Stars! is something of a cult phenomenon. With extensive Web coverage, its own Usenet group, and a dedicated group of followers, the original shareware game from Jeff Johnson and Jeff McBride has been a solid hit for some time. Now, partnered with Empire Interactive, "the Jeffs" have spiced up Stars! quite a bit to make it the best low-rent space strategy game around, edging out the previous leader, Spaceward Ho! 4.0
Conquer-the-galaxy games are as ubiquitous as ticks on a redbone hound, and one interesting offshoot is the category of simple "beer-n-pretzels" games. These have modest graphics, few stylistic flourishes, straightforward gameplay, low hardware requirements, and, usually, a high degree of play depth. VGA Planets and Spaceward Ho! are two of the best known, and Stars! is clearly in their company. It features a solid Windows interface, plain graphics, a wide range of custom options, deep strategic content, and compulsive playability.
Stars! follows the tried-and-true premise that the universe is your oyster so you might as well slide that sucker down your gullet like a Blue Point. Explore, expand, colonize, exploit, crush, kill, destroy, and then expand some more. As with similar games, you exercise your manifest destiny through the use of a star map and several menu screens. Beginning on a home planet, you build a fleet to explore other planets and discover a) how habitable they are and b) if they have any worthwhile minerals to exploit. Planets with poor chances for supporting a colony can be remote-mined. If you have the technology, you can attempt to terraform them to support life. Planets with good atmosphere can become home to a new colony, which will grow and expand.
The home planet begins by producing things like factories and mines, which in turn create the resources that go into making ships and researching new technology. It's all painfully straightforward, and managing everything is made relatively simple by a single screen interface that keeps all relevant controls and information in front of you at all times. As you click through turns, year by year, you get messages for every action that has been taken, and can go straight to the locus of that action to nudge it further along.
Directing the action of your various space craft, which will include probes, transports, colony ships, warships, and other treats, is extremely satisfying. Both complex (in terms of what you can do) and simple (in terms of actually implementing the orders), giving ships waypoints and orders is the heart of the game. If you give ships the same orders repeatedly (go to planet A, pick up minerals, go to planet B, drop off miners and pick up colonists, return to planet B, etc.), these can be stored in default files and easily implemented for numerous craft. Space combat, while abstracted and not under user control, has a similar degree of custom control to it. You can set specific orders for dealing with each conflict, setting target types and tactics.
Gameplay is eminently customizable, with the ability to build new ship designs from the ground up based on your current needs and tech levels. Races are extensively customizable, with an elaborate "race creation wizard" that walks you through the complex process of creating a new race by setting various attitudes, attributes, and skills. Everything is open to tweaking in one way or another, which is just the way a game like this should be.
Low-bandwidth games like this are perfect for Internet play, so it's lamentable that the developers of Stars! opted not have native Internet support for multiplayer. With a LAN IPX driver already in place, it would not have been too much more work to create a front end for TCP/IP play across conventional ISP.
This is precisely the kind of game that develops a strong following. While Master of Orion II often wallows in excess and is buggy to a fault, Stars! shows you why less IS more. A ridiculously extensive tutorial makes understanding it all very easy, and a fat manual and large online help files make getting into the workings and tinkering around a snap. Stars! may not be the best-looking game in town and it may lack the chrome many gamers expect, but strong gameplay and design make it a sure winner.