Sid Meier’s Starships. It’s not a name that sounds particularly promising, is it? Sid’s a fan of pithy one- or two- word titles, and he’s used them to great effect in the past. What else would you call a game about the progress of human society through the ages except Civilization? They are usually appropriately descriptive; in Railroad Tycoon you play the part of an 1830-era railroad tycoon. Even the simplest ones were jazzed up by the addition of an exclamation mark: Pirates! is a little muddy as a descriptor, but you can at least tell Sid is very excited about it and thinks you’re going to have a lot of fun playing it. (And he was right.) Even the worst of his games, Railroads!, was saved by the exclamation mark and by the fact it did somewhat signal the transition from meaty business sim to playing with a virtual toy railway set.
Now we have Starships, however, a title so vague and humdrum they couldn’t even be bothered to give it a little pizzazz by calling it Starships! Maybe they felt like it’d be false advertising, since people would probably have expected a jauntily fun experience haring around the space-Caribbean rather than the second take on Ace Patrol that Starships really is. It has a very similar mechanical structure to Ace Patrol, splitting the game into two parts. One is the empire map where you order your fleet of starships to various planets in need of your assistance, which is rendered by completing some sort of procedurally generated mission for them. Once you’ve selected a mission you’re then taken to a turn-based tactical combat segment in which you use the various weapons on your starships to blow an AI fleet into smithereens. Completing a mission successfully gets you resources and influence which you can use to expand your empire/federation/galactic hive mind on the empire map.
It’s that last sentence which signals the biggest improvement from Ace Patrol. Ace Patrol’s campaign was a painfully vestigial waste of time that had nowhere near enough variety or impact on the excellent tactical combat and which completely failed to provide it with any meaningful context, rendering the entire game repetitive and ultimately forgettable. Starships avoids falling into this particular trap by making its empire map far more than a barely-disguised mission select screen. Instead it’s a stripped down Civilization-lite; you can take over planets to expand your borders, build improvements to improve resource yield, grow your population by constructing cities and spend accumulated science points on technology upgrades that directly improve the effectiveness of your starships in combat. Competition is provided by a number of AI empires all tussling for the same territory, and even the victory conditions are ripped off wholesale from Civ.
In short, everything you’d expect to find in a Civilization game is present on Starships’ empire map, albeit in an incredibly basic, protoplasmic form. If Civilization is an oil painting then Starships is a cartoon — it’s still recognisably the same game, but it’s been reduced to only the barest essentials required to make it work. Take resources, for example. There are five resources in the game: energy, metals, food, science and credits. Each resource type is used for one thing, and one thing only1: metals builds improvements and wonders, food builds new cities on your planets, and energy is used to build and upgrade starships. With the exception of the starship upgrades the things you build with those resources also do just one thing: each improvement increases the resource yield of a particular type of resource by a lot, each city increases the general resource yield of the planet by a little, and each tech you buy will increase your ships’ effectiveness in that tech area by a depressingly standard +25%.
This streamlined version of Civ certainly succeeds at being a more engaging method of setting up the tactical combat. It works as a system; I can even imagine somebody taking Starships’ empire maps and making a decent boardgame out of it. However I also think this aggressive streamlining has drastically reduced the decision space available to the player. Take the resource system I just described — since metals and food in particular are only used to increase resource yields it’s a no-brainer to spend all of your metals and food every turn to get more metals and food next turn. There’s nothing to save up for besides wonders, and hence no interesting decisions to be made. Energy and science are a little more engaging thanks to their effect on the starship combat (which we’ll be getting on to shortly) but you still end up spending as much as you can every turn since there’s no reason not to; the only real decision you make is which area you’re going to focus on, and then you just spend resources to maximise your return on that.
In spite of the vast improvement over Ace Patrol, then, I still found the Starships’ empire map to be very underwhelming. It’s been over-simplified to the point where it has next to no complexity and nothing to really get your teeth into — it’s so over-zealous with its training wheels that you’re not allowed to have more than one fleet, which is another major loss to its decision-making potential — and the most entertainment you’ll get out of it is in trying to find a particular combination of research and wonders that’ll break the game. (Which, because it’s so simple and has no room for finesse in its mechanical approach, is very, very easy to do.) The best of the empire map is experienced at the very start of the game, when most of the galaxy is unclaimed and you haven’t yet had time to invest your resources into making sickeningly overpowered starships; then at least the decision of where to send your fleet next is relatively taxing. Unfortunately because it is so simple you enter the steamroller phase far earlier than in other Civ titles, where you’ve amassed such an insurmountable advantage that your victory is inevitable and you’re just playing whack-a-mole with AI empires until one magic number or another tips over a threshold and the ending sequence cuts in. I spent nearly all of my time with it wishing I was playing something with just a little more depth to it, rather than just going through the motions until I won.
Now, the good news is that Starships’ tactical combat isn’t half bad. It’s a turn-based affair played out on a hex grid that’s liberally littered with asteroids that serve as cover, and the combat itself is, in principle, just as simple as the empire map. There are three main weapon types: lasers, which are terrible at range and which get blocked by asteroids but which guarantee some damage if you have a clean line of fire; fighters, which are disposable groups of ships that will often get one-shotted but which can do a lot of damage if they get in behind an enemy; and torpedoes, which are the most imaginative thing in all of Starships. Torpedoes are fired in a straight line away from your starships. On the turn you fire them they’ll run a certain distance away from the launching ship and then stop; you don’t get to actually detonate them until next turn, when the torpedo becomes active and you can detonate it at any point along its flight path. Torpedoes pass through asteroid fields and have a decent blast radius, and if you can nail a group of ships with one you’ll often take them out in one hit — but since the AI will frantically beeline away from any incoming torpedoes you’ll have to fire a spread from multiple ships to ensure something will be caught in the firing line. The AI does love to sit behind asteroids and fire pop-up shots with no chance of retaliation, so single torpedoes are useful for flushing them out of their cover, after which you can dispose of them with your searing beams of laser death.
Torpedoes aside, the rest of Starships’ combat doesn’t sound tremendously interesting on paper — like just about every other wargame out there the key is to shoot the baddies in the flanks or from the rear if possible, and you’ll rarely go astray. The fun part comes when you start upgrading your ships and researching techs to emphasise a particular weapon or strategy. In my first game I researched improved torpedo damage and built some wonders that made them move faster and let me shoot two of them per turn; this let me trap enemy ships in a criss-crossing web of dozens of torpedoes that were instant death to anything caught in the blast radius and which they had no chance of avoiding. In my second game I dumped a bunch of science and energy into stealth systems and got the Cloaking wonder, which automatically engaged my starships’ stealth at the end of every turn (usually you have to manually activate it instead of firing). Since you can only detect a stealthed ship by either making a sensor sweep or by moving inside the ship’s stealth radius, and since I both made sure to kill the enemy sensor ships first and had teched up enough that my starships’ stealth radius was smaller than one hex (i.e. they would have had to be physically in the same hex as one of my ships to spot it, which you’re not allowed to do with an enemy ship), this effectively made my ships untouchable. I used three super-cloakers to dismantle the 12-ship fleet of the galactic superpower — twice — and then triggered a Domination victory.
Still, I’m not sure how much mileage there is in finding new and exciting combinations of systems and tech to keep the starship combat interesting. The missions themselves are rather unimaginative – they’re dressed up with a variety of flavour text, but they still all boil down to protecting a civilian transport as it makes its way to the exit point or capturing and holding three space stations or whatever. Starship upgrades aren’t modular and you can stick any combination of upgrades onto any ship as long as you’ve got the energy to pay for it, but this also means that they’re disappointingly generic; once you’ve added the first laser, all adding more lasers will do is make your ships hit harder. As a result it’s impossible to make enemy starships that are memorable or which present an interesting challenge; they’ll do all the same things that your ships do, and so after the fifteenth battle or so you get the feeling you’ve seen it all and that there’s nothing more the starship combat can show you.
And you’d be right. Starships isn’t a particularly offensive game, but its ruthless amputation of anything that’s not absolutely necessary for its core concept to work means that it needs an incredibly strong core concept for it to work at all. Unfortunately the core concept of Starships isn’t particularly novel and doesn’t have the depth to sustain more than a couple of hours play in any engaging fashion. Past that point it’s just something you’re doing to pass the time. I could easily see myself playing it on an iPad during a long train ride for lack of anything better to do, but on the PC during the March game glut? Sorry, Sid, but I’d rather be playing Cities: Skylines.
- Technically you can also trade one resource type for another in the galactic bazaar, but I don’t really think that counts. ↩