I can’t think about Sid Meier’s Starships, Firaxis Games’ latest game of sci-fi strategy and tactics, without thinking of the modern myth of planetary escape.
The myth normally goes like this: Things on our home planet get bad. Really bad. Thankfully for us, we’re not stuck here. The universe is massive and it is ours to conquer. “We’re not meant to save the world,” says Professor John Brand (Michael Caine) in Interstellar, “We’re meant to leave it.” Brand echoes dozens of other futurists, real and fictional. He’s Ray Kurzweil, with his dream of interstellar transhumanism. He’s Mobile Suit Gundam’s Zeon Zum Deikun, with his philosophy of “spacenoid” supremacy. He’s Zefram Cochrane, inventor of the warp drive in Star Trek: First Contact. He’s the Mars One program. And he is, of course, the science victory in Firaxis’ Sid Meier’s Civilization series: Build the space ship, set off into the stars, and leave the soil behind.
The problem with this myth is that it promises us that in leaving Earth, we’ll escape our problems, too. And hey, don’t worry, the way to the stars is to double down on industry, technology, and (in our contemporary moment) the private sector. It is an empty ideology that assures us that if we just stay the course, we’ll be fine. Even if that means ignoring real, material problems. Even if that means destroying our home in the process.
What makes Firaxis’ (and Meier’s) output so interesting is that they aren’t content to leave the “escape to the stars” myth alone. With 1999’s Alpha Centauri and last year’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, they complicate (and ground, literally) the happy ending of that story by reminding us that wherever we find ourselves in this vast galaxy, there will still be conflict, scarcity and struggle. There may be Beyond Earth, but there’s no beyond history.
Sid Meier’s Starships takes a different route in subverting this myth. In Starships, you play as a society that has chosen to deal with its earthly (or Canis Majoris 39-ly) problems instead of fleeing from them. It’s only when scientists receive and decode a galactic cry for help that your civilization turns to the stars, eager to aid those in need. If Beyond Earth argues that we’ll find conflict no matter where we’ll go, Starships argues that on a long enough timeline, conflict will find us (and disrupt our utopia in the process.)
In Starships, that conflict centers around who controls the galaxy’s resources. Starships keeps things abstract: “Energy” and “Science” are used to build and upgrade your ships; “Food” pays for new cities; “Metals” let you develop game-changing Wonders and other planetary improvements. Getting access to these resources leads to victory, and as in Civilization, victory can come in a handful of forms: Control 51% of the galactic population, eliminate every other opponent from the map, fully develop three of the nine available technological research paths, or develop seven “Wonders.” Whichever path you pursue, each victory condition revolves around the accumulation of these resources. The same could be said for Civilization, of course, but three major things differentiate Starships from its earthly predecessors.
First, these resources are not simply strewn around, ready and waiting for your manifest destiny to lead you to them. Instead: they exist on already-inhabited planets, spread as nodes across a galactic map, with the occasional asteroid field or empty space sector to break them up. But you aren’t out to conquer these worlds—not exactly. Instead, you (and your opponents, the other starfaring races of the galaxy) compete for the attention, loyalty and resources of these planets.
If you’re first to find a planet, you get a point of influence, and you gain the ability to see every adjacent star sector. If you help that same planet out by defeating a local band of space pirates or bringing a rogue space station under control, take another point, and begin to receive 50% of that planet’s resource production. You could buy a third point with credits, at which point you’d receive 100% of those resources. And if you end a turn while parked on a planet, gain another influence point. If that’s your fourth point, then the planet enters into the player’s federation, letting you develop its latent Wonder and defend it with your military power.
That military power is the second major difference from Civilization, or even from other space-based games in the 4X genre. While these other games put you in charge of a bunch of different military units, each able to explore and battle on their own, in Starships you command only a single military unit. That unit starts as a small fleet of two ships, but can increase to an armada of eight (each of which could itself house up to eight fighter units). You slide this single fleet across the map like a board game piece, hopping from node to node, picking up influence and resources, and engaging in combat missions.
Combat in Starships occurs on a separate map that represents the space immediately around each planet. You individually move each ship in your fleet and then perform one action with it (like attacking, cloaking or launching fighters), before handing control over to your opponent once you’ve finished with each of your ships. Each of these ships is composed of nine “modules”—engines, shields, armor, lasers, cannons, stealth, sensors, and fighters. Starships uses these to evoke every old trope of the naval-style of sci-fi space combat, and in the process it produces tactical battles that are accessible and fun. Ships have strong shields in the front, and are weaker on the side and rear. Heavy armor slows things down and massive engines speed things back up. A torpedo cuts across the dark over multiple turns, dividing your fleet in half as they flee from its explosive payload. Ships snipe at each other with long range lasers, and devastate each other with short range plasma cannons. Cloaking is countered through actively searching the area with your scanners, or through proximity (but by then, it’s probably too late). It all makes sense because you’ve seen it all before. This is a good thing.
Though most of these combat missions revolve around destroying an enemy fleet, there is some variety: A race to a jumpgate; the presence of an enemy doomsday device; an Alamo-style “hold the fort” mission. And even when the battles are just capital ship slug-fests, there’s always some interesting modifier based on the qualities of the planets themselves. Some battlefields have large asteroid fields, with opening-and-closing pathways through the debris. Other planets are under the effect of strange magnetic fields, solar flares, or other stellar phenomena that reduce or enhance certain modules. Sometimes these variables are small—a little boost in damage, for instance. Other times, they fundamentally change the rules of play: What do you do when a solar wind keeps the bulk of your fleet from traveling to the east of the map, where your flagship sits vulnerable, desperate for reinforcements?
Despite all these variables, Starships never really overwhelms. It helps that the game is designed to be simple, clean and transparent. And this is the third way that it differentiates itself from Civilization titles. Don’t misread this as a shot at Civ for being obtuse. It’s just that Starships really is that much simpler.
There aren’t dozens of different types of “laser” module. Each module in a ship is just rated from 0-8. So it’s easy to (at a glance) determine the makeup of an enemy fleet, or to examine your own vessels and decide where you could improve. This clarity carries into combat too: Starships always tells you exactly how much damage an attack will do before you commit. Though there’s always a chance of critically damaging one of an enemy ship’s modules, even this can be reliably predicted. Are you doing more than half a ship’s damage in a single shot? Chances are you’ll crit.
Between its transparent combat system and the modular ship design, Starships offers the player the confidence necessary to try interesting tactical maneuvers and the flexibility to experiment with fleet construction. Take a minute before combat to peak at the enemy fleet composition (“Okay, three of those ships have really good cannons, but their engines are weak…”) then adjust your fleet to adjust for it (“I know. I’ll boost my long range lasers, and add a fighter wing to distract them if they get too close!”) It allows for decision making that is both active and reactive, and it all happens at a quick, digestible pace.
This devotion to simplicity extends beyond the tactical combat (though often in ways that reach back around to affect those battles.) You build your faction by choosing one of three affinities and one of eight leaders. Both choices give a simple bonus like a free Wonder, an extra starting ship, or bonus production. Civil development is straightforward, too: Spend the resource, get the improvement. That’s it. Similarly, Starships doesn’t have the long, complicated research trees (or webs, or networks, or whatever) of other 4X games. Instead, it has nine science projects to invest in—one for each ship module. And (surprise) each of the game’s Wonders also directly affects combat, though always in interesting, strategy-changing ways. Assimilate a planet with the “Convergent Light” Wonder, which reduces the damage drop-off on your lasers, and you’ll be incentivized to build super long range laser-boats.
There is a downside to all of this simplicity and abstraction, though. Starships feels slight. Brilliant, but unfinished, like a prototype slipped away in the night. A purring engine in an unpainted car.
Many of the same qualities that make Starships approachable also make it feel empty. Struggling over planetary influence is great, but the planets (and their populations) have no character. Neither do, well, the characters. They have portraits and a handful of sound clips, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about these affinities or leaders. Even at the highest difficulty, I never really had to pay much attention to the strengths or weaknesses of enemy factions. It doesn’t help that diplomacy in Starships is nearly hollow. Perhaps the only interesting thing about faction interaction (beyond combat) is that an enemy will occasionally offer you an immediate payout if you stop contesting their control over a non-assimilated planet. But even this lacks any narrative oomph.
This is, it turns out, a secret of the best 4X games: They lets us bridge the gap between systems and stories. They let us consider both the large, mechanical collisions of international politics, war, or policy and they zoom in on that personal moment: Why did you push the “Launch” button? Why did you sign the treaty? Which city was your favorite? When were you sure you’d betray your ally? How did it feel when your national anthem played?
In the best 4X and strategy games, these questions bubble up from the crosscurrents of the strategic, tactical and aesthetic. There is, in our cultural space, the tempting notion that well designed systems can be enough, or even that they can save us. But I worry that this is just another myth of technological escape, another starship we hitch our wagon to. The reality is that “systems” alone often fail to speak to our most interesting, most human dilemmas. The best games blend these, addressing both structure and character with force. Smart combat design builds on interesting strategic decision making, and both are supported by flavorful writing, evocative art, disruptive quest or mission requirements, and other material that complicates and colors.
The simplest thing can be transformed this way: Competing sci-fi 4X game Endless Space has a faction that’s focused on high populations and the duplication of hero units. Neat enough. Oh, did I mention that they’re called “The Horatio,” because each member of the empire is a clone of a narcissistic space entrepreneur named Horatio? Yeah. Suddenly the mechanics move with a living verve.
There is a bit of this in Starships, here and there. It’s there when you upgrade your ships, and the module is plopped on with a satisfying clank. It looks (as a friend said) like a little tinker-toy, and you can just imagine the ship’s crew beaming with pride under the warm light of their new engines. And it’s there in the game’s “Crew Effectiveness” mechanic: Your crew grows tired as you explore the galaxy, and their efficacy in combat diminishes until you decide to give them shore leave, ending your turn. Or… you could push them a step further, send them to one more system. Have them disrupt the plans of both the Eternal Kingdom and the Galactic Alliance, who are bickering over Cygni 91. Moments like this sing. It’s a more complex vision of “galactic” (that is, international) conflict: Not between powers competing over a pure frontier, but for a world filled with people who need to be courted.
But I need to be courted too. And a little more flash, or a little more flavor, or a little more character, or a little more… something would go a long way in wooing me.
Failing to have that something is the same thing that plagued Civilization: Beyond Earth last year. While Alpha Centauri quickly hit “classic” status all those years ago, Beyond Earth failed to capture the same enthusiasm. It lacked the unique character of Alpha Centauri and struggled to differentiate itself from Civlization V, its most direct predecessor.
And I can’t help but wonder if—despite the fact that they’ve subverted the trope of “planetary escape”—Firaxis imagines Starships itself could be their escape vessel from the ruined world of Beyond Earth. I say this because Firaxis plans to integrate some sort of “cross connectivity” between Starships and Beyond Earth later this year. But as with the myth, fleeing to the stars cannot fix truly fundamental problems. I’m skeptical that something so dispassionate could ever launch Beyond Earth to greater heights.
Considered on its own, Starships is a little tactical treat. Give it a few hours of your day and you’ll be lifted by its modular pieces and its battlefield puzzles. But do not linger: It simply does not have the strength to punch through gravity and carry you to the stars.
Austin Walker is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labor and culture. He writes about games at @austin_walker and at Clockwork Worlds.