Stars! is a complex turn-based computer game based around the management of planets and fleets of spaceships following the 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit & eXterminate) model. The game has been around since 1995, and still has a strong following.
Developer and publisher
Stars! was developed by Jeff Johnson and Jeff McBride ("the Jeffs") for their own use, and initially released as shareware. A retail version was later produced for, and published by Empire Interactive, although the shareware version continued. More recently the game has been sold as part of the Xplosiv budget games range.
The game was originally developed in 1995, with version 2.0 released early in 1996. Later that year the newsgroup rec.games.computer.stars became active, facilitating public discussion of tactics and allowing players to find new games. By the end of 1996 version 2.6 had been released, and the game has remained essentially unchanged ever since, although there have been numerous updates. The most recent patch version, 2.7j RC4 (release candidate 4) was released in December 2000.
By 1998 the game had been analysed so thoroughly that some players were starting to complain that winning a game required a degree in mathematics. While this is an obvious exaggeration, it is true that it is difficult to compete at higher levels of play without a good understanding of the mathematics behind the game.
Modes of play
The game is well adapted to the Play-By-Email (PBEM) style of multiplayer gaming. One player takes on duties as host, and the other players send their instructions (turn files) by email to the host. The host then generates the results of those instructions and emails back the results.
An alternative to play-by-email is to use an online system such as the Stars! Autohost. This system automates most of the hosting duties, and can handle a large number of games simultaneously.
Many games are run at a rate of 1 turn per calendar day, giving plenty of time for strategic thinking. In large games this can be quite necessary, with turn generation dropping to only 3 times per week in cases, due to the complexity of the game and the level of micro-management required to effectively control a large empire competitively.
There is also a reasonably competent artificial intelligence (AI) that can take part in the game. The player can opt to play against AIs only (up to 15 of them), and this is the way that new players typically get to learn the game mechanics before launching into multi-player games. A well-regarded tutorial helps with getting started.
Another style of play is referred to as a Blitz game. In these games, turns are played every 15 minutes or so, and all players must be at their computers at the same time. Blitz games are generally more tactical and less political in nature, due to the time constraints involved.
Recently, the duel has become more popular. These are similar to regular turn-a-day games but are between two players only. Again, with only two players involved there is no political side to these games.
The graphics in the game are rudimentary, which is not surprising given its age. It is entirely 2D, and the graphics consist of the main map view and static pictures of planets, ship hulls and components. Even battles consist of moving unanimated icons around a grid.
Stars! games begin with race design, in which the player creates an alien race using the custom race wizard. This is a points based system, with advantages costing points and disadvantages giving them back. The total points left at the end of the design must be zero or greater. Each race has a primary racial trait, possibly several lesser racial traits, environmental settings, economic settings, and technology research capabilities, all of which can be adjusted.
Primary racial traits
Claim Adjuster (CA)
Terraforming experts, they enjoy instant, free, alteration of any planet they acquire(instaforming), as well as having the ability to affect the quality of both friends and enemies planets through the use of specialised miners and bombs. Generally accepted to be the most powerful trait, economically. 
Very good at offensive warfare, though not so good at defense. They can build specialised offensive equipment, and are the only race to have access to BattleCruisers and Dreadnoughts, but they can only build basic planetary defences, and have NO knowledge of mines. Also receives a bonus for invading troops. WMs favor the early-to-mid game, with most of their advantages disappearing in the late game. 
Inner Strength (IS)
Very good at defensive warfare, and has a wide variety of equipment to enhance their ships such as combined shields and armour, cloak disruptors and miniature gatling lasers. They have access to the huge Super Freighter, and both standard and speed trap mines. Their colonists receive a defensive bonus, and can breed on board transport ships. Viewed as one of the weakest PRTs. 
Packet Physics (PP)
Experts at launching "mass packets" using their advanced mass driver technology which can be used for scouting, as a weapon, or even a means of terraforming. Will often start with an extra 'outpost' colony. Viewed as one of the weakest PRTs, except Tiny games where small distances make packets into dangerous weapons. 
Interstellar Traveller (IT)
Have unique advantages when it comes to building and using stargates. Stargates are cheaper and IT ships can carry cargo through them, as well as taking less damage for exceeding the gate limits. At high tech levels, gates can be built with no limits for distance or weight. Often starts with an extra 'outpost' colony.
Super Stealth (SS)
Experts at keeping hidden, all their ships have a base 75% cloak and can carry cargo without losing cloak effectivness, as well as being able to travel through minefields 1 warp faster than normal. Can build specialised stealth equipment with built-in cloaks (such as shields and scanners), and has access to the Rogue and Stealth Bomber ships. Also receives a research bonus based on the total galaxy-wide research spending.
Space Demolition (SD)
Masters of minefields, able to build all types of mines and use them as an early warning system. Able to plough through minefields 2 warps faster than normal and can remotely detonate its own standard minefields. Can build specialised minelaying ships which double mine production rates.
Alternate Reality (AR)
AR is a unique race, which plays quite differently to the other races. Can be vulnerable in the early stages of a game, but very powerful later on. They live in their starbases, and can eventually upgrade them to the huge Death Stars. Also has the ability to 'remote mine' its own planets for extra minerals.
'Jack of all Trades (JOAT)
While not having any unique advantages, they get built-in scanners on their Scouts, Frigates and Destroyers, as well as 20% higher maximum population per planet.
Hyper Expansion (HE)
One of the most feared races, and the first with which 'monster' status was achieved. Can build totally adaptable Metamorph ships, as well as super-efficient energy capacitors with which to enhance their weapons. They get double the listed growth rate for their colonies, but can only support half the number of colonists on them, making (as the name suggests) expansion a must for survival. Totally unable to construct stargates.
Lesser racial traits
In addition to the PRT, each race can select Lesser Racial Traits (LRTs). There is no limit to the number of LRTs that can be selected, although the race wizard penalises taking too many.
Each LRT is generally either an advantage or a disadvantage, although some have elements of both. Advantages cost race wizard points and disadvantages give them back.
Improved Fuel Efficiency (IFE)
Engines for races with IFE use 15% less fuel than normal. The main advantage however, is the Fuel Mizer engine is only available if you pick IFE. While nominally a fairly slow (warp-4) engine, it uses a lot less fuel at warp-9 than any other engine until real warp-9 engines become available with high propulsion tech levels. It is fairly standard for modern races to take IFE for this reason. 
No Ram Scoop Engines (NRSE)
Ram-scoop engines generate fuel as they travel. Taking NRSE makes these engines unavailable for the race, and hence the race wizard counts this as a disadvantage. However, taking NRSE does make available a relatively low tech warp-10 engine. Thus, a race with NRSE can build warp-10 capable ships much sooner than one without the LRT. Again, most modern races take NRSE.  Additionally, taking NRSE *and* IFE still allows use of the Fuel Mizer engine.
Advanced Remote Mining (ARM)
Allows for construction of advanced mining equipment, and vast mobile mining platforms. ARM becomes useful in the late game, but is only recommended if you *know* you are going to make heavy use of mining, e.g., Playing as Alternate Reality. 
Only Basic Remote Mining (OBRM)
Mutually exclusive with ARM, selecting this disables all but the most basic mining equipment but allows your colonies to grow 10% larger than normal. This results in a significant increase in economy, and is very desirable to players who don't favor remote mining. 
Improved Starbases (ISB)
Allows for the eventual construction of cheap Space Docks, and huge Ultra Stations. All starbases have a built-in 20% cloak, and are much cheaper to construct.
Low Starting Population (LSP)
Your homeworld starts with 30% fewer people. (17500 instead of 25000)
Total Terraforming (TT)
Makes terraforming cheaper, and allows eventual change to planets of 30% instead of the normal 15%. Can be very expensive.
Ultimate Recycling (UR)
Allows more minerals and recources to be recovered from scrapped ships. Since scrapping ships is rare, this is an unpopular advantage. 
Generalized Research (GR)
Provides a 15% boost to the overall number of research points, but spreads them through all fields making progress in a specific area difficult to achieve as all fields are advanced evenly.
Regenerating Shields (RS)
Makes shield 40% stronger and allows the to recharge 10% for every round of combat. Halves the effectiveness of armour.
Bleeding Edge Technology (BET)
Increases the potential for miniaturisation and cost reduction, but makes new technology more expensive to use. Almost always a bad choice. 
Mineral Alchemy (MA)
Makes conversion of energy to minerals more efficient. In the extreme end-game, this is very powerful, but the high cost puts most players off from its conditional benefit. 
No Advanced Scanners (NAS)
Makes penatrating scanners unavailable, but doubles the range of normal scanners. This doesn't restrict JOAT or SS racial scanners. Very ill advised unless playing JOAT or SS, quite good for JOAT. 
Cheap Engines (CE)
Decreases the cost of engines, but all ships going faster than Warp 6 have a 10% chance of failing to move. Generally considered to be a bad idea. 
Each race has a defined tolerance for environments (gravity, temperature and radiation levels) dissimilar to their natural one. Higher racial tolerances will result in more worlds available for colonization, and that the colonies will generally be more habitable. The habitability rating of a colony determines its maximum population size.
Population growth rate (PGR) determines the base rate at which a planetary population increases. However, this rate is reduced if the population is greater than 25% of the planetary maximum. Conventional wisdom suggests a PGR at 16% or higher, with 19% being a popular choice. 
Three areas fall within a race's economic settings: colonist resources, factories, and mines. Colonist resources determine the pre-factory resources, which are most useful for getting a colony on its feet. Factory settings include resource cost, efficiency, maximum factories per population size, and the "G box". The "G box" is a checkbox that lowers the germanium cost of factories from four germanium each to three each, and is highly recommended. Mines settings are also based on resource cost, efficiency, and maximum per population size. It's recommended to lower racial mine cost from five to three. 
Each of the six fields of research has a racial setting, which can be either normal, 50% cheaper, or 75% more expensive. There is also a checkbox providing tech three in all expensive fields at game start. A common choice is: all fields set to expensive, excepting cheap weapons, with the checkbox selected. Although advanced players often diverge from this, it's the standard by which they operate. 
Each player begins the game with one (or possibly two, depending on PRT and universe size) planets and a small fleet of starting ships. From these beginnings they develop their empire until they come into contact with the races of other players.
Players initially send scouts out to scan the planets around their homeworld. These scouts determine the environment and also the mineral concentrations. When a planet with a suitable environment (one that matches the environment settings defined in the race wizard) is found, coloniser ships are constructed and sent to the planet. Additional population and minerals can be shipped to the new colony in freighters.
Each planet will set up a production queue, telling its inhabitants what to build. Options include factories, mines, defences or a starbase. Once a starbase has been built, it becomes possible to build ships there.
In this way, colonies spread out throughout the galaxy from the homeworld, until the empire's boundaries meet those of another race.
During the game, each player builds up their economy through development of their planets. The economy of a planet is based on the number of colonists living there, and each 10,000 colonists contributes a certain amount of resources. In addition, the colonists can build factories (which in turn produce more resources) and mines (which produce minerals). The amount of resources produced by each colonist and factory, as well as the cost of building factories and mines, is configurable during the race design phase.
In addition to building factories and mines, the resources and minerals can also be used to build planetary defences, ships and for technology research. No player ever has enough resources and minerals to accomplish all the tasks they need, and so trade-offs are constantly being made.
Another element that adds to the complexity of the game is ship design. The game defines a number of standard hulls, each of which has different numbers of slots into which various components can be placed. Some slots can contain only engines, some only weapons, etc. There are also general purpose slots on some hulls.
Which hulls are available, as well as which components can be placed in those hulls, depends on the technology research level that the player has reached at a given point in the game.
Due to the complexity of the game there are no best designs. Advanced players continually counter-design ships as they battle against their opponents.
A significant complication to player's lives is caused by a limit of only 16 different ship designs per player. This means that older ships must be scrapped before new designs can be implemented, once the limit is reached. This limit acts to prevent unlimited counter-designing.
A relatively large number of ship hulls are available on which to base new designs, most of which are listed below. Generally, in each category the capability of the hull, and the level of construction technology required to build it, increases from left to right.
Warships: destroyer, cruiser, battlecruiser, battleship, dreadnought
Bombers: mini-bomber, B-17, stealth bomber, B52
Freighters: small freighter, medium freighter, large freighter, super freighter
Support vessels: mini colony ship, colony ship, mini minelayer, fuel transport, super fuel x-port, super minelayer
Multi-role vessels: scout, privateer, frigate, rogue, mini-morph, metamorph, galleon, nubian
Mining Platforms: midget miner, mini-miner, miner, super miner, ultra miner
Battles occur whenever fleets from two different races arrive at the same point, unless the players have set each other to "friend" in the player-relations manager.
Due to almost infinite number of possible ship designs, combined with a number of possible battle orders for each fleet, battles can be very difficult to predict. Advanced players will frequently try out a battle in a test-bed game against themselves prior to a particularly significant battle.
When a new game is started, the host defines the victory conditions for the game. Victory conditions can be managed by the game (for example, winner must have 100 capital ships and a score over 10,000) or, in multi-player games, may be by a simple vote.
Another important aspect of the game is research. There are six fields of technology that can be researched: energy, weapons, propulsion, construction, electronics and biotechnology. Each technology can be at any level between 0 (the default starting value) and 26 (maximum). Players can increase their level in technology by assigning resources to research, and can choose which technology to focus their research on. As players advance in techology, better components become available for use on their ships or planets.
The amount of resources required to increase a particular technology area depends on the current level, and also can be heavily influenced by choices made during race design. For example, one race design may take 3.5 times the resources to increase one level in a particular technology as another.
Also, several unique technologies may be obtained from the Mystery Trader as he passes through the galaxy at infrequent intervals.
It should be noted that there is no direct support in the game for technology trading. Experienced players accomplish the transfer of technology by exploiting game features that result in technology advances, including...
- Having a fleet survive a battle against superior technology
- Successfully invading a planet owned by a race with superior technology
- Scrapping ships that contain superior technology
The first two mechanisms also rely on the fact that the game allows allies to deliberately attack each other or invade each other's planets.
Because many games take place over a period of months between players spread across the globe, diplomacy plays a very large part in the game. Alliances form, backs are stabbed and the outcomes of wars are decided by long email conversations.
As Stars! has been around for so long, the community has developed some very effective techniques for getting the best out of a race design. There is still a lot of discussion along these lines in the discussion forums.
The population of a planet grows as the planet dwellers reproduce, but at 25% of maximum planet capacity the growth rate starts to slow. For this reason it is best to keep a planets population at exactly 25%, shipping excess population to another world. However, transport between planets is not instantaneous, and while moving the population is not (except for Inner Strength races) growing at all and so it is a good idea to have population in transit for the minimum possible time. In addition, a point will be reached at which there is nowhere left to put excess population; in this situation it is advisable to start filling planets to 100%.
Good population management is one of the keys to advanced play.
Starships in Stars! may be armed with beam weapons (such as lasers) or missiles/torpedoes. Amongst the most powerful weapons are "capital ship missiles" which do enormous amounts of damage. However, each missile fired will destroy at most one ship, and so advanced players will field vast numbers of very cheap ships called "chaff". The purpose of chaff is to be hit by the missiles (and die) before the players' valuable warships are targeted. As it is expensive to build missile ships, this has become an indispensable tactic. 
The counter to chaff is to include "beamers" (warships with lots of beam weapons) in your battle fleet. Beam weapons are not limited to one ship killed per shot, and so a powerful beamer can be used as a "chaff shredder". However, without chaff of their own beamers are quite vulnerable to and generally weaker than missile ships. This results in a rock-paper-scissors arrangement that is far more complex. Pre-chaff tactics largely consisted of large slow fleets of missile ships trying to engage each other, with victory going to the player with the biggest fleet. Now large warfleets must include beamers, missile ships, and chaff in order to win, with the outcome of battles being much harder to predict.
Advanced race design
Over the past few years, race design has been raised almost to an art form. The most commonly used benchmark in race design is achieving 25,000 annual resources by the game year 2450.  Any race that can meet said benchmark is considered a "monster", and is probably viable in advanced play. Some race designs can hit several times this level. Other benchmarks include "Armageddons by 2460" and "100 Armageddon Battleships ASAP", these include both race's economical capability and player's minerals and resources management capabilitiy. Benchmarks are tested by playing the race in a single player game, using the most favorable settings for growth. Experienced players will not use a race in a real game without first seeing how it performs under such testing.
There are three widely recognized design philosophies in advanced race design: hyper-growth (HG), hyper-production (HP), and tri-immune-HE. HG emphasises empire size, with high PGR and high rates of planet habitability. The Claim Adjuster, Hyper Expansion, and War Monger PRTs tend toward HG, although other PRTs may go the HG route. HP focuses on maximum potential per planet, with very good factory settings, usually sacrificing population produced resources and small amounts of PGR and habitability (relative to HG). The Super Stealth PRT has the strongest tendency toward HP, although other PRTs may go the HG route. The Hyper Expansion PRT with immunity to all three environmental factors and very low PGR is the original heavy hitter of advanced play, earning a perpetual mention in race design discussions. However, modern HG and HP races have surpassed it in performance, and triple immunity is no longer considered a viable approach. 
In large games, two players may spend significant periods of time building huge warfleets. When these fleets meet, the factors that determine who will be victorious can be difficult to judge. For this reason, most advanced players will attempt to predict the outcome by running a separate copy of the game, attempting to duplicate the composition of the fleets as closely as possible, and watching the results. If the result is the loss of your fleet then it is better not to engage.
Stars! Supernova Genesis
The huge popularity of the original Stars! game convinced the developers that there would be a market for a sequel. They formed a company called Mare Crisium Studios and began development of Supernova Genesis. This was intended to be a much more advanced game, with significantly better graphics, and also to remove some of the irritations of the original (such as the level of micro-management).
Unfortunately there was little interest from games publishers who by that time had become focussed exclusively on the video game console and high-end 3D games markets, and so the project was eventually abandoned. As rights to the ingame graphics remain with Empire, it is unlikely that the game will be brought back into production.
On August 27 2005, information about a second sequel, tentatively named Stars! 3, was posted to Usenet . Developed in private by ex-members of the Supernova Genesis team, it has an uncertain future, hinting on a return to the self-publishing model.
Stars! has received some generally positive reviews. PC Gamer UK's reviewer Andy Butcher gave the game a rating of 79% in its February 1997 issue, commending it with the following comment: "What makes it stand out from the many games based on a similar idea are its depth, and that it's been designed right from the start with multi-player gaming in mind". Pitfalls he mentions include that the large amount of options available can make the game confusing, and that the game is likely to be less appealing to single players.
GameStop's reviewer T. Liam McDonald rated the game 7.3 "Good", applauding "a solid Windows interface, plain graphics, a wide range of custom options, deep strategic content, and compulsive playability" and stating that the game outdoes the similar game Spaceward Ho! 4.0
Tools and utilities
Over the years a number of third party tools and utilities have been developed to help players manage their empires. These are invariably distributed as freeware, and several of them are of particularly high quality. These utilities can generally be found during a quick search through some of the websites listed below (external links) and downloaded for immediate use.
Clones and imitators
Stars! is no longer under development, and the sequel, Supernova Genesis, has been abandoned. To try and take the game further an open source project called FreeStars has been created. Another free attempt at a Stars!-like game was Stellar Legacy. The projects appears to be dead now.
Thousand Parsec has been started because Supernova Genesis never arrived. From initial plan of being a Stars! clone it evolved into being a general free and open source framework for turn based space empire building games. The last release was in March 2008.
- ↑ Butcher, A "PC Gamer", page 85. Future Publishing Ltd, February 1995
1. Lathrop, Art. "Basic Race Design." The Stars! FAQ. 1 August 1999
2. Skel, Mahrin. "Race Design, Step by Step." The Stars! FAQ
3. Lathrop, Art. "Living with Chaff." The Stars! FAQ. 10 September 1999
4. Barsella, Alberto. "The 25k by 2450 FAQ." The Stars! FAQ
5. Google Groups thread, details the end of the Stars! Supernova Genesis project
- Mare Crisium, creators of Stars! (offline)
- Demonstration version of Stars!
- Stars! FAQ web site
- rec.games.computer.stars on Google groups
- Home World Forum discussion pages
- Stars! Autohost
- Resource for Stars! Supernova Genesis (decommissioned)
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