Wot I Think: Sid Meier’s Starships

Starships [official site] shares a story and theme with Civilization: Beyond Earth but it’s not part of the Civ family. It’s not part of the Pirates! family either, much to my disappointment. There’s a world of wonder in that exclamation mark, a world in which an inept starship captain blunders from one planet to the next searching for pieces of a galactic treasure map, raids a space station and retires on a distant moon, married to the Lunar Governor’s daughter,

Starships does not take place in that world. After playing for a couple of days, I find myself wishing that it did. Here’s wot I think.

In the Firaxis stable, Starships’ closest sibling is Ace Patrol, the excellent turn-based dogfighting game that seemed to appear in bright blue skies, fully-formed a couple of years ago. Rather than considering Starships in relation to Beyond Earth, it’s far more sensible to think of it as an extension of some of the ideas in Ace Patrol. It’s simple to learn, best played in short sessions and based around a ruleset that feels suited almost as much to a tabletop as to a tablet.

The game is available on tablets but I’ve only played the PC version. The UI does feel touch-friendly and I’ve occasionally sent my fleet to a planet by mistake when intending to construct a city there. Hovering the cursor over a location brings up a radial menu, with construction options popping out above the central icon, but even after playing for a few hours I still click that central button without meaning to from time to time. Doing so immediately moves the fleet instead of providing access to the other choices and there’s no undo button to correct mistakes.

Other than that, the game plays well on PC, despite from the lack of any customisable settings whatsoever. It’s a game that runs as well as it can on the weakest hardware its available on and unless you’re reading RPS in 1982, that’s not going to be your PC.

The graphics don’t convey the wonder of space but they’re functional and I use that word in a positive sense. There are only a few visual elements to understand and they’re all distinct and legible. Aesthetically, Starships is plain – the strategic map is caught part way between tidy abstraction and dramatic representation, and the repeated vocal acknowledgements had me reaching for Brian Eno’s Apollo rather than enduring them for more than half an hour.

None of the embellishments distract from the tactical and strategic play though, which is a relief. At first I thought the game was slight enough that a passing bumblebee might have distracted me but after a few restarts and a successful Epic size campaign, I’m securely within Starships’ clutches.

“Clutches” may be too strong a word. Starships is more like a firm handshake of a game. It conducts its business quickly and cares little for the pleasantries.

There are two gameboards. The first is the strategic level, in which you send your fleet from planet to planet, performing tasks for the occupants in order to gain influence over them. You’ll also build improvements, wonders and cities at the strategic level, as well as improving your fleet. The other level – and the heart of the game – is tactical ship-to-ship combat. Levels are randomised, usually containing several anomalies that cause ships to jump to another position on the map, plenty of asteroid fields to use as cover, and an objective to defend, escort or destroy.

All of the missions have fancy names that sound like they could be the title of a piece of short fiction in Planet Stories, or the name of a forgotten Star Trek episode. When I see something like “The Horticultural Syndrome” written above a planet, I want to know more. Sadly, there’s not a great deal more to know. Even the most fantastically titled missions fall into the basic categories and they’re not attached to branching plots or dynamic events within the gameworld.

They’re tasks to win favour – nothing more. Thankfully, combat is enjoyable. Rather than opting for a system that attempts to simulate the specifics of combat in space – such as the impulse-based system in Star Fleet Battles – Starships treats its units as perfect machines. You can always see the precise range of their movement in a given turn, and damage is calculated before a shot is fired.

Asteroids are used as cover and it’s easy to imagine the game reskinned to cover infantry skirmishes without too many rule changes taking place. Torpedoes, which can be left to run or detonated at the start of a turn, offer some variety, but tactics mostly come down to cat and mouse chases, as ships attempt to strike at unshielded rear ends, or get the drop on an uncovered enemy. Stealth systems and bays from which to launch fighter squadrons can also be installed, but combat tends to be resolved by the big guns.

As a tactical implementation of the theme, it’s weaker than Ace Patrol. Barrel rolls and great wheeling pursuits have been put to one side but the cover-based manoeuvring that has replaced them doesn’t feel particular Starshippy. It tickles certain pleasure centres, particularly in the late-game when clashes between key faction fleets take place, but this game doesn’t make me feel like the commander of a starfleet. It’s worth bearing in mind that I’m a very impressionable person – wearing the right kind of hat can make me feel like an admiral.

The strategic side is similarly satisfying but lacking in excitement. Everything in Starships scales, which is far more important than it sounds. It means that you can build the same improvement several times to receive greater benefits. Research is the same. Keep studying the same piece of science and you’ll continue to improve your understanding of it, buffing either resource production or one aspect of your ships.

And, most disappointing of all, the ships themselves scale. They’re not modular, they’re a handful of stats. So rather than adding a new weapon and choosing where it fits and which areas it covers with its firing arc, you upgrade your long range or short range weapons, and that’s it. Job done. A ship is a series of numbers.

There are several victory conditions but every strategy is based around winning influence. Complete one mission for a planet and you’ll receive half of its produced goods – complete another and it’ll become part of your empire, providing all of its goods and tied to your ownership. That means other factions will have to declare war if they want to claim it for themselves. When influence isn’t at 100%, several factions can share a planet and that creates some tense scenarios.

Planets not only provide research, energy and metal, which are used to upgrade your empire and individual ships, they also control flight paths. Games of Starships are quick and brutal, as factions attempt to blockade their rivals by exerting influence in specific sectors, and the best parts of the game take place when fleets are fully upgraded and fearsome. All of the tasks performed for the planets are small fry compared to the eventual wars for dominance.

Because each faction has just the one fleet, every movement is of vital importance. You can perform many actions in a single turn but your crew become fatigued when travelling if certain improvements aren’t in place, and combat really takes it out of them. As they become less effective, you’ll need to look for a planet to bed down on and then end your turn with Shore Leave, which improves influence on the chosen planet and restores the crew to full fitness.

End your turn in the wrong place and you might lose a planet or two. Again, the strategy is about setting up blockades and creating chokepoints. Like the individual parts of the game, the big picture is finely finished but lacking in scale. It’s a commemorative postage stamp of a voyage between the stars, or a rather handsome postcard, but it doesn’t capture the sense of adventure and progress that I’d hoped for. The way that ships, planets and research all simply accrue numbers in various areas rather than opening up new avenues to understand, explore and exploit makes Starships seem like a game set at the end of humankind’s ambition rather than the beginning of a brave new age.

35 Comments

  1. ScottTFrazer says:

    Any information on the interaction between this and After Earth? I saw that there was an update to AE that mentioned Starships, but I couldn’t figure out how that would work.

    • Xocrates says:

      Psst… After Earth is the Shyamalan/Will Smith movie, the one you’re thinking is Beyond Earth.

      Anyway, I haven’t tried it yet, but as far as I know the current connection is pretty token, and I’m not sure it’s even fully in place yet. I may try it later today and report back.

      • ScottTFrazer says:

        Doh!

      • Xocrates says:

        Ok, so it appears Starships has a bunch of unlocks that are only achieved by playing Beyond Earth. These include new missions, planets, and hybrid affinities (giving you the bonus of two affinities).

        • Xocrates says:

          And on Beyond Earth, I appear to have unlocked several new starting loadout options.

          Honestly, the rewards are for more significant than I expected. Not sure how I feel about that – they do not appear to be game breaking, largely just giving more options, but it’s still locked content behind weird (and somewhat obtuse) conditions.

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    teije says:

    Certainly sounds like a game designed for and best played on a tablet, and satisfying enough viewed that way, but rather sparse & unoptimized for the PC. I’m a little tired of hybrids that don’t truly work UI-wise between the two formats.

    • bfwebster says:

      It is sort of the opposite of XCOM: Enemy Within. That’s a great (IMHO) PC with a pretty remarkable port onto tablets, though I must admit that when I start playing XCOM on my iPad, it doesn’t take me long to think, “It’s a lot easier to do this on the PC” and to go play there instead.

      In this case, the game’s UI works better on the tablet and looks pretty insipid on the PC. But the game is still shallow.

  3. Great Cthulhu says:

    We do desperately need a new Pirates! The major releases were in ’87, ’93, and ’04. A new one is due!

    • Press X to Gary Busey says:

      Mount and blade has been my substitute since the last Pirates. But a new actual pirate-Pirates game would be great about now.

      • dracma says:

        Have you tried Caribbean!, which runs on the Warband engine?

        • rexx.sabotage says:

          In it’s current buggy state, it’s a tough one to recommend even to die-hard Pirates! fans.

          • Great Cthulhu says:

            A damn shame. I was really looking forward to it. (M&B is my Pirates! substitute as well.)

  4. barelyhomosapien says:

    I’m entirely disappointed by Starships.

    Any decisions you make feel inconsequential, the only feedback you get is numbers going up. There’s no real attempt to sell a fantasy here and it could really be reskinned into any setting with little issue. Starships replaced by man o wars, asteroid fields replaced with reefs with ease.

    The tactical combat has shown all it’s hands within the first half of your first game and the strategic map about the same. Then there are wonders which can completely negate entire aspects of gameplay, like the fatigue system.

    In a week where cities skylines and hotline Miami 2 came out it was still the game I was most excited for. Humph and grumph.

    • Sonny Bonds - Lytton PD says:

      It definitely looks like a reskinned ace patrol but with more polish..

      • EhexT says:

        That is incredibly unfair

        to Ace Patrol.

        Ace Patrol has a ton of depth (different manouvers for different plane and pilot skill combinations, a full blown attempt to simulate the energy balance of early fighter combat) obscured by atrocious phone UI and general bad UI.

        Starships doesn’t look to have much depth at all and the UI is still bad.
        I’d say Sid Meier is just…phoning it in.

  5. ThatFuzzyTiger says:

    And then you find out that the AI doesn’t even play by the victory conditions that you set. If you set Domination, the AI can still win by *any* victory condition, all it does apparently is impose an additional challenge upon yourself.

    Lolwat. In what single player strategy game where I decide what victory type the game is to be played by does the rule ONLY apply to me and not the AI?!?!

    No true fullscreen mode is criminal as well, among many other smaller crimes.

  6. Duke of Chutney says:

    I know Faxis keep playing lots of board games hoping to learn some clever lessons to port over to their designs. I’m not sure they are learning the right lessons though.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      I was going to suggest that they should just steal Galaxy Trucker, but I see there are already tablet versions of that.

      • Duke of Chutney says:

        I play quite a lot of lighter (and heavier) hex and counter war games. Given the presence of hexes and asteroids as terrain in this im surprised they didn’t learn more from the genre. To really make a light hex and counter shine you need something other than manoeuvre, terrain and combat odds to make it really interesting. Hidden units or supply lines, or limited actions points, or randomisation of movement or unit activation order, or an event card deck, or programmed movement, all these things can add that tactical layer or emergent narrative to give the game some life and get you to second guess your opponent or bluff. Even outside of war games most tactical two player board games understand this.

      • Joshua Northey says:

        Yeah “Space Run” isn’t a bad time as a Galaxy Trucker PC game. Galaxy Trucker itself is amazing!

  7. Voqar says:

    I’ve bought a scant few tablet games on PC that I’ve enjoyed. For the most part I wish people would just stop. I suppose it’s nice once in a while to have a game that’s thin and brainless and not all games need to be deep and take days to finish. Still, if I wanted to play simplistic games I’d play consoles, tablet, or my phone.

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      BlueTemplar says:

      Or the game is too complicated for touch-based controls and playing it either on the touchscreen or with mouse/keyboard becomes a chore, Sword of the Stars : Ground Pounders comes to mind.

      One game that IMHO managed its difficulty / input limitations perfectly is Hearthstone : it plays just well enough on a 5″ touchscreen, and is just deep enough to be enjoyable even on a full-blown PC.

      Of course this shows that designing your game both for small touchscreens and desktop monitors with a keyboard /mouse input places extremely tight restrictions on the design of your game…

  8. Aetylus says:

    Sounds like this game is something like “Good strategy game, but not epic enough for my tastes”. How do you think it would suit a former hardcore strategy gamer with no free time left, who is now looking for something just-challenging-enough to be played between nappy changes?

    Also, how would you rate the game if it came out of the blue from an indie somewhere rather than being initialed by SM and following up Beyond Earth?

    • Xocrates says:

      Well, define “no free time”. A full match takes about 2 hours, so if what you want is a 4X lite, maybe? It’s a nice way to spend an evening, but it’s not hugely demanding on the strategy front, nor something that can be played in very short bursts – maybe something more along the lines of Frozen Cortex if you’re more interested in the tactical aspect as opposed to the management one?

      And without the Firaxis association? If this was an indie I bought on a lazy week I would definitely be quite happy with it, but it’s not a game I would prioritize if there was something else coming out.

  9. eggy toast says:

    This game looked really paper thin and un-fun to me from the first first looks and it kept looking that way and it still does. Sorry to say the Sid Meier brand has had a terrible hit to miss ratio lately, with me.

  10. Thirdrail says:

    They did such a good job with Dawn Patrol, I was hoping they’d nail Star Fleet Battles, too. Please won’t someone just bring back Star Fleet Command…

    • VladVoivode says:

      Starfleet Command is “back.” Go to dynaverse.net and grab Starfleet Command II: Empires at War Community Edition. It’ll set you back a fiver but it plays beautifully.

      As for Sid Meier’s Starships, I have not run into any technical issues other than a one time freeze when I tried to exit the game. It does capture the Star Fleet Battles boardgame feel pretty well. That said, there is one bug that I hope will be addressed after the bug fix for people who can’t even boot the game. Even though you can choose from a number of victory conditions, the victory conditions for the AI remain the same, namely, control 51 percent of the “galaxy. [When will game designers stop using the term galaxy to represent tiny areas of space?]. So, if you choose Domination, i.e, the win condition meaning control of EVERYTHING, the AI can still win with only 51 percent of the galaxy conquered.

  11. Chirez says:

    It’s worth mentioning that there seem to be a lot of technical issues too. Probably due to a lack of extensive testing, but whatever the reason it seems quite crash prone, from reading the steam forum.

    Personally I can’t get it to start at all, but I seem to recall I had the same issue with Ace Patrol more than once. I expect it will sort itself out eventually, but until then it’s a little disappointing.

  12. raiders5000 says:

    I wouldn’t even consider renting this game.
    But I did get a free Glacier Map for C:BE when it launched.
    Thank you, My2K!

  13. Ejia says:

    The solution is clearly for whatever comes next to instead be “Sid Meier’s Space Pirates!”

    • Paul B says:

      I wonder if Sid Meier wakes up and eats “Sid Meier’s Breakfast” then goes to work in “Sid Meier’s Car” and eats “Sid Meier’s Lunch”. I wonder where it all ends for him? Still, I’d buy “Sid Meier’s Space Pirates” TM.

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        BlueTemplar says:

        I was going to say “Damn you, Robin Williams!”, but then I remembered that he was dead and that you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      The closest thing to Pirates! in space is possibly Starsector (although it’s really more Mount & Blade in space, there’s no dancing or seducing planetary governors’ attractive adult offspring… yet)

  14. Morcane says:

    A deeply, terribly disappointing game. I had hoped for some depth, even though it’s at a low price point but am unable to find it.

    Luckily I got Hotline: Miami 2 to hold me over this weekend.

  15. bfwebster says:

    Color me very disappointed as well. After the initial half dozen games, and once you’re well up the learning curve, it becomes shallow, boring, and a real grind. I bought it on Friday and am close to being done with it. I left more details in a comment over at Kotaku (can I mention that here?); the article I commented on is titled, “Sid Meier’s Starships Is Not Great”. Some nice abstractions and game mechanics, but the game itself is far too shallow (did I say that already?) and repetitive.

    Oh, and contra Adam’s comments, torpedoes are in fact the way to sure tactical victory, so much so that the game has serious balance problems. Focus on torpedo-related wonders and tech, plus the dual command wonder if you can get it. I warp into a system with a half dozen ships, spread out a bit to get some good cross angles, and start firing waves of torpedoes at the approaching ships (dual command lets each ship fire torpedoes twice each turn). I’ve had major late-game engagements where I’ve wiped out the entire enemy fleet — a very large fleet at that — with the first wave of torpedoes; even when that hasn’t happened, I have usually whittled down the fleet to a small fraction of its initial size with the first few waves, and then I can engage and mop up at leisure.