Space Empires Without Computers

First – thanks to the guys I played with for the hours of gametime, discussion, and also going over a recent draft of this to provide a couple corrections.

Review

I’ve got a love-hate relationship with GMT games, the company. On the one hand, they consistently put out high-quality games, with outstanding materiel quality and with excellent rules that are as simple as they can be, where the game graphics and abstractions still provide an excellent feel. They’ve also survived for decades in a niche market, which does, as I’ve pointed out earlier, justify to a degree the near impossibility of buying one of their games once you’ve discovered it because of how they handle print runs. Yet, they also seem determined to simply get along putting out quality product rather than thrive.

Their money, their choices, but dammit I wish I could try a game via a friend and then go buy it.

Nevertheless, my love of the C&C series games, especially Ancients, and Jeffro’s reviews, convinced me I just had to get Space Empires 4x, and I am glad I did. And the Close Encounters expansion, and since it was forthcoming and on the P500 list for release, I decided to risk getting Replicators as well. With reviews and gameplay reports like that, I’d spent far too many hours playing Reach for the Stars in high school and college, and later Pax Imperia, to not give it a shot.

I’ve barely gotten the main game under my belt and I can say this, it’s been worth every penny.

The overall game goes like this. You get overall rounds or phases which are comprised of three movement turns and an economics phase. Depending on the movement technology, combatants can move one or more hexes each turn (move-2 allows you to move 1-1-2, move-3 allows for 1-2-2, etc), with some bonuses for building out “merchant ship” pipelines and other infrastructure. Nebulas, asteroids, and unexplored space can only be entered by starting in the adjacent space, creating a kind of speed bump even later in the game, and exploration, particularly of deep space, can be outright dangerous with ships vanishing outright, never to be heard from again, until remote-scanning exploration technology is developed.

As an aside, once it’s obvious a player has exploration tech, you have to consider if that large patch of unexplored hexes near his territory is due to black holes and “danger” or just a bluff. There are a lot of “danger” tiles… scouts die like flies.

The economics are the most math-heavy part of the game, but it’s straightforward and a chart is provided (I may create a spreadsheet for it). You add up the colony points, any points for minerals dragged back to a colony, and any points for planets that can trace a merchant pipeline chain back to the home world. You then spend maintenance on any ships you have by hull size. After that, you note a bid for who goes first, then decide how much money you’re going to spend on research, on ship construction, or hold over for the next turn or tech upgrades to existing ships.

Oh, every fleet group has a unique tech level based on what was available when constructed – you cannot combine groups of different tech levels. That’s the other place this game gets heavy on record keeping, but yes, there’s a table/notepad for that as well. Incidentally, the Vassal module, which takes a very long time to load, takes care of a lot of the bookkeeping for you, or makes it easy to annotate.

You can as mentioned improve your speed, or remote scanning of unexplored sectors so that you don’t continue to lose scout ships like flies (though only cruisers can carry that). You can improve your defensive technologies (negated by nebulas) or offensive tech (negated by asteroids). Each ship class has a default turn class for overall firing order. Class “A” ships like Starbases and Dreadnoughts shoot before cruisers, etc.. Researching tactical doctrines allows you to shoot first within any combat class – and the defender breaks ties. This becomes important in getting the advantage on assaults, and one other nasty aspect of nebulas and asteroids is that everyone is relegated to the same combat class, making tactics especially important in those.

From an infrastructure perspective terraforming allows colonizing barren planets – the only kind found in deep space and at least one of which exists in local space. Ship size tech allows you to build bigger hull sizes, and shipyard tech the efficiency of your yards – the number of which in a system determines how many hull points of construction can be generated, so needless to say, you’ll have to expend resources on forward shipyards for both efficiency and responsiveness.

Finally you get special tech like cloaking devices. Raiders can effectively dodge combat and mines, gain bonuses on first attacks, and pass through enemy held hexes without stopping, making them a holy terror of merchant ship pipelines. Scanners can of course detect them. Fighters are cheap but numerous glass cannons that get to attack before all but the largest ship classes, and point defense tech can make them very easy to shoot down.

It’s also important to note that outside of colony ships, merchant pipelines, and mineral mining ships, the composition, technology, and number of any fleet group is hidden until combat forces them to be revealed.

Oh, and mines.They’re countered by minesweepers. They cannot move into occupied spaces, even otherwise undefended colonies, and immediately detonate when enemy ships enter the space (no choice in the matter), but can take out any target ship of choice. Yes, even dreadnoughts.

We’ll get to that in a bit.

What follows is a review of the fourth game I’d played, full rules of the original box sans optional “death machines” and instant tech upgrades. One of the earlier games was with the same group just using the “basic” rules of the original box, and I’d done two solo “death machine” games. It’s a basic three-player “kill the homeworld to win the game” scenario. Sides are Blue, Green, Red.

The Game

All three sides went for the usual expand-and-colonize buildup. Blue started emphasizing merchant pipelines a touch earlier, green went for exploration and movement tech early and really quickly started spreading into deep space beyond the “local”environments, netting some nice gains in mineral deposits. but, eventually, peaceful expansion came to an end and the three empires “became aware” of each others existence.

Red and blue developed an opening between them bottom center, and blue was perhaps a touch aggressive in positioning a fleet to plug the hole. Red sent out a fleet of new DN’s to teach him “what’s what”, and blue lost a ship, and retreated. Blue’s reaction to defend his colonies  was to be utterly vital in the end, though even at that time blue was simply scrambling to find a practical defense.

While red and blue were messing around, the frontiers between all the empires collapsed, and blue and green started positioning starships at each other’s borders. In the meantime, blue had exlpored the entire upper long edge of the board and discovered wormholes both in the upper left, and its matching exit point near red on the right edge of the board.

Red and blue also discovered that green had a “build lots of big ships” strategy as green swooped in past the wormhole with a fleet sent from his core worlds, and had built even more of them than red, as red had concentrated just a bit more on better attack and defense tech.

Red, which had sent two dreadnoughts off to harry blues colonies, and had nearly destroyed one, pulled them back as a mistake to reroute them to the front with green on the right edge of the board. Blue had little large ship capability in place to face dreadnoughts across a broad front, but did have shipyards placed forward, so he built bases… and developed mines. Red decided not to tangle with the more obviously fortified systems, and missed discovering the mine technology for the simple reason that the minelayers didn’t have time to get that far.

As blue started ramping up shipbuilding for larger ships, finally pumping out battleships, red pushed green’s first incursion out, and jumped through the wormhole to try and do some raiding in green’s unprotected flank, but was blocked in by asteroid fields long enough for blue to boldly send another major fleet in past said wormhole, successfully taking down a colony, and Red’s base not very effectively sacrificing itself against green’s luck. Red though soon brought that fleet back, and in combination with the transiting reinforcements, pushed blue out and back, destroying a lot of tonnage in the process after some back and forth, tying up two major fleets deep in the right edge of the board and eventually strategically shutting down green on the right side.

The typical bitter joke over severe losses was that at least maintenance costs would be a lot lower.

Blue in the meantime had realized through his late development of exploration tech that he was hemmed in by unrevealed “dangers” (the unremoved white-bordered “star” tiles), and preferred to keep the boundaries in place – so building up a fleet of six ships he then attempted a daring assault on a built up green colony at i5. Even with the base defending the colony, it was a fairly even matchup, but blues inexperienced fleet fared so poorly they lost nearly every ship through that battle, and being harried through the subsequent retreat through the nebula, even as a blue commerce raider was poised to move into blue’s territory.

Blue quickly moved forward minelayers into empty deep space, as well as a newly built dreadnought – the only one built by blue – and rendezvoused with the remaining battleship. Green at first refused to take the bait but as the commerce raider was revealed and began to take apart the merchant pipelines and navigational infrastructure, and the main battlegroup moved in past his outer colonies, he finally jumped on the fleet threatening several colonies – and immediately lost his two largest ships to the waiting minefields. The remaining ships were driven back, and the fleet – with another blue fleet of reinforcements (a newly developed carrier fighter group that never saw combat) on the way, jumped past the outer line and came to the green homeworld – where they discovered a paltry defense of several shipyards and a destroyer.

With most of the homeworld was nuked from orbit, and despite a new econ phase beginning, with no means to bring new construction or existing ships to bear in time to save the green homeworld, the game was called.

Followup

The initial expansion phase is a little like the all too common “simultaneous solitaire” play of many euro games, but that’s been true of all 4x games to some extent. Once the empires met, reversals and unexpected surprises – “look, lots of big ships” becomes “oh crap his big ships are much more powerful” becomes “it’s a trap” – was the order of the day.

Tech matters in this game, and the advantages are not always obvious. Sure, the econ/infrastructure ones are a no brainer, but defensive bonuses are roughly as effective as attack bonuses, possibly more so for larger, better-armored hulls. If you’re the first to get a decisive advantage in a tech, you may surprise another player, and have a few turns to wreak havoc, but they’ll soon be able to work up a counter, by playing to their strengths, or through research, or as you overextend your lines, and while not all techs are available to everyone within a game of sane length, attack, defense, and ship sizes are rarely decisive for long. The game certainly does a good job of allowing for tactical vs purely strategic advantages. In this case, a tech that was developed early and never actually used through most of the game proved decisive when finally revealed, in part because it had remained a secret.

Great game, we plan on playing again with the Close Encounters rules.

 

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