March 12, 2015

Off the Shoulder of Orion - Sid Meier's Starships at First Blush

Sid Meier has been hanging out in different waters these past many years, designing somewhat more streamlined games often intended for mobile platforms (or to go cross-platform). After a relatively mixed reception for Sid Meier's: Beyond Earth (that wasn't the Alpha Centauri successor we were looking for), in which Sid Meier had very little involvement, Sid Meier's Starships was announced - and there was much rejoicing.

Starships released today on PC, Mac, and iPad. Herein follows my very initial impressions after a short while playing on EASY difficulty to figure out what was going on. Note, that I'm playing on my iPad Mini 1st gen, which is the same hardware as iPad2 - so I'm assuming it plays fine on iPad2. Yay!

Let's start at the beginning ...

You pick a human leader that hails from one of the other Civ:BE lost colonies. There were 8 leaders and each provided some special benefit. You could also pick a Civ:BE affinity (1 of 3) that gave an additional bonus of some sort (e.g. a free wonder, extra starting techs, and so on). This was the extent of any Civ:BE connection cross-over that I saw in my time so far.

Leader selection and game setup options

There are four Resource in the game: energy (for upgrading + buying ships), metal (for upgrading your colonies/worlds), food (for building cities, which expands the population of your planets), and science (used for technology upgrades). Planets generate a certain amount of all four of these resources each turn based on the population plus whatever other bonuses the planet has inherently or due to developments you've constructed. Seems to be about 6 or 7 types of developments (although more get unlocked as I go). For technology, there were only about 6 or 7 as well, but each has many levels, and again other tech's appear to unlock. I am not sure yet how big the tech tree is or how many compelling choices it affords.

Technology screen. Oooooo....

You start off at your homeworld and there are starlanes that connect to adjacent star systems where there are other lost colonies. Flying your fleet to a new system gives you a mission prompt, which so far are all some sort of combat mission (that's the point of the game after all). It might be escorting a ship safely to a jump gate, tracking down stealth'ed pirate ships, etc. You can consult with your crew to review the opposition strength and even buy or upgrade ships before combat.

What shall we do my captain?

This latter point is a little weird because if you keep a big pool of energy in reserve, you can tweak your ships with upgrades before entering combat. One mission asked me to track down stealth fighters, and all I had to do was purchase a sensor module on each of my ships before the mission and in I went. I'm hoping on harder difficulty levels you'll need to take advantage of this to have a chance to beat the mission, but if not it's sort of an odd design decision. "Look! Enemy ships inbound! Quick, upgrade all of our armor and weapon systems!"

Tactical shenanigans at 100%

Combat is fairly simple in a turn-based fashion. I think it’s considerably less complex than XCOM (as a point of comparison) since ships don’t have many special abilities or ways of assuming different roles. I didn't see any indication or notice of any mechanics like flanking or overwatch for example. The Torpedo system is cool, where you fire a torpedo that advanced forward each turn until you hit the detonate button, so planning ahead to lock down movement lanes with torpedoes is interesting. Time will tell if the combat gets more complex or nuanced in interesting ways, I can’t tell yet with just the small battles I’ve been having.

Fleet manager and ship designer in one!

It did take me a while to figure out how you "custom design" ships. Basically, you spend energy to add a new ship to your fleet, which comes in as a lowly corvette. Upgrading the hull + armor essentially rebuilds the ship into a heavier one (frigate, destroyer, etc.). There are 8 or so upgradable elements on each ship (engines, shields, armor, lasers, plasma, torpedoes, sensors, stealth, etc.). It works well enough as an abstracted sort of upgrade system - although again there is no requirement to be at a shipyard, and you can even recruit new ships from foreign colonies. This seems strange and wouldn't appear to reward planning ahead (aka strategizing) very well. Plus of these foreign worlds can build their own starships on a whim, why didn't they do so and defend themselves in the first place?


Anyway, as you complete missions you get material rewards or tech rewards (among other things) and some number of influence points with the foreign colony. Once you get four influence points they will join your empire formally. The mission text and static context images are nice enough and give some character to the game. But as everyone is basically human there isn't much diversity in what I've seen so far. Also, if you don't think you can handle a mission, you can just decline and leave the star system with no repercussions. I stumbled on one planet that was a pirate homeworld with 8 billion pirate citizens (WTF) and this giant fleet and I could just turn around and leave to "deal with this later" - which kills a lot of the feeling of tension and risk that could be here.

One thematic inconsistency that jumped out at me is that the intro video talks about waiting millennia for a contact signal from another star systems, yet every freaking star system is populated with people capable of building new starships for you on a whim – which is sort of perplexing and immersion breaking.

Diplomatic relationships - click on someone's mug and you get a bunch of options.

In terms of how “sandbox-y” the game is, there are other empires/starfleets out in the galaxy (depending on how many AI opponents you add to the game) so there is a bit of a diplomatic layer. I haven’t got too far into the diplomatic aspect of the game (I basically made peace with everyone), but I’ve been seeing some of the AI empires fighting amongst themselves already. Victory in the game is territory based but I also noticed victory options for wonders, tech, and diplomacy – so there is a bit of a 4X vibe here, it’s just you only ever have 1 fleet/army flying around, but otherwise have full authority to develop your colonies how you see fit.

All in all, I suppose it remains to be seen how this game plays out. My initial recommendation is cautiously optimistic. This IS a simplified game (limited tech, simple ship upgrade system, simple colony management). This in and of itself is not a bad thing in my opinion. I'd much rather have too simple than too complex for a given amount of depth. So if all these systems manage to come together to make for a strategically tight set of decisions throughout the game, it will be great. My bigger worry is that the design is just not “harsh” enough (destroyed ships can be “repaired” and used again next turn for example, you can always run away, etc.) – and as a result the tough choices we're all looking for won’t really come to the forefront of the gameplay and drive it to interesting destinations.

But again, these are just initial impressions played on the lowest difficulty settings to just figure things out. Expect a deeper look at some unspecified point in the future when I've dug into this more.

Your own personal Hyperlaunch! On sale for $14.99!

That’s all for now! If anyone has questions, fire away!


  1. I quite liked the "8 billion pirates", actually. Even liddle baby pirates =P
    As to a deeper look...I'm afraid that's it. I've gone through it several times, and I think that's it. It's an ipad game; a FUN ipad game, but still an ipad game. Thus the lack of complexity/depth. Which is a pity. And good point on every planet being inhabited by humans. That was a serious oversight. Should have had some empty planets.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I just think that it's unfortunate that a game like this comes along and perpetuates the impression that mobile games can't be complex/deep (or that there isn't an audience for complex/deep mobile games).

      Then again - maybe that was never the point. Maybe the point was to provide a very simple and forgiving game to introduce new gamers to the 4X/strategy genre? I've seen a fair number of people with positive response to the game that genuinely find it compelling and interesting. Maybe it does work for them, and maybe that was the target audience to begin with?

      The issue though, in this case, is that they were charging $15 for something that set up some false expectations about what to ... umm ... expect! Maybe it's a $5-8 dollar game given the amount of content and depth, but certainly not $15.