In the long line of Sid Meier sticking his name into game titles comes “Sid Meier’s Starships,” a hexigrid turn based galactic strategy in the vein of Civilization. The twist here is there are planets to join your galactic federation and turn based starship battles with your armada against an opponents. Building your armada and competing in battles is by far the most fun of the game. I’d say it is the real game and everything else is just fluff. You can buy vessels, then upgrade engines, shields, armor, lasers, cannons, torpedoes, scanners, stealth and fighters.
The world is never enough and the universe is yours to conquer, purify or unify. There are several victory states such as domination, population, building wonders or scoring the top tier of a few science fields. While its nice to have all these ways to win, it feels like the game is geared toward conquering the galaxy. There’s an entire space battle system in place and its silly to overlook it and play diplomatic. The only real way to ensure that I’ll have a science or wonder victory is to make that the only type of victory allowed.
Battles take place on a hexigrid map, which in a way is illogical since space has a Z axis, but whatever. You can make use of heavy asteroids, planets and moons as cover. In a way its laughable that planets are as wide as four vessels. Smaller asteroids give less cover, but you’re still prone to attack, but take less damage.
If a vessel is hiding behind cover, you can fire a limited amount of torpedoes that will breach cover. The only catch is you need to detonate the torpedo one turn later, so that gives your foes a chance to move. You get to see your torpedo fly and then push the button to make it explode. Its a great dynamic to have. Even when I’m out of range, I’m firing torpedoes just to do something. Torpedoes are limited to the number you have upgraded on that star ship.
Each ship gets a turn with a movement and an action in either order. During an action it depends what the vessel has upgraded. You can attack, impulse an extra move space, cloak hide, scan for cloaked vessels and release ships. If you chose to move, you can attack as you move you move between two cover points, but I never felt a need to get that complicated. Releasing ships adds a small cluster of fighters with long range movement, little health and no shields.
Vessels have shields, so if your weapon’s attack power is less than the shield, its ineffective. Once shields are down, then you can do some big damage. The armor rating amounts to hit points. The more upgrades you have to a ship, the slower it moves, so you’ll need to upgrade engines. Then there’s stealth that conceals a ship unless an enemy is near it and upgraded scanners will compensate for finding stealth enemies. Its a good dichotomy.
Other notable features on a map include anomalies that when you fly into them, you appear out of a different one. Its good for speeding things along if there’s one ship left, but your comrades are across the map. Even if you pop out in a random location, its still closer and a chance to flank enemies.
Battles have a victory condition, a map condition and a card. Most of the time you earn victory by annihilating the opposition. Other times its defend an outpost, escort a vessel to an outpost, guard warp gates, destroy a single vessel or get a ship of yours into a warp gate. The maps feel generated and the map conditions are things like enemy torpedoes are undetectable, more asteroids, less asteroids, shields are less effective. It adds some diversity to the battles. Then there are the cards which feel forgotten about. You get one or so cards during each battle and its a gamble when you use them. I wish I could say more, but in seven hours of playing, I never made use of them beyond a curiosity.
The idea of the game is that your entire armada flies from planet to planet. After these battles win or lose, you keep all your ships, but you need to repair them for the damage that they’ve taken. So a major loss requires you to repair everything. Well if your armada wrecks the armada of a competitor that leaves that same competitor open for more attacks on the same turn. Blood thirsty players like myself will keep pushing through, but to prevent the entire universal conquest on a single turn, your crew’s efficiency goes down with each battle. Once its as low as it gets, you’re forced to take a shore leave and end your turn.
Like a lot of these hexigrid games, you’re competing and aligning with other competitors. You start the game by visiting planets, gaining their support which seems rather easy. Just win a battle and you’re halfway there! Take a shore leave on a planet that you have 50% devotion with and you can gain an extra 25%. Some planets end up contested where four competitors can have a stake in it.
Once you’ve taken quarter of a planet you can spend food to plant cities; I’m sure that’s how it works. Cities increase workers I guess. I was never too sure. The game just told me to build cities, so I did.
From there there are upgrades to a planet. Upgrades cost metal and give you more resources across various types that never felt of any consequence. Other planet upgrades include planetary defense craft, giving you a home field advantage with an extra vessel if an enemy ever attacks. Constructing a warp gate can bring your fleet to a planet under attack.
Spend science points on technology upgrades that will boost armada stats by 25% of a single category. Plenty of planets will reward you with a technology of your choosing. Even if you are about to enter a battle with someone, you can negotiate and they will give you technology or food to leave the planet. If you agree, that’s some sort of a peace treaty right there. Other times if you have a 95% chance of winning, the game lets you have the planet without a fight.
It feels like I managed the bare minimum of micromanagement and got away with it. Rather than clicking on each planet to build this or that, I just clicked on one and upgraded until I was broke. There is an information icon to click on that will advise you what you should do, but it should just be on the screen without me having to click something. Perhaps a hide button would be better for players that want to play it their own way. Even with no guide and little to no tutorials I still managed to get through it.
When you start a new game, you select map size, up to six opponents, difficulty and victories. Enormous still felt small, but I suppose on normal took me four hours to conquer the galaxy while easy took only three. Easy mode is laughable. My first time playing, none of my vessels were ever damaged, let alone destroyed. Its a good way to get your feet wet, but about an hour in, there was no challenge. Normal felt like a good challenge, but there are still two difficulties.
You have a selection between twenty-four characters, eight within each of the three motivations for supremacy, harmony and purity. Each one has their own stat boost. One character has a 25% better this or that. Sometimes less cost, other times more of whatever. Some start with an extra vessel.
I feel less stress and more joy playing this game than I do with Civilization games. Those other games feel like there’s always a cold war and you need to prepare before the invaders come, while I feel like here I have my destiny in my own hands. I’m smart enough to win battles even when the game tells me that I have a 25% chance of winning. Its also a small game. When other publisher and developer are 4 GB large, this one fits on a CD at 650 MB. Must be all that blank space rather than terrain.