Please note that this writeup describes the Space Empires II, III and IV releases by Malfador Machinations. This is not at all related to the Space Empires of spaceempires.com.
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In the realm of turn-based strategy games, Space Empires is one of the more advanced distractions out there. It is in its fourth release cycle (and has been since the middle of 2000); there have been several patch versions in the meantime. Check out http://malfador.com/, the official website.
Simply put, all the races in the galaxy have begun to discover faster-than-light space travel. The race to colonize everywhere and be the greatest empire in the galaxy is the point of the game. To aid in this competition, there are researchable technologies, espionage and sabotage activities, and raw fleet attack power. You, the player, are the supreme ruler over your race. All ship design, research, attack points, strategies and political maneuvers are according to your whim (and some random chance within the game...).
Whether the players are human or 'AI', every player takes a turn round-robin style. Each round is said to last '0.1 years' in game time, and every project gives time-to-completion times using this standard. The game can either be played 'hotseat'-style at a single computer, or the game file can be emailed between the human players.
Resources and Colonies
The basic resource is the planet. Each planet is assigned a size (ranging from 'tiny' to 'huge'), a triple-numbered value for "resources" (see below), a type ("Gas", "Ice" or "Rock"), an atmosphere, and a "condition" (weather/livability). Planets have room for buildings and cargo: the combination of size and atmosphere determines the number of building spaces available and the population cap.
The most essential subresource is called "resources" and is comprised of "minerals", "organics" and "radioactives". Every construction project requires them, and every ship requires them for maintenance. These three must be balanced properly in order to continue construction and maintain existing space vehicles. Most of the time, "minerals" are the most-needed "resource", so the balance is usually shifted heavily toward this end.
The second subresource is "research". This may seem rather intangible, but the author of the game decided to attach "point values" to several different tech. areas. For example, "Rock Colonization" costs 100000 research points for level one (there is only one level in this tech. area), while "Energy Stream Weapons" costs only 5000 for level one, with a maximum of 12 levels. (Each time a level increases, the cost for the next level in that research area increases as well.) Research points are obtained by building "Research Centers" on planets, so each planet's building limit also affects the number of research points available.
The third subresource is "intelligence". This can be used as an endgame strategy, especially when two empires are nearly equal in terms of size, number of fleets, etc. The idea is similar to that of research points: each intelligence project costs a certain number of intelligence points. Some of the projects include "technological sabotage" (attack on research), "food contamination" (attack on planet population), and "ship bomb" (attack on a ship). Just like research, intelligence requires "Intelligence Centers" for intelligence points, which takes up building spaces.
Every colony has a population cap and a happiness variable. Production and construction rates are affected by each, e.g., a "Jubilant" population has a 20% bonus to construction and production, and a 4000M population has an additional 50% bonus to both (the bonuses are for 100M through 10B, with a relatively simple percentage gradient). Reproduction rates are affected by happiness and the planet's "condition".
Obtaining new colonies is a matter of sending out "Colony Ships" to colonizable planets. A planet is colonizable if its type (Gas, Rock or Ice) has been researched already. If the planet's atmosphere is breathable by its population, the population cap and building limit will be at a maximum -- a huge breathable planet can have 8000M population and 30 buildings, while a tiny non-breathable planet can have just one building and 100M population (a tiny breathable planet can have 500M and 6 buildings).
Ships and Weaponry
The first ship that is usually created in any game is the colony ship. It can colonize any type of planet given the proper research. Next is a scouting ship with (perhaps) a missile on board or some extra fuel tanks. Each player must design the ships that he or she will use, then construct copies of the design. Many ships have an engine maximum, e.g. the "Escort" size can only have 6 engines. Every available component has a size rating, and the variously-sized components can be put into a ship design until there is no more room, or until the designer is finished with that particular ship. Also, every ship that is constructed has a maintenance cost.
The weapons research category is not lacking in styles or depth. There are seeking missiles, engine/shield/weapon damaging weapons, population killers, armors, shields, direct-fire weapons, and all manner of "to-hit modifiers" and "electronic countermeasures" to aid in attack and defense. My generic favorite is the Anti-Proton Beam (level 12). At range 8, the damage is 45, and any closer increases the damage from there. The size is 30kt (very small), and the reload rate is 1 (very good). Another one I like is the Time-Distortion Burst (level 5), which causes 60 damage at all ranges up to 7, with quadruple damage to shields, reload rate 1 and size 30kt. Both of these are direct-fire weapons. The biggest weapon in the game is the Colossus Cannon. At level 3, it causes 1000 damage at all ranges up to 12. It is a direct-fire weapon with reload rate 6, and it takes up 500kt of space on a ship. However, it also has the ability to cause all direct-fire weapons on the ship to never miss, which is a huge bonus. Missile weapons are effective in the beginning of the game, but Point-Defense can be researched easily, and then all missiles are basically useless.
The only other turn-based game I've played is called Lords of the Realm (release II), and, by comparison, Space Empires is far more advanced (yet, for all that, much more complicated). For me, Space Empires has been the more addictive game of the two because I wanted to find out what all the research areas do at their maximum levels. Also, Space Empires is a window-based game, so it interacts more easily with window-based environments than Lords of the Realm, which changes the video mode and does little to no windowing.
Space Empires is a Win95+/NT+ game. The gameplay is all done with spreadsheets, i.e., every screen is a grid of squares, each of which can have ships, bases, satellites, stars or planets in them. Very little computationally-intense graphics take place, unless 'tactical combat' is turned on. One of the coolest things is that all the gameplay configuration is stored in flat text files, so new tech. levels or planet/star/ship/system types can be added 'easily'. Seeing this configurability has increased my interest in programming; I found a couple new reasons to study computer science while playing this game. (And then I almost flunked out one term because of it...)