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Subject: An attempt at a balanced review by a fan of the game. rss

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David Debien
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Full disclosure: I love Space Empires 4x. However, I dislike reviews that heap piles of effusive praise on a game with no attempt to shine the light on some of the things that may turn off other gamers. I understand that SE4X is not for everyone and I think I have a pretty good grasp of what certain people do not like about it. This is an attempt to give a fair review of a game I love. So, chances are I will err on the side of the positive more than the negative.

First and foremost, Space Empires 4x is a war game. It has certainly bridged the gap and intrigued enough non-war gamers that a significant number of them have purchased and are playing and enjoying the game. Why is this? Well, for one, it’s a 4x game. 4x stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. There are a number of 4x games both in the computer game and board game arenas, Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise being the most recognizable by most gamers on both sides of that fence. Second, it’s set in outer space! The space genre is always a popular one. Third, the game’s designer, Jim Krohn, and publisher GMT Games have done such an amazing job in bringing the game to market that many people who may have dismissed it instead gave the game its deserving shot. Finally, for a war game, it is surprisingly intuitive and simplistic. The basic game rules are a scant 7.5 pages. The advanced rules are very easy to grok once the basic rules are understood and clock in at another 5.5 pages and 1.5 pages of optional rules are included for extra flavor, if desired.

Components
The box itself is quite sturdy and typical of GMT quality.

The game includes a large mounted board. There is nothing special about the board itself. It is functional. What else can you do with a star field? Nifty graphics on the board would simply be distracting. The board itself is of great quality and I have not heard of any warping issues. Occasionally, the hexes can be become crowded by all the counters a player will put into a larger fleet or a busy colony world.

The counters are typical war game fair. For your typical Euro gamer familiar with chunky wooden cubes or discs or ATer lusting after nice molded plastic components, this can be a turn off. For SE4X however, the counters are necessary due to the nature of the hidden information that drives the game. You could do it block game style, but the sheer number of blocks would make the game prohibitively expensive, not to mention requiring a much bigger box.

The game also includes 4 double sided player aids, printed on card stock and a pad of record sheets. The pad could have included more record sheets, but the file is available for download here on BGG and you can print out as many tracking sheets as desired.

The rule book is clear and concise. The online community here on BGG has helped to tweak the rules and a new official rulebook is available for download which clears up some questions early players had with the rules. The reprint of the game, due soon, should include the updated rulebook. Also included is a scenario booklet with guidelines for quite a few different 2 player face-offs, as well as varied multi-player and solo scenarios.

Finally, the game includes 4 beautiful high quality 10 sided dice. In the past, the dice I have received from GMT have been less than stellar and this is one area that was a pleasant surprise upon opening the box.

Fiddliness

Ok, this is one of my few complaints. The game is VERY fiddly. In the mid to late game, you and your opponents will have counters all over the board. Some of the busier hexes themselves will become overly crowded with counter stacks and it can become difficult not to reveal hidden information in your stacks as you move them around. At the same time, you will lose track of what is what and need to frequently check under the stacks for verification. This is risky as each time you do this, you run the risk of giving your opponents information. I hate to lodge a complaint without offering a solution, but there isn’t much to be done about it. Some have suggested fleet flags, allowing players to keep their larger groups off the board (a la Shogun/Samurai Swords/Ikusa). For the most part, it’s a necessary evil.

Gameplay

Each game turn is separated into a movement round and an economic round.
The movement round involves each player, on her turn, getting 3 successive phases of movement, combat and exploration. Very straight forward, you move all your units, up to their movement capacity, resolve any battle that may arise from moving into a hex with enemy units, then flip any face down environment counters you have moved into and resolving those. Keeping track of what you have already moved so that you do not move stacks twice is about the most difficult part in this phase. I typically work by moving one ship type at a time, working from left to right each time. Once you have done all three of the above, play continues with the next player in order until everyone has done the full move, combat, exploration three times.

Battle is very straightforward as well. Each ship has an attack phase (lettered a-e) with lower lettered ships going first, an attack value which indicates that number or less to hit on a d10, a defensive value used to modify an attackers roll to hit and a hull size which indicates the number of hits a ship can take. Combat goes back and forth until one side is eliminated or retreats. Most combats take less than 2 minutes to complete but can be very tense and exciting despite the simple nature of the fighting (every die roll counts!).

The economic round involves adding up the minerals you received during the previous movement rounds via worlds, merchant ships and resources. Then you spend them on ship maintenance (not only thematic but a built in catch up feature here), bids for turn order, new technologies, ships, bases and ship yards. This does require some record keeping and the game comes with 2 sided tracking sheets for this purpose. Each player receives one of these sheets and uses it to keep track of their economy, technology levels and fleet status. This can be a definite turn off for some players and requires very basic arithmetic skills (adding and subtracting 2 digit numbers). If you do not think you will enjoy having to spend several minutes per game turn keeping track of your economy and the status of purchased ships and fleets, this is a definite aspect you will want to consider before purchasing the game. Frankly, I think it is fantastic, as I get a memento of every game I have ever played. At game end, I typically note the date, win/loss and opponent(s) on the sheet for posterity.

As this is a 4X game, I thought I should break down the gameplay analysis into each of the X’s:

Explore - Ah, the Siren’s call of the unknown. Who hasn’t been tempted by this? At the start of the game, almost all information is hidden. About all you do know is where your enemy home worlds are. All of the space around your home world beckons, promising the vast riches of space, new worlds to explore and exploit and dangers to overcome.

Expand - Once you have explored a few habitable worlds, it’s time to get your colony ships out to them pronto and build them up in order to add to your economy as well as provide forward bases and ship yards for your burgeoning navy. You start play with 3 colony ships, but you will soon have more than 3 habitable worlds available for settling. This is when you are faced with an early game choice: do you continue to push out more colony ships to build your economy, sacrificing early military and technology in favor of a larger economy later or do you rush your opponent with what you can build now?

Exploit - There are minerals everywhere. These require mining ships to go out and tow them back to your worlds. You also stand a chance of finding even greater rewards in the highly dangerous Far Space hexes, but be warned, the cost in lost ships may outweigh any potential gain! Once you have colonized a sufficient number of worlds, you will begin to exploit their resources and add to your growing economy. All of these resources will add to your mineral pool, used for building and upgrading ships and discovering new technologies.

Exterminate - No way around this one. The goal of the game is kill or be killed. To win the game, you must destroy your enemy’s Home World. In multi-player games, the first person to destroy a Home World is the winner. This can lead to some interesting dynamics as you can launch an all-out attack on an enemy and as long as you succeed before another enemy makes it to your Home World, you do not have to worry about the repercussions of leaving your space relatively undefended.

Paper-Rock-Scissors

Hidden information is at the heart of the game. You never know what your opponent is up to until you have a battle with her forces. Even then, anything she has been up to since the creation of the forces involved in the battle is still a mystery.

There is a basic path of tech leading from smaller to larger and larger ship types; Scouts, destroyers, cruisers, battle cruisers, battle ships and eventually dreadnaughts. You can also improve upon the basic attack, defense, movement speed and initiative (called tactics) these units come with. The larger the ship, the more of these upgrades they can take.

In addition to this, are the advanced technologies: carriers, point defense, cloaking, scanning, mines, minesweeping, and exploration. With the exception of exploration technology, which is used to look into an unexplored hex before moving into it, all of these techs are the aspects of an elaborate paper-rock-scissors game. Each tech has a counter, but which tech is your opponent developing? Sometimes, developing a counter after the primary tech has been revealed will be too late while having the right counter in the initial battle can be devastating to your enemy. Of course, if you guess wrong, then you have lost precious time and resources. There are complementary technologies as well: carriers are especially vulnerable to mines, so it is a good idea to group minesweepers with your carriers. However, if in the early game you wait until you have both technologies before moving out for that early attack on the enemy, you may lose the initiative and find yourself on the defensive, typically a bad thing in this game as a single carrier cannot defend multiple worlds from attack. So, your early carrier is likely to go it alone.

Solo Play

There are two modes of solo play: you can either face off against 3 successively harder Doomsday Machines, think planet eating Borg cubes, or you can fight Alien Players run by a type of spreadsheet formula. I think the Doomsday Machines scenarios are perfect for learning the game, but do not add a lot in the way of replay value. Once you have beaten them a time or two on the harder setting, you will pretty much be able to repeat the process in a future replay with little to no variation, aside from the luck of the dice. The Alien Players scenarios are intriguing but the running of the Alien worlds themselves is a little beyond the amount of difficulty I want to put into a Solo play. Others have played them and they seem satisfying enough and provide the amount of variation necessary for multiple plays.

Number of Players and Time to Play

Here we get to one of the largest debates surrounding SE4X. How long does it take to play? And does it support multi-play well? My favorite way to play SE4X is 1v1. I have been able to play several small scenario 1v1 games in the advertised play time of less than 2 hours. Others have not had the same experience. If you have two cautious or inexperienced players, then the game can certainly drag on. Also, the game can take a lot longer if the players are learning the game.

In my experience, one player will seize the initiative and either her attack will succeed and slowly grind her opponent down until extermination or capitulation or the defender will be victorious in the initial push and turn the tables on his opponent and likewise grind her down. I have not seen this back and forth happen more than twice in a 2 player game.

In 3 and 4 player games, however, several issues rear their ugly heads. First and foremost, 3 or 4 players all jockeying for position can make for a long game in which everyone turtles, looking for a quick kill that does not expose them to attack. Such opportunities will come few and far between. Also, players who attack after two other players have gone at each other will have a decided advantage and this is not strictly fair. Team games, 2v2 and 2v1 with the one getting a boost in economy and tech, are viable fixes for this and are included in the scenario booklet. Also, there are the alternate win conditions brought forth on this site by game designer Jim Krohn and others.

Suffice it to say, others have reported 8+ hour multi-player games with no resolution. This can be a huge detractor. I have only played multi-player games when teaching the game with no intention of finishing. After all, teaching 3 people at once is a great plus. I may try a multi-player game using the new alternate victory point conditions. In my opinion, this changes the game entirely, removing the fourth crucial X in SE4X. Having not tried the alternate victory conditions at this time, I have nothing more to add on this subject.

Lack of Asymmetry

Players of the game have cried: where are the racial abilities? At game start, all players are created equal. I like this, but a reasonably large portion of the SE4X playing public have expressed a burning desire for asymmetric starting powers/races. I think this is a bad idea as it takes choices away from the player. By the time two players meet in combat, they will be asymmetric. This asymmetry will come in the form of choices the players themselves made in developing their individual technology paths. With starting asymmetry assigned to a player by a racial bonus, some of those decisions are taken away from the gamer and assigned by the game instead. My point aside, I can see the appeal in different starting races. After all, it is very thematic and could add some additional flavor to the game. No real harm in adding this as an optional rule in a future expansion, which I understand is in the works. In fact, Jim Krohn has promised that the asymmetric powers he has planned will be separate from the tech tree and will supplement and not detract from it. That is something I can definitely get behind and I very much look forward to what he has in mind.

Replay Value

The replay value is enormous. The relatively large tech tree as well random map setup and different scenarios will keep this game fresh for the same two opponents over many games. Add to this, fresh opponents from time to time, the multi-player aspect and promised expansions and you have a game I intend to enjoy for many years and likely hundreds of plays.

Conclusion

SE4X is a great way for non-war-gamers to get their feet wet in the war-gaming field. That is not to say that experienced war-gamers would find it too simple. The rules are easy to teach and learn. The theme is great and the game play is tense and exciting. Granted, it can be a little clunky and the record keeping necessity can be an issue for some players. Long play times in multi-player games and games between new players can be excessive. Players familiar with similar games will miss the lack of starting asymmetry. One on one play is where the game shines, but multi-player is more than a possibility and can be great for the right group willing to invest the time to make it work for them.

My score - 9/10 for 1v1 and 7.5/10 for multi-play.
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Darrell Hanning
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Good review. I share your concerns about starting players with race-specific (i.e., asymmetrical) abilities, but as long as the designer does stay "out of the (tech) tree", it can be pulled off.

It would be nice, though, if there were more than two different kinds of planets, so each type could be more suitable to one race than the others. In parallel with that, I'd like to see more granularity to the terraforming technology.
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Chris Wilcoxon
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Nice write up
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Michael Matecha
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Great review, thanks! thumbsup
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Tom
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Fallow wrote:
Great review, thanks! thumbsup

Well done, and it is nice to see a critical review that shows the positive and negatives of a game.
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Ron Lacock
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Nice review. I've also become a fan of the game and the support it receives from Jim here on the forums.
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Andy Andersen
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johnnyspys wrote:
Fallow wrote:
Great review, thanks! thumbsup

Well done, and it is nice to see a critical review that shows the positive and negatives of a game.


Agreed wholeheartedly. Both positives and negatives for balance. Nice job.
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Henry Rodriguez
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Well written review. I wholeheartedly agree that one's development of tech creates most of the asymmetry one needs. But it is the unknown quality of this asymmetry that makes this game stand out. Hidden tech is a great idea.

What it does need more of, which would increase asymmetry, is different objectives for winning the game. That would greatly increase my desire for this game.
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Ocean Druen
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Great review thanks!

I agree with your point on racial powers. I like the fact that you are "developing" your race in your early choices.
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Michael Sosa
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It needs scenarios, because even the two player game is a long affair with not much good decision making involved. I think I would like to skip the entire exploration phase and create some sort of random setup several turns into the game. You do lose the opportunity for the early aggression but that's bound to fail anyway. And the objective of totally defeating your opponent, or forcing him to resign at some point, is just too long most of the time. It needs objectives and some sort of clock.

The designer's multiplayer objectives of capturing colonies in deep space is one I haven't tried yet.

I do think there is a good game in there but I traded it away after two games (4p and 2p respectively) when I realized how many hours it took and the amount of meaningful decisions I made. I just don't like Scifi enough to put up with that. For now Race for the Galaxy will continue to be my favorite space theme game.
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David Debien
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Belisarius88 wrote:
It needs scenarios, because even the two player game is a long affair with not much good decision making involved. I think I would like to skip the entire exploration phase and create some sort of random setup several turns into the game. You do lose the opportunity for the early aggression but that's bound to fail anyway. And the objective of totally defeating your opponent, or forcing him to resign at some point, is just too long most of the time. It needs objectives and some sort of clock.

The designer's multiplayer objectives of capturing colonies in deep space is one I haven't tried yet.

I do think there is a good game in there but I traded it away after two games (4p and 2p respectively) when I realized how many hours it took and the amount of meaningful decisions I made. I just don't like Scifi enough to put up with that. For now Race for the Galaxy will continue to be my favorite space theme game.


While I have made up my own mind about many games after 1 or 2 plays, I am not sure your experiences with play time is accurate. As I stated in my review, between new players, the play time can be excessive, but between two players familiar with the rules, the game can be played out in 10-15 turns, which can easily clock in at under two hours. I expressed concerns in regards to the play time in multi player games myself and continue to have misgivings in that regard.

However, regarding the lack of decisions, I completely disagree. As tactical as this game is, the sheer number of choices of when and where to attack and/or defend, how to split your defenses, which techs to take, when to start building your forces, etc all add up to a mountain of choices that can reduce the AP prone player into a bowl of jelly.

Edit: Did not want to come off as overly defensive. I welcome and appreciate all responses, postive and negative, but reserve the right to a rebuttal. sauron

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Jim Krohn
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I'm obviously biased, but I also was surprised by the above comment about decisions. The game is swimming in them.
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Michael Sosa
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The game is swimming with mostly minor decisions. You can hardly go wrong with any of your early choices, aside from obvious blunders like building more colony ships than you have planets to colonize. Later when you discover your enemy the number of meaningful decisions increases but for the amount of time spent playing it just did not hold my interest. With that said, 3/4 friends liked the game, so clearly I'm in the minority!
 
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Jim F
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Where the heck did this interest in WW1 come from?
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Thoughtful, informative and well-considered review. Exactly how l like 'em. Thank you.
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Alfonso Velasco
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The fiddliness can be reduce is you write the shpi number in your chart,not using counters
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Chester
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Donegal wrote:
The fiddliness can be reduce is you write the shpi number in your chart,not using counters

After the first game, this is what we did. Now the shortage of 1/2 counters is irrelevant. We only add the counters during combat.
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Guido Gloor
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Donegal wrote:
The fiddliness can be reduce is you write the shpi number in your chart,not using counters

We've got a game coming up this Sunday, I'll propose that we do this

Edit: We did use this technique, and it worked a treat. Lovely, not having to fiddle with number counters all the time really improved the game for us.
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