Despite that long and potentially overwhelming title, Star Realms is actually a really simple deckbuilding card game. A deckbuilding game is one where you start with a very bare bones set of cards – in this case just 10 – and slowly acquire more and in doing so build up a deck. Star Realms is easily one of the smartest and most addictive short card games I’ve played in a very long time – it is also one of the best.
Let’s start with the base game. Star Realms plays like this: draw 5 cards, play all of those card (picking the best order because of card effect this is really important), buy new ships from the trade row and total the damage done to your opponent. Every card has a mixture of 3 different symbols that allow it to do the following: gold icons are money which is used to purchase new ships and bases, red icons do damage to your opponent and green add health to yourself. All other effects are written onto the cards, but they do a myriad of things that I’ll get into a bit later.
The beauty of Star Realms is that all seems really simple and at its core it is, but hiding beneath are so many difficult and interesting decisions. The base game includes 2 types of card to purchase: ships and bases. Ships are only in effect on the turn you play them and after that they are deposited in your discard pile, but bases stay in play until your opponent destroys them in some way. The added benefit of bases is that some of them are outposts and this means that in order to damage you they must first go destroy your base allowing them to act as a shield. So you have limited money, five choices of card to purchase plus many different special abilities to activate, but there is just one more thing.
Star Realms is occupied by 4 different factions: Blobs (greens), Machine Cultists (reds), Trade Federation (blue) and Star Empire (yellow). Lots of the bases and ships will have the various factions emblem on the card with some additional actions next to it and this means that in order to activate this a player must have another of that faction in play as well. So let’s say you decide you want to play Blobs. They are great, they do a tonne of damage, destroy things in the trade row and sometimes let you draw cards. The drawback being you haven’t seen a Blob in a while and you don’t want to get behind your opponent since they have been buying up Machine Cultists like they are part of a closing down sale, so your change to buying some Trade Federation ships. The problem now is that you’ve filled your deck with cards that you maybe didn’t really want and they are getting in the way of your might Blog war machine. As you can already see just deciding what to buy and when is a massive and agonising decision. And that is without considering the final ability cards have – trashing. Cards with a little bin symbol mean you can use their ability one time and then they are removed from the game forever. Deciding when and how to use these can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Very tense stuff.
This ‘mini’ Crisis expansions add just a few cards to the mix each, but they are just the right kind of spice to make this game even better. First Crisis adds some extra bases and ships and these are alright, but are just more of the same really. What Crisis did that was really interesting was add events and heroes. When an event comes of the top of the trade deck it is either amazing or terrible in an exciting way. Did that Trade Mission just let you buy the ship of your dreams or did the Supernova snatch away everything you had been planning to buy. Heroes on the other-hand don’t get added to your deck. They sit in front of you like a base, but can’t be targeted by anybody. Instead they offer a one time use ability and count as a faction of their given colour for 1 turn. This can mean that you can really get the most of that splash of Star Empire or get some extra damage in thanks to your Blob hero. If you are enjoying Star Realms then you should definitely look into the Crisis expansions as they make an already great game even better.
This brings us to Star Realms stand-alone expansion – Colony Wars. It can be combined with the base game and Crisis, but also plays by itself. It also allows you to add a third and fourth player for even more fun. I don’t think it manages the tension of the original Star Realms though. It has a lot of the same features, but it is much easier to purchase expensive bases and ships with a lot less damage. Which sort of makes thematic sense, but isn’t as fun to play. The original Star Realms struck that great balance where it was a real achievement to buy an 8 cost base or ship and then do 20 something damage, but Colony Wars makes buying expensive cards far too easy that I often found I didn’t want to spend my 10+ money on anything which lead to rather boring turns.
My final advice is that the original Star Realms is great. It’s tense, fast paced and nicely balanced. If you are enjoying that then pick up the Crisis expansions as they add some great twists. As for Colony Wars I can only recommend it if you are really itching for new cards or want to add a third and fourth player, otherwise you can do without it.