Sharing a background with Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth, in Sid Meier's Starships you lead an expeditionary fleet of powerful starships from a successful colony. Players needs to explore the galaxy, win the support of unaligned planets to bring them into the confederation, and fight pirates, marauders, and other confederations.
The gameplay focuses on battles between starships, taking place on a turn-based, hex-grid battlefield. Players get to use powerful lasers and cannons, devastating torpedoes, and flexible fighter squadrons to seek and destroy the enemy, or a range of other mission objectives. Between battles, the turn-based strategic layer can be used to enhance the ships' systems with improved technology, build and upgrade ships, and develop the planets of the confederation with simple enhancements and powerful wonders.