As its title suggests, Galactic Civilizations is a bit like Sid Meier's Civilization, but in space. Based on a classic 1994 game for PCs using IBM's OS/2 operating system, Galactic Civilizations gives a nod to the elegant simplicity of Sid Meier's popular strategy series. But regardless of whether or not you're sci-fi fan, the outer-space setting isn't the real reason you should sit up and take notice. Galactic Civilizations' strong AI, robust diplomacy, and variety of strategic options make it an outstanding turn-based strategy game.
Unlike the recent Master of Orion III, Galactic Civilizations doesn't drown you in the details of running a space empire. The game has a single galactic map that can be customized in terms of size and star density, and all movement and combat occurs on this map. Galactic Civilizations also has a handful of additional interface screens you'll open up to monitor your production, economy, relations with your neighbors, and research, but it won't take long to find your way around in the game. It might seem unrealistic for star systems to be arranged on a single tile grid, but this interface wasn't designed for realism--it was designed for gameplay.
You may find the starting conditions for each new game familiar if you've played other space strategy games. You begin with a human planet, a survey ship, and a colony ship. Hyperdrive was recently invented, and now that all the galaxy's species have it, they've all started to compete to become the dominant power in the universe, by conquest or other means. The game has a number of initial customization options for the galaxy and the AI opponents, and although you always play as the humans, you can choose from a number of ability bonuses and adopt a particular political party, all of which actually affect the game later on. Every empire is born from equally humble beginnings, and you even have to spend a dozen turns to research a universal translator before you can talk meaningfully with the races you'll encounter. The first order of the day is to send your survey ship out to scout and collect a variety of randomly placed objects that can grant bonuses. Once you locate a decent planet (anything rated over 15 is good for any race), you drop a few hundred million people on it to get a colony going.
Upon seeing another empire popping out colony ships one after another at the start of the game, or even the more expensive constructors used for starbases, you may begin to wonder if the AI is cheating. But, while the opponents come in varying degrees of intelligence, they don't cheat in any obvious way. That empire is just taking advantage of one of the more unusual elements of the economy: credit. Some corporations are actually willing to finance the operations of governments and produce units and buildings for you on credit. But obviously these companies are in business to make money, because even when you pay quite a sum up front, the monthly payments on a loan can continue for hundreds of turns. It's up to you to decide whether taking on debt is worth it, and there are suitable rewards and punishments for risky financial strategies. The net effect is that it doesn't take long at all to get a game going and chalk out some basic territorial boundaries to defend and expand later.
It won't take long to get an empire humming along, but real challenges will start popping up nearly as soon as you do. That survey ship zipping around the galaxy isn't gathering up goodies without some competition, and while you can set it to survey automatically, you'll want to pay close attention to which empire's colony ships are racing to the same planets as yours. You should get a good sense of who your potential allies and enemies are from the minute you meet other races, and if you're ever too aggressive, they'll call you up to tell you all about it.
As a space conquest game, Galactic Civilizations is all about conflict, but that doesn't mean you have to rely on your military. The diplomatic system is very flexible and lets you do much more than just declare war. Anything and everything is up for trade. Need to pacify an enemy winning a war? Offering a star system or two is a real option. Want to buy allies? Instead of depleting your treasury, you might try bartering technology or the special "monopoly trade goods" you can research. Playing a strategy of cultural assimilation and need ships quick? Buy some from a militarily advanced ally. Surprisingly, it's even a legitimate strategy to research as many improvements as you can from your empire's technology tree and then sell technology to minor races (which don't expand on the map) or allies. You can even have them pay you in monthly installments, so you you can receive regular income each turn.
There are statistics hidden behind everything in Galactic Civilizations, and the diplomatic AI does a pretty intelligent job of adding things up to see if they're in its interest. A militaristic empire may not pay much at all for communications advances or even be willing to trade prized technology for building a powerful combat base. AI empires will try to finagle a peace to pause and rearm and may even surrender if threatened with extinction.
One of Galactic Civilizations' more unusual factors is its alignment system. Essentially, good-aligned empires are much friendlier toward others aligned in that direction and tend to be more hostile to evil-aligned empires. AI alignments are set at the beginning of the game, but yours starts out as neutral and is determined by your response to random story events. It can sometimes seem that you'll benefit more often from choosing an evil alternative instead of a good one, but moving in a good or an evil direction can have an impact on how your empire is viewed by the entire galaxy, so choosing short-term rewards isn't always the best strategy.
You'll also have to deal with internal conflicts. Once you advance your government to a republic, or one of the later, more democratic forms, other political parties will compete with yours for control of your empire's senate. You don't kicked out of office if your party loses, but you lose the party bonus (for example, if you play as the Federalist party, you receive a 20 percent economy boost). The game has a numerical approval rating, so it's not terribly hard to tell if things are going well on the domestic front, and to boost approval, you simply need to watch your tax and morale levels.
Galactic Civilizations' technology tree is huge, and unless you focus your efforts and trade for technology in other areas, you'll have trouble reaching the most advanced levels. You can also research military advances, and some of the most powerful and interesting of these require cross-sector research in multiple areas, such as studying both advanced weapons and biology. Unfortunately, Galactic Civilizations doesn't provide any clear indication of what sort of research you need to perform in each of these sectors to create improvements like advanced organic armor for you ships. These advanced ships are as powerful as they are expensive, and the interesting part of Galactic Civilizations' military engagements isn't the combat, since battles themselves are resolved quickly, but rather the maneuvering of scouts and warships to detect and destroy incoming threats to your planets and starbases.
The game wouldn't be half as interesting if it were just about fighting over planets. Space is divided up into quadrants, which are owned by the empire with the most nearby influence. Influence is partly a measure of an empire's cultural impressiveness and is helped by building vacation spots on starbases or embassies on planets. It's also partly determined by ownership of starbases and planets in the area. Diplomacy is even a factor, as well-liked empires have more influence than those that are hated. Quadrant ownership can play a role in the legislation enacted by the galactic government all empires are a part of, and it's possible to build such high influence in an area that other planets are swayed by it and defect. The map also has pockets of resources scattered about that grant empire bonuses if they're claimed by building a starbase, and these can become hot targets when war breaks out.
Galactic Civilizations' greatest strength is its simple yet deep gameplay. The 2D visuals are crisp and the cutscenes are well rendered, but the ships don't look like much and don't sound that impressive. The presentation is streamlined, but it can take some clicking around to understand which buttons do what, since the little stylized icons aren't intuitive. But this is a game that's meant to be played over and over, and you'll quickly figure out what's what. Repeat play is encouraged by the "metaverse" Web-based high-score system, which ranks individual players and even clans. If you do decide to play Galactic Civilizations, you'll want to get the patch and the "bonus pack" that were made available on the game's release date, as they add a few more initial galaxy options, a clear percentage score for each victory condition, and the ability to replace the standard sci-fi music with an MP3 playlist. Galactic Civilizations may look simple, but it has a lot to offer.