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Red's Read on Starborne

Take to the stars

Red Thomas Updated: Posted:
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Man, I have been on a string of surprises lately, and Starborne just continues that trend in spades.  The game had popped on my radar quite a while back, but I’d ignored it.  In large part, it was because everything I saw about the game, including fairly sizable videos showing gameplay footage, suggested something that was like a typical browser-based game with improved graphics.

Nothing about Starborne really has stood out to me since it first started showing up in my feed, but it just keeps popping up as something I should be interested in.  Even watching relatively positive reviews from content creators that I tend to share tastes with failed to make me feel interested in the game.  I think this is probably due to just that feel of the game, which is that it’s the same sort of system you find in many browser-based games that just don’t have much complexity to them.

The most amazingly odd thing happened, though.  I ended up in a situation where I expected to be away from my computer for a while and wanted some sort of mobile-friendly game to play while I was on the road.  I’ve played a few moderately interesting ones over the last few months, but nothing that really grabbed me.  Then Starborne suddenly popped back into my feed again and I just thought for some reason that it was a mobile game and took a harder look at it expecting the game to scratch that particular need.

Obviously, it’s not a mobile game (though I think it easily could be ported and should be as quickly as possible), but that second glance at the game ended up sharpening my interest in an unexpected way.  It seemed like there was more to the game that I had originally thought, and I decided to give it a shot.  Let’s take a walk through some of what I found and hopefully you’ll have what you need to decide if Starborne is a game you’ll want to try.

Not Exactly, but Sorta

What I quickly found was that while Starborne isn’t exactly what I thought it was, it is pretty close in several ways.  The game does play very similarly to typical browser-based and mobile strategy games.  Don’t let that turn you off, because there are key differences, but the comparison is close enough that I’ll start by using it to better explain the general concept of the game and that similarity makes for a really easy tool in that comparison.


The game is a hex-based strategy game in the best turn-based style, but this one is RTS.   That’s RTS as in hours or days to complete a task, not seconds.

Like many of those mobile games, the main resource in Starborne is actually time.  Also, like most of those other games, the revenue system is built around that constraint to at least some extent.  Players improve their facilities to develop a trickle of resources into a more sustainable flow.  Following in the vein of that apt comparison, the flow never truly reaches adequate levels, at least in my experience thus far, and the player is constantly waiting on more resources to execute in the next step of the master plan, or making choices between building up the fleet, building new facilities, or upgrading existing facilities.

That comparative similarity continues into the card system that I’ll discuss in more detail later, but for now you just need to know that it allows you to tailor units and facilities and several of the key methods for increasing resource flow fall into this particular mechanic.  The tie to the browser-based game model is that a lot of these cards can be used to directly increase resource production and can also be purchased for cash.

Starborne is a free-to-play game, and revenue is generated in large part though these cards.  These cards are so key to time management in the game and since time is actually a specific resource in it, that this strikes me as a very clear pay-to-win system.  Again, and as I said earlier, stay with me, though.  You know I don’t write about games I dislike, so there’s more to this.

No amount of hedging will get past the pay-to-win element of the game.  The fact is, you can buy time in several forms, and time is the key limiting resource.  Starborne is overtly PvP and the ability to advance more quickly than your adversaries is absolutely something that directly improves your ability to defeat them in combat, or you would really think so, at least.


There are ways that players can get ahead in the game by using the cash shop, but there’s risk involved and I’m not sure the benefit is that great by the time you reach the end game.

Ah, but the Mitigations

Despite an obvious negative, there are always at least a few things that I can find to like in nearly any game, though.  In this case, there are a number of mitigations that allow me to point directly at something that’s blatant pay-to-win and still not care.  I understand that it’s a deal-breaker for some, but here are a few reasons for why it doesn’t bother me as much.

First, and somewhat disingenuously, I’d note that there are in-game processes for acquiring all the relevant boosts to productivity.  You can create all the productivity boosting cards purely with in-game currency and other than cosmetics, I’ve not found anything you couldn’t get in the game for free that required the player to purchase cards.  The thing to note is that cards save you in-game resources or help collect them faster, and because those cards are in shorter supply than you’d like, buying them does feel like a tangible difference.

I think you’d have to burn a ridiculous amount of cash to get enough of them to actually make that difference, though.  One of the genius aspects of the game is that the time restrictions come in several forms, and while there are cards that help in each aspect, none help in every respect.  That means that spending cash to speed up resource collection, runs into a bottleneck on the production side.  Speeding production creates a bottleneck with other resources.   It’s a really cool system that’s perpetually imbalanced, but still doesn’t feel like you’re being handicapped in anyway.


Solar flares are just one of several systems that players can capitalize on to put resources in the bank.

At least, that’s how I feel about it, and I think in large part it’s because there are so many different paths to collecting resources that it’s just not practical to try and enhance them all through whale-grade resourcing.  You can collect from a solar flare for a windfall of one resource or another, or you can raid player or NPC facilities to collect a modest amount of all three resources, or you could enhance your own production through upgrades and building new outposts.   Each path has its own cards that can be used to enhance the process, and none feel particularly overpowered.  Also, because you get so many cards just for doing things in the game, you never really feel limited just because you didn’t spend money.

But there’s one really huge mitigation that covers all the bases, and that’s the ability to take assets with you from one game to the next.   I haven’t experienced this personally yet because my game is still running, but players apparently keep credits, cards, and several account-level upgrades between games (or servers, depending on how you think about it).

Starborne is a game where everyone joins relatively soon after a new server comes online.  That server lasts for as long as 60 days, while players vie to meet one of the three separate win conditions:

  • Strategic – Acquire the most victory points through capturing and controlling several key facilities located towards the center of the map.
  • Dyson – Unlock and constructing components for Dyson Spheres.
  • Territorial – Claim and hold the most territory (hexes) on the galaxy map.

Win or lose, all players are free to select a new server once the game is over.  What I like about this is that any money you spend only helps you in that one game.  Players can achieve nearly identical results by just focusing one game on increasing their available resources, and then rolling into the next game with all the same advantages of someone who’s spent money in the cash shop.

For folks like me who really enjoy the industrial side of games like this, that’s not a bad deal at all.  I have zero problem spending two months building an industrial empire in one game that exists only to supply my military campaign over two months in the next game.  Winning is nice, but I’ve always been one to enjoy setting my own win conditions, and PvP just makes the environment I’m operating in more interesting.

There’s one more mitigation before I move on, and that’s alliances.  Players can band together in alliances of up to two player-empires, depending on server.   While individual players can work towards victory conditions on their own, alliances count towards victory in aggregate.  That really limits the impact of whaling on the individual scale because any benefit becomes diluted in the crowd.

Wait, There’s More

We’ve gone through some of the concerns about the game and some of the things that mitigate those issues, but you’re wondering what the game is actually like and why I like it so much.   Let’s get into that a little, because it’s every bit as complex as all of the rest of it.

What I like about this game is the surprising depth that I found once I actually started playing around with it.  On the surface, it’s pretty straight forward with the player harvesting resources to create and upgrade stations and fleets of ships.  Pretty much standard RTS stuff, and since I really love RTS, it’s right up my alley.

Once you get in, you start learning that there are so many moving parts and so many ways you can play that the opportunities just open up before you.  Plus, because this is a game that happens over two months, there is a definite sense of the grand in the grand strategy around this game.  Do you spend your resources upgrading production facilities in your station that collect from planets, moons, and asteroid fields over a significant area or do you build outposts that can be upgraded to collect more resources more effectively over just asteroids in a smaller area?  Do you even go the industrial route, or do you focus on a heavy fleet and just seizing resources from your neighbors?


Players can join NPC factions (some of which can be unlocked for cash) which give interesting sets of bonuses.  Also, the policy cards that can be slotted based on the chosen faction can be upgraded throughout the game, upgrades were persist between games.

All options are viable, but not all at the same time.  The game necessitates constant sacrifices and forces you to engage in a constant loop of strategy, with persistent rethinking of your position, assets, and opportunities.  All of that is further complicated by this card mechanic.

Cards are used in several places, but most importantly in stations and fleets where they add various bonuses.  Some cards provide a given bonus for as long as you care to have them equipped, and other cards only function for anything from an hour to a couple days.  This means stations and fleets are in constant flux with values and abilities changing at inconsistent rates.  It’s a very simple mechanic that adds immense chaos to the game, and I absolutely love it.

Players acquire cards through a myriad of ways, many of them random.  Scouts can be used to uncover various missions and fleets dispatched, which will generate random card drops for players.  Also, there is a very large list of achievements for which the player will be constantly rewarded with cards for achieving new milestones.  Then, there’s the crafting system that players can use to create specific cards they need if they haven’t randomly found them already.

What’s more, there’s a research system that can be used to make those same cards less expensive to create.  You can also research policy cards to upgrade them over time, making them move effective.   Both forms of research follow you to new games, giving players a subtle advantage each time they play a game and move on to the next.

Red’s Read

I’m in love with the complexity and the pace of this game.   I know it’s not for everyone, but I really love the slower pace of grand strategy.  I like taking my time to think about what I want to do and then building up a plan over days or weeks.   I even enjoy having those plans destroyed by a random choice made by another player that invalidates the intelligence I thought had been solid. 

I’m also incredibly enamored with the number of playstyles available and the three win conditions ensure every one of them is viable because you’re just competing with others doing the same thing to reach the win condition.  This means the aggressive player might cripple your chances to win a Dyson victory by attacking and raiding your stations, but you’re not really competing with him for victory.   That player may be going for a territorial victory, as opposed to the industrial victory you’re pursuing, thus the conflict is oblique rather than direct.


Every time I look around, I’m finding something else I can do that I didn’t know about or more flexibility that I didn’t know I had.   I can’t stress enough how much I’m enjoying this game, not to mention how surprised I am that it turned out to be this fun for me.

There’s an obvious element of pay to win present, but I don’t know how valuable it would be to attempt to actually drop cash in an attempt to win anything.  For one, the nature of the game and the revenue model is such that you could be obliterated the next minute and have just wasted all that money.  Secondly, even if you never get pitted in an adversarial situation to risk your purchase, you still are competing in an environment where strategy counts for far more than raw assets.

I would say that folks who wished there were a more persistent and multiplayer version of Hearts of Iron or Europa Universalis should absolutely be checking this game out.  Even those who prefer lighter strategy games could find something here to really enjoy.

Fans of the more traditional MMO games with characters and stats are probably less likely to enjoy Starborne.  There’s definitely not much more than a minimal level of RPG in this game, and despite the developer claim to the MMO designation, I’m not sure there’s much massive to the multiplayer, either.  Those looking for that individually immersive experience should enter with caution.

Though, I’d say those folks like me who’ve been itching for some sort of grand strategy on an MMO-like level may have found that game for which they’ve been looking.  Either way, I find it easy to recommend.  The game is free to download and play, so you can’t lose anything by giving it a shot.

If you’re on the fence, I say do it.  I expect there’s a large segment of the readership that just won’t like a game like this, but you lose nothing by trying.   For those who do enjoy strategy, I can’t stress enough how interesting I’ve found this game.  I’m still watching videos on how to do simple things in the game and I’m loving it, and I’m excited to see what else the developers choose to add to a game that already has a fascinating amount of depth.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.