Pigs In Space

This week, I’ll be surveying a number of space strategy games, from old classics to recent entries in the field. Often known as “3X” or “4X” games (for “Explore, Expand, Exploit”, and sometimes “Exterminate”), this is a genre that has been around for years, and has remained popular.

Up for consideration this week are Delta Tao’s Spaceward Ho!, various iterations of Master of Orion, Stardock’s Galactic Civilizations 2, Reach For the Stars! from SSG and Matrix Games, and Space Empires V from Malfador Machinations and Strategy First. I’ll be covering each of these in their own articles.

There are a few strategic elements that are common to most of these games that distinguish them from other types of wargames. Most of them derive, in some sense, from the truly ancient Brøderbund game Galactic Empire.

As you might expect from games marketed towards people who think that outer space is nifty, all games in this genre deliver massive amounts of technological pornography. Giving money to scientists, in these games, always results in spaceships that are faster, fly farther, shoot bigger bullets, take more damage, are cheaper to build, and never result in the scientists scheduling lots of boondoggle conferences in Honolulu while their grad students decide which model PC will be best-suited to playing 3D Tetris. I guess that’s why they call it “science fiction.” In any event, it’s a truism that in addition to spending money on your fleet, you’ll be spending money on weapons research.

Every empire needs a good logo

Secondly, 4X games have a hopelessly colonial model of government. You send hapless citizen-slaves off to distant hostile planets and whip them with taser-rods until they start making money for you. Since games are often won or lost on the basis of resource acquisition, choosing not to emulate this model is, essentially, the same as choosing to lose the game. Some of the games model colonization in an abstract way (“This colony will lose money for 130 years, and then will become more and more profitable over time,“) whereas others get down to a level of detail requiring the player to decide what buildings are constructed. This, more than almost any other aspect of the games, controls the amount of micromanagement the player will be doing.

Thirdly, most of these games involve space combat. This is often the place where the games distinguish themselves from each other. Some of the games resolve combat automatically, some have the player move pieces around a board, and others choose a middle path and have the player make operational fleet decisions in between combat rounds. Some of the games model diplomacy, which is the question of whether you and an opposing civilization will be killing each other today, or tomorrow.

With that introduction, I think the stage is set, and we are ready to talk about which of these games will provide the most satisfying simulation of brutally murdering your way across an entire galaxy. See you tomorrow.

Read next article in this series, 4X: Spaceward Ho!