The Long Dark Action Phase Of The Soul

Thoughts, reviews, session reports, and other ephemera from a middle aged dad who games solo and with others.
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Space Empires 4X: In Space, No One Can Hear You Screen

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An installment in a hopefully entertaining, irregularly written blog about my board gaming experiences, reviews, insights, nonsense, and opinions. Also, lots of words and phrases that I think are startlingly clever. Seriously, LOTS of words and few if any pictures. You've been warned.

Today: Space Empires 4X.

So, after winning SE4X (an acronym which, as I've discovered, makes for quite the saucy autocorrect if you're texting it) in a BGG auction, I finally sat down and gave it a spin.

My intention was to give a review, but since there are already quite a few excellent reviews here, I decided to go with a running diary of my time spent playing the Doomsday Machine scenario, Normal difficulty, on a small map.

8:00 PM: I grab the Green team's bag and decide that I will defeat the Doomsday Machines to preserve my homeworld Kronos!

8:01 PM: I discover that Kronos isn't actually the homeworld, make mental apologies to the Kronosian nationals, and rededicate myself to defeating the Doomsday Machines to preserve my homeworld Chulak!

8:02 PM: Make mental note to rename Chulak at the next council meeting.

8:05 PM: After setting up the map, I stare at it for awhile, already delighted with all the juicy unexplored hexes. I admire my innocent little starting hex, the miners and scouts that will go forth for the glory of the Chulakian Hegemony.

ACTUAL GAME FEEDBACK: The board itself is an unsung component of SE4X. Its hexes are plenty big to accommodate 5-6 counters unstacked, it folds to a delightfully small rectangle, and there's a handy turn tracker at one edge. It doesn't take a genius to make space black, but the deep black in contrast to the bursts of color on the counters make this game a lot prettier to look at than you'd think.

8:07 PM: Nervously, rulebook in hand, I embark on turn one. I timidly check and double check the rules for movement and exploration, prepared to spend the next 30 minutes moving one unit incorrectly.

8:09 PM: Wait, that was... that was stupideasy. I can move all my ships a hex, and if it's got a facedown marker on it then just flip the counter over after all the moving's done. What the hell was I afraid of?

8:10 PM: I glance at the production worksheet awaiting me in the ominously named Economic Phase and remember what I was afraid of.

8:11 PM: Hey, I discovered Pollux, only a hex away from my home world! I'm thrilled, until I realize that I'm going to need some planets a bit further away from Chulak if I'm going to feed the DMs hors d'oeuvres establish a forward line.

8:12 PM: Ooh, minerals! Hey, I bet my miners have some ridiculously complex procedure for refining those.

8:13 PM: Nope, that's dead simple too. That Production Worksheet is still giving me the eye, though.

8:15 PM: After three turns of just moving and flipping, I'm ready for the math test.

8:17 PM: I now feel like Grover in the Monster At The End Of This Book. What the hell was I afraid of? I add up the colony points, subtract the hit points of my combat ships for maintenance, and there's my walking around money to spend.

8:18 - 8:30 PM: I agonize over what to buy. My elite math skills tell me that my one little mining ship is going to need roughly 3 years to collect all the minerals I've found so far, so I buy a couple more. Not wanting to ignore the eggheads entirely, I also invest in some movement technology. I have some cash left over, which I roll over to the next turn.

8:31 PM: Aw, crap. Those colonies I founded don't actually count this turn. I tell the mining ship manufacturers that the royal treasury is between paychecks, and to just hold on to those ships for a few more months. I make a mental note to fire the Minister Of Making Sure I Have Enough Money To Buy What I Want.

I also immediately implement the optional rule decree that all ships get upgraded with new tech immediately, as it's less bookkeeping for that Minister I just fired. Plus, I'm kind of lazy.

8:32 - 9:00 PM: Another few astoundingly mechanically simple turns and absorbing Economic phases later, I've got a healthy number of colonies, a starbase orbiting Chulak (Motto: I Probably Won't Orbitally Bombard Dissidents Today), and a good chunk of the home systems explored.

9:01 PM: I get the first tingles of the exquisite sensation of sinking needle-sharp teeth into strategic pink flesh. I love this part of playing new games, where I've come to grips with the rules and start to appreciate the scope and the breadth of possibilities.

ACTUAL GAME FEEDBACK: The rulebook and production worksheet are sheeps in wolves' clothing. It really is a simple game to play, and don't be put off by numbered sections, charts to fill out, and terms like "maintenance cost". It took just 3 turns before I felt comfortable not referring to the rulebook.

9:03 PM: Turn 5, and Chulak is firing on all cylinders. Deciding that fortune favors the bold, I venture into my first Deep Space hex, with a scout ship I've taken to calling SS Scout Ship On The Left Side Of The Map.

9:04 PM: I flip over the counter in the hex. It reads, "Danger!" I look at the rulebook to see what sort of interstellar effect I've encountered...

9:05 PM: ...only to find out that it's a pretty nondescript effect, other than the part where my ship is automatically lost. Balls.

I decide that the brave souls aboard the SS Scout Ship On The Left Side Of The Map forgot to change out the Johnson rods in the engine and died entirely of their own accord.

I make another mental note to fire the Minister of Enforcing Johnson Rod-Changing Drills. (We Chulakians have remarkably specific cabinet positions.)

9:07 PM: Having gotten completely caught up in exploring, empire-building and fleet-bulking up, I realize with some dismay that a giant planet eating thingamabob makes its debut this turn. Gulp.

9:08 PM: I look at the Doomsday Machine rules, and circle "Makes 4 attacks simultaneously" and "Attack Strength 8" as Rules Likely To Doom Chulak. Double gulp.

9:09 PM: I look at the state of the map and realize I should be able to mount a decent defense if the machine appears in any 3 of the 4 possible entry hexes. Don't roll a 1 or 2. Don't roll a 1 or 2. Don't roll a...

9:09 PM: 1. Balls.

9:11 PM: Determined to get my first taste of combat, I send the dangerous-sounding Fleet Longbow to planet Castor to greet the DM, whom I've named "Steve". Dishearteningly, I realize the fleet isn't going to make it in time, and that Castor is destined to become Chulakian slang for "appetizer".

ACTUAL GAME FEEDBACK: Another one of those thrilling moments where I realize what I don't know. In retrospect, I should have kept my fleets positioned near the center to be able to respond wherever the DM showed up, or invested in movement tech, or built a base on the forward system, and the fact that all of those strategies were available to me is another point in the game's favor.

9:15 PM: Steve munches his way steadily towards Chulak, but I throw Fleet Longbow at it two hexes before it reaches home. I have every confidence in the, erm, two cruisers, destroyer and three scouts that comprise the entirety of the Chulakian Home Defense Fleet. Combat! Yay!

9:16 PM: I line up my ships according to class, and they look pretty impressive against the single DM. I "screen" the destroyer, which means it gets to sit this round out and just watch from the sidelines as his comrades engage in glorious battle. Combat! Dramatic!

9:17 PM:
I miss on 4 of my 5 rolls, dealing a paltry single point of damage. Steve raises an eyebrow in my direction and wipes out all of my scouts. Combat! Injurious!

9:18 PM: My cruiser captains consult the regulations manual for procedures for dealing with Doomsday Machines, where they find the entry: "Leg It". Combat! Escapable!

9:19 PM: Steve's path takes him... into the hex my cruisers just retreated into. Combat! Not So Escapable After All!

9:20 PM: Farewell, Fleet Longbow. You were... ill-advised and poorly managed.

ACTUAL GAME FEEDBACK: The combat is a lot more tense than I'd expected. The tech levels affect it in ways that make sense and are easy to remember, the die rolls add unpredictability but not too much, and you can generally work out the likely result before engaging. It's quick, brutal, and never a sure thing (though you can certainly tip the odds in your favor). And it's just as easy to learn as the rest of the game.

9:21 PM: I have two turns to cobble together a Home Defense fleet before Steve hits Chulak. I then sweat out three agonizing combat rounds between Steve, the starbase, 4 shipyards, two battle cruisers and a destroyer. Amazingly, Steve explodes! (Awesomely, the shipyards dealt the killing blow.)

All my ships and 2 of the shipyards exploded too, but still - it's my first taste of victory, and I vow that Chulak will be better prepared by the time Steve's brother shows up...

9:22 PM: ...which, apparently, is now. Balls.

9:30 PM: Now that I've got a sense of what's important in combat (number of shots you're able to take, firing before the other guy gets to), I deal with the second DM (designated "Sven" by the Chulakian Society for Naming Apocalyptic Space Beasts) a bit better. I also got lucky that its entry and path took it right to a colony where I'd built a base, so I just amassed my ships there and waiting for it, taking advantage of the base and shipyard firepower.

9:45 PM: I'm down to turn 13, and the last DM (Codename: Roberta) threatens Chulak itself. Another nail-biter of a fight, and I white-knuckle my way through four (!) rounds of combat until once again the Chulakian Shipyards (Motto: We Spend Time Practicing Aiming Because Apparently Our Battle Fleet Doesn't) save the day with a devastating volley to finish off the threat.

I survey the map. I'm exhausted, thrilled, and completely absorbed. My fleet lies in tatters. I spare a thought for the colonies I lost on the way to the final battle, and I consider the rebuilding that lies ahead. My miners and scouts - who once seemed so important in the beginning - haven't been touched in 5 turns. I consider that someone should probably let them know that we won.

I wonder what lies on the other side of the unflipped system counters I didn't get a chance to explore, and I decide not to look; after all, it's unknown space, and will remain so for this particular story.

I consider the things I've learned: save some credits every turn if I can (the better to react to unexpected situations the next turns), create strategic defense points with bases, and that Chulakians are apparently genetically predisposed to discovering and disappearing into black holes.

And what sticks out to me is that the whole thing is just terribly, awesomely old-school. It's hex-and-counter gaming, the kind we used to complain about being "inaccessible" and "boring to look at". The kind largely forgotten in the wake of ever-better-produced games by all but the regulars in the Wargames forums. (And also, incidentally, the kind I cut my teeth on when I first started gaming as a teenager. So I'm not blind to the fact that nostalgia is providing a warm sheen over the experience as well.)

But it's also got a very modern approach to streamlining the actual gameplay. Yes, it's got charts, and resource allocation, and technology levels, and attack and defense and hit points and maintenance costs, but they're clean and sensible, and by the end of the first game I'm surprised to see I have time for another.

It offers an amazing variety of optional rules, scenarios, and variants to implement (or not), but the core is an deceptively streamlined game of move-combat-effect, with some light tallying every three turns.

Granted, I've only played it solo. Once. And to be honest, I'm not sure if I even want to play this with my group. I'm sure I'll try at some point, but the ability of the game to facilitate such a thrilling narrative in my head is a rare quality, and I'm not sure I want others mucking about with that. Selfish, but there it is.

I'm already over the moon with the random-ish map and strategic possibilities. I'm sure some folks have figured out "the best" strategy, or found a way to break the system. I don't care, and I'm not particularly interested in either.

Will I be just as excited to play my 20th game as my first? I don't know. Probably not, but there's not many games I can say that about anyway. Right now I'm in the honeymoon period, where I'm still learning all the game has to offer, and haven't even played the advanced game for God's sake, and what's all this about MS pipelines and carriers and fighters and mines and look over there - an expansion!

All I know is that I can't wait to take on Steve, Sven, and Roberta's bigger, meaner cousins - and I hear tell of rumors of an alien fleet in an even bigger section of the galaxy a few parsecs over. I wonder if those Earth fellows have an Emperor position open?

Space Empires 4X

Pros: Faithfully 4X, disarmingly simple systems, lends itself to gushing over after too much coffee and a single play. More of a "story engine" than a lot of games that claim to be "storytelling" games. Entirely fun solo.

Cons: Setup requires flipping over all the system tokens before placing them on the map, which is a 5 minute task that I complain about because I'M ENTITLED TO. Moving counters isn't as sexy for some as moving plastic spaceships. Acronym "SE4X" can lead to giggling uncontrollably. Not sure I want to share with others.

Solo: Terrific, and that's just playing against the simple Doomsday AI bot. Can't wait to try against the alien fleet (which simulates another empire).

Amongst The Living: Haven't tried. I might, but I have other games for that, and right now I like this one for myself.

Long Dark Action Phase Verdict: If you like 4X, space, space ships, space monsters, space rocks, space planets, or meaty strategy with just enough randomness in map and die rolling to keep you off balance, then it's a no-brainer. 8/10.
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