Saturday, April 27, 2013

Space Empires III

Space Empires III is one of the best games ever.  It's too good for the technology that it was written for (Windows 95 people!) and I don't think I have even managed to find another game yet that did what that game does so well.  Asynchronous turn based multiplayer space 4x.
Your window into awesomeness.
Space Empires 3 looks simple, and sure it has simple graphics and sound. The menus are not fancy or animated or all tool tippy. The AI isn't brilliant.  But what SE3 does have is it is the best damn computer assisted space board-game you can play with your friends over email.  Oh I'm sure someone out there has made more complex games or more realistic games, and even the folks that made SE3 went on to make bigger prettier versions of the same game (SE4 and SE5)- but here's the thing SE3 got it right.  It has enough depth to keep things interesting but not so much that you need to study a couple books or log a million hours to play.  There is also a surprising amount of power in the way it organizes the game information for you.  All your ships, all your planets, all the orders you have issued are all there to be examined.  I tried other games and this is the break point for me - they get too hard to manage, their menu systems are too obtuse to navigate.  Space Empires IV might have been a better game but I could never get past the UI to find out.  Space Empires III is sleek and efficient.

The other thing that makes this game so good is the strategic combat and the combat simulator.  Don't even bother to play this game using the tactical combat system in single player mode because that's not where it shines.  Where SE3 works is building and testing your fleets and then sending them off with operating instructions to fend for themselves.  It's an wonderful feeling to get a notice that your fleet has trounced another fleet in some far sector of space.  It's a dreadful feeling to get news that your fleet has been expunged from existence.  There is more than just the combat. There is a decent research tree to juggle. You get mad benefits from managing your population properly. You can pump resources into espionage, and you can do well by being a good diplomat and skimming points from trade agreements.  You can win on points or by taking out all the other players.  And the best part is that you feel like a real emperor doing it all at arms length and waiting for your next turn to see what has transpired.

I've thought about how I'd make a 4x game quite a lot and I believe that it would fall pretty much in line with what SE3 accomplishes.  I might add some spokes to the tech tree for that rock paper scissors effect. I'd probably want to increase trade and tribute so that you could move units.  I might even add in some mining or resource collection.  But I have to say all this was attempted in SE4 and it didn't make the game work for me.  My one big wish I guess would be to add in simultaneous turn resolution and some method of having ships/fleets resolve combat at slight distances to compensate for this.  I can see it now, programming your ships to engage if anyone flies within strike range, or having them programmed to flee and conserving some of your movement for these eventualities.  However until the day that I see that, I'll be pretty happy with this electronic board game I think.

I meant to write a post about SE3 for a while now, in fact I started writing this one and ended up kicking off a new play by mail game of SE3 instead.