No tease before the jump here, let’s get straight to it. Distant Worlds: Universe is my favourite space strategy game. Not my favourite space strategy game released this week and not my favourite space strategy game released this year. It’s the definitive version of the best space strategy game I’ve ever played and I want to share the excitement with everyone, starting with an old friend. The transcript below explains all.
I was going to write a conventional Wot I Think, whatever the hell that means, but my good friend Admiral Adama happened to be visiting for a night of brandy and cheesestrings. I was saving my latest campaign when he arrived early and bustled through the door (he has his own key; we used to have ‘a thing’). He spied the screen and asked what the heck I was playing.
Adama: What the heck are you playing? Is that the new Battlestar Galactica game?
Me: There isn’t a new Battlestar Galactica game. This is Distant Worlds: Universe and it’s just about the hottest slice of space this side of an Eta Carinae family reunion.
Adama: Or a Cylon deathfleet, right? Sure, sure. This Distant Worlds just looks like a lot of pokey little graphics crawling around on a screen though. Where’s the fun in that? Do I get to be a crater-faced space hero?
Me: That’s a good question and conveniently leads to one of the best things about this brilliant game. Help yourself to a cheesestring by the way, I’m going to be talking for a while here.
Notionally, Distant Worlds is about building an empire, moving your people from planet to planet and system to system in an attempt to dominate the other spacefaring civilisations of the universe. Domination can take many forms. Perhaps you’ll construct hundreds of fleets and bombard alien colonies from above, or maybe you’ll construct a trading powerhouse and control galactic economies. You can even be the Butlins of your local spiral arm by owning a chain of gorgeous cultured planets that attract shiploads of tourists.
But if you’d rather concentrate on space heroics, you can design a ship, using all the latest hyperdrive tech, weapons and shielding, and set out to explore far-off stars. You might find beacons that direct you toward derelict ships from the previous interstellar age, or giant insects and slugs that live in the void and want nothing more than to eat your crew. If you head out into the depths of the great unknown, you might even find evidence of machine species that herald the end of days for all sentient life.
Adama: Sounds like my kind of gig. But if I’m sailing the solar winds of an ancient star system, chugging supernova fumes and fighting the good fight, won’t my empire fall apart without a gruff, noble hand to guide it?
Me: Not likely. You’re only as necessary as you choose to be.
Adama: I choose to be absolutely necessary at all times.
Me: I know that all too well, Admiral. You could take a hands-on approach and manage almost everything that happens. To start with, if you choose to control a pre-interstellar race, that’s easy enough. Choose which areas of research the science bods should focus their energies on and work toward building your first spaceships. There won’t be many parts to choose from and you’ll most likely start with construction and exploration vessels, the former to harness the resources of your local sun, moons and planets, and the latter to look for resource-rich asteroids in the vicinity.
Developing the tech to break away from your home system takes a while but within a couple of hours, you’ll have a web of colonies and connections, with ships zipping back and forth between them. The largest maps in the game have 1,400 stars and each could have a full system of planets and moons. It’s a big old world out there.
Adama: I’ve seen it.
Me: Not this one. The universe is randomly generated and can take different forms. Fancy playing on a map that has isolated ‘islands’ of systems so that civilisations have time to develop before harnessing the power to reach one another? The choice is yours. Perhaps you’d favour a spiral galaxy.
Adama: I’d favour a spot of that good brandy.
Me: Apologies. There’s a bottle of the tasty stuff hidden behind the bleach.
Adama: Clever. I’ll get on it. This all sounds a tad complicated. Not that I’d need help, but if I decided that I wanted to delegate some of the busy-work that comes with being a widely admired and respected leader of men, how would I go about it?
Me: Delegation is simplicity itself. I compare Distant Worlds to Crusader Kings II, that one with the incest and family feuds that you reckon is responsible for 94% of teen pregnancies.
Adama: Filthy game and not the kind of thing I’d like to see spreading into the sci-fi sphere. There’s no inter-species sholly-gogging here, I hope?
Me: Not quite. The game does have characters who go about their business but not on the same level as in CK II. I’m reminded of it because Distant Worlds similarly puts the player in the position of a ruler rather than an omniscient, omnipotent god. Take Civilization – who do you play in Civilization? You’re not a character, you’re an idea. In Distant Worlds your society will function without your input and you can choose precisely how much is automated.
All the things that you don’t care about can be handled by the computer, which is a blessing when you’re straddling a hundred systems and trying to keep your mind from collapsing in on itself. There are plenty of sliders to tinker with, so you can set the ‘character’ of the automation, deciding where your empire should direct its efforts. And you can switch settings on the fly as well.
Adama: Could be useful if I was the sort of person who had a mind capable of collapsing in on itself. Everything’s ship-shape here though. Did I tell you that Mensa invited me to be the new president? Of Mensa?
Me: No, and it didn’t happen. Even the greatest commander in the universe couldn’t hope to control everything though, not in a game as detailed, intricate and enormous as Distant Worlds. Thankfully there are private corporations to do a lot of the boring stuff.
You know how in some games you’ll have to direct every mining ship or woodcutting peasant to make sure the job gets done?
Adama: I only play games that are mostly about lasers and planetbusting torpedoes.
Me: You’ll just have to trust me on this. Micromanagement can be tedious and Distant Worlds cares about making best use of the time you choose to spend playing it.
Let’s say you find a moon with some basic but essential resources. You’re going to want to harvest those resources but that might require construction of a mining facility and a steady flow of ships to pick up the produce of that facility. The entire operation might span a dozen star systems and there could be pirates or unpleasant space monsters somewhere along the route.
Building the cargo ships and their armed escorts would take a fair bit of time, and setting up the route and monitoring it for problems could be a full-time job. And that’s precisely what it would be – a job. Not fun. Not something you’d want to spend time doing if nobody was paying you. Good news then, because the simulation will handle all of that for you.
As soon as the mining facility is in place, private corporations will send their own ships and create a loop. Your military will provide escorts, should you allow it do so through automation. If a huge pirate incursion takes place, other military ships will respond and everything will flash up at the side of the screen so that you can intervene at any point.
If you want to, you can set every level of automation to ‘full’, sit back and watch the history of a universe play out before your eyes.
Adama: What about these pirates? Can I shoot lasers and planetbusting torpedoes at them?
Me: Sure, why not? You can use them as well though, hiring them as a sort of private military. You can even play as a pirate faction if you want to. When setting up a new game you have access to all the content from the base game and expansions, and can choose which bits to include, which era of the galaxy to start in, which determines how far civilisations have spread and how much tech they have. You can even customise everything and plug in all the content at once but start from scratch, as a puny single planet species.
Adama: Like you chumps.
Me: Precisely. But you’re the one who was so desperate to make your way back here.
Adama: Touché. Brandy?
Me: Don’t mind if I do.
Adama: Give me an elevator pitch. Why is this the best space strategy game ever made?
Me: Because it’s a proper working simulation of space travel, economics, resource management, diplomacy, combat, research, construction, exploration, migration, tourism and just about everything else that might be relevant. The existence of the private corporations alone makes it a hundred times smarter and credible as a simulated model than any other game of this type that I can think of. It does almost everything that every other game in the genre does but rather than focusing on the strategic game, it focuses on the simulation. While that may be dissatisfying to people who want a boardgame type experience, Distant Worlds is doing something that only a computer can do.
Adama: And that 'something' is to do with simulation I take it? Boy, when did simulation become your favourite word? Why don't you marry a simulation? And was that a Mass Effect elevator you just pitched me in? Because, hoo man, that took a while. Ha ha.
Me: Shut up. The AI is excellent as well, which is kind of important considering it's doing a lot of work in your empire as well as the others. You can really scrutinise how it works because it's operating right in front of you, and you can tinker with its procedures. Good AI is rare. You've stopped listening, haven't you?
Adama: What now?
Me: Should I even bother talking about the new set of modding tools that allow you to tweak and change all kinds of variable, and should lead to a bounty of great user-made downloads?
Adama: Maybe. Sure, whatever. How many lasers does it have?
Me: 1,400 star systems can have a whole lot of lasers in them. You can destroy an entire planet if that sort of thing tickles your fancy.
Adama: Are there cylons on the planet?
Me: There might be something very much like them.
Adama: Let’s do it. I’m sold. Maybe I could get into this kind of thing.
Me: I actually welled up last night when I zoomed out and saw how far my Voyager class ships were travelling. From one pale blue dot to a peaceful network that crossed eternities. The title is evocative, don’t you think, and even though the graphics are functional rather than fancy, the music and the sound of solitary engines in the vast loneliness capture something of the magnificence of travel and expansion.
It’s a game that really does impress with its scale and part of the cleverness of the automation is that it lets you sit back and enjoy the worlds you colonise or subdue. In fact, instead of watching Vato on repeat for six hours while we wreck another couple of bottles, why don’t we set a universe running and project it onto the wall? So many stories playing out before our eyes.
Adama: Hold on, hoss. Did you say you welled up watching these little ships moving around, with all the numbers and strategy things going on? That true?
Adama: Don’t want to sound cold, but that’s some messed up behaviour right there.
Me: You’re the guy wearing an Admiral’s uniform from a TV show you starred in.
Edward: Woah, hey now, what? You’re the one who wants to marry this video machine game! Doesn’t it have any flaws?
Me: Complex and enormous as it is, the opening of each game can be a little predictable. Things only tend to become really interesting when civilisations meet. Of course, you can start a game with empires already in play but even though I class the pre-interstellar phase as the most boring part, I like to begin from the beginning.
It's expensive too.
Edward: Money is no object. And if it were, I'd just pawn a few of my medals. Ha ha. Ha.
Me: Are you crying? Never mind. One other thing - among the 22 playable species, there’s a race of ‘strikingly attractive green-skinned humanoids’. They’re not all ladies, but the picture that represents them inevitably is of a lady. They’re my favourite to play as...
Edward: You old dog!
Me: ...because they’re peaceful artistic types. But I’d much prefer it if the graphic for them was a green-skinned gent in a dapper coat and tails. Just to escape the Kirk-lovin' cliche.
Edward: I could have out-ladied Kirk.
Me: Quite. Cheesestring, Edward?
Edward: Yes. I think I will have just one more. You know I will.
Me: Thanks for your time!
Me: Sorry. Force of habit.