Always been a fan of 4X games but always frustrated by the lack of good quality multiplayer games around? Look no further, my friend. Welcome home.
Stars! is a great strategy game designed solely to give the best multiplayer experience possible against other humans. The mechanics of the game are not only detailed and well designed, but also well balanced, thanks in part to the help of a small but very loyal player base which spot possible bugs and/or abuse and police the games officialized by their automatic host.
Loyal to the (now modern) ideology of the 4X space game genre such as Master of Orion, you are elected as the everlasting leader of a planet from which the dominant race have somehow managed to discover the secrets of space exploration and colonization. It is then up to you to guide this emerging race into the void, and turn this humble beginning into a mighty empire able to crush the other races in the galaxy. A small story is written in the nice in-game helpfile system, explaining how the galaxy formed and why you have limitations such as not being able to cross the borders of the galaxy map.
Created in the era of the elderly Windows 3.1, one of my greatest fears was to discover inabilities due to the antique coding. Not only did Stars! age wonderfully along with the new modern OSes, but it only took me a few sessions to realize that what can be considered weak points can just as easily be turned into assets. For example, the size and lack of entry in the registry allows you to carry the game on a USB stick and play on any computer as long as you are aware and wary of the cheat protection. The interface and spartan graphics, reminiscent of the old Windows 3.1 games, are another good example. Obviously designed with the limitation of the antique system in mind, they both do excel in their practicality. I have to admit that, in the twenty or so games that I’ve played so far, the interface never got in my way even once. This game also does not support music at all and barely even supports sound effects, depending on the version you are using. Obviously done to, again, keep the file size very small, it does help in the long run to concentrate on the task at hand when playing. With the game taking so little resources on its own to run on your computer, it is also a simple matter to open your favorite music player to listen to music you actually like, instead of always listening to the same boring synthesizer music, which is a problem that plagues a lot of other older games.
Since all the game core files can be stored on a single floppy, it is easy to simply carry the game (and your turn) to any other 16 or 32bit compatible computer and play from there (While XP works without a hitch, the 64bit Vista systems are not compatible. If you do not want to mess around with compatibility settings, DOSBox can be used in conjunction with Windows 3.1 in this case.). The game will simply create a harmless configuration file on the new machine in your Windows default directory so that it is able to save your configuration preferences and serial key (Vista, again, by default doesn't allow you to do that: you will need to redo your configuration and enter your serial key every time you play unless you are willing to mess around for a workaround). It is also interesting to note that Stars! can be run in Unix/Linux systems (thanks to WINE), and that similar arrangements can be made for Macs.
One aspect of the game which was really refreshing to see, is the fact that the AIs don't cheat, a point which greatly differs from the vast majority of the other well established 4X series. To compensate for their lack of creativity, the default AIs are instead pre-built races which have been attributed extra race creation points, making them slightly superior. They are, however, still far from being unbeatable, and are considered, by the intermediate players (who’ve mastered the race creation process), to be both weak and good training exercises for newcomers.
Speaking of the race creation process, a game without variety would become boring really fast... And the race creation helps a lot to alleviate that. With half a dozen primary racial traits and another dozen secondary traits to choose from, the custom race creation is what spices things up in this game. It is also where the true masters of Stars! can outshine the more moderate players since it also covers the economical attributes of the race being created. A lot of different options are available, all viable in their own way depending on the player’s play style.
There is one aspect of the game which requires a fair amount of warning for players who wish to compete in the biggest games: the time required to complete a standard PBEM game. In an effort to provide a good estimation of the time required to invest in a good and serious game, I tried various ways to play Stars! and have found three primary ways to play it. The first type of game, the solo mode against AIs in which you are your own host and thus play at your very own rhythm, has the advantage that you can stop and resume the game whenever you wish. This is the recommended mode for beginners, for it allows you to familiarize yourself with the game before jumping in the fray against human opponents. The second kind of game would be duels, a player versus player game with no diplomacy and usually no communication between the players. One player hosts the game while the second player plays on his own computer and receives and sends his turns to the host, usually by email. Such games can be completed in one sitting and usually require between four, eight, and ten hours, depending on the speed of play of both players. A specialized version of duels, called Blitz, can be played even faster by adding some special rules to speed up play, and can then be played with more players without sacrificing the speed of play.
The third and last kind of game is the "normal" game in which usually between four to eight players participate (but this can go as low as three players in a tiny or small universe, and up to as high as sixteen players in a huge universe, or any combination which strikes your fancy). From this point on, discussion, diplomacy, trade, and alliances between players begins to be commonplace as the game advances, adding greatly to the total base time required to micromanage your own empire. When war erupts, battles also need to be planned and, as you turn out to be victorious and grab more and more planets, the time required to continue to make good quality turns will increase. It is in this mode of play that time may begin to be an issue for a serious player, for it is not uncommon in the end game to need to invest around two hours of your time simply to micromanage your turn. If you wish to add to this the amount of time needed for diplomacy, the time needed to chat or discuss through emails about the right strategy to use to coordinate your action with your ally/allies, the research needed to make sure everything really goes along with your plan and the possible battle simulations that you might want to re-enact before engaging your main fleet into what could possibly be a kamikaze action... This small two hours per turn can easily go up to eight or even ten hours per turn. Adding to this the fact that most big games last at least about six months... A serious player wishing to compete against other human players needs to know right off the bat where they stand, and where they wish to go versus their real life schedule. From smaller games taking less time to complete, and bigger games potentially able to last for years, one should choose their game settings carefully if they want to complete the game from A to Z.
All in all, Stars! is truly a game which was, and is, still way ahead of its time. While neophyte strategy gamers would be wise to start with light and easy 4X games like Ascendancy or Spaceward Ho!, the hardcore strategy gamer will definitely find in this game the best which could ever have been done so far in multiplayer PBEM gaming. A definite gem for those who can truly understand its magic.
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