We all dream of sitting in the captain's chair, issuing commands and sending our spaceships to explore new worlds or making brilliant tactical maneuvers to destroy the space pirates. Sid Meier's Starships sets out to fulfill those dreams, and it does succeed, but on a smaller scale than I was hoping for.
In Starships, you're in command of a fleet of starships (two, at first) and the galactic federation they're part of. At the beginning of the game, you just have your home planet. Nearby planets have missions for you: escort our ships past these pirates, stop the space crook before he reaches the warp gate, blow up this doomsday weapon before it can destroy our planet. Each mission earns you some of the in-game resources generated by that planet, and also a point of influence with that planet (two if you're the first federation to visit them). If you have four points of influence at a planet, they join your federation.
The core of the game is tactical starship combat, which takes place on a two-dimensional hex map. There's a planet at the center of each map, plus some asteroid fields that make each combat into a sort of maze. Some paths through the asteroids periodically open and close, and some maps have various anomalous factors that affect the fight, like solar wind doing damage every turn or an ion storm increasing the effectiveness of shields. Asteroids block line of sight for most weapons, so you can use cover to your advantage at times.
Combat is turn-based, and each ship gets to move a certain number of spaces (based on the engine upgrades you've purchased), then take an action, which is typically to shoot at some bad guys. But you can also deploy fighters, enter stealth mode, or run a sensor scan if the ship is equipped with those upgrades. You can split your movement before or after your action.
Facing is the most important aspect of combat, since shields are very strong up front but weak at the rear of a ship. This means some battles devolve into you and an enemy ship flying in circles shooting each other in the butt. In the late game, I'd upgraded my weapons enough that a rear shot would destroy almost any enemy, so with a little maneuvering it was easy to win (this was on the moderate difficulty level). A few fast ships with upgraded plasma cannons (powerful short range weapons) are going to be the core of a successful fleet.
There are few wrinkles to tactical combat that make it more interesting. You acquire "battle cards" that you can spend to influence a battle, and once in a while stealth can be relevant. Torpedoes ignore asteroids, but can only be detonated at certain times. I never did significant damage with a torpedo, but they can be used to chase enemies out of cover or force them to use the path you'd prefer them to take. But overall, the tactical combat aspect was only okay.
The strategic level of the game has a bit more depth — you choose which planets to visit and which missions to take. You can upgrade your ships or add new ones to your fleet. You can research tech that makes those upgrades even better, or unlock "Wonders" that give your federation an overall buff. You can add cities to the planets you control, which makes them generate more resources and increases your overall population, helpful in winning the Population victory condition. There are planet upgrades too, the most important being the warp nodes that let you travel between planets without fatiguing your crew.
Upgrading ships is probably the most important thing you'll be doing. When you buy a ship, you just get a generic, non-upgraded ship. You can't plan ahead to buy a battleship or a cruiser. The ship's designation changes based on the upgrades you pick. Light, fast ships with plasma cannons are assault corvettes. Add a ton of armor and shields with long-range lasers and that ship becomes a battleship. The visual representation of the ship changes too (though you can't control this).
There are some really good game mechanics going on with the strategic map. For example, you can visit as many planets and fight as many battles as you want in a single strategic "turn." The limiting factor (aside from running out of the energy resource needed to repair damaged ships) is crew fatigue. As your crew heads turn red, they lose effectiveness. You restore them by granting shore leave, which ends your turn — at that point you collect your resources from planets you control, then the computer federations take their turns. The resource management aspect is fairly rudimentary, but it works and it's easy to understand. I actually think this would make a killer board game, with maybe a few tweaks to keep the tactical combat from bogging the game down.
(Although I know the line across the crew heads is meant to resemble an EKG, it makes it look like your crew is entirely made up of Moe Howard clones).
The second half of the game is less focused on completing missions and more on out-maneuvering and out-battling the other federations. Each turn you'll work to turn planets from the other feds to yours, and if their fleet is nearby, you might have a full-on fleet battle. There's a diplomacy button, but this is basically a wargame. I never used it. The real problem is that you only have one fleet, so there aren't many strategic decisions to be made. If you had to decide to leave some destroyers to protect a key mining planet while you sent most of your ships to raid an enemy outpost, that would add so much depth to the game. But as it stands, you just move your one fleet around the galaxy map turning planets from the enemy colors to your color, turn by turn.
I completed a game on moderate difficulty in about an hour and a half. And while this only a $15 game, it's still hard for me to get excited about playing any more than that. Maybe having Sid Meier's name on the tin creates an expectation of something more grandiose, with more strategic depth. The strength of Starships is that it makes this kind of space battle game easy to grasp — you'll be up and playing within minutes with barely any need for the tutorial. But I definitely felt like I wanted more. It's inexplicable that there's no multiplayer, since being able to play this against my Steam friends would add a whole lot of replayability.
I was really looking forward to this game, but even grading on the curve for it's relatively low price, I have to admit I'm a bit disappointed. Dated graphics, a lack of tactical depth, and no multiplayer leave me wanting more.