Fans of sci-fi 4X gaming are well catered for in terms of both volume and quality. Yet among the hallmarks of the genre is a certain level of complexity and obfuscation. Stuff you just leave for the computer to keep track of, or work out for you. Sometimes, maybe, players have a yearning for something a bit more transparent, a little more comprehensible. A game where you can see the workings, like a tabletop board game. If that sounds like you, you’re the target audience for Falling Stars: War of Empires.
Indeed fans of tabletop gaming who play this will spot an immediate similarity to the behemoth boardgame Twilight Imperium 3. You pick from one of several factions, each with a special power and a free starting technology. The game begins on a board of empty hexes, beckoning you to explore. At the end of each turn you pick a strategic action, which gives you bonuses for the next turn. There are also tactical actions to play, motions to vote on, fleets to command and technologies to research.
You’re taught all this via a tutorial that’s just adequate enough to get you started. So, when you begin wondering about how to take a certain action or why something played out the way it did, you look for a rules document. There isn’t one. As a result, your first hour or so is likely to consist of stumbling through a couple of games, trying to work out what’s going on. It’s not the best way to introduce a game.
This process is hampered by the fact that there appear to be a number of bugs in the game mechanics. It’s hard to tell for sure they’re bugs due to the fact that you’re not entirely certain how to play the game. Some of them, however, feel fairly serious: ground units don’t always go along with the transport they’re loaded on or the game sometimes locks up for no reason are two of the most egregious.
To further exacerbate what should be a fairly easy learning curve, the interface isn’t great either. It’s difficult to see what’s in a system, or what units are loaded onto what ship unless you zoom in. The screen is littered with obscure iconography and trying to click on mouse-over elements sometimes selects the board underneath. It feels far more awkward than it should, especially with the benefit of mouse and keyboard.
With diligent use of load and save, eventually you can work through these issues. It helps that games are pleasantly short: you can finish conquering a small galaxy in half an hour. And when you’ve got a handle on what’s going on under the hood, Falling Stars starts to look like a decent game wrapped in a shoddy cover.
There’s an impressive variety of options for each game, to start with. You can control system size, AI opponents and turn on or off a number of rules tweaks and victory conditions. That makes it possible to tailor the experience to your liking, should the vanilla options not prove interesting or convenient.
By default, rather than just brute galactic conquest, it’s a victory point race. Colonising planets is only one way to earn them. You can also get points for researching certain technology combos and for being on the winning side in the political vote each turn. These change the rules slightly for the following turn, preventing planets being conquered for example, or penalising players who overstretch. Each planet you own has an “influence” value which you use in the vote.
Other resources in play are fuel, which you spend to move ships, and, erm, resources, which you spend to build them. Co-ordinating fast and slow ship designs with loaded carriers for ground combat and the strategic placement of new shipyards is an interesting challenge. It’s further fuelled by unexpected plays of action cards for bonuses to movement or battle. You can’t be everywhere at once, and you can be certain all your dreadnaughts will be exactly where you don’t want them when the enemy attacks.
Success in conquering and keeping your corner of the hex map is thus a great combination of strategy and luck. Getting them through technology is all down to tactics and wise resource management. The political votes, by contrast, can be extremely capricious. It makes sense to vote on motions according to what would benefit you the most. But doing so can lose you points and it’s very hard to predict how the AI will vote.
Indeed it’s hard to predict how the AI will do anything at all, as it makes a number of perplexing choices. It’s particularly bad at the combat aspects of the game, failing to defend key planets both in space and on the ground. It’s nevertheless capable of beating human players by leveraging the other paths to victory, although that’s partly down to points from those semi-arbitrary political votes.
There is a multiplayer mode for playing against other humans but, right now, the lobby seems as empty as the vacuum of deep space. If that gets busier, or we see the addition of asynchronous play, it would make a big difference to Falling Stars. Tabletop-style games always work better against real people, and Falling Stars is no exception. Plus, the short play time would make it easy to squeeze in games when you had the time.
We live in the age of constant patches and updates, so there’s hope that Falling Stars will get clearer rules, mechanics tweaks and bug fixes. If it does, there’s every reason to think that its more interesting mechanical elements will shine through and it will improve from the muddled, mediocre experience it now is. Whether or not it will get enough to elevate it into a game that’s truly worth your time and money is harder to predict. In a marketplace this crowded, the chances may be slim.