Star Realms caught me off guard. To think that such an enduring game could be hiding in such a tiny package.

It seemed like a decent buy way back when I was just getting into board gaming. My wife and I wanted to try a bunch of things out, so I went to the local game shop and grabbed three small games that hovered around the ‘pair-of-fancy-coffees-from-Starbucks’ price tag and brought them home. 

I forget what the other two were, because Star Realms quickly revealed its genius to us. On the surface Star Realms is a deck-building spaceship combat game. Each player starts with the same hand of Vipers for minimal damage and Scouts for income. The income you get in a turn can be spent to buy more cards from a central row that continually refreshes. Any currency not spent is wasted. Then damage is applied to enemy ships, the enemy player’s own health (influence) or lost if shields are involved. It sounds simple because it is.

The depth comes from how the different cards players buy can interact. There are four colours of ships, Yellow generally cause discards or cycling, Blue add income and healing, Green are damage dealers, and red are deck management. Now there are a variety of cards in each colour that do different things, but the themes are quickly evident. 

Turn by turn play feels like Magic: The Gathering without the millions of possible card combinations. Players are actively trying to build a deck with synergy and manage their played ships and bases to deal damage while protecting themselves. Ships interact with others of the same type by having a bonus action or two that triggers if other ships or bases of that colour are in play. This can quickly combo into something monstrous and wonderful and brings the same satisfaction that having your deck’s winning combo go off in Magic: The Gathering has.

The fact that there is only so many cards means that, after a few players, everyone is aware of what the potential combinations are. Then Star Realms grows into a battle of wits the likes of which I felt were forever reserved for the higher levels of Trading Card Game play. Rather than needing to invest hours into learning the different meta-builds and combos that players are likely to face in Magic: The Gathering, in Star Realms similar play is achieved without the time sink.

I know this is an intentional part of how Star Realms came to be, with the designers coming from a professional Magic: The Gathering pedigree, but it still amazes me how excellently they managed to distill the essence of Magic into Star Realms. I’ve never looked back.

My wife and I bought Star Realms: Frontiers and so also had access to the difficult but fun cooperative missions and enough starting cards for four player games. If anyone is remotely interested in an alternative to Magic: The Gathering, this is still the game to buy.

To pick up your own copy of Star Realms, visit your local gaming store or head to www.starrealms.com

About The Author

Game Reviewer

Joe Fonseca is a PhD candidate working on a degree in Military History and a regular contributor on a few gaming websites. While he'll always has a soft spot for historically themed games, he plays a wide variety of tabletop boardgames, wargames, and RPGs.