Impaled by the Sword of the Stars

I'm still operating on a college student's game budget and, daunted by this rather poor job market, generally bad at improving this situation.  However, over the past month, some rays of sunshine have entered this bleak picture. The latest being being Sword of the Stars, which I picked up a complete edition of for $7 three weeks ago and have been happily playing since.

Sword of the Stars, a 4X space empire game, is in ways both old news and new news.
  • The game was initially released in 2006, but has received three expansions.  
  • The first expansion, Born in Blood, was released in 2007.   
  • The second expansion, A Murder Of Crows, was released in 2008.  
  • A third expansion, the Argos Naval Yard, was released in 2009. 
  • A complete edition, that includes all the expansions and some additional bug fixes, was released in 2010.
  • A sequel, Sword of the Stars 2, is due around the end of this year.
If you were to buy the "complete" edition, released in 2010 and all-inclusive of all expansions and patches, you can simply enjoy the spoils of four years of refinement.

What's so interesting about a silly old sword, starred or otherwise?

I think the main thing that makes Sword of the Stars so interesting to me is that they've streamlined out a lot of the boring monotony of space empire 4X while simultaneously adding some tantalizing organic details.

"Streamlining" in games can be a problem if it eliminates the right kind of depth, but a good move when it rids of the wrong.  Space empire game economies often mire the player down in excessive detail.  In Sword of the Stars, maintaining your economy is simply a matter of setting a slider between how much of your leftover money goes to savings (primarily spent on buying ships) versus research (which goes to unlocking technology categories). 

You micromanage further by adjusting individual planetary sliders but, for the most part, this is wholly unnecessary.  The only micromanagement you really need to worry about in Sword of the Stars is designing your ships (from an easy selection of three sections and weapon layouts) and purchasing them.

The "tantalizing organic details" can be seen in three aspects: the races, the combat engine, and the technology tree.
  • The races differ from that you'd typically see in a 4X space empire game in that they have elaborate back stories, unique travel mechanics, and completely different looking ships.  The unique travel mechanics are perhaps the most jarring difference of them.  This makes for a large difference in how you will look at traveling about the galaxy depending on what race you are playing.

  • While out-of-combat is primarily turn-based, as 4X games can be expected to be, the combat takes place in an elaborate real time strategy engine.  The really interesting thing about the combat engine is the elaborate amount of detail that went into simulation.  With the exception of the Liir, all race's ships have inertia and this is not only affected through thrust but also projectiles impacting impacting their hull.  It's not uncommon to watch a projectile reflect off one ship's armor and strike another one.  Each turret on the ship is individually modeled, each projectile's hits or misses not predetermined but rather occurring naturally, you can even direct your ships to aim at a specific part of the target.  Despite this sophistication, the control scheme is rather simple, somewhat reminiscent of a standard real time strategy game.

  • The technology tree is organically interesting in that there is an element of randomness between games as to which technologies will be available to your race.  While there are "core" technologies you can be sure will be there, the greater bulk of the tree is randomly rolled on at the start of the game to see if your race will be able to eventually learn that technology, which higher probabilities of that technology being available to certain races but there being no guarantees.  This approach helps to make each game feel relatively fresh by forcing the players to undergo new approaches to the game when a certain technology turns out not to be available.
In addition, Sword of the Stars has a rather excellent multiplayer hosting capability that includes the ability to spontaneously adjust turn time limits (or remove the time limit entirely), allows players to drop their race (having the AI play it for them) and pick them up again later, and more.

Overall, Sword of the Stars is a game I can recommend.  No game is released perfect but, after four years of refinement, Sword of the Stars is about as close as you can expect.


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