Space Empires 4X
Designer: Jim Krohn
Artists: Rodger B. MacGowan, Mark Simonitch
Publisher: GMT Games
Year Published: 2011
Space Empires is a game in the finest tradition of 4X space games – eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. Each player builds up a space empire and uses it to conquer the other players. Exploration on the mounted map is simple for players (and dangerous for their ships), revealing different space terrain that affects movement and combat.
Space Empires was developed to keep a rich theme without overcomplicated rules. The game includes carriers and fighters, mines, cloaking, a very large technology tree, fifteen ship classes, merchant shipping, colonization, mining, terraforming, bases, shipyards, black holes, warp points, and non-player aliens. Yet the rules are short and intuitive: The basic rules are 8 pages long and increase to 11 pages in length when the advanced rules are included.
Being that 4X games are one of my two favorite genres of board games (the other being dungeon crawls), I inadvertently stumbled across Space Empires 4X when researching Eclipse. While I wasn’t quite moved to purchase it , I was nevertheless intrigued enough to set its name aside in my head until a time came along where I could afford to try it.
That time is now.
Space Empires 4x, the brain child Rodger MacGowan, is not a new game by any means. Having initially been released in 2011, it is now entering its 5th production run, which says a lot about its staying power if there is still enough demand to fuel additional printings. But in a world that is so seemingly saturated with space themed 4x games, what does Space Empires offer that is different from all of the rest?
The first and most obvious of such distinctions is the absence of miniatures and tiles.
You heard me. This is just a small 8.5 x 11 x 2 box filled to the brim with cardboard chits and tokens, paper sheets and a medium sized game board.
So those of you expecting plastic TI4-styled armadas at your beck and call , prepare yourself for the biggest disappointment if you have already pre-conditioned yourself to believe that 4x games cannot be played without minis.
And this aspect of game component sparsity was perhaps the biggest hurdle for me to overcome in deciding to purchase Space Empires. There is of course something that is wonderfully tactile about seeing your massive fleets on the board and allowing your opponents to marvel in fear at the sheer number of Battle Cruisers that are headed directly towards them.
Space Empires , in its simplicity, makes it very clear from the beginning that being able to see everything that is transpiring around your board game universe is not necessarily a strength. And it is only this very light of simplicity that it becomes evident that such grandiosity can actually be a hinderance to new ideas and mechanisms.
Because I myself do need to face the reality that despite having a different paint job, most of the 4x games in my collection are fundamentally similar to each other in many respects. From Twilight Imperium to Eclipse, and The Silver River to Uprising , they all behave very predictably. If you have played one, in a sense you have played them all, in a limited manner of speaking.
Space Empires bucks this trend and decides to play by its own rules rather than the pre established norm.
Now those of you expecting a full Space Opera with various player races and powers, again, prepare to be disappointed. There is no grand space lore to be had, just up to four identical factions duking it out the the death. There is no story other than the tales that will be told of your victory or defeat at the end of the gaming session.
The limitations of using miniatures becomes most evident in Space Empires use of fleet trackers. You will, of course, build ships to destroy, but no one will ever know what you are building, and in what quantity. Did you just build a new ship yard to facilitate construction of new, larger ships? Or did you somehow manage to secure enough resources to build 3 Cruisers to go harass the neighboring planetoids? Whenever you build something, you place a two sided ship group token (and you can make multiple groups of the same type of ships, too, since each type of ship has numerous markers for you to utilize) on the board (along with a hidden numerical marked designated 1-6) on the board. The side that is visible has a generic appearance virtually identical in appearance with other ships you have in play, making them indistinguishable from your other ship types, while the underside depicts what type of ship it actually is. Only going to battle will reveal what units you have , and at any time a player may look at their own group markers to see what you placed there, as chances are you are going to forget from time to time.
And there are an abundance of ship types, too…
You can build :
And perhaps a thing or two that I forgot. There is a lot!
Now some of those units are not recommended while learning the game, and for the first time ever I would suggest that new players use the basic rules rather than the advanced rules that utilize every unit possible. Usually, as in the case of Uprising : Curse of the Last Empire, I can jump straight into the full rules (We started with Nightmare mode for that game), but in the case of Space Empires , it is just so….different…that we opted to start with the simplified version first before diving into the more complex rules. And I wouldn’t do things differently if given a second chance, as it does take time to grasp the mechanics.
Now of course, over time players may advance their technologies to help assist in destroying their rivals, but this is done secretly whenever you reach an economic phase and have resources to spend. This sort of system demands personal accountability and a trustworthy group of players, as no one will be able to verify the legitimacy of your purchases since it is all done in incognito. You can upgrade movement speeds, defense, attack power, first strike capability, terraforming ability and more, sometimes multiple times to give yourself a strategic edge.
And this was another one of those intimidating aspects when first seeing the game. Seeing the dual sided paper player sheets initially made me feel like I was going to be playing some sort of version of Space Dungeons and Dragons, trying to be the first player to obtain a +3 Laser of Shield Phasing or some other such fantastical device to defeat a space lich or something.
Thankfully , the paper technology sheets work great, and are employed in an easy-to-use fashion ; it is supremely facile to note your income, upgrades, ship groups and more.
It should be noted that once you research a technology , not all of your ships have it. In fact , older ships are stuck with their old tech until they return to a shipyard to pay for an upgrade. New ships constructed will always be at the maximum tech levels you have researched, thankfully. Meaning sometimes it is advantageous to dispose of older ships in battle…
One area where Space Empires performs admirably is in its exploration phases. Owing to the smaller hex size , the game is consequently able to squeeze in more space real estate, with an otherwise unheard of number of places to explore. And while there may be an abundance of planets to colonize and resources floating around to gather, there is also no shortage of dangers that can instantly destroy your fleets if not careful (hint, utilize scouts!)
One thing that needs to be said is that there is virtually no diplomacy to be had in this game. Nor are there multiple races and abilities, everyone starts out with exactly the same capabilities, and starts on equal ground. The only thing that will separate the winners from losers will be the quality of decisions the players make, along with the occasional results of die rolls that determine the victors of combat.
The winner is the last player to retain their home world.
One thing that I do find amazing is how much this game reminds me of StarCraft! I feel like mining ships really evoke that feeling of using SCV / Drones / Probes to mine minerals and bringing them back to your base to claim as income. Just as viable in Space Empires as it is in StarCraft, it is nice to send ships of your own to disrupt enemy supply chains!
And Carriers being able to load squadrons of fighters strikes a nice sense of nostalgia, too.
Add to that a planet named “Arcturus” (Mensk?!) and you have a game that feels like it plays out like the classic video game!
There are many other details that I could go into, but in the interest of time , I need to spare those. Here are the finer points of strengths and weaknesses for this game.
—Firstly, the lack of miniatures allows for something that very few 4x games can achieve—unpredictability of opponents’ fleet compositions. While I have come across this feature from time to time (The Silver River), it does not present itself often enough.
—Huge territory to explore before conquering your foes.
—Each player has totally hidden technology upgrades until the decisive moment of battle!
—There are many setups included for multiple player counts.
—The game plays swiftly once you learn it , but should still take a minimum of 2 hours , even with just two players.
—Good player reference sheets make it easy to look up what you are capable of doing based on your current technology levels.
—The game encourages the loser to give up if they know they are losing, and doesn’t highlight the need to make them suffer if they know things are going poorly. A better use of time is to just declare a victor and play another game as a better use of time!
— I did tout the use of the cardboard tokens as a strength, but the use of this material did provide a drawback as well. They can be fiddly. Given that the hexes are not as big as in Twilight Imperium, Eclipse, etc, it makes for some very tight fits on the board once you start piling various ship groups on a single space, with them often spilling over onto another hex.
I would never , ever mark down a game for using cardboard materials over miniatures unless things somehow managed to affect gameplay. In this case, it should be noted that I do feel like a bigger board with larger hexes is needed to de clutter the game. Even though the game takes up a fair amount of space, it is by no means the worst I have encountered, and I do feel like a bigger board would really help get this game to the table more often for me, because it is a very good game. I just don’t like it when stacked pieces fall over and reveal the type and number of ships I have available to my enemies! Anything that can be done to minimize the occurrence of this should be considered in future printing in my humble opinion.
—Wow, that is a a lot of tokens…it can take a long time for each player to sort their ships and starting home systems during the game setup. Even with each player color separated into individual bags, be prepared to spend a good 10-15 minutes getting things in order if do want to know exactly where everything of yours is.
I had to come up with my own mnemonic to remember the labeling on some units. I would naturally expect a Carrier to be abbreviated to CA, and Cruiser to something like CR. Instead , the Cruisers are strangely shortened to CA and Carriers are CV.
Really? Consequently, whenever I see “CA” on my ship icons, I need to halt my desire to immediately assume it is a Carrier and instead say Cah—roo—zer to remember that it is not, in fact a Carrier…
—Why have color coded areas when so many of the game setup scenarios do not use them? There are four color coded areas that. Can be used in some 4 player games, but for the most part, the game setups will be such that a players’ pieces and setups may be well outside of their color designated zones. It almost makes sense to have everything remain a single colored battle grid.
—Great strategic depth, but if you like asymmetrical powers, races and abilities (and role playing!) , you may want to look elsewhere. This is a barebones fight to the death!
This is easily a great game that is only held back by a somewhat cluttered playing field during the peak of game battles.
Despite its use of meager cardboard pieces, it is not the fact that the material is “cheaper” that makes the game not quite as good as some others. It is only when things start spilling over that one begins to notice the “limitation”, which is not the fact that the pieces are cardboard, but rather , the game needs a little more space to play to its optimal potential and be viewed in the best possible way.
If you can somehow get over the pieces behind difficult to move (or peek at, when viewing your own ships), the game is fantastic, offering options that really are not available in ANY 4X game that I have played.
The game is very different from any others in my 4x collection. And as such, it is a keeper.
It may offer a relatively “simple” means of victory in being a combat-only focused type of play, but the ways in which you can pull that victory off through the choices you make in your purchases (and the subsequent use of these technologies) more than makes up for the seemingly shallow goal of “Destroy all!”.
Final Score : 7.5.
Will easily be an 8 + if I can somehow manage to print a bigger board…
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Jazz Paladin- Reviewer
Jazz Paladin is an eccentric at heart — When he is not learning to make exotic new foods at home, such as Queso Fresco cheese and Oaxacan molé, he is busy collecting vintage saxophones, harps, and other music-related paraphernalia. An avid music enthusiast, when he is not pining over the latest board games that are yet-to-be-released, his is probably hard at work making jazzy renditions of classic/retro video game music tunes as Jazz Paladin on Spotify and other digital music services.
i think I played the prototype of this with the designer years ago.