Storm the Galaxy with Starbase Orion

Starbase Orion is a turned-based galactic exploration, colonization, and conquest game inspired the classic Masters of Orion series. It’s available for iPhone and iPad, though the developer hopes to expand it to Andorid, Mac, and Windows as well.

Like the game that inspired it, Starbase Orion is a 4X-style game focused on “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate”. Players explore a galaxy filled with star systems, each of which consists of a random number of planets. These planets are then colonized, and the colonies are used to produce food, industry, and research that feeds the empire, builds its ships and infrastructure, and researches new technology. Some planets have exceptional capabilities, such as precious metals or ancient ruins, that provide in-game bonuses. Star systems with such worlds are always protected by some sort of space monster which must be slain before the planet can be colonized.

Research is conducted in three broad trees — astrophysics (starbases, faster ships, big fuel tanks, etc.), military (laser beams, proton torpedoes, armor, shields, etc.) and civil (colony ships, better factories, improved farming techniques, etc.). Players use their tech to custom build the infrastructure of each world as well as to commission ships using newly-discovered technology. The game offers a high degree of customization — players can handcraft and custom name their ship, and create their own build queues for planetary improvements. It’s not possible to name star systems, but this is something the developer has said he’s looking to add as part of the Kickstarter project.

Players can choose from a number of preset alien races — including the fast breeding Vass, the brilliant Cybans, the charismatic Humans — as well as build their own races from scratch using a balance of advantages (proficient workers, effective farmors, good researchers) and disadvantages (slow breeding, small home world). Once the game is under way players can hire alien leaders to further improve their civilization. These leaders are split evenly between the military and civilian options; some of the leaders provide bonuses to combat or allow players to breed monsters, while others boost population growth rates or reveal new colonization technologies.

For fans of the old 4X games like Master of Orion, Civilization, and Alpha Centuri is nothing less than a resurrection of a dream. Not a flawless resurrection to be sure, but definitely a good one.

Starbase Orion saw rapid evolution after its initial launch in early 2012, with massive changes to game balance thanks to changes to the underlying cost of ships and technologies and the addition of leaders and espionage. The game’s developer responded to player feedback at every turn, and it’s improved considerably as a result.

Game play wise, Starbase Orion feels like stepping back into the classic Master of Orion II. It doesn’t match the earlier game feature for feature, but it feels — and more importantly, plays — much the same. You can manage individual planets or turn them over to AI-governors; this allows you to pursue specific civil engineering strategies, such as focusing on infrastructure to churn out war ships, creating an agricultural utopia and plowing your grain profits into expanding your empire, or focusing on research to win the race to future technology.

The best thing though is the ability to build — and name — your own starships. Ships range in size from tiny frigates to stalwart battleships to immense mammoths. Each can be outfitted with a variety of military technologies, including low-powered (but cheap) lasers or powerful (but expensive) plasma turrets.

Another area of depth is starship battles. You can’t control these in real time, but you can give your ships specific orders (based on class, ship name, or individual vessel) to carry out during the fight. This means you can send in your heavily armored, short-range fighters to smash the enemies space stations while your missile boats stand off at long range and pepper the enemies destroyers. It’s a cool system, and while I miss controlling my fleets in real time, that’s just not realistic for asynchronous multiplayer games (more on that in a bit).

It’s all about strategy, about pursuing short term and long term goals, and conquering the galaxy in your own unique way. Unfortunately the AI isn’t quite up to the challenge. While it puts up a decent enough fight when you’re learning the game, once you’ve established solid strategies the AI much less challenging.

The AI is great at building “death fleets” comprised of dozens of small to medium war ships. Very rarely it will build death fleets with heavy battleship components. These fleets are serious threats early in the game, but the AI isn’t great at keeping its fleet’s up to date with the latest technology. The bigger problem for the AI is that it has a hard time aggressively conquering worlds; it tends to send out a death fleet, smash local defenses and then send unguarded troop ships to conquer the world. It would be far, far more successful if those troop ships were part of the “death fleet”, or at least had some sort of armed escort. Otherwise the troop ships end up like bugs splattered on a windshield as I move in a single frigate to prevent them from landing.

That said, where the game really shines is with multiplayer. The asynchronous play allows players to take two turns in succession, and then pass play to their opponent. This two step process works great; it allows the game to proceed quicker than the standard one turn model, and helps keep everyone engaged. Scheming against other players, with thrown into make things interesting, is a hell of a lot of fun. I’ve easily played a dozen games, and had a blast with all of them.

The game feels reasonable well balanced, particularly in the early to middle game. In the late game you simply must have a fully built out industry; there’s no way to win without it, and if you fall behind it’s unlikely that you’ll catch up. I’d love to see some super-tech added to the late game to help combat this — e.g. germ warfare to devastate a planet or a “death star” capable of smashing an entire planet’s infrastructure in a single shot. These might introduce their own balance issues, but it would provide non-industrial players with a longshot option for fighting back against an enemy who can churn out 3 new mammoths every turn.

Starbase Orion recently ran a $40,000 Kickstarter to fund its expansion to new platforms (Android, Mac, PC) but it fell far short. I think this was because the project’s lead simply wasn’t experienced with Kickstarters; there were no project updates, no stretch goals, and limited comments during the event. There also wasn’t much promotion for the event; aside from a “Support Our Kickstarter” link in the game itself I saw no buzz about the kickstarter in my various game feeds. Bug fixes continued even during the Kickstarter, so I’m hopeful we’ll see continued updates to the iOS app even without the additional funds from that project.

%d bloggers like this: