Have You Played… Distant Worlds: Universe?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

At present, despite the dawn of Stellaris, Distant Worlds: Universe [official site] is still my favourite space strategy game. I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes in a couple of years when Paradox work their usual post-release magic. It took Distant Worlds a good while to reach the lofty heights it now occupies – the Universe version of the game contains four expansions – but what lofty heights they are.

I’ve met several people who dislike Distant Worlds and after expressing my astonishment by making a noise something like ‘pshwa?’ I interrogate them thoroughly. Is it the distancing effect of the game itself, which is quite content to play itself while you make your dinner, eat your dinner, have a nap, bake a cake for dessert, eat the cake, and then go to work for the day?

Distant Worlds’ masterstroke is a system of automation that can handle different aspects of your empire, whether that’s the basics of a private sector that handles resource gathering and tourism, or you can hand over control of fleets, planetary government and diplomacy to the AI. Essentially, it’s an enormously complicated strategy game that allows you to play with just the bits that are of immediate interest, or to ease yourself in and take control of more elements as you become comfortable with the interface and the particulars of a campaign.

As a fan of strategic simulations, I find Distant Worlds utterly absorbing. It has the same attraction as a model railway system, specifically this beautiful monstrosity, and it allows me to lay down new tracks or tip the carriages off the rails whenever I like.


  1. Cinek says:

    RPS on twitter

    Is Distant Worlds: Universe still the best space strategy game?

    Betteridge’s law of headlines

    • Phidelt230 says:

      Except Stellaris doesn’t have the features or the depth of Distant Worlds. So DWU is the best space game right now.

      Give it like 2 years and maybe Stellaris will have more features and depth than DWU but not right now.

      • LexW1 says:

        Stellaris already seems to have about 4x as much style and sci-fi-ish-ness though. That’s where DW:U seems to fall down – it’s not only generic SF – it’s very old-fashioned generic SF full of bog-standard animal-man races.

      • BlackAlpha says:

        Pretty much this. Stellaris gets very dull in the mid game and especially at the end game. There just isn’t enough to do. So, I still think DW:U is the best 4x space game.

        • Sound says:

          Add me to that chorus. DWU’s has both a great AI, and it has depth, versatility, and choice. Stellaris, for all it’s got going for itself, profoundly lacks those at present.
          It’s just a shame that so much of DWU is messy, chaotic, and whack-a-mole-ish.

          • Janster says:

            I beg to differ on the depth of Distant Universe..
            Think about it, what is there to do really? As for empire management, your colonies have really little that they can do, and you only can a)assign governors and b)set tax, that’s it…

            Diplomacy is allright, and ship design too, but beyond that? You can tell ships to build, but you build EVERYTHING in range anyway…there is no reason not to, so you let the auto-dudes do that…
            Fleet management and setup is there, its finicky and honestly not really good, combat is whack-a-amole and not really that awesome…

            All in all, for me, Stellaris does EVERYTHING DW:U does, just better.

  2. FreeTom says:

    My favourite is still Sins of a Solar Empire. Shame they never managed to make it use multiple processor cores, though. Even with modern CPUs you can’t have more than about four really massive armies in the same map before it starts to judder.

    • Burningvillage says:

      I’m fairly confident that sooner or later Ironclad will be given the Ashes of Singularity engine, then an epic Sins of a Solar Empire 2 will be ours.

    • Solidstate89 says:

      I always thought the reason it sucked at loading that many assets on the screen at once was lack of memory due to being 32-bit. I didn’t realize it wasn’t multi-core aware either.

    • Vastial says:

      The main issue with Sins is that it caters to one very specific playstyle – conquest, regardless of whether you are a pacifist, a tradesman or value espionage, Sins forces you to go down the path of amassing fleet blobs, creating what is a very linear experience.

  3. DeadCanDance says:

    I miss the idea of a civilian automated sector of DW on stellaris. It would add a great sense of life on the game.

    • dontnormally says:

      I feel certain that some form of this will be an eventual expansion.

  4. Philopoemen says:

    My favourite of all time is still Stars! The graphics were horrible, but the gameplay was awesome, especially in PBEMs, where diplomacy came to the fore.

    I was hoping Stellaris would scratch that itch, but its looking a little light on at the moment.

    Sounds like I should look at Distant Worlds…

    • Tacroy says:

      God I don’t know what it is about Stars! but it’s the best space empire game I’ve ever played. GalCiv 2 was the only thing to even come close.

      I think it’s because the major traits changed everything about your playstyle.

  5. Laurentius says:

    I have as I try almost all space strategies. I love game idea and seeing these huge galaxy operating, with all npc ships moving around, galactic economy and all that staff, it’s a brillant game at these moments. But there are also moments on unbearabl lows: UI is quite often rubbish, many things that should work on automate, doesn’t work properly and micromanaging is terrible pain. So Distant Worlds is not my favourite space strategy, I admire its bold ideas and I like torturn from tim to tim to watch my galactic empire but playing it is often not very enjoyabla. MoO2 is though.

  6. teije says:

    Yes I’m quite fond of DW and played it tons a few years ago. But I found that I was thoroughly done with it when I rebooted it last year and was ready to move on. Hence why I was so happy that Stellaris was coming – which I believe will be more definitive and enjoyable once it has 4 DLCs under its belt.

  7. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Bought it for the fan reception but it’s still sitting there in my libraria. Heard some online tutorials are needed as it’s hard to get into (technically that’s true of Dark Souls also). Or I could always start Dwarf Fortress, unaccessible supreme.

  8. Cvnk says:

    I hope the DW devs appreciate all the free marketing they’ve been getting since Stellaris released. I feel like every review or discussion about Stellaris mentions DW. Not saying that’s a bad thing.

    I want to try DW but they’re asking a lot of money for something I may never play again. I wish there was some sort of demo.

    • Sound says:

      The comparison is warranted – Stellaris took a lot of things directly from DW:U. The Stellaris devs should thank DW:U for all the good ideas.

  9. Erithtotl says:

    Its my recommendation that if you are looking for a 4x to play and you haven’t played DW:U (the version with all DLCs), get it before you get Stellaris. The latter might be amazing after 4 DLC, but right now I find it largely empty compared to DW.

  10. Nice Save says:

    I was considering reinstalling this the other day, but I only had the original game and the first three expansions. I figured I should get the 4th as well, so I went looking for it, but apparently you can’t buy just the Universe expansion, you have to buy it as a GOTY-style package which costs £45.

    Considering I’ve bounced off the game several times, and not even played more than 10 hours, yet still gone back and paid full price for each expansion, I decided enough was enough and didn’t buy it. The whole episode put me off reinstalling it too.

  11. Sin Vega says:

    By far the most I’ve ever paid for a game, and frankly I regretted it. It’s incredibly demanding and unwieldy, and needs lots of thorough clubbing into shape through obtuse menus and unclear options just to get it playing well without the AI constantly blundering into danger and stupid decisions and/or the UI blaring constant warnings about things that are rarely urgent and sometimes incomprehensible.


    It isn’t, by any means, a bad game. It’s a really impressive bit of design, and one of few games to feel both huge and – after enough of said clubbing – manageable. Macromanagement is something very few space games have made a serious attempt at, let alone on such a scale and with so many options to tailor it to how you like it.

    The story campaign is atrocious, though – here be sudden invulnerable hordes of ultra-advanced ships on a beeline for your already weak empire, and you have to stop them using another fleet that appears out of nowhere, a single ship of which has a maintenance cost worth 10 times your entire civilisation. It’s basically impossible without complete foreknowledge of exactly what’s going to happen, and I recommend that absolutely anyone thinking of playing it do so with the plot switched firmly off.

    I was saddened also that it’s still stuck in the usual 4x mindset of MUST DOMINATE AND WIN. I had a lovely time ignoring warp technology for ages, watching my tiny one-star nation pootle about mining and trading with unaligned private ships. It meant I was doomed to be effortlessly conquered, of course. I wish there was scope to play as a little bubble kingdom, largely ignoring the wars and demands of the empires. Ah well.

    Anyway. It’s good and unique and worth a look, but extortionately priced (as usual, Matrix) and requires a lot of investment before it gets good.

  12. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I have, but in the end I didn’t really like it. In all my campaigns I had fun in the beginning, but the longer the game went the less I enjoyed it. It always became annoying to play, because of many little things. It’s been a while, so I don’t remember most of the specifics, but there was much that was fiddly to control manually, but didn’t work that well when automated.

    I was a bit disappointed by that, actually, because from what I read about the game, I had expected to really like it.

  13. DD says:

    Bought it based off your previous recommendation and now I am a convert. Amazing game. I play with everything manual and love how the empire can feel like something I actually crafted.

  14. Bootstraps says:

    Distant Worlds is by far the best 4X space game. The complexity, AI/automation, and civilian economy is amazing.