Sometimes it pays to be the n00b. When Galactic Civilizations 3: Crusade was released back in May, it came to the attention of eXplorminate staff that I had yet to play any game in the GalCiv series. As such, I was uniquely suited to evaluate Crusade as a fresh 4X experience without the constant comparisons to GalCiv 3 or the many Ghosts of GalCiv Past.
Crusade revealed itself as something of a passion project by Stardock CEO Brad Wardell, meant to add key components previously missing from GalCiv 3, revamp its economy, introduce espionage, and generally improve performance (cough, AI, cough) and user experience. Since I never played the base game, I can’t comment on these objectives relative to the pre-Crusade state, but Crusade is certainly a comprehensive game with solid mechanics, a well-designed UI, and beautiful graphics.
Crusade is a turn-based, hex-based, sandbox, space 4X with some associated – but not functionally necessary – lore. If you want to experience a story, there’s a campaign mode available, but the primary way the game is enjoyed is as a standard free-for-all 4X.
As of this writing, there are 15 factions, including eight from the base game, two from the Mercenaries expansion, two from other DLC, and three new additions from Crusade. Of course, there is also option to design your own factions. Factions come in four main flavors: carbon-based (food is food), silicon-based (Durantium – a galactic resource – is food), aquatic (food is food, but we get to use more of our planet), and synthetic (who needs food when you can build babies?). Each faction is characterized by sets of traits that have a positive or negative effect such as science output or combat. They also receive two “abilities,” which give more substantial perks meant to steer a faction towards a certain playstyle.
One feature I really liked was the in-game “Civilization Builder.” This feature allows you to customize your own race – or that of the opponents you want to face – by choosing aesthetics, traits and abilities, and AI behavior. New to Crusade is the ability to link Steam Workshop ship designs to your custom faction, for added aesthetic immersion. Now, your Cardassian Empire will look like the Cardassians in battle – instead of like tan Yor.
Crusade has the usual 4X victory types, though all but one (not including time limit victory, because that’s silly) can easily turn into variations on Conquest. You have straight-up Conquest (eat all neighbors), Influence (eat most neighbors, fill empty space), Ascension (eat your neighbors’ special control points, then turtle for 80 turns), and Diplomatic (make friends with a couple of neighbors, eat the rest). Oh, also, there’s a tech victory, because come on, it’s 4X!
All of the stock factions start with a scout ship in Crusade. And good thing, too. Early expansion and neighbor-spotting is key, as in any 4X. The map is full of natural and artificial objects (e.g. planets and stations) to exploit – or just to get in your way. Additional natural phenomena like dust and nebulae hinder movement or affect combat. Star locations are indicated even in unexplored areas, so you always know where to head to have the best chance of scoring habitable planets. Valuable strategic resources are also scattered about, with some appearing more frequently around stars and others consigned to deep space.
And then, of course, there are your neighbors. You can determine in game setup how many rivals to introduce into your galaxy, and you’ll be competing with all of them for resources and living space in the beginning. If you’re planning on playing a diplomatic game, you may want to invest in the Universal Translator tech early and take advantage of trading options. But if you’re only interested in taking your opponents’ stuff, you may decide to delay gaining the ability to communicate and focus on more “aggressive” technologies.
As you explore, you’ll also find anomalies. Anomalies are little packets of space junk: ancient precursor leftovers or other interesting debris that your scout ships can scan for rewards. Think of them as goody huts in space, with one key exception: new anomalies can surface throughout the game, giving your scout ship something to do long after your galaxy has been mapped. Rewards for scanning anomalies start by yielding a paltry dollop of ship XP, but later on they include strategic resources, money, or progress toward your current tech. Your early game will often be awash in deficit spending, but you can stay in the black almost solely by collecting anomalies. Unfortunately, the payouts don’t scale, and cash rewards are comically small by the late game. Likewise, the strategic resource rewards are most useful early on, while 15% progress on your current tech is always good, early or late.
Once you’ve found your virgin worlds and untapped space-bound riches, it’s time to grab them! Colony ships and constructors are your only means of snagging territory – at least peacefully. However, not all planets are created equal, varying by class, size, planet-bound strategic resources, and modifiers that make some planets better or worse at certain types of outputs than others. Additionally, there are planet types that require different technologies to settle, so if you spy a juicy class-16 radioactive world in the middle of the next system over, you’ll want to prioritize the corresponding tech.
As you progress through the game, you’ll find virtually everything worth building requires some sort of resources, and some things require quite a lot. These strategic resources fall into two distinct categories: galactic and trade. There are five galactic resources, all space-bound and required for seemingly everything you build by the mid-point in the game. Then there are 15 trade resources, all planet-bound and required in small numbers for more exotic items and buildings as the game progresses. The variety and uneven distribution of these resources drives much of the cooperation and conflict in Crusade.
Starbases project your faction’s power into the great void itself. Built by consuming construction ships, starbases don’t do much on their own and must be equipped with modules that, in part, specialize a station into cultural, economic, industrial, or military installations. Mining Starbases are likely to be the type you build first. These are the means by which a player harvests those all-important spaceborne strategic resources. Economic starbases buff nearby planets, making them most useful near multi-planet systems or powerful single planets.
Influence stations claim territory – either previously unclaimed or from your neighbors. It’s possible to gain planets by out-producing influence compared to its original owner, but it’s very difficult after the early game. Influence is still an important currency however, as it is the pathway to the Influence Victory (possess 75% of galactic space), and in calculating income from tourism improvements. Finally, military starbases boost your ship weapons damage and ship speed in their area of operation, so they’re best deployed near strategic locations likely to be fought over. Besides specialized modules, all stations can equip advanced defenses and dedicated modules that take advantage of precursor relics. Relics can give empire-wide boosts to specific stats, or they can provide ascension points for the Ascension Victory.
I’ve been informed that previously, additional constructor ships were required to equip modules. Now, modules are constructed instantly at the starbase, using only money and, sometimes, strategic resources. I never experienced the “Old Way”, but if constructor spam was a primary cause for angst when playing GalCiv 3, Crusade may have fixed your problem.
Orbital Shipyards (where your Space Navy is assembled) are sponsored by planets, and military production from those sponsors are the fuel to your military industrial complex. This can make a single shipyard near a cluster of productive planets into an absolute powerhouse. Interestingly, in the Crusade expansion, your home planet does not start with a shipyard, because the game is meant to start just after your people take to the stars. Exactly where your people acquire the vessel you start the game with is not discussed.
In addition to building ships, your shipyards can also produce modest research output (with an investment of a rare strategic resource), send a mission to find treasure in exotic locales, obtain strategic resources, or even find yourself a little fleet. Granted, the resource yields are pretty meager, and the fleet is fairly paltry compared to what you could just build yourself, so I usually go for the cash if I ever, say, overbuild my fleet and have to supplement my income to compensate.
Citizens and Administration
The Crusade expansion adds two new elements that seem separate but which must really be considered together: citizens and administration. Citizens are super-powered unique individuals, one of which will surface in your empire every ten turns. The player determines what type of specialization a citizen will take, boosting some aspect of the empire. Citizen specialties include social production, ship construction, economy, science, morale, space or planetary warfare, espionage, and, crucially, administration.
Citizens that boost empire output (e.g. production, economy, science) can level up by being assigned to a planet. While assigned, the planet receives a 30% boost to the output involved. Consequently a newly-settled planet will build its infrastructure faster if the citizen is a social production specialist, or he/she/it can pump up your science output dramatically if applied to your giant science planet. Output-based citizens can also work “for the government” by being unassigned to a planet, thus conferring their associated boost at a much smaller rate – starting at 3% – to the empire as a whole. Admirals, meanwhile, boost fleet capacity and performance, and they even come with their own little ship. This is actually a double-edged sword. they bring extra firepower, but they can be destroyed in battle.
In addition to sitting it out in their offices on a colony or in the central government, citizens can also be “retired” – they go out in a blaze of glory and, in so doing, bring about a big, one-time boost to your empire. A worker can finish a wonder in a turn, or a scientist can finish an advanced tech instantly. That’s not too different from other games, such as the Civilization series, in which a great person can be used instantly. Compared to Civ, however, in which you can choose only the instant or long-term benefits from a great scientist, in Crusade your scientist can have a long and fruitful career before being horribly consumed by one last project.
Now let’s return to that concept of administration. In order to build scout ships, constructors, or colony ships – that is, to expand peacefully – you consume available administration. While some technologies increase administration, your primary means of gaining administration – and therefore expanding – is through specializing citizens as administrators. Every administrator increases your overall administration by +5, making administrators a crucial resource during expansion phases.
The overall effect of this system is that citizen specialization is a decision point for the direction of your empire. Is it time to settle that next set of systems and grab more space, or do my developing colonies need a boost? Is it time to prepare another fleet for war, or is it time to turtle up and work on my science output for a push to a tech victory? With every new citizen, the player must choose among expansion, war readiness, and overall economic development.
One deviously satisfying means of taking territory and planets is culture flipping. If you can get a neighbor’s planets into your influence zone – basically your space-territory – the pressure begins mounting for the population to switch over to your empire. There are modifiers that can make a planet more or less likely to make the switch, and one particularly nefarious option immediately flips all planets under your influence.
If you could reduce Crusade to a single aspect or mechanic, you could probably call the game Planetary Tile Optimization Simulator 2017. Planets are classed based on the number of usable tiles available when first settled, ranging from five to twenty. The planetary capital improvement is placed automatically upon settling a new world. You don’t get to pick where without using a mods, while the rest of the tiles are yours to do with as you please. Technologies and ideology traits allow the player to develop additional tiles, but with some limitations.
Worlds are made up of continents and oceans, and – surprise! – you get to build primarily on continents. (Yes, even the aquatic factions are primarily limited to land.) This means that your tile development will necessarily cluster based on the initial land mass layout of your planets. In addition, some planets also have tiles that provide rare resources for use in advanced improvements, ship modules, and processes.
Tile improvements themselves offer a panoply of options. They can boost population capacity, food (for those that are into that kind of thing), social production, ship production, science, border growth, income, happiness, and even ideology points. Almost all improvements come with adjacency bonuses, greatly influencing the need for proper placement in your limited space. This turns into a mini-game all its own. Improvements compete for tile space with wonders (limited to one example per planet, per player, or per galaxy) that enhance options for planetary specialization.
Many factions have one or more faction-specific building or series of buildings. For instance, the malevolent Drengin lack the usual factory improvement line in favor of the Work Camp and its series of upgrades. In addition to the usual production boosts, Work Camps provide modest improvements to population cap and happiness; your people can’t be unhappy if they’re not allowed to be.
Basic improvements require only a tile and some construction time, but improvement upgrades and specialist buildings usually require strategic resources to build. By default, each planet is set to automatically upgrade improvements when the technology for the upgrade is researched. This option can be turned off if you don’t want to have worlds’ worth of strategic resources suddenly queued out of existence every time you research an upgrade technology. Advanced upgrades require significant social production, so newly-settled or otherwise underdeveloped planets may begin striving for Level Three upgrades before they have the production to complete such projects in under 30 turns. Seriously, just turn off that default until you suspect a well-developed planet can handle its own upgrades.
Now, if all of this tile management seems a bit tedious to you, rest assured, it is. And if you’d like to avoid it somehow, you should know that planetary governors (basically AI planet managers) are a thing in Crusade. I have had subpar results from governors, however, and I recommend against their use on all but the easiest difficulty settings. Let me give you a couple of examples. If you have unlocked your advanced, high-cost ideology buildings, governors will prioritize their construction over all other options, whether or not they fit the specialization you’ve selected for that planet. I have twice taken recently-conquered planets, ensured their social production was reasonable, given them a governor and a specialty and set them on their way. Both planets ended up significantly below average in their specialty.
So what do you do when your planet’s tiles are full and your improvements are all upgraded? Well, if you’ve kept up with your manufacturing, you can always devote a few turns to extra money, science, or troops for offense or defense. Or, if your overachiever planet is a manufacturing marvel, you can even have it spend much of the rest of the game on recruiting a new citizen. This last option seems to require some combination of fabulous manufacturing early, a victory path that will take a while, and a real, true, deep need for one last citizen before winning. For example, in one late-game save, my most productive colony could produce a citizen in over 100 turns, while I could probably win in about 40. I think some rebalancing may be in order here.
I should mention here that asteroids in a star system can be mined in order to boost production in a nearby planet. This is not accomplished by using a mining starbase, as I had originally suspected, but by clicking on an asteroid patch you own and paying to develop it.
Technologies in Crusade are divided among four trees: colonization, engineering, warfare, and governance, although these names and the exact technologies within each tree can vary by faction. Colonization unlocks research and production-based tile improvements, station modules, planetary tile buildings, and techs for colonizing hostile planet types. The engineering tree covers propulsion, sensors, and targeting, ship range, hull size, fleet size, and spaceborne resource mining. Warfare, as you might suspect, gives you ship and station offensive modules,planetary invasion techs, and fortifications. Finally, governance unlocks advances in internal and external trade, influence (border growth), population happiness, administration, diplomacy, and espionage.
There are four ages that technologies fall into, and a given number of techs must be researched before you can access techs in the next age. That little detail was news to me while I was trying to research the final techs for the science victory.
Crusade also includes specialization techs that force you to choose among two or three options, which provide a widespread boost to a given game system. For instance, the Warhead Focus forces the player to choose between increased missile range, lower missile mass, or decreased production cost for missile systems. Of course, technologies can be traded, and if a “friend” of yours researched one of the other available options, there is a chance you could get multiple specializations.
A thoroughly delightful mechanic in Crusade is ideology. Ideology points are accrued by special events and by special improvements and wonders. Randomly throughout the game, and upon settling new planets, events pop up forcing the player to choose among three responses to a fictional situation – and providing rather endearing flavor text. These responses give points towards one of the three ideologies – Benevolent, Pragmatic, Malevolent – along with perks, maluses, or a combination of the two. These choices are often significantly imbalanced. The Malevolent choice is the obvious best choice, for instance. While you can pick and choose from each of the ideologies as you play, it’s generally most beneficial to stick to one.
Perks gained from Benevolence tend to steer a society towards high morale, peaceful expansion, influence, science, and generally peaceful victory conditions. Malevolence, as you might expect, favors conquest, industry, and cash. Meanwhile, Pragmatism threads the needle by providing boosts to several empire yields and all spaceborne installations, while improving diplomacy and military defense. Whichever ideology (or combination of) you choose, it’s a creative way to boost whatever nefarious or civilized plans you have for the galaxy. And often, the flavor text is worth the read.
When it comes to sucking the marrow of the galaxy, nothing is better than eXploiting your neighbors, right? Luckily for interstellar peace, planet-based resources are distributed relatively unevenly, and trade with other empires is necessary. In addition to tradeable resources, there are specialty techs you can only get through exchanging with others. you can offer (or receive) excess cash, you can convince folks to go to war or embargo a mutual enemy, and you can enter into a number of trade and science treaties. You can even ally with other empires and win the game outright through diplomacy.
There’s a special art to balancing a perfect trade deal with a neighbor. As much Durantium as they can stand to lose, a couple of rare minerals they have a small excess of, and a specialty tech you want, for that cash you don’t really need and a tech they’ll never be able to turn against you. Despite the potential complexity of dealmaking, the interface is intuitive, making business with your “friends” easy and pleasant.
Somewhat less interesting is the “United Planets,” which is a galactic UN of sorts. Honestly, I usually forget about this feature until it pops up asking me to vote on something really weird (Do I want this race I’ve never heard of to get a new planet? What’s in it for me? Will they like me if I vote yes?) or to pick a resolution to propose to the other empires. Granted, if you’re hoping to turtle up while going for a science victory, it could be good to vote for galactic peace. But then, the Yor are always going to defy your stupid kumbaya party, and you’ll be back where you started. And if you are the Yor, and the galaxy quakes before you, at least the defy option is there in case you think war will be illegal no matter how many votes you have.
New to Crusade is an espionage mechanic. The system is pretty well fleshed-out. You build espionage points with your rivals by assigning spy citizens to an empire. As you gain espionage, you learn more and more about the empire and their planets, and the easier it is to steal technology from them. You can also assign spies to individual planets and neutralize key improvements. I find espionage to be especially useful in determining which planets are key producers of ships or money or science, so I can take or otherwise disable them early on in a war.
Ships are the means by which your empire explores its surroundings, trades with its friends, establishes its outposts, and projects its force. We’ve dilly-dallied around those first few points long enough – now it’s time to tackle warships, the ship designer, and fleet warfare.
Ships come in five hull sizes, ranging from tiny to huge, and you unlock larger hull sizes via technologies. Interestingly, I’m not sure there’s any real point to smaller ship sizes once larger sizes are researched. Nothing I have found indicates that different hull sizes have any specific roles or advantages relative to the others. Each faction has an array of thematically-designed ship appearances, but these are strictly cosmetic.
Additionally, these hulls can be heavily edited, or new designs can be fashioned from scratch to make your ships look however you please. Alternatively, if you aren’t feeling terribly creative, the Steam Workshop is filled with other people’s ship designs, and you can borrow some of those for your fleet. Within the ship designer the parts that have gameplay value are the ship modules, which serve to specialize a vessel (i.e. make it a scout ship, colony ship, constructor, or trade ship) or to balance offense, defense, speed, and range in your warships.
Modules have defined mass, and each hull size has a defined mass capacity. It is possible to reduce module mass through specialization techs. Modules also have a production cost, so min-maxers can edit themselves, for instance, a short-range constructor for a nearby resource pile that will shave a turn or two off of construction. As you progress through the tech tree, more powerful versions of commonly-used modules will be developed, and warship designs will be automatically updated. You’ll have to pay dearly to upgrade your existing fleet though.
Speaking of fleets, your exquisitely-designed space-death-machines do not fight alone. Your ships can be combined into fleets, and these are the units that go head-to-head in interstellar combat. Fleet size is limited to logistics technology. Combat itself is actually pretty straightforward. There’s the usual though somewhat nuanced rock-paper-scissors arrangement of missiles, lasers, and space bullets, along with shields, armor, and point defense each costing various resources to build.
After combat begins, two fleets mash together, and you can either watch the carnage passively or auto-resolve. There is no retreat mechanic, which is a real shame when a constructor gets caught out in a surprise war zone. Oh well – I guess settlers need defending in space, too.
Once your fleets have pew-pewed their way to your neighbors’ juicy planets and eliminated the orbital defense forces, it’s time to put actual boots on the ground. In this exercise, you place your innumerable soldiers in the position that will allow them to capture cities rapidly and effectively while avoiding any buildings you’d like to keep, though you’ll have to face defense armies on your way into town. Your troops high-tail it straight towards the cities once the invasion begins, and after all cities are captured, the planet is yours.
All of that strategy goes out the window, however, when you find that you’re outnumbered five-to-one by defense forces. In that case, your best bet is to position your soldiers to deal maximum damage to infrastructure before their inevitable demise. You’d also be well-advised to place defense troops on any and all of your worlds that might be tempting to your neighbors. All-in-all, invasions add a wrinkle to the throw-troops-at-a-planet strategy, and it allows a certain amount of customization to deal with the situation on a planet you want – or want to maim.
So far, I’ve covered an array of systems in Crusade, but a game is meant to be more than the sum of its features. From faction selection until victory, getting to a desired end-point is meant to require a series of important decisions. A game is at its best when those decisions lead to very different experiences from one game to the next. While reading over faction traits and abilities of both stock races and potential player designs, I’m struck by how many abilities seem to be somewhat overpowered, but few actually change the overall calculation of what direction your empire should go.
Starting with espionage tech? That’s nice, I guess, but it’s not really compelling. I’m not sure my opener would be that much different than if I started with, say, a constructor ship. I don’t think I’d go so far as to say the factions are particularly samey, but they’re not differentiated enough that I feel compelled to pursue one awesome victory over another whether I’m playing the Onyx Hive versus the Torians. Even the question of silicon-based versus carbon-based versus mechanical factions really only results in questions of tile space and production queues.
On the other end of the game, victory types – which really lie on a spectrum from less conquest to more conquest, feel less differentiated by kind so much as by degree – with the possible exception of the science victory. This is mirrored by the general similarity of the opponent races. The Altarians are dogmatic and uppity, the Drengin and the Yor are aggressive, and everybody else just blends together.
Determining whether to absorb or befriend a neighbor has more to do with location and resources than with AI behaviors and other tendencies. And, as is often the case with 4X these days (maybe since forever?), there’s a certain amount of end-of-game reflexive next-turning as you desperately hope to finish a tech victory as quickly as possible.
All of this isn’t necessarily to say that one game of Crusade is the same as any other. Variations in early neighbors and their behavior actually has a pretty big role to play in determining how aggressive or passive you need to be. If you start between the Yor and the Drengin, buckle up. If you start next to the Altarians and the Krynn, you can get away with turtling for a while. But even still, mid-game conquest or peacemaking is more a matter of preference than of situational necessity.
Perhaps the biggest driver of game-to-game variation, for me, is Ideology. While picking an ideology doesn’t pigeonhole a playthrough too much, it does spice up your journey quite a bit. Perhaps you’re not sure if you should start that war with the guy who swiped that triple-Durantium spot next door, but that unexpected Malevolent trait pick just gave you three extra troop transports. Looks like game on to me! Are you wondering how long it’ll take to finish those last few techs before you can build the I-win wonder? The Enlightenment branch finisher from Benevolence is here to help! More than any other feature in Crusade, I would say ideology is the biggest game-changer and driver of variety.
As far as difficult decisions go, let me give you an easy early decision: play your first game – or at least part of a game – on Easy difficulty especially if you’re new to GalCiv3. The AI and balance in Crusade is done such that on Normal difficulty, you’ll start at a distinct disadvantage and be forced to make very smart decisions in order to come back and win. Normal assumes you already understand the game pretty well.
With few exceptions, the user interface is clean and intuitive. The number of distinct strategic resources is high, and specific symbols can be hard to spot when you’re scanning among twenty colorful, tiny, circular icons in the top bar. There’s a limit to the number of trade routes your empire is allowed, but that number is buried DEEP in the Govern tab, not on the top bar, nor, say, incorporated in any way with the shipyard interface. Relatedly, there’s no way that I’ve found to search possible trade routes in order to find an optimal route prior to initiating one. Finally, you can’t queue technology picks, so you’ll be picking new techs by hand among the four tech trees every two-to-ten turns. It’s a minor quibble, but such a feature would be nice.
The game performs well technically.Late game turns on a large map with several AI opponents process reasonably quickly, better than certain other recent 4X titles in my experience. There were a couple of graphical bugs and accidental exploits, but these may be fixed in the upcoming 2.5 update. In fact, as a late-breaking addendum, due to good sales of Crusade, many of the improvements and fixes from the expansion will be going into the base game as part of 2.5.
Aesthetically, Crusade is a delight.. I play zoomed out to the strategic view, which is a very effective way to play. However, I was sometimes surprised when I zoomed in how well-rendered the setting is when viewed up close. The character diplomacy animations are likewise impressive, though I have a particular beef with the Terran Resistance leader’s face when she’s happy to see me. Talk about uncanny valley… Ships are duly impressive looking, and watching space battles is a highlight, even when there’s nothing you can do about the outcome. The game’s music, while not necessarily phenomenal, is thoroughly atmospheric, and the sound effects are satisfying. Overall, an enjoyable show.
TL;DR: Galactic Civilizations 3: Crusade is a high-water mark in the standard turn-based space 4X. The game has all the features you’d expect out of a traditional game of its type: recognizable tech trees, standard resource types, and marginally-differentiated factions. The planetary tile system and the new citizen system frequently force lots of small, interesting choices, and the new espionage mechanics are well-fleshed out. Graphics are superb, as long as you’re zoomed in, the music is atmospheric, and the UI is clean and intuitive. Victory conditions tend to bleed into one another, but ideology saves the game as far as replayability goes. All in all, a solid offering that, while not breaking new ground, does what it does well.
You will like this game if:
- You like the standard turn-based space 4X
- Competent spycraft is exciting to you
- Every planet is a puzzle and always will be
- You love well-written flavor text
You will NOT like this game if:
- You want a game that pushes boundaries and tries new things
- You’ve been spoiled by games with radically different factions
- Competent planetary governors are essential to avoiding micromanagement
- You want any victory type other than science and different flavors of conquest
Ben has played for 70+ hours on a 27” iMac running Windows 8.1 with a 3.5 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB DDR3 RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 775M 2048 MB.
Ben received a game key for Galactic Civilizations III: Crusade at no cost for the purposes of review.