Three Ring Circus: Knife Fight at the Pick n Mix

Do you ever think about the pence-per-play cost of board games?  I do, although it is usually as a cunning means to justify a new purchase.  At £13 or $13, (through the mysteries of board game currency conversion), Star Realms is a game that renders value for money arguments unnecessary.

Star Realms

Big game – small box.

Star Realms, by White Wizard Games is a two player deck building game which sees you and a friend play out an epic space battle to the death. Deckbuilding is all about starting with a small hand of weak cards and gradually improving it by buying better and better cards. It’s a powerfully clever concept started by a game called Dominion.


In the small box come 118 cards, rules and zero wasted space.  The cards are things of beauty: imagine every spaceship and space station from every science fiction book cover ever.  The cards are split into four coloured factions each with their own style:

  • The Trade Federation who are keen on money and defence.
  • The Blobs who favour destruction
  • The Machine Cult who eat their own young, (sort of).
  • The Star Empire who have an aggressive Star Fleet feel about them.

Set up

This is a 30 minute game, and set up is suitably quick too.  Each player starts with 10 basic cards and then its a question of shuffling the main deck and laying out the top five to form the starting market.

Set up and ready to play.

I have the Authority

To win the game you must reduce your opponent’s authority from a starting 50 to zero. In your starting deck you have two Vipers with a combat of 1 and eight Scouts with a trade of 1.  Winning the game with just these cards would be pretty dull, futile even.

To win you need more combat.  Combat is the bullet, but first you need to build the gun.  In other words, you need to construct a deck that will be an awesome engine of victory!

How do you build a deck?

The market place always has 5 cards.  Whatever you buy will give you one, or more, basic benefits: 

  • Combat, which reduces the opponent’s authority.
  • Trade, which allows you to buy new cards.
  • Authority, which increases your authority.
Middle cost ships.

Each turn you use the five cards drawn from your deck.  At first your deck is weak and the more expensive ships and bases are out of your price range.  When you buy new cards they go straight to your discard pile, but eventually reinforce your draw pile.  This steady buildup of strength is the nub of the game.

Each ship and base offers something a little bit different like pulling an extra card into your hand, or allowing you to scrap a weak card.  On top of that there are combo powers that trigger when you play another card of the same faction, (remember them from earlier?). Winning the game is all about buying the right cards at the right time and picking ones that work together.

Playing with Three

This is a two player game. You can pick up a second pack and play with 4.  I’ve thought of playing with three and house ruling that you always attack the player on your left, with forced discards to your right.

How easy is it to teach the game?

As deckbuilding games go, Star Realms is pretty straightforward. The rules on the cards are clear and the ‘draw five – play five – clean up’ process will be familiar to anyone who has played a deckbuilder before.  For newcomers, learning how to play will take a few cycles through the hand of five.

Can complexity be scaled?

There are some mini expansions that add new cards and rules. I would avoid these on first play. Beyond that the complexity isn’t in the game itself.  It’s in the building of a deck that will floor your opponent.

Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?

At first I let my son start the game with a hand of 5 rather than 3. This worked well and wasn’t needed for long. You could vary the starting authority too.

How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?

Your table is probably safe. Someone has to lose and that is the perfect opportunity to suggest a rematch.

Beyond the game

You can play the same game on PC, Android and IOS. The game is free, but unlocking online and full campaign modes costs a couple of quid.  I have been playing online for months. The game does not get old.

What do I think?

Let’s start with the negative. The game comes with cards to keep track of your authority. They come as a selection of 20s, 10s, 5s and 1s and I found them to be a complete faff. Now we use some ship miniatures and the score track from Carcassonne.

Carcassonne score board with my own ships.

I am a sucker for deckbuilders in general.  There is something about the draw, discard and shuffle that feels so right. There is also that thrill of discovery as you find which five cards you drew into your hand. With that in mind I was expecting to like Star Realms, but I was surprised at just how much fun I have had with it, both online and in person.

The art work and the setting are right up my street, but the game play excites too. I think part of the reason for this is the different approach to victory.  Most deckbuilders have you accumulating victory points, but here it’s a struggle to the death. As you fence around the available cards it’s like having a knife fight in a pick n mix.  Each drop in authority that you suffer moves you a little closer to the end and this puts a spotlight on your decisions.

The feeling that you get when when your deck delivers the goods is fantastic.  When you pull off combinations that are devastating, which draw extra cards and do extra damage, it feels like you’ve just taken down the Death Star!   Also I can’t think of many games that make me panic, but this one does.  If my authority is low, I may start to trash cards for small benefits or buy unsuitable bases for defence.  It’s sort of the equivalent of blowing the tanks on a submarine when you think you are sunk.

 I’ll come clean: this is barely a review. Really it’s more of a recommendation. It’s £13, buy a copy, find a friend and play the game. 

This review was written for Tabletop Day 2015.  If you enjoyed this review, or if you are desperate to find something better written try these other contributors:

The Savage AfterWorld — — Escape: Zombie City by Queen Games 

Channel Zero — — Thunderstone by Alderac Entertainment

Fractalbat — — The Hills Rise Wild by Pagan Publishing

The Gibbering Gamer — – Dragon Dice by SFR (formerly TSR)

Random Encounters (From Ohio) — – Nano Bot Battle Arena by Derpy Games



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