What if I told you that there was a real-time space strategy game that allowed you to explore star systems, colonize planets, build fleets, recruit admirals, and fight against strange alien races?
And no, I’m not talking about Stellaris…
Conquest: Frontier Wars (CFW) is a real-time strategy space game from Fever Pitch Studios, originally released in 2001 for your Windows XP PC. Like a lot of PC games from that era, CFW didn’t get along well with modern iterations of Windows. But the game has enjoyed a recent re-release on Steam and GOG. The new editions also have some minor tweaks that can get you going on a modern machine.
CFW is one of the true hidden gems of strategy gaming, overshadowed at release by heavy hitters like Starcraft: Brood War and the umpteenth iteration of Command & Conquer. But the game has a loyal, cult following to this day. For one thing, CFW isn’t the stereotypical RTS of the late 90’s and early 00’s. It does some unique things when it comes to the maps the game is played on and unit management that aren’t just quality of life features; they are intricately tied into the design of the game itself.
CFW has the traditional three race structure: the mechanized and martial Terrans; the Celareons which are energy beings that wear robotic suits; and the insectoid Mantis. Faction design aside, CFW is far more than one of the many Starcraft clones that plagued the PC gaming world at the turn of the last century. CFW diverges sharply to allow for a much larger scope.
Here’s the thing about CFW, and the reason that eXplorminators everywhere should be interested in it: The game is basically a miniature 4X disguised as an RTS.
Checking out the neighborhood
If there’s one thing that sets CFW apart it is definitely the map. Or, well, maps.
In other games, you pick which map you want to play on from a set of pre-generated options that came with the game (or user-created maps in some instances). You choose the number of players, the faction/difficulty of the AI, whether there are allied teams or not, and so on. In CFW, by contrast, the maps are procedurally generated under parameters set by the player. Aside from the usual options, you can choose the size of the map, density of resources, and other factors.
But imagine if you could play a game like Starcraft: Brood War on a larger scale. Imagine if you weren’t limited to only one map – if you could link several maps together to play the game on a larger scale. CFW does exactly that.
In CFW, the map is represented by a single star system. While setting up the game, the player can randomly generate an interconnected network of up to 16 star systems – basically a small galaxy to explore, expand into, and conquer. Individual star system maps are connected by wormholes that all of the races in the game can pass through, defend, and even block.
CFW doesn’t have dedicated exploration ships, but every race has very small, fast military ships that are perfectly suited for the job while still maintaining a role in combat later on. Overall, exploration plays out as you would expect. You point and click around the map and push back the inky fog of war. Fortunately, you can issue multiple move orders in a row by holding Shift and clicking around the mini-map so you can concentrate on developing your planets and building a fleet.
Exploration is certainly bare bones compared to traditional 4X games, but you need to be on the lookout for a few things if you don’t want to end up as space debris at the end of the game. Each system map normally contains several planets, and they are all useful for building the structures you will need to support your fleets and gather resources. You also want to find all of the asteroid fields and nebulas that you can. They’re important for resource gathering operations, but also for their effects on combat (see eXterminate below). Most importantly, it is vital that your scout ships locate the wormholes that connect the star maps in your mini-galaxy. In addition to serving as gateways to other systems, the wormholes also act as natural chokepoints.
Once your home system has been explored, you will want to send your scouts through the wormhole(s) and into the next star system. For one thing, you’re going to need more resources. It’s also critical that you discover how all the systems are connected in your galaxy – you need to know where the enemy will be coming from and where to send your fleets when the time is ripe for an attack on their colonies.
Fortunately, the star map is easy to navigate. It is displayed in the lower right corner of the UI and takes the form of circles (representing systems) connected by lines which represent the presence of wormholes connecting two individual star systems. A blue circle indicates that your supply lines extend to that system. If the circle is filled in, you have built structures in that system. A red border indicates the presence of enemy ships that you should probably go blow up. Fortunately, the map is clickable and will immediately snap your view to the desired system.
Controlling The Map
Most buildings can only be constructed on one of the planets in the star system. Or rather, around the planets. It’s better to think of structures in CFW as forming a ring around the planet. Graphically, it’s a ring touching the planet’s atmosphere that… you know what? It’s probably best not to worry too much about the physics of it; it makes no sense.
Each planet has a number of buildable spaces in its immediate orbit, and each building takes up a certain number of slots (usually one or two). So there is a limit to how many structures a planet can support. Depending on how many planets are in your starting system, and the resources you need, it’s normal to have multiple constructor units building on multiple planets in multiple star systems at the same time. There are a few structures that can be built virtually anywhere in space, but they are limited to static defense platforms that I, personally, have never found to be very useful or worth the cost to build in significant numbers.
Available buildings are the typical fare, with a few unique extras that integrate with the CFW grand scale. I’ll use the Terran buildings as examples because the names are pretty self-explanatory, but the other two races have structures with equivalent functions. These include resource gathering buildings, shipyards for light and heavy ships, training facilities for admirals (more on that later), research buildings, and supply & repair platforms. You have to find a way to cram all of these buildings around your planets – and you will need multiple copies of some buildings (i.e. shipyards, repair platforms, and supply depots) across multiple systems. So the pressure is on to keep exploring new systems and claiming new planets while making sure you can defend your new colonies along with your supply lines.
Supply is a concept that is often hand-waved away in most space games (Distant Worlds: Universe being a notable exception), but it is critically important in both the eXpansion and eXtermination phases of CFW. You can build all the structures on all the planets, in all the systems that you want. But they will just sit there and refuse to do anything unless your supply chain is up and running.
The key to establishing supply is the Headquarters building. You start the game with one, which is what allows the buildings in your home system to function so that you can gather resources and build ships. Any system where you build a Headquarters will have supply established in it. The problem is that the Headquarters is one of the most expensive structures you can create and resources are limited and best used on ships that can blow up the bad guys.
Fortunately, there is a way to extend the effective range of your Headquarters beyond your home system in the form of jump gates. Building a jump gate around a wormhole does two things. First, it blocks enemy ships from coming through that wormhole until they have destroyed the jump gate (more on that later). Second, and most relevant to the expansion phase, is that jump gates extend supplies to the system connected by the wormhole. Throw up a jump gate, and your buildings in the next system will work just fine, even though there is no Headquarters in your new colony.
Jump gates chain together to extend your supply lines, as well. What you normally end up with is a network of systems, all supplied through jump gates, that lead back to the Headquarters in your home system. It is an efficient and inexpensive way to keep your mini-empire churning out war ships. Just make sure to defend your jump gates.
Cracking The Whip
Exploitation in CFW primarily takes the form of resource gathering, as you might expect. There are three resources that you have to worry about in the game: minerals, gas, and crew. Minerals can be found in multiple places. They can be mined in asteroid fields by harvester ships, as well as gathered from Earth-type and Moon-type planets with the Refinery building. Similarly, gas can be mined from nebulas by the harvester ships or gathered from Earth-type and Gas Giant planets. Meanwhile, crew can only be gathered from rocky planets – either Earth-type or Swamp-type planets. You can’t mine people with harvester ships!
Each race emphasizes a different resource when it comes to building structures and ships. The Terrans need more minerals than the other two races. The Celareons need more gas, and the Mantis need more crew. These varying needs will dictate what kind of planets you prioritize when it comes to colonization and how soon you will be looking to expand through the wormholes and claiming new star systems.
One other thing that should be mentioned about resources in CFW – they are limited and can be exhausted completely. That means you need to move your mining operations to new systems as the game progresses, including building Refineries on new planets after you have strip mined your starting worlds. It also means that you can’t turtle forever in CFW. You have to beat your opponent(s) before all the resources are used up, and keep in mind that the enemy is using up the galaxy’s limited supplies too.
CFW doesn’t have a research tree like a traditional 4X game. Instead, you can research faster resource harvesting, increased supply capacity for ships, armor upgrades, shield upgrades, speed upgrades, special ship weapons and abilities, and so on. Research is done by having the right building, spending some combination of mineral and gas resources, and waiting for the progress bar to fill. For example, resource gathering speed upgrades are researched at the Refinery, while ship special abilities are researched by various science-y buildings.
As far as diplomacy in CFW goes, well… there isn’t any. You can designate teams during game setup, but you won’t be forging those alliances during the course of the game. Ultimately, CFW is about one thing…
Meat And Potatoes
At it’s heart, CFW is about war.
Ships come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from small, fast corvettes to hulking dreadnoughts with tons of armor and enormous artillery. The Terran fleet, for example, consists of corvettes with flak cannons, missile cruisers, lancer cruisers that basically have a chain lightning attack, offense-oriented battleships, long range carriers, and tanky dreadnoughts. The Celareon favor expensive, high-tech ships with powerful cutting beams, while the Mantis swarm is a carrier-based fleet whose small fighters can quickly pick larger ships apart.
As is traditional in RTS games, you can create control groups of ships for easy access via keyboard shortcuts. But in CFW, you won’t want to do that because of the Admiral system. Each race offers the player five Admirals who can be trained at the Academy. Each Admiral is unique and offers bonuses to different types of ships in your faction’s unit roster. Additionally, every Admiral has their own, unique bonuses to combat against the other factions.There’s even an Admiral for each faction that has a bonus to combat against its own faction, since you could create a Terran vs. Terran game after all.
Admirals do more than just grant bonuses, though. They allow the player to create a Fleet. Every Admiral has a UI panel that allows easy access to certain fleet-wide orders. Let’s say your Terran fleet just defeated a Mantis fleet in a hard fought battle and many of your ships are damaged. Ordinarily, you would have to drag-select your ships, click around the map and find a repair platform, and right click on the platform to send your ships there and get patched up.
In CFW, this problem is compounded by the fact that the game is played across multiple, interconnected star systems. So your ships could easily be several wormholes away from the nearest repair platform – that would mean clicking around the mini-map to find it in addition to all the other steps.
Having an Admiral solves that micromanagement problem by having a “Fleet Repair” button. One click, and the Admiral will automatically take his fleet to the nearest repair station without further input from you, the player, who should probably be building reinforcements at the same time.
Another great ability with Admirals has to do with special weapons. You might want to tell the Battleships in your fleet to fire off an area-of-effect weapon called the Tempest Charge. Instead of having to select all of the battleships in your fleet, you can just click on the Tempest Charge button on your Admiral UI, assuming you bothered to research it, and BLAMMO! Tempests are charging everywhere.
While all of this might seem like some quality of life features that were a little ahead of their time when the game was released, in reality, they are essential functions for a game that takes place across multiple maps. Admirals make CFW playable, period. I can’t imagine what a mess the game would be without them. You will still find yourself using control groups for your scouting groups and supply ship convoys. But the Admirals and their Fleets are the stars of CFW, hands down.
Combat itself plays out like any overhead, real time game – point your ships at the bad guys and watch things go boom. Of course, you can individually target enemy ships and it’s often a good idea to do so. Having your entire fleet attack the biggest, baddest enemy ship at the beginning of an engagement while your ships are at full strength is a good tactic to employ. But sometimes it’s advantageous to go after ships that have particular special abilities instead.
You’ll want some level of combined arms in your fleets, generally speaking. Running into a group of Mantis carriers isn’t going to go well for a fleet that is all battleships. Including some corvettes with their flak cannons won’t do much damage to the carriers, but they will protect the battleships from the Mantis fighters. You can pause the game at any time, but you can’t issue a bunch of orders while paused. What you can do is move around the map or use the minimap to move your view between systems. It’s not as good as issuing orders, but it’s still useful when the action heats up.
Just like expanding your territory, the concept of supply is critical to combat as well. In Starcraft, a space marine is just like John Wayne – his gun never runs of bullets. Ships in CFW have limited supplies. You can’t just take a fleet out forever and expect it to continue to fight effectively, or at all, once supplies run out completely. The game offers a couple of ways to handle this limitation and, as usual with CFW, the systems work elegantly and with minimal micromanagement from the player.
It’s a good idea to build supply platforms in your colony systems that are close to the front lines. A supply platform has a radius that can be expanded via research. Any of your ships that are inside that radius are automatically resupplied by the platform. No docking is required, so it’s a quick process. All you have to do is make sure your ships are inside the platform’s radius; no other player input is required.
A smart commander will also include a couple of supply ships with his Admirals’ fleets. Supply ships are built at the Headquarters and are essentially unarmed transports filled with “supplies.” The game doesn’t specify what supplies actually are. Let’s all pretend they are food, ammunition, spare parts, and other goodies that a fleet would need to operate in the field. Basically, they are mobile supply platforms that can travel with your fleet. Again, no player input is required here. Any ship inside the supply ship’s radius will automatically be resupplied. However, a supply ship’s stock is limited so it will have to return to a supply platform from time to time.
Once I’ve built an expeditionary fleet and assigned an appropriate Admiral, I like to follow it with a control group that consists of 2-4 supply ships and a couple of constructor ships. That way I can keep my fleets supplied in the field. Meanwhile, I use my constructor ships to build a chain of jump gates back to my systems and plop down a repair platform and/or a supply depot in some distant location.
Conquering planets is straightforward in CFW. There’s no ground combat in the game. If you want to take an enemy’s planet, all you have to do is blow up his buildings and send in your own constructor ship to build some of your own. CFW is set entirely in space much like Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. Those looking for terrestrial based gameplay won’t find it here.
So, is it Good?
Conquest: Frontier Wars is a joy to play, and I think the game is just as much fun as it was when I bought the CD-ROM on a whim almost 16 years ago. Exploring star systems, building up colonies, and moving fleets around still works well. CFW is elegantly designed. None of its systems are very complex, but they all interact in fascinating ways. The supply system, for example, impacts both expansion into new systems, as well as the combat ability of your fleets. But because the supply system is simple and easy to understand, it becomes an interesting limitation that you have to plan around instead of the annoyance that it could have otherwise become.
Another great touch is that the game plays at a slightly slower pace than you might expect from a RTS game of that era. That’s a real benefit given CFW’s scale compared to similar games in the genre. The AI is competent, but is allowed to cheat at higher difficulty levels when it comes to resources and ship construction. You won’t see any tactical genius out of the AI, but it can do things like use special weapons pretty well and can offer a challenge through sheer brute force.
If time has been unkind to the game in any respect, it has definitely been the graphics. The various 3D models are not as detailed as a game made in 2017, but that’s to be expected for a 2001 release. Besides, you will be playing zoomed all the way out most of the time so models that are a bit rough around the edges won’t matter very much.
The worst offender is the background textures. They are mottled and blurry on modern, high definition monitors, and there is nothing you can do to sharpen them up. Fortunately, you can turn them off entirely which leaves a black background – appropriate for a game set in outer space. The recent re-release does support modern monitor resolutions, though the idea of playing it in 4K is probably expecting too much. Be warned that the UI does not resize with the monitor resolution, so controls take up almost one third of my 1080p monitor. On the other hand, that does make the buttons on the UI easy to identify quickly. If you buy a lot of games on GOG, you’re probably used to that, though.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is absolutely fantastic. Each race has it’s own set of tracks that play in the background when you play them: the Terrans’ music is straight out of Starship Troopers, the Celareons have a Hearts of Space style, and the Mantis are more ominous and menacing (they are the bad guys). The Terran theme music is easily the most iconic and recognizable and you will catch yourself humming it the next day after a late night session.
If I haven’t said anything about the campaign mode of the game it’s because it is the weakest part of the experience, in my opinion. The CFW campaign is a bog standard affair that is ultimately uninteresting. But the real problem is that the campaign doesn’t really emphasize all the things that make the game special and unique. Like a lot of strategy campaigns of its day, it mostly serves as a tutorial for the game, putting lots of restrictions on players at first and gradually introducing new mechanics at a pedestrian pace. The real meat on the bone in CFW is the sandbox mode where the excellent game design really stands out.
It’s The Final Countdown
See? I told you that Conquest: Frontier Wars was a like a small-scale real time 4X game.
CFW is my favorite RTS game, and one of my favorite games of any genre. It is a complete package that delivers on a grand scale compared to other, similar titles. While it may not look like much in a world where Sins of a Solar Empire and StarCraft 2 exist, CFW still has a lot to offer and proves that simple, but well designed strategy games can still be a lot of fun.
TL;DR: Conquest: Frontier Wars was a great game in 2001 and it’s still a great game today. It combines RTS gameplay with light 4X elements to create the experience of a grand-ish campaign across multiple star systems. The game is elegantly designed with simple mechanics that interact in interesting ways. A random map generator provides endless strategic situations and a sandbox mode that is highly customizable. The music is excellent, and the overall presentation gives the game an epic feel. Sure, the graphics are a little rough by today’s standards, but that doesn’t stop those Master of Orion 1 grognards!
You might like this game if:
- You like RTS/4X hybrids and want to play the best one that time forgot
- The idea of playing a traditional RTS across multiple maps simultaneously sounds like fun
- You think Starship Troopers has an awesome soundtrack (because it does)
You might NOT like this game if:
- You want to issue lots of orders while a real time game is paused
- You don’t think you should ever have to touch an .ini file
- You think “retro” is a four letter word (It’s actually a five letter word)
Micah has played 1000+ hours of Conquest Frontier Wars since 2001 on every computer he has owned since then. He currently plays the game on a custom desktop PC with a FX-8320 CPU and a GTX 970 GPU with 16GB of RAM.