Space Battles Require No Justification
For whatever reason, Starfighter is interested in telling you why there are space cruisers and space fighters shooting space lasers and space torpedoes and doing space maneuvers with space shields. I mean, it would very much like to somehow justify the chaos of space battle. Something about the Very Great Depression and a timeline spanning a hundred years.
This is Starfighter’s first misstep. All we need to know is that there are starfighters and that they’re determined to pulverize one another. Story over.
Starfighter’s second misstep is that it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Okay, so get this. You’re the commander of a starcruiser, a big ship loaded to the gills with starfighters. Across from you is an enemy cruiser, also heavy with fighters. The klaxons start blaring and fighters pour from your launch bay, streaming through space towards the enemy formations. It’s on.
Then you watch in bewilderment as your starfighters start doing loop-de-loops and barrel rolls, ducking behind planets and asteroids, some powering up shields but not all of them. Someone gets blasted, then ducks behind a planet for a bit and emerges just fine. Another turns around and shoots your cruiser, causing major structural damage. “What is he doing?” you bellow at your subordinates. “Which of our jackass pilots just fired at their own side?”
Yeah. That’s Starfighter. The game that puts you in charge of a high-tech wing of murderous space-planes and then makes you struggle more to command your own forces than against your opponent’s.
Here’s how it works. On your turn you get some double-paneled and double-sided cards. On their back each card is the same, a pair of fighters and some empty space. On the other, it’s anybody’s guess. Some have icons that give you special moves, others let you preemptively blast an enemy fighter. Some let you draw an extra card or deploy a protective shield. Others just have lots of starfighters for firing lots of pew-pew. Then there are the ones that shoot their pew-pew at your own cruiser. For reasons that no amount of copious justification will save the perpetrating pilot from court-martial.
Along with your opponent, you take those cards and begin filling up your space-lanes, countering opposing buildups and looking for ways to maximize the number of fighters that can break through the enemy formations to strike at their cruiser. Better cards can only be played to forward “levels,” though you can always flip a card onto its weaker backside to place it into any spot. This tension, between setting up your cards for offensive potential or to counter the enemy swarms, and between placing your best starfighters into limited forward positions or as stepping stones for other squadrons (or to defend a weakly defended lane), does a decent job of creating mounting tension. The fact that the first player to pass also gets to reposition the cruisers — an act that physically shifts the two cruiser boards in relation to one another — renders entire space-lanes completely ineffectual and is one of the game’s coolest features.
Deployment complete and space-lanes humming with activity, you and your opponent get on with the business of shooting the crap out of each other. Entire squadrons are vaporized, cruisers take damage once their protectors are gone, and yeeesss space battles.
If this sounds pretty cool so far, it really is. Space battles are wont to be. The problem only truly rears its head after a round or two, once a good half-dozen squadrons are filling the board. Then Starfighter stops being a game about flanking maneuvers and bold engine-melting charges down the middle, and starts being a game about fussy card placement.
See, it isn’t sufficient that each card must be built atop other cards, here they must be literally placed atop each other, with each squadron covering the top half of the card below it. In isolation this isn’t a big deal, but all those fancy icons, the moves and flips and blasts both against enemy ships and your own, activate every single time they’re revealed. Lose a squadron during battle and whatever icon they were concealing will now be activated, prompting mid-volley card flips, rotations, or fighters moving between lanes. Reveal that stupid “shoot your own cruiser” icon and you’ll be treated to the same stupid card shooting your own stupid cruiser all over again.
Being able to remember the back of each downturned card helps; being a bit compulsive about every little squadron’s placement does too. I’ve had some truly enjoyable times with Starfighter, and the proceedings never become what I’d call complicated. Pulling off a chain reaction that leaves an enemy lane in tatters and the opposing cruiser aflame can be thrilling. Still, even at its best it feels less like an epic space battle and more like you’re rotating a bunch of cards in an effort to wring the most benefit — and the least downside — out of the little icons on your randomly assembled hand of cards. You are, in effect, at war with yourself. If it were a film about the Vietnam War, it would be a piercing metaphor.
But for all its paragraphs of plot justification, Starfighter is no war movie. Instead, it’s relegated to the status of merely okay game: sometimes fun, sometimes fussy, and never quite reaching the stars no matter how bright the glow of its afterburner.