It’s a typically wet morning in Edinburgh. I’m bleary-eyed from a late night scribbling notes, sitting in Starbucks, ignoring an overpriced hot chocolate. I’m ignoring it not because it isn’t good hot chocolate (all hot chocolate is good hot chocolate), but because I’m busy creating a xenophobic media campaign as a prelude to a war across the stars. A war that would go very well for me, and very poorly for the billions of alien lives obliterated.
Crispon Games’ Galactic Inheritors is serious business. A turn-based space 4X game with a hard sci-fi bent, it charts the rise and fall of a small but eclectic number of space-faring civilisations. From a single solar system, they make their first tentative steps out into the greater galaxy, eventually colonising, chatting up aliens and then developing effective ways to kill said aliens. Space is about as friendly as a punch in the face.
I’ve been punching a lot of faces. The hot chocolate has grown cold.
Chris King was, until last year, a game designer over at prolific purveyors of grand strategy, Paradox Development Studio. When he first told me he was making a space 4X game, I was excited, but not certain where historical strategy and sci-fi empire building intersected. But as it turns out, Galactic Inheritors has quite a bit in common with the historical games Chris is best known for.
It all comes down to authenticity. In Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, even when players have fiddled with history so much that the map of Europe and the rest of the globe has unrecognisable borders, it retains historical authenticity. That’s not as easy a task when creating a game that speculates about the future. But that’s what makes Galactic Inheritors a bit special, it is speculative rather than the wacky sci-fi of Galactic Civilizations.
This is clear from the moment a species, human - which I was playing as - or alien, is put under player control. The map of the galaxy - filled with red dwarfs, new suns, populated marbles and untamed globes - isn’t quite as unexplored as one might expect. There is no fog of war, and why should there be? “You know how to work a telescope, so you can see all the stars,” says Chris. A civilisation advanced enough to travel to new systems is surely capable to knowing where these systems are and if they have technologically developed aliens living there. We’ve been sending messages into space for generations and looking for signs of life on worlds we don’t have a hope of visiting in our lifetimes.
So from turn one, Galactic rulers know where all the other powers reside. I knew what system the amphibious corporate oligarchy resided in, and where I could find the feline, lion-like matriarchy. “If you look on Wikipedia, you can find out a lot about North Korea, despite the fact that it’s one of the most secretive states in the world,” Chris points out. “In an information-rich society, it’s very different to keep secrets.” And that knowledge is of paramount importance, because Galactic Inheritors plays out a lot like a board game, with control of the board being key to victory.
Vessels travel via a jump network, a spiderweb of galactic highways that stretch across the galaxy, representing the routes that ships can jump between. Influence limits which lanes can be traversed; to travel farther, systems have to be colonised. And since the lanes are linked up to systems, plonking a flag down on one can halt the exploration and expansion of another species. The jump drive removes the problem of ships being stuck out in space at the end of a turn - by jumping, they go straight from one system to the next.
“[The jump drive’s] set up a kind of terrain,” says Chris. “If you can go from anywhere to anywhere else - range permitted - then you don’t have front lines or that kind of thing. But with this, as you explore, you’ll discover choke points that are nice and easily defensible and those kinds of things.”
Systems have three values of importance: research, production and commerce. They are all fairly self explanatory and can be expanded. Systems go through levels that represent the infrastructure being developed by the system’s citizens, growing when they aren’t churning out building projects. When all three values - shown as pips - reach the maximum, the system stops growing. This can be fixed by building specific projects that expand the number of pips, like a research facility.
Exploration ships can spend a turn scouting out systems and another searching for resources, finding out what values the system has or if they have any special elements that can be exploited, like from vulcanoid asteroids or gas giants. “It’s a little bit of a deceit, to be honest,” admits Chris. “Right now, we’ve detected over 1,000 planets with only one telescope… so you would know a reasonable amount about a solar system. But to give you some suspense, we hide some of that information.”
Through exploration one can hunt down the choicest systems, but sometimes it pays to colonise a crappy system just to spite another empire, blocking their expansion in a particular direction. “It’s not just about resources,” says Chris. “Usually, the classic thing in a 4X game is to look around and say ‘what is the nearest, best planet?’ and grab that one.” Choosing a rubbish system just for tactical reasons does not preclude that system from developing into a worthwhile base, either. “The total number of building pips is actually worth more than your system’s starting pips,” he continues. “So every system can be useful, they just might need something extra.”
Players and AI races aren’t up shit creek without a jump drive when they find themselves cut off from their original expansion route. But it does put the ball in their court. Do they try to get chummy with the buggers who just stalled their expansion? Or maybe it’s time for a good old star-spanning war. If it’s the latter, things are about to get serious.
Since I was the one cutting an alien empire off, sending out countless explorers and colonisation ships, I could have sat back and watched my soon-to-be enemies react. But I wasn’t going to do that. I was only close to one other empire, but the rest of the denizens of this galaxy were getting ever closer. It wouldn’t be long before my glorious human superpower was squashed in the middle of so many aliens. I needed to preemptively create some breathing room.
I needed to squash some bugs.
The gross insectoid race - industrious guys but not the types you’d invite to a party - had only taken a small slice of the galaxy thanks to my command of the board, but it was a slice I wanted. They had grown fearful of my expansion - the diplomacy screen shows things like a race’s proclivities and attitudes - and sensing their fear I was ready to strike.
While ship and planetary battles are hands-off affairs, war is quite involved in Galactic Inheritors. Military vessels are not produced by the state, instead being constructed by private companies who are contracted to put together space-faring armadas. Multiple companies are available, but their only initial difference is their names. This changes after they’ve churned out a few ships.
Of course, I had to research space militarisation first. The research tree is traditional in layout, but is full of projects that are grounded in reality. There’s no alien mysticism and I couldn’t find a Death Star. Instead, it’s littered with projects such as lagrange way stations, which theoretically facilitates trade and travel across the stars more easily as, unlike planets, the way stations are stationary and one doesn’t need to take into account orbits.
With space militarisation accessed, I could finally make deals with the various manufacturers of war machines. Companies gain experience through construction, which in turn can be used to customise them with design philosophies, essentially perks. It pays to give jobs to all of them so that, eventually, they focus on different things. One company might build warships with powerful weapons, while another is an expert in constructing ships on the cheap.
The perks are laid out in a tree which needs to be progressed through to unlock new perks. The result is ship customisation without micromanagement. There’s real-world logic behind it, Chris notes, as leaders don’t tend to design their own war machines, they have people for that, and companies specialise.
Fleet constructed - made up from basic frigates, but loads of them - I was ready to introduce the insects to my new weapons, but there was still one more step I had to take. Like modern military campaigns, warfare in Galactic Inheritors is as much about hearts and minds as it is military superiority. And by that, I mean propaganda is called for.
I couldn’t simply go to war just because I needed some breathing room; I’m not Kaiser Bill. I needed to give my people a reason to hate the insects, which meant leveraging the media. “Your people, although they are ready to go to war to defend their way of life, they’re not going to provide skulls for the skull throne,” jokes Chris.
Using the media, one can inspire paranoia in one’s population, name another species as an enemy, put a negative on stories about other races. Points are accrued and can then be spent on even more effective media campaigns. It’s very Cold War.
I felt a little dirty, honestly. For some reason I didn’t feel particularly bad about planning an extermination of an entire species when it was just plain old war, but trying to turn my people into xenophobic bigots? That made me uneasy.
The propaganda campaign worked: humanity hated the bugs and would be only too happy to wipe them off the face of the galaxy. It’s worth noting the ramifications of war in Galactic Inheritors. The question of how planetary conquest would work is a tricky one. Logistically, it seems like a nightmare: millions of soldiers being ferried to an alien world as well as contractors, building materials and food supplies.
Galactic Inheritors answers the question of how a system could be conquered in the most grim way possible: kill everyone. Once the defending ships have been wiped out, the bombardment happens. With every alien dead, colonisation ships can move in and repopulate the worlds in the system. It’s a horrible thing to contemplate.
“When it comes to taking planets, we tried to talk through various systems like planetary assaults, and we always hit a wall,” Chris explains. “Imagine someone on the same technological level as us, invading Earth today. How many people would they need, to conquer the current Earth with all its divisions? It would take millions, millions and millions of people. Then you throw in the fact that you have an untrustworthy alien population on top of all this. We just came to the conclusion: nuke ‘em from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
It’s a lot like a siege. Buildings like underground bunkers and power sources can allow a people can withstand the bombardment for much longer.
I conquered several planets this way. To the point where the insects were becoming an endangered species. Another race had started to get involved, as well, picking apart the decaying husk. “No way,” I shouted, gaining a few stares in the Starbucks we were sitting in. I’d fight to the death to keep what was mine. This third wheel didn’t want to make a foe out of me, and they were actually saying plenty of nice things about humanity in their media. They wanted to keep me on their good side while they pecked away at our mutual foe. I’d probably have to wipe them out anyway though. I had a taste for blood now.
But before I could plan yet another war, the laptop started to beep. The battery was dying and I’d been playing for hours - I hadn’t even noticed.
Galactic Inheritors might not seem as flashy as the likes of Galactic Civilizations nor as insanely detailed as Distant Worlds, but there’s a lot that sets it apart. While most 4X space games take the Star Wars approach to science-fiction, Galactic Inheritors dabbles more in the speculative side of things. That focus on realism informs much of the game, from the tech tree to the uncomfortable use of propaganda. And there’s a purity in the strategy. Fleet movement, colonisation direction - it all handles like a board game inspiring a more thoughtful command style where one is always attempting to plan several moves ahead.
Galactic Inheritors is due out within the next few months.