The Complete Star Realms Buyer’s Guide

(This guide was first posted in January 2017. Three years later, it really, really needed updated! Star Realms is still cranking out new content, and I’m here to help! This post is now current as of January 2020.) 

You may have heard that I like Star Realms. Like, a lot. It’s fast, exciting, and inexpensive… sort of. The base game can be purchased for a mere ten bucks online, but I’ve sunk way more than that into expansions and storage boxes.

Here I’ll show you to dive further into Star Realms, too. I’ll go through my opinions of each product available (in January 2017 2020, at least). The easiest place to see a full list of these expansions is here, though keep in mind that you might find them cheaper from an online discounter like CoolStuffInc (or, since the game is already pretty cheap, you might want to support your friendly local gaming store).

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The Base Decks:

Core Set vs. Colony Wars ($14.99 MSRP each) vs. Frontiers ($19.99 MSRP)

No matter which expansions and other complementary materials you buy, you need to buy either Star Realms, Star Realms: Colony Wars, or Star Realms: Frontiers to get started. These packs come with a few necessary cards not found elsewhere, such as opening hands for each player and Explorers (an always-available card, not part of the main deck). Otherwise, the three sets are defined by their entirely different central decks. Each maintains the feel of each of the same four factions and can be combined, but they offer surprisingly different play experiences apart from each other. Frontiers is a faster game than the original set, because authority (life) gain and scrapping (removing cards from your deck) are weaker, while the damage-heavy cards are even stronger. Colony Wars is also faster, though not as much as Frontiers, and more importantly, it contains a strange range of card costs and unique abilities that make it a bit more complex.

So, which do you buy? The short answer is: all three, of course! If you are wanting to try Star Realms’ multiplayer formats (it’s best as a two-player game, but multiplayer formats are fun diversions), you’ll need more starting cards… unless you buy Star Realms: Frontiers. It’s a bit pricier because it actually comes with cards for four players out of the box. You can play a multipler free-for-all or team game, or you could even play two 1-on-1 games by splitting the trade row and Explorers in half. So, even though Colony Wars is my favorite set, you should start with Frontiers. 

If you really want to see how Star Realms began with its original incarnation, the app is here to help. You can play the original base set against the AI for free (more about this below). Depending on how that “test drive” goes, you might decide to get the original base set first. I don’t find one deck particularly better than the other, so I push for diversity instead. On that note, I should point out that getting all three base sets is more bang-for-the-buck than any of the expansions, so you may want to do that first. Colony Wars is the most complex of the three, so it makes sense to save it for last, even though it’s my favorite. 

Conclusion: Buy all three, but Frontiers first and Colony Wars last. 

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The “Themed” Expansions:

Crisis, United, and High Alert ($4.99 MSRP per pack), Command Decks ($5.99 MSRP)

The primary way Star Realms has been expanded is through (non-random!) booster packs, released four at a time. The first set of four were together labeled the Crisis expansions; the most recent four are called United. Each booster pack set has its own subtitle series. You certainly don’t need to pair Crisis expansions together or United expansions together; any Star Realms cards can be mixed into any starter set!  I’m going to group these into four sets of two, arranged by the contents of the booster packs.

Crisis: Bases & Battleships and Crisis: Fleets & Fortresses

These are the most basic of all the expansions. They simply add more ships and bases to the trade row–essentially more of the same–while still changing the game considerably. The main decks for both starters are 80 cards; only 22 of the 80 cards cost 5 or more in vanilla (only 19 in Colony Wars). In these expansions, each color gets two of a more inexpensive card, and then at least one card in the 5-8 range (with one exception), including some awesome new 8-cost cards. This means the game now has far more super-powered cards to choose from, and, in my mind, this makes the game way more epic and awesome.

There are also some really fun synergies around bases. There are cards that re-play bases, put them straight into play, or even punish your opponent for having too many of them. For people who like “more of the same” type expansions, these two packs are the ones to get. Between Bases and Battleships and Fleets and Fortresses, it doesn’t really matter which you buy first. I would lean towards Bases & Battleships, simply because  three cards do a ton to make Star Empire (yellow) a better faction–a miniscule problem in the Star Realms base deck. (However, if you bought Frontiers or Colony Wars instead, Star Empire is extremely strong in both of those sets — not that this set of cards will ruin any kind of balance.) 

United: Assault and United: Command

These two expansions also simply add more bases and ships, but there’s a twist: all of the cards in these sets are dual-colored, meaning they belong to two different factions. This is a huge inherent advantage, because these cards trigger ally bonuses for either faction they belong to. For this reason, these cards are generally a little weaker by direct comparison (e.g., compare Assault Pod to Predator or Blob Fighter).

However, some of the new cards have fun new abilities not found in other cards, such as Coalition Messenger, which lets you move cards from your discard pile to the top of your deck. And, again, these decks include a high density of awesome, expensive cards (which, strangely, are all bases). I would not buy these expansions before the Crisis bases and ships, simply because you might mistakenly be unimpressed after the “wow” factor of the dual-faction cards, even though the Crisis cards are extremely good.

Crisis: Heroes and United: Heroes

Heroes were first introduced as a new card type in Crisis: Heroes (big surprise!). These cards go straight into play in front of you, are not part of your deck, and cannot be attacked or otherwise manipulated by your opponent. All of the Heroes in the Crisis pack require you to scrap the card to get any use of it, and they offer a small bonus in addition to providing faction bonuses for one color for that turn. For example, my favorite, Cunning Captain, triggers Star Empire (yellow) ally bonuses and makes your opponent discard a card. Since all of these heroes cost only one or two trade to buy, they’re quickly snatched up and used at pivotal moments. The two Cunning Captains can be stacked together with other cards to pull off a discard-five that makes your opponent miss a whole turn! These cards change the game considerably with their immediate effects on the game.

In United: Heroes, twelve more Hero cards are introduced, but they all cost 3-to-5 trade. To compensate for this, these cards provide a bonus immediately when bought for that turn, and then can be scrapped for an additional bonus on the same turn or later on. Although these Hero cards are also quite effective, their price keeps them from being automatic purchases. The rules, as written, can be a bit confusing; I’ve seen several players mistakenly think that these cards provide bonuses every turn they’re in play, but it’s only upon purchasing. I love these Hero card-types and like playing with them, but I recommend starting with the simpler Crisis pack first. (Although, if you are friends with any of the tournament winners now featured on cards in United: Heroes, perhaps you should start there instead! Or… Keep reading…)

Crisis: Events and United: Missions 

Both expansion cycles have one expansion pack that changes the game considerably. Events are mixed into the trade row and resolved for an immediate effect when revealed, and then scrapped. These cards can clear the traderow, deal damage or give authority to both players, or give players extra cards in hand. Depending on when they’re revealed, these cards can be hugely beneficial to you or your opponent, and they considerably amplify the randomness of a game that’s already got a fair amount of unpredictability. I’ve found that these cards can make games more swingy and therefore more interesting, and provide a possible “out” when you are behind, so I enjoy playing with them. However, they are definitely one of the most controversial expansions among players in the app, along with… Missions!

Missions also change the game considerably. These twelve cards are not included in the central trade deck. Instead, three are dealt to each player, giving the player a task, such as “play a Blob ship while having a Blob base in play.” When you accomplish the task, you reveal the mission (max one per turn) and gain a reward–drawing cards, extra damage, free cards, what have you. If you flip your third mission, you win. I did not like this expansion at first. However, after playing with these cards for quite a while in the app now, I’ve come around on them. They make Star Realms into a completely different game, more than any other expansion, but that can be a good thing when players are looking to change it up. They’re challenging for even the most experienced players, and that’s a good thing, proving the longevity of Star Realms. 

Conclusion: After the core sets, get the Crisis and United packs in the order listed above. 

High Alert: Invasion, Requisition, Tech, Heroes

It is very tempting to suggest you start here, for egotistical reasons (that’s me over on the cover of the High Alert: Heroes pack). But, as of January 2020, you can’t start here anyway. These have appeared on Kickstarter (and, presumably, will be available as an add-on for all White Wizard Games Kickstarters in the foreseeable future), but they do not hit retail until summer 2020.

From the cards that have been previewed, though, these are  more complex than Crisis or United across the board. Requisition introduces a new mechanism for ships and bases while Invasion continues a new mechanism from Frontiers; Tech is the latest new card type that will have its own set of rules to figure out, and the new Heroes come with more than one scrap option. None of these are bad things — in fact, they all look super exciting — but I’d still recommend buying in order of complexity, so that you aren’t accidentally underwhelmed by an earlier set of simpler, but very good, cards.

Conclusion: Buy them all, but in the order I just listed (top to bottom).  But buy every pack you can find of High Alert: Heroes. 

Command Decks

While many Legends winners were turned into Heroes cards, a lucky few became “Commanders”. A while back, White Wizard Games released Hero Realms, which was very similar to Star Realms but in addition to a medieval theme, had unique Character decks. Each player would replace their initial deck with one unique to the Character and get a special power as well. Star Realms players asked for the same treatment, and WWG delivered. Much like Missions, I was skeptical at first of Command Decks, but they are awesome.

Each Command Deck includes the character, rules for the character (almost all have higher life totals, and draw more cards than the typical 5), two Gambit cards unique to that character, and a unique starting deck. Additionally, each Commansder is tied to a combination of two specific colors, and a multicolor 8-cost ship of that combination is added to the trade deck when you use the corresponding Commander.

Which Commander do you buy first? Nandi (The Alliance – Blue/Yellow) is my personal favorite; the last two Legends tournament finals (which now use Command Decks for the Top 8 playoffs) were both Nandi against McCready (The Union – Green/Yellow), and those are two very different play styles (tricky versus aggressive), so those would be a great two to start. And you can’t really just buy one, if you want a fair 1-on-1 fight.

Conclusion: Buy them all, but maybe start with The Alliance and The Union

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Other Cards You Can Buy

Gambit Set ($9.99 MSRP) and Cosmic Gambit Set ($5.99 MSRP)

Gambits are another entirely new card type. These cards are dealt face-down (although they are face-up in the app) at the start of the game; each player gets two. At any time, you can reveal them, and scrap them for a purpose. (Some newer gambits do something upon revealing, and separately upon scrapping). They give more trade or damage, extra card draws, cards to the top of your deck, and many more abilities. I really enjoy playing with Gambits, because they allow you to adjust your luck. If you were dealt 1 Scout and 2 Vipers on your first turn, and there’s a 2-cost Cutter in the trade row, you can probably draw a card with one of your Gambits and make sure to get it. Some gambits are definitely better than others (looking at you, Frontier Fleet), so I always deal three and choose two when playing the physical game. I always choose to play with these cards if I can.

Gambits are available in two different packs. The Gambit Set is more expensive, but also comes with cards for solo and cooperative modes, as well as 3 Merc Cruisers for the main trade deck. Merc Cruiser is an okay card, but I’m perfectly fine playing without it. Cosmic Gambit is cheaper, and only includes gambits. These gambits are also considerably crazier than the ones found in the original Gambit Set. Which one to get first depends on if you’re going all out. If you’re just going to test the waters, the Cosmic Gambit is more bang for your buck, especially if (like me) you have no interest in solo or cooperative play. However, you might find the original Gambit Set underwhelming if you pick it up second.

Conclusion: Gambits are awesome; Cosmic Gambit Set is the better deal

Year One Promo Pack ($9.99 MSRP)

Original Kickstarter backers received a set of promo cards, which are available as an expansion in the app (though the app expansion includes 3 Merc Cruisers, which are physically found in the Gambit Set). Now, there is a physical Promo Pack available for purchase, featuring the same cards with alternate art, and with the 3 Merc Cruisers replaced by 2 Security Craft (originally available through a Dice Tower Kickstarter) and 1 Mercenary Garrison (originally included with deck boxes).

The main twelve cards are well-known to players in the app, and they’re a bit of a mixed bag. Personally, as a lover of bases, I think some of the coolest cards in the game are the four bases found in this set. There’s also an awesome ship that interacts with the bases (Battle Barge). However, two of the cards in this set (The Ark and Megahauler) are the most complained-about cards in the game. The Ark is the worst offender by far. It’s beatable, but it does warp a game to focus entirely around its existence while it’s in the trade row or in a player’s deck. I’m always happy to include The Ark in my deck, but I respect those who aren’t. I would still get this set merely for the other cards if you don’t have the original Kickstarer versions. However, you don’t need to be in a hurry to pick the Promo Pack up. You probably don’t want to play with The Ark until you understand the game anyway; it could accidentally spoil the game for you.

Conclusion: Save this one for later.

Scenarios ($7.99 MSRP)

This is a weird one. Scenarios is a pack of 20 cards, and you flip one at the start of a game, whch permanently changes the rules for that game (see example card to the left). I really enjoy this concept. Star Realms is a highly malleable game; that’s probably one of its most important qualities, and that’s why it’s managed to have so much content that you need a guide like this!

However, Scenarios has been somewhat outclassed by White Wizard Games themselves. If you play the digital game on the app, there is now a weekly Arena, where players can earn digital foil cards. Every week, the Arena has a new, well, Scenario. Most are pulled straight from this expansion, but new ones have been created for Arena. Since Arena is free to play at least once a week (though it costs more to play over and over each week), and more expanded than this expansion, I simply find myself not bothering with this expansion when I play “paper” Star Realms. I’m not saying never get it, but it’s not a priority, unless maybe you’re completely against digital gaming.

Conclusion: Not a high priority for Arena players, but a good expansion.

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Other Cards You Maybe Can’t Always Buy

The Star Realms Deluxe NOVA Collection (Kickstarter Exclusive, Limited)

This update is timely, as a very limited version of Star Realms is launching on Kickstarter. This is a fancy, big box of all foil cards for the original base set, both Gambit sets, and the entire Crisis set of expansions, along with the Year 1 promo pack. With the exception of the 2nd Gambit expansion (which is a great set), the rest were basically the “early history” of Star Realms, both in physical and digital form. I grinded to the Top 10 players of all time on the app (and have since descended, but I earned my Fleet HQ Avatar…) back when these were the only sets available in the app, and I used them all together for every match. I love this set of cards together and think this is an extremely cool product. Of course, if you’re reading this in 2021, you probably missed out already. That’s okay. You don’t need to have this product, and it’s not like you can easily mix it with all of your other Star Realms stuff you already have. But…. it sure is pretty. So pretty….

Conclusion: If you have the spare cash and affection for these sets, go for it. If you missed  it, or you’re just getting into Star Realms and don’t want to commit the cash, that’s okay too. 

Kickstarter Exclusives:
Year Two Promo Pack, Frontiers Promos, Stellar Allies, High Alert: First Strike, Lost Fleet Command Deck

White Wizard Games originally had a policy that any exclusive cards they put out on Kickstarter will eventually be released in retail with alternate art, so by backing on Kickstarter, you get them early with art that will never be available again. I believe this is still the policy, but they are years behind on offering alternate-art versions at retail. In this newest Kickstarter for the Deluxe NOVA Collection (which is also an exception to the rule and limited to Kickstarter), High Alert: First Strike, Frontiers Promos, Stellar Allies, and the Lost Fleet Command Deck are simply listed as “Kickstarter Exclusives”. I believe they’ll come to retail eventually, but White Wizard Games runs Kickstarter campaigns often enough, always with a huge suite of add-ons, that you can likely piggyback on any campaign to pick these up, and you might as well do so. However, the Year Two Promo Pack is not listed as a Kickstarter exclusive, yet I can’t find it anywhere in retail. Perhaps that’s a sign that a retail version will exist soon. Personally, I’d really like to see Stellar Allies widely available; I always found it odd that United: Command and United: Assault only used four of the six multicolor combinations possible, and Stellar Allies completes the set with some truly amazing cards.

Conclusion: When Star Realms completionism fully sets in, catch these on a WWG Kickstarter. 

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Storage Solutions

Originally, there were two main boxes available from Legion Supplies–a longer cardboard box that comes with plenty of sleeves, and a plastic flip box that doesn’t come with any (sleeves are sold separately). Both boxes come with Mercenary Garrison (1 in the flip box, 3 in the cardboard box), which is now also in the Promo Pack (I have like ten of these now). I’m not sure that either is being printed now, but I still love my flip boxes. The long box was never that great, and has been completely rendered obsolete by the Univeral Storage Box that White Wizard Games now makes themselves. 

I’ve owned every box that’s been put out officially for Star Realms, as well as the sleeves. I will say that I really like the official sleeves, and will continue to buy and use them as new cards come out. I no longer own the long box, but I quite happily have both the flip boxes and the Univeral Storage Box. While you can only fit maybe one core set and some epxansions in a flip box, they’re much easier to carry around and to transfer cards in and out of. 

However, as you head towards Star Realms completionism, the Univeral Storage Box is amazing. It has room for everything with space, dividers to label every expansion to date (not counting the upcoming High Alert), and includes some incredibly powerful promo cards as a bonus. When game night is really going to be Star Realms night the whole time, this box is perfect. Meanwhile, the flip boxes are perfect for travel and backpacks. However, I’m struggling to find it available anywhere – this might be another item you have to keep an eye on Kickstarter for, like the expansiosn mentioned above. It’s worth it, though.

Conclusion: Flip boxes and Universal Storage Box are both awesome in their own ways. 

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The App

The main reason I abandoned my Dominion addiction for Star Realms is the app. Dominion online is on its second owner, and is now a subscription model (yuck), and still a mess. Meanwhile, Star Realms is free to download and play against the computer, and the IAP to unlock it once on PC, iOS, and Android is a measly $5. Each expansion is a couple bucks, but they’re one-time fees that span all platforms. You really can’t get that kind of service anywhere else. The app does automate a few things that it “shouldn’t” (like ally-triggered card draws), giving you fewer choices and less strategy than the physical game at times. However, the app makes the gameplay very quick and smooth, and there’s an awesome online community here and here and here and even here.  I highly recommend that you at least download the app and play the free mode to see what you think of the game.

Conclusion: Download the free version of the app, at least.

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The Other Stuff

Wait, there’s more? There’s always more… Star Realms has gotten popular enough to generate its own set of, shall we say, swag. There’s a T-shirt available here, which I own and can attest is a quality T-shirt, in that it… is a T-shirt. What more do you want? There’s also a novel titled Rescue Run, available used on Amazon as I believe it is now out of print. I can tell you that part of the action takes place on a Cargo Launch, a card which has been heavily memed in our Facebook group. Did the book inspire the meme, or the other way around? Read the novel to find out! Maybe!

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I’m Ready to Dive In! What Do I Do Next?

To summarize:

  • Download the free app first and mess around.
  • Get all the base decks, probably Frontiers first. 
  • If you want to dive deeper, grab the expansions in the order listed above, though you can pick up some gambits to mix in at any point.
  • When you need a storage solution, buy some flip boxes. Or, if you’re just going to mix everything, get the amazing universal storage box.
  • Keep an eye on Kickstarters when you want to grab some exclusive stuff. (Easiest method would be to “follow” Rob Dougherty on Kickstarter.)
  • Have fun!

Considering you could have already played three games of Star Realms while reading this, I hope it was worth your time! Happy spacefaring!

Derek Thompson

I've been a board game reviewer since 2011. I love card-driven games and party games. I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics and teach the subject at Taylor University in Upland, IN. My wife and kids are my favorite gaming partners.

8 Comments

  1. Simon Youngman on April 26, 2020 at 12:03 pm

    Sorry, why exactly should I buy Frontiers first? Guide is a bit fuzzy on this.

  2. Brent Turcotte on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    I have to disagree with a few points.

    The first star realms set vanilla vs frontiers. The decks themselves the original is a far superior and more fun deck. The only thing frontiers has going is a better rule setup and boss cards out of the gate. But in siko challenges I have lost more times to the planet swallowing space beast with a frontiers deck vs original and that can be frustrating for players.

    Scenarios and gambets are garbage save your money. Pickup everything else it’s an amazing game.

    • Derek Thompson on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

      Frontiers and Vanilla are different; hard to say one is better.
      As far as Gambits… Agree to disagree. 🙂

  3. Adam Brittain on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    As someone just getting into SR this is a great guide. I appreciate you breaking down each set and being real about their uses. Some of the crisis decks are hard to come by now… Do you think they’ll be reprinted? I’d love to get fleets and fortresses for my son and I but don’t want to spend a ton on one pack.

  4. Cap_N_Jack on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    I’d love to see this updated with Frontiers and command decks info as it’s been invaluable to me in deciding what to purchase.

  5. Daniel Murphy on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    I would argue to buy the vanilla core set first.

    True, Colony Wars is better balanced against itself – fewer standout cards like Stealth Needle and Brain World, broader but weakened access to scrapping, and broader access to cash. In the original, if you happen to get Stealth Needle early, or an early scrapper with fortunate card draw, or snatch that one Freighter that comes out while your opponent is stuck with Explorers, you will probably run away with the game. Colony Wars fixes these pitfalls.

    HOWEVER, Colony Wars has such a steep power curve. More cash early, cheaper combat, and I believe more card draw. While these are generally available to both players, if you make a mistake or don’t know what you are doing, you can get buried terribly fast. Well matched players will have an even game, but the steepness of the power curve means that a wrong step can absolutely punish you.

    Vanilla is gentler.

    In summary: Vanilla has a (sometimes) unbalanced deck, but provides a forgiving experience good for developing strategy. Colony Wars has a balanced deck but is unforgiving to missteps.

  6. Jon Del Arroz on January 21, 2017 at 5:03 pm

    There’s also a novel based on the game, Star Realms: Rescue Run, by me. If you are interested in getting deeper into the lore and want a fun science fiction book! http://bit.ly/starrealmsnovel for more info.

    • Derek Thompson on January 23, 2017 at 3:50 am

      Yeah, sorry about that Jon! Keep reminding me and I will add that

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