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Sid Meier on how Starships was designed to encourage players to channel their inner admiral

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

There are many different branches on the science fiction tree, a fact that famed game designer Sid Meier knows just as well as anyone. The trouble is, not all of those branches are easy for the average player to understand.

"The danger with a space game," Meier told Polygon last week during the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, "is that you kind of have to learn a whole new set of rules that don't make any sense to you until the designer tries to explain them. 'Well, in my game there's eight dimensions, light travels in a curved path,' and oh jeez, it's painful."

So in designing his upcoming game Starships, a tactical space combat game for iOS, Mac and Windows PC set in the same universe as Civilization: Beyond Earth, Meier steered clear of "hard" science fiction and "weird" science fiction, two branches which more than ever seem to be growing together.

Instead, he aimed for a more populist kind of science fiction, one that was more Star Wars than Interstellar, less Vernor Vinge than Captain Kirk.

Sid Meier's Starships screenshots

"In our game ... you can play without having to absorb a bunch of non-intuitive rules. I think the game we tried to make was about fairly intuitive gameplay, and then you can project your own strategy and tactics onto those rules. But the rules aren’t ones that are hard to understand. They're fairly intuitive."

Take for instance one of Starships' biggest features, the asteroid fields that make up the game's tactical maps. These asteroids don't behave the same way that real asteroids do in our galaxy, but they do tend to behave the way science fiction fans expect them to from their experience with other space operas; they're rocky bits hurtling through space that get in the way of big spaceships. Think Darth Vader's massive battleship chasing the Millenium Falcon away from Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.

By invoking that image of asteroids, Meier and his team at Firaxis are cleverly leaning on what their audience thinks it knows about asteroids to solve a specific design problem in their game.

"There was a problem [early in the development of Starships] because there’s no maps in space," Meier said. "We love maps at Firaxis. Maps just bring so much automatically to your game; a sense of space, a sense of having to find a path, a sense of cover and lurking and danger, and being able to be aggressive or being able to be cautious in a very intuitive way.

"So we had to invent one [a map]. ... What in space would kind of create this feeling of having to find paths and places to hide and things like that? We said, well what about a bunch of asteroids?"

That creative leap opened up many more design possibilities for his team than they had initially expected, and contributed to the game's unique tactical encounters.

Sid Meier's Starships screenshots

"Maybe the asteroids can move sometimes, or maybe there are passages that are sometimes open and sometimes closed, and maybe there are these jump gates where if you go in one you’re going to randomly pop out at a different one! What we were looking for was all the cool stuff that maps bring to tactics, while combining that with some things you can only do in a space-themed game.

"But the asteroids are an invention of ours. That’s the great thing about science fiction. You can kind of invent whatever you want."

"Who's having the most fun in this world, and what are they doing?"

Other features of the game came and went during the development cycle. Meier said that an early version of Starships was even real-time, but the idea had to be scrapped.

"The first combat system was more of a real-time, more clicking," he said. "What we found was that’s probably fine for one starship, but if you really want to kind of get into controlling multiple starships and having them have different characteristics and things like that, then turn-based actually gave you the ability to feel that you’re kind of in control and planning, as opposed to out of control and reacting.

"So the question that we always start with is ... who’s having the most fun in that world and what is that person doing? What's the reason they're having all that fun? So we kind of looked at the idea of Starships and said, well being the commander of a fleet of starships would be cool."

Starships launches on March 12.