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Sid Meier's Starships review: Beyond earth and beautifully bite-sized

Hayden Dingman | March 12, 2015
I wish there were more strategy games of Starships's scope and scale. I love Civilization, I love Total War, I love Europa Universalis IV, but every time I sit down to play one of those games I can practically see sand falling through the hourglass. Cue the crazy time-travel montage where the day/night cycle progressively speeds up and suddenly I wake up and it's three weeks later, there's drool on my chin, my beard is burly and lumberjack-esque, and I've finally--finally--completed a single campaign.

It might sound complicated laid out in words, but it's beautifully simple in practice. Unlike Civilization or Total War, where you might spend hours reading up on various strategies trying to get a handle on the game's inner workings, Starships is immediately accessible. You can pop in, start playing, and within one or two games understand what's going on.

Which is not to say there's no depth to Starships. If Civilization is a game where depth arises from an infinite number of choices, Starships is a game where depth arises because of the rule constraints. With a limited number of systems, you're forced to come up with clever strategies by making do with what you've got.

Research, for instance. In Civilization, the tech tree is always a massive, intimidating mess during your first game. There are so many choices, and you don't really know what any of them do. And what's the best strategy? To take the research penalty and get advanced tech early on, or to diversify early and often?

In Starships, you still research new technologies — but there is no tech tree. There are only ten or so technologies, all available at the start, and each one has an immediate impact on your ship stats. Do you drill down on shield technology, making your shields gradually more efficient? Add better hull armor to your ships?

And your ships have the same levels of customizability, though they draw from a separate pool of funds (energy). Each ship in your fleet can only fire weapons once per turn. Do you use your funds to make lots of small, underpowered ships so you can fire more times per turn? Or do you focus on two or three behemoths, knowing you'll knock out an enemy ship with each shot but you'll also take more damage if battle has to go on longer? Or do you make every ship in your fleet ultra-maneuverable, allowing for guerilla tactics within asteroid fields?

But the best part is, as I said, that you don't need to know any of those answers going in to Starships — most of all because losing isn't quite as painful as it is after you've put thirty hours into a game of Civilization. If you lose in Starhips, there very well might be time for another match the same night. That means you can iterate on your own strategies quickly, getting better at the game by learning from your own mistakes instead of counting on reading other people's mistakes to make you a better player.

It's that couple-of-hours scope and that feeling of personal skill growth in particular that will keep me coming back to Starships. Part of what makes games like League of Legends or Hearthstone so appealing is they present strategy gaming on a small, contained scale. Starships takes the same idea and applies it to the turn-based genre.

 

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