In September 2014, 2K/Firaxis released Civilization: Beyond Earth (Civ:BE), a game that fractured the long-standing Civ community. It was an ambitious attempt that misfired at launch due to its similarities to Civilization V: Brave New World and a general lack of innovation, or “risks” as the developers put it. Instead of departing Earth to parts unknown, they recolored the planet, transformed the barbarians to addled aliens, removed any and all personality from the leaders, and gave us a dud. Meanwhile, Sid Meier, the father of modern 4X and namesake of the franchise, was secretly working on a new project. One that is near and dear to his heart. A first personal attempt at sci-fi that he called Starships. Did it crash and burn on the launch pad or soar into outer space? Keep reading.
Sid Meier’s Starships takes place about 1000 years after the events of Civ:BE. Do you remember all the colony ships that were sent from Earth in search of new habitable planets? Well, that’s where this title picks up. It’s a galaxy populated by human survivors of the Great Cataclysm on Earth. Each colony ship seeded a new human population that followed a similar development path. So, let’s see how they turned out.
eXplore: In Sid Meier’s Starships (SMS), exploration is very simple. You begin the game as one of the eight leaders from Civ:BE on a random planet with five cities on it (more on that later). The leaders have physically changed to one of the three affinities: Harmony, Supremacy or Purity. Each leader brings a unique trait; no, more like a bonus. For example, Bolivar adds an extra ship to the starting fleet, and Kavitha starts with six cities on her homeworld. Each affinity also brings something unique, such as Supremacy’s random wonder. That’s how it all begins.
After receiving a signal from a neighboring planet, you send your fleet to make first contact. Once you arrive, you are given a brief introduction and a mission/quest (usually something to do with space pirates/marauders) and, upon the successful completion of the mission, you begin to trade with this new planet as you try to bring it under your control. Part of the quest system is the choice of specific rewards (free tech or resources) as well as the creation of wonders (improved torpedoes, shields, improved stealth) when a planet joins your empire.
The tech tree is visually reminiscent of the Master of Orion series but works in a very different way. All the available tech is of a militaristic nature and its sole purpose is to better arm and equip your fleet. Improved cloaking, heavier armor, faster engines, stronger lasers, and so forth are all available for research. The appearance of the ships is linked to empire affinity and the modules your ship is armed with, but the tech is identical every time and there is nothing unique about it. That’s about as much depth as you will get in this part of the game.
eXpand: As you eXplore the galaxy, you don’t know what else is present in your own, or any other, solar system because you can only see the single habitable planet. This planet has four resources that it produces; energy, metal, science, and food. Energy is the resource used to develop and repair your fleets. Metal is used to build structures on your planets like improved factories and planetary defenses. Science is used to research technologies (instantaneously), and food is used to grow your cities. Then there are credits, which are slightly more useful than they were in Civ:BE as they can be used to buy resources on the open market or repair your fleets. Each planet you discover will offer you some task to complete in order to bring it under your control.
There is also an influence ring that consists of four parts. The first to discover a planet and complete its primary quest automatically gets two or more points of influence which allows resource trading to begin. Each subsequent successful (difficulty dependant) mission brings you more influence points until you gain full control of the system. As you increase your influence over the planet, you gain more resources from it until it finally joins your empire. If you lose a combat engagement to an enemy AI, you lose control of the planet, but more on that later. Other factions can also do missions for the planet (until it joins your empire) to reduce your control over it. By increasing the amount of cities on the planet, you not only increase resource output, but you also raise the total population of your empire. These planets can have unique wonders and resource bonuses to add to your empire, but that’s about it.
The one thing keeping you from conquering the whole galaxy on the first turn is crew fatigue. As you complete successive missions, your crew becomes fatigued. Tiny little figureheads go from green to red, similar to the mechanic in Sid Meier’s Pirates (an amazing game). A fatigued crew tends to be a lot less efficient, negatively impacting every aspect of combat. To reduce fatigue, you need to go on shore leave, and that is how you end your turn. One way to negate this effect is to build a kind of jump gate that SMS calls a “warp nexus”. You can travel from system to system without incurring any fatigue penalties as long as they have these warp nexuses present.
As you continue to eXpand your empire, you will come across a diverse set of planets with various quests, but at the end of the day, these quests are all very similar to each other. Escort this ship, kill that pirate, survive some attack – blah. The rewards seem wonderful at first, but after a few missions, you start to notice how repetitive it all really is. Expanding your rule involves either bringing planets into your empire through quests or conquest. There are no aliens to contend with. The diplomacy is rather shallow, even more so than it was in Civ:BE.
eXploit: Your empire has reached the limit of its spreading (growing wide) borders. You are pushed up against various factions and there is nowhere left to eXpand. So, what do you do now? Improve your planets (grow tall) and prepare for war. You can try for a science victory (first player to have three level six technologies), or maybe a population victory (fifty-one percent of total galactic population). How about a wonder victory (first to seven wonders wins)? No, most likely it will be a domination victory where you defeat all of the AI opponents. As most 4X games go, domination is the name of the game.
You have already gained control of the majority of the planets within easy reach, but travelling back and forth fatigues your crew and makes warring more complicated. But herein lies a problem. Why is it so crucial to move fast? Because you only have one fleet. How do you eXploit a whole galaxy with one fleet? Spore, a game from many years ago, asked this same question, and Sid Meier didn’t give us any better of an answer than that title. Civ:BE and SMS combined resemble Spore, but offer much less fun. Did I actually just write that? Yes, I did. I’m saddened by that admission.
Anyway, you need to keep building up your planets using the resources of your empire so that you can improve your technology and have the necessary additional resources to support your fleet with repairs and upgrades when needed. There is a marketplace where you can sell excess goods to fill in the gaps in your economy but by mid-game it’s really a moot point. This is another place where the game shows promise but fails to deliver.
And diplomacy? What diplomacy? The diplomatic part of the game serves no purpose. Can you imagine a diplomatic system worse than Civ:BE? No? Play some SMS and you might think differently. You can talk to the other leaders. You can ask them what they are up to, make peace with them, or declare war on them. That’s it. Every action they take, they announce to everyone. Hutama tells you when he builds a new ship. Sochua announces when a new wonder has been built. It’s all rather peculiar for your opponents to announce their every move to the entire galaxy. You even know the population of each empire without having to do any kind of espionage. This method of communicating the goings on of other empires isn’t elegant, but it is direct. In a way, it is symptomatic of what is at the core of the game. SMS is a very dressed down and minimalist shell of a strategic game with decent tactical combat and bare bones 4X elements..
eXterminate: War. What is it good for? EVERYTHING! This is the one point where Starships really does shine. SMS takes elements from their recently released XCOM: Enemy Within reboot, such as the cover system and movement/action points system, and integrates them into a table-top wargame setup.
Your planetary wonders finally have a purpose when it comes to combat. You can get special combat bonuses like upgraded defenses and weapons, but the standout wonder is the one that awards you two action points with which you can attack and still take an action, or take two actions in the same turn like launching two fighter wings or torpedos. Dual Command can be overpowered because the AI is not the best.
In Starships, combat requires preparation. The first stage of combat is a menu where you can outfit your fleet in response to the opposition that you will face in the upcoming battle. Upgrading and retrofitting your fleet is critical to your success in Starships. A poorly equipped fleet will lose almost every time regardless of tactics. While the AI is not fantastic, it can and does take advantage of equipment mismatches. The combat menu also displays the combat conditions, which vary from engagement to engagement, like asteroid fields that move around the battlefield, estimated chances of success (usually inaccurate), and how many ships are available for you to use in the battle. Another tab of the menu offers some advice for the upcoming battle but I never saw much need to consult it after I had a few battles under my belt.
Once your preparations are done, you are ready to begin the next stage. So, how does combat work? On the surface, I’d have to say pretty well. Combat is turn-based and works on a system of movement/action points. Movement points in battle are affected by things like ship (and equipment) weight and engine power. You can move before you fire, or fire and then move, or maybe launch a fighter squadron or a torpedo. You can cloak your ship in preparation for an ambush or use scanners to look for cloaked vessels. Choices are limited only by how many movement and action points you have left. There are no fleet commands or formations; you have control of each individual ship like a piece in a game of chess. Just like combat in Master of Orion, you get to control every aspect of the engagement turn by turn.The combat model is very similar to the excellent combat in the XCOM series, and I believe Starships actually improves on it.
There are three categories of weapons to choose from to outfit your fleet. Lasers are best used for long range fire, but are highly susceptible to asteroid cover and other obstacles. Cannons are short range weapons with beastly efficiency and damage, but require close proximity to be effective. Torpedoes can be seen by all (except when cloaked) and are easy to avoid, but do area-of-effect damage when they detonate. Ships can house combat fighters that can further extend the strength of your fleets. You can’t attack the planets or other terrain features during combat so focus your fire on the enemy ships. The game’s flanking mechanic means that positioning and carefully choosing your shots is very important when it comes to blasting your opponents to bits. Be sure to keep your fighters close, because the AI loves to target them. Fire your torpedoes to try and control where the AI will attack from, but don’t forget that you can add cloaking devices to them to really do some serious damage.
Ships can use two main types of defenses, shields and armor. Shields and armor both protect your ships but also slow you down by adding weight. Increasing engine capacity will counteract the added weight and allow you to position your ship to reduce the enemy’s flanking opportunities. As you take damage, different components of your ship are destroyed which in turn affects your ability to win the scenario. Of course, it is possible to spend an action point repairing your damaged component. Then there are cloaking devices which make your ships harder to detect. You can use sensors to attempt to detect cloaked enemy vessels and you can be sure the AI will be doing the same.
Depending on the type of engagement, the AI will get chances to reinforce its fleet throughout combat and they can appear anywhere. You must be wary in positioning your ships in relation to the shifting asteroid field. Ship positioning can mean the difference between narrow success against a stronger force or utter failure against enemy reinforcements. There are also wormholes, planets, and other randomized combat conditions to deal with and use to your advantage during the battle.
Back and forth you go, until one of you wins. If you lose all of your ships, it’s not game over as your ships aren’t destroyed in battle, but are instead severely damaged and left in need of repair and retrofit. Combat ends when you meet the goal for the engagement. Most often that happens to be the destruction of your enemy, but sometimes it can be an escort mission or the task of surviving wave after wave of pirates as you try to escape. All in all, combat is the one saving grace of the game, and if you paid close attention to what Sid himself said about the game, it is also the main focus of the experience.
eXperience: So, what do I think of Sid Meier’s Starships? Is it good? Is it bad? Somewhere in between? SMS is not a good 4X game, but it’s certainly not a bad tactical wargame either. It is a space combat simulator using boardgame-style mechanics in a Civilization: Beyond Earth universe. Other than the connection through the factions and affinities, it’s not really part of the series. Where are the aliens? Where is old Earth? If you do not have Civ:BE, you wouldn’t be missing anything in Starships or be confused about the game. There are some bonuses for having both games, but they are minor and nothing that can’t be overlooked.
I had some fun in my first playthrough that lasted maybe 2 hours from start to finish. I had less fun on my next one at a harder difficulty level that lasted 1.5 hours. I haven’t had any fun outside of ship combat since then. I do enjoy their SpaceOPedia, and it does eliminate the need for an external wiki, but so what? This is one title that begs for a multiplayer experience. Actually, it doesn’t beg for it, it screams for it. That’s where the replayability would really be. Having a 6 person game with market manipulation, secret alliances, and everything else we could muster would make this game absolutely amazing. It would be a must buy. Alas, that is not the case. It’s just too shallow as a purely single player experience. I can’t even rename my ships, planets or empire. The one exception would be my homeworld if I have Civ:BE since that’s one of the minor perks of owning both.
The AI is better than I have seen out of 2K/Firaxis in quite some time, but that is because they have limited the decisions the AI needs to make. The tradeoff is that we humans don’t have a lot to play around with either. The AI can be competent in a combat scenario, but is far too easy to take advantage of diplomatically. I do not hate this game, but I can’t recommend it with a clear conscience. I normally play at least 40 hours to get a feel for a game, and after only 4 hours of gameplay, I think I had reached the end of what Starships has to offer. I had to force myself to play it for another 6 hours to write this review. That’s usually a bad sign and I don’t feel bad for writing this. This game is an iOS port that needs to be less than $10 for its full price. For $5, it’s a good buy, but the replayability isn’t there for me. If you want a fun game from Sid Meier, buy Pirates or Ace Patrol instead.
TL;DR: Starships wasn’t marketed as a deep and meaningful 4X experience. It doesn’t have a lot of depth, and you’ll quickly discover the limits of what it has to offer. With the lack of multiplayer, a huge aspect of potential replayability disappeared. Strategic choice was severely limited to improve the gameplay, but in the process the game became rather dull. The tactical combat can be fun, but the AI is too weak to pose a real challenge for too long.
You might like this game if:
- You’re looking for a decent tactical combat game for your iOS device.
- You’re looking to extend your Civ:BE gameplay.
- You’re looking for a quick 30 minute playthrough.
You might NOT like this game if:
- You are looking for long-term replayability.
- You like a challenge when you play.
- You expect this to be a deep and rich experience.
Nasarog played for 11+ hours on a Macbook Pro 2.9 GHz Intel Core i7 w/8gb ddr3 RAM using OSX 10.9.5