Galactic Civilizations Preview

The remake of the classic 1993 turn-based space empire aims to make each game a unique experience.

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After years of neglect, suddenly we're seeing a resurgence of turn-based space strategy games. There are two retail games due out in the next couple of months: the third game in the popular Master of Orion series and the remake of the acclaimed 1994 game for the OS/2 operating system, Galactic Civilizations. Galactic Civilizations' release date was recently pushed back to avoid having it come out in the same month as the higher-profile Master of Orion III, but the beta version that we've played looks quite solid, so it's not likely to slip past its current March schedule. That's fortunate, because Galactic Civilizations has fast-paced turn-based mechanics combined with a classic sci-fi style, and it's interesting in part because its gameplay bears a surprising resemblance to Civilization.

Galactic Civilizations is a simple-looking space empire game that's surprisingly deep.
Galactic Civilizations is a simple-looking space empire game that's surprisingly deep.

Galactic Civilizations looks like a traditional, tile-based empire game. You play as the human leader, and you begin with a prosperous Earth as your starting home. Play is conducted on a 2D map, with icons for various stars, ships, and other astral phenomena. Each star represents a system with up to five planets, of which some, if you're lucky, will be hospitable. Once you've colonized a planet, you select its military and infrastructure construction projects, which will help bolster the defense and productivity of a young empire. There are four conventional paths to victory: military, diplomacy, technology, and economic. But though the formula is traditional, it's Galactic Civilizations' execution that makes the game stand out.

One novel gameplay element comes in the branching ethical choices you can make at certain points, which can have an impact on the course of a game. One example of a story-based encounter is that you might find strange wormlike creatures inhabiting a planet you're about to colonize. There's a moral dilemma: You can leave the creatures as they were and take a penalty on the colony's growth rate; you can uproot and move the creatures so as not to hamper your own habitat and avoid taking a penalty; or you can exterminate the creatures to gain a bonus. Similar multiple-choice sequences appear at random points throughout the game. The ramifications are permanent, and the choices establish your civilization's ethical perception, which has a marked impact on how neighboring civilizations will respond to you.

Ethical dilemmas come up that have real in-game consequences.
Ethical dilemmas come up that have real in-game consequences.

Naturally you'll run into these neighboring civilizations very quickly. Before each game begins you can set many factors about the other civilizations that populate the randomly generated galactic map. Galactic Civilizations takes a novel approach to the process, allowing you to set each race's moral alignment as good, neutral, or evil. With this method, no race will automatically be your clear-cut ally, but rather those whose morals match with your own as the game progresses will be more receptive toward you. For example, if you prove yourself to be a good and caring leader by keeping your people happy and treating your planets and neighbors well, you can expect the races set as good to be naturally more friendly with you. Instead of random diplomatic actions, it's your own behavior that determines what kind of friends you'll have and whether you will maintain those relations. Most of the customary features of diplomacy you would expect for interacting with your neighbors are present, like the ability to trade research, sign treaties, and trade goods, and there's a slider that indicates their attitude toward you.

Exploration is extremely important at the start of any 4X space strategy game. As you explore a new map in Galactic Civilizations with the one free scientific survey ship each civilization starts with, you'll run into astral phenomena like dust clouds, floating debris, or wormholes that you can investigate. There are a number of bonuses to be gained from these phenomena, including a new ship, money, and bonuses to your research, trade, or espionage, or even nothing at all. But because of the abundance of these phenomena, which appear littered all over the map, there's a constant reason to expand and explore further, and a rush to do so quickly before other civilizations nab the bonuses.

Influential Developments

All major civilizations are part of the United Planets intergalactic senate, which convenes from time to time presenting you with the ability to vote on various issues that can alter the way the game is played. For example, one issue deals squarely with whether astral phenomena should become territorial and thereby collectible only by the owner of the specific sector in which the individual phenomenon is found. Different issues will be raised in each game of Galactic Civilizations, helping to make each play session unique.

Votes in the United Planets senate can have a unique impact on each game.
Votes in the United Planets senate can have a unique impact on each game.

Every civilization gets a vote in the United Planets senate, but the power of their vote is determined by how many influence points they have, which represents the ongoing "battle of ideas" between civilizations. Influence does a lot more than secure power in the senate, so securing influence is an important goal. The influence rating is primarily derived from the amount of territory claimed by an empire, but influence points can also be traded diplomatically and even actively pursued with the construction of star bases with certain upgrades that spread influence. Like with Civilization III's culture push, star systems from less influential civilizations can defect to neighbors that are more influential. Ownership of the various sectors of the map, and the resources, star systems, and phenomena within, is also decided by influence, and civilizations with high influence can expand their sector borders beyond the areas near their colonies.

Scientific advancement plays a major role in the game, and moving up the tech tree is particularly important because of how limited your technology is at the start of the game. At first, before you've researched basic communication technologies, messages from neighboring civilizations will appear as gibberish, with a short "we need a universal translator!" reminder. A major part of the early game strategy revolves around selecting which of the basic technological areas to focus on, because possessing these basic upgrades represents a huge leap forward for your civilization's capabilities. For example, on any of the larger maps, your exploration will be sharply limited to a certain range until you make certain propulsion discoveries, which directly influences how many good planets you have to choose from. The tech tree is generally quite interesting to unlock, and there are many notes of homage to classic sci-fi: There's a warp drive right out of Star Trek, as well as different levels of shields, phasers, teleporters, artificial gravity, star bases, and other classic Trek fare.

Civilizations don't even start out with the universal translators needed for diplomacy, but the technology gets rapidly more advanced from there.
Civilizations don't even start out with the universal translators needed for diplomacy, but the technology gets rapidly more advanced from there.

The research system doesn't force you down one particular path, either, but instead allows you to pursue what you want. If, for example, you want to concentrate your research solely on industrial advances and want to wholly leave military research behind, you can. But if it comes to combat, there's plenty to do. As you research military technologies, an array of different ships become available. And if you research better shields or new weapon technology, all of your ships will dramatically gain better defensive and offensive capabilities respectively.

Political Fallout

You can exercise precise economic control, but beware of ruling with too tight a fist or else you may lose control of your empire's senate.
You can exercise precise economic control, but beware of ruling with too tight a fist or else you may lose control of your empire's senate.

Once you unlock them, there are many different warships with different costs and combat strengths, and there are transports to shuttle troops to capture planets. Combat takes place directly on the normal 2D map whenever opposing ships (or stacks of ships) meet in a single tile, and since most ships can move quite a ways in a given turn, the best defense is to garrison planets with orbiting ships. However, you can fight wars economically rather than physically by funding espionage that destabilizes foreign civilizations or by spying to gain detailed information about your opponent for better planning and diplomatic maneuvering.

Since there are no mandatory ages to progress through like in Civilization, if there is something by which to define overall progress, it would be the different governmental systems that become available. Over the course of the game, three new governments can be researched that each offer greater risks and greater rewards. As you begin the game, your earthling government has totalitarian control. Each additional government in theory raises your economic power by making your colonies more independent, but it also gives them a voice in deciding the direction your government takes by allowing them to vote on the controlling party of your empire. You select one of six political party orientations at the start of the game, and each one can yield different bonuses, like the Mercantile party, which gives bonuses to trade and commerce. If the colonial planets vote for your party, you gain the party bonus, but if they elect an opposition party, you take a penalty. With each additional form of government, the bonuses are greater, but it's even harder to keep the necessary majority. Thankfully, voting occurs regularly, so if you lose control, you won't have to wait too long. But be sure to work toward making your colonies extra happy by the next election.

Alien races have a cartoon look that fits with the game's retro sci-fi feel.
Alien races have a cartoon look that fits with the game's retro sci-fi feel.

Managing your economy plays a large part in keeping your colonies happy. Through a domestic policy screen, you can set such traditional elements as your empire's tax rate, which directly affects your citizens' morale in Galactic Civilizations. You can make money in other ways to supplement your taxes, like by building freighters to establish trade lanes, once you've researched trade. You can also directly set how much money you're spending as a government and roughly what ratio of the money is spent on research, social production, and military production. Each planet can construct both a social and a starship project simultaneously, and the allocation of resources from your economic ratios affects how quickly, if at all, the projects are built.

Galactic Civilizations may not look special on the surface, but its focus on deep and replayable gameplay appears to pay off. And more than just having solid empire-building gameplay, Galactic Civilizations has plenty of details that should appeal to the sensibilities of sci-fi fans. Though Galactic Civilizations was recently delayed by a month to separate its release from Master of Orion III, its release isn't far off, and the beta looks quite solid. Look for more on the game closer to its release date in late March.

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