A Review of GMT’s Space Empires 4X Board Game
A few of the guys at my gaming group, myself included, are quite partial to space-themed board games. As it’s been quite a while since a major war game company has published a “space war game”, we were looking forward to the release of GMT Games’ Space Empires 4X, and got it on the table soon after publication.
It’s a standard 4X game (Explore, Expand, Exploit & Exterminate… hence the “4X” in the title) with a space theme overlay. Each player starts off on his own Home World surrounded by nearby, but unexplored, Home systems. Players home systems are separated from each other by an (also unexplored) intergalactic no-man’s land, referred to as Deep Space, that is generally dangerous and inhospitable.
The general pattern of game play is (as expected):
- Explore your own Home system, colonizing planets, accumulating funds and building bases and combat units (Explore/Exploit).
- Expand out into the wild and dangerous Deep Space systems and explore there (Expand/Exploit).
- Eventually make contact with other players’ civilizations and fight them to the death (Exterminate).
Does this all coalesce successfully into an enjoyable and competitive game? We’ll review some aspects of the game and find out. We managed to get several sessions played, using mostly the standard/basic rule set, and this review is based on those experiences. In addition to my own opinions, I’ve sprinkled other players’ comments throughout the article. There were differing opinions…
The game components are all top notch, although I find the map a trifle bland. The rules are clear and well organized. You can tell that a lot of care went into making them as concise as possible. There is a considerable amount of errata and Q&A to be found on the internet, but I don’t think that’s indicative of a poorly thought out game. I think the designer/developer just wants to be as thorough as possible and so has posted just about every question that’s been asked, along with corresponding answers.
The game map is mounted and the unit counters are high quality, as we’ve all come to expect from GMT Games. No complaints about the components.
And I’m thrilled that it’s not another Card Driven Game! I have no problem with CDGs, but not every game is conducive to being managed like a poker hand.
There is a certain amount of bookkeeping required in Space Empires, so if that puts you off, you should find another game. Personally, I kind of like the bookkeeping. I think it’s good to have a record of one’s decisions and choices to review afterwards when pondering what could have been done better.
Most of the information you’re required to record is pretty straightforward: purchases of units and investments in technology. Unit purchases include ship units such as Battleships, Scouts, Destroyers, Ship Yards, Colony Ships, etc. Technology research investments result in technological advances such as Ship Size (ability to build larger ships), Attack Tech and Defense Tech (to improve attack/defense strengths), Move technology (allows ships to move faster and farther), Tactics tech (provides advantage during the combat fire resolution process), and others.
The only tricky part (which tripped ALL of us up, at least once or twice) was keeping track of which ship groups belonged to which technology level. For example, if you built a Cruiser on turn 2 and then researched Exploration Technology on turn 3, only Cruisers built on turn 3 or later would actually have that technology available to them. Which would make sense if these space ships were rolling off a Ford assembly line. But I’d like to believe that in our space wandering future, upgrades will be made via software updates and/or portable upgrade kits. Tracking technology level per ship is not a major burden, but it’s one of those fiddly things that you invariably screw up.
If you include all the Optional Rules (discussed later), this fiddly problem is eliminated via the Instant Technology Upgrade optional rule. This rule allows every ship to be instantly upgraded as soon as the technology is successfully researched. That’s more like it. Just “up-armor” those HMMVs and get back to the mission!
Playing the Game
In a four player game, all players start off with the same forces and abilities, but each Home System layout is random. That is to say, each player has the same number of Planet, Mineral, etc. tiles, but they are deployed randomly, and face down. So a lucky player will have more Mineral markers very close to his Home planet, allowing for quick Mineral retrieval and conversion into usable Construction Points (CP), which are the currency of the game.
There is virtually no player interaction until one or more players venture out into Deep Space and beyond. Before that time, it’s basically four solitaire games going on at the same time. I like solitaire games… but not when I’m sitting in the same room with three other gamers. I find this early stage of the game to be very DULL. There is a “Quick Start Variant” mentioned in the Scenario Book that allows you to bypass this portion of the game, which is good. But the down side is that the astute player is then denied a chance to get a leg-up during this early/dull segment.
The first part of the game in which players are exploring their Home systems gets pretty tedious after the first game. As I said earlier, it’s like four solitaire games going on at the same time. So there is great reliance on the integrity and accuracy of the other players. While I’ve never been involved in a game where player integrity was an issue, accuracy is another story. Players making mistakes due to a forgotten rule here, or a botched calculation there, is a fairly common occurrence. When the “collective” is observing all moves, it not only gives everyone a better sense of what the competition is up to, but it also tends to catch these minor errors as they happen. This is nothing more than a personal preference, but I don’t really like games where each player is off on his own track, even part of the time. Yes, it speeds things along, but if I’m in that much of a rush to get through the game, maybe it’s not the right game for me in the first place.
So each player, head down, begins exploring his Home systems, exploiting the local resources for all they’re worth, keeping the books, researching technologies, and building the best space-faring fleet that his money can buy. The more experienced and methodical players will build Scouts, map out their home systems, colonize planets, and bring home the Minerals (i.e. cash) in the most efficient manner possible. The most efficient player will have an advantage going into the expansion stage of the game. But among competent players, it’s an advantage measured in inches. No one is really going to get that far ahead of the pack. This is the reason I’m in favor of the “Quick Start Variant” mentioned in the Scenario Book.
The second part of the game finds the players expanding out into Deep Space, possibly coming into contact with alien civilizations, worm holes (aka “Warp Points”), Asteroids and other dangers. Although different in name, I was disappointed with the variety of consequences for discovery of these markers. “Nebulae”, “Asteroids”, “Danger!”, “Super Nova”, and “Lost in Space” markers could easily have been replaced with a single “Bad Thing” marker (and maybe a die roll to determine which “bad thing” it is). Each did have its own unique definition, but it seemed to me like the original design called for “Bad Thing”, and the blanks were just filled in later.
Of course there are some “Good Things” out there as well such as Minerals and Space Wrecks, the salvaging of which bestows some new technological knowledge upon the salvager. But the “Good Things” are few and far between out in Deep Space.
The possible discovery of (invariably hostile) alien planets was a bit more interesting, but the rules governing them were a bit sketchy. Aliens were one of the few areas of the rules that had us scratching our heads and wondering if we were “doing it right”. In one particular game, a player discovered so many alien ships in the section of Deep Space near his home systems that he used up all the available alien counters. So when another player discovered a barren planet (which triggers the appearance of alien ships), there were no alien ship markers left. So what happens? Are alien ships from a previous discovery moved to the new discovery? Is it just ignored? We found ourselves making up “house rules” to cover these odd situations.
One of my favorite Deep Space discoveries was the Doomsday Machine, introduced as one of the Optional Rules. Discovering a Doomsday Machine is like finding a sleeping hive of “Borg” and kicking it awake. The thing just makes a bee-line for the nearest planet, asteroid or ship and devours it. They’re extremely difficult to kill so if one happens to drift into your home system, fasten your seat belt!
There are special solitaire “Doomsday Machine” scenarios that pit a lone player against the Doomsday Machines. This was the first scenario that I played. It was probably not the best scenario to start with because Doomsday Machines are really only a small part of the standard two- or multi-player game. So knowing how Doomsday Machines behave really doesn’t teach you much about confronting a “live” opponent. It did teach the basics of movement, discovery, and production, but was not a great intro to Combat since all fighting was against the Doomsday Machines. And there were special combat rules to boot. But it was enough to get me started.
The final stage of the game pits the players against each other militarily. This is where you find out if your research and fleet construction decisions were astute… or “tragic mistakes” (thanks to Scott Cameron for that quote). We played the basic game several times and all came to the conclusion that even Combat was kind of dull. Several of us were just not interested enough to want to invest the time in trying any of the advanced rules, but a few of the guys were hopeful that Carriers with their attendant Fighters, and Raiders in conjunction with Cloaking and Scanner technology, would provide enough pizazz to make the game interesting. Sometime over the next few months, I’ll see if I can convince 3 other players to join me for a game using all the Advanced and Optional Rules. If I have a major change of heart about the game, I’ll amend this review… but I’m not optimistic.
Since Combat is easily the most interesting part of the game, the following is a brief example of the combat sequence, using the basic rules. In this example, the Blue Player is attempting to conquer the Yellow Colony on the planet Cerberus. First, it must get through the Yellow defenses…
The Blue attack force consists of 10 combat-capable units:
- 3 BattleCruisers
- 1 Battleship
- 4 Scouts
- 2 Cruisers
- Note: The 1 Colony Ship is not affected by combat as long as Blue still has other, combat-capable, ships in the hex.
The Blue plan is to destroy all of Yellow’s combat ships and then eliminate the Yellow Colony itself, thus making the planet Cerberus eligible for colonization by the Blue forces.
The defending Yellow force is made up of 5 combat-capable units:
- 1 Shipyard
- 2 BattleCruisers
- 1 Base
- 1 Battleship
Note that a ship counter with no numerical marker beneath it is counted as “1” ship; the same as if it had a “1” marker under it. In our games, we allowed either method of indicating a “1” strength.
Move Ships Off Map
The Battle Marker is placed in the combat hex and all the ships are moved to a “battle line” on, or near, the map. Note that for purposes of this example, I’ll just leave the ships on the map. The rules recommend that you line up your ships in Class order: all “A” Class ships on the left, followed by “B” Class, “C” Class, etc. Combat is fought in one or more “rounds”. The following steps (Screening, Fleet Size Bonus, and Resolve Combat) are repeated each Combat round.
The side that has the greater number of combat-capable ships may Screen a number of his combat-capable ships equal to the difference in ship counts. Screened ships may not fire or be fired upon. Since the Blue player has 5 more combat units than Yellow, Blue may screen up to 5 of his units. He chooses to screen all 4 of his Scouts (SC). (Note: The Colony ship, because it is a non-combat unit, is automatically screened until the end of the battle)
Fleet Size Bonus
The Blue fleet is twice the size of the Yellow fleet (10 combat units vs. 5) and could be eligible for the Fleet Size Bonus, which grants each firing unit a +1 bonus to its Attack Strength. However, since Blue may not include “screened” units in the total, he does NOT get the bonus.
The order in which units fire is determined by their Class. Firing is NOT simultaneous, so you must factor that in to all your combat plans. All “A” Class ships fire first, regardless of which player they belong to, followed by “B”, “C”, “D” and “E” Class ships. Both Blue and Yellow have “A” Class ships, so the player with the higher Tactics Technology level fires first. Looking at both players’ Technology levels, it appears that Blue has gone for quantity, while Yellow has opted for quality. Yellow’s Tactics level of 1 exceeds Blue’s level of zero (if nothing is circled, assume the “At Start Value”), so Yellow’s Base and Battleship units (Class A) get to fire first. Each unit fires by rolling a 10-sided die.
“A” Class Units Fire – The Yellow Base unit fires at the Blue Battleship (BB) group. The Yellow Base’s Attack Strength is 7 and Yellow’s Attack Technology Level is 1, so its total Attack Strength is 8. The Blue Battleship Defense Strength is 2 and Blue’s Defense Technology Level is zero so the total Defense Strength is 2. There is no Fleet Size Bonus. The total Defense Strength is subtracted from the Total Attack Strength to arrive at the attacker’s To Hit number. In this example, the “To Hit” number is 6 (8 – 2), so Yellow must roll a 6 or less to score a hit (note that a roll of “1” always scores a hit regardless of the “To Hit” number). Yellow rolls a “3” which inflicts a hit on the Blue Battleship group. Place a Damage 1 marker on the Blue BB. The Blue BB’s Hull Size is 3, so three “damage” must be inflicted before it will suffer an actual unit loss. Until that time, the Damage markers have no effect on the unit’s capabilities.
Next, Yellow’s remaining “A” Class unit, the Battleship, gets to fire. It also decides to fire at the Blue BB Group. Since the Damage markers have no effect on units, Blue’s values will be identical to the first roll. Yellow’s total Attack Strength this time is 6, 5 for the Battleship +1 for Yellow’s Attack Technology Level. Yellow rolls a “1” which scores another hit on the Blue BB group. The “Damage 1” marker is replaced with a “Damage 2” marker, but since the total damage has not yet reached the Blue BB Hull Size of 3, no Blue units are removed.
Blue now fires back with his “A” Class Battleship. The Yellow Base is the chosen target. Total Attack Strength is 6 (5 inherent Attack Strength +1 for Attack Tech level) and Yellow total Defense Strength is 4 (2 inherent Defense Strength +2 for Defense Tech level). Total Attack Strength minus total Defense Strength is 2, which is the new “To Hit” number. Blue rolls a “2” which scores a hit, and forces Yellow to place a “Damage 1” marker on his Base group. There is only one Blue Battleship so we now move on to the “B” class units.
“B” Class Units Fire – Both players have “B” Class units but, once again, the tie is broken in favor of Yellow since his Tactics technology level is higher. Yellow’s first BattleCruiser turns its attention to Blue’s Cruisers (CA), selecting them for targeting. Total Attack Strength is 6 (5 inherent + 1 Attack Tech) and Blue’s total Defense Strength is 1 (1 inherent + 0 Defense Tech), making the “To Hit” number 5. Yellow rolls “4” and scores a hit! A Damage 1 marker is placed on the Blue Cruiser group. Yellow’s second BattleCruiser attacks, rolling a “3” which also registers another Damage point. The cumulative Damage is now 2 which is equal to the Blue Cruiser’s Hull Size and so a unit is eliminated. The numeric “2” marker underneath the Blue Cruiser group is flipped over to its “1” side, and the Damage marker is removed. (Note: Or, since there’s only one Cruiser left, the numeric marker could be removed altogether)
Now, Blue’s three “B” Class BattleCruisers may fire back, and once again choose the Yellow Base as the target. Blue’s total Attack Strength is 6 (5 inherent Attack Strength and +1 Attack Tech level) and Yellow’s total Defense Strength is 4 (2 inherent and +2 Defense Tech) making the “To Hit” number 2. Blue rolls a “9” which misses. The second BattleCruiser rolls a “1” which is always a hit. The Yellow Base group now has a “Damage 2” marker placed on it. Finally, the third Blue BattleCruiser rolls a “2”, scoring another hit. The Yellow Base takes its third Damage, which equals the Hull Size, and is therefore destroyed. The Yellow Base unit is removed from the map.
“C” Class Units Fire – Moving along to the “C” Class units, Yellow again fires first due to the superior Tactics tech rating. Yellow only has a single, lowly Shipyard (SY) unit left to fire, but is determined to try and finish off the Blue Battleship. The total Attack Strength of 4 (3 inherent + 1 Attack tech) minus Total Defense of 2 (2 inherent only) produces a “To Hit” number of 2. Luckily, Yellow rolls a “2” and scores a third Damage point against the Blue Battleship. Now that the Damage level equals the Hull Size, the Battleship unit is destroyed. There is only 1 Battleship unit so the marker is removed.
Blue now fires back with his sole remaining “C” Class Cruiser against the Yellow Shipyard (revenge attack). In this battle, we follow the standard formula. Blue’s Total Attack Strength is 5 (4 inherent + 1 Attack tech), but Yellow’s total Defense Strength will only be 1. The Shipyard’s inherent Defense Strength is 0 and the Yellow Defense Tech number is 2. But, there is a rule that prevents a defending unit from benefitting from a Defense Tech bonus which is higher than its Hull Size. So, the Shipyard’s Defense Strength is capped at 1. The “To Hit” number is 4. The Blue Cruiser has excellent luck and rolls a 3 for a hit. The Yellow Shipyard only has a Hull Size of 1, so the single hit is enough to eliminate it. The Shipyard counter is removed.
End of First Battle Round – Since the Blue Scouts (“C” Class) were all “screened”, they are ineligible to fire, so the first Battle Round is concluded. Things are looking a bit grim for the Yellow player, now facing 8 attacking combat units with only 3 to defend. In the upcoming round, however, Yellow will get to fire its Class “A” and “B” units before Blue can fire back due to the fact that Blue now has no “A” Class units at all, and Yellow’s “B” Class units will fire first because Yellow has Tactics tech superiority. So, it is tempting to try to leverage this first strike advantage and maybe knock the Blue Cruisers out of the battle. The alternative is for Yellow to Retreat instead of firing, thus leaving the Colony on Cerberus to the tender mercy of the Blue invader (which would have to attack and reduce the Yellow Colony before it could attempt to make it a Blue Colony).
Blue would be given the opportunity to realign his forces, taking the Scout units from behind the “screen” and putting them on the front line. The numerical boost in attacking units would then trigger the award of a Fleet Size Bonus to Blue (for having twice as many combat units in the battle), making Yellow’s defense even more difficult. The current strategic situation, as well as your own personal style of play, would have to guide you in making the decision to fight or flee.
You can see from the above example that Combat is not a complicated affair. Some other considerations not addressed in the example include “terrain” such as Asteroids and Nebulae which neutralize Attack Tech and Defense Tech benefits (respectively) and therefore could have had a considerable impact on the sample battle. Other unit types, such as Carriers, Fighters and Raiders are available under the Advanced Rules and would, I’m sure, add a bit more depth to the combat resolution process. But, even with Advanced options, I find the Combat resolution process to be simple and straight-forward.
Thoughts on Advanced and Optional Rules
By Ray Gorka
The Unpredictable Research optional rule adds a lot to the Space Empires 4X. Likewise the Merchant Ship Pipelines advanced rule adds another dimension, as they are infrastructure you have to develop – and – protect! This leads to the Raiders (advanced rule) having higher value and therefore being a research target – which leads to Scanners (advanced rule) being a research target, that leads to variation among the Empires – which is what everyone complains is missing from the game!
We also found that due to the $10 Research increase cap (Research Gearing Limits optional rule) AND the Unpredictable Research (i.e. grant method) everyone was spreading research over multiple “projects” rather than dumping large expenditures directly into buying single tech breakthroughs. This has tended to “spread out” research more like it happens in real life.
Other observations are that the Doomsday Machines (optional rule) can be really nasty early on, but only a nuisance by mid game. And Empires typically don’t venture out to Deep Space until mid game. Also mining starts off as essential and tapers off to nothing as all the minerals are harvested. Some capability to have permanent resource spaces in deep space to “fight” over would be beneficial. We modified the confusing Aliens advanced rule so that we’d leave only one Alien ship over an Alien world then draw 3 more if it was entered. Otherwise if you left 4 at each world (per the rules) you rapidly ran out of Alien craft.
In a four player game, even with all Advanced/Optional rules in use, I do suspect that there will eventually be two basic problems. First, the obvious one: everyone gangs up on one Empire (and that Empire doesn’t last long). Second, as time goes on, everyone could end up with exactly the same technologies such that every Empire is a carbon copy of each other. The latter problem may not actually happen… so long as there is no conflict all the empires tend to pour credits into research. But once you start to build fleets (and pay maintenance), research dollars dry up, even more so when you start losing MS Pipelines and colonies begin to get chewed up and blockaded. The “gang up on the leader” problem can be solved by doing a 4 player game where the diagonal (or adjacent) players are allied!
I disagree with Mark’s contention that the early exploration is dull and pointless. I don’t mind the bookkeeping at all and rather enjoy the early exploration part of the game. In fact, that is the first thing that sets the empires apart. How you explore & colonize, and where your planets and minerals wind up, influence your position. In a recent game, I had a spread of planets, sort of in two arms, stretching from my Homeworld to the perimeter of my local space with minerals nicely distributed around the Homeworld and along my planetary lines; that allowed me to smoothly and rapidly develop. On the other hand one of my opponents wound up with a donut empire with nearly all his habitable worlds spread out on the perimeter of his local space. That significantly slowed his initial development. A key point is that you won’t know that for a number of turns, so if you had decided to invest heavily in research early, then “discovering” the donut over the course of 4-6 turns could leave you in a deep hole! It’s all part of the subtle strategy, which would be lost with the Quick Start rule. I feel the exploration is paramount precisely for the diversity it adds, the lack of which is the number one complaint against this game.
I like this game and would play it again. I don’t think we’ve given it a fair hearing until we’ve played it several times, to completion, with all the Advanced and Optional Rules.
The thing that impressed me most about this game is the variety of scenarios contained in the illustrated Scenario Book. There are 2-player, 3-player, 4-player and “Epic” 2-8 player scenarios. There are several solitaire scenarios as well. The aforementioned “Doomsday Machine” scenario, and another solitaire scenario, called “Alien Empire” that brings the normally dim witted aliens to life, making them a proper enemy.
In addition, each scenario has variants for different map sizes and configurations. (e.g. a small, medium, large; opposing players in opposite corners, or side to side, etc.). A “small” map puts opposing players in closer proximity so that they come in contact with each other more quickly, where as a larger map puts more Deep Space between them. There are some additional game variants listed in the Scenario Book as well.
Based on the few scenarios I’ve played, they appear to all be well thought out. If you become of fan of this game, you’ll have to be excited about the number of scenarios, as they should keep the game fresh for some time to come.
There are some good things to say about this game, and I’ve said them (and quoted others saying them). But I think that, overall, it’s just not an enjoyable game. I don’t mean this as a criticism of the designer or developer. Gamers who have been playing war games for years will easily recognize the quality of the design and the care that went into crafting it. I’m willing to bet the game plays exactly as the designer intended, so there’s no issue of insufficient play testing or “rush to publication”.
It’s just not my cup of tea. Period.
And I was not the only one who felt this way. It was difficult to get enough sessions under my belt to write this review because, after the first few turns, several players were just not interested in continuing. Free time for gaming is such a precious commodity that players will not squander a minute of it on something that does not “grab” them on the first play-through.
Although I’m not a fan of the game, I do have a few suggestions:
- The general consensus in my gaming group was that ALL Advanced and Optional Rules should be used. The hope is that this will provide the best chance of making the game enjoyable to the widest range of gamers. The basic game just doesn’t cut it.
- The real challenge in Space Empires: 4X lies in proper technology research and fleet construction. As is the case with many bookeeping games, the superior logistician wins. So sharpen your pencil and think about what you’re trying to accomplish as you make your production decisions. You won’t have enough scratch to do everything; so choose wisely.
- Use the “Quick Start Variant” found in the Scenario Book. This allows you to skip the drudgery of the early game, without having much affect on the game’s outcome. I think that suffering through the dullness of this early stage several times may have gotten us off “on the wrong foot” with Space Empires, and contributed to the high player attrition rate. (Although Ray disagrees, you will ultimately thank me for this piece of advice)
At the time of this writing, I see that GMT is advertising “expansions” for Space Empires. I wonder if this is material that really should have been in the original game. In any case, I’ll probably try playing the expansions because I’m still rooting for this game! But the bloom is off the rose and I don’t think I’ll ever find myself engrossed in Space Empires, as I had expected I would when it was first released.
But, if I’m wrong about that, I’ll have no problem writing another review accordingly.
Categories: Space Empires: 4X