsey, can’t help but shift gears and try to take it away from me. And so, while my heart has been set on the past, looking to consume everything historical (including games), she set her sights instead on the future. This week she brought the futuristic sci-fi card game Star Realms to the table to stop me from living in the past.

The Basics

         Star Realms is a competitive deck-building game set against the backdrop of starship battles. There are multiple play formats, but we will be reviewing the basic two-player format.

         Each player starts with 50 Authority (health) points and a basic deck of eight Scout cards (which each deliver 1 coin) and two Viper cards (which each deliver 1 damage). In the center of the play area is the Trade Deck, which consists of all the ships and bases the players will have the opportunity to buy. Five of these cards will show face-up at all times in Trade Row – when one is purchased, it is immediately replaced. There are also 10 explorer cards placed beside Trade Row – these can be purchased if nothing in Trade Row interests the player (or if he can’t afford anything else).

         Each ship has a primary ability. The primary ability may grant damage points or coins. Some ships have ally abilities. If more than one card of the same faction (there are four factions represented by four different colors) is played, the ally abilities of all cards in that faction activate – which grant additional bonuses. Some cards also have Scrap abilities – this means players may remove the card from the game completely to obtain a special, one-time bonus. Scrapping is integral to the game, as it helps promote a leaner deck so that players can get to their better cards more quickly.

         Each turn consists of main, discard, and draw phases. During the main phase players can take actions such as playing cards from their hands, entering combat with their accumulated damage, or buying new cards from Trade Row. The discard phase consists of clearing the board of all ships played during the hand. Base cards are similar to ships, but they are not removed during the discard phase. Instead, they remain until destroyed. During the draw phase, players will draw a new hand of five from the decks they are building (whenever a card needs to be drawn but can’t be, the deck is reshuffled). Turns continue until one player reduces her opponent to zero authority and claims victory.

         Check out the rules here.

Time to Play

         Lyndsey went first and picked up a Trade Federation (blue card). On my turn I picked up both a Star Empire (yellow) and a Machine Cult (red) card. Lyndsey followed by purchasing a Blob (green) card and another blue card. For our next few turns, we stuck to this strategy, each focusing on the two colors we picked from the start.

         Blue cards specialize in generating coins and healing. Yellow are pretty balanced with coins and damage, but specialize in drawing cards and making opponents discard cards. Red is likewise balanced with damage and coins, and allow players to scrap cards from their deck for the rest of the game. Finally, green is completely damage based and can really deliver high-powered hits. So, from the beginning of the game I was using red to scrap the starting cards so that I only had powerful cards in my deck, and using yellow to draw more so that I could see more cards in a turn. Lyndsey was going for healing – even with the damage I dealt in the first few rounds, she increased her health higher than the 50 we both started the game at several times. And with her green cards, of course, Lyndsey was trying to really bring the pain.

         She quickly jumped ahead. The synergy of her green cards allowed her to deal 16 and 11 points of damage in two consecutive turns. On the other hand, I had a slower starting deck. I dealt three damage here, four damage there… most of which she healed in the coming turns. But my deck was focused more on cutting out cards.

         Lyndsey hadn’t picked up a single red card, which meant she had a heavy deck that still included all of her weaker starting cards. Because of this, I lucked out when I was down to 13 health and Lyndsey was still at 32. She drew a hand that consisted completely of five starting cards – she had four coins and one damage. The damage did nothing, because I had an outpost base card that offered five points of protection. This outpost protected me a few more turns, and gave me a chance to really optimize my deck, even though I wasn’t able to deal any more damage in the meantime due to Lyndsey also having an outpost.

         By the end of the game I had only seven cards in my deck, and all of them were hard-hitting. In addition, since my few yellow cards allowed me to draw cards, I was pretty much guaranteed to bring all seven cards out every turn. I did so, and dealt 33 damage, which was more than enough to defeat Lyndsey… had she not had a four-point outpost. I only dealt 29, which left her at three.

         In her very next turn, Lyndsey was able to put together thirteen damage points, which was exactly what she needed to defeat me – except that I had an outpost that protected me. I smirked, knowing I could beat her next turn. Except for one little problem: One of her green cards had a special ability which destroyed my base, freeing up all her damage to reduce me down to zero.

Final Thoughts

         Despite Lyndsey’s malevolent intent in choosing Star Realms, I do appreciate the opportunity to examine another deck-builder after having looked at Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle in the last review we did. A side-by-side comparison is always a helpful tool when looking at games of similar mechanics. While last week I suggested Hogwarts Battle loses its replayability because of its simplicity, Star Realms is one we come back to play all the time.

         There is far less going on in Star Realms, it is simply: pick up new cards, scrap the unnecessary cards, and barrage your opponent until they fall in defeat. There is plenty of strategy as well – do you seek red cards to really thin your deck out, or green cards to really lay on the damage? In the end, damage is important, but it can’t be the sole objective – building a synergistic deck is absolutely necessary for victory.  Rarely do we play a game that is one on one combat, but if we do the deck-builder format is ideal. And given the theme and crisp mechanics, Star Realms is an ideal deck-builder.

         I absolutely love this game, and it will never suffer from having too low a difficulty setting, since the difficulty is contingent on the skill of the player sitting across the table. This can be a negative, however, as in my case: My wife will always be sitting across the table, and she will always be better than me.