For about 15 years, I’ve had an MMORTS shaped hole in my heart. I didn’t even realize it was there. I used to play games like Travian and the text based games on Swirve.com (Earth: 2025 and Utopia). I didn’t even realize at the time what genre these games fell into, but I completely fell into them. Hours upon hours I would wait for my next scheduled build or attack. One day life got in the way, the games shut down, and I had almost completely forgotten about just how engrossed I could be in a game.
Then, last week, something terrible happened. MOP posted about a new MMORTS, Starborne, hosting an open beta. Well, the graphics look nice and it sure sounds like the kind of RTS I’m into, plus a free and open beta – what’s the worst that could happen?
Little did I know that Starborne is in fact the absolute, most terrible, and worst kind of RTS – the kind that eats up your time, the kind that makes you begin scheduling other activities around it, the kind that takes your free time and makes it Starborne time – and I am totally and completely addicted to it.
This is an RTS for the long term
There are at least two different forms of RTS games: those with short matches and those with long ones. Starcraft, Age of Empires, and Total War are just a few of the games I typically think of when someone mentions RTS games. A single match in one of those games might last from half an hour to a few hours. Then there are the long form games. A single game will usually last several weeks, possibly even months. The movement of troops from one base to another will often take hours, sometimes even days. This is real time strategy.
Starborne falls into the second category. The low-level buildings may only take 5 to 30 minutes to build, but beyond that you are looking at hours per build operation. Moving your spaceships from station to station, or even to gather resources, takes just as long. There are of course a number of different remedies to reduce these wait times, but often you simply must let the time roll on.
The gameplay seems light from the surface, but there is depth in those queues
For anyone unfamiliar with this sort of long-term gameplay, Starborne will likely seem very slow. You don’t get to run up and smash a rat in the face. You don’t get to push down trees until your pockets are full of twigs and berries. Instead, you plan for the long haul. You might think from a bystander’s perspective that this sort of gaming would be boring, that a player simply queues up her next tiered buildings and sends out her ships, but there’s so much more planning than that.
The gameplay actually feels very much like a tabletop boardgame to me. The slowest and most drawn out boardgame ever possibly, but still a boardgame. It reminds me of games like Catan or Terraforming Mars, but with more intricate card drafting and resource management.
First, the map displays exactly where your stations are in relation to everyone else on the server. The starter zones are very tightly compacted too. Luckily, the game gives you a week of protection from any invaders. On top of that, stations in the starter zones can never be raided for resources. This makes them effectively pointless to attack, at least as far as I can tell. After your first station though, positioning your stations near high value resources is important, since you can only draw resources from fields within a certain hex radius.
Much of the gameplay after map positioning is based around queues. You can think of it as having three different queues per station: a building queue, a shipyard queue, and any number of travel times for your individual fleets of ships. Fleets can be sent on various tasks. They can be sent to gather resources from a star, complete simple quests for loot, build an outpost or another station, or travel to another station as support or to attack. There are even a handful of NPC’s for raiding.
Next up is the card drafting aspect of the game. As you play, you will constantly complete achievements, each typically rewarding a certain number of resources and cards. A majority of the cards can be assigned to individual fleets for bonuses (speed bonus, damage boosts, or even additional resource carrying capacity to name just a few) or to your station.
Like fleet cards, station cards will boost that station’s abilities. Some of the cards are also used to speed up your building queue. I tend to spam these like crazy. This is how you’ll spend a good chunk of your time in-game: thinking about what to construct next and burning cards to push its construction through. There are a few other categories of cards, but these I’ve described here likely make up the majority of your gameplay.
While many cards are gained through the quests and achievements, there’s also a crafting system. It’s basic though. You simply browse through all the cards in the game, and if you have the credits available, you can spend them to craft the card.
When you begin the game, you are introduced with a very solid achievement based tutorial system. It takes you through most of the gameplay elements. You still won’t fully understand all the intricacies and interplay between the buildings and cards, but it’s a good start.
Honestly, it takes several days or even weeks before any of the stats begin to make any semblance of sense. Harvest +300 – is that a lot? Is this a card I should hold on to or just play? My tip: Play everything as soon as you get it.
The pay-to-win microtransactions fit with any typical mobile game
Now, I’d be remiss not to talk about the unfortunate pay-to-win aspect of the game. To be fair and upfront, I’ve been playing the beta without spending any money, and I’m still playing competitively with other players, so I haven’t felt as personally affected by it. But the fact is, if pay-to-win weren’t an element of play, I might be doing even better.
You can probably already guess what you get for your money here: time, primarily. In a game based on queues and time to produce and build things, you can buy cards that will help speed it up. Of course, Solid Clouds limits the number of each of these cards you may buy per day.
As you can see, the multiple ways you can buy to keep playing are pretty numerous. From a developer’s point of view, it makes a lot of sense. A game with this level of quality and detail deserves to make a profit for the effort; I just wish there were some way the studio could manage it without the pay-to-win format. I do love free-to-play games, but the developers need to make money too, so I am torn here. It’s very much like a mobile game.
There are technically a number of cosmetics you can buy in the game, though I’ve yet to see any of them. Either they aren’t flashy and fancy enough, or I’m simply not paying enough attention. I know you can buy different avatars; there aren’t many for free. Personally, real life faces for avatars aren’t my favorite anyway primarily because a game will never have enough to make them feel unique.
It isn’t clear from the website whether the game will always be free-to-play or will transition to buy-to-play after the open beta. If it remains a free-to-play title, perhaps Solid Clouds could develop a pure B2P server without these speed boosting cards on offer. That would likely interest me more in the long term, but for now I am very much enjoying my time with the game as it is.
Alliances are a strong aspect of the game, but I’d love to see some space for small group and solo play
Pay-to-win aside, the one thing I’d like to see an alternative to is the importance of alliances in the game. There’s not really a road to victory as a small group or a solo player. Without an alliance, you are going to get smashed outside the starter zones. The PvP is ubiquitous. From directly attacking another player’s stations to subterfuge among alliances the PvP is intense. It’s still early in the server’s life span, so there haven’t be a lot of direct combat encounters, but the tension is building.
I have no idea how the game’s backend works, but what I have seen during the open beta is the addition of several new servers. You know what would really grab my attention? Giving some of these new servers unique rulesets. I mentioned at the top some old games I played religiously, Earth 2025 and Utopia. What I loved about those games were the different ruleset servers you could join. Some of them were free-for-all, while others might be team based like Starborne.
In an ideal Starborne world for me, I’d get to see those different rulesets come into play on different servers. I’d love it if there were a free for all server with little to no starter zone protection. It’s likely a conversation for another column, but I loved the way raiding other players was simply a normal aspect of Earth 2025. You didn’t take it personally, and it typically didn’t result in your empire’s complete destruction. You simply raided players around you to grow and then moved on.
If you’re interested in a game that plays like a long-term boardgame or have some nostalgia for Earth 2025, I hope you’ll give Starborne a fair look. I’d really like to hear from anyone who remembers those Swirve games and has stories to tell. Or if you’ve tried to play Starborne, I’d like to know your thoughts. Are you enjoying the game too, or was it too slow for you? What do you make of the pay-to-win aspects?