Saturday, January 27, 2007

Starship Kingdom Review

Starship Kingdom, developed and published by ApeZone.
The Good: Simple rules, research increases strategic options, useful stats help overall plan, easy to make custom maps, generally decent AI, multiplayer matchmaking
The Not So Good: Limited to two players, success can depend too much on random initial starting positions, independent player doesn’t play fair with its initially superior resources
What say you? A strategy game similar to Risk, but with more depth: 6/8

Probably the most well known strategy game is Risk. Originally produced in board game form, the basic formula has been adapted in a number of computer games, most notably Lux. Everyone seeks world domination, and Risk provides a straightforward way of simulating it, eliminating a lot of the complex rules present in more sophisticated games. After you’ve conquered the world, the next step is space, and Starship Kingdom gives you that option. Starship Kingdom takes the basic premise of Risk and adds some additional features in the hope of increasing the replay value of the basic game.

Starship Kingdom features two sets of graphics: the 2-D game board, and the 3-D battles. The game board is pretty standard fare: an easy-to-read map is placed upon a dynamic background of spacey vistas. The map shows pretty much everything you need to know to play the game (the numbers and types of units, the research fields of each planet) and is well designed. The 3-D battles are very reminiscent of those seen in Galactic Civilizations II, with ships shooting weapons and getting blown up. There’s nothing terribly impressive about it, but they battles are good enough. Starship Kingdom has generic sound effects and menu music: nothing too outstanding or memorable to note, but they are not horrible. Overall, Starship Kingdom delivers exactly what you would expect for a board-game-like title.

Like Risk, Starship Kingdom involves eliminating all of the other players from the board through moving units and attacking. Unlike Risk, Starship Kingdom is restricted to just two players. This is an odd restriction, as the game certainly could be played with more players. It would last longer (games of Starship Kingdom are pretty short) but would probably more interesting. Allowing the user to have at least four or six player games would be a nice addition. You can play the game in single player mode against the computer, on the same computer with two human players, or online through the game’s matchmaking service. I haven’t seen anyone else playing, but it would theoretically work well. Starship Kingdom comes with different AI types, each of which has their own distinctive playing style (aggressive, defensive, balanced, easy). Other than the easy player, the AI in Starship Kingdom plays very well and is quite a challenge, blocking off key locations and countering your troops. The AI player does not fare so well in the research aspect of the game, however, so if you survive long enough you can outpace them in technology. Starship Kingdom comes with a handful of maps of small and large size. You can also create your own maps using the map editor, which is very easy to do. The game will place stars randomly for you, and all you need to do is connect them and define the sectors (continents for Risk players). You also have the freedom to move them if need be, but I like using the random placement to make a map. Since it is so easy to make a new map, it surprises me that Starship Kingdom lacks a random map generator. Sure, it only takes about a minute or two to make a map yourself and the initial star placements are random, but I could have spent that time blowing stuff up! The straightforward map editor extends the life of the game tremendously.

Once you start a game, your initial stars and randomized and different each time you play the same map. This means that success can depend on which player has the best initial arrangement of stars, rather than who is the better player. This could be removed if each player were allowed to choose his or her initial stars (like in Risk). Most of the time the placement comes out pretty even, but when the opponent gets strong locations in two useful sectors while your stars are scattered all over the place, Starship Kingdom can become frustrating right out of the box. Each side is given a handful of stars, and the rest of the stars are given to the independents, that will only attack a player if they invade an initially independent star (which you have to). The independents turtle, making them extremely hard to beat. Stacking units in the last territory of a sector is a common practice, and since they own far more stars than either player does at the beginning of the game, their production of new units will always outpace you in the early part of a game. This gets really frustrating, especially when the independents seem to always fortify against the human player. The independents also have a chance of joining the losing side near the end of the game. I didn’t initially like this aspect to the game, but the more I saw it in action, the better I liked it. Preparing for the independents requires some planning, and it also keeps the loser in the game longer. Since there are only two players, there is certain point where you know who the winner is, and the possibility of having independent stars join in makes victory a little less guaranteed.

Starship Kingdom is played in four phases, and the similarities to Risk are evident. In the first phase, you spend credits earned last turn by acquiring new stars on new ships. You also get ships according to the number of stars you own, and whether you own any complete sectors. These credits can be used to purchase cheap but flimsy battlecruisers, expensive but powerful battlestars, or in-the-middle battleships. During the attack phase, you send units to adjacent enemy stars. You must keep at least one ship at each star you own, but you can send the rest of your ships along. Battles are automated, and rather than using just dice rolls like Risk, Starship Kingdom also implements the research modifiers and ship attributes to determine the winner of each battle. Any unspent credits from the build phase can be devoted to research. Each star can upgrade one of the six research areas: beam weapons, shields (defense against beams), missiles, jammers (defense against missiles), armor (more hit points), and engines (increased odds of firing first). Or, you can spend credits in the hope of increasing production, which lets you buy multiple ships for the same price. Investing money in production is a waste, however, since you’re never guaranteed of receiving the upgrade, unlike in the first six areas. After the attack phase, you are allowed to transfer ships from one star to an adjacent friendly star in the fortify phase.

While Starship Kingdom plays a lot like Risk, it adds enough to the game to make it more interesting than a vanilla retread of the global domination board game. The game has more advanced strategies available to the player and more choices to make during gameplay. Which stars will you attack first? Will you concentrate on building ships or research (or both)? Which ships will you build? The game features stats to help you make these decisions, and one wrong move against the difficult AI will usually result in disaster. The random elements of the game, including the ability to create your own maps, make the game slightly different each time you play. The limitation of just two players is odd, but the ability to play against human opponents over the Internet is a nice addition. Plus, the games are quick: Starship Kingdom works well as a pick-up-and-play strategy game. The game can be fun to play, although some issues, strong initial positions and the vigor of independent nations, are a problem. Starship Kingdom is also a difficult game; be prepared to lose a good number of matches against the AI due in part to the concerns mentioned earlier. Still, Starship Kingdom has a solid foundation for a strategy game. Although you can tell the inspiration of the game, Starship Kingdom takes an established formula and makes meaningful embellishments to the gameplay.