It’s been a mainstay of sci-fi cinema, television and fiction since the genre’s inception: the idea of a galactic empire. Planets replace the tribes and nations of history; often, ethnic divisions are broadened to differing species, usually humans and strange alien races. Powerful figures—warlords, princes, rebel leaders, empresses, living machines, hive minds—scheme and bargain and clash in a struggle to control the galaxy. With massive fleets, entire planets, vast economies, advanced technologies, and legions of loyal underlings at their command, shadowy leaders set into motion machinations that will control the fate of humankind, alien races, or the universe itself. The scenario is popular enough to have spawned its own game genre, one coyly dubbed 4X (for “explore, exploit, expand and exterminate”).
One the game design projects I’ve been developing the longest is my take on the 4X space empire sim, which currently goes by the title Transgalactic. It’s had other names—I called it Nebula at one point—and no doubt the name will change to Interstellar Space Weasels or somesuch before I’m done. As in writing, names in game design are easy to change, so it’s best not to grow too attached to them early on.
In essence, it’s my attempt to re-create the epic sweep of far future space sagas, with a variety of factions competing for control over numerous worlds spread across distant star systems. I was inspired by such science fiction mainstays as Dune, Foundation, Star Wars and Iain Banks’ Culture novels. Existing games—from the classic PC titles Master of Orion and Homeworld to modern tabletop games like Eclipse and Twilight Imperium—are great for various reasons, but eventually feel mechanical: overly concerned with the minutiae of movement of resources and money from one bucket to another. Indeed, one of the biggest insults leveled at empire sims is the games are “glorified spreadsheets” played only by bean counters. The criticism hurts because, too often, it’s true. But the best games conceal all the record-keeping and ledger-balancing behind a good UI; the best example, in my opinion, is my favorite computer game of all time, Civilization, which is entitled to its own close examination at a later date.
As interesting as the mechanics of empire management can be to players with a certain personality (those who entertain their innate obsessive-compulsive tendencies), I’ve always wanted a game that added a level of intrigue to the nuts-and-bolts of planetary development, fleet management and interstellar warfare, as well as provided players the ability to create unique factions with their own strengths, weaknesses, special abilities and diplomatic personalities.
Customizability is very important to me as a player, and the games listed above lack characters to identify with; there are no Luke Skywalkers or Hari Seldons or Pauls Atreides to make the universes feel inhabited and alive. Characters give an epic game those things it needs to emulate the movies and books that inspire it. The universe of Star Wars feels vast because you relate strongly to Luke (or Han or Leia), and compared to one person, the Empire seems like an impossibly large force to resist; later in the saga, when the rebels escape and hide from the Empire, it shows the universe is even more vast still. To bring that sort of personal perspective and epic scale to a game, you need characters whose exploits you can follow as well as the ability to craft a faction that fights and builds and outwits in a way that most appeals to your style of play.
In crafting this game, I eventually came up with a list of design requirements, but I’ll leave that list for a future installment of this post series. Instead, let’s continue with the game’s origins and initial form, because it’s evolved considerably over 20 years of contemplation and iteration.
The beginning: a simple deck of cards
The genesis of the idea was a deck of cards my brother and I received from someone (don’t remember who) as a gift. These cards, which I still own, rather than depicting the standard suits, are numbered one through ten and show spaceships of increasing size. The deck was intended to be used for simple standard games, such as War, Go Fish or Memory; but, as we did with almost everything, Sean and I came up with a better use for them. To us, they were fleets of various strengths to be moved around, from planet to planet, in a game of war and conquest.
Originally, the planets were blank index cards. We shuffled the deck between the two players, then deployed and moved cards (fleets) from our home planets one at a time to outer planets. Cards were kept face down until opposing fleets occupied the same planet; then, they were flipped and the higher number won. (I forget how ties were resolved.)
Of course, blank index cards are boring, so I went about drawing actual planets on them, giving them names, and—later—special powers for the person who controlled them. We settled on using toothpicks to signify “space lanes” connecting planets. Later, we incorporated colored bits for military forces, to be carried on ships and deposited on planets. Still, it felt like a fancy game of checkers; there was no personality to the pieces, nothing in which to invest one’s imagination.
Finally, I drew up a bevy of strange characters to cast into the game, like the regulars from the Mos Eisley cantina spilled out across the galaxy to find fame and fortune. To top it off, I made leader cards to give each faction its own personality, with special abilities for each. We engineered a complicated system of recruiting agents, building fleets, deploying armies, moving everything around the board, and resolving conflicts. It was simple and not terribly elegant but worked well enough for a couple hours of contentious fun on a Saturday afternoon.
After high school, I put these bits and ideas away and didn’t think about them for a good, long time. I considered adapting the game to fit a new, satirical science fiction setting I’d invented at one point, but that ended up being a brainstorm without any tangible results. I wouldn’t seriously revisit the tabletop 4X game until much later. But when I did, I had many more ideas about how the game should look and what it should incorporate.
To be continued…