Strategy games--especially those of the 4X variety--can be extremely intimidating. All that exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating can lead to a lot of menu diving and calculating of appropriate empire taxation rates. Endless Legend, an upcoming 4X strategy game from Dungeon of the Endless developer Amplitude Studios, wants to retain what makes this genre fun while trimming away some of the more time-consuming chaff. In doing so, the game's creators have designed several creative tweaks for this well-worn genre that have me excited to try my hand at empire building once more.
There's way too much going on in Endless Legend to explain it all here, but there are a few highlights that piqued my interest above the rest. The first is warfare. The game plays out across a randomly generated, hex-based map. As in other games, your military units are stacked as you march them across the map. When you enter battle, they unstack, and you command each unit individually. However, the battle doesn't take place on a separate screen; it's right there on the world map for all other players to see. This style gives you complete tactical control over your troops without making you individually shuffle dozens of units around on each turn.
Another quirk of the world map is that it's divided into regions, and each region can support only one city at a time. This means settling within a region puts that region under your rule, and no other player may settle within its borders without dealing with you first. Of course, "dealing with you" can take many forms, such as razing your city or negotiating for its ownership. As Amplitude described it, this system was designed to curtail a dominant strategy used in other empire games where players build an infinite sprawl of cities as close to each other as possible, which in turn leads to extreme amounts of busywork managing those cities.
The game's research tree is also split up in an interesting way. Technologies are divided into groups--like the different ages in Civilization--but the order in which you research technologies within the same group is completely freeform. Individual technologies within the same group do not have prerequisite technologies that need to be researched first, so you can quickly change strategies and adapt to what's happening in your empire. Once you research a certain number of technologies within a group, the next group of more powerful technologies will unlock.
Even the end goal in Endless Legend is slightly off-kilter from the genre's norm. The planet you and the other players inhabit is dying. Winning is a matter of either escaping the planet or correcting the environmental instability that is killing it. Defeating the other players is just a means to an end, a stepping stone toward these larger goals. Only one player can escape the planet--leaving the others to their fate--but multiple players can join forces to analyze, understand, and ultimately rescue it. In the meantime, all players will be racked by sudden climate shifts, such as blizzards that strike with little warning and make the terrain more difficult to traverse.
Individually, free-flowing tech trees or regional world maps might not sound all that interesting, but when these features come together, they make for a grand strategy game that frees you up to feel like a ruler rather than a middle manager. At least, that's the promise of Endless Legend. Amplitude still has a long road ahead of it before the game's release, which it's hoping will be sometime later this year. While you wait, Amplitude encourages you to help take part in the game's development through its crowd-sourcing initiative on its website.See more coverage of GDC 2014