There was a nice, clear sky last night. When I looked up at it, I did have to wonder if, above me, an alien race was attempting to culture flip Earth so that they could use the planet as a staging post for a massive invasion into the territory of a group of sentient robots who have nothing but hatred for organic life.
When my dog finished his business, we went back inside so I could continue playing Galactic Civilizations III, the source of my paranoia.
Stardock’s latest turn-based space 4X game has removed any romantic notions of space from my mind. It’s all industrial giants clashing with corrupt zealots, giant single-minded armadas launching warheads at each other, economic wars and planetary invasions. Space is exhausting, but running a vast galactic empire is absolutely worth the effort.
The fundamentals of Galactic Civilizations haven’t changed. If you were to summarise the first few turns in both II and III, you’d have two nearly identical descriptions.
You send your scout and survey ship out to explore the galaxy, searching for life, anomalies and resources. Then you send out your first colony ship, avoiding the second inhabitable planet in your solar system (it’s always terrible), and probably start building another colony ship so you can snatch up choice worlds quickly. With that done, you choose what you’re going to research and start building on your homeworld, probably a manufacturing or research facility, which you’ll rush buy.
That’s really just the first turn – there’s a lot to do – but the following turns share just as many similarities.
It’s in the details where the extra Roman numeral is earned. These actions, researching, constructing, are now richer in meaningful decisions, allowing would-be space emperors to more finely tune their galactic empire.
Research, for instance, is still full of branching paths complete with fanciful sci-fi and more grounded, speculative technologies and race-specific research, but there’s now an extra layer of choice. Many research projects offer a greater degree of specialisation by making galactic dictators choose between multiple bonuses. A research project related to ship hulls might be split up into specialisations that beef up the hulls or lower manufacturing costs, and how you’re developing your empire will determine which bonus is the best fit.
The race-specific tech trees already conferred a lot of personality and variety to Galactic Civilizations’ tech tree, so this extra layer does threaten to over-complicate an already excellent system. The new tech tree ladles on all these extra decisions right from the get go, meaning that you absolutely need to have an idea of the direction your empire is going in extremely early on. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s too much. It certainly forces players to appreciate that the game requires a lot of forward thinking, but it is very daunting.
Before you even start hoovering up planets across the galaxy, before you even load up a map, there are a multitude of agonising choices to make. How big do you want to make the galaxy, and what shape will it take? How often do you want to bump into pirates and minor races? Who will you share the galaxy with? How quickly do you want the game to move along? There's even the terrain of space to consider, the nebulas, black holes and resource rich moons and asteroids. Stardock’s lavished the game setup screen with so many options that you have more control over the galaxy than in any previous Galactic Civilizations installment, and it’s only really outdone by Distant Worlds.
The “insane” galaxy size is, perhaps, going to be Galactic Civilizations III’s claim to fame. While the smallest galaxy size, “tiny”, can be mastered in a couple of hours and barely has room for one proper space empire, the largest galaxies will take weeks, possibly months, to play through. While you can play with any number of races, the most gargantuan of galaxies are really designed to contain a lot of different species. If you want to play a game with 100 races, then you’ll probably want to do it in an insane galaxy.
To get a sense of the scale, here’s where I started off with my Drengin empire in an insane spiral galaxy:
And here’s the camera zoomed all the way out:
That covers maybe 1/6th of the whole map. Each red dot is a sun that could potentially host habitable planets. If you were to only play with Stardock’s eight official races, then you could play for days and never even meet them.
It’s an endurance game, playing on an insane galaxy, testing your patience and you explore the galaxy at a painfully slow pace. And it doesn’t feel like empires were meant to spread out as far as these massive maps allow them to. There are approval penalties that punish empires for growing too large, and these penalties don’t appear to scale with the size of the map.
A smaller galaxy ensures that you’ll make contact with other races quickly, and it’s the interactions with aliens that drive Galactic Civilizations III.
Gal Civ 3 starts off with eight races. That’s less than its predecessor – though a flexible in-game race designer and mod support means that the actual number of races can be much, much greater. Even so, the standard races cover all the bases. You’ve got the Altarians, a bunch of very pleasant, blue humanoids, famed for their culture and benevolence, and on the other end of the spectrum are the Drengin, a race of militaristic conquerors whose empire is built on the backs of slaves. In between are expansionist zealots, masters of trade, robots and even insects from the future.