Going AFK for Starborne’s space-based MMORTS

The internet was a wild and wonderful place around the turn of the century (as opposed to being wild and utterly terrifying as it is now), with nascent social networks, the early forays into mainstream online multiplayer gaming, wonderfully anachronistic HTML design and so much more. And, of course, there were also those places where all of this converged into one as MMO browser games. It’s that heyday of online strategy that the free-to-play MMORTS Starborne seeks to recapture, but without, you know, being objectively terrible by modern standards.

This is a huge game of intergalactic war played out over the course of eight weeks at a time. Everyone starts by founding a fledgeling empire of their own, and gradually growing and growing in scale as alliances rise from the ashes of initial struggles and start to set their combined gaze at enemies further and further away. At the end of it all, only one group or player can be named the victor, as hundreds or thousands of players have fallen by the wayside.

With a new server freshly launched yesterday – and sure to fill up in a matter of days, if you want to check it out – we dove right in.

Starborne is strikingly pretty to look at, as so many space-bound games manage to be. It easily stands alongside space strategy peers such as Stellaris in its visual splendour, but with a little cross-pollination from Solid Clouds compatriots at CCP Games to help lead their own visual style – Icelandic game devs and space games are a pretty iconic duo at this point. As you play, you can seamlessly zoom from viewing roughly a sixth of the galactic map, all the way in to your starting space station, or that of any of the other 5130 players potentially in the game.

You start small, with just that first space station and a small amount of neighbouring hexes to exploit. The balance of resources that you can initially tap into is dependent on the planets and asteroid belts you find nearby, their Metal, Gas, Crystal and Labour all being scooped up and delivered to your station automatically. Those initial resources can determine the path you take, as Metal is needed for a strong military, Gas lets you better follow the Domain path, and Crystal feeds more industry, but you could equally look at the resource view and find the celestial bodies near you that tie into your preferred playstyle.

Starborne is achingly slow compared to the comparative instant gratification that offline grand strategy games like Civilization or Stellaris can offer, where you can quickly spin through turns or increase the game speed. Everything here works in real-time, and while we’re still talking about being able to upgrade a refinery in 4 or 5 minutes and your fleets being able to cross the vast interstellar voids in just a few hours instead of years, it feels it as you watch the timers tick down.

The temptation is always there to stare at your fleet as it inches its way through the cosmos, but Starborne and games of its ilk are better played in shorter bursts. Whether it’s having the game minimised in the background or quitting and coming back a few hours later to see the progress that’s been made in your absense. It’s ideal for flurries of activity that set your ship and building construction queues, clicking through notifications and rewards, and then stepping away from the game again to go do the dishes, walk the dog, play something else, even.

Eventually, you’ll have to battle or bargain with other players, but this is practically off-limits for the first week, as the game protects you all from each other. It means that everyone has time to potentially reach out and get a feel for who their neighbours are. And if they’re a neighbour from hell, you can try to foster some partnerships and alliances with others to defend yourself… or to let you pick out the weak for when the protection phase wears off.

Having an alliance will be crucial in the second step, as you will now start butting heads with other alliances, while trying to build up your combined might to capture Grand Terrestrial stars that, once you have enough of them, will hand control of your sector’s central Dyson Sphere over to you. Then your focus turns to the galactic, as you seek to upgrade your Dyson sphere while stalling the progress of other alliances and confederacies.

In the background to all of this, you’ll be dealing with more kinds of cards than I personally like to shake a stick at. Each fleet and space station has five card slots that can be used to boost and modify them, whether it’s increasing attack damage, speed in transit, or giving a boost to industrial capacity. You also have empire-wide cards that provide buffs for the number of covert operatives you can have, reduce construction time, and more.

All of this can be earned in-game through the natural run of play, completing missions, picking up daily log in bonuses, and scrapping unwanted cards to buy new ones. However, there is also the possibility to spend and get slightly ahead. A premium pass increases the size of your build queues, meaning you won’t need to log in quite as often to keep them stocked up later in the game, as well as giving additional cards for daily logins. While there are loot caches and time-skip cards that can cut into the construction time of buildings, they’re not part of the game’s microtransactions, which are predominantly kept for cosmetics and vanity items.

Alpha 9 already feels pretty solid structurally, and the core loop of dip in, dip out empire management works nicely, but there’s still a way for the game to go. The tutorial tasks could do with a bit of love in certain areas, and I honestly find it a bit overwhelming the sheer variety of cards available. There’s also plenty more to do with alliance management and communication, with just some basic chat functions in the game, but it’s simple for players to organise themselves through Discord, plus a companion app is planned to bring notifications and build queue management.

Solid Clouds are pretty bold with their hyperbolic claim that Starborne is the greatest game you’ve never heard of, but there’s a definite appeal to me, combining memories of early 2000s internet gaming, the space setting and the vast scale and player count. I find myself wanting to quickly check in on my empire whenever I sit down at my computer. If it appeals to you as well, then don’t hesitate to hop into the game while there’s still spaces on the newest server. Outside of needing a PC, there’s nothing stopping you.

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I'm probably wearing toe shoes, and there's nothing you can do to stop me!