Stardock’s Galactic Civilizations II is a great game. I can’t stand it.
It appeals to a lot of players, has simple game mechanics, an acceptable UI, and a very high degree of polish. There are many people whose opinions I respect who enjoy it immensely, and you might be one of them.
I suspect I’m not the only person who has a list of games they think they should like, but don’t. If I simply didn’t like GalCiv I would have played it once and ignored it. But instead, every so often I forget that I don’t like it. It’s simple to learn, hard to master! It’s polished! It’s shiny! I’ll play it again, and maybe this time I’ll like it!
The original GalCiv had a little cachet as, more or less, the only game ever developed for IBM’s OS/2 since the beginning of time. The game has what I think of as a fairly low-level nature: it’s a 4X game that owes more to Civilization II than to Spaceward Ho!. Some of the similarities include a tech tree that is broad, deep, and involves making tradeoffs, a map where you move your pieces slo-o-o-o-o-w-l-y across the universe, one “space” at a time, and cities that you develop by building structures.
I was talking to my friend Nat the other day, trying to encapsulate what it is that I hate about GalCiv. I explained it like this: “First I spend an hour hitting ‘end turn’ excited to see what happened next. Then I spend an hour hitting ‘end turn’ wondering why I’m bothering, because this is getting sort of boring. Then I realize that I have spent two hours in a trance, compulsively hitting a button hoping for a piece of cheese.” It’s a bit like waking up in a strange hotel room, naked, in a bathtub full of cheesy poofs: you might have enjoyed it at the time, but afterwards you just feel sort of disgusted and ashamed.
In terms of presentation, GalCiv shares similarities with the original Master of Orion. The game has, simultaneously, more polish and less flavor. Perhaps it’s because MoO had more cartoony, less representational graphics, but I found all of their alien races more memorable and elemental, whereas GalCiv’s array of Arcaeans, Altarians, and so on seem much more interchangeable to me. The technology discovery screens, which are meant to sound jaunty and irreverent, instead sound somehow cynical and dialed-in to me, as if halfway through the project someone got bored of writing color text. That the robot delivering the text looks like Joan Rivers in Spaceballs doesn’t help matters.
GalCiv has lots of management. You decide what structures to build on colonies. You design ships (including a mode where you can construct and paint lovingly-rendered 3D models of said ships). You move those ships through the universe, one square at a time. All of this management — which I acknowledge is done through a simple and clear UI — puts on upper limit on the size of empire that I, with my tiny simian brain, can actually handle. I am running the most powerful galactic empire ever created: can’t I afford an administrative assistant who can figure some of these things out for me?
(Actually, you can turn on such assistants; ships can be set to “auto-survey” mode, and planets can be assigned “governors”, but by the time you think to turn these on, the damage is done: things that are fun when building your first two planets are not fun when building your twentieth.)
One aspect of GalCiv that I do like, unambiguously, is the ability to build space stations. The galaxy is sprinkled with interstellar resources that can be mined. Once built, space stations can be upgraded (at great cost) by sending constructor ships to them. This gives players the ability to project power into their enemies spheres of control even when there are no colonizable planets left. The scramble for space stations and resources is probably the most interesting part of the mid-game, to me.
The game also periodically presents you with moral dilemmas. Typically, you can resolve these by being “good” (for a small penalty), “neutral” (for a small bonus), or “evil” (for a large bonus). Over time, the choices you make will influence your empire’s reputation and the technological paths available to you. While they break up the monotony a bit, I didn’t find these to be life-changing.
The game’s AI is devilishly aggressive, which is a welcome change from most games of this sort. Furthermore, GalCiv does have a lot of flexibility — you can win by fulfilling any one of a number of victory conditions, as in Civilization, and unlike most games in the genre you’re not forced to commit genocide to keep playing. It’s perfectly possible to play a conservative and defensive game in GalCiv and still have a chance at victory.
It’s hard to explain why I don’t like GalCiv II, and that’s why I want to emphasize how polished the game it. The graphics are attractive. The UI is nice. The music is great. It’s endlessly configurable. It gives you a wealth of strategic options. But at the end of the day, I find even the most challenging of GalCiv games to be soporific. My only theory for this is that I simply don’t like the scale of the game. When playing Advance Wars, a game with theoretically much less at stake, I often find myself, quite literally, on the edge of my seat. I have a sense, playing that game, that every move matters, and if I screw up, I’m going to find out in short order. In GalCiv I might make a mistake and not discover it until 45 minutes later, after endless animations of my survey ship creeping across the Galaxy. For all the flexibility built in to the game, it just doesn’t feel dynamic to me. When I finish playing GalCiv, it is as if I am waking up from a deep slumber. I feel that I have squandered time. And no matter how polished the presentation or how thoughtful the game design, I can’t ignore that feeling.
Galactic Civilizations II: Gold Edition, by Stardock, is available for purchase on their website. $44.95. According to the publisher, a demo of the game will be available soon.