Wot I Think: Sid Meier's Starships
The Corbomite Conundrum
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.