It's difficult to wrap your head around how large the universe is. It's one thing to say that the distance from the here to the moon is ten times the circumference of the Earth, but that figure is incomprehensible. It's hard enough to wrap our tiny minds around the notion that our planet, our home, is finite, much less the preposterous distances between the stars. Galactic Civilizations III understands and fluently wields those disparate perspectives--the mundane and human as well as the astronomical--to craft a game that manages to bring the tiniest shuttlecraft, the mightiest quasar, and all the distant mysteries that lie between into a single coherent vision.
As you might suspect from the name, Galactic Civilizations is a game that, while inspired by Sid Meier's seminal masterpiece, Civilization, opts for the cosmos as its stage. Matching the stellar scope is the potential to have up to 128 additional players. That alone should give any fan of the strategy game genre pause. For most games of its type, such massive games would bog themselves down in micromanagement, construction, and empire maintenance. But Galactic Civilization III's greatest strength is its ability to manage its momentum. Play starts quickly, with everyone having enough resources at the outset to begin crafting a basic strategy. There's no waiting around for your first few workers here; instead, you can buy up some colony ships, kick-start your military, or roll out some research labs to start cranking out PhDs.
After that initial burn, it's a couple dozen more turns before you have quite so many decisions to make. You can use that down time to secure what you have and develop your territory, design some custom ships, or fine-tune your government to suit your most pressing goals. After a bit, you have another burst brought on by a new technology allowing your ships greater range from their home planet or a new pile of credits to be spent on supercharging development.
Galactic Civilizations follows this pattern of punctuated equilibrium until the end of the game--regardless of which specific strategy or victory condition you're seeking. It helps guide and reinforce the infamous "one more turn"-style play that 4X games are known for, as well, as you never know when that next burst will hit. You could find some special resource that, if tapped, could unlock a new prototype hyperdrive. That, in turn, can get your colonists to the next star system over, where a new planet and new resources lie waiting. As soon as you've mastered what you own and what you know, you'll face a fresh batch of challenges.
The burst-secure-develop-burst loop also solves one of the genre’s longest-running problems--militaristic powers. As with any proper 4X game, Galactic Civilizations has a variety of win conditions. You can be elected the leader of the galaxy, you can ascend to a new plane of existence, or you can steam-roll your opponents with the biggest, baddest ships around. The caveat here is that it's rare that you'll encounter someone whose war machines completely outclass your own. Expansion requires a great deal of investment in engineering and supply chains. Supporting dreadnoughts far from any habitable planets requires chains of star bases or advanced life support systems--both of which can take resources away from a massive military campaign. Military victories are still possible, but blocking off large chunks of the map to the people with the most advanced technology or those that can daisy-chain supply lines keeps anyone's fun from ending prematurely or without proper warning.
In creating this cycle, Galactic Civilizations encourages careful, directed thinking. You always want to be in control of your next boon, ready to capitalize on the next step out, no matter where that leads. Thought and investment are rewarded. When you colonize a new planet, the order and placement of the buildings and projects you undertake will determine their effectiveness. Placing factories adjacent to a refinery will boost both their output. Tourism centers next to ports will yield dividends. It's not about doing everything you can but about efficient use of the space you have. The production of new ships and star bases is also decoupled from planetary improvements. Instead, you can assign several planets to support a shipyard. Any manufacturing output dedicated to military development will go to building new weapons. Colony ships and troop transports for invasions will pull population from contributing planets as well. This too emphasizes the cyclic pace. Hooking a few planets up to a dry dock won't net you much until they've been built up with appropriate factories, academies, and the like. But in a few short turns, you'll have a mega factory that can turn out battlecruisers with ease, and then you're ready for your next expansion.
If it sounds like I'm placing a lot of emphasis on that loop, it's because Galactic Civilizations forces you to view it through that narrow lens. This is strange, indeed, in no small part because it is a game about the bigness of galactic warfare, about the farthest reaches of the stars, and yet it comes down to a long series of manageable steps. When you're first starting a round, space, as it does here in the world, is incomprehensibly vast. Instead of letting your first few explorers wander to the ends of the map, you're given a small starting area. This, the game says, is as far as you can go. When you've conquered or at least explored that sector, you're trusted with more. These steps helped me develop relationships, memories even, with each new area. I remembered which regions I saw after I developed my first prototype warp drives or when I built a deep space station so I could see what was on the other side of a black hole. It's odd, but it's sentimental.
Toward the end of my first game, I remember the map all the way out, astonished by how far my people had come. It was a special feeling, one I've since come to cherish, because I've realized that it's one that no other game has given me. Not even Civilization brought me this close to the progress of my empire without letting me get lost in the grandeur of it all.
I have to attribute that, at least in part, to the fact that Galactic Civilizations not only lets you craft your own alien species and their technology but incentivizes you to do so. No matter what race you pick or which one you create, you'll have a few basic ships to choose from. Each is there to fill a specific role, but you won't get anything particularly special there. However, if you want to take the schematics for the latest and greatest antimatter missile launcher and use them for an otherwise vulnerable cargo ship, you can do that. You can also make a mega-carrier holding dozens of assault drones that can sweep through any defense around. These creations will usually cost a little more than the usual fare, but the degree of control you have over them is worth the time and the money, especially when paired with a well-crafted strategy playing to the strengths of a custom-made race. It ties micro- and macromanagement together in a way that pushes you to win with your own creations and your own ideas.
That's also where Galactic Civilizations begins to break down. Much as Elder Scrolls games are expected to have a lot of bugs because they are so open, Galactic Civilizations has a lot of rough edges. I played a final build of the game, and there were still some missing textures, odd graphical glitches, poorly edited music, and one missing technology description. They were all cosmetic, but they were common enough to be distracting.
The bigger problems come from how unrefined some of the ancillary features are. One of the biggest additions is the ideology system. As you make choices about how the shape of your civilization progresses, you'll build up points in Benevolence, Pragmatism, or Malevolence. This is intended to be a morality system, but in practice, its effects are loose and intangible. Picking a new step on one of the three trees will usually grant you a one-time bonus, but they aren't substantial, and they don't represent play style. In my second game, I was ruthless and declared war on everyone, but I was able to maintain a façade of altruism by picking certain dialogue options. As a method of embodying the kind of civilization you want to be, the Ideology system doesn't work.
Taken as a whole, Galactic Civilization's failings are minor. For most games, a few major pieces that don’t quite fit together would be a death knell. Galactic Civilizations keeps its focus right where it needs to--on excellent fundamentals. Progressive pacing makes the enormity of space amenable and paradoxically personal, while the sheer number and variety of tools and options at your disposal allow you to succeed and win if you can out-think everyone else.