Oliver Kiley(Mezmorki)United States
Note from Brad: Re-reviews are not something we commonly do. With Starbase Orion it has been over a year since our initial review and the game has been updated many many times and so it seemed justified. I hope you enjoy Oliver's look at the game.
The 4X space game genre – eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate for those scratching their heads – has in many ways been a problematic genre. Fans of the genre hold Master of Orion II, a game from 1996, in exceedingly high regard; and rightfully so. MoO2 struck a fantastic balance between complexity, level of detail (or micromanagement), meaningful player choice, and strategic diversity. For decades, designers and developers have been chasing the dream of making the “next” Master of Orion game – and there has been no shortage of valiant attempts.
While a great many games have been developed and released to varying levels of success, an undercurrent among fans is that there hasn’t been a title that quite got the right mix of elements. Each game draws its criticisms too much or not enough emphasis on combat; lack of diplomacy or other non-military mechanisms; too much (or too little) micromanagement. The list of critiques goes on…
Starbase Orion, by its own admission, is an iOS 4X game intended to be a spiritual offspring of Master of Orion II, AND designed to be imminently playable in multiplayer formats. A lofty goal! So how well does it reach it? This review will take an in-depth look at the game, where it is successful – and most importantly why gamers, including boardgamers, should take a good look at Starbase Orion.
Overview of Starbase Orion
Starbase Orion, by Chimera Software, was released in October 2011 at version 1.0.0, and has been previously reviewed by iOS Board Games. Since then, there have been 21 updates, occurring on a fairly regular schedule, bringing the game version to 1.2.1. I mention this because the one-man show behind Starbase Orion, Rocco, has done a fantastic job responding to the community and player-base, and has a demonstrated commitment to continually improving the game; whether it is a balance or bug fix, or incorporating new features.
The Run Down…
When genre fans start comparing and discussing 4X games, there are some pretty basic types of questions and information players are looking for to describe the game and put it in context against its peers. So here’s a rundown of the structure and major features of Starbase Orion:
- It’s a Universal iOS turn-based 4X space game!
- Supports up to 8 players with support for asynchronous multiplayer.
- In-game Multiplayer lobby with global and game-level chat (and private/team messaging).
- Capable AI opposition with optional Cloud AI processing.
- Victory modes include conquest or diplomatic victory.
- Customizable + randomized galaxies with optional auto-balancing of start positions. Options for galaxy shape, size, and age.
- Variable starting conditions and game pacing options (i.e. empire age, tech/production costs).
- 6 fully customizable races, each with their own artwork and ship designs.
- Planet-level management, with each star system containing 0-4 planets. Many planet types with varying size classes and mineral levels.
- Open space travel from system-to-system, no starlanes or fixed movement paths (although there are wormholes that can be discovered).
- Many different planetary and system-level developments with customizable (and savable) planet development cues that cut down micromanagement without reducing player control.
- Allocate workers across food, industrial, and research production tasks on each planet.
- Random exploration encounters (lost colonies, space monsters, tech, planet bonuses, etc.).
- Customize ships (6 hull classes) with many options for weapon and support modules.
- Tactical, order-based fleet combat.
- Diplomatic system for treaties, pacts, and alliances.
- Full espionage system for stealing information or tech, sabotaging projects and fleet movement.
- Many unique leaders you can recruit to your empire through a competitive bidding system.
- Three technology fields and a research system that demands hard choices during the game.
In one capacity or another, Starbase Orion ticks off all the major feature request boxes for a 4X game. Many of these features were added on in subsequent updates to the game, but at this point the game is largely feature complete and provides a robust 4X experience.
Now, onto the detailed critique…
First and foremost, the game provides a lot of options for how to setup up a particular game. From the size, shape, and age of the galaxy (affecting the types of planets that are found), to the starting conditions of the empires there is a lot to explore. From a replay standpoint, games on giant ring galaxies are going to be long and epically sprawling, while tiny spiral galaxies lend themselves to games that feel more like a knife fight in a phone booth. It’s up to you.
Additionally, you can choose to have up to 8 different empires in the game, in any combination of AI-controlled or human-controlled empires. You can also pre-arrange alliances for team-based games or let alliances form naturally over the course of the game. Either way, Starbase Orion is flexible when it comes to accommodating players’ interests. Want a 4v4 team game? How about 2 players trying to fight off 6 allied AI’s in survival mode? All these options are available.
The plethora of setup options is coupled with the appropriately detailed, and generally well balanced, race customization options. There are 6 races in the game, all quite different in appearance and background. You can go with the stock traits for each race, or fully customize them using a point-based system, choosing different advantageous and disadvantageous traits from an extensive list. The trait system provides a lot of flexibility in how your empire will perform and its general characteristics. You can be fast expanding industrialists, or pondering researchers, or masters at diplomacy and espionage. In multiplayer team games, coordinating your race selection can be worthwhile as well – e.g. having a player focus on research development and sharing technologies with their allies, another on spy networks, etc.
The Rise and Fall of Empires
Starbase Orion, true to its inspiration, embodies a traditional approach to 4X gameplay. The early stages of the game are characterized by building scout and colony ships; exploring nearby systems to determine the habitability and mineral value of the system’s planets; and colonizing worlds that position your empire for sustained growth and map control. There may be small border boarder skirmishes to grab systems from under your opponents, battles with neutral “space monsters,” and some special discoveries along the way – like finding a piece of technology or a lost colony.
The mid-stage of the game is largely about build up and positioning; and it is here that games are won and lost. Principally, the mid-stage is focused around efficiently developing colonies, advancing technologies to give you a distinct edge in development or combat, scouting your opponents to learn their weaknesses, working through diplomatic negotiations, conducting espionage missions, and basically getting yourself in position to make a coordinated power play – i.e. launching an invasion campaign to exterminate an opposing empire.
So the late stage of the game is all about the resolution of the choices and decisions made in the mid-stage of the game. Are you able to get your fleets into striking position? Are your fleets able to defeat the opposing player’s fleet? Do you have enough industrial capacity to continue pressing the offensive and overrun the opposition? In short – is your plan for galactic domination going to pan out?
Starbase Orion has drawn some criticism, as have many other 4X games, for it coming down to “one big battle” towards the end of the game, with the winner of that fight going on to win the game overall. While that is true – it misses the point. The “one big battle” is mostly a foregone conclusion – determined well in advance based on who has the technological and industrial edge. If you can out-produce and out-research your opponents, short of a massive tactical blunder, victory is heading your way. In this regard, the “one big battle” is not the deciding point – but rather the affirmation that your strategy and the timing of your power play was right. Nevertheless, Starbase Orion does provide opportunity for smart play to win the day in the face overwhelming force.
An Expanding Strategic Space
Effective play in Starbase Orion hinges on formulating a strategic plan in the early stages of the game and trying to execute it to the best of your abilities – i.e. in the most efficient manner. This plan will be informed, of course, by the galaxy conditions as well as your race selection. Yet there is a lot of nuance and opportunity for strategic adjustments as the game unfolds. In particular diplomacy, technological advancement, leaders, espionage, and ship design (and its impact of course on combat) can keep the strategies in a state of flux – opening up the gameplay considerably.
In terms of diplomacy, it’s worth addressing the human and AI sides of the equation. In terms of the AI, in a big free-for-all type game, each AI will have various personalities (level of aggressiveness, attitude towards your empire, etc.). There are a number of diplomatic options, forming trade or research pacts, gifting money or colonies, etc. that you can use to improve relationships and enter into non-aggression or alliance treaties. The AI is neither predictable or completely random in its diplomatic interactions – it strikes a nice balance. In a big free for all, you’ll likely need to try to sway some AI’s to your side, at least temporarily, so you can attack others.
In multiplayer games – the diplomatic talks take on a more personal tone of course, limited only by the negotiating powers of the players. The in-game options for peace/war states, non-aggression, and alliance treaties work well to standardize and enforce agreements – but of course you can call it off at any time. In playing games with mixed AI + human players, a really fun element of the game is playing the AI off other humans. Regardless, the diplomatic environment has a big impact on your strategic plan. If you are surrounded on two sides by hostile empires, you can’t easily launch a strong offensive without opening yourself up for attack. But maybe you can convince a 4th empire to attack one of your neighbors; drawing out their forces so you can strike from behind with a smaller force.
The diplomatic posturing does create a sort of cold war atmosphere to big multiplayer games, with players trying to second guess who’s going to strike first and what the ramifications of various hostilities are as the game progresses. I for one enjoy this element of the game, and addition of the multiplayer in-game chat system really facilitates the diplomatic experience nicely.
Technology that Matters
A pet peeve of mine in 4X games is an overabundance of incremental technology, wrapped up in a research system that doesn’t require tough (i.e. meaningful) choices. Thankfully, Starbase Orion avoids this issue. The technology system in Starbase Orion is simple mechanically but has deep implications.
There are three research fields, and depending on your racial traits a player will have half a dozen or so technologies they can research in each field. When you research an item in a field, items you didn’t research move down the list, going from green, to yellow, to red in color each time. When they are “red”, they will next fall off the list completely and won’t be available again until you cycle all the way through that technology field.
This system means that within each field you can’t research everything and you have to make tough choices. Do you choose a tech to upgrade your industrial efficiency or one that increases your maximum colony population? Do you choose to research trade ports to boost your income or Star Dirve technologies so your fleets move faster? What about weapon systems? Should you go with upgrading your lasers or do you hold out for Gauss Cannons? You have to consider your choices carefully because most of the technologies have significant ramifications for how your empire develops and the options that are open to you.
I should mention two racial traits that play an interesting role. One trait makes the list of technology in each field smaller, the other larger. In the former’s case, this means that fewer technologies are skipped as you move through the tree – but you go through the tree much slower. The later trait lets you go through the tree much faster, getting access to higher level technologies sooner, but you might miss out on some crucial lower level technologies that could harm you in the long run. Touch choices abound!
Leaders were introduced to Starbase Orion following the initial release – and of all the 4X games I’ve played SO’s leader system is by the far the most interesting. The 20 or so leaders are divided into colony or fleet leaders – and starting a little ways into the game leaders will start appearing for “auction.” Each empire bids credits over a series of rounds, auction style, to win the leader to their empire. The final purchase price of the leader determines their on-going maintenance cost as well – so there is quite a bit of strategy in how you bid for leaders and/or artificially drive up the purchase price for other players. Each empire can only have three leaders at a time – so you also have to make tough choices about which ones you retain and which you let go.
The leaders themselves provide some game changing abilities, and dovetailing leader selection (and timing) with your grand strategy is critical. Each leader typically has three abilities. Colony leaders provide a benefit to the planet where they are located, to the entire system where they are located, and an “ultimate” ability that does something unique for your empire. The diversity of abilities is quite high – so there is a lot to explore. One of my favorites is the leader Morph that allows you to change your fleet movement mid-course, which lets you pull off some crazy positional tactic. Fleet leaders provide a special benefit to the individual ship they command, to their entire fleet, and also have an “ultimate” ability of some sort – like a unique weapon system or special strategic power.
All in all, the leader system in Starbase Orion is exceptional. There is not a monstrous list of leaders (which makes it easier to learn them all), but the leaders that are included can all be very useful and transformative. The decisions around which leaders to acquire can be as nail-biting as the ensuing auction – it’s just a great element in the game.
The Spy who Stabbed Me
The espionage system has gone through significant improvement since SO’s release – and provides an interesting set of tools. Essentially, players can train agents at their colonies that go into an empire wide pool of agents. You can allocate these pool of agents to espionage defense or assign agents to specific enemy empires for offensive missions. Offensive agents in an enemy empire can be given up to “missions” – which range from stealing technology and credits, to gathering information about the empire, to sabotaging construction projects, stalling fleets in transit, or even blowing up ships.
The chance of success for espionage depends on a number of factors, how many agents they have defending, the empire’s respective technologies, leaders, racial traits, etc. It’s possible to make very strong espionage focused races, and with the right technologies and leaders get 50%+ odds for performing espionage missions, which can really mess with your opponents, help narrow the technology gap, or slow down their military. Of course, maintaining your agents costs money – so you have to balance your espionage efforts alongside your empire’s other expenditures.
Again, I feel Starbase Orion succeeds in crafting an espionage system that is simple and intuitive to use, yet which has serious strategic implications and is implanted in a robust and complete feeling way. Its sets the bar pretty high!
Battles Among the Stars
A cornerstone of 4X games is fleet combat, and there is no shortage of opinions and preferences about what is best. Turn-based tactical or real-time? Detailed combat or auto-resolve? Standard ships designs or detailed customization? In my opinion, Starbase Orion provides the perfect level of detail in the combat system while still allowing the game to function well as multiplayer game, here’s the basics:
When hostile fleets meet at a star system, on that turn each player is able to give each ship in their fleet orders. Orders include movement stances (ie. maintain long range, close in, evade, etc.), targeting priorities (i.e. weakest ship or closest ship), as well as being able to select a specific enemy ship as a priority target (i.e. the one with the leader?) as well as a friendly escort target. Both players assign all their orders, and on the next turn the battle plays out in an auto-resolve fashion. But what’s really cool is that you can then watch the battle play out in real-time and see how everything performed. In most cases, the battles will resolve in one turn, but for larger battles or when reinforcements arrive in the system the battles can span multiple turns.
The orders you assign have a lot to do with the technology your ships employ and how you plan to counter your opponent. Many weapons, like lasers or gauss cannons, are only effective at close range, other only at long range. And you need to consider the respective speed of your ships and the armament of your opponent’s fleets when issuing orders. It is vital in the game to “scout” enemy fleets to determine which types of weaponry they are loading, and then research equipment for your own ships that best counters their designs. But they are likely doing the same to you!
So there is a fascinating, and very real, arms race that plays out over the mid-phase of the game, with competing empires trying to retrofit their ships and execute a strike when the conditions are most favorable. Speaking of ship design – the ship customization options are straightforward and to the point – which I really appreciate. I don’t enjoy super detailed ship customization, because I’d rather have the focus of the game be on the big strategic picture. In Starbase, each hull size (there 6 total, from Frigate up Mammoth) has a number of weapon and equipment slots, and you just drag and drop items as you see fit. Simple and all you need.
Overall, the combat system strikes the perfect balance between giving players a lot of choice and tactical decisions to consider up front, but then having the battle progress swiftly to resolution so the overall game continues to move forward. Plus watching the video review of each battle play out is great fun.
Efficient "Not-Micro" Management
Something I despise in 4X games is too much micromanagement, particularly at the colony level. The red flag for too much micromanagement is whether the game includes AI “governors” or not. It’s basically saying – late game there will be too much stuff going on for any reasonable human to manage it all, so just hit this AI governor button and forget about it. I hate that – it is sloppy, bloating design in my opinion.
Thankfully Starbase Orion doesn’t have AI governors, and thankfully it doesn’t need them. Here’s why: Starbase Orion doesn’t have ridiculous amount of micromanagement to begin with; and secondly, the game has a very innovative system for colony development that provides automation but keeps the player in the driver seat.
In terms of micromanagement, Starbase Orion follows the MoO2 format of being able to allocate population across food production, industrial, and research tasks. All of this is easy to manage through the empire window, and you can drag and drop colonists between tasks and even between planets/systems (accounting for travel times). You can see immediately how this affects build times for construction projects as well as your empires economic flow and research progress. I’m not going to go into the nuts and bolts of the economy, but I’ll say that it is relatively straightforward – so having to assign colonists to work tasks is not a nebulous shot-in-the-dark affair like it seems to be in so many other games.
But the real highlight for improving management is the inclusion of “custom build focuses.” From the main application menu, outside of any specific game, you can arrange up to 4 different custom build focuses. Each build focus allows you to identify which planetary improvements and the order of construction that you want a colony assigned to that build focus to pursue. It performs the role of an AI governor in way, but it lets the player decide what gets built as part of what build focus and makes the whole thing very transparent. You can put whatever you want in each cue; so in your “research focus” you might incorporate some passive income generating buildings too, helping to cover the maintenance costs of research centers. In application, the colony will build improvements following the cue. If you have an item that isn’t researched (or otherwise available), it knows to skip it and look for the next item. Add to this that it is really easy to override cue with manual entries. So if you need to interrupt it to build some ships, or a one-off development you can; and when that is finished it will switch back to the cue. This is an elegant solution to the nightmare of micromanagement.
Fleeting Here and Fleeting There
I did want to mention fleet management, another thorn in the side of many 4X games. Starbase Orion is a testament to “keep it simple” design, as fleet management is a breeze. All of your ships in a system are automatically in a fleet. The UI has a big fleet icon, and clicking on that opens up a window where you select all, none, or some of the ships in that fleet. If you have selected ships, just click on another star system to issue a move order, and it projects a movement line and shows how many turns it will take to arrive. Basic, and to the point.
The fleet/movement system doesn’t contain any more advanced features such as issuing waypoint based movement or rally points. While those features would be welcomed additions – I don’t feel that they are really necessary. The UI is clear and obvious about where ships are, and it’s a simple (and somewhat fun) matter of highlighting ships and manually issuing the move orders. Starbase keeps it simple – and that’s really all you need.
I’ve touched on the gameplay (i.e. diplomatic) aspects of multiplayer but not the application/structural side. Rocco, Starbase Orion’s developer, has stated that a strong multiplayer experience was a key design objective. The latest version (1.2.1) ushers in a vastly improved multiplayer experience – so much so that of all the 4X games I have played, Starbase Orion succeeds the most as a multiplayer game, a seemingly impossible goal.
First, the new version partially migrates off Apple’s GameCenter (although it is still required for use), hosting multilayer games on a 3rd party server. This avoids GameCenter’s disjointed “I go, you go” asynchronous structure, allowing player to take their turns simultaneously and asynchronously. So, I can make my orders for the turn whenever I want, and you can do it whenever you want. Once we’ve both submitted orders, the server processes the turn and gives us a notification. This is a big improvement over the old system where players had to go in order, one at a time. So as a consequence multiplayer games progress at a much brisker pace, which is good. This is a tremendous improvement over most digital board games as well, really taking advantage of the technology to allow for simultaneous turns.
The game incorporates an in-game lobby, complete with a general chat room, player finder, friend list, etc. Each game has its own chat room as well, and players can send private or team messages through that should they need to. It all works quite well and is clear easy to use.
Starbase Orion provides all the right tools and infrastructure to support the multiplayer community – which makes the title standout. So much of the focus of 4X games has been on the solo experience. While Starbase Orion does provide an exceptional solo experience as well, its wonderful to have a game in the genre that actively supports and promotes multiplayer. I find that 4X games where living, breathing humans are in competition to be far deeper and more rewarding experiences.
The Audio / Visual Experience
I have not yet touched on the graphic design audio aspects of the game – so I’ll do that briefly. I’ve only played the game on an iPod Touch, so I cannot comment on other iOS platforms. That said, I find the graphic style and UI design to be quite nice. The basic galaxy view is pretty, and while minimalistic is also elegant. The menus are laid out well and are easy to navigate. Most things can be accessed in one touch. In particular, the empire screen allows you to quickly jump into planetary details or the production cues. Most of the lists in-game have sorting and filtering options as well, allowing you to quickly navigate to pertinent information. The visualization of fleet combat is really nice, scaling from a broad icon-based overview and zooming down to a detailed level where you see individual projectiles dancing around and explosions going off. It’s quite a treat!
The audio is solid, with a nice but limited selection of audio tracks. You can turn the music off and play whatever music of your own you want if desired. The sound effects a nice are nice and immersive as well.
If I had to summarize the overall aesthetic experience of the game, it would be “soothing.” There is a calmness to the graphics and the audio that aligns beautifully with the grandeur and poetry of the unfolding space opera. Sounds cheesy, but it works for me.
Room for Improvement
Starbase Orion isn’t without room for improvement of course. My list of improvements is conspicuously small, yet worth mentioning. First, an emergent strategy in the game is to construct empty frigates at small “feeder” worlds and then scrap them at larger production worlds, using the reclaimed industrial capacity to build bigger ships faster. In concept, this functions as a nice internal resource trading mechanic – but I’d like to see it formalized into a succinct game system. It is a bit fiddly as is, and isn’t something that is apparent to new players when it really should be. Hopefully such a resource trade system could incorporate mining of asteroids and gas giants, as well as trade with other empires – we shall see.
I’d also like to seemore done with the amount of revealed information in the game, in particular enemy fleet movement. Sensor ranges are quite large and it’s difficult to disguise fleet movement short of certain very expensive and cumbersome technologies. As a result, pulling off small raids or sneak attacks is typically not feasible, which limits your strategic options. This is especially pertinent for lagging players, which could make use of guerilla / stealthy type tactics to slow down and harass their opponent’s. Right now, they may not have many options foward.
Additionally, the game currently doesn’t do much to encourage mixed-arms fleets or fleets with distinct strategic purposes. In general, you want a fleet that best counters whatever your opponent has, and in most cases a fleet of similarly equipped ships will be the most economical way of doing that. I’d like to see combat made more varied by having combined arms strategies create fleet synergies that reinforce each other. Related to this, all ships move at the same speed between star systems, and changing that so that you have fleets purposed for fast raiding versus heavy assault (and in-between) could likewise add more diversity to fleet design and your strategic options.
Last – I think the game could use more victory conditions and/or optional game modes. Currently, victory only occurs through total extermination of all non-allied empires. This is slightly frustrating in itself – because often someone's victory will be a foregone conclusion after the opposing fleets have been destroyed, yet many turns are still spent “mopping up” and claiming the opposing colonies. In multiplayer games, players can just forfeit, but otherwise you still have to spend many turns mindlessly taking over AI colonies. Other victory conditions, like technologic or economic based conditions, or king-of-the-hill style area conditions, or artifact recovery/assembly could add some more diversity to the gameplay experience and open up different gameplay styles.
Exterminating the Competition
So many 4X games set out with great ambitions, but most succumb to their own complexity and overwrought designs. Starbase Orion succeeds in delivering on its promise; a deep and engaging 4X experience designed for multiplayer. And it does so in a straightforward and highly playable manner. Starbase, in nearly every aspect, hits the perfect balance point between detail and meaningful depth. All the choices you face are significant. And it is this reason why Starbase Orion is, in my estimate, the most worthy successor to the Master of Orion II throne – and it’s remarkable that it is based on an iOS platform AND that it is developed by only one person, Rocco.
I’m waxing on here, but the design of Starbase Orion works because it has the simplicity and transparency of something we might experience in a boardgame. In short, the design is “tight” and has been carefully considered. There are diverse, high level strategic opportunities in the game, and these choices are genuine, instead of being false choices shrouded in a mask of detail and micromanagement, which seem to characterize so many other 4X games.
If you are a 4X boardgame fan, or a civ fan, or a turn-based strategy game fan, or a space game fan, or a good game fan – Starbase Orion deserves a serious look. Over the past year, I’ve replayed over a dozen different 4X video games from the past decades – and Starbase Orion is the only one I come back to with the same high level of enthusiasm, time and time again.
See you in space!
While writing this review, I contacted Rocco, Starbase Orion’s developer, with the following question: “Do you have any future plans for the development of Starbase Orion (or SO2?) that you would like share? Let me know if you have anything to pass along to the readers.” Here’s what he said:Quote:I will start off by confirming my commitment to the continued development of Starbase Orion. Starbase Orion has been a landmark title for me. While I have released more financially successful games in the past (such as the Big Bang Board Games which won two Apple Design Awards in 2004), SO is the first successful game that I have released entirely as an independent. That freedom has allowed me to form a much tighter bond with the players than ever before. What a tremendous experience that has been! Being able to grow and develop the game with the community over the last two years has been a tremendous experience. And I want to continue doing that, so for the foreseeable future updates to SO will continue. There are a ton of good player suggestions, features and ideas left to implement (things like player tournaments, player ranking, as well as gameplay improvements such as adding new tech to make use of gas giants, specifying combat formations, etc).How’s that for show and tell? See, it never hurts to ask!
Chimera Software is a business, and to secure long-term health for Chimera I need to open up more revenue streams. I can confirm that SO2 will not be next (I want to hit the sequel for SO out of the ballpark, and I don't have the finances to cover everything I want to do there... yet). My blue sky goal for the next game is to take the revolution that Defense of the Ancients (DOTA) brought to RTS games and bring it to turn-based tactical games. This means identifying the most fun, gooey core of the genre; focusing on that and building a fun multiplayer experience around it. So imagine a hex-based, turn-based tactical game, with simple mechanics that lead to deep tactical decisions, team-based arena engagements against multiple players or AI, all wrapped up in a compelling yet simple meta-game / realm vs realm universe. That sounds like the kind of game I'd want to play, and building something you want to play is the first step towards success for an indie developer.
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