The Stars are Right: 4X games and I

Among my Winter Season I crossed many games.  Some of these inspired by my recent viewing of Star Trek: Voyager.  I played some games I’d played before and some new ones I’m about to talk about.  As a introduction I’ll go into the short and narrow of what a 4X game is.

4X stands for eXplore, eXploit, eXterminate and eXpand.  In short you shoot some dudes, take their territory, take their stuff and poke your nose where it usually doesn’t belong.  Some games do more and less with this, naturally.  Some games run an incredibly detailed technology tree, others a varied and detailed world map with many kinds of resources.  Most games of this genre take tens of hours to see to completion.  These are games of empires slugging it out in old wars, of resource managing and “Just One More Turn” mentality.

Space Empires was my first large-scale 4X strategy game.  And like any first love, will always hold a place in my heart.  Space Empires (Iterations I-V) set you as ruler of a stellar empire starting on a small handful of worlds.  Each planet rated in terms of atmosphere (for colonization) and three resource values, form the economic backbone of your empire. Research is generated by facilities on planets buying into selected categories.  Ship construction, paid for and maintained by economic output, is accomplished first by selecting a ship size and then dragging components onto the design.  Combat is largely automated, but you can take manual control if you wish to put your fine touch on space battles.  In terms of depth you’re able to build Carriers, Troop Transports and Stellar Minefields.  You can create planets from rubble, explode stars and construct Ring Worlds and Dyson Spheres.  The whole game plays like a board game, being turn based and each ship having a number of movement points.  Movement between systems occurs via connected warp points and no ship has what might be termed FTL travel.  Each empire in a game can be a custom mish-mash of traits and abilities including efficient engines or Psychic abilities (the Allegiance Converter being my personal favorite).

Sword of the Stars varies on the topic by summarizing planets a little more succinctly.  Systems are summarized to one planet, the only planet of theoretical value.  They’re habitability identified by a climate scale and a cost to colonize (the cheaper, the more native to your species).  Empires are among the several listed with no option to customize traits.  the thing that makes SoTS and it’s sequel SoTS2 unique is that each race has it’s own technology for interstellar travel.  Humans travel along connected warp lines, another race uses a drive that teleports them across the galaxy at a cost for in-combat maneuverability.  The token bug race use travel gates that take years to establish but allow instant travel from any one gate in the network to another.  The tech tree suffers from being brief, but SoTS paints itself into a corner being a shorter overall strategy game and less of an eon spanning traditional 4X game.  SoTS2 changed the system layout and added additional planets at each location representing a real system, but otherwise kept many of the previous elements.  Ship design between both SoTS games is accomplished by selecting mission and ship components for the body as well as what weapons are on the hardpoints.

Endless Space being the last of our turn based offerings brings a large-scale space opera feel to the game.  You can earn heroes to lead your colonies and fleets.  The tech tree seems short while incorporating a solid amount of depth.  Planets themselves categorized by A) Environment and B) Natural features or resources.  It is possible to have a volcanic planet your colonists hate while having them able to produce ample food.  Trust me, that doesn’t happen often in this game let alone any other.  Ship design is simplified by picking a hull and then adding components to it like filling a basket.  The heavier, better components taking more space. Of the things Endless Space does differently are the natural resources.  Berries, flowers, magic oils or industrial elements, etc.  They’re -everywhere- and it’s relatively rare to find a system that doesn’t have some kind of trait modifying it’s base values of Food, Industry, Dust (money) and Science.

Distant Worlds is the last game I’ll talk about today.  It deviates from the classic 4X design by being real-time.  It also delegates almost all it’s tasks to automation at first.  Your combat ships will defend transports, your construction ships will set up mining locations, colonies get planted, research gets managed, etc.  The game is divided between State and Civilian ships, the latter getting built automatically to handle the needs of the industrial backbone.  The game map is laid out like a sparse representation of our galaxy with your homeworld(s) located among nebulas, black holes and exploded stars.  Each star surrounded by planets, moons, asteroids and derelict fields or ships, some of those having resources your industries will harvest to fuel your ships or enable construction.  Occasionally advisers will offer suggestion on what to build next be it a defensive structure near a critical colony or additional exploration ships.  Alien lifeforms lurk around the planets and pirates inhabit stations hidden in clouds and systems simultaneously offering to help you with information or special projects at a price or raiding your supply centers and making a general nuisance of themselves.

I can’t tell you how many days i’ve wasted into the genre.  From Civilization 2 back in the early days of my interest all the way up to spending hours watching my ships flit back and forth in Distant Worlds in the recent weeks.  There’s a satisfying feeling when you watch a carefully organizing military campaign produce results.

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