Sid Meier's Starships is the missing link between Civilization and Beyond Earth

'Warp softly, but carry a big stick.'

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One of the ways to win a game of Civilization is to load up a spaceship with your smartest scientists and blast them off into space. The only way to start a game of Civilization Beyond Earth is to land one of those ships on an uncolonized new planet and start exploring. But what of the interplanetary voyages that happen between and after those two empire-building quests — are they not an experience worth having, a story worth telling? Sid Meier and his legendary Firaxis studio believe so, which is why today sees the release of a new game from the Civilization developer. It's called Starships.

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When I first heard of this game, my immediate reaction was, "Yes! It's Pirates! in space!" All the exclamation marks will tell you that it was an exciting prospect — Pirates! had the ability to make 10-hour gaming sessions feel like mere seconds — but Starships is an altogether different creation. Whereas Pirates! builds up a narrative arc for the player, offers trade arbitrage opportunities between ports, and even simulates the effects of natural water currents in the Caribbean, Starships opts for a resoundingly simplified interface and experience. You get a fleet of ships, you can destroy and protect things with them, and that's pretty much it.

A good example of the overriding simplicity of Starships is provided by the fighter units that can be deployed in the course of a battle. They're as fragile as they are agile, and you could guess that just by their appearance. Once you understand the five core resources in Starships and the ways to obtain and spend them, you're in entirely familiar sci-fi waters. Sometimes cliches are a good thing, and in the case of this game, they make for a highly accessible and intuitive experience.

Simple doesn't have to mean boring, however. Chess is also simple, yet the thrill of outmaneuvering an opponent can be just as palpable on the checkered board as it might be in a pre-scripted set-piece in an adventure game. Like chess, Starships is a turn-based game where calculating the optimal use of your limited resources is key. That may include metals for building planetary structures, energy for upgrading ships, or hit points for surviving a daring fly-by attack on an enemy.

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Every time you decide to buy a new ship, you pay for it out of the same budget with which you upgrade the ships you already have. That poses a strategic challenge: is it preferable to have more targets for enemies to deal with, or just a pair of fully armored destroyers that can withstand head-on collisions? You decide. The game does expect you to have a couple of flagships, mind you, as a few of the missions come with the added twist of preventing you from deploying a full fleet.

The more I played Starships, the more apt its name started to feel. This game really distills the space exploration genre down to the things that relate to the actual vehicles with which space is explored. Okay, so there's no manual steering or direction, but the nuance of ship customization and deployment has a wonderful depth to it. Every new upgrade is visualized by adding bigger and fiercer elements to each vessel, and ships shift in category depending on what you prioritize. You never just buy an Assault Battleship; you craft one by spending lavishly on armor and weaponry and less so on other things like speed and stealth cloaking.

Oh yes, this game has a stealth element, too. As Starships helpfully explains, they can't hit you if you they can't see you, and there's a great cat-and-mouse game to be played at higher difficulty levels by sneaking around under the enemy's radar. Every battle mechanic in the game is balanced, however, so of course there are sensors that can send out a ping and reveal stealthed enemies nearby.

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Starships is a game primarily concerned with the tactics of skirmishes. It is set in the same universe as Beyond Earth, however its inter-faction diplomacy leaves a lot to be desired. Jumping into it, I basically just get a scouting report of my competitors' armadas, their controlled planets, and their latest activities. Scientific research is also much more limited in its impact on the game than in the traditional Civ games. Spending the science resource just gets me beefier shields or more damaging torpedoes. Work I do on the ground at every planet is again channelled directly back into the act of warmongering. Cities are built to expand population and productivity, which is then harnessed to build more and bigger ships.

It's a little disappointing not to see greater strategic depth in Starships. The decisions made outside the hexagonal battle grid all feel tepid and somewhat ineffectual. They help, and are important when facing truly challenging opponents, but there's almost nothing exciting about them. Knocking off an enemy's giant gunship with a sneaky fighter attack, on the other hand, is hugely satisfying when executed correctly.

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So long as you're content with the narrower scope and scale of Starships, it'll be a rewarding experience not unlike its senior siblings. In fact, for many people who might have been put off by the complexity and time requirements of a proper game of Civilization, the more accessible Starships might be the perfect entry point to Firaxis' extensive library of great strategy games. I was victorious in my first game on easy mode within four hours. The price of Starships, available today on the iPad and through Steam for the PC and Mac, is fitting for this purpose at $14.99. It's a thoroughly enjoyable, lightweight alternative to the big complex games like Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen that are coming out now. Space doesn't have to be daunting to be fun.

Polygon Video: Watch 15-minutes of gameplay from Sid Meier's Starships

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