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Galactic Civilizations 4 review: a great space strategy game

This new space 4X nails the balance between exploration, resource management, and combat mechanics while catering to almost any playstyle

Dozens of ships fly through an open slipspace portal in space strategy game Galactic Civilizations 4

Our Verdict

This new space 4X game is nothing novel, but Stardock’s latest release builds on classic strategy mechanics while giving them a contemporary, intergalactic twist.

As I move my fleet across the local galactic sector – focussed on my mission to colonise a high-tier planet called Ogma III – I see a Yor Collective ship ahead of me. Its pilots no doubt have their own plans to establish a colony before I can lay claim to the world myself. This is the best location for a new world I’ve found in this sector to date, and I want it. Since the Yor are grumpy about my refusal to trade with them anyway, I have no issues attacking before they beat me to the punch.

I direct my fleet over the Yor ship and click on it, watching it explode in a short animation of fire and wreckage. It doesn’t take long for me to realise all the neighbouring races are now unhappy with me. I can only hope I’ve adequately prepared my civilisation for what is sure to be a full-fledged intergalactic war of epic proportions.

This isn’t the first time I’ve accidentally started a fight in Galactic Civilizations IV, and it probably won’t be my last. Sometimes destroying a rival’s innocent colonists is an inevitable consequence of progress. The Yor, who like to refer to us humans as essentially ‘meat bags’, haven’t been the best neighbours but at least they haven’t threatened to lay eggs in my “many orifices” like the Festron Hunt, one of the 4X game’s new faces.

Even for someone with plenty of experience in this genre, Galactic Civilizations IV gives players a lot to digest. Its Civilization inspirations can be seen in the basic hex game mechanics and war strategies, while the narrative elements are reminiscent of Crusader Kings. Yet it’s its own beast; in contrast to CK’s sci-fi sibling Stellaris, GalCiv IV has a more structured campaign than a free-form grand strategy game. And though it takes a while to warm up to it, Stardock’s new space game ultimately nails the balance of exploration versus resource management.

The colony management screen in space strategy game Galactic Civilizations 4

The series’ fourth iteration introduces plenty of new features, including governors, commanders, and in-game quests. Rather than playing within a single sector, players will explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate across multiple sectors. Instead of civilisation-specific traits, the game fosters organic empire development across a session. There are robust ideology options, though these could be better balanced, and moulding your state involves a lot of trial and error.

GalCiv IV also looks much better than its predecessors. The graphics are fantastic, and I particularly enjoy the realistic character animations, which mirror historical Civilization’s own leader models in how they bring life and personality to diplomacy. Various UI elements sometimes come across as clunky, but for a game with this much depth the effort is certainly appreciated.

It took about ten hours of gameplay before I found my stride. This is primarily because I didn’t always understand the consequences of my choices, so I often did something random that ultimately set me back. For instance, I was often unsure whether I needed to focus on playing tall, building only the best colonies on the best planets, or building wide and colonising every planet possible while awaiting for terraforming technologies. It turns out the best strategy lies somewhere in between.

A shot of a local star system on space strategy game Galactic Civilizations IV's main map

Fortunately, GalCiv IV is very forgiving when playing on the default difficulty setting. Perhaps this is why it was so much fun to just jump in and explore. There’s an in-game advisor – already nicknamed ‘Space Clippy’ after the animated assistant that guided Microsoft Word for many years – but I didn’t find them particularly useful for anything other than the most basic concepts.

As with most complex strategy games, the more a person plays, the more they’ll understand. Even after this many hours I’m still struggling to figure out how to optimise my core worlds. But like space exploration itself, it’s attempting to understand the unknown that makes it all so interesting in the first place.

Final victory proved elusive, even on easy difficulty. I found simming and exploring more engaging than working toward any one specific goal. I enjoyed myself most when I had room to grow, building my civilisation until I felt confident enough to attack my enemies. I definitely appreciate the developers’ focus on eliminating the tedious endgame malaise that often plagues 4X games. Galactic Civilizations IV mainly seeks to solve this with the concept of prestige. A player earns prestige throughout the game but can also complete challenges (called Galactic Achievements) to accelerate this, which can be a shortcut to winning what in other games often turns into a long, drawn-out slog to the finish line.

The civilisation selection screen in space strategy game Galactic Civilizations 4

Stardock has a lot of experience with the 4X genre, so it’s no surprise the team is able to take what it’s learned and iterate on the series’ past success. For example, GalCiv IV has 18 fascinating civilisations with lots of options for player customisation. The most dedicated players can even design custom ships for their fleets and upload images assets for their own races. This is in addition to a long list of galaxy generation options that include everything from adjusting rival start distances to AI behaviour and win conditions.

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There are also some wonderful details drawn from real life. For example, you can choose to play as a silicon-based lifeform. The mere existence of this type of life is a controversial topic in scientific discourse. So when playing as one such species, it did make me laugh to see an opposing AI express scepticism about my civilisation on this exact topic.

For anyone unfamiliar with this series, Galactic Civilizations IV will be a tough entryway even with the shift to more approachable design. Seasoned space 4X aficionados may catch on more quickly, but there’s still a learning curve. Regardless of how you go about it, the payoff for mastering all of these new systems is worth it, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

The leader management screen in space strategy game Galactic Civilizations 4

Some of the narrative content in-game can get a bit repetitive, especially across multiple sessions. I also sometimes found it tedious to manage leaders, and match their traits to appropriate roles. The game assigns bonuses for diplomacy, governance, ministries, and commander ships based on a leader’s traits. There is a sense of authenticity in sometimes needing to just roll with what you have, but it’s a feature I’d like to see expanded on in the future.

Ultimately, the aspect I struggled with the most was getting a good picture of how all the different decision points fit together. On easy at least, the consequences of sloppy decision-making don’t seem as dire as they would at higher difficulties. It’ll be interesting to try out harder modes to gauge just how much micromanagement is required for top-level play. Still, the lower-level difficulty options ensure that players can have a good time even as they feel out the game systems and potential.

It’s easy to summarise Galactic Civilizations IV as ‘Civilization in space’. But the reality is that different types of 4X games handle these common mechanics in different ways. GalCiv IV does a great job of finding the fun out among the stars and is a game that offers a truly unique experience each time you play it. It absolutely has that ‘one more turn’ magic, and with the entire galaxy as your playground, the possibilities are endless.

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This is only going to get better too, as Stardock has made plenty of noises about going big on mod support, and given how creative these communities can be we can’t wait to see what players come up with. In the meantime, it’s back to my playthrough as I prepare for the wars to come – I’ll need to shift my focus to upgrading my ships and building my defences. Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to protect my “many orifices” from harm.