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Wot I Think: Galactic Civilizations III

Stellar?

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Galactic Civilizations III [official site] is the long-awaited sequel to the 24th best strategy game of all time. I’ve spent a week looking to the stars and planting my flag in every planet in sight in order to understand the changes that have been made, and the improvements and failures at the heart of this behemoth. Here’s wot I think.

In the perfect 4X game, whether set in a hobbity shire or in the spaces between the stars, you always feel that there are several valid options at the start of each turn. The decisions might be monumental, leading to long-term game-changing diversions, such as declarations of war or the construction of a unique building or colony. They might also be of limited consequence, cosmetic even, but it’s important that they exist and that you feel your actions are either defining the character of your civilisation or its place in the world.

Galactic Civilizations III often feels like a small step forward for Stardock’s excellent sci-fi 4X series. There are new resources to gather, new galactic ‘terrain’ features, changes to ship construction and design, and tweaks to the handling of the tech tree. The moral alignment of your civ has been jettisoned, replaced with a three-way ideology system that presents a more compelling set of choices whenever colonisation or random galactic events occur. Online multiplayer is included. Maps can be absolutely gigantic, with over 100 competing races scattered across them.

If I had to pick a stand-out feature, the one I’d slap front and centre on an imaginary marketing campaign, it’d be those map sizes. They’re preposterous and the decision to give players the ability to pack such enormous galaxies with starfaring species is bold. The size and specifics of the galaxy you’re playing in mark the first big decision you’ll make when starting a game of GalCiv III. It might be the most important decision of all because playing on a small or medium map is a completely different experience to the eventual micromanagement mire of the largest simulations.

I always rush toward the biggest possible map when I’m playing a new strategy game. A couple of sessions on a tiddly set of territories is usually enough to learn the flow of a campaign and the quirks of the end-game, and then I’ll dive straight into the biggest map and settle down for the long-haul.

Galactic Civilizations III defeated me. Not because it has devious AI (although it does) and not because I’d bitten off more than I could chew. It’s a feast delivered in very deliberate bitesize pieces but those pieces had become stale long before the campaign ended. At its most expansive, Galactic Civilizations becomes a nightmarish never-ending version of every other 4X game that falls into an eventual cycle of repeated build queues and punishing waiting times while the AI takes its turn.

It’s even possible for the machinery to collapse entirely, as the penalty for having a large empire chips away at approval and isn’t sufficiently adjusted based on map size or number of habitable planets. Any ruler brave or foolish enough to attempt victory on an enormous map, with anything but the rarest occurrence of habitable planets, is doomed to fall thanks to the growing dissent of their population.

There are many ways that Stardock could provide options to overturn that dissent. Advanced research or planetary improvements that counter the hit to approval might be possible, as would an overhaul of the large empire penalty that causes it to scale more effectively. I’d love to see some form of vassal system, ala Crusader Kings 2, and all of these things are possible in the form of patches, minor DLC and expansions (seven years of support to come, Stardock reckon), but for now, I’ll be avoiding the largest maps. Despite a fairly decent empire-wide governor system that can handle the basics of build queues and fleet commands, playing with a massive civilisation is like playing Distant Worlds without the support of customisable automation. A lot of clicking without a great deal of decision-making.

Decisions. That’s the heart of 4X games. We need to think that our choices matter, whether we’re picking a line of dialogue during diplomatic dialogue, or choosing to extend the mandible claw of friendship toward a native species when founding a new planetary colony, rather than exploiting or exterminating them.

On the whole, GalCiv III does a remarkably good job of making civilisations feel distinct from one another. The AI, while it seems unfairly buffed at higher levels, is competent, fallible and – most importantly – convincingly human. Or, I guess, mostly inhuman. It has personality.

In my most recent campaign, one warlike expansionist race continually occupied barely habitable rocks in systems close to my most powerful colonies, pressuring me into a war I had little hope of winning. I’ve seen empires built on trade collapsing when their power seems too tricky to keep in check and every other AI civ pulls out of agreements and decides to annihilate them. It’s almost always satisfying to take part in the frantic period of growth at the beginning of a game, to watch these species make their mark, and then fall into various kinds of conflict with one another.

Playing on a small or medium map, the game ticks over at a healthy pace. The initial period of colonisation might only last a couple of hours and then you’re right in the thick of a galactic kerfuffle, with every star system daubed with somebody’s colours. The political wrangling in the United Planets makes a welcome return and is superbly integrated.

Essentially, the United Planets is a system whereby the presiding race (having won a vote) can propose galactic laws, changing the rules of the game temporarily to tip the balance of power in their favour. Those laws must win a majority vote as well, however, so any proposition relies on knowledge of the current status and desires of the other civilisations. Many of the propositions are minor but the right one at the right time can devastate an empire, either stunting its growth, limiting its military capabilities or yanking its hard-won research advantage away.

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Adam Smith

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