Developed and published by solo dev David Stark, 2018’s Airships: Conquer the Skies is a solid entry in a very fun genre – turn-based 4x with construction of your own ships from the ground up. Other games in the genre, such as Distant Worlds 2, allow you to modify the modules on ships, but few go so far as to allow the entire creation process. The closest comparisons would be Admiralty: Dreadnoughts and Rule the Waves 3 (review incoming) so if you like those series, this is definitely worth checking out. The pixel graphics may turn some off, but it’s implemented quite charmingly and allows for excellent representation of the destructibility of ships that still try to fight on with half the ship blown away.
Announced in the lead up to the TactiCon 2023 digital event on Steam, a new Heroes and Villains DLC is on the way where you can recruit ship captains and city governors to your cause. Captains improve your ships’ performance and can use their abilities to turn the tide of battle. You can outflank enemy ships, cripple engines, create smokescreens, and more. Governors can be assigned to cities to reduce unrest and increase productivity. Some of them can also issue temporary edicts such as declaring martial law, hosting a masked ball, or using the citizens for gruesome experiments. Others can get rid of monsters or pirates for you. All for a price. You can read more about the Heroes and Villains DLC here.
The base game has three main layers – 4x campaign management, combat, and design. All three are fun to interact with but the campaign layer is definitely the weakest. Unlike similar real-time + turn-based hybrids, it’s actually intuitive and not too clunky (looking at you War on the Sea!). The game’s highlight is definitely the combination of the design aspect, and then how it plays out in the combat aspect. The campaign management comes into play here too though by providing you funds, modifiers to design and combat, and research to unlock more modules as well as something to fight over, so it’s still an integral part of the game to me. Skirmish mode is available, but I find the long-term planning and the stakes of playing in a campaign the only way to go outside testing designs, though I know a lot of people like that mode.
Starting with campaign management, it’s a reasonably functional map painting 4x. You control regions, upgrade them, milk profits from the peasants in them and fund your war machine to paint more of the map your glorious imperial colours. Regions come in two kinds – those with cities and those with outposts or towns, which determines what buildings they can make, the supply they can output and so on. You will build a lot of small buildings in the outposts that provide income or research bonuses but the capitals have the more limited naval academy, police headquarters and so on. You have a good amount of diplomatic options for engaging with other empires both peacefully and “through other means” and amusingly it’s far more robust than Total War. All the regular options like non-aggression pacts, defensive alliances and research treaties are there.
The design phase is a lot of fun and a huge draw to a strategy game for me. I’m still thoroughly enjoying Distant Worlds 2 in large part due to this feature, and older games like Elemental: Fallen Enchantress where you needed special input resources in order to train units was glorious. In Airships: Conquer the Skies, it all comes down to technology research and money available limiting what you can build – along with your imagination. Steam Workshop integration is a lifesaver here for the less creative among us *raises hand* with 20,000 entries already to browse through. Designing units (airships, ground vehicles and defensive structures) to suit your needs can be as much of a time vampire as you let it. There are always more ships to make – lightly armoured sniper corvettes, heavily armoured but slow troop-carrying boarding ships, carriers (yes you can make carriers with their own small craft), monitor equivalents based around a single massive gun – the options really are massive.
Testing all those designs out in combat is rewarding and can vary from a stately long-range firefight to a messy up-close brawl. Hopefully you researched your enemy beforehand because if you bring a bunch of muskets to try to take out a rocket-armed towering stone edifice defending a city, you’re gonna have a bad time. That said, if you like cheap musket frigates as your battle line you can bring Imperial Cannon-armed Monitor equivalents to do the pounding that such structures require – or you could bring a bomb-dropping zeppelin, or bring your own cannon-armed ships, or roll some tanks in. The large number of ways to approach problems in combat (based on what you prepare beforehand) is a large part of the draw to this game. Seeing your designs and the strategies you planned for them play out in real-time (for good or ill) is definitely a lot of fun and I don’t think it’ll get old any time soon.
The game released in 2018 after starting Early Access in 2015 and the patch cadence has been solid since then, still getting updates as of this week while writing the review in mid-2023. Some several-month breaks at worst while working on larger patches, and sometimes multiple patches in a single month. A paid DLC is planned for 2023: Airships: Heroes and Villains that adds new events to the campaign map and characters that gain experience and act according to their personalities – captains for your ships and governors for your cities. Continuing support by developers is a significant consideration when purchasing a game so it’s good to see how well Airships has been supported. Another large consideration is modability, and the 20,000 mods on Steam Workshop can attest to that.
Airships: Conquer the Skies is a great indie game that is updated regularly and provides quick randomly generated campaign games that make all three layers of the game fast and enjoyable to play. It’s not without its flaws, some interface annoyances being the primary of them, but the fun still shines through. Veterans of the 4x genre should find a lot to love here and new players should find it lenient enough to learn within a couple of games.
This review utilised a key provided by the team at TactiCon and Airships: Conquer the Skies is available on Steam now, currently at a 40% discount during the TactiCon 2023 event. Keep an eye on the Steam page for more information about the upcoming Heroes and Villains DLC.