Developed by Firaxis Games; Published by 2K; Released March 12th; Available on PC, Mac, iPad; Reviewed on PC; Review copy provided by publisher.
Sid Meier’s Starships, developed in tandem with Civilization: Beyond Earth and meant to be a narrative successor to the Civ-in-space title, is surprisingly deep for something you can play on the iPad. The strategic layer of galactic conquest and the tactical layer for ship battles intertwine gracefully for a robust experience that doesn’t require the dozens of hours that a game of Civ takes.
The starting conditions in Starships will dictate to some extent how you play your game. Instead of just choosing a leader, you’ll be picking both a leader to start with and an affinity, which you’ll recognize from Beyond Earth. The eight leaders offer a wide array of benefits, from free starting technologies to an extra ship in your fleet at the beginning of the game. The affinities offer a free wonder, reduced repair costs for your ships, or doubled rewards from completing missions. The real fun in choosing how to start, though, comes from finding the synergies that help maximize the benefits. For example, picking Sochua and Supremacy gives you both a wonder and two free starting technologies, which can combine to offer insane bonuses if the RNG is kind to you, or if you’re not opposed to restarting until it is.
The strategic layer is, at its core, a Civ-lite experience. You’ll research tech, build cities to bolster general production, construct buildings for specific productivity boosts, as well as construct wonders and maintain your fleet. The tech in Starships is hyper-simplified compared to the tech web from BE, so don’t expect branching tech decisions. Instead, you’ll just be doing incremental upgrades to ship systems, like 25% damage bonus for Lasers. The lack of branching technology does admittedly make for less diversity in replaying the game, but figuring out where you want to focus your research and min/maxing to your heart’s content is a surprisingly fun substitute for making tough tech decisions.
At the start, you’ll be sending your fleet on what amount to peacekeeping missions around the galaxy to garner favor with the various planetary systems. The amount of support you’ll get for completing a mission depends on the difficulty of the encounter, which also dictates the value of the rewards. Hitting 50% support from a populace will net you 50% of that planet’s resource production, and 75% gets you 100% of resources generated by the planet. Once you hit 100% support, they will join your civilization, after which your influence can only be lost by direct combat with another civ. Much of the early game will consist of prioritizing nearby systems, and keeping control out of the hands of the other civilizations by claiming them first. In addition to the resources you’ll gain from welcoming planets into the fold, the most straightforward victory comes from gathering 51% of the galactic population into your civ. There are also Technology, Domination, and Wonder victory options available.
While the strategic layer is a heavily simplified Civ experience, the tactical layer is very much akin to XCOM in spaceships. Every tactical map comes complete with planets, which are the largest and most protective cover available, asteroid fields, which serve as lesser cover for when you’re trying to avoid taking the full force of enemy fire, as well as jump gates, which act like wormholes, instantly teleporting you to another random jump gate in the system. Utilizing the asteroids and planets for cover will immediately remind you of XCOM‘s combat, except rather than frequently missing the target entirely, the partial cover offered by most asteroids only negates a percentage of the damage. While it is occasionally frustrating to get hit when you think you’re safely nestled in an asteroid belt, it’s a welcome trade for missing 80% of your shots when the enemy is in partial cover, and lends an interesting, new dynamic to the combat.
The nine various ship systems all determine your combat readiness, and must be upgraded independently of each other, which is another great opportunity for min/maxing for those of us who thrive on the practice. If you’ve got three levels of Laser technology, you’ll probably want to have your ships outfitted with higher-level Lasers. Engines keep you agile, and will need to be upgraded frequently as you outfit your ship, since the weight of the other upgrades will slow you down. Shields and Armor determine how survivable you are when taking fire, while Lasers and Plasma Cannons offer long and short range firepower respectively. Stealth and Sensors work with the cloaking systems to either hide yourself from the enemy, or detect hidden foes who have activated their own stealth. Torpedoes are unique in that you’ll fire it on your turn, but it won’t detonate until at least the start of the next turn, when you’ll have the option to detonate immediately, or move it forward a few hexes, after which you can detonate or hold until your next turn and repeat. Torpedoes offer serious damage at long ranges, but they’re incredibly easy to avoid as long as you’re paying attention.
Finally, there are fighters. You can outfit each of your ships with up to several fighter squads, which take an action to launch, but then actually become independent units on the tactical map. They’ve got minimal firepower and start with very low HP, but swarming the enemy with them will frequently save your more important vessels a lot of damage, as the enemy will have to waste a 50-damage plasma burst to take out the 15-HP fighter. It’s even possible to focus squarely on upgrading your fighters through tech and ship upgrades, allowing you to keep your primary ships off the front lines entirely. Just hide behind a planet and send forth a stream of fighter squads to face off against the enemy.
The wonders you build on the strategy layer can play a crucial role on combat, and the power of the various wonders can’t be overstated. Wonders are tied to planets, so each planet that joins your civ will have one wonder available to build on it, preventing stacking of wonders on a well-defended planet. They’re incredibly expensive compared to regular buildings, but some of the perks – like allowing you to always take the first combat turn – are much more valuable than any resource building could be. Another wonder actually removes the range penalty from your laser damage, allowing you to snipe effectively from very large distances, and changes the entire dynamic of combat, assuming you’re outfitted with mid-to-high-level lasers.
As an XCOM-style, multi-layered, tactical-strategy game, Sid Meier’s Starships has a huge pair of shoes to fill. It manages to keep just enough depth of gameplay to stay true to its strategy origins, while keeping much of the minutiae to a minimum, allowing greater accessibility for those who might not be hardcore strategy aficionados.
Bottom Line: Sid Meier’s Starships lacks the strategic depth of Civilization, but the added tactical layer, and shorter game times make it a fair substitute, especially if you’re looking for bite-sized strategy.
Recommendation: The most hardcore Civ players will find it a little lacking, but for everybody else – including those who’ve never played a Civ game before – it’s got enough meat to keep your appetite for strategy sated.[rating=4.0]
The Escapist’s Editor in Chief, Joshua Vanderwall has been playing strategy games of all stripes religiously for more than two decades, and has a particular soft spot for XCOM and its ilk. Notoriously bad at (though still a huge fan of) more action-focused games, making anything turn based gives Joshua an instant morale boost.