Even today, it's rare to see a developer's name affixed to a video game title. There are a lot of reasons for that, depending on which period we look at, but one of the bigger exceptions to that is the name of Sid Meier. I'm not sure how or why his name ended up in the title of Sid Meier's Pirates! [$2.99], but it might have simply been to help make the somewhat generic title more unique. The game was a massive hit, and while publishers generally don't like to canonize developers, they'll make an exception for just about any rule if the money looks right. So it is that after just a few more games, nearly every game Sid Meier had a hand in, and a few that he didn't, carried his name. It's an odd outcome for someone who seems to be a relatively low-key guy. The problem with his name becoming a brand, however, is that you can't be too sure with any given release just how much of the game is Sid Meier the designer versus Sid Meier the marketing tag.

There's no question of that this time. Sid Meier's Starships [$2.99 (HD)] has the veteran game designer's fingerprints all over it. At its core, this is essentially a mash-up of Sid Meier's Ace Patrol [Free] and Civilization Revolution [$2.99], games that are both quite familiar to iOS strategy fans. Its design leans more heavily on the former than the latter, but those who found Ace Patrol to be just a bit too slimmed down will probably find Starships more to their liking. Though this takes place in the same setting as Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth, don't expect complexity on that level. You commandeer a small fleet of ships, traveling through the stars to different planets. Every planet has some problems they need you to solve, and by doing so, you increase your affinity with them. Help them out enough and they'll join your federation, increasing your available resources and inching you ever-closer to victory. Of course, your rivals are trying to do the same, and while you can make peace treaties with them, you're not going to be able to win if you make friends with everyone.

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Along the way, you can spend your resources improving your fleet of ships. You can use energy to buy new ships and power-up their weapons, armor, and special moves. You can use science points to research new technologies that convey various benefits to your entire fleet. There are even wonders to build, in fine Civilization tradition, though they too tend to serve the sole purpose of powering up your fleet. You can also build cities on any planets you've occupied, but the main point of that is to increase resource production so that you can, you guessed it, make your fleet stronger. While the game certainly seems to be pushing you towards the route of destroying your opponents, you can win in other ways. Just like Civilization, you can win by advancing your technology far enough, building a certain number of wonders, ruling a majority of the population, or that whole destroying everyone else thing if you've really got your heart set on it. Whichever way you choose to win, there's going to be a lot of fighting, though.

The battles are instantly familiar if you've played Ace Patrol. Sure, it's in space, and you can't pull off any fancy dogfighting moves, but your ships have some special tricks of their own. Plus, since space has a lot of stuff in it, you can actually take cover during battles here. There are different weapons for long- and close-range, a cloaking ability that completely blows the AI's mind even on the highest difficulty, sensor scans for detecting cloaked enemies, and torpedoes that are also pretty good for breaking the game once you get the hang of them. While you typically play the battles from an overhead perspective, the camera pans and zooms whenever you take a shot so that you can get a more cinematic look at your sweet Kirk skills. If you haven't played Ace Patrol, you can expect fairly typical turn-based strategy combat here. You move all of your ships, then the enemy gets to go, and so on. Different missions will have different goals, including escort missions, survival for a set number of turns, sending you after a particular target, and so on. The maps are fairly large, and there are interesting features like wormholes that send you around to another spot instantly.

A single-player strategy game is only as good as its AI, though. That's one area where Starships could use a bit of help. While the AI is competent enough outside of combat, it's a whole other matter in the battles themselves. As mentioned, the computer really has no idea what to do with stealth for most of each game. It almost never makes proper use of its sensors, so if you want an easy win, just pour everything into stealth. The computer also has issues with torpedoes, and a well-placed volley of them in your first turn can often get you more than halfway home in one fell swoop. These problems persist regardless of the difficulty level you choose, so unless you intentionally limit yourself, a lot of the fun of the game will be spoiled. It's still engaging enough and cool to look at, but strategy veterans are going to chew this game up and spit it out fast.

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With that relatively major flaw in mind, I still like Sid Meier's Starships an awful lot. In fact, I think it's my favorite Sid Meier title available on the App Store. The theme really hits home for me, even though it's essentially just Civ In Space, and while the AI has holes big enough to drive a starship through, there's nevertheless a certain pleasure to be had in the rhythm of the gameplay. Building up your fleet both in quantity and power is a lot of fun. Each upgrade adds a little to how the ships look, so you get a very tangible feeling of becoming more powerful. The random nature of the maps means the game is a little different each time you play, and the presentation is simply excellent aside from little quirks like background objects showing through foreground objects during the cinematic cuts. It's the kind of game you could easily curl up in your chair with and lose track of hours. Challenging AI or not, that's a great thing to be able to say about a game.

If you enjoyed the battles in Ace Patrol but wish there was a bit more to chew on between fights, you'll probably enjoy Sid Meier's Starships an awful lot. It's also an easy recommendation to anyone looking for an accessible strategy game with a sci-fi theme. For whatever reason, space sims tend to be among the most complex examples of the genre, and that can be intimidating for a lot of people. Starships is about as friendly as a strategy game can get. The game will practically play itself if you keep asking for hints. However, it also has just enough depth to it to keep you coming back for a while, trying out all of the different variables and going after all the different victory conditions. Veteran strategy fans with hardcore tastes will probably find the game a bit too light, though, and the lack of multiplayer and flawed AI keep it from being all that it might have been. Even with its failings, I still think it's a good game that may not live up to the highest standards of Sid Meier's name, but certainly doesn't tarnish it.

TouchArcade Rating

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  • http://jesse-dylan.livejournal.com Jesse_Dylan

    I hate to be one of those people who say the iPad has dumbed-down gaming, but in this case... I can't help but wonder what kind of game this would have been if it had been designed as a PC game. I think it works okay on iPad, but I am used to games like FTL and Banner Saga, full-featured PC games that are frankly even better on iPad. This just seems like something designed as a "mobile game."

    • http://jesse-dylan.livejournal.com Jesse_Dylan

      The battles are a lot of fun, though!

    • curtisrshideler

      Wish it was even more mobile and available to play on the iPhone.

      • http://jesse-dylan.livejournal.com Jesse_Dylan

        I wonder why they didn't. Is it just too much to fit on a smaller screen? Seems like it should work fine.

    • Jon Smith

      Too funny, this game was obviously designed for the iPad but because I just bought an awesome new Dell Venue 11 Pro I decided to buy it for Windows and while the game is fun it does not feel like there is enough content for a PC game and is VERY VERY VERY buggy.

      • http://jesse-dylan.livejournal.com Jesse_Dylan

        Yeah, it's a shame! I also think it feels a little shallow "even on iPad" though. I don't think poor iPad should get short shrift. Again, with games like Banner Saga, FTL, Avadon, Avernum, X-COM on iPad, it seems silly to expect that iPad versions can be less full-featured. Then again I guess there is typically a large price difference, but the App Store (for better or worse) is built on selling cheap and in high volume.

      • Saucepolicy

        You mistake complexity as being inherently better and assume it's been "dumbed down" for a mobile audience. Sure, they could have made the game more complex, that was not their design intent. Not every strategy game needs to be a 100 hour slog through endless tech trees. That's it. There's no conspiracy theory, they made the game they wanted to make. It's too shallow for you and that's perfectly acceptable, but move on.

      • Baracus

        He didn't say "complex". He said full-featured. Doesn't have to be more complex just because it has more features. That's where the genius of one of the worlds best video game designers should have come into play. But I know what you mean. Anyway the real issue is that, in SIDS' own words, it was designed for maximum replayability. That doesn't feel the case to me because the balance is off between a lot of its component parts, and what with the "bug" that you cannot stop AI from getting to 51% victory, even if you TRY another victory route the game is cut short. All roads lead to 90% the same gameplay. That's my thing you see, I totally KNOW it wasn't going to be a super deep or complex game, and I was still super excited for it. It's exactly what I wanted to play BUT it just doesn't flow like I think it should. There's nothing left to discover and little sense of ownership of your "empire" during a game.

      • http://jesse-dylan.livejournal.com Jesse_Dylan

        No need to get all hot and bothered. How do you explain the descrepancy between the glowing iPad version reviews and the tepid PC version reviews if that's the case?

      • eugenemcardle

        Except this one cost more on iOS than PC, at least in Australia

      • anabolicMike

        It's buggy? The PC version? Or the iPad? I haven't had a problem with my iPad mini. I like this game. If it had way more starship customization it would be wild. Like the customization in adventures in weird space or that gratuitous space battles! If it had that level of customization I'd delete all my other games lol

      • Jon Smith

        anabolicMike,

        I have the PC version though I also have an iPad but I will not buy the game twice. The bugs include the game crashing often, one minute you are playing and the next you are looking at your desktop. The victory conditions setting doesn't actually change anything so the AI can win by meeting any of the conditions even though you've set it to a specific condition. When you do close out of the game purposefully Windows thinks the game crashed even though Windows does not when the game actually does crash. Every once in awhile the games resolution gets messed displaying at a much lower resolution than the graphics are actually set to so options in game are cut off or missing and the cursor is off where you are actually trying to click. Oh and even though the game specifically has the option to play with touch screen controls in Windows they do not work.

        These bugs have happened on both my custom built Windows 7 gaming PC as well as my Dell Venue 11 Pro Core M Windows 8 tablet so it is a problem with the game not something specific to a machine.

    • YaoYao

      I agree, I considered picking this up for my PC but the reviews are pretty painful. It was a mobile game ported to PC, without doing much of anything to account for the difference in platform.

      It's ironic to me that this is a low-end port on a PC, but seems to have good reviews for it's mobile incarnation.

      • http://jesse-dylan.livejournal.com Jesse_Dylan

        Yeah, it makes me skeptical and also makes me wonder if we're either more easily impressed when it comes to mobile games (and, to be fair, Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff makes Starships seem like the best game ever made) or if we just overrate mobile games or what.

  • Baracus

    Wish it had multi player. I wouldn't even mind turns taking a long time (that would fit for mobile asynch anyway wouldn't it) but it would give depth and a good reason to keep coming back.

    It was kind of fun for a few games though, just not as mind blowingly good as I thought it was going to be.

    • Jim Shorts

      My sentiments exactly.

  • VirtualBoyFreak

    As always, a great review by Shaun. The comment of "It's also an easy recommendation to anyone looking for an accessible strategy game with a sci-fi theme" nails it. I've just played once on easy, but it was very enjoyable, the first time I've enjoyed (and understood!) much of what was going on. Great for strategy beginners looking for a light strategy experience on the go

    • http://www.googlepants.com/ Wizard of Odyssey

      Agreed, and as someone who is turned off by the complexity of other strategy games, this looks like something I would enjoy.

      "Strategy veterans are going to chew this game up and spit it out fast" is what many of the other reviews say. This isn't for them, and that's not a bad thing.

  • http://ScottSoapbox.com/ Scott Soapbox

    I really enjoy Starships, but it needs a serious update. Bugs abound. I've lost 2/3rds of my planets across gaming sessions (save bug) and had random wins/losses both at the beginning of combat and half way through it. The AI, as mentioned in the review, does need work. Finally, the graphics could use a boost (especially the explosions) and doubling the graphics resolution would still be a relatively compact game size.

    • http://ScottSoapbox.com/ Scott Soapbox

      I forgot to add the all sound bugs.

  • gquiller

    Comprehensive tutorial would be nice for us new to the genre...

    Does anyone know if there is manual/guide/faq somewhere?

    • Baracus

      Do a Google search for "starships strategy guide". Top 2 hits look decent enough but I'm sure there is more. Try looking on the 2k forums.

  • worldcitizen1919

    I love this for what it is. A simple 'get down to business space fighter'. It has some story and adventure and a tiny bit of building and some strategy just right for a quick game without all the strings of a full blown civ game. 5/5 from me.

  • TokyoDan

    Has anyone looked at tge reviews for this game on Steam? Unbelievable. There are over 600 and for every thumbs up there are about 10 to 15 thumbs downs.

  • Karrasa

    Bit of trivia. Sid's Pirates is so named because it is a remake of an earlier game, which also carried his name. I believe he was also involved with the PC version, though I have no idea if he worked on the mobile version himself.

    • Shaun Musgrave

      Yeah, the original is what I was referring to there. That game was the first to use his name in the title. I know he was known by then, but that was a huge move in the 80s.

      • T. Benjamin Larsen

        The fact that he was one of the founders of the company releasing it might explain why his name was in the title...

      • Shaun Musgrave

        Does it? I didn't see many others doing that at the time. Even founders.

      • T. Benjamin Larsen

        Not overly common, I agree. But Activision did it for most(?) of their early titles for instance. Generally having the gamecreator's name on the cover was not unusual if not as prominently as Activision and Microprose.

      • Baracus

        Geoff Crammonds Grand Prix 😀

  • http://www.wineeducation.com/ Stephen Reiss, PhD, CWE

    Nobody else mentioned it, so perhaps I have a bug that only hits me (somehow I doubt it). The game regularly ignores the criteria I have set for winning. So there I am playing for the long run and the game suddenly ends because one of the AI players met a criteria it was not supposed to (i.e. Wonders, or population). It is quite annoying in an an otherwise addictive game.

    • Baracus

      You didn't read then because I did mention it in this very comments section :p

      • http://www.wineeducation.com/ Stephen Reiss, PhD, CWE

        My sincere apologies for overlooking your contribution.

Sid Meier's Starships Reviewed by Shaun Musgrave on . Rating: 4