Wot I Think: Star Ruler

By Adam Smith on August 26th, 2011 at 4:46 pm.

Space is roomy
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, yes, we do know when long-zoom 4X indie spectacle Star Ruler was originally available to buy. However, anyone who has followed the game can tell you that what you get for your money now is a different beast to what you got at that nascent time. What could be regarded as the actual launch is now here. We are all familiar with the terror of unfinished games and the horror of 0-day patches. It is easy to believe the entire global computing infrastructure has been put in place so that developers could ship as soon as they got tired and wanted a holiday. Star Ruler did turn up in that sort of unsatisfactory state, but the developers admitted that and they put out a representative demo as well. Since then, their support of the product has been exemplary. While I may not agree with everything they’ve done, the fact that they continue to listen and improve the game is exactly what we so often demand and so rarely receive. But the play’s the thing, so here’s wot I think.

At first glance, Star Ruler is mind bogglingly complex. The UI has come in for a lot of criticism but I found that in its current state it usually helped me find what I needed. On top of that, the tutorial is clear and informative. The problem with the early hours is not just the sheer amount of stuff that it’s possible to do at any one time, it’s the fact that the consequences of any given action aren’t always entirely clear. The complexity still astonishes me but, crucially, after a few play sessions the confusion is hardly an issue at all. That’s not because I suddenly understood everything, it’s because I stopped caring. Early on I realised that I could prompt and prod my researchers to learn about specific things but I didn’t actually know if they were listening to me very much. Technology kept advancing at a steady rate though so I simply nodded and tried to look like I was in charge.

I’ve learned to focus on one thing until I get distracted by something more interesting. If I want to concentrate on colonising as many planets as possible, I build scouts. The scouts fly off to discover new systems. I build colony ships. The colony ships fly off and colonise the planets. Done. While all that’s happening, I could be designing bloody great ships o’ war and defensive space stations. I could be tweaking my economy or converting a planet into a moveable, all-conquering super-colony. With options like that last one, I’m not really thinking about my economy, I’ll be honest.

Shipping lanes

There are two reasons that all these things are possible. The first is the scale at which Blind Mind have allowed players to realise their galactic ambitions. You can churn out ships by the bucket-load. And I mean some kind of gigantic space bucket. Not only can fleets be massive in number, each ship can be massive in size. When choosing what type of craft you want, the first thing is to add components to a blueprint. Some are necessary, most are optional. Things like guns, shields and more guns. They are dragged and dropped onto a circular grid, an abstract representation of the ship, while the blueprint calculates energy production/consumption, range and other handy stats.

It’s a great tool that allows a huge amount of options without feeling like it will totally break balance. And if the balance was overturned, it’d be because you’d constructed some kind of sentient and terrible cathedral-ship that melted entire planets just by thinking about them, at which point balance would be the last thing on your mind. Once the systems and subsystems are in place you can alter their scale and the scale of the ship itself. Normally a fighter (think TIE) would be a lot smaller than a capital ship. In Star Ruler you can make that fighter gargantuan, sticking more powerful weapons, shields and engines on to compensate for its sheer size. This is a game in which ships can kill the stars that men seek to rule.

Not a bubble, but a ship

Upping the scale is conceptual, it’s part of the vision of what a 4X game should be achieving. Blind Mind’s other masterstroke is intelligent automation. This aspect isn’t as all-enveloping as in Distant Worlds but it means menial tasks don’t have to be repeated over and over. Given a galaxy with so many systems to inhabit (the upper limit is effectively set by the heft of your computer), it wouldn’t be right to spend time overseeing the construction of a rubber tubing factory on Garbalon III. I’m the Star Ruler, serfs, let me rule some stars. Everything else should be someone else’s job. Say a planetary governor. These handy little chaps can be given a brief (balanced, metal production etc.) and will fill a planet with useful structures before you even realise it’s been colonised. These structures then automatically begin churning out resources to be thrown into the furnaces of industry. The furnaces of industry then build ludicrously gargantuan ships with which to crush the enemies of the Star Ruler. When resources are low, construction work slows right down, which is preferable to a host of annoying popup warnings. And I should add that despite being almost completely negligent of planetary micromanagement most of the time, I never found my economy or industry had simply broken itself, which is a relief. Too often, complexity seems to provide more easily accessible fail conditions, but I didn’t find that to be the case here.

At this point, colony ships have expanded the empire, and my many planet are thriving hubs of industry and capitalism. I’ve built all these ships. I should probably perform an act of interstellar aggression. Luckily for me, there are up to ten enemy empires in the game. Like most things, the exact number is up to the player during setup. Referring to them as ‘enemy empires’ is very deliberate. Usually, I’m happy to build, expand, form alliances and conduct research in games of this sort but the first mild criticism I’ll level at Star Ruler is that everything does seem geared toward aggressive conquest. In my experience these aliens are usually keen to engage in the delicate ballet of fleet-to-fleet, zero gravity combat, but that’s not the only thing that encourages war. It’s simply that constructing ships then hurling those ships into conflict is the most entertaining part of the game. A Star Ruler becomes jaded with the simple acts of colonisation and expansion. Pretty soon all those billions of people begin to look like pieces on a board.

Death on an unprecedented scale

The AI itself seems very effective and it will throw some interesting things your way. But the dealings with other empires highlight my biggest reservation about the game. There’s not a huge amount of character to my empire or any of the others and, eventually, this means the hugely impressive number crunching starts to look like just that. I don’t care about individual planets or systems, let alone the people who supposedly live on them. They’re statistics and when the numbers go up, I’m happy, when they go down I try to correct it. Not because this is mine and I am proud of it but rather because I want a series of processes to function correctly.

This lack of attachment won’t bother some people at all, in fact I’m sure some people don’t want to know anything about their governors and pilots except that they can govern and pilot. But it bothers me a little that those governors aren’t pretending to be little chaps at all; they are drop down menus that happen to be called ‘governors’. None of this means I want another game entirely, it just means I would enjoy more feedback and non-numerical detail.

The wealth of stations

If you think that concentrating on the hard facts is a good thing, this is probably the game for you. There is still a demo available, which isn’t updated quite as often as the full game but is still a fairly good representation. If you do purchase, what you’re getting is a heavily customisable 4X game which refuses to accept that upper limits should exist. The first hint of that comes when you form a galaxy for your new game. They come in various shapes (spiral, cluster, spherical and more!) and you can choose the number of systems at the outset. I tried 10,000 just to see what would happen. That’s 10,000 stars. I could have gone higher. Scrolling through the galaxy in 3D was quite amazing, knowing that theoretically I could own it all one day. That, for me, is when the game is at its brilliant best, taking the long view and being above all petty concerns. At those points, being a, nay the, Star Ruler is awesome. But after a while I want to go down to the surface and see what it’s all about, up close and personal. Maybe I’m just not cut out for the job. I’d make a mean rubber tubing factory foreman though.

Star Ruler is out now.

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37 Comments »

  1. G-Sys says:

    “This is a game in which ships can kill the stars that men seek to rule. ”

    That reads like something that would have been fun to write.

    I picked this up a while back because it was cheap and the scale impressed me. After fiddling around for a bit I felt a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of it all. After reading this, I think I’ll give it another go.

    • djtim says:

      I also bought the game cos the scale impressed – Supreme Commander (the first one), in space!!

      But 30 minutes into the tutorial the I was completely overwhelmed. Turns out I shouldn’t try to micro-manage everything. Will definitely give it another shot after ready this…!

    • dsi1 says:

      Yeah, I tried to micro-manage everything last time I played and was hugely overwhelmed, going to try focusing on making cool ships this time around.

  2. sinister agent says:

    It is indeed madly complex, and yet surprisingly easy to jump into. As Mr. Smith observes, the automation is well done enough that you can largely just focus on one bit at a time, either because you’re new or because you’re not too bothered if one area isn’t torally efficiently done.

    I really do need to play it some more, but I’d imagine it’s lots of fun with some friends, also. If only I had any. Ooogh.

  3. Orija says:

    I think I’ll be buying this one.

  4. Hazzard65 says:

    I liked the drive behind this game and the company so much I contributed artwork to it for free (well for a free copy of the game any way :P). Rest assured I will be submitting a few more race portraits shortly (after my well deserved holiday at least) so watch for them in the next patch and let me know what you think in the blind mind forums :D.

    My personal favourite is locking down a sector of space and securing central industry, economic and research systems dedicated to preparing what I like to call a “Star Killer” force. Then, after years of silence my empire unleashes a wave of colony ships that snatch up worlds, extracting them back to my locked down systems using PLANETARY THRUSTERS. Yes you read that correctly. I colonise a planet, attach THRUSTERS TO THEM and them fly then back to my secure systems. After I am happy with my collection of planets I develop them into industry power houses and begin building my Starkiller force of size 10k spacial distortion goliaths that… for all intent and purposes rip holes in reality itself. Incidentally these weapons represent the most effective ways of setting stars to nova. I make sure I include a warp drive to the ships and then leisurely spend my time warping into every system in the galaxy, blowing the star and leaving if I can. It’s an attrition based strategy that hasn’t proved the most effective, but it is hilariously entertaining :D.

    Also tinkering around with custom ship designs never gets old… I once designed an artillery station that had such an enormous range that I could almost pluck enemy ships out of existence from anywhere in the galaxy. I could even build a whole army of them, pause the game, slowly but surely tell each artillery station to target every single enemy planet I have on my radar and then unpause… essentially wiping out an enemy empire’s entire industry and economy as soon as war were declared.

    • Mr_Hands says:

      I desire a play-by-play build order for this.

    • dsi1 says:

      So this is Supreme Commander where you design your own experimentals?

      Never thought about it that way.

  5. Bremze says:

    Iirc, with enough resources, you can make galaxy-sized ships. And ringworlds. A build a thruster and tons of weapons on a planet. I think that the games personality lies in the crazy things it encourages to come up with.

  6. LazerBeast says:

    Got this awhile back when it was still on Impulse and enjoyed it. It seemed overwhelming at first but once I got the hang of things, and realized how helpful the automation was, I was up and building gigantic planet-busting ships.

  7. Hazzard65 says:

    Yeah you can build galactic sized ships but It takes so long to construct one, even with the speed of time increased and the on board weapons take days to reload… literally…days. So it’s pretty useless :P. Funny as hell to see I am sure, never built one that large myself as I don’t have the patience.

    You can build ringworlds like HALO. They take a long while to build but when you do get one it is mental how fast you can construct ridiculously large ships.

  8. Snuffy the Evil says:

    With Star Ruler, you don’t really need to say much more than “you can build planetary thrusters and steal planets from your enemy”.

  9. JonClaw says:

    Time to give SR another try I guess.

  10. vecordae says:

    Star Ruler is grand, especially when you consider that the entirety of it’s immense, procedurally-generated game world consists of a couple of hundred megs of code, art, and sound. It allows one to micromanage if one so desires or it can automate the entire thing and let you concentrate on building ships. The game’s presentation is austere and efficient. It doesn’t care if your citizenry are humans or terrible bug people. it doesn’t track morality. It is maths, glorious, universe-ruling space maths and it doesn’t try to dress it up as anything else.

  11. Mr Bismarck says:

    “These handy little chaps can be given a brief (balanced, metal production etc.) “

    Iron?

    • Biscuitry says:

      There’d have to be some iron. This isn’t Quinns, after all.

    • vecordae says:

      The resourcing system is great. It’s all done under the hood if you chose a planetary governor, but you can micro-manage it if you want. Your population makes various tier 1 things based on what facilities you build on the planet. Those tier 1 things are further refined and combined to make the various tier 2 things that contribute to your science, overall happiness, and ship production. You can even build freighters that automatically will go about ferrying supply stockpiles on planet A to planet B where they can be used.

      That said, the primary resources are Metal, Wood, Stone, and Vespene Gas.

  12. Mr_Hands says:

    Re: the bit about the Planet Governors. I’d always read “planet governor” as the same thing as the Gibbs Governor. A system of self-regulation to be attached to a planet and keep it on an even keel. Never even occurred to me that a governor might be an actual (fictional) person.

    Also, the research system is what made me fall in love with Star Ruler, and I’m one of those quacks who thinks 4X games are phenomenal on paper but then run in terror from their google image searches of pie charts. Star Ruler freaked me out for about 5-10 minutes, until I’d tweaked a few sliders and my intergalactic empire wasn’t sent directly into a tailspin.

    Anyways, the random “eureka!”/dead end nature of research really appeals to me.

    I still haven’t bothered much with ship design, but I’d really like to create a ginormo-sized ship, just because I can.

  13. Stuart Walton says:

    Glad to see they’re adding more automation. Makes it so much more approachable. Lets you concentrate on discovering crazy game-breaking ship builds.

    I think it’s probably possible to build AI controlled ‘fire ships’ that detonate when destroyed. Send a swarm towards that capital ship encroaching upon your space and watch it effectively commit suicide, engulfed in a cloud of unstable reactors going critical. It might even be more efficient to crew them instead of AI. It’ll be fun finding out.

  14. commisaro says:

    How does this compare to GalCiv2?

    • sinister agent says:

      It’s an awkward comparison to make, really. They’re not really the same sort of game at all. Star Ruler is about scale and macro-management (although you can micro all you want, but it’s not really needed), rather than Galciv’s more personality and detail-driven feel.

      It’s also real-time (with many speed options) rather than turn-based, the research is less traditional civ-style unique techs and more levelling up general areas, the diplomacy is much more simple and pragmatic (there’re really no unite-’em-up our transcendence options in SR, so it’s more about priotising your targets).and there’s no real aesthetic ship design options – it’s purely abstract, however there are far more possibilities with the ship design as you can shove anything you like onto a ship and make it basically any size you like, even early on.

      I suppose the biggest difference is that SR is more abstract in general. You probably won’t get too attached to your home colony, or have a favourite race, or even bother renaming planets after a while. It’s more about the bigger picture.

  15. Cheese says:

    Wasn’t 1.0 released months ago? Just like when you reported on the demo being released that had been out for months previously?

    • FirgofUmbra says:

      Version 1.0.0.0 was released August 21, 2010.
      Version 1.1.0.0 (the current version) was released a little over a week ago. This may *seem* a slight version change, but there’s over 25 major patches difference between 1.0.0.0 and 1.1.0.0. A full year’s worth of work, actually. :)

      The upcoming boxed release of Star Ruler in Europe is the third week of September. Mid-October for the United States.

      We were in contact with RPS about reviewing the game since last year, but requested that they hold off until we hit a more ‘final’ version of the game.

      Them reporting that the demo was out was a mistake on one of our publishers’ parts. They made it sound as if the demo had not been out before then and RPS syndicated their news piece. :)

    • Prime says:

      Just to add my tuppence to FirgofUmbra – I pre-ordered the game before release. The amount of work that has gone into the patches since is staggering (I ‘ve read every single release note). It’s a hugely different beast from when it launched. Much slicker, much cleaner, much more focused. and there’s still great stuff to come in it’s future, so I believe.

  16. Arkanos says:

    Dear Adam,

    Star Ruler is truly an excellent game that approaches scale in a way not often seen by most games. To give you an idea of the truly massive level of scale Star Ruler allows, I once constructed a ship that was scaled to a size-rating of 1 billion. This ship was larger than the galactic core of a 1500 star map.

    But that is not scale. Scale is creating a 150000 star map, where every 100 stars was clustered together into their own galaxy. This required roughly 3 gigabytes of memory, took over 2 hours to create, and was impossible to play due to lag. But it was possible to create. Because Star Ruler is that great.

  17. Hazzard65 says:

    I personally love how scalable and customisable it is.

    My settings usually consist of only 90 systems and all tech available at the beginning so I can import my favourite designs. This leaves me to focus purely on the strategy and any new ship designs on I want to experiment with.

    I’ve only really played through a spiral map because it is the most realistic, but I have experiment with clusters. Spherical for example, is actually not a bad simulation of a small sector of actual galactic space… with the star distance set to 3000 it changes the dynamic quite a bit!

    It’s just nice that the player can choose “insanely complex madness” or “gentle summer breeze”.

  18. geldonyetich says:

    I tried the demo. I was staggered by the sheer scale and power of the thing. Feels like a very slick and brilliantly engineered thing. It’s just fun to see in motion, like intricate clockwork.

    However, I do have to say that the game seems difficult to play. It’s not the interface anymore – now the difficulty has to do with finding significance. (Perhaps the game simulates the universe too well in this regard: what significance does anything have, really?)

    The issue this creates is that it’s really hard to conceptualize what difference my choice, as a player, makes. For example:

    * I know what the resources are, my count of them, how many are being produced. The economy is somewhat Total Annihilation/Supreme Commander, you have a flow of incoming resources and spend it on units in real time, mastery coming from figuring out the correct balance for optimal unit production efficiency. However, in Star Ruler, it’s exponentially more difficult because there’s many more factors: there are more than two resource types, the resource nodes (planets) are of variable value, a value modified by which complexes have been built on the planet, and the unit costs aren’t fixed but rather variable based off of however your unit designs are customized. Consequently, it’s very hard to get a mental grip on this economy.

    * I can customize and build a truly staggering number of ships and stations and such, and I see all these lovely numbers representing damage, and firing rate, ect. However, what makes for a truly clever ship design? The numbers aren’t saying. Even if I watch combat carefully, I see bolts flying, I see ships becoming damaged and exploding, but I learn nothing. The details are hidden in calculations I can’t see.

    * Combat is either not very involving or I don’t understand how tactics are supposed to work. I’m pretty much just throwing ships at each other and hoping I win. If I lost a battle, is there any way I can tell what I did wrong? Not really: I just need to make my numbers bigger next time.

    My experience extends to playing the tutorial, following it step by step, until the computer overwhelmed me because I really had no idea if I was doing well or poorly until I started losing systems to its advance. I gave up, frustrated, and that’s a bad sign when you’ve about 28 years of gaming experience. I could figure out Battlecruiser 3000AD, but Star Ruler is apparently beyond me – well, not beyond me, but it would require more effort than I’m willing to invest to get good at it.

    I think that the main problem is that the game tries to be so big that you lose sight of important details. I see this in many games that over-expand: bigger is not necessarily better, you reach a certain point where things fall out of context, and the only thing Star Ruler communicates clearly is a presentation of size.

    The end result feels less like a game and more like a simulation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot of gamers out there who want a simulation of staggering size, you can keep your mind infinitely occupied watching those clockwork gears turning. However, I prefer to have more control than that. I like games where I know exactly what I’m doing and what the ramifications of that are because that empowers my ability to make choices and makes me feel more like I’m playing the game.

  19. Olivaw says:

    At those points, being a, nay the, Star Ruler is awesome. But after a while I want to go down to the surface and see what it’s all about, up close and personal.

    Yeah, I have this compulsion too.

    I think it’s called “Henry V syndrome.”

  20. propjoe says:

    This sounds like a good way to fill the void that Master of Orion left when they stopped making those. Awesome.

  21. Xiyng says:

    I can has multiple galaxies or no?

    • Hazzard65 says:

      @Xiyng It’s got multiple galaxy mods as well I believe.

      really you can have whatever your computer can handle.

    • Xiyng says:

      Thanks, makes me a lot more interested. I’m not sure I’m ever going to get out of the beginning galaxy but I feel it’s a little restricting when there’s only one galaxy to play in.

  22. Dreamhacker says:

    How does this compare to, say, Sword of the Stars?

    • Dreamhacker says:

      Never mind, I found out I had the demo installed and realized upon playing it that it was real time… My interest died soon afterwards. The brilliance of the old masterpieces (Master of Orion) lie in their turn-based nature.

  23. Neonrabbit says:

    How does it compare to Distant Worlds? I have Distant Worlds and it was quite decent. The graphics on Distant Worlds seem nicer than these ones. And from the description, the economy seems nicer in Distant Worlds too.