We are in the midst of an explosion in the 4X genre. Big companies like Firaxis, Stardock, Triumph, and Amplitude have all launched major titles in the last 12 months. Likewise, a mass of indie developers have brought us games like Star Ruler 2, StarDrive 2, and Worlds of Magic. Adding to our bevy of indie 4x games comes Digi-Ent’s Apollo4X (A4X).
A4X is part of a growing effort among developers in the 4X community to push the envelope of what a 4X game can be. Like Star Ruler 2, A4X attempts to explore new ground; however, unlike Star Ruler 2, it sadly falls short in its attempt to provide a rewarding gaming experience.
eXplore: Exploration in Apollo4X takes all of about five minutes. There is no fog of war or unrevealed space. You can check out every planet in the galaxy and what resources are available on that planet the moment you start the game. The minor factions on your home planet (Apollo) are all available to view and purchase on the first turn.
Nothing really changes throughout the course of the game. Planets don’t change, minor factions don’t evolve, and there are no random events. While some additional minor factions become available once a new planet is colonized, their imprint on the game is little more than a single red button that adds a minor bonus here or there. There is no lore associated with them at all. Basically, the entire extent of the game is presented to you all at once.
Normally, eXploration is one of the longest sections in a review on eXplorminate4X. In this instance, this is pretty much all there is to say.
eXpand: A4X has the simplest eXpansion mechanics of any space 4X I’ve played to date. You don’t have to mess around with colony ships, moving population from one colony to another, committing genocide against an indigenous species, or any of the normal stuff that goes along with your typical space 4X game. To colonize a planet, you just have to have enough of the “Administration” resource to do it. Gaining Administration is simply a matter of spending enough space dollars to buy it.
After buying a new planet, you can improve it by building cities and what amounts to internet nodes. Building each structure allows you to improve Fleet (or fuel used by your starships to travel between planets) and the amount of resources the planet can produce or buy.
You also have to assign corporations to each new planet. A4X is an game more focused on economic simulation rather than empire simulation. The game provides a half dozen or so corporations to choose from. A certain faction you can buy will let your re-randomize them if you don’t like the selection you have. Each corporation has two resources that it wants. There are five resources in the game total. Once settled, you can take resources produced on one planet and sell them to a corporation on another.
You can also expand in A4X by purchasing the aforementioned minor factions. There are around a dozen on Apollo and new planets each get two. The factions on Apollo have one to three perks that can improve your military, income, or trade ships. Some of the factions are clearly better than others. I won’t reveal the ones I think are the best because discovering which factions are good is one of the few areas of fun and challenge in this game. It won’t take you long, though.
eXploit: This is where the meat of A4X lies. While some games seem to skip the eXploitation phase entirely, A4X is not among them. In fact, eXploitation is the main thrust of the game. As mentioned above, each colonized planet produces up to three different resources. They can be things like entertainment, culture, alien artifacts, and so on. Recall that the corporations that you placed on those planets can buy up to two resources – so there should always be a surplus. The object of the game is to figure out the best trade routes (starting and ending at Apollo, which produces and buys nothing) to earn the most space dollars. Once you learn how to do this, the game play is a cinch.
Learning, however, is a pain. It will take several tries just to get your first route right, and that’s just with four planets. The game does allow you to infinitely undo commands while establishing trade routes, but there are times when you’ll get to the very end and realize that you need to start all over from the beginning because you misread something. What adds to the frustration is that A4X requires you to physically draw the trade routes from planet to planet for your space caravan. While you take the time to painstakingly draw each trade route by hand, a graphical list of all your resources and resource needs taunts you at the top of the screen. It seems like you could just open a menu from that list and draw your lines there, sending resources where they need to go. It would save you a whole lot of time and trouble when trying to generate cash for your empire.
When you earn all those space dollars, you can buy other Services with them. These are things like weapons, administration, construction, and so on. There are five of these Services to choose from. Each of them has its special use: administration to colonize planets, construction for building cities, weapons are used to make troops, etc. Each turn you can buy Services on the open market. They start off cheap and you can get a lot of them for a set amount of cash. After your first or second purchase though, the amount of Services you get per $10 is reduced. This is simple supply and demand, Economics 101 stuff. You can spend one of these Services to level up your economy, and that’s the way to go. Around level four or five you can get a high amount of Services at a low cost. It makes the game easier to win.
Each turn you also have to fix political and social problems on your planets. These actions consume the Services I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Doing so gives you “Clout” which is what you use to purchase the minor factions in the game. This process gets very repetitive and nonsensical at a certain point. For instance, one frequent problem you have to deal with is freedom/independence movements on colonized planets. The only solution to those movements is to put them down with weapons like a tyrant. There’s no option to resolve the crisis diplomatically.
Speaking of diplomacy, while it is certainly possible in this game, I never actually found it to be necessary. There is a neutral alien race you can trade with and one to four hostile alien races you can fight. But the game can be beaten so fast once you learn the mechanics, that dealing with either is rendered pointless.
eXterminate: Unlike Offworld Trading Company (another economy-focused game), A4X does have combat. About the only thing I can say about it is to avoid combat as much as possible. To call it tedious would be kind. There is no auto-resolve option as of this writing. Each round can take five minutes or so to resolve, and it’s all so abstract that the action is incredibly hard to comprehend.
A4X uses a card-based combat system. If you’re familiar with Magic: the Gathering or any of its clones, you’ll be able to recognize A4X’s system somewhat. If you ever played the Warlord CCG from AEG (and I doubt many have), it’s probably the closest analogy minus the RNG to A4X’s combat.
When combat begins, each of your units is assigned a card. Each enemy unit likewise has a card. Each card has three stats: Offense, Defense, and Morale. In essence, you ram the cards into each other to see who has the biggest number and the biggest number wins. That may be a bit of an over-simplification, but not really. The wrinkle is that you can choose from among three different special abilities for each card, each turn. These abilities might cost hit points from your unit or points from another resource to use, but they can tip the balance in your favor against enemy forces that tend to have higher stats than your units.
Some encounters may require you to beat multiple waves of enemies. The typical wave will take four to six rounds or more to beat. So, if each round lasts three minutes, and it takes six rounds to defeat a wave, and it takes up to three waves to win the battle on a planet, you can see how the time really starts to add up. Hence, my recommendation to avoid combat as much as possible.
You never have to eXterminate all the enemy aliens to win either. I don’t think total eXtermination is a victory condition anyway, and besides, I wouldn’t try that route in this game. You just have to have enough forces to keep the hostiles at bay long enough to accumulate the three hundred units of each Service required to win.
eXperience: In short, Apollo4X just isn’t all that much fun. The long version is a bit more complicated, but I’ll try to explain from my perspective why the game isn’t really enjoyable. You see, A4X is not actually a game. It’s a puzzle, and once you solve a puzzle, it sort of loses its magic for you. Once you’ve put the puzzle together a couple of times, you’ll most likely never pick it up again.
Apollo4X’s puzzle-ness comes into view very quickly. There is ALWAYS one best way to do your trade routes. The game never forces you to make a strategic decision that will have unknown consequences. Either you discover the most efficient route and gain the most cash, or you don’t. There is ALWAYS one right order to purchase the minor factions. Going in any other order only makes your economy less efficient, and this game is all about the economy.
When in combat, I’ve found there is only one right way to win. The game has tactics, but isn’t very tactical. Basically, you will want to tag all the enemy units with Flanking counters and then slag them with units (like Mech Suits) that gain huge bonuses when those counters are present. Trying to win in any other way is futile in my experience.
Even when choosing new planets to colonize, there are clear right and wrong choices every time. You want to match your resources to your corporations as efficiently as possible. You can’t convert surplus alien artifacts into weapons or surplus entertainment into cash. Excess goes to waste, so the problems that the game presents you with are always accompanied with obvious answers once you understand the mechanics. There is always a single best choice, just like there is always a best fit in a puzzle.
The entire object of the game comes down to maximizing how fast your empire earns space dollars. The Services I mentioned in the eXploit section aren’t real. That is to say, they aren’t really separate mechanics from the cash system. Since the only way to get them is to spend cash, they’re literally just representations of money in the bank. Yes, you spend each of the Services on different things, like building cities or building units, but the costs for those cities and units could just as easily been denominated in space dollars with escalating costs for each consecutive one you bought that turn. It would have accomplished the exact same effect without the extra layer of complexity and abstraction. Conversely, the designers could have made it possible to produce these services on different planets so that there was another way to earn them besides spending cash. But, as it is, these things add nothing but more tedium to the game.
The game is also missing a number of things. There is a fair amount of tooltips, but only about half of what is needed. Combat severely suffers from a lack of explanation, and tooltips would help solve that problem. My understanding is that Digi-Ent lost a team member just before launch whose job it was to get those tooltips done. That might explain their absence, but it doesn’t excuse their absence. The game desperately needs them.
Additionally, it’s clear that some proofreading needs to be done. Alien Artifacts is written as “Alient Artifacts” in some places. The “Lead the Charge” card for the Praetorian unit reads, “Lead the Charge Description” instead of what that card actually does. Several of the menus overlap when opened, and that’s a real pain at times. The game will re-center on Apollo after colonizing a new planet at the exact moment you need to be able to target the new one with corporations. Ultimately, there’s plenty more to polish in A4X.
Visually, the game is adequate but dated. I am sympathetic to the limitations small studios have. Space 4X games don’t require a lot of good art, to be honest. But, even taking that into consideration, what you see in this game is what you would expect from games in the late 90’s or early 2000’s. I love retro games, but A4X isn’t really trying to position itself in that genre.
The game is stable and I never had it crash. It’s playable inasmuch as all the mechanics seemed to work as intended. The price isn’t bad at under $20. The AI is fine. The problems with the game are fundamental to the design. I appreciate that it’s striving to simulate an economy. I appreciate the supply-demand dynamic for the Services mechanic. I see the creators’ attempt at strategy in combat, but unfortunately the developers designed both the problem and solution in every case rather than leaving any of it up to the player to decide. Thus, A4X falls way short of being a fun game and barely makes it as an interesting puzzle.
Now, all that said, there are some things about this game I do want to trumpet. One thing I love about indie games is that there is always some nugget of insight the designers have that other games can learn from. There were three things this game did that I really hope to see implemented in other games going forward: the Casual mode, the Show Me button, and the Reroll planets function.
I never used Casual mode while testing the game for review, but the description says that any consequences from negative income or resource management are ignored, and you’ll never be attacked by enemy aliens. This is great for learning a new game, especially for games with notoriously difficult AI, like StarDrive 2 and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion.
Any time I couldn’t build a city, colonize a planet, or train a new unit because I didn’t have enough of the proper Service, a popup would let me know what I was missing. It would present me with two buttons: OK and SHOW ME. Clicking “Show Me” would take me to the exact menu I needed to buy more Services. This would be so useful in games with more complex gameplay mechanics like taxes, unrest, resources, logistics, storage, food, and so on. It can be so hard to learn just why you’re losing in a new 4X title. If every game implemented a Show Me button, I think the genre as a whole would be better off.
Finally, rerolling the planets was a great function. How many times have you gone through the process of starting a new game only to have to start over when you realize your city or planet or whatever was on really terrible terrain or in a really poor part of the galaxy? I’ve done it plenty of times. Being able to reroll the terrain or galaxy would cut that hassle out. I would love for games like Worlds of Magic, for instance, to implement that feature.
In the end, I think the developers at Digi-Ent should be proud of themselves for finishing their first PC game. They should take pride in the fact that they made it through Steam’s Greenlight process, designed and developed a functional title, and published it. I think many fans out there don’t appreciate just how hard that actually is. I hope Digi-Ent is able to make enough from A4X to create a second game, for I am sure their experience will serve them well in a new endeavor.
It hurts my heart to give an indie game a negative review. I believe there is an audience for almost any game, and I truly think that real innovation in video games will come from avant garde designers who test the waters with new ideas. I am a huge advocate for small studios. However, I cannot overlook the fundamental shortcomings of Apollo4X.
The game is not very much fun to play and becomes less so the more you play it. Once you piece together that there is “One True Way” to play the game, the illusion of chance and challenge fall away. The game becomes an equation to solve and the only real hard part is to do it faster and better the next time. That worked for Atari games back in the 70’s and 80’s, but not for a 4X game in the 21st century.
Normally, I think a bad game could be saved by further development or polish. Plenty of indie games launch with bugs that need fixing or missing content. Aside from some tooltips, A4X isn’t missing much as far as the designers’ vision goes. The problems are with the core of the design, and I don’t see an easy way to fix it. The game would need to be rebuilt from the ground up. A4X may have an audience out there, but if it does, it is very small. There is no way to recommend it to the broader 4X fanbase.
TL;DR: Apollo4X has the courage to attempt a new take on 4X strategy games by focusing more on economic development than military conquest. Unfortunately, it lacks the execution to pull off that novel idea. The game’s mechanics are incredibly tedious and difficult to use, combat is a total chore and unsatisfying even in a win, and replayability is very limited because the designers created the game with only one right way to play, limiting meaningful choice. The game does not fulfil its own goals very well nor does it compare well to other space 4X titles. In the end, there is very little to like.
You might like this game if:
- You enjoy puzzle games and are looking to dip your toe in the 4X genre.
- You really like optimizing simple economic systems.
- You’re the type of person who wants to support small studios who are trying to innovate.
- You’re a bit of a glutton for punishment.
You might not like this game if:
- You want to enjoy combat.
- You want a game with a good amount of replayability.
- eXploration and eXtermination are important facets of the 4X genre to you.
- You want an actual 4X experience or an experience that you’ll actually enjoy.
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Troy played 30 hours on his Windows 8.1 Dell Inspiron 7000 Series 7537 BTX 17” laptop with Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-4500U CPU @ 1.80 GHz, 16GB Ram, 64 bit Operating system, x64 processor, and 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics card.