Play this Mac/iOS game: Sid Meier's Starships

Play this Mac/iOS game: Sid Meier's Starships

Set in the same continuity introduced in Sid Meier's Civilizations, Starships emphasizes turn-based tactical combat over civilization building. Though there's some of that too, as you'll see.

The Good

  • Bite sized fun
  • Plays great on most Macs
  • Combination of empire-building and tactical combat

The Bad

  • Lacks the depth of Civilization games
  • Missions get repetitive
  • No multiplayer support

Sid Meier, for the uninitiated, is a legendary video game designer responsible for creating the popular Civilization game series. Last year Meier made a big splash with the latest Civ-branded game, Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth. Now he's back with a game that uses the same setting, to very different ends: Sid Meier's Starships.

Mankind has fled the ruins of old Earth and has populated habitable systems throughout the galaxy. The human diaspora left each colony on its own for centuries, however. Humans have evolved different styles of government, different priorities and different abilities. They come together in the setting of Starships, and old conflicts are renewed.

Starting the game, you choose from three "Affinities:" Supremacy, Harmony or Purity. Each Affinity provides you with a racial bonus: Tech and science, cheap repairs, or doubled resource rewards, respectively. You also choose a Leader, a hero who also provides a bonus for your empire. You can select map size, how many computer-controlled opponents you'll face and victory conditions. As a wild card, there are also "marauders," pirates who meddle in the affairs of local worlds and generally cause mayhem and destruction.

The game starts with a system map. Each turn has two parts: managing your interstellar superpower's resources, and actual tactical combat involving your space fleet. The number of turns your fleet can move depends on how exhausted the crew is; when the fatigue gauge is all red, you need to get them on shore leave or they'll let you down in a pinch.

With each turn you can research new technology, improve planetary resources, buy influence and adjust your diplomatic standing with other factions. There are four resources to manage: Energy, Metals, Science and Food. You can build new cities on planets to increase the output of these resources, and some planets will give you a bonus: Earth-like biomes, for example, may produce a food bonus, while arid biomes give you a metals bonus.

Each resource has to be managed carefully to cultivate the growth and health of your superpower: Food determines how many cities you can develop; Science pushes your technology forward; Metals are used for improvements to resource harvesting, planetary defense and quick interstellar travel; Energy is necessary for the development, repair and reinforcement of your fleet.

The civilization-building end of this game is really just resource management. It lacks the incredible depth and expanse of Beyond Earth and other Civ-branded games. It's easy enough to get the hang of within a game or two. The real fun of Starships is, of course, in fleet battles.

You start out with a small fleet of ships and can grow it as your Energy resource allows. You can add new ships or pile on additional features like shields, weapons, fighters, improved engines and more.

Combat with enemy fleets plays out on a hex-based playfield rendered in isometric (three-quarters) perspective. If there's a conceptual flaw to Starships its that real starships wouldn't be limited to 2D combat — a conceit used to full effect in classic PC and Mac games like Homeworld. This isn't a AAA-list game, though, as evidenced by its $15 price tag on both Mac and iOS, so I'll cut it some slack.

Battle conditions vary from map to map: You may find yourself in a constantly-shifting asteroid field, for example. Red vortices called Jump Gates transport you between different parts of the map (great when you're on the run from an enemy attack). Mission-specific goals including escorting ships through treacherous space lanes, lasting a specific number of turns, or eliminating enemy fleets all together.

After you've played the gave for a couple of hours you'll start to see the same type of mission pop up. I'll be curious to see if Starships is popular enough to merit the development of downloadable content or sequels to help expand that.

You have torpedoes, plasma weapons and lasers at your disposal. Torpedoes are slow-moving (just like the puck in hockey, you have to figure out where the enemy ship will be, not where it is). Plasma weapons are short-range but incredibly destructive; lasers are long-range but require line of sight to the target. If you've outfitted your ships with fighter squadrons, they come in fast, blast the enemy with lots of damage, then get out again, but they're very fragile.

Starships is a single-player game, though your score is tracked for worldwide leaderboards. The amount of challenge you're going to get is directly proportional to the difficulty setting you select at the start of the game. Starships plays equally well on my iPad and my Mac. The screenshots in this article are from the iPad version.

One quibble: You can only have one game in progress. Your choices are either to continue the game you've already started or play a new one. There's no way to save multiple games.

The Bottom Line

Starships is easy to get the hang of and fun to play. It doesn't have a remarkable amount of depth, but it doesn't need it, either. What's here will keep you busy for hours.

In addition to the links below, you can buy it from Steam. Steam games can be played on either Mac or PC and include achievements you can brag about to other Steam players.

Sid Meier's Starships for Mac

Sid Meier's Starships for iOS

Peter Cohen