Anyone who has played Master of Orion will find Birth of the Federation very familiar. It is not so much that the game is an unofficial sequel to that classic space strategy game, but more that both games borrow so many features from Civilization. In many ways, Birth of the Federation is the next in the long line of MicroProse strategy games, breaking little from the mold set by Civilization and cemented by Master of Orion and Master of Magic. While each had its own distinct flavor, all these games shared many qualities. Birth of the Federation is no different.
The options in the game are as robust as any other MicroProse strategy title. You can vary your starting conditions in the game setup menu, but in general, you get a barely developed starting solar system and an imperative to conquer the rest of the galaxy. The options you can adjust include the starting technology level of the five major empires (Federation, Cardassian, Ferengi, Klingon, and Romulan), the number of minor races in the game (such as Vulcans, Nausicaans, and Betazoids), the shape of the galaxy, and the size of the galaxy. The shape dictates how you can travel in the galaxy, while the size determines how much territory you need to conquer and when you'll encounter your rivals.
Once in the game, you have to manage and guide your empire through technological research, diplomatic relations, espionage, military buildup, internal production, exploration, and outright ship-to-ship combat. The game starts off simply, as do all these games, but can get very complex and overwhelming. Those who don't have patience for the micromanagement might call the exponentially complex gameplay tedious, and indeed, each extra system to manage does add more repetitive action, but those who enjoy this kind of game won't be disappointed.
I did appreciate that the different races do act according to their Star Trek personae. The Klingons come off as aggressive warmongers, and the Ferengi sure sound like sneaky bastards. The Federation, predictably, was always last to declare war on me and always seemed to make quick friends with most of the minor races. As far as accurately representing the Star Trek universe, Birth of the Federation does a good job.
Unfortunately, the interface leaves much to be desired. It is a jumble of colors and icons, ensuring that beginners will spend a lot of time fumbling over buttons until they arrive at the desired action. For example, the descriptions of the troop transport don't tell you that the only way to build an outpost or starbase is by transforming an existing transport. You have to dig through the manual or stumble along until you figure that out. While there is a tutorial of sorts in the form of saved games, there really should have been an obvious tutorial with better help as one of the main menu options.
In addition, there should have been better documentation of each race's special buildings and concrete stats on their specific strengths. After all, this is a strategy game. It's already crammed with stats. There is no reason not to include stats in the manual if they let you know why you want to play a certain race. As it is, the manual says the Romulans have good intelligence, but it says the same for the Cardassians. Which is better?
Moreover, the futuristic setting is at a disadvantage as far as easing gamers into the game's complexity. Whereas Civilization has the benefit of using historical terms and units to define its gameplay, Birth of the Federation falls into the same trap as Firaxis Games' Alpha Centauri: It's not easy to tell the difference between futuristic technologies.
One other thing that bothered me were the voice-overs during combat. I wish there were a way to shut them off without turning voice off altogether. Otherwise, tactical combat is fine. It doesn't look too bad, although when you get large ships engaging small ones, it gets hard to spot the small vessels. At least you can zoom in and out and rotate at will.
While games of this nature tend to have very drawn-out endgames, Birth of the Federation addresses this problem to an extent by counting 60 percent conquest of the galaxy as victory. This is a great feature because having to crush every last vestige of the enemy's territory when you've already essentially won can get tedious. However, while this partial conquest victory condition is nice, it doesn't always prevent games from dragging out if you are on the losing end (in one game, it took 60 turns for the combined races of the galaxy to crush me, even though I had no ships and only one system).
Birth of the Federation is a good game, if you are willing to forgive the interface and the amount of micromanagement required. It definitely has a Star Trek feel to it, right down to the humanoid aliens and confusing technobabble. As for gameplay, it doesn't stray too far from the Master of Orion mold, making it a good, albeit familiar, game.