I want you to close your eyes and imagine the following.
Well, don’t really close your eyes, because then you can’t read what I wrote. So close your eyes, metaphorically, and then read the following:
- Imagine a space based 4X game with 30 or so star systems/planets to explore
- But now imagine that each of these planets has its own unique world-spanning Civ-sized map, complete with stacks of units explore with and fight, cities to establish, and resources to plunder
- Imagine the backstory is a mashup of Dune (with its rivaling houses), Asimov’s Foundation (with its dark age of technology), and Warhammer 40,000 (with its Space Marines, God Emperors, and the inquisition)
- Imagine a 4X game where victory is achieved through cunning, treachery, and political machinations.
- Imagine a 4X where each house has five nobles and if they are killed, so ends your bloodline (and you’re out of the game)
- Imagine a 4X game where, on turn one, there is a growing alien menace that must be contained
- Imagine a menace threatening the survival of everyone – a menace that consumes and subverts any unit that tries to attack it
- Imagine that there is a Holy Roman-style church that likes to ban technologies they deem bad for humanity
- Imagine you have a research lab on a planet that is housing that specific banned technology – and then the holy inquisition shows up, nukes you from orbit, and tears the forbidden technology from your charred remains
- Now imagine if you could sick the church’s inquisition on other players
- Imagine if collected resources aren’t stockpiled in some abstract spreadsheet, but instead actually exist as physical reserves on your planets that can be relocated, looted, stolen, or plundered
- Imagine going to war and needing to bring a stockpile of food to feed your invasion forces
- Imagine that basic resources can be processed into more advanced resources – from metal all the way up to singularities – and traded in a galactic market or used to construct unfathomably powerful units
- Imagine supporting another player to become the regent of the known worlds – and they put you in charge of running the whole imperial navy, or army, or intelligence agency, granting you fleets of starships, marines, or spies to use (or abuse) as you see fit
- Imagine orbital bombardments and drop ships
- Imagine naval ships and submarines
- Imagine cybernetic cloaking ranger assassins crawling around the edge of your settlements
- Imagine the most interesting 4X game ever conceived
Open your eyes. We’ve just imagined some pretty awesome stuff, right?
The good news is, though, you don’t have to imagine anymore. Because this game exists, and it does all of the above. And the name of the game is Emperor of the Fading Suns (EFS).
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to 1997.
EFS, from Holistic Design, is not a very well-known 4X game, so it’s not surprising that I just recently stumbled across it. Turns out, that for people who have played it, in my anecdotal observations, the game is highly regarded and routinely touted as a hidden gem in the genre. And for good reason too. The list of things above are all core systems within EFS and represent ideas that most 4X games, over 20 years later, have scarcely considered, let alone implemented.
I think it’s fair to say that EFS was well ahead of its time. Of course, being ahead of your time comes with inevitable downsides – which I’ll cover as best I can. But cutting to the chase, I’ve been more excited playing EFS, flaws and all, than any other 4X game in the past few years. So buckle up.
Note that I played EFS using the Reality Mod. See the “Technical Notes” at the end of this article for more information about the Reality Mod and getting EFS to run on modern equipment.
EFS is set in the Fading Suns science-fiction universe, which is a pen-and-paper roleplaying setting also developed by Holistic Designs. If you track down a copy of the Fading Suns rulebook, you’ll find a staggering amount of historical detail about the setting, and in particular the pivotal moments that lead up to EFS.
The basic gist of the lore, relative to EFS, is this: Humanity spread to the stars and formed a series of noble houses that were constantly bickering for authority (cough, Dune, cough…). Along comes this guy Vladimir (of course) who beats the houses into submission and gets them all – along with the Church – to anoint him as emperor of mankind (cough, Warhammer 40K, cough…). Of course, the second he’s crowned Emperor the crown melts his head and kills him. War breaks out again as all the houses point fingers and guns at each other about who killed good ol’ Vlad. Fast forward a few hundred years and humanity has descended into a dark age of technology (see Warhammer 40K again and also Asimov’s Foundation).
If you need more, you can just watch this amazing piece of CG wizardry that lays it all out:
EFS starts with selecting one of the five big remaining noble houses to lead a renewed effort to claim the throne and be named the Emperor of the known worlds. Each house has five nobles, reflected by actual units on your homeworld. Should you lose all of your nobles you’re out of the game. Each house also has five scepters (also a unit), which each reflects one “vote” that you can cast in imperial elections. The holy church and the trade league (neutral-ish factions) also have 5 scepters.
You win the game by a majority of votes – via diplomacy or outright taking other houses scepters – to get yourself elected as Regent. From there, you’ll need to call for a series of votes and get them passed to declare yourself Emperor. Sounds simple enough, right? But of course, there is more to the story.
Galaxy Structure and Movement
You can play EFS on the defined galaxy map of the known worlds, pulled right from the lore of Fading Suns, or randomize the galaxy and planets. In either case, the galaxy consists of a few dozen star systems with a single habitable world in each. What gives EFS a remarkable scope is that each of these worlds is equivalent in size to a small Civ map. An indeed it functions like a small civilization map, with players establishing cities, building roads, constructing units, exploring ruins, fighting rebel forces, and so on.
The game starts with each player on their homeworld with a handful cities under their control. “Cities” in this game are more akin to buildings and they occupy a single hex – much the same way as cities are constructed in Civilization VI via individual buildings on tiles (I said this game was ahead of its time!). So you can have a city that is a Factory, or a Lab, or Palace, or a Starpoint, or an Electronics Plant, and so on. There are about 20 different buildings and each one provides a very specific function (more on that in a bit). Cities are built by consuming engineer units, which are fairly expensive to produce and acts as a limiter on your rate of expansion.
Each house will start with a decent amount of military units at its disposal, including troops, tanks, aircraft, and spaceships. The interesting thing is that most of these units are relics from before the dark age of technology fell upon humanity. So even though you might have a few legions of Space Marines (yes – they even look like Warhammer 40K marines) and wings of advanced gunships at your disposal, you won’t actually be able to replace these units anytime soon if they die. Thus, your starting units are very precious and need to be used carefully.
Initially, you’ll be using your forces to secure your homeworld. Outside of the starting cities you control (typically a lab, palace, factory, mine, farm, and shield generator), there will be a number of rebel holdings across your homeworld that you’ll want to eradicate, adding their cities to your list of assets. The rebels can be opportunistic in attacking stray units or trying to steal back cities from you – so clearing them off your homeworld is important for long-term security. You really can’t afford to tie up your elite units in garrison duty.
While the geography of your homeworld is known (as is any planet you orbit with a spaceship), you can’t see where special resource reserves and other special sites are until locations are fully scouted by your units. Aircraft, recon tanks, and certain ground forces can quickly scout terrain and identify locations to establish new resource generating cities (e.g. mines and farms) or ancient ruins that might contain lost technology or powerful artifacts.
Movement between star systems and planets is conducted using jump-capable starships moving along starlanes. Many types of starships function as as transports, and you’ll have to physically land such ships on the planet surface, load up the troops, and blast off back into orbit before you can jump to a neighboring system. There are some clever nuances to all of this as well. For example, most spaceships other than Assault Landers take damage if they try to land on a tile without a city.
When it comes to invading neighboring planets, PTS (planet-to-space) weapon platforms will also fire at spaceships attempting to land within a certain distance of them. This forces you to think about where to land your invasion forces. Do you go for a frontal assault but risk damaging your precious spaceships? Or do you use Assault Landers to capture an isolated city, providing a base of operations to drop in your main invasion force? This gives you a bit more to think about and I find the whole approach a lot more satisfying than how most space 4X games handle invasions. In EFS, you really feel like your conducting an invasion and not some abstracted “ground assault.”
Economy and Empire Management
The economy in EFS hinges on “Firebirds” (which is the currency in the game) and 13 different strategic resources. Cities generate Firebirds depending on a tax rate that you can adjust. Higher taxes generate more Firebirds, but reduce loyalty in the city – which in turn reduces production outputs. A farming city at 80% loyalty would generate only 80% of its potential farming output, for example. You can also adjust the payment percentage going to your military units, thus reducing upkeep at the cost of reducing your military unit loyalty (which in turn affects combat performance and how quickly they will flee a battle).
While most cities generate tax revenue, some buildings – such as research labs – have steep upkeep costs. This works well to help reign in crazy technological growth, and makes building new labs a major decision point given the effect it can have on your economy. Certain buildings (e.g. Starports) also allow you to hire independent units and mercenaries – which is critical in the early stages of the game where you often can’t build certain types of units on your own yet. For example, you’ll typically want to hire additional transport spaceships and mercenary space marine legions to help boost invasion forces. But this can also get really expensive to maintain!
When it comes to strategic resources, this is another area where EFS feels ahead of its time. First of all, there are five basic resources: energy (generated from well cities), food and exotic botanicals (from farming cities), and metal and trace elements (from mines). These basic resources can be “crafted” into more advanced resources by constructing certain types of cities. For example, the electronics resource – which is critical for making almost any advanced unit – is crafted in an Electronic city using Energy, Metal, and trace elements in a certain ratio. These in turn can be crafted into yet even more advanced resources such as “wetware”, which is created from electronics, biochemicals, and other resources.
All of these different strategic resources are needed in different ratios to construct units. The advanced cybernetic units you can build, for instance, require Wetware in addition to other components – making them challenging to assemble. Fortunately, most homeworlds contain an Agora (market) belonging to the Trade League, that you can trade with. You can buy and sell goods – although if no one else is selling certain resources into the market it might be devoid of what you need.
What is really mind blowing about the strategic resources in EFS is that stockpiles of resources exist as physical units (think cargo containers/pods) where the resource is extracted or fabricated. This opens the door for conducting raids to literally steal stockpiles of resources from your opponents. In one game I was hard-pressed to get enough Chemicals, which I needed to make Engineers (and in turn my own chemical plant), so I raided a neighbor to steal a few dozen chemicals to get my Engineers into production. I sued for peace afterwards of course.
And what is even more mind blowing is, by default, resources have to be physically moved to where they are needed. Want to make electronics? Well you actually have to ship metal, trace, and energy onto the world with the electronics plant. This even applies to food! For example, your military units need a modest supply of food as part of their maintenance – and if you are invading a new world you better bring some food along with you or else your units will enter starvation and either die or rebel. Whoa!
This resource system does, unfortunately, have some drawbacks – most notable there is the potential for a ton of micromanagement. Selling goods via trade means you actually have to ship them to an Agora market. You might have electronics produced on one planet that need to be continuously shipped to another planet to make wetware, which then needs to be shipped back to another planet to make cyber-units. It can get pretty tedious.
Thankfully, there is an option to enable a “global warehouse” at the start of the game that ignores the exact location of goods and keeps everything accessible everywhere within your holdings. It does diminish some of the logistic aspects of the game – but for those not wanting to deal with crazy levels of micro (I’m in this camp) then it’s a great option. You can still raid and steal resources as they continue to exist as physical stocks, but you avoid the transportation micro.
Research in the Dark Age of Technology
Research in the game takes a somewhat unique approach. Each research lab (i.e. a type of city) can pursue its own research project independently. When a project is finished, that research item exists in the archives of that specific lab. Multiple labs can combine their efforts, but at the end of the day the research will persist in one of the labs.
Technologies themselves are broken into three big trees (and i don’t know why the game uses a “K” instead of a “C” – just one of those quirks):
- Physiociology – containing advancement related to religious doctrine (unlocking church-based units), meta-physiks and psioniks (a frequently banned technology), economiks, architecture, and higher order math
- Physiks – dealing with everything from anti-grav and cold fusion to electroniks and wormhole mechaniks
- Microbiology: including cellular manipulation, cybernetics, xeno-biology, genetiks, and more
The technologies themselves do one or more of the following: unlock new city (building) types, unlocks new unit types directly, leads to other technologies, or unlocks an applied technology type. Applied technologies also need to be researched once unlocked, and these feed into unlocking certain types of units. For example, to make your own Space Marines, you need to learn how to make Power Armor (an applied tech), which requires knowledge of Electromechanical-materials and Electronics, and also Advanced Assault Rifles (another applied tech) that require Hyper-ballistics research.
Research can get hideously complicated, and trying to figure out what unit requires what applied techs, and in turn how to unlock those techs can be downright mystifying. While the game contains some in-game “archives” of information – they really aren’t very useful. I was confounded by the whole thing that I ended up making this ridiculous chart mapping it all out. Don’t ask.
Lastly, technology ties into the church in many interesting ways. Different technologies have a chance to become proscribed the church – particularly those dealing with non-church doctrine metaphysics and advanced biology/genetics. You know the scary stuff that might make us “less human.” If you have technology in a lab that becomes proscribed, there is a good chance the church will send the inquisition after you. If they do, the inquisition will show up on your doorstep and melt down your research lab and all the technology in it. They can’t have these heretical thoughts running rampant! Anyway, it’s a very cool mechanic, and I’ve been in situations where the inquisition is en-route and I’m frantically purging my own research (which you can do) so they don’t destroy the whole lab. Crazy stuff.
Diplomacy & Regency
Diplomacy in EFS is pretty straightforward and is one area of the game that feels pretty dated. You can formulate deals with other houses, the church, and the trade league using any combination of three requests and three offers. E.G., you might request votes in an upcoming election and offer some tech, money, and star maps in exchange.
The rub is that the game provides no input how how likely a given deal is to be successful, and afterwards the acceptance or denial messages don’t provide any information at all – nor even a reminder of what the deal was in the first place! Making deals with the AI feels like a shot in the dark. That said, you can form alliances and negotiate for peace. You can request that the church ban certain technologies – perhaps that you know a rival has – in hopes of sicking the inquisition on them. The options are interesting and pretty thorough – but the game doesn’t provide much insight into what’s driving the AI’s behavior.
Another element of diplomacy that IS pretty cool (although also a bit clunky) is that if a player is elected to be Regent, they must then appoint other house leaders to be the head of one of the imperial agencies: the Navy, the Imperial Eye (spy network), or the Stigmata Protection Force (the huge military presence on the planet Stigmata, which is tasked with holding back an alien invasion). Gaining one of these positions instantly grants you a huge swath of holdings (cities) and units scattered across the known worlds. For the most part you can do what you want these forces. While it’s pretty cool – it can also let players really abuse the AI without a ton of repercussions.
Combat in EFS can take place in space, on the planet surface, or via planet-to-surface (PTS) and bombardment. In all cases, units can be placed into stacks of up to 20 and moved around as a fighting force. Surface units have a variety of different movement speeds and types (walking vs. tracks vs. planes vs. anti-grav, etc.) which affects how far the stack can move.
When opposing stacks meet, they automatically engage in battle. Fights play out in auto-resolved manner over a series of rounds. A battle screen pops up showing the roster of units on both sides. Combat rounds follow a defined sequence based on the type of weapon being used – e.g. indirect fire weapons (artillery) shoot first, then long range range direct-fire weapons, when close-range weapons, etc. Units have agility and accuracy ratings affecting their chance to land a successful hit and then damage and armor values to determine how much damage is ultimately taken. Combat rounds continue back and forth until only one side remains on the battlefield.
Morale does have an influence on combat, and units that take damage have a chance of breaking and fleeing battle. Units that run can then be captured on the strategic map after the battle – which can be pretty brutal for your opponent. Having nobles and other specialty units in your stacks can help boost morale.
EFS is a good example of a game that emphasizes combined arms in warfare. For example, if you don’t have any ground-to-air weaponry in your stack (anti-air defenses) then you armies are ripe pickings for bombers or gunships. Of course you can’t take all anti-air because otherwise your opponent’s ground forces will roll over you. It’s enjoyable putting together small detachments of units that make for a good stack composition.
A final aspect of combat is stealth + detection. Each unit has a spotting value and a camouflage value. Enemy units are invisible unless successfully spotted. In these cases, having recon units with high spotting abilities (and also high camouflage of their own) can be invaluable. When it comes to battles, either side can have hidden units that weren’t previously spotted. These hidden units gain a big bonus to agility making them much harder to successfully hit in combat. All in all, it’s pretty slick.
The Total Experience
I’ll be honest, I’ve had more fun playing EFS than most other 4X games released recently. And I can’t chalk this one up to nostalgia either, because up until a few months ago I had never played this before. The game just feels so refreshingly different from the current crop of 4X titles, which have largely been streamlined into a sanitized and predictable experience.
But EFS isn’t without its flaws. First of all, the UI is clunky and has none of the usual conveniences we expect today (1997 is wondering “what are tooltips?”). You can access a master list of all of your cities, but you can’t, for example, click on those cities and get warped to their location or edit their build orders from the menu (with the exception,thankfully, of research labs). Yet for what it is the UI works well enough. It’s serviceable, but nothing to write home about by today’s standards.
The bigger issue is with the AI. While the AI can be pretty opportunistic when you’re at war with a major house in attacking tempting targets (lightly defended cities, scouting units), against a well-prepared defense it largely just sits there, unable to decide how to form a coherent offense. I do observe the AI fighting rebels and claiming other planets – so it is doing stuff – but when it comes to the more cunning tactics (like raiding resources) that the game creates ripe conditions for, the AI just doesn’t really engage at all.
I should say here that I haven’t yet (in some 25 hours of play) made it to the end of any of my games (I’ve started three campaigns). I was getting quite close on one attempt – but my save got corrupted (make frequent backups!) and I couldn’t bear the thought of redoing 10 hours of gametime. That said, the things you need to do to win – knock out a couple of houses, steal their scepters, or get the church on your side (or just it wipe out) – can take a long time.
What makes it harder to swallow is that I’ve heard the AI isn’t really capable of winning if left to their own devices. It will never stitch together a strategy to get the votes it needs to become Emperor, which is unfortunate because it robs the game of its potential tension.
But for the die hard fans of EFS, I’ve also heard that the “true way to play” is via play-by-email (PBEM) multiplayer. I can imagine that it would be an absolutely fantastic experience with all the opportunity the game creates for backstabbing and colluding, whether overtly or in the shadows. At the same time, I can’t imagine how long it would take to actually play a PBEM game to its conclusions. A turn per day is going to take 100’s of days to get anywhere significant.
Nevertheless, I would put EFS on its own special pedestal in the annals of 4X history. The game has an astounding scope and vision that frankly none of the recent 4X games come close to. And while parts of this vision aren’t fully realized, enough of it shines through that few other 4X games come as close. I’ve long wished for a 4X game that reinvented the core goal and gameplay experience, and EFS does that in spades. It’s remarkable that it’s been over 20 years and nothing else has come close – either in vision or in execution.
This is a classic worth talking about.
Getting EFS running on modern hardware is pain.
First of all, I decided to run the game using the Reality Mod, which is a fan mod that changes a few core aspects of the design. Most notably, it makes Engineer units much more expensive to produce, slowing down how quickly you can create cities. Apparently there was in issue in the base game where the AI would just spam cities at a faster and faster rate, eventually overloading and crashing the game. This also makes the game feel a bit more like you’re crawling out of the dark ages – as getting access to advanced factories is more contingent on capturing them from rebel worlds instead of building them right at the start. The Reality Mod also adds a number of units (from the Fading Suns lore) and rebalances unit stats to encourage less cheesy tactics (mostly making cheap basic units less effective).
The Reality Mod website provides everything you’ll need to get the game patched and fixed up with the mod. If you need help running the installers and getting the game to actually launch on a newer OS (ie. Windows 10), check out this video guide that can walk you through it. That guide uses an optional “windowed” mode setting and the Emperor Wars mod – which builds on top of Reality Mod. You can use or not use those at your discretion.