4X

Stars In Shadow Review

ss-title

In the Shadow of Orion

The original Master of Orion, published by MicroProse waaaaaaay back in 1993, is undoubtedly a classic. I know that’s like spouting “the sky is blue” or “water is wet” around these parts. MoO1 spawned a great sequel and an arguably not-so-great sequel to that sequel. Although MoO didn’t officially create the 4X genre, it has definitely defined the space 4X subgenre for the last 20+ years. So yeah, it’s awesome.

Unfortunately, Master of Orion has become a bit of a dirty word in recent years. When accosted with another space 4X many of us chuckle and say, “Oh look, another MoO clone.” While we all want to recapture what made the original great, the genre has moved on – and so have we – but that hasn’t stopped developers from attempting to create the perfect updated MoO. Even Wargaming.net gave it a big triple-A shot last year with their Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars. However, it’s mostly smaller developers with a nostalgic love for the original who keep trying to recapture the magic of 1993.

mauraders

Oops, I stumbled upon some Gremak Marauders

The folks at Ashdar Games, a small indie studio, are one of the developers attempting to do just that with their first game, Stars in Shadow. It’s a space 4X game touted as a “tribute to the 4X classics.” Which means, of course, mostly Master of Orion.

Just a bit of studio history: Sven Olson began work on Stars in Shadow way back in 2002. It was originally a one-man project but eventually grew larger than Mr. Olson could handle by himself. He brought on artist and writer Jim Francis and Ashdar Games was born. In late April 2015 the game was picked up for publishing by Iceberg Interactive and several months later Stars in Shadow hit Steam Early Access.

However, with its origins stretching back nearly 15 years, does Stars in Shadow have what it takes to compete in the bloated space 4X genre of 2017?

Color and Sound

Before we get into the game, I want to make special mention of the aesthetics of Stars in Shadow. I love the art style. It caught my eye the first time I saw screenshots of the game. As you can see, they speak for themselves. To me, the design brings the pixelated appearance of the 90’s into the next century. It’s bright, colorful, and uncomplicated but still evokes the cool and awesome emotions we had for the rudimentary but endearing art of Master of Orion itself. The art is also chock full of character – be it the haughty Ashdar Imperials or the stern refugee Humans. Each race also has its own diverse ship designs that are easily recognizable once you learn them.

why-so-serious

Why so serious?

At first, I wasn’t crazy about the music; however, it quickly grew on me. It melds perfectly with the comic-book art and the space theme. The music mostly eschews the popular droning sci-fi stuff that directly evokes the emptiness of space; instead, the compositions are full of digital life, more akin to a space station nightclub than staring at asteroids as your mining laser drones away. Well, there is one track consisting of a cascade of synthesizer that feels like a solitary trip into the loneliness of the void (or a visit to Eve Online), but it’s still quite good. The sound effects are decent, if subtle, but at least they’re not painfully intrusive – the sounds never became annoying to me, even after playing for dozens of hours.

eXplore

Seven Factions to Rule Them All

Setting up a new game is very easy. First, you choose your faction – there are seven factions and six races. This is fewer than most 4X games have at release, but each is distinct and unique.They may not seem quite as diverse as those found in Endless Space and Endless Legend, but they are still enjoyably dissimilar. Since there are only seven, I’ll spend just a bit of time on each of them.

choosing-the-ashdar-imperials

Choosing the Ashdar Imperials

The Ashdar race is split into two factions: the Ashdar Colonials and the Ashdar Imperialists. According to the lore, the Ashdar forged a massive Empire but it all fell apart after the Great War. The two factions feel they are each the rightful heir to the ancient Empire.

The Colonials (the Teros sub-species) are more industrious and concentrate on early carrier warfare. The Imperialists (the Haduir sub-species) make extra coin but, more importantly, they start with a single stargate at their homeworld. This stargate allows ships at their homeworld to move to any planet within range in a single turn, no matter the distance. Having the only stargate in the galaxy in the early and midgame is amazing.

The Phidi Combine, a peaceful aquatic race, are even more adept at making money than the Ashdar Colonials. On top of this, the Phidi Mercenary Exchange allows them to hire mercenaries from any faction with which they have signed a Trade Charter. Unfortunately, mercenary ships cannot be scrapped or refitted, so you’re stuck with whatever you buy… Until it explodes. In my mind the Phidi play a bit like wealthy, peaceful bankers who keep it loose with their morals because they don’t have the backbone to stand up for themselves. But they’re smart enough to survive in a nasty universe – or at least rich enough.

The slimy, four-eyed (and I don’t mean they wear glasses) Gremax Empire are a tough bunch. They are able to research Distortion Fields much earlier than other factions, giving them the opportunity to use stealth in combat in order to get close and wreak havoc on their unsuspecting opponents. They also have the Gremak Viper launcher- a nasty short-range torpedo.

The Orthin Conference faction is a race of bugs from an icy homeworld. Literally, they are big, multi-legged bugs under heavily runed carapaces. They are adept at research, with a large initial science bonus and cheaper Physics technologies. They are also handy with energy weapons and gain early access to super-heavy “Siege” weapons.

space-yetis

Space Yetis!

Next up, space yetis! Seriously. The Yoral Khaganate are squat, powerful, four-armed yetis. They are industrious and tough, with a per-colonist bonus to production and the ability to survive on any world. They also excel at packing a punch into tiny packages, making their smaller ships deadlier than most other, similar crafts.

And, lastly, Humanity. In most games humans are the basic package – the faction a new player might start with because they feel more familiar. In Stars in Shadow, they are a tougher faction in the early game because they are space refugees. They do not begin with a home planet, but rather start a new game with two colony ships (instead of one) and extra transports full of colonists. Their nomadic existence can make the early game quite tough but gives them a nice bit of personality.

A Few More Options

After you lock in a faction, the next screen offers a few options like difficulty (easy, normal, hard and brutal), standard map sizes of small, normal and huge (30, 50 and 85 star systems, respectively), and a few advanced map settings like star density and the frequency of habitable planets. There’s also the option to start on a custom map size with up to an upper limit of… Well, there doesn’t seem to be an upper limit. However, the game does warn you that starting a new game with more than 99 star systems could lead to gameplay and performance problems. Still, the option is there! Small maps with three total factions can be finished in a single evening if you’re aggressive enough; normal maps with five factions might take part of the afternoon, as well; and the huge maps, well… Pack a lunch, dinner and a midnight snack.

new-game-options

A few tools at your disposal

Overall, though, the number of starting options for a new game are kinda thin. Most space games throw the kitchen sink at you in this regard. One big omission is the lack of a custom race editor, an option that has proven popular and fun in other 4X games. More races would be great too, considering the rich lore and interesting history of the current factions.  

Exploring in the early game is fairly standard. You send out scouts to find new systems and – hopefully – awesome colonizable planets. Planets come in all shapes and sizes. In addition to varying mineral and habitability ratings, planets can also have specialties like mineral rich, supergrain, rare gems, artifacts, derelict colonies and more. These planets are typically the most sought after (and fought over). You can also chance upon minor races, pirates, and (gasp) Star Harpies. Star Harpies aren’t much for talking; rather, they are plasma-flinging baddies that like to squat on systems. Pirates, however, will leave you alone (for a fee), sell you slaves and ships and, eventually, possibly join your empire (for a fee). Or you can just wipe them out. The pace of the early game is brisk and consistently enjoyable, but some of the exploration options are lacking. I would welcome more events along the lines of the fantastic Stellaris storylines. Even a few more goodie huts, ala the Civilization series, would be a nice addition.

eXpand

Bring me my soapbox: I like that Stars in Shadow does not have a personality conflict. Some strategy games try to do too much, or try to cater to every backer, and often they lose the focus that can make for a fine strategy title. Stars in Shadow knows exactly what it wants to do and who it wants to be. It’s two halves: the strategy layer – controlling your empire from the galaxy screen – and the tactical combat layer. There’s an emphasis on the tactical side of things, with a great ship editor and fast, fun, turn-based space battles, but Ashdar Games wisely chose to keep the strategic, empire-controlling side of things streamlined. Nevertheless, the strategic play is still interesting, engaging, and more than just buttons to click while warping to your next battle.

early-orthin-expansion

Early Orthin expansion

Expanding your empire is simple: send out those colony ships and settle, settle, settle! Not every planet is a sweet paradise, but you’ll have to make due with what you get early on. You can also send out transports to create self-sufficient outposts on planets until you’re ready to colonize them in earnest. Unfortunately, in a war, these outposts are easy targets, but such is war, right?

Many planets also have “Native Inhabitants.” These minor races are sometimes primitive, sometimes not, and generally happy to have you colonize their fledgling planet. I’ve not run into any that have run me off, anyway. There are many different “minor” races, and they’ll live and grow alongside your own race after you’ve started a colony. They provide different bonuses, but also feel like a living addition to your empire instead of just a stack of numbers.

For instance, the Tinkers have made themselves into cybernetic organisms and do not consume food. The primitive Threshers, on the other hand, will allow themselves to be transported from planet to planet, but will not occupy Colony Ships, and do not receive combat bonuses from technological advances like improved armor or shields. In one game, I saved the Haduir on a planet from pirate slavery. They were initially happy to have me as their new ruler, but later their morale took a nosedive when I bombed their kin on another planet. Just another small gameplay addition that makes the universe feel all the more rich and real.

Running your empire looks simple, on the surface, but there’s complexity hidden just under the hood. Basically, as you grow, you have to balance a number of resources: food, income, production, metal, research, your trade pool, and diplomatic influence. Every resource is listed along the top of the main UI, and many of the resource icons will take you to a related menu if you click on it. We’ll talk about influence a little later, but let’s take a quick look at the other resources.

woot-i-just-colonized-dirt

Woot, I just colonized Dirt!

Food is the green stuff that you feed to your people, usually by building farms. Each farm produces a certain amount of food, based on how many colonists are working it, faction bonuses and the fertility of the planet. Colonies don’t have to be entirely self-sufficient though. Since yours is an interstellar empire, you can transport food between planets.

Fortunately, this doesn’t turn into a micromanagement slog. All you have to do is build transports and add them to your trade pool. The transports disappear from the map and are reported as trade pool assets (or cargo space), which are automatically used to transport food and trade amongst your own planets and with others. As long as you keep a healthy pool of transports, and a decent wealth of the green stuff on hand, your dead mining planets will never starve. The trade pool is also used to transport colonists from planet to planet.

Related to the trade pool is your income. At its most basic, income comes from colonists and markets (which also boost morale). Beyond this, you can also trade amongst your colonies by utilizing transports in your trade pool, and you can enter into Trade Charters with other factions once you’ve located them (and they are receptive to your trade offers – or you to theirs, you warmongers out there).

Production is how quickly you build stuff, be it tanks, ships, or buildings. It’s mostly improved by building factories on your planets. Metal, however, makes for an interesting addition to basic production. Mines produce metal and you need metal for every ship, tank, or orbital structure. Early on, it’s very easy to exceed your metal production. This leads to shortages at the assembly line. That is to say, it could take a looooong time to finish that colony ship when you’re running a metal deficit every turn. I like the limits imposed on production, it gives a more realistic feel to the normally unbridled production of a planet in some 4X games. It makes you think about what you really need and how much you can build with your current stockpile of metal as well as your empire’s yearly metal production.

thats-a-sweet-ship-damn

That’s a sweet ship. Damn…

Research points are, you guessed it, garnered from laboratories. Seeing a theme here? Research points are used to discover technologies (duh). I enjoy the research itself. The technologies are interesting and slowly widen your tactical opportunities as you learn to build new weapons, engines, and modules, as well as improve your ship speed, resource production, and more. The techs are broken down into many fields, each with its own easily identified icon: Construction, Beams, Physics, Sociology, Military, Kinetics, Missiles, Planetology, and Information.

However, the research screen is a bit too simple for my taste. It’s a list of technologies, with those you’ve learned in green at the bottom, those you can research in white at the top. There’s no tech tree. There’s no way to parse or plan outside of delving through the links in the tech descriptions themselves. There is an overview pane that can be used to have a look at every tech in each of the ten fields, which is a nice addition, but I think I’d still prefer a tech tree. Hopefully it’ll be added down the road.

Building all of these factories and markets and such isn’t without limits. Most planets start with roughly four improvement slots. You get even less space for defensive structures and even then, not until you’ve researched the needed tech to unlock the defensive slots. Once you’ve run out of space, you’re done on that planet, although there are a few late game techs that give you added slots. These limitations make juggling resource production a lot of fun, and never turns into micromanagement hell. The planet limits often force you to specialize on a single colony, or even generalize if it’s a fairly normal planet with zero inherent specialties. A large, fertile supergrain planet can feed your entire empire with the right trade pool infrastructure. Similarly, a mineral rich planet can skyrocket your metal production and keep those space stations busy pumping out ships.

earthquakes-noooooo

Earthquakes, nooooo!

I also like that every building is automatically upgraded to the next best building when you research the upgrade. Boom! Instant empire-wide improvement. Unlike most 4X games, you don’t have to keep returning to your planet screens to queue up the new building. Some might find this detracts from the empire management, but considering the focus Stars in Shadow puts on the tactical aspects of the game, it makes sense. If you’re looking for the wonderfully detailed and complex planetary management found in Galactic Civilizations III, you might want to search elsewhere. I feel like the strategic aspect is the perfect amount of streamlined fun for what Stars in Shadow strives to be.

The UI also makes running your empire easy. Although it’s often not as tactile as I would like – I love for my buttons to click and glow and go thump in the night – it’s a simple, powerful interface that keeps most everything no more than a single click away. There’s a ton of information on the main screen, including the aforementioned resources along the top bar. The main viewing area is a top-down two-dimensional view of the universe – very similar to the classic Master of Orion view – but much sexier. And the blue interface panels are comely too! Ships zip across the universe with ETA’s next to their travel lines. Planets orbit their stars.

It’s also colorful and easy to read and offers several levels of zoom, which are also colorful and easy to read. The Planetary Report is a great tool. It’s along the left side of the screen, showing every planet you’ve colonized, many of their stats, and what they’re currently building. It would be nice if there was some sorting available but it’s still useful. 

planetary-report-to-the-left

Your friend, the Planetary Report

eXploit

We’re getting up on the combat section – fun times – but we’re not there yet. Rather, we’ll take a short detour to talk about diplomacy. There’s not a ton to talk about, but diplomacy is just interesting enough to add another layer to the jaunty strategy.

Diplomacy takes a page from other recent 4X games, like the Endless series, Stellaris, or even the oft-maligned Sid Meier’s Beyond Earth. Stars in Shadow uses influence as a diplomatic currency. You start with 100 influence at the beginning of a new game, but your influence production is set to zero. Unlike other resources, you can’t just slap a building together to gather influence. Rather, you have to go out into the galaxy and meet other factions.

There are a few options for dealing with other empires, but first you have to establish an embassy with them. These buildings cost a handful of coins every year to maintain, but open talks with other factions and grant a small yearly boost to influence. In addition to direct trading, like selling off a planet or buying metal, you can also enter into agreements: Trade Charters grant foreign trade routes, Research Agreements boost your science progression, and an Alliance grants you shared strategic range and vision. But don’t always trust those alliances, eh?

wish-a-name-like-ten-shells

With a name like Ten Shells, it’s no wonder he lost

Speaking of alliances, they’re one of the three routes to victory in Stars in Shadow. First, you can kill everyone for the Conquest Victory. This fits perfectly with the military leanings of the game. You can also win through the Galactic Council. Nothing new here – they meet every so often and everyone votes for themselves until someone has a big enough empire to win the vote. I’ve actually had allied factions vote for me a number of times, so this victory condition isn’t hard to achieve once you’ve taken over a fair percentage of the map. Lastly, as I mentioned, there’s an Alliance victory – if you make happy with everyone and spend your influence wisely, you can win the game once you’re allied with every major faction. On normal settings this isn’t a tough feat, although you’ll need a fair stack of influence to get the Alliances, but it’s also easily avoided if you’d rather blow everyone up. The latter isn’t my usual play style but, seeing as it’s the more challenging and gratifying option, I say go ahead… Blow everyone up.

I do have one big problem with the exploit mechanics, though – where are the spies? Stars in Shadow needs espionage. It doesn’t have to be a seriously deep mechanic, just another strategic layer to keep you clicking next turn. Well, the game has that in spades already, but I do feel like the lack of espionage is a glaring omission and I hope it’s added one day. It was outstanding in the original MoO…

suuuuup

Suuuuup?

eXterminate

Yay, we made it! Let’s blow some stuff up! Wait, wait, first we have to build our spaceships. Then we’ll blow stuff up!

Preparing to Blow Stuff Up

Designing ships in Stars in Shadow couldn’t be easier. The ship builder interface is clean, straightforward, and fun. The hull is represented in the center of the screen. Hulls come in various sizes, from Light Cruisers on up to Carriers and Dread Stars. (Oh yeah, you read that right – DREAD STARS.) Listed to the left of the hull are the various hardpoints and to the right is all the stuff you can attach to those hardpoints.

Easy right? Well, there’s a bit more to it. As an example, let’s quickly design a Phidi (Phidian?) Destroyer. The Destroyer is an early backbone ship of most any fleet, and serves as a good example. Here’s the basic hull, with open slots.

tabula-rasa

Tabula rasa

As you can see, the Destroyer starts with a Light x four slot, a Turret x two slot, an Engine slot and two System slots. There’s also the Built-In slot, which automatically increases the ship’s tactical speed. It’s a Destroyer so it should be fast, right? There’s also a lot of important data below the hull picture, including the strength of the ship’s hull, armor and shields, as well as tactical speed, number of crew, how much ammunition (for missiles, torpedoes and such), cost in production and metal, as well as the amount of remaining power. Many of these numbers will change as we add weapons and such.

Let’s suppose we’re up against human Heavy Cruisers, and they have a lot of shields. We want to get in close, fast, and hit ‘em hard. We decide to go with coilguns. They have a short range but they also have the shield piercing modification, which ignores shields entirely. So we drop a pair of coilguns into the turret slot.

Those human Heavy Cruisers are also backed by Missile Cruisers. We’ll need a screen to defend our larger ships from the missiles. We equip our Destroyer with four Point Defense (PD) coilguns as well, to shoot down the nasty nukes. Thus, while the Destroyers rush forward to quickly damage the Heavy Cruisers, we can also provide cover.

In our game we’ve mostly seen Human ships equipped with lasers, not coilguns. Shields help to block laser fire, so we’ll throw Deflector Shields into the mix, our cheapest Tritanium armor into the armor slot, and a Nuclear Reactor to power our little Destroyer. Lastly, we’ll rename it “Twincoil” because coilguns… Times two… You get it…

twincoil

Twincoil complete!

There she is! And that’s just a taste of the many ship design options. There’s a ton of different weapons and shields and armors and hulls and defenses and boarding options and fighters and bombers and warp lane modifiers and missiles and torpedoes and I could go on. You’ll eventually research modifications that improve existing weapons types, as well. For instance, the accurate mod will improve a weapon’s chance to hit by 50%, or the rapid fire mod will double laser fire.

If you don’t want to pursue ship design to any real degree there’s also the option to Auto Design. It lets you choose from a Balanced, Escort, or Siege hull setup for any ship in the game and allows you to easily upgrade as you research new technology. The system works well enough, but you’re cheating yourself out of a lot of the fun of the game by using it.

Overall, like I said, ship design is easy. However, making smart use of well-designed ships against concerted opposition is something else entirely…

almost-blowing-up

So ready to blow stuff up…

Blowing Stuff Up

Okay, I’ve mentioned this already, but let’s get it out of the way. It’s time to blow stuff up! Yay! Wait, that’s not what I wanted to say. What I meant was: combat is turn-based! Yay! One more time with emphasis – YAY! I mean, seriously, every old school, 4X grognard type o’ human cries about every new space 4X release that lacks this feature. The newer games tend to replace turn-based combat with real-time stuff, or some weird hodgepodge mix of both that often creates something awkward or unfun. That’s not to say that it hasn’t worked for some games, but if we really want a modern homage to Master of Orion, then we need turn-based combat!

Okay, rage over. I actually take a more moderate stance on the subject – I’ve enjoyed lots of different combat systems over the years, from the card-based, movie-like combat of Endless Space to the three different types of real-time in MoO:CtS – but here it just feels appropriate and I’m really, really glad that Ashdar Games built Stars in Shadow around turn-based combat.

early-fleet-making-its-rounds

Early fleet making its rounds

Combat plays out on a simple, small starfield. One armada is on the left, the other on the right. Ship movement limits are easy to see and movement itself is as simple as a right-click within that range. Side note, you can also right-click near to your ship, but just slightly in one direction, in order to change your facing – this took me a while to figure out. When a ship is selected, its weapons are listed for easy choosing. You click on the weapon you want and click the enemy ship you’ve decided to destroy and, voila, the weapon does its work. Move and fire with everyone, then click on end turn and see what happens!

As it turns out, quite a bit can happen. Ships automatically reserve fire. If you launch missiles during your turn, that wide screen of enemy cruisers might easily blast the projectiles outta space before they even reach the heavier ships. Or, as ships enter your range, you’ll let loose with lasers and railguns, ripping them apart before you’ve even started your second turn.

boom

BOOM!

Again, the simplistic facade hides a lot of depth. Engagements between just a few ships consisting of only one or two types are fairly straight-forward. This will likely be your early skirmishes with pirates or those pesky brushes with Star Harpies (the flavor text is so funny for these ladies, but I won’t give it away). Later, though, you’ll be pushing massive armadas across the galaxy, consisting of not only Light Cruisers and Destroyers but also more serious hardware like Missile Cruisers, Carriers and Battlecruisers. Each of these ship types will have specific purposes and require good tactics in order to employ properly. You’ll know the strengths and weaknesses of your different ships and their various firing arcs – hopefully you’ll have designed them yourself! – and it’ll be up to you to keep them alive.

If I had to make a comparison, I’d say the combat feels a lot like a space-based game of Panzer General, or the more modern Panzer General known as Panzer Corps. No terrain, just units and their weapons, defenses, and your tactics. I could also make the chess comparison, but it’s less like chess and more like a game of rock/paper/scissors/lizard/Spock. Of course, ultimately the combat is a nifty, streamlined version of the combat of the original Master of Orion and I’m okay with that.

In fact, I’m more than just okay with that – I love it. I look forward to the battles. Sure, there’s the option to Auto-combat, which automatically resolves any confrontation, but I rarely use it unless it’s going to lead to the quick death of a transport at the hands of my fleet. I have experimented with it in more standard fights and it seems to handle battles in a fair manner. I find the combat drives my ship design, which is as it should be. I can watch the other factions, grok what ship and weapon types they are utilizing, then build my own armada to bring them instant death. There’s enough depth to keep the combat fresh and exciting, and it mixes well with the ship design and strategic play.

dread-star-doing-some-work

Dread Star doing some work

Playing With Yourself

The combat AI seems serviceable. If it’s outnumbered, it’ll scuttle its ships. If not, it will pummel you mercilessly. I didn’t see any wild maneuvers, mostly smart frontal attacks, but the interaction of ships and weapons was enough to keep me on my toes.

The strategic AI, on the other hand, ranges from brain-dead on the easiest setting (every faction is smoking hookahs and looking for that next alliance) to downright savage on the higher difficulties. The Normal setting, after a play or two, became a bit too easy for me, so I would recommend quickly moving to the Hard difficulty after you’re more familiar with the game’s mechanics. The other factions, for the most part, behave as they should and don’t make stupid mistakes, which is good since there’s not a multiplayer component.

They will occasionally make some curious decisions though. One interesting example: in one of my games, the Humans attacked me really early, with a pitiful force. It seemed like a desperate attempt. I’ve not yet decided if the AI was just being stupid or if it thought it was cornered by my burgeoning empire. I’m thinking they were locked into the bottom right corner and looking for lebensraum. My fleets quickly crushed them, but I can’t blame them for trying.

ouch-incoming-fleet

Ouch, incoming fleet…

eXperience

Playing Stars in Shadow is just plain fun. There’s no fat on this game. There are, however, blemishes. Let me go over a few before I start gushing wildly about how much I really love the experience as a whole.

Stars in Shadow really needs an improved research screen. I don’t usually actively look for a tech tree in a 4X game – quite the opposite, really – but I found myself needing more than what’s on offer. Maybe it’s because I’m a visual kinda guy, but it’s tough to plan ahead without a visual representation of future technologies. A simple tech tree would fix it right up.

Similarly, I think the UI works well, overall. However, it could be more powerful and useful. The Planetary Report would be improved by adding another option or two for sorting. Same for the research screen, as I mentioned earlier. It would also be nice to have a menu for listing all of the planets, particularly those which have not been colonized, in order to plan your expansion. It can be a bit of a chore clicking through the systems in order to find good planets, especially on the larger maps. There’s also a ton of blue on the screen at all times, but seriously that didn’t even register until someone mentioned it to me. It’s crystal clear and easy to read even on higher resolution monitors.

As it is, I’m happy enough with the diplomacy – it’s the right amount of commitment outside of the rest of the game – but I do miss espionage. Just a simple mechanic that, like MoO1, isn’t too complicated or time-consuming, but is just enough to give us one more facet to focus on.

Those are little quibbles though. Overall, I LOVE Stars in Shadow! It has that intangible quality of greatness that transcends its moving parts and its flaws. The art is rich and immediately endearing. The music sets a fun tone. Stars in Shadow is a focused game with no identity crisis, melding an engaging strategic layer to great ship design and outstanding turn-based combat. The latter is something I thought I might not enjoy in a 4X game ever again, but Ashdar Games have proven me wrong. Despite lacking a custom race editor or a tech tree, I believe they have designed an artful strategy game that perfectly embraces the original Master of Orion but also manages to become a great experience all its own. It’s a joy to play – the turns and the hours pass and it’s 3AM before you know it.

In short, I think Stars in Shadow is a classic.

TL;DR: Ah, man, I love this game. Making my rounds from strategic layer to ship design to turn-based combat is a hoot. The gameplay loop is nearly perfect. There’s just enough strategy to keep me clicking Next Turn without overburdening my brain. Planets grow quickly and space stations churn out ships. Ships! So many ships! It’s a joy to design them and see them do their combat thing. Designing them is painless and fun, requiring just enough time to fire the neurons without making me feel like I’ve spent an age at the dockyards. And then it’s into the combat which lasts just long enough to whet my appetite for more, then it’s back to the strategy. Lastly, everything is graced with lively art, fun music, and it’s chock-full of color and character. Stars in Shadow is a classic and I can’t wait to see where they take it next.

You might like the game if:

  • You love the original Master of Orion
  • You demand turn-based tactical combat
  • You enjoy piecing together the perfect ship
  • Sleep isn’t something you really need

You might NOT like the game if:

  • You’re so sick of Master of Orion you could poop
  • You’re looking for a deeper strategic layer
  • You don’t enjoy digging into turn-based tactical ship-to-ship warfare
  • You like multiplayer in your 4X

 

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Review Policy

Chris reviewed Stars in Shadow on a gifted copy and has played 45+ hours on an Intel Core i7-4790 CPU (3.60GHz), 12GB RAM, nVidia 4GB GTX 745.

Disclosure: Chris was given a free copy of Stars In Shadow for the purposes of review.

28 replies »

    • Guys, I’ve been watching Das’s let’s play of Stars in Shadows and he seemed to encounter very weak AI’s defense. I mean the fleet he fought were always numerically and technologically inferior to his. It’s something I often see in those kind of games with random generated maps. Actually, not only since I wanted to do the same comment about Sovereignty which have a map.. Most of the time it looks like AIs are unable to compose decent invading or defending forces. It reminds me the total war games where the starting AI armies were doped on purpose but once you had defeated their starting stacks, AI nations were prooved unable to replace them. There’s one game though; that always surprised me for its ability its AI had to fields imposing forces is AoW3. But maybe I’m wrong and don’t play enough 4x games to make a rule out of this imprssion

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  1. nice review, thanks.

    i picked SiS up during winter sale and i have one problem in my current pre-release game: i closed the planet-overview-list on the left screen and have no idea how i get it back.
    anybody got a tip for me? :)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A nice and detailed review for what sounds like a good turn based combat game. Will wait till they flesh out the experience a bit more though. i.e. adding more story line type events, & espionage etc. and maybe another race.. or two.

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  3. So I’ve marked this game to follow. I’ll consider it next time I decide to buy a 4x (I have three I play already).

    In case any designers are reading though-

    1. Turn based combat is a positive.

    2. A strong sense of identity and purpose that drives design decisions is a positive.

    3. Rock Paper Scissors weapons and defenses balance and ship design is a major negative. It’s great when certain things counter other things, but not when it just happens because inherent bonuses decree that it be so.

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    • “3. Rock Paper Scissors weapons and defenses balance and ship design is a major negative. It’s great when certain things counter other things, but not when it just happens because inherent bonuses decree that it be so.”

      It depends on how it’s implemented, IMO. It’s not as interesting in GalCiv3 because the combat itself (the viewer) doesn’t allow you to actually direct the use of various ships and weapons. I usually just auto resolve and let it be. It’s more than just rock/paper/scissors in SiS and the turn-based tactical nature of the combat is quite enjoyable. Sure, there are hard counters, like point defense taking out missiles (which do a ton of damage if they do get through), or coilguns ignoring shields or lasers gaining armor piercing, not to mention the nasty ong range railgun, but it’s much more enjoyable within the turn-by-turn nature of the combat.

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  4. Great review, Chirs!

    Cadfan wrote:

    “3. Rock Paper Scissors weapons and defenses balance and ship design is a major negative. It’s great when certain things counter other things, but not when it just happens because inherent bonuses decree that it be so.”

    RPS does tend to get stale, I can’t disagree. As someone who’s not as familiar with as many space 4x’s as others who post here, however, I’d like to know what the alternatives are, if you wouldn’t mind listing some that do something else.

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    • Imho one of the better examples of gracefull execution of weapons without a blatant rps is Sword of the Stars 1 and 2. There is still a fair bit of rps there , counters, but there arent so obvious and they arent mostly hard counters. Its hard to explain but imho its because there is a lot of them and each got alot of different cahracteristics , they are not just counters to something. For missiles are very good initially, but point defense is very effective against them. Still if you got missiles and alot of speed advantage you can keep out of range if the enemy got short range weapons. On other hand packing to much pd will leave you with disadvantage against other wepaons, energy and projectiles. Homing energy torps serve same function as missiles but cant be intercepted by pd,. On other hand they have much lower DPS, so again advantages and disadvantages. etc. ITs really very elegant and fun to play with, speccially in MP.

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      • There are a lot, but which work best depends heavily on how the rest of the game is set up.

        These aren’t from space 4xs. Space 4x is very, very traditional, and still likes the “different color guns beat different color armor” thing. But elsewhere…

        I’ve seen systems that function based on maneuverability. High maneuverability counters big, slow, high damage weapon systems. But highly maneuverable ships lack big weapons. Imagine firing a giant missile at a capital ship, and having to steer its slow, awkward bulk for five turns as it closes the distance, escorting it with smaller ships that can shoot down intercepting missiles and fighters before peeling away at the last moment.

        I’ve seen systems where comm jamming was a major component. Orders couldn’t be given to units outside the bubble of effective comms.

        I’ve seen systems built around hidden movement and fog of war.

        I’ve seen systems built around pre-programmed action. Your ships have some basic AI which you modify with specific orders… that you set in advance with partial information about the battlefield. Maybe you expect the enemy to decloak off your starboard side, so you order your capital ships to adjust heading and ready fire. Reason correctly and you obliterate your enemies, reason incorrectly and your troops are out of position, inefficient, and vulnerable.

        I’ve seen systems built around spotters and artillery fire. Enemies can’t be fired upon by your big, long range missiles unless you beat their ECM, which can only be done by getting vulnerable ships close to them and painting the target.

        None of these are fully developed in this comment, but I think all of them have more potential than “the bad guys built yellow so I better build green guns and then I automatically win unless they stop building yellow armor and start building a different color in which case I’ll switch too.”

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  5. Quick question. I see the rock paper scissors thing which as many stated above is far to prevelant in 4x games in general space the most egregious offender. You need variety to shake things up ((just looked at the tech tree and it looked functional with a few “fun techs” but definitly something i’d add in an expansion. but are the hulls different for each race. In other words are their different mounts and stats for the same hull type?That would at least add some challenge in each race as far as needing to adapt and replay-ability for different races.

    Thank you for your time if anyone can answer

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  6. The games i really disilike are the ones were everyone has the same tech tree. Ugh !
    You know – aliens – different in most aspects – including tech and ship design.
    Sure you can gain some of there tech after capturing a colony or something.
    But i’m pretty sure the’ll surprise you with something you have not developed or thought about.

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  7. Please, do not confuse MoO with MoO2 because in every place when you say something like “Of course, ultimately the combat is a nifty, streamlined version of the combat of the original Master of Orion and I’m okay with that.” it is “of course” not true because by that you mean the original of Master of Orion 2 – in the original MoO many important mechanics, including combat, were very different.

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    • Aye, all three of the MoO games are quite different, particularly MoO3. It reminds me of both MoO1 and MoO2, overall, but I’d give the nod to the original in terms of combat and just the “feel” of playing a full game, but it manages to be its own thing in the end, which is great.

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  8. Fan-made tech chart incoming in 3… 2… 1…

    *google search*

    Well, I haven’t found any fan-made yet, but there’s a 6 months old developer-made one on the official website :
    *SPOILER ALERT* (I guess?)

    It’s a shame, I have bought this game what, a year and a half ago (love the art : http://well-of-souls.com/outsider/ and the promise of focus on tactical combat), but still haven’t bothered to try it out (and give feedback!) past the first few screens…
    I’ll really have to do that now!

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