To my mind, the best space-based 4X game (read about 4X games here) ever made is Master of Orion 2 (MOO2). MOO2 had a reasonably intuitive interface, excellent ship customisation systems, solid tactical combat, well-designed research trees and superb diplomacy and espionage options. It is, always was, and forever will be on my hard drive.
MOO2 turns 15 this year and still remains atop its throne, despite a great many challengers over the years. Star Ruler is the latest title trying to depose it and while I wouldn’t say it succeeds, it’s certainly worth a look for fans of the genre.
If I were trying to pigeon-hole Star Ruler in a way other than “space-based 4X” I suppose I’d describe it as a military-focused macromanagement game. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so allow me to explain.
As in all good 4X games you build up your empire from a single solitary planet into a galaxy-spanning power that will inspire brown-trouser moments in your foes. You explore, colonise planets, build up their infrastructures, research new technologies, and then explode with the force of a thousand supernovas onto the other empires trying to do the same thing. In this case, this all happens in real-time.
The economic side of the game is down to the number of resources. You have Metal, which is mined from the ore on planets. This can then be converted into Electronics, and a combination of Metal and Electronics gets you Advanced Parts. These three resources are what you primarily use to construct ships and build up your planets. Aside from those, you also have Food (which should be self-explanatory), as well as Goods and Luxuries which improve the mood of your general populace. Factor in labour (representative of your workforce’s efforts) and research, as well as ships requiring fuel and ammo, and you’ve got a fair amount to keep track of.
Happily, you don’t need to micromanage too heavily unless you really want to, which is a good thing considering the gargantuan scope of the game. At any time, you can set an AI governor to look after each individual planet and build the appropriate structures. If you’re running a little low on metals, colonise an ore-rich world and set a Metal Mining governor there.
How each governor works is entirely transparent; the game’s Stellarpedia describes, amongst other things, exactly how each governor will build up structures on the planet and how their AI works when it comes to making decisions. Generally, once your empire’s ticking over nicely you can start to ignore this somewhat and focus on making your foes weep.
But before we get to that I should explain what I meant by “gargantuan scope”, so: Star Ruler is as big as you like, and I mean that in a very literal sense. At the start of each game you have a mind-boggling array of settings you can tweak, one of which is the number of systems. I personally favour smaller galaxies so as to get into combat faster, and so that I don’t have to deal with too many worlds at a given time, but if you want a gargantuan galaxy you can certainly set one up.
To put this into perspective, I enjoyed games with 150 systems or less – each system having, on average, between three and five planets, which is plenty to occupy me and a few AI foes. If you want to, you can try to create a game with a few million systems. Really. I tried it just then. My computer nearly exploded from the effort of doing it and I had to force-quit the game, but it’s theoretically possible.
The ship building and combat have equally grand scopes. Considering how many planets you’ll likely have under your iron fist, your space-based armadas are often comprised of hundreds or even thousands of ships. Thankfully, organising them isn’t an arduous task: you can arrange ships into fleets, after which selecting one will select them all, and you can find and give orders to a large number of ships or planets at any given time through a decent search system.
The number of ships isn’t the only big thing about them, however. You design your ships from the ground up – or rather, hull up – in an excellent freeform system. Every ship component you’ve unlocked, from weapons to AI cores and everything in between, appears in a list, and you simply drag them onto an area representing the ship to place them. Location is important: the subsystems on the outside take damage first, and damage is directional.
This design system lets you create specialised ships for individual tasks. You can create fast-moving repair drones, multi-gunned frigates, engineless defence platforms or planet-sized capital ships at a whim. There are plenty of fun toys to throw in, from jump drives to make your ships teleport capable, to star-destroying Directional Space Manipulators. Considering that every ship subsystem can be resized, and considering the sheer amount of stats available to view in the creator, it’s perfectly possible to spend half an hour tweaking a ship until it’s just how you want it.
And yes, I did mean “planet-sized capital ships”: you can adjust a ship’s scale however you like. At the beginning of the game, your default fighters have a scale of 0.5 while capital ships weigh in at around 60. By the end of a long campaign you’ll quickly be manufacturing ships with scales in the thousands, and there’s nothing stopping you from trying to build something in the millions, with the game scaling up the components – and their power – automatically.
The depth and breadth of the ship creation is one of the most polished and enjoyable aspects of Star Ruler, and seeing a ship you personally designed reduce a planet’s surface to ashes never gets old. The combat itself ties into the macromanagement theme, too: while you can set up formations or pause the game and sort out particular targets, for the most part it’s safe to let the AI deal with things. This is a game of grand strategy, not tactical combat.
Other aspects aren’t quite so polished or enjoyable. One of the big problems Star Ruler has is the steep learning curve. There’s a decent tutorial which teaches the basics of how to play, but it doesn’t really give any idea about how to play well. When you’re done with the tutorial you’ll have little idea of how to start off your empire, what to focus on, or when to expand, and the number of resources is initially head-spinning. Even the ship designer is terrifying at first, with reams of numbers and components you’ve never heard of. If you’re willing to spend a few hours getting to grips with the basics and you’re not afraid of venturing onto the official forums to find some strategy outlines then you’ll be fine, but it’s worth bearing in mind.
There are two other linked problems facing Star Ruler and these are, to me, the biggest issues. One is that the diplomacy system is completely anaemic. Most of the expected options are present – you can trade resources, forge peace pacts, and declare war – but unlike everything else, there’s no scope. There’s never any dialogue. You can’t see how the other civilisations view you. You can’t see why they like or dislike you. You can’t really see how their economy is doing, or spy on them, or ask them to join you in attacks against rivals. There’s little backstabbing or manipulation. For a 4X game, this is a huge disappointment.
This factors into the second problem, which is that there’s no character. The races are all randomised (unless you choose to specifically customise them) and the small number of ship models and race “faces” combines with the poor diplomacy to create enemies with no personality at all. There are no moments akin to when you cursed that bastard Montezuma in Civilization, or those sodding Silicoids in Master of Orion. They’re just “those green guys, up in the corner.” They’re not enemy empires. They’re enemy AI routines.
But Star Ruler is a military-focused game and these problems aren’t going to bother some of you. It’s also easily moddable (with some excellent mods available right now) so it’s not inconceivable that some of this will be fixed by the userbase, and the devs, too, seem dedicated to the game, with a steady stream of patches that have fixed problems and added content. It’s also worth noting that the game is a mere £13, and even with the problems above it’s excellent value for money.
Despite the flaws, disappointments, and learning curve, I’d certainly recommend Star Ruler to 4X fans with a warlike bent. If you’re prepared to spend a good few hours getting into it and learning via trial and error, if you won’t get too upset by the outlined problems, and if you’re not scared off by lots of numbers, then you’ll find an entertaining, substantial, and surprisingly cheap game of galactic domination.