Sid Meier’s Starships: Review

In recent years, the notion of interacting with your favourite game universe via a variety of means has become increasingly popular. Companion apps, comic books and free-to-play spin-offs for a number of high-profile titles have all been used to varying degrees of success.

Sid Meier’s Starships is one such proposition. 2K is keen to promote its ties to the recently released Civilization: Beyond Earth but while it also appears on PC and Mac, it has clearly been built from the ground up as a fully-functioning iPad title and a number of design decisions fully embrace the notion of pick-up-and-play gaming on the go. As such, despite being set in the same universe and sharing a number of superficial thematic ties with Firaxis’ 4X phenomenon it actually suffers from the association, finding itself cast very much in the shadow of its parent-franchise rather than standing proudly alongside it. In fact, with its breezy, turn-based battles and basic unit upgrades it’s most appropriately compared to Sid Meier’s recent dogfighter, Ace Patrol, than the life-sucking Civ series.

The action in Starships is split between two planes. The first is the galaxy map, where Starships establishes visual kinship with Civilization through the use of territories consisting of hexagonal tiles. At the centre of each cluster of hexagons is a planet that yields varying amounts of key resources, which are automatically collected at the start of every turn. Establishing cities and basic space-age improvements on these planets bolsters the yield of the resources provided, with each resource fulfilling a specific role as currency (see Living in a Material World box out). This simplification of resource management and a lack of longer term interconnected economies is indicative of the streamlined systems at play in Starships. In all cases, resources are required to improve the efficiency and strength of your galactic empire rather than serving as an expression of the kind of empire you want to create.

Expanding that empire to a winning mass of fifty-one percent is the most straightforward of the four victory conditions and is achieved by gaining influence over neighbouring planets. This is accomplished by visiting planets with your fleet and successfully completing missions for them, which always involve engaging in combat. Despite boasting names like The Galway Apparition, The Palatine Fallacy or The Galation Problem the missions fall into a handful of basic types that include destroying the enemy fleet, protecting an allied transport or seizing and holding several control points.
Missions begin with a briefing of the objectives and an assessment of the enemy fleet in the area. At this point, it’s possible to make modifications to your fleet of starships or add an additional ship to your armada. Outfitting your ships with lasers or plasma cannons determines whether they will excel at long-range or close-quarters combat, while balancing engine power with shield coverage and armour value will result either in a heavily defended ship or a lightly armoured and swifter craft. Final tweaks to sensors, stealth devices and a deployable fighter unit round out the customisation options and, typically, you’re best served by having a range of starships under your command in order to respond to whatever the enemy fleet may throw your way.

For the most part, that amounts to little in the way of resistance, at least not on the regular difficulty level where you can regularly defy the low-percentage chance of success that your pessimistic combat advisor suggests you have. However, up the difficulty level and increase the map size and battles start to become much more closely contested games of galactic chess, where it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice one of your units to secure a hard- won overall victory.

These battles play out on Starships’ second plane of play, the tactical map, which is also divided into hexagonal spaces and strewn with a collection of space debris, such as asteroids that can be used as cover to jump gates that transport your craft to another randomly selected position on the map. Line of sight and vulnerable flanking positions necessitate intelligent ship positioning to capitalise on canny predictions of where the enemy is likely to try to strike next. There are also randomly assigned battle cards, which can be used to confer a particular bonus once per battle, such as additional movement or more effective weapon fire.

Success in battle wins a degree of influence over the planet that issued the mission and so it’s possible for several leaders to have a stake in a single planet, each drawing a proportion of its resources each turn. However, as a population victory is achieved by securing fifty-one percent of the galaxy’s population, the larger planets are usually the most fiercely contested and valuable. It’s possible to win through by other means, such as destroying the rival leaders or trading the science resource for half a dozen high-level techs, but as the best way to accomplish anything is by completing missions to claim rewards and amass resources, the population victory often becomes the path of least resistance.

Outside of all of those hexagons, Starships borrows a selection of leaders and affinities that loosely ape those found in Beyond Earth  but ultimately boil down to choosing one bonus over another rather than meaningfully informing the way you play. Starships is a reasonably enjoyable experience in its own right, whose relatively swift pace can see games last hours rather than days and whose bite-sized missions perfectly suit iPad play. Played in bed or on the train it offers a fun diversion but for those sitting down in front of a PC or Mac, its Civilization trappings make it hard to recommend over the far more accomplished Beyond Earth.


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