This spring, one of the greatest computer game designers of all time will launch a spiritual successor to Civilization: Beyond Earth. Oddly enough, it plays very much like a lavish tabletop wargame.
Nearly every game begins life with a rough mockup called a prototype. Some take shape digitally and use placeholder art, but the team at Firaxis Games has been known to do testing with physical board games in the past. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was no exception. During its development, designer Jake Solomon and Sid Meier himself hammered out the details of the underlying engine with little more than a handful of cards and some colorful cardboard chits.
Sid Meier's Starships seems heavily influenced by this kind of tabletop play. This early version feels like an elaborate and satisfying tactical miniatures game, one that builds on the vocabulary of themes and mechanics already well known to players of past Civilization games. Headed to Windows PC, Mac and iOS devices this spring for $14.99, the small slice of Starships shared with the press last week wasn't very long — just a handful of turns — but the game appears to be loaded with subtlety and action.
Starships shares the same universe as Civilization: Beyond Earth
Based in the same universe as Civilization: Beyond Earth, it also seems to share that game's ability to draw players in for "just one more turn."
In the fiction of the game's universe, more than a thousand years have passed since your people reached an age of peace and prosperity. Your astronomers have recently found evidence of other, human-like civilizations among the stars and your society has rallied around a project to build starships in order to visit them.
Players first choose an affinity: Supremacy, Harmony or Purity. Players of Beyond Earth will already be familiar with them, but in short, affinities give your civilization an ideology, whether peaceful, warlike or somewhere in between. Additionally, one of eight leaders gives your people additional bonuses like improved combat abilities or enhanced resource production.
The game proper begins when players are given control of a single fleet of starships, which they'll use to investigate neighboring planets. When your fleet arrives in orbit around a new system, a mission card is displayed. The inhabitants of the planet have trouble on their hands, be it a wayward artificial intelligence wreaking havoc or a group of raiding marauders. The game then shifts from the strategic map to an image of your flagship's bridge, with your officers standing at the ready to provide you with information.
Here you can see in detail what you'll be up against, with individual crew members relaying information about the enemy forces arrayed against you. You'll also be given the opportunity to upgrade your fleet just before you enter battle, giving you a chance to adapt your forces on the fly.
There is an impressive amount of customization
There is an impressive amount of customization available. Players must upgrade engines, shields and armor to find the right balance between speed and strength. Lasers provide long-range offensive capabilities, while cannons do damage up close. There are also sensors for detecting the enemy, and stealth modules to hide your own ships. Fighter bays allow you to launch wings of fragile, yet deadly attack craft. Torpedoes travel for several turns, and must be detonated manually when near their target.
By tweaking these systems, players can build many different classes of starship. I was able to create slow, hulking frigates capable of slamming headlong into the enemy and doing massive damage at close range. Alternately, I built a few fast-moving aircraft carriers capable of darting behind the enemy and launching deadly fighter attacks on their rear. Being able to adjust my ship's capabilities before every battle meant that I always had options for how to deal with a given situation, so long as I had enough resources.
Combat takes place with three-dimensional craft moving over a two-dimensional hex grid. It looks every bit like an expensive, collectible miniatures game, but plays out much faster.
Even in this small demo, the variety of missions was exciting to see. Once, my task was to secure three orbital sentry stations from marauder attack. With only two capital ships, it was a cat-and-mouse game, with me chasing nimble fighters and heavily armed frigates from point to point. In another mission, I had to stop a single thief from leaving the system with secret documents. I used a volley of torpedoes to funnel him toward my fast-attack ships, trapped him in an asteroid field and gunned him down. In yet another I found myself in a pitched battle against a superior force, and had to scatter my fleet using jump gates while my fighters launched risky hit-and-run attacks on the enemy's flanks.
Every engagement felt unique, and the generous maneuverability of even the largest ships meant that combat rarely bogged down and become a war of attrition.
When missions are completed, the population of a given system is brought partially under your civilization's sphere of influence. By letting your crew off to rest and recuperate, or simply buying favor with cash, you can eventually bring that system into your empire. As your empire grows, so does your ability to make your fleet larger and more deadly.
Starships will be particularly enticing on iOS. While its low-poly art style and use of matte paintings over in-engine cutscenes is sure to turn off some players, as far as strategic gameplay goes, she's got it where it counts.
Correction: Sid Meier's Starships does not feature a multiplayer component, and will be single player only. We've corrected our article to reflect that.