Lead your people to galactic conquest in this strategy title from Stardock Corporation. Along the same parsec as Shrapnel's acclaimed Space Empires IV and the popular Master of Orion games, Galactic Civilizations challenges strategists to conquer an entire galaxy, turn by turn. Players begin with little more than a colony ship and a load of ambition. Once a base is established near a friendly star, the empire can begin to grow. Players lead their ships to explore other stars and claim nearby systems. As the interstellar realm begins to grow and advanced technologies offer new possibilities, competition with other empire-expanding races becomes the greatest challenge of all.
At first glance, one might be forgiven for assuming that Galactic Civilizations is just a Master of Orion 3 knockoff. Certainly, the games look similar. Players, starting with one world, a survey vessel, and a colony ship, move out into a 2D grid map of the universe and settle other worlds in an effort to dominate the galaxy. Of course, the galaxy isn't empty. There are five alien empires and a host of minor races out there who just might have something to say about that -- so conflict and competition are inevitable.
A little playtime, however, and you'll realize that Galactic Civilizations is more aptly compared to another strategy classic -- Sid Meier's Civilization. While Galactic Civilizations isn't in the same league as that classic, it is one of the most enjoyable turn-based strategy titles I've played in a while.
Like Civilization, the focus of Galactic Civilizations is on building economic and production facilities that produce the soldiers, technology, and improvements that allow you to expand your influence. In Civ, they were cities, in Galactic Civilizations, they're planets, but the idea is the same. To that end, players are able to control all internal aspects of their empire -- tax rates, research priorities, even the type of government they choose to administer. All this is accomplished through a very effective interface that easily lets you access the information you need to tell what's going on.
Most of the game's actions take place on a close-up map of a section of the galaxy that can be scrolled around as needed. A few other screens give you access to economic, military, diplomatic, or production data, but virtually everything you need is no more than one or two mouse clicks away. Even better, there are some common-sense elements to these screens that should definitely be adopted in similar games. For example, the overlay on the main screen that allows you to look at every world's production also allows you to alter that production without having to go back to a dedicated "production screen." Click on an alien-held world in the main screen and a small button lets you call them -- jumping instantly to the diplomatic screen.
There is, however, one aspect of your empire that's not completely under your control -- outfitting your space fleet. Unlike the Master of Orion series and similar games, Galactic Civilizations has no provision for altering the loadout of your vessels. You can't, for example, decide to equip your vessels with older lasers or older engines that have gotten cheaper in order to build a lot of ships really fast. Rather, all of your units always take the same amount of production units (and time) to create, modified only by production bonuses. Everything is also automatically updated with the latest and greatest stuff. Combat is resolved on the main screen -- units clash, some numbers get crunched, one side wins and the other side gets blown up.
This is unfortunate for two reasons. First, it tends to suck some of the fun out of the military conquest victory path. One of the fun aspects of taking over the universe should be tweaking my spaceships and making tactical decisions with them. This design decision totally removes any aspect of tactical genius that might save a player from a strategic blunder -- or even using tactical skills to advance a strategic objective (such as overcoming technological inferiority or being outnumbered). In essence, taking the military path becomes a race to produce the highest number of technologically advanced ships and getting them to where they need to be. That having been said, it must also be noted that this flaw doesn't amount to a condemnation of the game. Indeed, players who enjoy the "empire building" aspect of strategy games more than the "conquest" aspect may not view this as a flaw at all and appreciate not having to worry about the nitty-gritty of tactical details.
The second reason is a bit more serious. The appearance of your ships never changes, even as weapons, shields, and armor get more advanced -- nor is it always easy to tell just what impact technological advances are having on your military strength. In historically based strategy games, there's an instinctively obvious advancement when you move from, say, primitive cavalry to mounted knights. It's a little more difficult to immediately tell the difference between a frigate and a corvette without some type of visual symbols on the screen. It isn't that all the information a player needs when trying to judge the chances of prevailing in combat isn't available. It's that the information needs to be condensed somehow onto the unit itself, rather than forcing the player to dig through various attack and defense numbers. In most other areas, Galactic Civilizations did a very good job of avoiding the whole "spreadsheet masquerading as a game" phenomena that sometimes plagues this genre.
Other aspects of the game that deserve praise include Galactic Civilization's diplomacy system -- one of the best implementations of this idea I've ever seen. Literally anything and everything in the game is up for grabs using diplomacy. Players can wheel and deal trading starships, planetary systems, buying assets from others, swapping technology back and forth with the other major empires, forging alliances, and manipulating enemies. This isn't a minor aspect of the game, either -- it's entirely possible to use the diplomacy screen to prop up a friend with infusions of technology or ships or money and get them to fight a proxy war for you. In another example, researching new technologies not only benefits your empire, but can bring in cash and breathing room as you sell the same tech to two mortal enemies to feed their war with each other. Successful wheeling and dealing at the bargaining table can bring players victory without firing a shot by following one of the game's three other victory paths.
First, there's a political victory in which you win when you and your allies have conquered any opposing empires. This leads to interesting situations in which you may act as a "brain trust," supplying regular infusions of new technology to an empire that does the fighting for you, or in which you can concentrate on building up your military because a smaller, weaker empire is supplying you with technology and cash in hopes of riding your coattails to victory. There's also a technological victory in which you win by being the first to complete the tech tree, and a cultural one where you use your "influence" and trade to make destroying you politically impossible for any rival empires.
This also feeds into the game's unique "alignment" system. Every empire in the game begins with a moral alignment ranging from pure good to pure evil. You start as neutral and shift depending how you react to various random events. If, for example, you colonize a new planet and find that there is already a pre-industrial civilization living there, you have a choice of either displacing the natives or leaving them be at the cost of reduced production capacity. While both good and evil empires can win the game, the way you choose to play will have a dramatic impact on your strategy. Evil empires in a universe full of goody-two-shoes tends to find the computer avoiding trading with them and later ganging up on them. Good empires, on the other hand, tend to handicap themselves militarily. Calculating the short-term versus long-term impact on your empire from these decisions adds an enjoyable extra layer to a player's strategy.
The game's enemy AI is very good, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that it apparently doesn't cheat -- it plays the same game you do. This, while good, is practically a necessity because of the game's biggest problem -- lack of a multiplayer mode. Actually, I take that back. Having a game this good without the ability to play with other people across is the 'Net is more than a "problem" -- it's practically a crime. As good as the enemy AI is, it simply doesn't compare to rich layers of strategy I can imagine if only there were other humans behind the alien faces on the screen. The diplomacy system alone could lead to more backstabbing, treachery, lying, deceit, and betrayal than a Mexican soap opera.
The game does include a "Metaverse" system that allows players to post scores on the Galactic Civilizations website, but having looked at it, it's basically little more than a high-score chart. That aside, strategy players looking for a great way to kill a weekend, or a week, or possibly several months, should check into Galactic Civilizations. It's not the ultimate game of its breed, but it's certainly the best that's come out in quite some time.
People who downloaded Galactic Civilizations: Ultimate Edition have also downloaded:
Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, Empire Earth, Empire Earth II, Homeworld, Gary Grigsby's World At War, Homeworld 2, Master of Orion 3, Homeworld: Cataclysm
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