Sometimes you just want to blow spaceships up. I mean, sure, it’s fun to shuffle colonists between mines and farms, do a little diplomacy with a picture of an alien, pore over a tech tree’s fork in the road between neutronium beams or quantum fusion, make the adjustments to boost a -2Cr income to a +4Cr income, and decide which planet is going to build the Interstellar Moon Mall wonder of the universe. But when it’s all over, what you remember are the attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion and the c-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate.
Stars in Shadow evokes Master of Orion at first. Its fixed races, cheery presentation, bright colors, and turn-based tactical combat are vintage Simtex, so full of personality, so reliant on the hand-drawn art we had before 3D accelerators pushed polygons onto high-resolution monitors. You’re not going to be rolling up your own race, Stellaris-style, because there’s a cute pre-built alien ecology here, spelled out in a comic sans that makes everything the opposite of grim. You’re not even going to be the boring ol’ humans. Pick one of the cartoon aliens first. Maybe the cobra people, the merchant sea horses, or the crab people. Stars in Shadow tells you in no uncertain term not to play the humans for your first game. They have special rules because they don’t belong in this corner of the galaxy. This is a galaxy for hand-made colorful quirky aliens.
But on a level deeper than the MOOey presentation, it resembles Age of Wonders 3 for its calculated emphasis on battles. When you play Stars in Shadow, you do all that other stuff I mentioned with colonies, diplomacy, tech trees, income, and buildings. But it’s all streamlined to be a foundation for what ships you can build, where you can send them, and how they fight. It’s a design with the same confidence and focus of Age of Wonders. Let’s make stuff fight other stuff. Let’s get tactical. Lemme hear your spaceship talk.
There’s just enough of the usual 4X for Stars in Shadow to blast off. Explore star systems for the best planets. Send colonists out. Build up planets. Pick your techs. But once you get into the mid-game, almost everything you’re doing revolves around your spaceships. The tech tree mostly unlocks new components to put in your ships. Colony management tops out pretty quickly. This isn’t the usual open-ended “every planet can always be better” model. You’ll have a handful of hands-off specialized planets for farming, mining, science, or money planets, but the planets that matter most will be cranking out spaceships. You’ll even hit the edges of the map pretty quickly. These galaxies are rather, um, intimate.
Most of the mid-game gameplay is spaceship management. Sending fleets hither and yon. Lots of it. Deciding where to send your ships. Lots of enemy ships to and fro. Lots of fighting battles on a top-down turn-based grid. In battle, you move each ship, you tell each ship to shoot, you might even fire individual weapons at different targets. Or just drag select the whole fleet to scooch them forward and then click targets until they evaporate under the alpha fire. Here’s where Stars in Shadow is at its most MOO.
Part of what makes these battles meaningful is that you’ve built and presumably designed every one of these ships. If you’re one of those people who whines about having to design your own spaceships — waaah, I don’t want to actually use the cool stuff I researched! — you won’t get very far in Stars in Shadow. Not only does it assume you’re going to use the components you research to design new ships (a simple process, really), but it assumes you’re going to update your existing ships. It even suggests you might want to refit your ships to adapt to whatever the other guy is building. If you really can’t be bothered, a couple of automated options will design a new ship for you. But if you’re automating the basis of the game, you might be in the wrong game.
To inform your ship-building and other decisions, Stars in Shadow is generously tooltipped, with hyperlinks galore. It’s all so above-board, with numbers laid wonderfully bare so you can make decisions about whether to fit your lasers with armor piercing modulators or rework your defenses to emphasize shields over armor. This will partly depend on what ships you’re fighting, of course. Feel free to have a look around. Once you can see something, you can pretty much see all of it. Scanner range doesn’t believe in fog of war. Just click a visible enemy ship, mouse over the weapons in its component list to see how much damage it does, its armor and hit points, its engines, its crew size. It’s all there. Because tactical combat is only as good as the amount of information it provides.
For such a sleek and graceful game, Stars in Shadow is missing an answer to that usual pain-in-the-ass part of sci-fi 4Xs where I have to build transports to ferry troops for planetary combat. What’s worse, I have to manually load and unload the little buggers. Now where did I put that army? That’s an old school design decision I didn’t miss. But once the necessary planets are invaded, you can chuck your transports into an offscreen pool of merchant marine. Now they let you move food and colonists around. If you don’t need to move food or colonists, they generate trade money for you. And when you do need to get those armies from here to there, just grab a couple of ships out of the transport pool.
What’s most remarkable about Stars in Shadow is that it holds its own among arguably better games like Endless Space 2, Galactic Civilizations III, Star Ruler 2, and Stellaris. Those games all embrace the epic sweep of science fiction with detail and breadth. They must do everything and they must do it epicly. After all, if it’s out in space, it has to be as vast and formidable as space itself. But Stars in Shadow, by contrast, knows how to do something too few games do. It knows how to focus.