Galactic Civilizations 3: Preview

Feb 23, 2015

Galactic Civilizations III (GalCiv3) is the follow up to the well-received Galactic Civilizations II by Stardock Entertainment.  The game is currently in early access on Steam, with a release date tentatively set for April 2015. For those new to the series (like me), Galactic Civilizations is an expansive 4X strategy game in which the player takes on the role of presumptive space emperor. Though I’ve never played any previous game in the franchise, I have played a few 4X games before and these games need to be addictive. After all, you’re going to be spending a lot of empire building and warring, so a 4X game that doesn’t give you “one more turn syndrome” relatively early on probably won’t be spending a long time installed on your hard drive. I’m happy to say that GalCiv3 has that addictive quality, and I have any complaints so far it’s that I haven’t managed to finish a game yet due to mid game crashes.  As you might expect – and obviously as Stardock makes quite clear – the early access version is a work in progress, so there are things missing and a few bugs every now and then. I’m anxious to see the finished game which promises to be quite fun.

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If you do decide to buy into the beta, here are a few words as to what you should expect. Galactic Civilizations III can be intimidating to the uninitiated. I wonder how much you need to be familiar with the previous games to have a feel for what’s going on. The early access version has no tutorial and the help system is minimalist. The six available races (eight are planned) all have a variety of differentiating attributes, some of which are self-explanatory, but without a frame of reference it’s hard to tell what a “good” choice would be as far as individual play-style goes. Likewise starting a new game presents a ton of options and it’s not overly obvious what implications they have on the gameplay. Some are easy to deduce: for example, galaxy size configures the map size, with parameters that run from “tiny” all the way to “immense.” As with any 4X game this setting would have a direct impact on how many turns there ought to be in a game session.   But what are the differences between galaxy types, “spiral”, “loose” or “tight” clusters, scattered? What about options such as space anomalies, what effect do they have on the game? To be fair these are minor complaints about the early access version, which I expect to be cleared up in the release.

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GalCiv3 rewards you on how well you plan your civilization from the outset, but the scale of the universe is breathtaking and allows for plenty of organic customization as you go along. You begin the game centered on your home world, with a colony ship, a survey ship, and a scout ship all awaiting your commands. This is relatively straight forward: explore your surroundings and expand (the first two X’s of 4X after all). The expansion aspect presents an interesting challenge, because in the early going you have to locate a suitable planet for colonization. This is different than say finding a strategic spot near some resources and founding a city. Planets orbit stars, which in a nice touch are displayed through the fog of war as pinpoints. Your ships make the trip from system to system and you find yourself hoping for any habitable world to appear for colonization. Planets have classes, such as “dead,” “barely habitable,” “earth-like,” and so on, which adds to the grab bag mechanic in this territory grabbing. Once you finally do settle a world, you’re greeted by a colonization event that allows you to choose a policy. The choice impacts immediate variables of the world (research rating, approval rating, etc.) and allows you to shape your civilization’s ideology. Ideology, along with the traditional Research tech tree, is how you customize your civilization to your own vision of the galaxy and the circumstances you’re facing.

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I found GalCiv3’s ideology system to be a refreshing take on the standard “civilization traits” systems of other 4X games. As you gain certain kinds of ideology points you are given the chance to unlock traits as you see fit, at ever increasing cost with each unlock. Each ideology, Benevolent, Pragmatic, and Malevolent, gives you civilization-wide buffs in different aspects of empire building. For example, the Benevolent trait “Outreach” grants bonuses to population and expansion growth. On the opposite end of the spectrum the Malevolent trait “Motivation” grants bonuses to production values, with the appropriately suggestive imagery of a whip in hand. It’s nice to see to your actions and decisions having a real impact on how your civilization is viewed and progresses, and the system is streamlined enough so it doesn’t provide an overwhelming amount of choice.

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What’s any strategy game without the inevitable armed conflict between nations? In GalCiv3 you build customized ships and fleets to your liking, and send them off into space combat. Stardock has made these space battles look very pretty but one thing to note is that you have
no tactical control in these fights whatsoever. I found this off putting at first, but it makes sense when you consider just how much warring there will be going on in the later phases of the game. To prevail in fleet battles, then, careful planning is needed along with some clever stacking of units. Planetary invasions will work in a similar manner where you set the overall strategy for your ground forces to follow, and if they succeed how damaged the planet and its population will be depend on what strategy you set. I mentioned before that each planet has a classification, and this seems to dictate how many buildable zones there are on planets for improvements and population sizes. Invasions can harm these infrastructures, adding a nice design accent to the risks involved by going to war by damaging the goods so to speak. Of course this might not be as big of a concern if your aim is to conquer the entire galaxy anyway. I’ve merely scratched the surface on what is shaping up to be one of the deeper strategy games of the year. I can’t speak to whether or not the game will be a worthy successor to Galactic Civilizations II, but I can say based on this preview I’ll be spending a lot of time playing space emperor later in the year. The beta is for testing purposes only and balancing is actively ongoing but if you do decide to give early access a try I highly recommend checking out Stardock’s Twitch feed on Fridays for the developer stream. Archived shows are available on the Stardock YouTube channel.  You can find out more about the game and where to buy it on the game website.

[Editor’s note] Jason has written about Stardock titles: Fall Enchantress and Sorcerer King. On episode 172 of our Games podcast, we interviewed Stardock’s legendary art director and designer Scott Tykoski.

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