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Games with no documentation – Distant Star

October 20, 2011

Distant Star is an iOS “old-school 4x (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) space game”. The gold standard of which is Masters Of Orion 2 (MOO2).

This is kind of the game that is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the last game I played (Robotek HD). It’s an empire building game that lasts hundreds of turns where each move builds your (or not) star empire into the dominant behemoth it was always meant to be.

So game play is a bit deeper than a game where you randomly get robots based on what comes up on a slot machine. There was no documentation that I remember in Robotek HD…just a little tutorial and that’s good enough. Everything else you learn as you go.  Perfect.

When it’s a 4x game it’s not so perfect when there’s no documentation. Tutorials that show you how to build ships or move or whatever is only a portion of what you’d like to know.

Take, for example, combat. Getting into combat is easy enough…just move your fleet somewhere that someone else has a fleet. Say you win. Great!  But you now have a bunch of ships that are damaged to some degree or another.  Can you repair them? Don’t know. The tutorial didn’t cover that. Will they repair themselves? No idea. So you have to try a few things to discover game mechanics…like waiting. Then moving to a shipyard. Then exploring shipyard options. Then waiting some more because, hey they might self-repair only at a shipyard.

As it turns out you can’t repair them…or at least I never discovered a way to do so. More interesting is that shields never repair. Which makes you wonder what the difference was between shields and armor. Something a manual might mention.

It’s even worse when the user interface is more glitzy than useful. Take this screen shot.

Distant Star Planets

These planets are different sizes (how many slots of improvements you can build) and habitability (how well you can grow folks on them).In the previous version this information was listed below the planets once you’ve explored them. Now they are (poorly) indicated by the planet icon. Can you tell the difference?  I can’t for size and not reliably for habitability. Not to worry though, the manual will clue you into the subtle differences.

Oh wait.

Now there are some planet icons that are larger than the others but they don’t seem to have more slots than the 5 slot planets in this screen shot. And the 5 slot planet (Uriel top middle) is no bigger than the 1 slot planet (Dragon – bottom right) depicted. Likewise the “Useless” planet (Athos – top left) looks about the same as the “Idyllic” planets (Uriel, Milokeenia, Dragon, Venom) and the “Habitable” planet (Azeroth). If you look closely, it’s a little grayer than “Habitable” planet which is a little less green than “Idyllic” ones.

Not that it seems to matter much. My medium sized “Useless” planet has more people and more slots than the tiny “Idyllic” one.

When I first started playing the game I actually thought my version was broken. It’s even harder to tell these apart on the iPhone than the iPad. I had played the previous version for a short bit before upgrading so I thought the missing planet stats was a bug (they existed before). Evidently it’s as intended. Of course, without a manual I couldn’t tell.

There are other little gotchas in this game, like the fact you can’t unbuild an improvement in a planetary slot once you built it. Things that would be easily solved with a one page manual but instead require trial and error to discover.

That’s not the kind of trial and error you want to have in a 4x game.

Worse is when the UI forces the player to play trial and error on which planets to colonize. You can’t clearly see habitability and slots until after you spend the money and time to colonize it. Then you get a nice big icon you can press and see what the values are. Not a big deal near the end of the game but a huge deal with your first colony. I ended up saving and then restoring if I accidentally picked a bad choice.  I could tell what were the really bad ones…they were brown (worse than useless? dunno), but the in between ones were pure guesses on size.

It’s a prettier game than the previous version and there are improvements to the UI. I assume that gameplay wise it’s better but the tech tree is far too short for a 4x game which leads to building stacks of the best cruisers and stomping on planets until you win or the computer wins. I’d guess you can have the best ship in the game by turn 200 or so. That’s actually really fast in a 4x game…you hit next turn pretty quickly in the early game and it typically will take 10-20 turns to go from star to a star close by.

Still I eventually figured most things out as there’s not that much to the game. Most of it was figuring out couldn’t be done that exists in more mature 4x games other than the planet icon problem. Even the simplest like Spaceward Ho! has more complexity and richness.  I understand it’s based on the strategy part of Sword of the Stars…who’s primary claim to fame was the real time tactical ship combat.

So I can’t give it more than 2 stars out of 5 in the current state. And it’s version 1.7 with a large set of improvements. It’s still more of a $0.99 game rather than a $2.99 game. That might make it a 1 star game in comparison to others.  Especially given that the lack of manual is compounded by the semi-dead support link and a lack of player forums on their website where I could have asked stupid questions.

It does have potential. Getting to and surpassing the Spaceward Ho! level really only requires some tech tree expansion but it has a long way to go to equal the richness of the original Masters of Orion much less MOO2.

Not surprisingly it also lacks any payout (which both MOO and MOO2 had) beyond a “you win” popup. But documentation is far more needed than that kind of refinement/eyecandy.  A simple FAQ would do really.

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