4X

Planets NU review

Imagine each of the following:

Battlestar Galactica in an epic confrontation with a Borg cube.

The Millennium Falcon doing a rebel ground assault on a Romulan outpost.

Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise doing a suicide run on the Death Star.

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Do any of the above scenes reach deep down inside of you? Do they draw out the kid you used to be, the one who imagined such scenarios on his bedroom floor or outside playing in the backyard? If so, you may be interested in Planets Nu, because this is what Planets Nu does.

The game was originally released as VGA Planets by Tim Wisseman in 1992. But it wasn’t until Version 3 was released in 1994 that the game entered my life and consumed it for several years. VGA Planets was based around the pre-internet era of BBS dial-up where you would call in and upload and download your turn files. Needless to say, time constraints made the game very hard to play. Players had to develop many workarounds, and it seemed as if the game would eventually fade away completely due to the inherent hassle of that system. However, the company Geographical Media came to the rescue, updated the game to a browser format, and continue to develop the game to this day as a browser-based multiplayer game.

At first glance, it may seem that Planet Nu is little more than a fanboy-mashup of thinly veiled classic sci-fi icons. But the game requires a level of intelligence and wisdom that only comes with experience and maturity.

eXplore

You and 10 other empires begin the game with a home world, a star base, and a medium freighter. A vast galaxy of 500 planets (the default amount) stretches in every direction around you. To give you an idea of the size of a starting galaxy, distances are measured in light years and the default galaxy is 2000 x 2000 light years. The best available engines, called “transwarp drives,” allow a ship to travel to any location a mere 81 light years away. Clearly, it takes quite some time to explore an entire map.

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Every empire starts small.

The starting galaxy is filled with planets, nebulae, star clusters, and debris disks (asteroid fields). Each of these need to be charted or avoided depending on the player’s chosen race.  

At first, the player will only see the location of a planet. Once they place a ship in orbit, however,  information floods in. The readouts from a planet include resources, natives (if any), and temperature, which indicates how suitable the planet is for colonization. The technical data will also let players know if colonists from another race have already settled there.

Exploration has its highs and lows. Players may find anything from a native population with a high level government (with lots of minerals to feed a growing galactic empire) to a mineral poor planet with undeveloped natives that will eat any colonists who attempt to settle there.

The quality of a planet for colonization is determined by its temperature which ranges from zero to 100. For most player races and natives, the best value is 50, which allows the fastest population growth and highest population total. One exception is the The Crystal Confederation. They are siliconoid in nature, which means that  the optimal environment for both them and their native counterparts is a temp of 100 (which is basically lethal to other races). Another exception is The Rebels who have a special ability to colonize ice planets (e.g. Hoth) which allows them to support colonies of up to nine million colonists even on a zero temperature world.

There are also two kinds of random events: meteor strikes and ion storms. Meteor strikes will hit planets and may either be small or large. Small meteorites provide a couple hundred kilotons of each mineral without any negative effects. Large meteorites add thousands of kilotons of minerals and increase the planet’s density, making the planet extremely valuable. However, the large strikes also kill a large number of colonists and natives and cause huge decreases in their happiness level, which means the player will have to do some quick damage control. In addition, other players are informed of the catastrophe/windfall, transforming the planet into a hotly contested point of space.

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The Crystal Confederation’s first warship is under construction.

Ion storms also wander the map. These storms have five stages of categorization. The first three stages only stop most player’s ships from cloaking while inside the storm. However, the final two stages affect all ships – throwing them off course, killing crew, and causing damage to the ship’s hull. In my experience, the outcomes of major wars have been drastically changed by ion storms moving through the front, wreaking havoc on anyone foolish enough to be in their path.

There is research, in a way, but it works differently than most other 4X games. Technology is on a per starbase level. Players must invest credits in each starbase they own to increase tech levels. This means that while one starbase might be able to build any ship, the one beside it might only be able to construct tech-level one hulls.

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A view of the Crystal Confederation`s homeworld. Meanwhile, our empire grows…

There are four categories of technology: Hulls, Engines, Beams and Torpedoes. The game allows players to get the highest techs immediately, provided they have the money available to purchase the tech levels. A common mistake new players make is setting their tech levels too high at the beginning of the game and quickly going bankrupt because their home world is unable to mine enough minerals or produce enough income for the ships they desire.

The exploration phase of the game offers a lot of variety; every planet is like scratching an instant win lottery ticket. When you find a great planet with lots of minerals and good natives, you feel like doing a little victory dance, but more often you are going to be disappointed with the results. Special and random events are lacking compared to other 4X games, but if the player community pushed for them, Planets Nu could easily incorporate such features in the future.

eXpand

Once a planet has been settled, the planetary management screen becomes available. From this window, players can build mines, factories, and defense posts on the planet. Eventually, minerals and money get high enough for players to build a star base, which is required to build ships.

A logic puzzle begins to form in this phase: every ship and its components cost minerals which need to be assembled at an appropriate star base. Freighters are needed to transport resources from support planets to industrial centers. At the same time, players need to expand as quickly as possible, because the other 10 races are doing the same thing. It is much easier to take an unclaimed planet than one that some other race has already claimed.

Another resource vital to expansion is neutronium fuel. Every ship consumes neutronium by movement. The heavier the mass of the ship, the more fuel it burns. Running out of fuel is a situation most new players have faced. It is not a good feeling to have a large freighter loaded with 120,000 colonists dead in space, ripe for the taking. Not only have you lost several turns progress with that freighter, but you also now have to task another ship to rendezvous and transfer it fuel before another player arrives to “rescue” it.

Certain races have special means to expand. The Cyborgs, Rebels, and the Evil Empire all have access to hyperspace, which allows ships to jump 340 to 360 light-years in one turn for a cost of 50 kilotons of fuel. This allows for rapid expansion, with the Cyborgs being particularly deadly with their ability to assimilate native populations, netting them homeworld-sized colonies all over the galaxy in a short amount of time.

The game has no ship commanders or governors – the planets and the ships are the starring characters. While I would miss this feature in most 4X games, in Planets Nu I feel there is enough to do without it. As you close in on victory, managing your empire becomes quite challenging due to how many planets you have conquered and the fleets you have created. The amount of micromanaging is high enough without unique characters to worry about as well.

There are plenty of avenues for expansion in Planets Nu, and even through the game lacks characters, the available complexity makes me question whether they would be a welcome addition. And besides, it gives your human opponents center stage, and they really are the most fascinating characters you will ever find in any 4X.

eXploit

There are seven resources in the game that are all vital to a successful empire:

  1. Colonists – These are your people, the life blood of all tasks. Without them, the empire  is just dust. One clan is equal to 100 people, and one clan requires one space of cargo on a ship. The number of clans on a planet determines how many mines, factories, and defense posts can be built. Colonists also generate tax revenues and determine the amount of taxation that can be levied from native populations. Dropped onto enemy planets, colonists will engage in ground combat, which can allow players to take the colony without damaging its infrastructure. Different races have different levels of ability at ground combat.
  2. Mega-credits – This is the spending currency. Mega-credits are needed to build all planetary structures, ships, ship components, torpedoes, fighters (in most cases), and bases. It is acquired by taxing the aforementioned colonists and natives. Supplies can also be converted into mega-credits on a one-to-one basis, but not the reverse.
  3. Supplies – These are the building blocks of the empire. Every factory on a planet  creates one supply per turn. Constructing planetary structures requires a combination of supplies and mega-credits. Supplies can also be used by ships to repair damage at a rate of five supplies for one percent of damage.
  4. Neutronium – As mentioned previously, this is the fuel for ships. Without this they cannot move, cannot fight…They’re basically useless. Make sure you keep your ships fueled.
  5. Duranium, Tritanium, and Molybdenum – These are the three important minerals used to build ships, bases, torpedoes, and fighters. Molybdenum is the mineral needed most for high tech builds and is usually the rarest.

With multiple resources to manage in a variety of ways the exploitation feature is Planets Nu at its strongest.

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Ahhh, logistics how I love thee.

eXterminate

Once your borders meet with those of another race, the inevitable march to alliance or war begins. Non-Aggression pacts, trade treaties, ship exchanges, and all other sorts of diplomatic options await you. Back-stabbings are rare, though you should always make sure to get the person’s word on any deal. A person’s honor is an invaluable resource that travels with them from game to game. Against the AI, diplomacy is very much a black and white affair, with the computer always seeking to destroy your empire.

Wars are intense. Players must destroy their enemy’s ability to wage war by obliterating their military assets: raiding shipping lanes, conquering planets, clearing minefields, etc. Each race has its own special tools to bring to the table of war, so fighting each faction is a very different experience. Further, access to fuel is critical for the attacker. Logistics are just as important as generalship in war in this game.

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Let’s see you get out of this one Kirk.

Combat is not directly controlled by the player, through, there are many options to manipulate the outcome before the fighting begins. Battles take place on a one vs one basis, with carriers launching fighters at a rate determined by the number of launch bays, and torpedo ships firing at a rate determined by the number of torpedo launchers. A ship’s beam weapons will shoot down fighters and target the enemy ship if no fighters are present. Torpedoes have a longer range than beams and have a 33% chance of missing with each shot. Fighters must close to point blank range with the enemy ship before firing and then must return to the carrier to re-arm before attacking again.

Minefields are also an important part of warfare, both on defense and offense. They are created by converting a ship’s torpedoes. The number of mines created is dependent on how many torpedoes are converted and the tech level of the torpedoes. For normal minefields, a ship has a one percent chance of hitting a mine for every light year of the minefield it travels through, while cloaked ships have a half a percent chance. A mine hit proves fatal to any ship with a hull mass of 100 kilotons or less. Ships with a hull tech of seven or above, however, will keep moving if they hit a mine, allowing for several mine hits to be possible in a single turn. Ships can be set to mine sweep if they are within five light years of the minefield. A ship’s sweeping ability is determined by the beams the ship is outfitted with.

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The Crystal Confederation’s web mines choke the fuel from the Cyborg’s ships.

Once ships are engaged in combat it is hands off for the players. The one vs one mechanism causes some problems with the immersive quality of the game in my eyes (I am part of the movement in the gaming community for the addition of multiple ship combat, balancing problems be damned. I would be glad to beta test the hell out of it). However, the amount of control players have in setting up the battles is almost infinite, as are the number of different strategic situations they will find themselves in.

Most games are geared to be won by two players (one can win alone if they so wish). Every race has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, so finding the best match for you in both personality and abilities is vital. Diplomacy is paramount in this game, way more so than any single player 4X. Dealing with human players is never predictable. Some of the tensest moments in my gaming history have come from the diplomacy in this game. Some players like to roleplay their race while others come at it from a more clinical perspective. I have been double crossed by some players, and had others who honored their treaties with me even to their own detriment. Bluffing is an important part of the diplomatic game as well; I have faced down far stronger opponents by exploiting their fears and whispering to them how much more of a threat that other empire is. Each opponent is different, with no “if then” formulas that make them easy to predict.

eXperience

Planets Nu is primarily a multiplayer experience. While there is an AI available for practice sessions, playing against it makes you realize just how essential the “human factor” is to the game. The biggest problem with most multiplayer games is actually getting together with your opponents to play. Planets Nu is turn based with each player given a time limit (usually 24 to 72 hours) to complete each turn. No need to all get together at the same time, everyone can do their turn at their convenience. The storyline of the game is created by the players themselves in their diplomatic exchanges and conflicts.

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Diplomatic maneuvers between empires.

Modern games often go to great lengths to demonstrate how to play the game. Planets Nu does not; it drops you in, says “good luck” and leaves you basically alone except for an advisor robot, which provides the same generic advice over and over again. A player must do a lot of the research themselves to learn how to properly play the game, which some people will struggle with.

Worse, documentation for the game is not easy for a new player to digest, though as I write this review, volunteers from the community are in the process of completely overhauling the “How To Play” pages of the wiki. It has definitely improved in the last year. Still, most of my friends would have given up the game before “getting” it if I hadn’t been present to answer their questions. However, now that they have got it, my friends are all obsessed with the game. Usually we go from game to game within a matter of weeks, Planets Nu has been our group’s main passion for the last 2 years and is still going strong.  

Planets Nu has also incorporated metagame features. For each race, players are given a rank ranging from midshipman to emperor. Players are promoted in rank as they play and gain achievement points which carry over from game to game. Your rank dictates what type of games you may participate in (beginner games allow a maximum rank of lieutenant, for example) and if you are eligible to partake in championship matches. Players also earn minerals and mega-credits for their race’s homeworld, which can be used to research further campaign options.

Additional ships and advantages that are not allowed in the base game can be used in the campaign games, increasing an already staggering level of variety. This also allows players to “beta test” new features requested for the game, with some campaign options eventually finding their way into the base experience. Players who win the championship match (no easy feat) get to design a new ship (costed for balancing, of course) for their respective race in future campaign games as a reward.

This added RPG element to the game definitely increases the level of engagement, while also allowing newer players some breathing room before they take on some of the best players.

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A view of my rank and awards for the Crystal Confederation. A newb still am I.

The other issue with most multiplayer games is that human opponents have a tendency to quit when faced with setbacks or even just a bad turn. Planets Nu’s solution to this problem is the tenacity scoring system, which rates each player on their ability to stick it out in tough or losing situations. If a player prematurely drops out of a game, they take a hit to their tenacity score, which can result in them not being able to enter certain games with a minimum tenacity requirement. This encourages players to fight it out to the end to avoid the penalty.

Before I choose an ally in a game, I always check their tenacity score to see how reliable they are. I should also add that you will slowly recover your tenacity score over time, and can recover it ever more quickly by taking over and playing a dropped position in an ongoing game, with no tenacity hit if you eventually decide to drop that position yourself.

Graphics and audio are best described as utilitarian – clear and concise but lacking in the “wow” factor. Imagination is required and the game is enhanced by this method in my opinion. Ships are drawn in a manner that resembles chess pieces, a result of many players attempts to sell the game to their friends as “space chess.”

Planets Nu is a micro-manager’s dream. When my friends first started, their biggest exposure to the 4X genre was Civilization V. One of the main concepts I had to get through to them was that while in Civ V the game would automatically allocate your civilians to work an area of land that was well suited for that city’s expansion, in Planets Nu the civilians would stand there with blank stares on their faces doing nothing until ordered. Nothing happens in the game unless you order it. Ships won’t cloak unless you give them the order to cloak, and your colonists won’t transfer down to a planet to colonize it until you give the word. There are some plug-ins that help decrease the micromanagement of planets (for example) but my friends and I were reluctant to use them due to our personal need to control EVERYTHING. Once I had an empire with over a hundred planets and starships, however, I did start using them.

In the late game, your planets and ships can number in the hundreds, turns can take a couple hours to complete – even more if you are coordinating with someone on a different continent. The time between turns is increased usually after a game has gone 15 turns, going from a new turn every 24 hours to three turns a week, which is needed as your empire grows and you need time to coordinate the war effort with your allies. New players should watch that they don’t get involved with too many games at the same time. Turns can just take a couple minutes in the beginning; a month later they can take hours. Once over the hump though, the game has proven to have an inescapable hold over its players.

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My empire is huge now, spanning over 150 planets and 200 ships. Brain… tingles.

Overall, Planets Nu meets all my requirements as a 4X gamer, including the sense of participation in a community of enthusiastic players active in helping the host develop the best possible gaming experience. I have never felt this degree of camaraderie in another game, despite the highly competitive nature of Planets Nu. I’ve not yet burned out on it, either; I always look forward to logging in and seeing that a new turn is available or sighing in frustration when it is not ready and I still have a few hours to wait. Mind you, I have learned that two games at a time is my personal limit.

I do have issues with the game, but most are technical in nature. Certain aspects of the UI could be improved, and there are limitations to using a browser as the platform for the game. As I said before, documentation could be more friendly to new players.

Gameplay-wise, I haven’t found a game which has managed to keep me engaged for such a long period of time, with no end in sight. Distant Worlds: Universe came close, even beating Planets Nu in regards to depth and the ability to design your own ships. It also fell prey to the oldest predator of complex 4X games: the inability to create a capable AI that truly challenges me for the long term. Planets Nu circumvents this by giving you other human minds to compete with. Finally, a game that holds my attention after the initial infatuation ends.

A feature of Planets Nu I really want to call attention to is how it handles multiplayer. I love that the players don’t have to get together at the same time to do a turn, that they can do their turn at a time of their choosing. It would be great to see new turn-based games use this system for multiplayer matches.

I highly recommend Planets Nu to anyone with an interest in turn based, 4X gaming that is a bit on the patient side. Now if you would excuse me, Captain Kirk is awaiting orders over Rigel V; He somehow survived that suicide run on the Death Star – he was always such a lucky bastard.

TL;DR: Planets Nu is a turn-based, multiplayer (mostly), play by e-mail Space 4X strategy game with factions that may be strangely familiar to fans of certain Sci-Fi properties. People more used to modern game design, who expect some hand-holding throughout the experience, are going to struggle with Planets Nu. But hardcore strategy fans are going to uncover a true gem – with innovative features that are truly unique in the current gaming market.

You Might Like This Game If:

  • You always dreamed of seeing Picard take on Vader, or Starbuck shoot down a Gorn
  • You like in-depth, high-demand, strategy games
  • You don’t need any of that fancy-pants, Millennial crap in your games, like in-depth tutorials or high-end graphics
  • You enjoy diplomacy and warfare with opponents that don’t just follow coded instructions
  • You enjoy controlling every aspect of your interstellar empire

You Might NOT Like This Game If:

  • You want a streamlined, simplified, straightforward strategy game
  • You’re looking for something fast-paced with immediate rewards
  • Browser-based gaming is a major turn-off for you
  • Social gaming gives you social anxiety
  • Pulling up your sleeves and doing some research is not something you are willing to do

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Holden has played 200+ hours of Planets Nu on his Windows 10 Alienware Desktop, 55” HDTV with Intel(R) Core(TM) i5-4460 CPU @ 3.20GHz, 8 GB Ram, 64-bit Operating system, x64 processor, and 4GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 745 graphics card.

5 replies »

  1. Wow, this brings back memories.

    Back in the day(tm), I played Stars!. I played a lot of Stars!. I recruited my co-workers. I hosted games. I made utilities to read the setup files and report anonymously how “fair” homeworld distribution was. I micromanaged and micromanaged some more. I loved it. I cried manly tears of pain when Supernova was canceled and the Jeffs went onto bigger and better things.

    I had heard of this thing called VGA planets but never tried it – I always wondered how the other half lived. :)

    So thanks very much for the review, Mr. Jess! I may just check out Mr. Wisseman’s creation.

    Like

  2. I played both Stars! and VGA Planets back in the old BBS days – VGA Planets was a winner for depth of play and the fun of shoving a Star Destroyer down somebody’s throat.

    Like

  3. @SilasOfBorg Ha, I had the opposite experience. I heard and looked at Stars! back in the day but never played it. If you like micromanaging you should love Planets!

    @Mythox Planets isn’t much to just watch, you need to get immersed in it to discover its magic ; )

    @Rannous Yes, nothing quite like the spew of anger that comes from a player who loses his home world to a imperial ground assault from a Star Destroyer. Good times!

    Like

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