Star Realms–An Application of Triggered Effects

Star Realms is a game I kickstarted several months ago. They brought a solid presence to Gen Con and dropped a free app onto the iTunes store.

Robert Dougherty and Darwin Kastle share the design credit for Star Realms.  They, along with Chad Ellis, were the minds behind the card-based minis game Battleground: Fantasy Warfare.  Dougherty’s ludography includes Ascension while Kastle’s credits feature the excellent The Battle for Hill 218.  Star Realms a solid creation by both.

Since I happen to be studying triggered effects and since Star Realms revealed some interesting implementations of triggered effects, we simply must take a deeper look.


Star Realms bears a strong resemblance to Ascension.  Both are deckbuilding games.  Both start players with a 10-card deck, most of which generate one coin, the others of which generate one combat.  Both feature a tableau of cards for purchase which come from a common deck.  Both offer the player additional cards to purchase in addition to the tableau (In Ascension these are the Mystic and Heavy Infantry while Star Realms offers Scouts singularly).  Players take turns playing from a hand of 5 cards.  Most cards move from play space to discard pile during cleanup while others remain in play to provide continuing effects.    These similarities are natural enough, considering its pedigree.

The most striking difference between Star Realms and Ascension is in the application of combat.  In this area, Ascension follows the pattern of most Eurogames, offering only indirect attacks.  Star Realms is direct, in the pattern of TCGs like Magic: the Gathering.

Combat in Ascension is used to defeat monsters.  In Ascension, some monsters offer negative effects on opponents in addition to their point value. In this way, players may attack one another only indirectly–through the proxy of these monster effects.  A consequence of Ascension’s structure is the occasional midgame lull.  This lull generally occurs because players have either (A) filled their deck with combat cards but no monsters are on the tableau or (B) filled their deck with money cards but only monsters are on the tableau.

Combat in Star Realms is used to attack your opponent. A contrasting consequence of this design decision is that it has no midgame lull.  There are always cards to buy in the middle. There is always an opponent to attack across the table.

Triggered Effects

Dougherty and Kastle employed two broad categories of trigger–faction and autotrashing.  They managed to pack some interesting ideas into these two triggers.

Faction Effects

Every card in Star Realms belongs to one of X factions; Blob, Federation, Machine Cult and Star Empire. Many cards award a bonus when multiple cards from the same faction are in play on the same turn.

Blob Fighter

The Blob Fighter card shown here generates 3 combat naturally but also draws a card if you have any other Blob cards in play.

Federation Shuttle

This Federation Shuttle awards 2 money naturally but also gives the player 4 hit points if she has any other Federation cards in play.

These faction effects are a consistent inducement to try and build a faction-concentrated deck–or to block your opponent from doing the same. These effects make a nice addition to the realm of game triggers and I look forward to seeing how Daughtery and Kastle–and other designers–employ this trigger in future designs.


Autotrashing Effects

Many cards in Star Realms have the ability to trash themselves to trigger an effect.


The Star Empire Battlecruiser shown here generates 3 combat naturally and naturally allows its player to draw a card.  The Battlecruiser forces the opponent to discard a the player has any other Star Empire cards in play. This Battlecruiser also has an autotrash effect; you may choose to trash this card from play and if you do, draw a card and destroy a base.  Since bases are your opponent’s first line of defense, this can be quite a powerful move indeed!

These autotrashing effects serve two purposes. Their combined effect is often multiplicitave rather than additive. You get their effect and you clean out your deck.

I find this effect particularly powerful in the case of the Explorer card. Late game play in Dominion often finds me wishing I could make my Silvers disappear. Explorer are Silvers I can trash to damage my opponent. And that is what I call a win-win situation.

Closing Thoughts

The objective of this column was to examine gameplay mechanisms and their consequences rather than  to provide a review in any traditional sense.  However, I do feel that Star Realms offers an interesting take on triggered effects and it’s a pretty darned decent deckbuilder besides.  If you’re a designer with any interest in deckbuilders or in triggered effects, Star Realms is definitely worth the time you’ll invest checking it out.

Have you played Star Realms?  What do you think of its triggered effects?  What do you think of it as a deckbuilder?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.