To keep with a recent theme on the site, there is a certain stigma when folks take a GMT game out of their game box. You get some similar reactions: “Too Long,” “Too Wargamey,” “Too Complicated,” etc. etc. Sometimes these are correct sentiments, a lot of GMT Games are War Games, a lot of them are long, deep experiences and it must be a struggle for their designers to try and work around these issues at times.
Space Empires-4X is kind of a mixed bag when it comes to complicated design. At first glance, it looks really fiddly, busy and over-complicated. The board can be intimidating with the multitude of cardboard chits. Before I went into my first play, I felt that I needed to read the rules multiple times. After reading the rules the first time, it really changed my initial thoughts of the game. It’s actually well designed and not overly complicated at all.
Start of an Empire
As the name implies, Space Empires a 4X game, with a heavy emphasis on the exploring and the expanding. And really, once you get into the game, it plays an awful lot like an RTS. The one that it seems most familiar too is Stardock’s Sins of a Solar Empire, but with a much slower pace. There are a number of starting scenarios, the ones I played with were the basic start-up with three and four players. In this set-up you have your native space marked with your game color and distant space markers (marked with white) separating you from your opponents. You start the game with scout ships, a miner and a few colony ships. Your initial few turns are going to be spent exploring your part of the galaxy and setting up your first set of techs.
The Space Empires turn itself is very straight forward. You move three times and then perform your economic phase of buying ships, bases, shipyards and techs, placing ships and then growing your colonies.
The game comes with a tally sheet that helps you keep track of your Empire’s Economy and Research. There is a basic Tech Tree to follow in the base scenarios. What techs to buy and when to buy and expand them is the key to this game. In my last game, the player who had the highest techs won going away. You have a number of options. . .things like ship building, which allows for bigger and bigger starships, movement techs to make you faster, tactical techs that allow you advantages in offense and defense. The problem, as with many other games of this genre, you can’t have it all because techs and advancements are really expensive. To illustrate this, you start with 20 Construction Points (the game’s currency). The lowest techs are between 10 and 15CP and most are well over 20CP so long story short, it takes awhile to build up enough points to expand your tech tree.
The other issue you have is your balance of trade, you need more ships and more colonies to expand the Empire so your constantly juggling what to spend your money on. Add in the need for that extra mining ship, shipyards, starbases and you start to realize that you have multiple items to spend your money on. Oh, and I almost forgot, ships have maintenance costs each turn as well, so too many ships will stifle your economy. These decisions really make (or break) the game.
Generally, the first 6-8 turns are going to be a glorified set-up where you eventually search your entire sector for planets, minerals (which grant you bonus CP) and other space elements, just watch out for that black hole. It can be a slow build up, but there are adventures around the corner.
Looking for Fun, Treasure and the Occasional Fight in Deep Space
After turn eight, the game becomes really interesting, because the main goal of the game is to wipe out one of your opponents. In order to get to your other competitors sectors, you have to go through deep space, deep space offers a bit more of a risk reward–there are planets, there are more black holes, space wrecks, larger mineral deposits and other good and bad items. One high priced tech allows you to “scan” these areas to make sure you don’t accidentally fly into a Super Nova and kill your entire fleet.
What makes this a bit complicated and really makes Space Empires a solid design, is that outside of your opponents colonies, you have no idea what they have built, bought, designed, etc. All ships, their numbers, and any other purchases are hidden. This allows for a number of bluffing and other fun mind games to be developed between the player. It allows you to set traps and be the unwilling victim of an opponents trap. What is apparent is that if your ships are out-classed or if your techs are out-classed your are going to have a hard time in battle. This is a great mechanic, but it does require some memory to remember what you have and where. . .the last game I played we all used additional identifiers so we didn’t have to continuously look at chits each move sequence. This might be something GMT considers adding for future editions.
Battles are set up based on Tactical Advantage and size of ship. . .the largest ships are A and the lowest are E. . .so A’s fire first and are hardest to hit and the lowest are easiest to hit and destroy. Over my plays, it is clear that you need large ships because small ships only allow for a small chance in landing a hit on your opponent and since you are rolling a D10 in Space Empires, your chances are slim to score too many lucky hits or kills without the proper setup.
Battles can be highly affected by techs, if you time your assault wrong and attack a competitor with higher tactical techs, it’s going to be a bumpy ride because they may be literally impossible to hit and may only miss you on a very high roll. I’ve seen fleets get mowed down in a very swift fashion this way. One word of caution though, one way to counteract large ships and high techs is making your fleet mobile. An aggressive Empire can be caught with their pants down when another opponent has invented heavily in making their ships go faster and farther. If someone gets too aggressive, they can leave their backdoor open for another Empire’s attack.
The End of an Empire–How Long Does this all Take?
Even though there are a host of options to play with and a host of scenarios available with Space Empires, the core game takes around 15-20 turns to complete and with experienced players that can take between 3 and 5 hours. There is an option to play where you need to track each ship and have ships with different techs, but I think the game is much more streamlined to universally apply techs to all of your ships. A number of the Advanced Rules sound like fun, I won’t list them all here, but there are a number of different options to increase your economy, your fleet and add more spacey flavor to the game.
From an endgame perspective, it usually comes down to the best managed fleet and tech tree winning out. As I said before if you run out of money or get too aggressive too early, you might end up on the short end of the stick. It is a game where turtling is not rewarded, but also getting too big, too fast can stretch your economy too thin and be ineffective as well.
The best thing about Space Empires is the well-balanced mix of controlling your empire and guessing what the other players are doing–guess right and you can grab that crushing win–guess wrong and you will wither under your incompetence. Having everything hidden gives you a lot of different options. The economy is easy to manage and the interaction between players is both inevitable and swift.
What Doesn’t Work
My biggest gripe with Space Empires is the length. First time players may get bogged down with decision making in the mid-game. I think the length may make this game prohibitive in the future. The only other thing that bothers me is not having a better method of managing hidden chits with the game. I think GMT needs to tweak the design of their markers to make this simpler.
Space Empires is a solid design. It gives players a number of playing options, which should give it some solid staying power. Time is the only enemy to SE:4X so it will be interesting to see if GMT publishes some pre-canned scenarios to speed game play up. Either way, if you have 4-6 hours to kill on a weekend for gaming. . .Space Empires would be a nice way to do it.