Right now, I’m in the prime of my life. My career is going well, and I’m taking on more responsibilities. My child is growing up and consequently getting more involved with clubs, sports, and various other extracurricular activities. My house is getting old enough now that I have to make occasional repairs and improvements. My role as writer, editor, and podcaster for eXplorminate is only expanding. So what does that mean? It means I have very little time for gaming anymore and specifically, for 4X gaming. When Space Tyrant by Blue Wizard Digital launched back in the first quarter of 2018, I was so glad to finally have a quick-paced 4X game I could enjoy. And enjoy it, I have!
“Brevity” will be a refrain of this review. Everything about Space Tyrant (ST) is brief and brutal. Exploration is no exception. There are two aspects to exploring a map in ST: fog of war and planetary scans.
The fog of war in this game works like many other 4X titles. It covers the map until you move a ship to a tile that is hidden and then the fog lifts. Tiles aren’t regular hexes in this game. They’re more like the irregular polygons in Eador: Imperium. When you move a ship into one of them, it and all the adjoining tiles are revealed.
ST uses starlanes, and while that may make some readers check out of this review right now, they’re different here than in games like Stellaris. First, you’ll probably reveal most of the map throughout play anyhow. Second, ST is more like a board game than a computer game. You move along the lanes, invading planets, until you win or you lose. It’s not anything fancy or sophisticated.
Planetary scans happen whenever you successfully invade a planet (or other celestial body such as asteroids or crystal worlds) or play a card that lets you trigger a scan. The scan will usually present you with an event and choices on how to react to that event. In this way, it’s similar to Galactic Civilizations III. Depending on what choice you make, you’ll get rewards such as gold, research points, ships, tyranny, and cards or you might lose any of those same things.
My biggest disappointment with planetary scans is that, once you get to know them a bit, you usually end up hoping for nothing to happen. The rewards are meager while the punishments are harsh. A malus at the wrong time can cost you the whole game, and it’s very hard to tell from the prompts which choices might be better or worse.
There’s very little consistency in how the game grants you boons and busts. You take on the role of a tyrannical overlord, but every tyrannical choice I made during a scan only seemed to hurt me. Most often, I was rewarded for being cautious and conciliatory. It seems like a contradiction.
Overall, I’d have to say that exploration is the weakest part of the game. The map is a forgone conclusion and with the way starlanes work, it’s pretty much predestined what order you’ll reveal the planets. And when you’re hoping for nothing to happen when triggering a planetary scan, the designers have messed up. You should be rewarded for being ruthless and heartless, not cautious and merciful.
The trick to expanding in ST is to never stop attacking and to maximize the number of different fleets at your command as soon as possible. Those two strategies aren’t always feasible, but if you can manage them, you will do a lot to help yourself win the game.
Taking a new planet usually involves two steps. First, you have to defeat any fleets that are guarding the planet. Occasionally, a planet will be unguarded, but usually there are one to three fleets circling it. If there is more than one enemy fleet in orbit, your invading fleet must defeat all of them before invading the planet below.
Ground combat, if you want to call it that, is totally random. A planet is given a defense score (usually 0 to 11). To invade, you roll a six-sided die. The result of the roll is subtracted from the planet’s defense score. If this score hits zero, you conquer the planet. Sometimes you’ll get multiple dice to roll via cards or events. That really helps take down high defense planet. Otherwise, it might take two or three turns to conquer something with a defense of 10, for instance, and those lost turns really make it hard to win.
You, as the Space Tyrant, are not the only one expanding. The Galactic Senate (your sworn enemy) is also converting worlds to its side. When a neutral planet joins the Senate, its fleet is instantly upgraded and it also begins “projects” that either increase its Defense Score or add more ships to its guardian fleets. Consequently, it’s important to attack those neutral worlds as fast as possible to prevent them from upgrading.
While exploration is the weakest part of ST and expansion is the most simplistic, fortunately exploitation is the most entertaining. As with everything in this game, mechanics are kept simple and effective. There are four currencies you have to worry about: credits, crystals, tyranny, and research.
Credits work like money in almost any game. You use them to buy ships or hire new fleet captains. There are five ship types in ST: frigate, destroyer, cruiser, carrier, and battleship. They escalate in cost from (usually) 20 credits up to 70 or more. You gain credits by taking over city planets. Each city planet has a credit income associated with it. Sometimes the game shows you how many credits a planet produces and other times it keeps that amount hidden in order to force the player to make a tough choice about which planet to attack next.
Crystals can be thought of as mana that lets you cast magic spells. Each turn you get a new effect card that can let you increase your tyranny, invade a planet a second time, speed up research, get a bonus scan on a newly conquered planet and so on. To “cast” a card, you have to have the necessary crystals. Cards cost 1-5 crystals to use. The only way to get more crystals is to conquer crystal worlds which usually provide a 1-3 crystal income each turn. The main difference between crystals and credits, though, is that crystals do not accumulate. You either use them or lose them each turn. So, if you have a crystal income of five, you will only ever have five crystals to spend in a single turn.
Tyranny is a strange but important currency, reflecting the might of your planetary control. You gain it by being aggressive, such as invading planets and potentially through cards or planetary scans during exploration. Each game turn, the underlying rebellion in your empire reduces your tyranny, so you need to make sure you do enough evil things each round to maintain a high tyranny level. This makes it so the player can’t just sit there hitting end-turn over and over to accumulate credits or research. You must constantly be attacking new worlds to keep your tyranny high enough to avoid usurpation. Take a couple turns off from killing people, and you’re bound to lose. On the upside however, if you get your tyranny score high enough, you can enable the Death Ray! I’ll talk more about how you use the Death Ray in the eXterminate section.
The final currency is research. Like most games, you pile up research points until you cross a particular threshold and *poof* you get a new technology. All technology in this game is related to ship upgrades. There’s no way to research improved economy techs or new cards or additional crystal production. You just make your ships tougher and deadlier. Which, in ST’s case, is perfectly fine. The object of the game’s design is to provide simple, fast, and fun gameplay, and ST succeeds very well on this count.
There may come a time, though, where you are short on something. Say you need to rebuild a fleet to take the last world before the Galactic Senate takes over, or maybe you need just a few more research points to finish the last tech to beat a mission. In those cases, you can “Oppress” a world. Oppression gives you a quick boost to a currency and a little extra tyranny at the cost of increasing unrest. It’s a short-term gain for long-term pain sort of deal, but there are times in ST, that you gotta make that choice in order to win.
The simplicity of all the exploit mechanics keeps the game from getting bogged down in micro management. The values on the board make sure that snowballing doesn’t ever happen. You always have juuuuuust enough credits to afford the ships you need or juuuuust enough crystals to play your cards. You never finish the research tree and it’s easy to run out of tyranny, so exploitation is consistently balanced in the campaign and in the skirmish mode and make sure you never feel bored or like you’re just waiting around for the game to end. Each game comes right down to the wire.
Combat in ST is quick and tense. While the game is turn-based, combat is real-time. I don’t care for that switch normally, but for this game it works really well. ST is meant to be played quickly and getting bogged down in detailed combat like Age of Wonders 3 or Master of Orion 2 is just outside the mission for this game.
Each ship type is given a special ability. Smaller ships such as frigates have a “Volley” ability that lets them make a bonus high-damage attack. Cruisers have a “Guardian” ability that lets them heal neighboring ships. Carriers can launch fighters, and so on.
Each ability requires “Energy” from the fleet’s admiral. Admirals accrue Energy over time which is represented by lightning bolts above the ships. As soon as you have enough Energy, you can fire off an ability. Doing so decreases the Energy in your pool by the corresponding amount. For instance, Volley costs one lightning bolt while Guardian costs two.
The trick is knowing what abilities to use when. Since Energy is a limited resource, you can’t just spam abilities. You’ll run out quickly, and you may not be able to activate the right one at the right time. It take some getting used to, but once you learn, combat becomes an intense stage of the game where you try to maximize your Energy usage to its fullest effect.
The real-time nature of combat forces you to pay close attention to what is happening. Most of the time, combat is extremely brief. It’s over in less than two minutes, and on occasion, less than one minute! I’m literally gritting my teeth as I play because the the margin between loss and victory sometimes is razor thin. It costs credits to replace lost ships, and it’s pretty rare for you to have much excess of that resource.
Another method of exterminating your foes is via the Death Ray. What cheesy sci-fi game would be complete without a Death Ray? To activate the Death Ray, you must raise your Tyranny above a certain level on the meter. When you do, the Death Ray button becomes available. When you target an enemy fleet with the Death Ray, a giant red laser shoots from the Space Tyrant’s finger and will destroy two to three ships. This is very useful for whittling down large Galactic Senate fleets or injuring space monsters such as the space shark which are very hard to kill.
Overall, combat is not very deep in ST but it’s not meant to be. It accomplishes exactly what the designers wanted: an entertaining and intense mini-game that keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering if you’re going to win or not.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with my experience with ST. I never ran into bugs or crashes, and the game mechanics had a very shallow learning curve. These are all things I appreciate as my life continues to get busier and busier.
Normally, I’m not a fan of humor in my games. The attempts at jokes in Sorcerer King: Rivals, for instance, were really off-putting for me. Every time I read one, I felt like the immersion of the game was broken. In ST, however, the humor enhances the immersion. The game intentionally tries to mimic the pulpy sci-fi movies of the 1950’s like Prince of Space or Earth vs.The Flying Saucers. I like a game that’s unabashed about what it is.
I do like how your victories mean something in this game. You pick up items as you beat stages in the campaign. For instance, you might get a helmet that gives you a bonus to your starting Tyranny or a staff that makes all your ships cost less to purchase. The more of these you get, the higher your chances of beating the Senate.
The campaign is a little difficult, and most of the negative reviews I’ve read cited that difficulty as their main complaint. I didn’t mind it so much. It does appear that the game intends for you to lose the campaign a few times to get new cards and new technologies that are needed to defeat the galactic senate once and for all. This is similar to unlocking deities in the Thea games. However, I think Blue Wizard could have communicated that better to the players.
ST does seem to tax my GPU more than a game like this ought to. The graphics aren’t particularly detailed. They’re more along the lines of Stars in Shadow rather than something like Galactic Civilizations III. I’d definitely appreciate some more optimization in the near future.
Another slight drawback is the tutorial for the game. The different screens zip by so fast, I had trouble reading them. Maybe I’m just getting older and don’t read as fast as I used to, but slowing it down by just two seconds per screen would have really helped.
These are all minor complaints. ST is solid all the way around and a fine game for anyone with limited time to play. It’s not the deepest space 4X out there, but it never pretended to be. You can think of it as the Offworld Trading Company for 4X games. It’s appeal is limited, but for those who are looking for a quick-paced, low-commitment 4X, I don’t think you could do much better.
Most players aren’t going to get hundreds of hours of play from Space Tyrant. I’d estimate there’s about 20-30 hours of unique content in total, though you can replace different skirmish scenarios over and over. That might deter those who measure value as a matter of dollars divided by time. However, I certainly feel that ST is worth getting if money isn’t an issue. The fun you’ll derive from the game is easily worth the cost of entry, and no doubt the game will be put on sale many times over the next 12 months.
TL;DR: Space Tyrant is a fast-paced space 4X. There isn’t a lot of depth, but the gameplay is still engaging and intricate enough to keep you entertained for hours. The humor is good, and the game never bogs down into micromanagement or snowballing. You’ll never know if you’re about to win or about to lose until it happens. Overall, ST is a great game for those with limited time and the right expectations.
You might like this game if:
- You don’t have much time to play
- You enjoy humor in your 4X games
- You hate micromanagement
You might NOT like this game if:
- You want a deep 4X gaming experience
- You find cartoonish graphics off-putting
- You expect hundreds of hours of play from 4X games
Troy played 15+ hours of Space Tyrant on his Windows 10 Dell Inspiron 7000 Series 7537 BTX 17” laptop with Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-4500U CPU @ 1.80 GHz, 16GB Ram, 64-bit Operating system, x64 processor, and 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics card.
Disclosure: eXplorminate received a copy of Space Tyrant for Troy from the developer for the purposes of review.