A beginner’s guide to ‘Starbow,’ the next evolution of ‘StarCraft’

Fans make brilliant games

Screengrab via Red Bull

Fans make brilliant games.

League of Legends, Counter-Strike, and Dota, a few of the biggest esports in the world today, all started as fan-made modifications of previously popular games. Players saw the new games, recognized quality, and built new communities, genres, and businesses now worth billions. These fan-made creations are institutions: League of Legends is the most popular esport in the world today, followed by the latest incarnation of Dota.

Next up? Starbow.

A free-to-play fan-made modification of StarCraft 2, Starbow is designed to take the best of StarCraft: Brood War and its sequel to create a new game ideal for deep competitive play. Brood War was the biggest esport in the world by a wide gap for a full decade, so there’s no mystery as to why players want to emulate it.

But Starbow is not a direct copy of any game. Think of it an as expansion or successor to Brood War rather than a clone.

MORE: Meet the Swedish waiter who built a better StarCraft

After years of quiet development on a game initially meant for a small audience, Starbow has suddenly exploded in popularity. The game was launched on StarCraft fansite Team Liquid, then spread to Reddit and found a broadcasting home on Twitch. Star players like Greg “Idra” Fields have been streaming their matches, raising its profile dramatically.

“I always loved StarCraft 2,” a fan named Lunareste wrote on Team Liquid, “but one game of this mod makes it so abundantly clear that THIS is what StarCraft SHOULD be.”

Starbow is still young and changing regularly as the designers tinker to build the best game possible. It’s a beautiful and easy game to watch even if you don’t play. But to truly understand it, even StarCraft veterans will have to learn a few things.

This guide is written to help you, the Starbow newbie, understand the game and why it’s so exciting to StarCraft fans everywhere. When you’re finished, go play: As of Jan. 21, Starbow, along with every StarCraft modification, just became completely free.

Spotlighted game #1: [LYGF]HTOMario vs [ROOT]Sage

The best introduction to an esport is to see fun games played at a high level. With that in mind, throughout this guide we’ll be showing you some of the best Starbow games yet played.

This is the game that got me excited about Starbow. Truly reminiscent of the best Terran vs. Protoss battles of Brood War, these two StarCraft 2 professionals showcase a protracted tactical battle across all corners of the map.

What is Starbow?

Starbow’s development began in 2011 under Björn “Kabel” Lindgren, a 26-year-old Swede whose only previous game design experience was a few board games he made for friends. When he’s not designing, he’s a waiter who “sells beer to unhappy people.”

At its core, Starbow is a traditional real time strategy game in which two players collect resources, build an army, and destroy their opponent. For the uninitiated, it’s a rapid game of chess in which players must outthink and outperform opponents in quick order.

In all StarCraft games, three factions are at war: the cheap, bug-like Zerg; the expensive, advanced alien Protoss; and the scrappy, middle-of-the-road humans of Terran. Each race boasts a diverse arsenal that leads to asymmetrical warfare and unpredictable competition.

Lindgren played and loved Brood War for years but, like many StarCraft fans, was disappointed when he got his hands on the sequel. As he tried to understand why he enjoyed Brood War more, Lindgren identified a few key areas of gameplay that made Brood War great: speed, multitasking, and decision-making.

From StarCraft 2, Lindgren took mostly the technology, such as its great user interface and player-friendly tools such as unlimited unit selection.

“Then I tried to find methods of how to add those elements into Starbow,” he told the Daily Dot.

Many of the elements were lifted directly from Brood War into StarCraft 2 using StarCraft 2’s powerful galaxy editor, a sequel to the prolific tool that allowed Dota to be built in Warcraft 3’s engine a decade ago.

It’s hard to overstate how powerful Blizzard’s editors are. The StarCraft editor began the tradition and launched the genre of tower defense and hero battles and the Warcraft 3 editor is responsible for the birth of the genre that now boasts Dota 2 and League of Legends, one of the most popular games in the world. The StarCraft 2 editor is the most powerful yet, capable of building anything from strategy games to shooters to RPGs as complex as Diablo and World of Warcraft.

Now, Blizzard has made the tool free in an effort to lure new players in. Starbow is receiving a torrent of praise at just the right time.

It’s important to remember that Starbow is different from StarCraft 2 in many ways. But these three changes are the most fundamental.

1) Starbow units move more like units in Brood War: Strong, spread out, and rarely boring

One of the great enduring complaints about SC2 is that its units tend to bunch together into “balls of death” that allow players to simply order units into attack and turn away like blind generals. There is, relatively speaking, little micromanagement in this aspect of SC2. Almost all the units move in similar and uninteresting ways.

Starbow adopted Brood War’s overall unit movement and pathing philosophy, which discourages bunching up “death balls” by spreading units out. As such, Starbow reinstates a defender’s advantage, which had been lost since StarCraft 2 was released.

In Brood War, there is diversity in movement among units. A reaver, lurker, or vulture, for instance, all move at different speeds and serve wildly different purposes.

The reaver, a hulking mass of metal that shoots wildly powerful scarabs at masses of opponents, is so slow it often requires other units to ferry it around. The lurker, on the other hand, burrows underground, where it establishes dominance over a specific key part of the map. It can’t move when burrowed, but opponents need to bring enormous force to get rid of it. And then there’s the vulture, the fastest unit in the game. It’s ideal for harrying and harassment, but can also lay scores of that can control large swaths of the map and slow down advancing or retreating armies.

StarCraft 2 doesn’t have those units. Starbow brought them back to life, and the game is much richer for it. Combat lasts longer and demands more—physically and mentally—of the players involved.

Spotlighted game #2: Romson (Protoss) vs Dirtybag (Terran)

Early game aggression from the Terran flowers into a game of nonstop action. The advantage swings back and forth furiously, and the violence is spread out generously across the map, highlighting Starbow’s ambition of making itself a game of speed and multitasking.

2) Starbow players are faced with a wider range of choices than ever before

From the very start of each Starbow game, players have big decisions to make.

In StarCraft 2, the Protoss’s starting building, called a Nexus, came with something called a chrono boost, an energy-based ability that sped up production. Now in Starbow, Protoss players have to spend 100 minerals to build a Khaydarin Citadel, a skyscraping tower built on top of the Nexus, which opens up new technology.

Terrans once had to choose to spend Command Center energy between speeding up resource mining, extra supply calldown, and scans to reveal hidden areas of the map. That’s no small set of choices. Now, add to that list abilities like overcharge and making fortress cannons manually operated. All of a sudden, a Terran player has a lot more to do.

What does all that mean? Even if all the specifics seem a bit complex in sum, the idea behind them is simple.

Giving players more choices and simply important things to do means more ways for good players to separate themselves from bad, and great to separate themselves from good. This design philosophy can drastically raise the upper limit of skill and lower the bottom. The “skill ceiling,” that mythical place where a game is played to the absolute ideal, is suddenly miles higher.

That makes everything more exciting. As a player, there’s nothing more satisfying than solving an almost impossible puzzle. As a viewer, we know how difficult the game is to play, and it gets our blood pumping. More choices mean each game can play out differently according to each player’s mind and abilities.

Those are the ingredients for a great esport.

Spotlighted game #3: Beastyqt(T) Vs Heusa(Z)

Beastyqt, one the most successful competitive Starbow players today, takes a turn for madness in this one. He’s better than his opponent, no doubt about it, but he’s still forced up against a wall for the choices he makes. All the better for the viewers.

3) Starbow forces battles all over the place

By now, you know Lindgren’s trifecta: Speed, multitasking, and decision-making.

He’s made the units behave differently to require more decision-making and he’s added choice and chores to necessitate multitasking.

Finally, he’s changed the entire economy of StarCraft 2 to encourage continuous skirmishes that spread out over the entire battlefield. That takes the triple crown, promoting speed as well as multitasking and decision making.

In Starbow, as in every StarCraft game, players mine minerals and gas to produce a fighting army. However, Starbow takes a slow approach reminiscent of Brood War: Mining takes longer, resources are scarcer, and the climb to a maximum-population army is excruciating. Reaching that point in StarCraft 2 is a shrug, but hitting the apex in Starbow is a much more difficult task.

Every bit of minerals and gas is worth more. Instead of going for two or three bases as players do in StarCraft 2, Starbow encourages good players to spread out over the entire map to take and defend as many resources as they can.

This turns every pixel into a potential battlefield. Instead of a handful of major battles, Starbow sees endless skirmishes in which players can use a more interesting set of units to take a lead or stage a comeback.

This is a key mechanic because it encourages comebacks. In Starbow, unlike StarCraft 2, games are rarely won in one fell swoop. Skirmishes swing momentum back and forth so that a lead is never truly secure until one player has called “good game” and surrendered.

Lurkers on one hill; tanks on the opposite plateau; science vessels hovering ominously overhead; revolting defilers cannibalizing their own units in order to work up energy to start a plague. This is the way I remember the best StarCraft games of all time, and this is the way Starbow plays.

The future

For now, you can check out the blossoming Starbow scene in a few key places.

The Electronic Sports League runs regular online tournaments boasting many of the best players in the world so far including the Serbian Terran Aleksandar “Beastyqt” Krstić, the German Protoss Sascha “GoOdy” Lupp, and the Polish Zerg Artur “Nerchio” Bloch.

“We saw the Starbow buzz on Reddit and Team Liquid and some of our employees started playing the game and couldn’t stop talking about it,” ESL vice director of community management Julia Hiltscher told Red Bull. “So we thought we wanted to do a tournament series to make the community happy,”

Finding Starbow games to watch is as simple as scanning Twitch’s StarCraft 2 directory. To play, just hop in the Starbow channel on American and European Battle.net servers. There are always a few hundred people ready to play. An official website and ladder is set to be launched in the near future.

And when are the Koreans, the kings of real-time strategy, joining the fray? Soon. A Korean translation of Starbow is in the works as we speak. Westerners, start training now.

A lot of esports fans are wondering if this game is the next big thing. Will this take a bite out of StarCraft community? My advice is to just hop in the channel play. If it’s fun, everything else will take care of itself.