The year is 2380, and you're a tough, greedy colony founder laying claim to exploitable planetoids in the far-flung fragmented sectors dominated by the golden rule - whoever has the gold (or the Traxium, or the Barium) makes the rules. Unless the other guy simply has more missiles.
You must build your own fledgling colony from the ground up, putting into place living quarters, radiation filters, hydration-hydroponics domes, mining facilities and the like. Although individual planetoids are sprouting colonies like tough mechanical mushrooms, the shadow of the government and the TetraCorp megacorporation falls across everything; federal transports arrive every month or so, bringing potential new employees, supplies to purchase, and empty cargo bays to fill with the ore each colony leader hopes to sell to the Federation. Eventually, individual asteroid colonies will reach out and touch each other - sometimes with alliances, trade, gifts, and cooperation, and sometimes with multiple-warhead missiles. Just how fragile certain allegiances are will become immediately apparent, even at the so-called beginner level of difficulty. Don't get attached to your first colony.
Sound like standard empire builder fare? Yes and no. Fragile Allegiance is a very tactical game, with colonies represented at the individual building level. On the Asteroid View screen, you can watch your colonies, which are beautifully and vividly displayed as clusters of structures grouped together in the depression of a crater. Events such as ship liftoffs (all these ships can be individually named, so you can feel even worse when you lose them) and missile launches are animated as they happen; there's a funny little feeling inside, as an interplanetoid missile strike zips right out of your silos in real time. Various types of ships and devices, of which there are many, require specific ores, and you must keep constant track of which ores are available on your asteroids, which must be purchased from the Feds, and which can be acquired through six alien nonplayer races. You must also track which weapons can be (carefully) purchased on the black market, which disgruntled supervisors may flip out and sabotage valuable sensor arrays before they leave in a huff, who is allied with whom, and... ooops, that little radiation leak you got a vague warning about six minutes ago turned out to be not so little, and your whole colony just did the Chernyobl Shuffle. Game Over, just as soon as the local TetraCorp rep tells you, unnecessarily, what a moron you are. Insert coin, bozo.
The good news is that Fragile Allegiance's imposing, sprawling mass of detail incorporates a number of game tutorials and player-assist routines to keep your bewilderment to some kind of bearable minimum; the bad news is, they don't help. A couple of ferinstances: The 'tutorials' - rather than being step-by-step interactive demos to give first-time players help with their first few timid steps - are nonstop, real-time animated movies narrated by a cultured female British voice. Of course, by the time you have tracked the real-time movement of the onscreen 'turorial' cursor, the scene has changed and the voice has merrily rambled on to another topic and screen full of well-meaning but essentially meaningless icons that will only acquire meaning once you actually play and use the control key to examine them; it's like the old comedy routine of the housewife frantically trying to keep up with the cooking show on television, only this time it's not funny because it's you.
Fragile Allegiance, graphically, has perhaps the most integrated look an empire builder has ever sported, with very tight and clean control panel interfaces and completely iconic button-based commands. Ultimately, it's very slick. Initially, it may be confusing, but holding the control key over each screen element will give a pop-up description. The game supports eight-player interaction, but a really good idea would be to progress through the various single-player scenarios first and acquire the basic sense of what makes a colony work and how to fight with others.
Lukewarm-to-enthusiastic gamers who find many empire builders dry, ugly, and unengaging will probably appreciate the more personal nature of Fragile Allegiance. On the other hand, veteran, teeth-clenching types who eat Civilization for breakfast will probably consider Fragile Allegiance a public menace for the very same reasons. One logistical misstep or well-placed warhead can ruin your whole fragile day, and probably will. Proceed with caution.