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Subject: GMT's Foray Into Space 4X Games rss

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Jesse Dean
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Personal Background
I’ve been playing 4X games for over ten years. Granted, I’ve mostly been playing them in video game form, with Civilization taking up the vast bulk of my 4X time, but I believe that my familiarity with the various iterations of Civilization, and my forays into other games in the genre, have given me a pretty good idea of what these sorts of games should be like. Unfortunately, most of the board game 4X-style games have been utter disappointments. Sid Meier’s Civilization the Boardgame and Runewars were interesting during the “figuring it out” phase, but not long after that. Twilight Imperium’s extended play time and seeming need for a large number of players kept me away. And hybrid 4x-euro games ended up not being that interesting.


When I first heard of Space Empires 4X I decided I probably was not going to pre-order it. The main thing that turned me off was the information about how you would track techs using a pen and paper, which seemed hopelessly archaic compared to the use of cards or tiles. As I played and grew disappointed with Runewars and SM’s Civilization: TBG I began to wonder if I was ever going to find a 4X board game that fulfilled my expectations. However, playing them also caused me to grow disenchanted with Fantasy Flight’s billons o’cards model, and Space Empires 4X’s paper and pen no longer seemed problematic for me. As the rulebook and scenario books started to become publically available, I started gaming with some people who liked the 4X genre, and I enjoyed the delight that is Ascending Empires, I started to reconsider my previous decision to skip Space Empires 4X, and ended up putting in my pre-order in June.


My copy arrived on Thursday, and I’ve gotten three plays of the game since then (on two-player, two four-player). So this review is not based on extensive play experience. I think that is reasonable for a game like Space Empires 4X, though as its basic structure is simple enough that it seems like you should be able to get a good idea of whether it is a game to your tastes after a few plays.


The Components
The components are fairly high quality, though I did find a few bits that bothered me. The board is especially impressive, and is both sturdy and attractive. The different ship types also have different illustrations, which I consider a big plus as it pushes the thematic feel of the different empires as distinct even if they are mechanically identical.



The main thing I disliked was the chits. The last few chit-based games I got from GMT, Dominant Species, Labyrinth, and Twilight Struggle, all had easy to punch chits that came out easily and neatly. Space Empire 4X's chits were more annoying to punch out and were left with various stray bits of cardboard attached to the edges of the chits. This was a bit of a disappointment, and I wish GMT had put out for better chits considering the large number of pre-orders for this title.



The player aids are well designed and laid out and serve as excellent references during play. While I was initially skeptical about the idea of using pads and pen to keep track of tech and purchases it no longer bothers me and I am pretty satisfied with its usability in play.

As a red-green colorblind player I did not have too much difficulty in telling the red and green colored chits apart, but I wish that they would have placed them on opposite sides of the board rather than adjacent, so as to reduce the odds that any need to tell them apart ever came up.

Playing the Game
The general structure of the game is centered on a series of three movement/combat phases followed by one economic phase. The movement phases are mostly focused on the typical things you would expect in a 4X game: exploration, establishing infrastructure, and combat. By having three of them for every one economic round it makes sure the game focused on the combat and exploration aspect of the game rather than being overwhelmed by the economics phases.



The economics phases are played simultaneously by different players, which is just as well because there is nothing you can do to affect other players during this phase. Units and techs are bought secretly for the most part, though as a courtesy we went ahead and announced where we had built units and what kind they were, if they were open information units, so as to save time. This part of the game is mainly about balancing between technology progression, which either unlocks new capabilities or makes exiting units better and actually purchasing units to increase your economic output or threaten the capabilities of your opponent. On top of that, many units have maintenance costs, and so if you build up fleets that are large it can stifle your ability to research new technology or build additional units. In my games so far I have found that most of my early purchases have focused on economic establishment with combat units purchased only if I suspect an opponent is about to attack me or if I am ready to seriously start threatening an opponent. Sometimes I’ve gone a round or two without units because I considered the threat of an attack low, but this only works in the early game. Once first contact has been made, this level of weakness merely invited attack.

Combat is pretty straightforward, but with enough variables at play to allow for a lot of strategic depth. Most units have four bits of pertinent information: attack rating, defense rating, hull size, and speed. Units attack in order of speed, with Tactics technology being the first tie breaker and being the defender as the second. Attacks are resolved by subtracting the defense of the target unit from the attack rating of the attacker; equal to or less than the resulting number must be rolled on a d10 to hit. Various technologies modify these attack and defense ratings, with bigger ships better able to take advantage of attack and defense technology. A particular unit can take a number of hits equal to its hull size. Variations in these values are the main things that differentiate the six basic units in the game, while the advanced game ships have various fun special abilities in addition to their basic unit capabilities. I understand why the designed and publisher divided up the advanced and basic game units up, with a suggestion that you play the basic game first, but we haven’t bothered to do so thus far and all of the people have not had problems picking up on the advanced units and using them effectively. In one game a player even use almost entirely a combination of advanced units to win the game, though I suspect that particular mix would have been less useful if the player she was facing had built his defenses better.

This combination of different ship styles and stats helps to make it so fleet composition is an important part of the game. In addition to having various costs and maintenance values, certain technologies can only be used by particular varieties of the smaller ships, and the more advanced attack and defense technologies can only be used by larger ships. Having a large fleet enables more strategic advantages, such as giving you a bonus to attack vs. smaller fleets, and allowing you to screen damaged units, making it much more difficult your opponent to finish off a big, expensive, damaged unit. This means that, even with the sheer power that larger fleets bring to the table, it will frequently make sense to build fleets with a variety of ship types rather than simply building a fleet made up of nothing but Dreadnaughts, though that is fun too. Technology progression and cost also effects the composition of your fleet both between games and during an individual game. In my first game I ended up having a fleet that was a mixture of cruisers, carriers, and fighters that worked pretty well in the mid-point of the game, but once my opponent encountered them and started researching techs and building units to take advantage of my fleet’s weaknesses things took a turn for the worse.

Units are hidden until they fight and technologies are hidden until they are used for the first time, so there ends up being a clever cat and mouse effect where one player will research a particular offensive technology but wait to use it until just the right time in order to maximize its effectiveness. Taking advantage of a particular technological advantage at the wrong time will allow your opponent to effectively take advantage of this information, usually by researching an appropriate counter technology, but also by changing their overall play to react to your implied plans. I can foresee situations where this will result in a game of cat and mouse that extends across multiple plays, with an individual player leading the other(s) to believe that they will, of course, research the same technology again and then throw them for a loop when they do something different or even to research the tech and include a small group of the units associated with that tech in order to convince them you might heavily rely on that type while going in a different direction instead. I generally do not like games with hidden trackable information, so I appreciate that once units are revealed they stay revealed until it is reasonable for them to be no longer trackable.



The system tokens that start face down at the beginning of the game can be flipped over to reveal a mixture of one-off bonuses and dangers (Lost in Space and Danger representing the latter and Minerals and Space Wreck the former) and more permanent terrain features. Planets are almost certainly the most important of these, as they provide additional income from colonies and potential bases to project force as you can only build shipyards, and thus ships, at colonies. Probably the most useful planets are the ones that exist in the “Deep Space” area between each player’s home system regions. These planets have even more power projection potential but also more danger, as it is usually a long way between them and your home system colonies and are thus more vulnerable to enemy attack fleet. They also have fairly large angry alien fleets attached to them, which can make capturing them a tricky composition and are always Barren, which means you need to research Terraforming to be able to settle them. Nebulae and asteroids are also important as they negate the advantage of certain technologies while increasing the values of others and restrict movement capabilities. Black holes do not restrict movement but have a reasonable chance of destroying any ship that moves into them and super novas simply are impassible terrain. “Deep Space” is especially dangerous as, over a quarter of the markers are ones that instantly kill fleets who move into them, and there are plenty of others that will be likely to result in an exploring ships demise. So it is usually for the best to either send out lone scouts that you are okay with having destroyed or researching exploration technology so you can keep your fleets alive.

Due to the seeded randomness of board placement there is a chance that one player might have a slightly better set-up then others based on these terrain features, particularly if lots of planets are close to one’s start world or someone gets lucky and finds an easy to acquire space wreck. This does not particularly bother me though, as I doubt that any one item, beyond a space wreck, would be enough to push the game in to a particular player’s hands and space wrecks should be an item that is fought viciously for, and even if they are not there are also enough other factors involved in a victory that getting a space wreck is no guarantee of winning.

Many of the limitations of particular terrain elements can be mitigated by a particular clever element of the game: Merchant Ship Pipelines. Representing trade networks, these increase the movement rate of ships that spend all of their turn moving along them while also increasing the overall productiveness of your empire. Additionally, they let you ignore the movement restrictions of nebulae and asteroids and, if it survives its entrance, can even allow ships to move through black holes without risk, allowing them to be turned into strong defensive points. Because of these advantages they also make excellent targets for harassing fleets as, while they are cheap, they take a while to set up, and eliminating them can restrict your opponent’s ability to respond to offenses at other targets. While eliminating enemy colonies is even more helpful, destroying their pipelines is easier.

Concerns and Dislikes
In the game’s basic configuration, ships only get the technologies that they are built with, and in order to get news one you have to return them to a shipyard for an upgrade. While I appreciate the realism inherent in this particular selection, I think it was ultimately a mistake to use this as a basic rule rather than optional or advanced game rule. Using this rule greatly increases the micromanagement that is inherent in the game and the chance that someone will make an honest tracking mistake, and I suspect that if individuals who are disposed to like 4X games get an initial negative impression that this will be the most likely source. It seems that the designers and publishers were aware of some potential problem with this rule, as they included an Instant Upgrade option, in the Optional Rules section, but I think the placement of these items was incorrect. The Instant Upgrade should be the default. I am sure there were balance concerns that went into this choice, and I have noticed in play that early research tends towards unlocking new options while enhancement tends to happen after engagement starts, but I don’t think the balance shifts are significant enough to make the micromanagement involved worthwhile, and I suspect lots of newer players will end up agreeing.



The games so far have taken a long time. After rules explanation, the two player game continued for three hours without conclusion, and both of my four player games lasted about four hours. While on one hand I suspect that play time will go down as players because more familiar with the material and are able to play early exploration rounds simultaneously, on the other I could also see play time going up as players are more effectively able to identify and counter potential threats to their homeworld, thus causing the game to last longer than the 10 or 11 economics rounds I’ve seen so far. That being said, I’ve never really felt like the game has dragged and I’ve enjoyed the strategy and overall interactions enough that I probably would have been fine even if it extended to five or six hours. However, considering the advertised time is 2-4 hours, I am a little disappointed that it looks like most games are going to be around 4 hours, rather than them really hitting the entirety of the range.

Multi-player does seem subject to the typical problem of multi-player conflict games in that you could very easily have a situation where one player attacks, causes enough mischief to damage their targets position, but ultimately fails to take them down, allowing for a second player to come in and eliminate them. How much this is a problem depends a lot on how canny the players are, but it is there and is something to consider.

Conclusion

There are a lot of interesting things going on in the game, and in many ways it is the best 4X board game I’ve played to this point. After my disappointments with previous 4X board games, this is a breath of fresh air, an enjoyable 4X game that looks like it can reasonably played in an evening by experienced players. It also is one of the best new games I’ve played in the year, and will certainly be in the running for my 2011 Game of the Year come year’s end, though I hesitate to call it that until I compare it more fully to other games that have yet to be released. I still don’t think it’s possible to make a Civilization (the video game) style board game I will be happy with though.

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Athos
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This is a great (and thorough) review. This game is looking better and better to me...
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Lee Fisher
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Quote:
The main thing I disliked was the chits. The last few chit-based games I got from GMT, Dominant Species, Labyrinth, and Twilight Struggle, all had easy to punch chits that came out easily and were left with various stray bits of cardboard attached to the edges of the chits. This was a bit of a disappointment, and I wish GMT had put out for better chits considering the large number of pre-orders for this title.


Was there a word or thought missing there? I couldn't tell if SE had the same counters as the previous ones or not.
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Jesse Dean
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Yes. I fixed it.
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Lee Fisher
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doubtofbuddha wrote:
Yes. I fixed it.


Ahh thanks!

I am surprised that they did the chits differently.

Anyway, great review, can't wait for mine to arrive.
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Great in depth review. Thanks for sharing!
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Chris Larkin
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Great review thanks!

I pre-ordered mine well before June though, and mine has yet to ship cry
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Jim Krohn
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You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
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Excellent review. Thanks for posting.

There was legitimate talk about reversing the placement of the two technology rules - instant upgrade verses tracking. Since the game was originally geared toward more experienced wargamers we went with the current set up. In retrospect, had we known how popular the game would be in the broader community, we might have reversed the placement, although I would always recommend using the current tech rule in a tournament. It does not affect the balance, but it does affect the strategy. It always felt cheesy to me to research and build a fleet of large ships and then research the attack and defense technology while it was on the way to kill someone.

I do find it interesting that you had no problem jumping right into the advanced rules, but thought the tech tracking should have been an optional rule. I'm still learning things as a designer and this is something that I will have to think about some more.

Play time should come down significantly for you over time for two reasons -

1. Familiarity - though the rules are simple and the game is easy, there is a lot to absorb strategy wise and I find new players move much more slowly simply because they are thinking things through.

2. Skill - as your skill in the game increases, you will find that the proper strategy is *almost* always the more aggressive. Unless you are playing a four player game of last man standing, you should hit the play time. Until then, play some two player games on a smaller map. Those usually only last an hour to an hour and a half for me. For your group, it will probably be more like 2 hours in the near term.

I'm glad to hear that the game does not drag for you. I have been told that time flies while playing the game, but my playtest group is a small sample size. It's great to hear your report!
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Jim Krohn
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You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
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Quote:
I am surprised that they did the chits differently.


These are standard wargame chits so, while different from some of the games you mentioned, they are not uncommon for GMT.

We were pleasantly surprised at how much traction the game had in the broader community. While we had always talked about the possibility of a mounted map, the idea of deluxe counters didn't even occur to us. That is on us for not anticipating the demand.
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Jesse Dean
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The advanced rules really do not add that much micromanagement or complexity, but do add a lot of depth. Aliens on planets are not really that much different from fighting other people's fleets, but they do add additional strategic consideration for settling and exploring. Similarly the raiders, fighters/carriers, and mines each add a few more rules but they don't add the additional overhead to the entire game that the Tech Upgrade rules do.

That being said, I could see using the non-Instant Tech Upgrade rules with experienced players or in tournament settings for the reasons noted. Once players are experienced with the game they might like the additional layer of realism and strategic complexity that they allow, even at the cost of micromanagement. During the learning stages of the game, and even later, it just does not seem worth the hassle and potential for mistakes.

I hope you are correct about the time. I expect that this will rapidly be a two-player game of choice for at least one of my opponents, to the point where he will be a lot more interested in doing some two-player gaming. Being able to finish a small map game in 90 minutes means that we have more of an opportunity to play it twice, or to try out some of the giant maps and still finish in an evening.
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Chris Berger
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Jim Krohn wrote:
There was legitimate talk about reversing the placement of the two technology rules - instant upgrade verses tracking.


IMHO, the problem with using the current tech rules as an optional rule is complexity - the tech rules are written into the current rules and referenced in a number of places. The fleet tracking sheets have spaces for tech levels... If instant tech upgrades was standard, then you have to strip all that stuff out and you're left with a monster for the "optional" rule.

What might have maybe(?) been a better option was just stating somewhere early in the manual that for the "simple game" you should use instant tech upgrades.
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Jesse Dean
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I don't see any problem with including all the stuff as is and having it as the optional rule. You are just providing support for this optional rule just as you do for all the other ones.
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Bob
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Great review!
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Jim Krohn wrote:
Quote:
I am surprised that they did the chits differently.


These are standard wargame chits so, while different from some of the games you mentioned, they are not uncommon for GMT.

We were pleasantly surprised at how much traction the game had in the broader community. While we had always talked about the possibility of a mounted map, the idea of deluxe counters didn't even occur to us. That is on us for not anticipating the demand.


Upgrade kit
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rhoubhe wrote:
Jim Krohn wrote:
Quote:
I am surprised that they did the chits differently.



We were pleasantly surprised at how much traction the game had in the broader community. While we had always talked about the possibility of a mounted map, the idea of deluxe counters didn't even occur to us. That is on us for not anticipating the demand.


Upgrade kit


Just take my dam money already!!!!!
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Matthew Totonchy
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Great review as always Jesse. I look forward to getting my copy.
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Steve Herron
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Do you know how well the solitaire side of the game works? An excellent job on the review.
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Philippe Bruneau
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Great review, thanks !
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Chris Wilcoxon
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sherron wrote:
Do you know how well the solitaire side of the game works? An excellent job on the review.


If you haven't seen this thread yet, go now... now!
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Jesse Dean
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No offense to Jim, who I am sure put a lot of work into making a working solo game, but if I am going to play a solo 4X game, I am most likely going to play a computer game.
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Bill Foley
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That's exactly what made this a must purchase for me. I'm not really into computer games, but I will be playing solo most of the time.
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Your review makes me feel better about my pre-order. I preordered months before you did, so I'm wondering where my copy is. Did they send you an email confirmation with tracking info?
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Jesse Dean
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No, it just showed up on my door. I always have it shipped USPS Priority though, and it tends to show up 2 or 3 days after the stamp says they shipped it. I did it UPS once and it took well over a week. Not going to make that mistake again!
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Since there are 1558 preorders, IF you could assume the crew at GMT could assemble and label a game in 3 minutes, that's 20 games per hour. And IF you assumed they did nothing else in a 7 1/2 our work day, that would mean it would take at least 10 business days to get just the preorders shipped but since they probably are doing other stuff like shipping other orders and running their company, two weeks doesn't seem an inconceivable time to get the games out.

Be patient. The hexes are light years across...

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David Debien
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I also found the chits to be a bit of a pain and one of my deep space "10 mineral" chits has a green border on it's flip side, making it easily identifyable.
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