We are currently living in a boardgame renaissance. While video games feel stuck in same-ville, the boardgame world is full of exciting innovation, risk-taking designs, and flourishing creativity. Naturally, the excitement for boardgaming has slowly spread back to the video game world, and thus we’re getting games with boardgame-influenced mechanics (such as Thea) as well as full-on tabletop recreations like Armello.
In the best scenarios, you get the strategic innovations of a boardgame without all the patshke of setting up and tearing down that comes with games in the physical world. Not to mention having to find a table big enough, or a friend or four willing enough, to play the game.
In the worst scenario, you get Falling Stars: War of Empires: a buggy, incomplete mess of a space 4X game that does nothing to recommend either the cardboard or the chip-based medium.
Players begin by selecting their race. Each has a different portrait and a unique special ability but otherwise they are the same – they use the same ships, can settle the same planets, play by the same rules, etc. This is in keeping (for the most part) with standard boardgame 4X practices where the races are usually far less diversified than what you might find in, say, Age of Wonders 3 or Endless Space 2. But due to severe balance issues, only three of Falling Stars’s races are really viable.
You can customize the galaxy you wish to play in which includes: the number of opponents, the frequency of resources, the cost of researching techs, and the number of victory points required for a victory. Players are dropped on the map which is displayed as a giant hexagon made up of little hexes with each starting planet on one side of the large hex. All starting positions are known from turn one
Where the exploration kicks in is with the hexes surrounding your starting planet. They are all blank to begin with, but as you explore each one, they will be revealed. Some will just be empty, but most will have a planet (representing a larger system? I guess? It’s unclear).
Planets may also be ‘blanks’ but usually there are people living there. They will provide necessary materials like fuel or tech (Nate says it is similar to SM Starships, in a way). These are random, rewards are not the same, so there is some feeling of discovery here, but it’s limited. There’s no equivalent of an “Eden” planet or, say, a major resource center that would be an important point for your empire to defend or your enemy to capture.
What planets will have is a loyalty to other factions, not the major ones you’re playing as, but minor factions elsewhere in the galaxy. There is some benefit to befriending planets of the same faction (we’ll get to that in a bit), but there’s no way to really tell which planets are allied without clicking every hex. The information just isn’t catalogued anywhere. Falling Stars is full of little underlying systems like this that are poorly explained, horribly underutilized, and complete gibberish to the player.
Other systems like this include your ability to set agendas that give your empire certain bonuses for particular choices and strategic actions that… Provide particular bonuses for certain choices? Anyway, a lot of these functions are supposed to help you feel like you’re making smart decisions that customize and optimize your empire. In practice, however, players may as well close their eyes and pick one because the benefits and penalties associated with them are wholly unclear and certainly unsatisfying.
Again, expansion is not nearly so robust as what you’d expect from a full-featured 4X game. There are no unspoiled treasures awaiting your intrepid settlers. In fact, there are no settlers in the game at all.
The only way to acquire a new planet and add it to your empire is by force. Players must build soldiers and then load them onto a carrier, then send the carrier to the planet in question. This is not nearly as easy as it sounds. The UI for interacting with ships is horrid. Soldier icons are fairly clear, but discerning one ship type from another is nearly impossible since they are unlabeled and indistinct.
Further, the act of moving one unit onto another, once you’ve figured out who needs to go where, is exceptionally fussy leading to multiple mis-clicks. There’s also no way to tell how full your carrier is. This is less of an issue when you first build a carrier and you know it’s empty. But once you’ve dropped a few peeps off at a planet, does the carrier still have enough people on it to go after another target? Impossible to know. Sometimes the carrier does. Other times no. There’s no way to check, so you’ll often get the carrier where it needs to go only to discover it is essentially a big metal husk.
This is another problem with the whole ship-moving UI. Let’s say you want to select some of your armada and send it over to a new planet to subjugate the people, but you also want to send some of your fleet to another planet that’s at risk of attack from one of your not-so-friendly neighbors. Well, again, it’s nearly impossible to tell which ship is which. And the clicking interface is almost unusable. So, ummmm, good luck with that!
So many times I clicked on a hex to discover that, nope, I somehow managed to leave the carrier behind. Now I have two useless flight groups: a bunch of attack ships that can’t do anything at the planet and some carriers that are sitting around waiting to be slaughtered by the enemy.
This is no small “oopsie” either, fuel is important and scarce, so sending out ships for no reason can destroy an already fragile economy. Even if fuel is fine, there’s a limited number of hexes any empire can travel through on a turn. Wasting a precious movement on a fleet that is now unable to do anything can be a colossal misstep.
Even though it’s not an “X” we’ve more or less come to the conclusion that a game is not a 4X if it doesn’t have the ability to research new tech. Well, Falling Stars has research. So that’s all good. Empires collect “research points” which can be spent on different technologies. Saving up research points can lead to better, more expensive techs. Some techs have prerequisites, as well, so you’ll need to purchase some techs in order to get others. This is basic stuff you’ve probably seen a dozen times.
Yet again, Falling Stars is so poor at providing information that anything good about this system is buried in the bad. Players will never get a cue telling them they can purchase a new tech, research points will just pile up in the background until it occurs to you to look at the research screen. It’s easy to forget to do so and suddenly be buying up half the tree in the mid-game to make up for it.
The techs themselves are often opaque, and even when the benefit is clear (increases hit points to cruisers), there’s no way to tell that the tech was implemented in the game world. You just have to trust that it is, indeed, working as advertised. The tree itself, which techs will allow you to purchase others, is also poorly explained, though at least I was able to figure it out after a time.
So, somehow, despite all the game’s efforts to frustrate you, you’ve managed to get a carrier full of troops over to an unclaimed planet. Time to get those precious materials!
There are three major materials to collect. Fuel is the engine that drives the galaxy. Without fuel, your ships will simply sit around picking their nose cones. To compound this, fuel also burns very quickly. Players need to constantly replenish their reserves as quickly as possible.
You’ll also need the cleverly named “resources” to purchase new ships and new troops. This is important because, as discussed, you can’t do anything in the game without some combination of those units.
There is also a third resource called “influence.” At the end of every turn, there is a galactic council that is held. Basically, a random rule is proposed (à la Armello), and each race can vote whether to accept or reject. Rules usually affect various aspects of the game like the strength of certain ships or the build capacities of starbases. The influence you collect from planets, along with the overall size of your empire, decides how many votes you have in the council.
So, to summarize, if you’re not opening up multiple planets per turn, your empire is in deep doo-doo.
Once you manage to land troops on the planet, however, you’ll be given a choice. First, you can subjugate the planet. This will add it to your empire and provide a rolling income of fuel and money that you can spend as you wish. OR you can treat with the planet, a sort of minimalist diplomacy, and they will provide you with a one time gift in exchange for allowing them to continue on independently. The gift will usually be a free tech or a bunch of resources – the player can choose which they want.
See the problem here? Basically you can choose to get an unending flow of necessary resources every turn, or you can take the one time gift and have the planet be useless to you forever. The one time gift is never the right choice – it will cripple your empire. Without the regular income, you’ll be starving for resources within a few turns.
Moreover, once you realize the horrible mistake you’ve made, you cannot go back and undo the selection. Once you’ve agreed to peace with the planet you cannot ever conquer it. It’s useless till the end of the game.
This is a major problem because one of the races you can choose – the Uubariat – gets a bonus to trade relations. So they get a slightly better benefit from this useless game mechanic that no player should ever use. This is not a poor design choice, then, but rather an unforgivably foolish option that actively cripples major aspects of the game.
Finally, there is no diplomacy in Falling Stars other than the pointless mechanic I just described. You simply fight until the other guy is dead (or the turn limit hits). As much as diplomacy sucks in most 4X games, it’s amazing how limiting the inability to even speak to an opponent can be. Especially in a game that is purportedly modelling a board game, where table talk is often the essence of the experience.
Once the player turns their steady stream of resources into a river, he or she will want to spend it purchasing new ships then send their fleets across the galaxy. Ships can only be built at starbases, which also act as a limitation on fleet capacity. So you’ll want to build a few of those, as well. There are multiple ship types – dreadnaughts, cruisers, and carriers, plus fighters that can be loaded onto carriers and the previously mentioned troops for invaders.
What are the benefits of each ship? Well, carriers can carry stuff. So that’s all good. And dreadnaughts are more expensive and larger than cruisers so… Yeah, the truth is I have no idea and the game does not explain this distinction anywhere. Perhaps cruisers are faster? Or dreadnaughts have more firepower or better shields? Who knows? If there’s a benefit to diversifying fleet composition it’s not communicated. Fighters are even harder to figure out, I’ve never seen them deployed in battle. This game is so janky, it’s possible they’re not even a “real” feature. I just don’t know. This means that mostly, you might as well pick the bigger ship because they seem to do better in battles. But then why have other options?
When two opposing fleets finish their turn on the same hex, they fight. The game shifts to a different, tactical screen, showing a large rectangle. Your fleet will be closest to you and the opponents will be on the far side. You’ll also view battles that don’t concern your ships, in which case the opponents will be placed on the left and right. The player has no control over these battles. Fortunately the fights also resolve quickly. The ships line up, they all fire once, a bunch explode accordingly, and then it’s back to the main screen with an announcement of who won.
What makes these encounters so frustrating isn’t the lack of control but the lack of information. How much damage did each ship do? You’ll never know. In fact, it’s not even clear if the game is simply lining up the opposing sides and doing a quick calculation or if there’s any random factors involved. For the most part, it seems as though the only deciding factor in a battle is numbers – who has more ships. However, how this impacts a closer fight, or if fleet composition or quality (because of upgraded ships through the tech tree) influenced the outcome, is an open question. I’ve seen what looks like upsets, which suggests there’s at least some dice rolling going on in the background, but the truth is I can’t confirm that that’s the case or if another factor was involved.
So basically the big strategy – the only strategy – is to bring more ships than the other guy. Unfortunately, the game’s bizarre movement restrictions and poor UI can often lead to mistakes in fleet placement, making it frustrating to bring your entire fleet to bear in a major encounter.
However, this is balanced by the excruciatingly poor A.I. People who complain about Civ VI or Gal Civ III need to check their privilege. The A.I. in Falling Stars isn’t just making poor decisions, it is flat out dumb. You will routinely see one little carrier come up against an entire armada and simply wink out of existence. When the A.I. does do smart things, like positioning it’s fleet to take advantage of a tactical error or whatever, it’s like rewarding a three year old for using the potty. You moved your ship! What a good little A.I. you are. Here’s an M&M.
Thus even with all of its myriad, inescapable problems that make Falling Stars nearly impossible to enjoy, you will have no trouble defeating it. You will, in fact, be shocked as you stumble from encounter to encounter, that the game has ended and you have been declared the winner.
Falling Stars is not a pretty game. Early 90’s graphics look at Falling Stars with disdain. The sound effects are similarly dated. Make sure your Soundblaster card is updated. The music is not half bad, though. There are times when it’s even good. Overall, there just isn’t enough game here to justify long plays or repeated shorter excursions. The conflict is either resolved far too quickly or you end up in an endless slog with all the interesting choices left far, far behind.
This is usually the point in one of these reviews where I do the “Yes, but” thing and explain all the caveats that might make Falling Stars appeal to me and maybe even you, the reader. But I can’t do that here. There are just too many negatives.
If you’re someone who is desperate for a boardgame style, space 4X that doesn’t require you to own a physical boardgame, I can’t recommend Falling Stars because there is a way better game out there like that: Eclipse. That is a very well designed game that really encapsulates the whole Space 4X feel within a simple, innovative boardgame. You can get Eclipse for your iPad right now and it’s even cheaper than Falling Stars.
If you’re someone who doesn’t care about A.I. because you’re just going to play the game against other humans that would solve a lot of problems. Except that no one is playing Falling Stars online as far as I could tell. There are Punic War veteran reunions with more attendees than Falling Stars has. When Troy did his Steam Spy roundup last year he found one person playing Falling Stars. That person was me!
If you’re someone who really wants to support Indie developers and individual passion projects I still can’t recommend Falling Stars to you because all indications show that the developer has abandoned this project. One of the reasons this review is appearing now rather than a year ago was the dev promised a huge quality of life patch to improve the game experience. That patch arrived six months late, short of multiple promised upgrades, and since then all has gone radio silent.
It doesn’t help that charging $19.99 for such a slapdash piece of work is ridiculous. That there is zero documentation to explain how this thing works (beyond a simple tutorial that tells the player only the very basics) is unacceptable for this kind of game. The whole thing just stinks of shovelware and there are multiple titles that are far more deserving of your financial support
There is a good idea here – a simplified Space 4X that cuts away all the fat to get to the meaty, delicious aspects of the experience. Falling Stars is not that game.
TL;DR: Falling Stars: War of Empires is a mess of a game, slathered in bugs, riddled with poor design decisions, and draped in a broken UI that masks the germ of a good idea. If you’re looking to get your Space 4X, boardgame-esque fix, look elsewhere. Here’s a hint, it rhymes with Jeclipse.
You might like this game if:
- You want to play a Space 4X boardgame, but you don’t want to play an actual boardgame
- You want to support indie developers
- You have a lot of patience
You might NOT like this game if:
- You want a game that works
- You care about your time, money, or effort
- You literally have anything else to do
Joshua received a free key for review purposes and played for too damn long (10+ hours, but he ran out of things to do after less than 5 ) on a Powerspec g313 with an Intel i5 6600k processor, 16GB DDR4 RAM and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070