The youngest of you won't remember The Before Times. One of the minor side effects of the millennium bug killing off 90% of the Earth's population was that not long afterwards, strategy games stratified into a tiny handful of highly formulaic subtypes. There's a downside to the unquestionably better standards of design we've enjoyed in the last decade or so. It's rare to find a genuinely bad game in the same way that games were bad in the 90s. But I can't help imagining what other ideas were bounced around before everyone agreed that the wheel was indeed the way forward, and Unk and Thogg would have to resign their posts as Chief and Assistant Thing Hurler To The Village And Sometimes The River.
Take, for example, Fragile Allegiance [Mobygames link]. Its position in game history was odd even on release in 1996 - both a port and a remake and a sequel to the Amiga's semi-obscure, direly-named, but terrific K240 (itself a sequel to 1991's Utopia) - and its design still defies the neat categorisation we're used to. Technically it's a real-time strategy straddling "city builder" and "4X", but not quite conforming to any common model.
You're in space. Specifically, a huge asteroid belt on the fringe of the Federation, hotly contested by each of its loosely, sometimes nominally allied members. Your job, as one of many stinky humans to acquire a franchise from sinister mega-corporation Tetracorp, is to mine as much ore from the belt as possible. You do this by building directly on the asteroids - homes, hospitals and hydroponics for your hapless human hirelings, radiation shields and gravity nullifiers to prevent sickness and random collisions, and power plants to keep them all going. Then you need your mines, and somewhere to store the 12 different ores (two of which require special equipment, but we'll get to that; in case it's not obvious yet, Fragile Alliegiance is a complicated game) while waiting for the biannual visit from the Tetracorp transporter, which is your main source of income, and also graces you with any special staff or technology you've bought in the interim.
And you'll need shipyards, to build scout ships who can find and prospect more asteroids, and start the whole process all over again. So, it's kind of like Sim City in space, right? Well, a bit. But that's not even half of it. Those other Federation races, see, they want ore too. And humanity, particularly Tetracorp, has a long and bloody history of brutalising aliens and humans alike in its pursuit of profit and power. Tensions can run high. One race is openly hostile, but even the friendliest neighbours will sometimes skirmish over a particularly prized asteroid. So you'll need fighter craft too, and missile silos, turrets, and perhaps forcefields, and a spacedock to build warships.
Because, you see, Fragile Allegiance is also a wargame. But while open warfare certainly happens, it's more about limited or even clandestine wars. Officially, you have neither reason nor authority to declare war, so while non-aggression treaties and joint action can be agreed, nobody is ever technically at war, and everybody's diplomatic status just kind of is what it is. I'm on good terms with the Braccatia but we still open fire on each other's ships. The Mikotaj desperately want a chain of asteroids on my Eastern border and have sent the fleets at my fledgling colonies there to prove it, but that hasn't impeded trade, or a brief alliance against the Mauna. Someone is firing missiles at the Rigellians, but I can't tell who. And then there are the spies. Oh god, the spies.
Aside from simply racing your rivals to nab the best asteroids, or bombing them into rubble (literally, with the right missiles), you can also attack them covertly, using agents to sabotage key facilities, gather information, or unleash bioweapons. And you'll need spies to protect your own colonies if you can't get your opponents to agree to a treaty.
Treaties, you see, are the closest thing you have to a formal diplomatic status. There's no visible "relationship meter" of any kind, but a treaty can ban overt and/or covert action between two empires, for a negotiable duration. And even then, you're free to break any treaty, if you're willing to pay the penalty fee you agreed upon. You're not sealed in some alliance that must be intentionally broken. There's just you, them, and your word. There's not "war" and "peace", there's just whatever actions everyone is willing to take. You never really know.
The game's unique approach to diplomacy goes beyond this. You're not some immortal guiding spirit or all-powerful emperor speaking directly to others. You're a representative, who can only approach other races via their ambassadors, or by appealing to your own to lodge a formal complaint with the Federation. These are named, fully voiced individuals who'll introduce themselves and their race at length, speaking of their formal stance on the Federation and their relations with you, of their people's history and interests, and of their hopes that you can work together, and generally being, well, diplomatic. You can respond in kind, with interactions offering limited dialogue choices like a primitive RPG.
Think about it - when was the last time you spoke to a rival power in a 4X game and the process resembled any kind of interpersonal diplomacy? Most are all function, and boil down to coldly picking options from drop-down menus, utterly indifferent to the meaningless flavour text. Fragile Allegiance offers a few tricks that, though simple, change the whole feel of the experience.
Let's say the Braccatia attack a weak colony you can't defend. Combat doesn't automatically mean unending war, so you could fight back. But you could also lodge a complaint with your ambassador, who might put pressure on them to stop... or could pretty much tell you she doesn't have time to babysit you. And the Braccatia might just be offended that you went tattling instead of approaching them directly. So perhaps you'll complain to their ambassador instead, who might deny all knowledge of the incident but promise to speak to her people and investigate. Will she investigate? Maybe. If the attacks stop, was she on the level, or was the mere challenge enough to warn them off? Or were they just not willing to fight that hard for the colony?
You just don't know. And while opaque AI behaviour is often a huge flaw in strategy games, in Fragile Allegiance it fits. The setting matches the ambiguous, shifty nature of relations, and the other powers are given enough personality to make it work – you can even blackmail ambassadors caught doing something sufficiently illegal. The fronts provided by the ambassadors could well be so much smoke and mirrors, but the effect is convincing enough that your imagination fills in the gaps. I recently fought off a Rigellian attack against a near defenceless colony, not with lasers but by sealing a non-aggression treaty just in time to watch their incoming fleet turn round and head back home, presumably under much grumbling from the admiral about meddling politicians.
Combat itself is a little strange. Once ships leave your yards they're best organised into fleets however you like, but once they're on the attack you have no direct control beyond setting the damage threshold at which they'll retreat. That's not to say tactics don't matter, but beyond arming and positioning your fleets and choosing your targets, the real thrust of the strategy even in combat is economic. Specifically, logistics.
Most empire-building games are about amassing industry and research points, or shunting icons back and forth. Fragile Allegiance is all about the logistics.
While buildings cost only money and space, ships and missiles require specific ores, not to mention cash, which is mostly earned by selling that same ore. Each asteroid has a limited supply, and ships and colonies alike are easily wiped out. While it's possible to build shipyards and silos on every asteroid, keeping them supplied would be a full time job, and the range of both is very limited - missiles fired too far never land, and ships that fly beyond their fuel range seldom come back. Plus, you can only sell ore from one asteroid, necessitating regular shipments to a trading hub. So along with building and exploring and fighting, success in Fragile Allegiance depends on effectively moving your ores to where they need to be, and then on doing the same for your missiles and ships.
Clearly, there's a lot going on here. It's a slow game to begin with, but its complications quickly build a momentum that borders on relentless - as with all great management games, there's always something to be doing. A new merchant has arrived! Maybe he'll buy those sculptures you bought? The Mauna have taken that crappy asteroid in the East? Let them have it so you can spy on them, but ship away that precious Dragonium on Dessa II just in case. Workers on Shad IV are rebelling. Best build a security centre so your goons can club their big stupid faces in. Or wait, do we even need Shad anymore? Screw it, ship out the ore and demolish the hydroponics. Let that be a lesson to you, plebs! Ooh, scouts found a new asteroid. But do I want it, or do I need the money for a warp generator blueprint? Should I convert that selenium on Dolan into scatter missiles, or a skirmish fleet armed with vortex mines? The missiles will be faster, but watching the fleet go to town on a hostile base never loses its appeal, especially if you splash out on the best gear.
Speaking of which, there's no research, but instead you lease blueprints, essentially buying technology outright. Blueprints range from the boring - more efficient shields and solar panels - to carriers, doomsday missiles, and the indispensable asteroid engines that let you extend the range of your scouts and missiles, create a refuelling point for that supply chain, or kamikaze an entire colony into an enemy.
Here's where some of the flaws come up, however. Every asteroid requires a dozen vital buildings just to function, even if you just want to steer it into an enemy base. While setting up colonies is satisfying, doing it again and again with little variation soon gets old. To its credit, Fragile Allegiance took some convincing steps towards solving the micromanagement problem, and certainly mitigated it with the supervisors. Like the spies, these are named individuals with varying levels of ability. For a regular fee, they can be put in charge of multiple colonies and forgotten about. But even they must be used carefully, and occasionally managed - they can only cope with so much work. And be sure you can afford to keep them, or you'll be lucky if all they do is leave in a huff.
The micromanagement of shipping and fleets is similarly mitigated with the right blueprints. But it does suffer from a certain fiddlines. Many functions are hidden away in awkward places in the interface, and keyboard shortcuts are sorely lacking (rather baffling given that K240 solved both problems). Some menus are overly nested, a sin compounded by some of those animated menu transitions the sensible person could see were annoying even in the 90s. They're short, but when you're already clicking back and forth so often, those unnecessary 1-second delays add up fast. And while it takes some big steps to reduce micromanagement and encourage delegation, it fails to take the necessary small steps. It's the little annoyances that pile up in strategy games, and having to, for example, manually teleport every unit of ore yourself instead of leaving a standing order, can rather grate.
It's a long-winded game too, as even small maps (randomly generated, with a couple of limited custom parameters) are much larger than the range of any scout ship or missile, and being left in the dark by the total absence of a statistics screen may be as big a turn-off to some players as it is a bonus to others.
But my biggest complaint relates to a frankly unbelievable problem: for all the dozens of messages you receive, there's no warning for incoming missiles at all. Every other campaign I play ends suddenly and sourly when I come out of building a base to find another one has been devastated by missile fire. They even show up on the radar if you happen to be looking at the strategic map, so I don't know how this got through. Did nobody think that we might want to know that we're under attack? I can only surmise that it's a deliberate choice to encourage the player to delegate, but the result is absolutely infuriating.
There's a lot to complain about, is what I'm saying, and I'd be remiss if I didn't say that Fragile Allegiance is kind of flawed. But it did enough original things with just enough conviction to overcome its faults, and I can never play it without wishing it had been more influential.