Starbase Orion (henceforth Starbase) was released in October, 2011. We last talked about Starbase in our interview with solo developer Rocco Bowling of Chimera Software. In the article, Rocco shared his motivation to create a full-featured space 4X game on a mobile platform (iOS specifically). The game was to build on the mechanics of Master of Orion 2, but would also be designed as a competitive multiplayer strategy game.
While it is starting to show its age, Starbase’s continued developer support over the course of 25 patches has given the game serious longevity. But more importantly, Starbase has a number of exceptionally well-designed mechanics that address some of the genre’s typical weaknesses and turn them into real strengths. So as the 4X community ponders the current crop of big new 4X releases, I felt it was worth taking a look back at Starbase and some of its clever innovations – if only as a good example for future developers to study.
Starbase offers a range of options for generating a galaxy, including size (from 30 to 140 stars), shape (ring, clusters, spiral), mineral density, empire age, and the presence of specials like space monsters or wormholes. You can also specify up to 7 other opponents, AI difficulty, AI bonuses (yes, you can have HARD AI without any bonuses – the AI actually plays better on higher difficulties), and whether custom races and diplomatic victories are allowed. You can even set up games with fixed alliances right from the start (quite fun for multiplayer!).
One design innovation, especially important for competitive league play, is the ability to generate “random” or “balanced” galaxies. Balanced galaxies have a symmetrical layout in terms of planets and stars, so each player has a nearly identical position starting out. This goes a long way to equalize starting positions for competitive multiplayer games.
Players can choose from five different races with pre-set attributes, or can customize them using a system of trait points similar to MoO2. Traits let you add bonuses or penalties to worker output (e.g. farming, research) or unlock special capabilities (e.g. brilliant researchers, piracy, battle hardened, and so on). A considerable amount of work has gone into balancing the traits over the game’s extensive patch history, leading to many competitive trait combinations. That said, there are no faction-specific mechanics or asymmetric powers in the game. Other than the look of the ships, all of the factions are interchangeable.
When it comes to exploration, Starbase is quite close to MoO2. Movement is point-to-point between star systems and subject to fuel range restrictions (which can be improved through fuel research). All ships and fleets move at a fixed speed on the galaxy map, but they can be upgraded by researching more advanced Stardrives. You can’t change your movement orders while fleets are en route – so you need to plan carefully, especially during wars. This adds a nice strategic aspect to the gameplay where you can catch enemies off guard or trap their fleet. But of course it can cut both ways!
Each star system can contain up to four planets made up of various types (terran, ocean, toxic, gaia, arid, etc.) with different gravity levels and mineral abundances. One nice feature is the excellent galaxy browser that lets you sort a list of planets by various characteristics. Sending a ship to a star system immediately reveals all of its planets and their characteristics – so there is no need to mindlessly scout each and every planet. eXploration itself is a bit barebones, although it does feature some discoveries like space monsters and random goodies (derelict ships, technologies, and the like).
Starbase is a tight, competitive game. So while there are not many tantalizing things to discover during exploration or narrative plots to unravel, the race to claim good planets or strong positions in the galaxy (e.g. guarding a wormhole entry point) commences immediately. This creates plenty of tension between empires in the land-grab race. And you will bump into neighboring empires quickly. Colonization is simple. After making a colony ship you can settle any planets other than gas giants.
Once a colony is established, like with MoO2, your population units can be assigned to work in one of three tasks: farming, industry, or research. The size of the planet limits how much population it can support and the number of building slots available for empire structures. The latter is particularly important because the limited number of building slots means you need to think carefully about development. Big planets with a lot of population can be more diverse – but smaller planets are forced to specialize. I wish more MoO-like games used this approach instead of just building everything, everywhere, without restriction.
The building queue itself can contain any number of items (ships and buildings) and the touch interface makes them easy to rearrange. “Production points” are stockpiled as the output of your industry and are applied towards items in the queue. In addition, you can specify a default action for when a queue is empty, turning production points into credits, population, or stockpiled production. One strategy is to stockpile production and wait until the last minute to construct a fleet, catching your enemy off guard.
At this point, I need to talk about one of Starbase’s best features: the custom Build-Focus system. I’ve never liked colony governors and the loss of control they imply. At the same time, managing dozens of build queues late-game is often a tedious micromanagement slog. Starbase has found the perfect solution in my mind. You have four different Build-Focuses in the game – Industry, Farming, Research, and Military – and you can assign one of them to a planet as its default action. In each one serves as a customizable list where you stipulate exactly which buildings are to be constructed and in what order.
The Build-Focus system is smart. If you lack the technology for a particular building, it proceeds to the next available one. You can even override the build focus by manually queuing up items and when those projects are complete it will revert back to the auto build-focus.Why more 4X games don’t implement a system like this is beyond me. It’s damn near perfect.
There is also an effective empire management screen that summarizes all of your colonies, worker assignments, active projects, and other critical details. Moving workers between planets is a snap (just drag and drop!). I particularly like that immediately after you grab workers to reassign, your global resource rates (food production, galactic credit income, etc.) are updated so you can instantly see what the impact will be before deciding whether or where to move population. The best part of the empire screen, however, is the sorting and filtering functions. You can filter the list of planets by all manner of things, for example, listing only planets where a “Planetary Expansion” opportunity exists or where “Research Labs III” are available. It makes managing your colonies painless, especially when combined with the custom Build-Focus system.
Starbase has a slick research system that is simple, yet presents the player with significant, hard choices. There are three research fields: astrophysics, military, and civics. Each field has a “rolling window” revealing a slice of the technologies in that field. Here’s the kicker: within each field, items on the bottom of the list have a “red light” next to them, items in the middle a “yellow light,” and items in the top a “green light”. When you research an item in a field, all of the “red light” items fall out of the window (and can’t be researched until you go through the tree and wrap back around), the yellow items become red items, the greens become yellows, and new items come in at the top in green.
This system does a few remarkable things. First, it creates tough choices about which technologies you let fall out of the window. You want everything, but can only get a slice of it. Compared to the tech trees in MoO2 or StarDrive 2, the choices are less fixed. Taking one option over another means that subsequent choices will be a little bit different, because some technologies are contingent on earlier ones. Second, it poses a bigger question about whether you jump through the tech tree quickly to grab something specific – but at the cost of skipping other critical technologies along the way. All in all, the research system is well-implemented and novel.
Starbase has systems for diplomacy, espionage, and leaders – all of which are important facets of the game. Let’s start with leaders.
Starbase has one of the most clever leader systems I’ve seen in a 4X game, and the system adds a novel interactive dynamic between empires in the process. In Starbase, leaders become available randomly over time as the game progresses. There are distinct colony and fleet leaders and, unlike many other 4X games, their effects are significant. Colony leaders generally give a bonus to the planet where they are stationed, a bonus to the whole system, AND an “ultimate” bonus that affects your entire empire in some way. Fleet leaders get unique ship upgrades for the ship they command, bonuses to the entire fleet, AND ultimate abilities. For example, the “First Cerebrum” colony leader provides +3 research per scientist on their planet, +5 research per planet in their system, and then gives your entire empire the Brilliant Researchers trait AND unlocks the Cerebral Cortex ship technology.
The leaders are absolutely transformative and coupled with your race’s traits can form the basis for your entire strategy. But how you acquire the leaders is interesting, as well. When a leader becomes available, it becomes available for everyone through a galactic auction. Empires bid on a leader over a series of game turns using their galactic credits. The player with the highest bid wins the leader if they are unchallenged for a turn.
This has a couple of nifty effects. First, it makes acquiring leaders an interactive system – empires are directly competing with their economic resources to win over a leader. Second, it functions as a dynamic auto-balance. Bidding wars can drive the cost of a leader into the 100s of credits, and often players will engage in aggressive bidding specifically to bait their opponent into unloading piles of cash. Moreover, the leader upkeep cost is 10% of the winning bid, so if you can drive up the cost then the winner gets saddled with huge ongoing expenses. Pretty devious!
The diplomacy options in Starbase are reasonable, but nothing special. They cover the basics like non-aggression or alliance treaties or trade and research pacts. You can gift (or demand) technologies, credits, ships, and tributes. You can demand that allies go to war with you against an opponent. Your relationship status is presented in descriptive terms (e.g. cautious, amenable, harmonious). The weakest part of the diplomacy system is that the UI – unlike most other parts of the game – is slow to navigate. Thankfully there are options to “gift all technologies” to your allies allowing you to coordinate research items – especially critical in team-based games.
As with diplomacy, the espionage system is simple but does the job. It can also have a pretty significant impact on gameplay, if used properly. Fortunately, managing your network of spies, is easy and efficient. Your spies are either kept in your defensive reserve for counter-espionage, or can be assigned in bulk to an opposing empire. All offensive spies assigned to a foreign empire are collectively given up to two missions, which can range from stealing technology, to halting production, to destroying base facilities, or sabotaging fleets.
What space 4X would be complete without a battle amongst the stars? When it comes to combat, Starbase takes a fairly unique approach. It also resolves one of the biggest barriers to effective multiplayer 4X gaming: how to resolve separate tactical-level battles in a way that doesn’t bog down the overall turn progression for other players.
Starbase uses what I call the “gratuitous space battle” method (yes – harkening back to the game Gratuitous Space Battles). When hostile fleets collide, the players involved get a notification that a battle has been joined. You click on the battle and zoom in to the tactical space to see the initial deployment of their forces. From there, you assign orders to their ships, but nothing further happens in the current strategic turn. Once you click next turn, the battle is auto-processed following the orders you (and your opponents!) assigned. If one side eliminates or routes the opposing side, the battle is over. If not, the battle proceeds into the next strategic turn, where you can issue revised orders to your remaining ships.
This system does a bunch of wonderful things. First, the order system is detailed yet efficient. Each ship (and battles can easily include 50+ ships per side!) can be assigned a movement command (e.g. move into close/medium/long-range, evade, retreat, flee, etc.) and a targeting priority (e.g. engage nearest, engage strongest, etc.). Issuing orders is efficient because at the touch of a button you can replicate a given set of orders for all ships in your fleet, all ships of the same hull, or all ships with the same name designation. This makes it a snap to assign orders to ships with different capabilities (e.g. close range brawlers versus long-range missile boats).
Second, with everyone simultaneously assigning orders, you don’t know exactly what the other player will do. It creates a wonderful tension waiting for the next strategic turn to see what the battle results will be, and whether or not your carefully considered orders were successful. Did you opponent dive into close range like you wanted them to or did they hold back?
Third, the combat system enhances the strategic-level warfare. Large battles will often span multiple campaign turns, allowing you to bring reinforcements into an engagement. It also opens up new strategic options for pinning hostile fleets. I’ve used a moderate-sized fleet to pin down a much larger enemy fleet, while my main force engages my opponent’s elsewhere. I don’t see connections back to the strategic-level like this in many other 4X games.
Overall, Starbase’s combat system is one of the best examples I’ve seen for balancing the desire for player input with quick combat resolution. Future developers, take note.
The ship designer is simple but provides a variety of approaches for how to design and synergize ships in your fleet. There are six hull sizes from Frigate to Mammoth, and each hull size provides a certain number of weapon and system slots. Weapons and systems have been balanced and fine-tuned extensively to ensure that all of them can be useful in the right situation (i.e. against the right enemy!). Speed versus armor is a huge consideration affecting your ship’s performance, and if you play things right you can mop the floor with an equally-sized fleet by making good use of counters. Much of the game’s strategic depth hinges on ascertaining your opponent’s fleet compositions and coming up with a combination to defeat it.
Capturing planets is a simple matter. You construct troop ships which can defeat up to 5 points worth of defensive troops. Once the defender is overwhelmed, the planet is yours. There are no invasion penalties, restrictions, or unrest mechanics in the game, making conquest a straightforward, albeit unceremonious, affair.
At the end of the day, Starbase is a war-centric 4X game. Victory is only achieved through conquering hostile empires and forming alliances with those that remain. There are no cultural, wonder, technological, or economic victory conditions. I am okay with this, though, because it keeps the focus squarely on building up your military-industrial complex and outmaneuvering your opponents’ forces. This may not appeal to those looking for a richer narrative experience or more diverse playstyles. But if you are interested in a tense, old-school conquer-the-stars type experience, Starbase get the job done in spades.
The UI, overall, does a remarkable job of keeping a full-featured 4X game manageable – despite being on mobile. Most menus are quick to navigate and rarely feel like they require more clicking than necessary. The only exceptions are the diplomacy menus, which I feel could be condensed further. As mentioned, there some great quality of life UI features – like being able to sort a list of planets, filter colonies based on allowed construction projects, and the custom build queues. I would be ecstatic to see these emulated in other 4X games.
Mobile processing and graphic power has come a long way since 2011 when Starbase was released. So compared to newer games it looks crude. That said, I still find the graphics to be clean and clear – if slightly abstract-looking – particularly on the galaxy map. Overall, it’s slightly out-of-date look reminds me of the even older Master of Orion games, in its own charming way.
The elephant-in-the-room question is always this: what sort of challenge does the AI provide? Overall, the AI makes pretty smart plays, especially in the early game. If you expand rapidly without building sufficient defensive fleets, the AI is quick to exploit the opportunity and steal freshly colonized worlds. The AI does a reasonable job of building and upgrading its fleets, so you really have to pay attention to how to counter their fleet. This is especially true if playing with the AI bonuses, as the AI is often able to assemble larger fleets faster than the player can. Unfortunately, the AI is easy to exploit via diplomacy, and it’s easy to get half the AIs allied with you, sometimes leading to quick and anticlimactic victories. Then again, this does eliminate any tedious late game slogs when victory is already inevitable.
Fortunately, you can disable diplomacy options during setup (e.g. Allied victories or being able to form alliances or pacts period). While it is a shame to effectively turn off diplomacy, I will say that the resulting war-centric style of play is vastly more challenging and engrossing when you can’t exploit the AI as much.
One last thing to mention is that there is an option for cloud-based AI processing when connected to the Internet. This is spectacular – the time it takes for the AI to process its turns, especially on larger maps with many AI players, is reduced to nearly zero. Without cloud processing and on older iOS devices, turns can take upwards of a minute to process. But with cloud processing, it’s a few seconds at most.
While the AI can provide a definite challenge in many games, multiplayer gaming against human-powered ingenuity and cunning provides a much deeper experience. Fortunately, and unlike many 4X games, Starbase was designed with multiplayer in mind and the mechanics really shine in that environment. There is in-game chat messaging, as well, so you can form those sneaky alliances behind your opponent’s back.
The mobile platform also greatly boosts the viability and pace of multiplayer sessions. You can jump into the game quickly, spend 5 or 10 minutes taking your turn and queuing up orders, then jump back out. The notification system lets you know when you have a turn ready. And with turns being processed simultaneously, as opposed to an “I Go, You Go” (IGUG) system, the game proceeds at a hearty clip. Lastly, it is liberating to not be slaved to booting up a computer in order to launch a hefty game,.
All in all, the design intent of enabling multiplayer has paid off. For a game that is nearing 5 years of age, it still has a thriving multiplayer scene, with the community regularly running tournaments or big game events. I’ve had a blast playing multiplayer, from big 8-way free-for-alls, all the way down to 2v2 or 1v1 matches. Few other 4X games have provided such a seamless multiplayer experience, and anyone looking to make a 4X multiplayer game should give Starbase some study.
I’ve played Starbase Orion more than any other space 4X game in many years. The gameplay is, in many ways, a streamlined and updated version of MoO2, coupled with some design changes that make multiplayer a viable and enjoyable experience. While Starbase may lack the features of bigger PC titles, like complex factions or narrative quests, the mechanics that the game does implement are some of the best-designed and -executed I’ve seen. In particular, the system for leaders, combat resolution, custom build queues, and competitive balancing are wonderful. When it comes to providing a deep and strategic, war-centric, multiplayer-compatible 4X experience, few games reach the bar that Starbase Orion sets.
A Note About The Future of Starbase Orion
The developer Rocco Bowling is working on Starbase Orion 2 behind the scenes. There has been no formal announcement, but it has been discussed in the Chimera Software forums. Rocco Bowling also has a little animation tech demo video along with another showing the Unity web-browser enabled version of the game. We’ll keep you posted the second we hear more!
TL;DR: Starbase Orion is a 4X game for iOS Universal. But don’t let that fool you. It is a complete and well-rounded 4X experience that borrows liberally from MoO2. However, Starbase also injects its own innovations into the gameplay, such as an interactive leader system, excellent combat mechanics, and smart UI controls. Gameplay is heavily focused around warfare, with little in the way of diplomatic options or narrative sequences.
And while the game is starting to show its age visually, the underlying design remains solid as a rock for providing that competitive, no-frills 4X experience. All of this combines in a package designed from the start to facilitate multiplayer gaming, which is among the best I’ve experienced on any platform.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You want a full-featured 4X game in your pocket and won’t take any compromises
- You are fan of MoO2, and are looking for a modern adaptation of the same basic gameplay
- You are looking for a competitive and well-balanced game for 4X multiplayer
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You need victory conditions beyond conquest and/or allied victory
- You want a game with interesting narratives and events to uncover
- You want games with high level of graphical wizbangery
Oliver has played over 200 hours of Starbase Orion on an iPhone3, iPhone4, iPhone 5s, iPhone 6s, and iPad Mini (first gen).