The thankless Shifts lets you live the life of a spaceship manager

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Who knew commanding a spaceship was such a joyless task, characterized by constantly needing three widgets and only having two? Shifts, a short single-player lack-of-resources management starship voyage strategy game, tasks you with finding five habitable planets before your ship falls apart completely. Mostly your ship will fall apart completely.

And I’m okay with this. As we all know from Darkstar, Galaxy of Terror, and 2001, space isn’t friendly. The dungeons in a rogue-a-like are happy theme parks next to the vast fuel sucking vacuum between barren planets. The dramatic tension in Shifts is whether you’ll run out of fuel or supplies first. Not whether you’ll fail, but how you’ll fail.

This could have made for a pretty good “see if you can do better next time” challenge, along the lines of Elder Sign: Omens, but even more streamlined so it’s easily and always playable in a single sitting. No such thing happens in Shifts, an abrupt “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” exercise in it all being for naught. Not only is your score not saved, it doesn’t even exist. Shifts is a binary pass or fail endeavor, unsatisfying whatever the outcome, because you’re simply dumped back to the main menu where you can choose to play again or read the credits for the aptly named Threadbare Games.

Each turn, you assign crew members to shifts, which determine what your ship can do that turn. It’s all driven by icons and numbers, which may as well be interchangeable. The engineering chick isn’t the engineering chick so much as she’s the one with the swoopy bangs. I still can’t tell the science chick from the executive officer chick beyond one is the fish icon and the other is the party icon. The simple gameplay and simple no-frills theming don’t give the characters any meaningful character, and your ship is a set of three numbers that you don’t want to get to zero. Fuel is as good as hull integrity which is as good as colony arks.

Consider Shadow Watch, a similarly streamlined game about characters with asymmetrical powers who get better at what they do as the game goes on. The same thing happens in Shifts, but it’s a weird combination of simple and undocumented. It’s easy enough to figure out the “brobots” that boost a character’s power, but what good are the upgrade stars? Who knows. Who cares? Not Shifts, a solid idea that needs a bit more work to be a good game. Right now, it’s as merely clerical as the name implies.

2 stars