Galactic Civilizations


posted 6/16/2003 by Tyler Sager
other articles by Tyler Sager
There’s a new “fallback game” on my hard drive. I have a few favorite game genres, and I always keep one or two of the best examples of each genre installed long after I’ve “finished” the title. I’ll revisit these games frequently, sometimes for simple enjoyment, sometimes to cleanse my palate after a particularly distasteful review copy crosses my desk. It takes a lot to earn a permanent place on my computer’s real estate. That being said, Galactic Civilizations is now a long-term resident, and will probably be there for quite some time.

Galactic Civilizations is just a wonderful game. A turn-based space-strategy simulation (or “4X” game), it ranks right along such greats as the venerable Master of Orion 2 and the slightly-less-flashy Space Empires series. Players begin with a single planet and a few ships, and from that must strive to become the dominant civilization in the galaxy. Galactic dominance can be achieved through brute force, cultural superiority, or technological achievement, catering to players of many different play styles.

Although it really doesn’t need it, GalCiv boasts a fairly interesting backstory. Before the human race got involved, there were five dominant races in the galaxy. These races utilized a system of “stargates” for interstellar travel. These stargates were a technology left behind by a far advanced and long-gone race, the Precursors. Use of the stargate system meant that travel in the galaxy was limited to those places with gate access—much of the galaxy was left unexplored. Then humans entered the picture. They discovered the existence of the alien races and their stargate technology, and then did them all one better. From study of the stargates, humans developed a hyper-drive technology, allowing them to travel freely around the galaxy without the limitations of stargate access. The humans shared this technology with their alien neighbors. Suddenly, everyone realized that there was a whole lot of galaxy open for exploration and exploitation, and the race was on to claim the biggest chunk of the now much-larger galaxy. This is the point where the game begins, with the various civilizations racing to become the biggest and best in the galaxy.

There is a great deal of variability in the setup of the game, leading to a lot of replayability. First up, players choose the size of the galaxy, the relative abundance of habitable worlds, and the general layout of space. Next, players can choose just what sort of humans are entering into the race for galactic supremacy. Although humans are the only playable race in the game, they are highly customizable. There are ten ability points to spend on a list of dozens of racial bonuses, such as increased technological aptitude, increased population growth, or even luckiness. After customizing the race, players must choose a predominant governmental party, giving yet another bonus as long as that party remains in power in the human government. This becomes important later in the game—not only must players keep tabs on the alien races, they also need to keep the voters back home happy. Lastly, the rest of the races of the galaxy must be chosen. Each race has an alignment (good, evil, or neutral) and a racial intelligence. Alignment, which is determined for humans by choices made during the game, determines how particular alien races react with each other. Good-aligned races tend to get along well with each other, while evil ones have more problems making friends. Racial intelligence determines the difficulty of the game—the smarter the alien’s artificial intelligence, the more difficult the game. After all this, the game finally begins.

Some things may seem a little simpler in GalCiv than in most 4X games. Planet quality, for example, is a lot more straightforward here than in other titles. Instead of needing to remember which type of vegetation, size, soil composition, average temperature, and gravity is best for habitation, planets are simply rated on a numerical scale. A planetary rating of “1” is really bad, a rating of “15” is tolerable, and a planet that ranges around “25” or higher is a veritable paradise. Likewise, planetary production is a bit more streamlined than in other games. Each planet produces an output of Social, Military, and Research units. Social and Military production is geared toward the individual planet, and goes toward building structures, planetary upgrades, and ships. Research is pooled with other planets’ research to advance the civilization along the immense technology tree. Each planet also generates an economic revenue or deficit, which adds to or depletes the empire’s treasury. A very intuitive series of sliders allows for easy management of the planets and empire, controlling everything from tax rate to social spending to funding of covert operations. A set of programmable governors are available as well, each of which will set up a build order. This comes in quite handy for micromanagement reduction in late games when colonizing or conquering a new planet.

Conquering the galaxy can be done a variety of ways. The most obvious, of course, is to build lots of ships and destroy all the enemy ships. GalCiv has a bit less strategic combat than some 4X games. There is no customization of ships—when the proper technology has been researched, the unit will become available, more like Civilization III and less like Master of Orion II. Combat is also a straightforward affair. Attacking an enemy ship is simply a matter of moving one unit onto another one. The computer compares relative attack and defense values, throws in a few random numbers, and declares a winner. There is no separate battle screen, no sweeping tactical battle. This is a game less about the ability to create and expertly field the perfect ship, and more about the ability to create the perfect economy and infrastructure to field the best army.

If combat is not your preferred style of taking over the galaxy, you can simply show the neighbors that your civilization is just a lot more fun that theirs. Cultural Influence plays a very large part in GalCiv. Each sector of space has an influence rating, generated from nearby planets and starbases. If a particular species’ influence is considerably higher than their neighbors, those neighbors may just decide the grass is greener on the other side of the proverbial fence, and their planet has a good chance to defect to the enemy. It’s possible (although not necessarily easy) to take over the entire galaxy without firing a single shot.

Finally, humankind can try to evolve to the next level of existence by researching their way up a very extensive technology tree. I found this to be quite a challenging route to take, but also the most entertaining. Once enough technologies have been researched, humans will evolve into beings so advanced that all the other races have no hope of besting them. Of course, winning the technology race goes a long way toward helping out in the military and cultural victories as well.

Adding a little more flavor to the galaxy, random events will pop up from time to time. Many times when colonizing a new planet, or exploring the galaxy, a moral dilemma will present itself. Each dilemma is presented with three options to choose from, a “good” choice, an “evil” choice, and a neutral one. The choices are obvious (the top one is “good”). Decisions made during these random events will determine the civilization’s alignment. Evil choices often have the best rewards, but will cause the goodly races of the galaxy to get grumpy. Good choices usually mean sacrificing something, but will earn the adoration of much of the galaxy. In addition to diplomatic standings, leaning toward good or evil will open up technologies available only to those with particular alignments. This is just another way to increase replay value. In one game, the humans can be kindhearted technologists willing to share their knowledge with all. In another, the humans could use their technological advantage to run roughshod over all the puny, lesser races. Both are viable options for victory, and both are quite entertaining.

Another unique aspect of GalCiv is the starbase. This space station has the ability to receive oodles of upgrades, which provide various bonuses for the planets and ships in the surrounding sector. Bonuses to apply to military and social production, profits from trade routes, offensive and defensive capabilities of ships, cultural influence, and even offensive and defensive capabilities of the starbase itself. Given enough upgrades, starbases can eventually become the frighteningly powerful Terror Stars, much like the Death Star from the Star Wars universe. The modifiable aspect of starbases makes for some interesting strategic choices. Surround the enemy with starbases loaded with cultural modifications, and you’ll soon see their planets flocking to join your side. Of course, most alien civilizations don’t take kindly to propaganda machines being built right next door, and will react accordingly.

On the technical side of things, Galactic Civilizations holds its own quite well. It’s not a graphical wonder, but the 2D graphics are clean, the interface is fairly simple to navigate, and the cutscenes scattered throughout the game are actually quite enjoyable. The music is rather nice and spacey, adding proper atmosphere. Sound effects, where they show up, are decent but not mind-blowing. The AI is solid, offering quite a challenge on the higher difficulty settings. In addition, GalCiv has strong, ongoing designer support. Several patches have come out already, not so much fixing bugs as tweaking gameplay and adding oodles of free extra content. A rather large free expansion patch is also in the works, at the time of this review. Enthusiastic support like that, coupled with a fairly strong fanbase, makes a very good game into a great one.

With addictive gameplay, high degree of customization, competent AI, and a strong support base, Galactic Civilizations is one of the best 4X space-strategy games available. If you like 4X games, this one is certainly worthy of your time and money.

An excellent 4X space-strategy. Hours will be lost, sleep will be missed, eyes will be bleary the next day, and it’ll all be worth it.