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.
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.
This does have the advantage of allowing the game to run on almost any computer, and it can even be run on Linux systems through the Wine system. Version 2.7 crashes during combat on some Linux distributions. Stars! does not run on the 64-bit version of Windows Vista, which cannot run 16-bit software.
Starting with a small fleet of starting ships and one or two planets, players develop their empire, meet other races and conquer the galaxy. Stars! games begin with race design, choosing one of 10 different primary racial traits, a selection of lesser racial traits, habitability, growth, economic and technology settings.
Players initially send scouts out to scan for suitable planets which may be later colonized and developed, enlarging the player's empire and providing additional resources. As a player's empire expands the player must balance the management of population, minerals, research and ship/infrastructure constructions. When other players' races are encountered, a variety of diplomacy options allow for alliances, trading mineral resources or technology, large-scale wars, and even the complete destruction of other races. If the random events game option is enabled, players will also have to contend with (or take advantage of) the Mystery Trader, comet strikes, wormholes and environmental changes.
Because of the high level of micromanagement and diplomacy requirements many games take place over a period of months between players spread across the globe. Alliances form, backs are stabbed and the outcomes of wars are decided by long email conversations.
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.
GameSpot'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.
Unfortunately there was little interest from games publishers who by that time had become focused 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.