Those tracing the lineage of 4X games will know that the efforts to modernize, remake, or otherwise reimagine the classics of genre is an inevitable, constant, and often ill-fated voyage. Yet into these dangerous waters wades another title, Interstellar Space: Genesis (ISG), which is a self-proclaimed spiritual successor to the classic Master of Orion 2 (MoO2).
In the words of developers, Praxis Games, ISG follows a “classic meets the new” design philosophy, aiming to modernize the core MoO2 gameplay, built around both a turn-based strategic and turn-based tactical combat system, while offering new features and experiences. Past attempts to carry the mantle of MoO2 into the modern era often struggle to find their niche. Whether it be the shackles of nostalgia dooming such endeavors from the start, or misreading what made the classics endure in the first place, following in MoO2’s footsteps is a perennial challenge.
I’m reminded of an interesting article about the different ways in which a game might advance the evolution of a genre. How might a game demonstrate transformational versus incremental innovation, or reimplement a design in a new way, or merely retread familiar territory? It’s an interesting lens. With respect to ISG, it provides a format to appraise whether the game lives up to its own design intent.. Is ISG a simple reimplementation or retread of MoO2, or does it usher in enough of it’s own innovations and character to provide a novel and worthwhile experience?
Full disclosure, I’ve had the fortune to play ISG on and off since it’s pre-alpha release back in 2017. I’ve watched the game grow and evolve, both in subtle and bold ways, since I wrote our preview article. ISG continues to demonstrate clear instances of design innovation, as highlighted in the preview (and discussed below). The question now is how well the past many months of refinement and polish, translates into an overall experience and, crucially, whether ISG stands out in the ever-growing catalog of turn-based 4X strategy games.
Galactic Structure: A Return to Form
Drawing from the MoO2 lineage, galaxies range from small to huge (35 to 140 star systems) in an open star field arrangement (i.e. no space lanes or hexes). Between the stars are nebulae or voids that slow or inhibit movement unless counteracted by drive technologies. In addition to different star types, there are also black holes, accretion discs, pulsars, and other celestial bodies that can constitute a star system. Each star system can be examined at a finer scale, and might contain upwards of five planets, asteroid belts, and other objects.
Fleet movement is limited to an operational distance away from your colonies and outposts, based on your logistics tech level. Regarding movement, once you queue up an order for a fleet to move, you can’t redirect it mid-flight. I appreciate this aspect of the design, especially when it comes to warfare, because it means you often need to orchestrate the movement of multiple fleets from different points of origin for a simultaneous arrival time at a key star system. Supporting this is a nice UI feature: a “measure” tool that lets you measure distances between stars (surprise surprise!). Very helpful!
Despite the sound mechanics, the aesthetic presentation of the galaxy map is a little lackluster. While it doesn’t affect the gameplay directly, it is weird to zoom out and see a perfectly shaped rectangular starfield instead of a more appropriate “galaxy” shape defining the play area. While it is a minor issue in the scheme of things, the “floating starfield” feeling cuts into the immersiveness of the game.
Faction Design is Serviceable
At the time of launch, there are six factions that range from human to humanoid and beyond to distinctly non-human in their visage. Different factions have different preferences for gravity and planet types along with faction traits. ISG also provides the option to use any of the established factions as a starting point for customization, using a point-based trait system that will be familiar to genre veterans.
Factions are brought to life, modestly, via animated portrait frames. While visually (and in their backstory) the factions are quite varied, and despite having different bonuses and even special activated abilities that affect your gameplay style, the factions overall don’t feel that characterful or memorable. This is one area where ISG plays the design relatively safe. Don’t go into ISG expecting Endless Space 2 levels of faction asymmetry.
Rich, Innovative Exploration System
Nothing makes a good 4X first-impression like an well-developed exploration system. And in this regard, ISG does an excellent job of building on established practices while introducing innovative new elements.
Each star system can be scanned to varying levels of detail, with scout or military ships only scanning at a basic level. Later on, you can acquire survey ships which provide full scanning capabilities, allowing you to identify any strategic resources that might be present as well as the mineral richness and other special properties on planets. This is all fairly standard.
Complementing traditional exploration is the remote exploration system – a noteworthy innovation in ISG. Clicking the remote exploration button brings up a UI overlay of the galaxy dividing the entire galaxy into a grid of sectors. Each of these sectors can be “explored” multiple times remotely, with each level of exploration not only revealing more characteristics of the star systems, but also having the capability of discovering entirely new star systems not initially seen. Many times, these “hidden” systems contain the juicer prizes like black holes, which are a source of rare antimatter.
Along the way you can also discover ruins, which can likewise be explored at multiple levels, depending on whether you use a basic ship or bring a leader with the explorer trait along on the expedition (more on leaders later). Ruins explorations typically trigger a special event or discovery opportunity, often giving the player a choice over which direction to pursue. I’ll leave the surprises alone, but you can often make some game-defining discoveries by aggressively exploring ruins.
Overall, while exploration has never been the driving force behind my interest in 4X games, I recognize its importance to many people. While ISG does not have a rich, multi-stage quest system like we see in Endless Space 2 or Stellaris, ISG nevertheless brings a unique approach to exploration that will, more importantly, keep you engaged with it throughout the game. Anecdotally, my games typically conclude well before I’ve finished exploring every sector to the fullest. All in all, it is a novel experiencing having the galactic geography actually change and become richer over the course of a playthrough, opening up new colonization or conquest opportunities.
The Outliner-Based UI is Excellent
ISG uses an “outliner” similar to the one in Stellaris, but actually much closer to the (superior) one used in Armada 2526. Essentially, the left portion of your screen on the galactic map is devoted to a highly customizable “index” for displaying galactic information and held assets. Separate tabs let you switch between a detailed list of planets (with ample colonization details), asteroid belts, the location of strategic resources, fleets, and individual ships. More than just a list, you can also filter sort of each of these tabs, allowing you to easily identify exploration or expansion targets of interest. Mousing over an item highlights it clearly on the map, making it a snap to locate things across the galaxy. I’m so glad to see this, as it’s much better than relying on big, visually obtrusive tables to display this information.
Beyond the outliner, the UI in ISG is overall quite good at a functional level. Information is easy to find, the map and menus are easy to navigate. There are a ton of detailed tooltips throughout the UI, providing plenty of backup detail that explains what all the numbers are. This is great to see. My one big complaint about the UI is that the visual “style” of it is fairly bland and unexciting. Many of the pop-up windows and buttons feel “flat” and monotone. There are also some jarring UI transitions (like windows that popup at the star system level for fleet combat) that could’ve been handled in a smoother way perhaps. None of it is game ruining by any extent – and overall the UI is clean and effective.
Planetary Management Redefined
A central challenge in the design of 4X games is how to prevent detailed planetary management from spiraling into micromanagement hell by the late game. ISG tackles the problem from two directions. The first is that the scope and scale of the game is relatively small. Even on a larger galaxy size, managing more than a dozen or so planets is uncommon. Of course, this is still a decent number of planets to manage. Hence the second approach, which is through the design of the planetary management system itself and how it emphasizes making fewer (but more critical!) choices rather than countless routine, mundane ones.
Principally, planetary management is structured around allocating a planets total production output across three categories: infrastructure, ecological engineering, and construction, the latter which is a more traditional “buildings and ship” construction queue. At any time, you can use sliders (or a clever triangular graph) to adjust your production allocation across these task. It is a move that feels vaguely Master of Orion 1 (MoO1) like.
When a planet unlocks an infrastructure upgrade, you can upgrade the planet along five different infrastructure tracks. These pathways play heavily into how specialized (or not) you may want to make a planet. Each infrastructure track provides bonuses to empire-wide capabilities, like fleet support, while also providing bonuses to specific research categories. More crucially, the total amount of infrastructure upgrades you can make on a planet is linked to the planet size. The net effect is that you’ll often only be able to max out one or two infrastructure tracks, forcing you to make tough choices on how to develop the planet.
When it comes to the more typical construction queue, building slot restrictions likewise force you to be more focused in what you build. There is no “build everything everywhere” mentality in ISG. Planets have a certain amount of buildings they can support, again tied to planet size (and also infrastructure bonuses). There are of course many more buildings in the game – space elevators, pressure domes, medical centers, etc. – than you can ever fit onto one planet, so again you have to make hard choices along the way.
The last element, ecological engineering, combines a variety of terraforming tasks into one system. When you allocate production to ecological engineering, you choose a project to work towards, which range from boosting population growth to changing the atmosphere, temperature, and ecological level of the planet. This is important because finding ideal planets can be tough. Often you’re forced to colonize non-ideal planets and rely on ecological engineering to make the planet more habitable.
Overall, this is an interesting system that does force you to make some hard choices (which I really like!). However, despite the desire to cut down on micromanagement, I do feel that in order to maximize production I’m frequently fiddling with the sliders. Nonetheless, the system dispenses with the need to manage workers across tasks and dramatically cuts down on the issue of having to queue up dozens of incremental building improvements across all of your planets (a problem present in many other 4X games) . All in all this is a solid design innovation.
Expansion is Elegantly Strategic
Expanding your empire occurs along a few lines in ISG. First is basic planetary colonization, which works as you might expect: build a colony ship, send to a colonizable planet, hit the colonize button. New colonies can be very slow to get up to speed the production front. This is exacerbated by the fact that you can’t transport colonists between worlds (a curious omission I feel). But fortunately ISG provides some clever strategic tools to nevertheless jump start development, such as leveraging asteroid power.
Hence, the second line of expansion: asteroid belt exploitation, which creates a second layer of development considerations when growing your empire. By researching the appropriate technologies, building outpost constructor ships, and freighter fleets, you can claim asteroid belts and funnel a significant amount of production (or research or trade income!) to a planet of your choice. This has a huge effect on gameplay, and wars and border skirmishes frequently breakout over the control of high value asteroids and associated outposts.
Another layer are the strategic resources: antimatter, neutronium, helium-3, and dark matter. When each of these is first discovered, you are presented with a major decision on how your empire will utilize the resource, which opens up new, mutually-exclusive, technologies in the research tree. Harnessing these resources again requires constructing outposts and investing in the necessary fleets to defend them.
I really enjoy the outpost-layer to the gameplay. While the raw number of colonies you control in ISG might be fairly low, having dozens of outposts scattered across your empire that provide a large part of your production, economy, and strategic capabilities is awesome. It plays nicely into the strategic warfare aspects of the game too, giving empires plenty of high-value targets to battle over.
A Thoughtfully Designed Technology System
The technology system in ISG is a great example of the developers doing their homework over the years and creating an intuitive system that is ultimately flexible but nevertheless challenges players with making tough choices.
The technology screen is broken up into six research fields that span across a dozen or so technology tiers. Within a specific field and tier, there are typically a handful of potential research choices available in the “box”. The rub is that once you research one item in a box, the remaining items in that same box multiply in cost and can quickly outpace the cost of new items in a higher research tier altogether. Given that you only need to research one item in the box to unlock the next tier, you’re constantly juggling the decision of whether to push further down the tech tree versus picking up useful but lower tier technologies. It’s an enjoyable decision.
My favorite aspect of the tech tree, however, is a game setup option that randomizes each tech tree to a modest degree. One thing I dislike in many 4X games is that they have a static tech tree, which often diminishes research decisions into merely finding the optimal pathway through the tree and applying that same pattern in every game. By randomizing the tech tree each game, you’re forced to re-adapt and reconsider the appropriate sequence each time. I’m quite happy to see this feature in ISG.
Space Culture is a Thing
Complementing the research tree is a system for “space culture”. At a macro-economic level, revenue you earn from taxes is accumulated in your treasury and can also be diverted to boosting research or growing your “space culture.” As you cross certain thresholds for space culture, you’ll earn a new advancement. These advancements are spread across three separate tracks and provide a range of freebie goodies (like free colony, outpost, or survey ships) and passive empire wide bonuses (big bonuses to asteroid exploitations or remote surveying speed for example).
This is an interesting system, but also feels a little under-developed at the present moment. While the choices are all reasonably interesting, they aren’t randomized at all like the technology trees – so I find myself falling into the same patterns each game. Moreover, it feels like a missed opportunity to make the space culture tracks unique to each faction. As space “culture” having this system reflect different, unique ways of advancing your specific faction would’ve been really cool. It’s a nicer system and hopefully it can be expanded in the future.
(EDIT 7/26/19: I realized after posting this review there is a game setup option for randomizing the space culture options – I’ll give that a try next time! ).
An Impactful Leader & Espionage System
Leaders in ISG are far more developed than in most 4X games – even going above and beyond what you see in the likes of Endless Space 2, which is a surprise. Leaders show up periodically for hire as either a ship/fleet leader or governor leader, and can be assigned accordingly. Each leader type has half a dozen different primary stats that can be upgraded, and which have an enormous impact on their respective fields. For instance, each point of “attack” given to a fleet leader boosts the entire fleet’s hit percentage rating by 10% per point (which is huge by the way). Similar bonuses apply to colonies, like providing large productivity or revenue generation bonuses.In addition to the primary attributes, leaders also semi-randomly acquire specific sets of skills or personality traits, many of which lead to even higher levels of specialized skills.
Another innovative wrinkle is that leaders have an opinion of you, and frequently issue demands that must be satiated lest their opinion waver. High level fleet leaders will demand to be given command of more powerful ships. Governors might demand the construction of a galactic wonder on their planet. These demands, given the impact of leaders on your operations, often throw a wrench into your strategic planning when you’re suddenly faced with the decision to either re-tool your plans or potentially lose a valuable leader. Pretty cool.
Last, the leader system ties directly into the espionage system. Any leader type can potentially gain spy skills, which makes them eligible to be sent on espionage missions. Often you might have a few leaders dedicated to espionage roles, since they actually abandon their ship or planetary assignments while on the mission! Missions range in type to gathering intelligence, sabotage, stealing assets, and counterintelligence (the things you’d expect). It’s a simple and straightforward approach to espionage that dovetails well the leader system overall.
Diplomacy is Basic
It’s hard to talk about the effectiveness of diplomacy without going into a lengthy discussion of AI behavior and capability. But for now I’ll cover the basics of the diplomacy system. In short – it’s nothing particularly ground-breaking in ISG, as it sticks close to what is minimally expected in a 4X game. There are varying treaties to be pursued (peace, trade and research pacts, territorial access, etc.) and direct asset exchanges to conduct (technology trading, strategic resources, etc.). These can all be useful tools, and players are thankfully limited in how many exchanges they can make so I don’t feel like trading (especially tech) is overly exploitative.
While the system provides an indication of attitude towards your empire (friendly, cautious, etc.), it doesn’t provide much clarity at a numbers-level about why that attitude is what it is. Usually it makes sense with respect to what has transpired in the physical realm (settling outposts close others territory, scout ships engaging accidentally, etc.), but it’s not an easy thing to track overtime. The diplomacy systems feels like a black-box at times. For example, another empire might be friendly to me for a while, but it’s unclear what needs to happen for us to join into an alliance, other than randomly seeing if the option is available.
(EDIT 7/26/19: I realized after posting this review that if you hover over the picture frame in the diplomacy relationships menu, a tool-tip provides a breakdown explaining your relationship status in more detail).
As a final note, the diplomatic text and messages are pretty generic and bland, and don’t do much to inject character or personality into the different factions. Maybe this is another facet of the game that can be revisited in future developments.
Strategic Warfare is Engaging and Tense
Strategic warfare, that is the scouting of enemy positions, movements and logistics of fleet operations, the order of battle, and the mechanics of invasions are of vital importance to the raw strategic depth of 4X games – as so much of the 4X game design hinges on these mechanics.
Overall, ISG does a solid job developing the strategic warfare layer. As mentioned earlier, with open space travel and often very high movement speeds in the late game, defensive and offensive operations become highly dynamic. There is no line of control or choke points to be had in space, and forces can warp through defenses to strike at the interior of an empire. The result is that strategic plans reward dispersing your forces to enable more dynamic responses, whether that be consolidating a defense from multiple points or converging on an offensive target. I really enjoy this dynamic that carries over from more classically designed space 4X games.
Into this mix are the addition of powerful starbases, which provide modest protection for your colonies against smaller raiding forces. There is also the tapestry of outposts belonging to each empire, which provide important but readily capturable strategic targets (as you can’t build starbases at an outpost!). The AI, especially on hard difficulty or above, does a solid job of capitalizing on these undefended targets of opportunity, dashing in to steal a strategic resource location, seemingly only to draw your forces in that direction so they can simultaneously strike in another location. The AI seems to do a commendable job here, so kudos to the development team.
The invasion mechanics also provide a suite of small innovations on the MoO2 formula. Like with MoO2, you can build assault ships that reflect your invasion forces. Once you achieve orbital control, you can just send in your troops and gamble on the numbers working out in your favor. But you can also use ships with bombardment capabilities to whittle down defenses or use your assault troops to conduct a raid instead of a full invasion. All in all, ISG provides a nice range of options that are well-thought out, often forcing you to decide between a fast but risky invasion or multiple turns of “sieging” that might tie down your fleets and assault ships.
Solid Tactical Combat and Ship Design Gameplay Loop
Only a handful of space 4X games utilize a turn-based system for fleet combat, despite the cacophony of interest from genre fans. Thankfully, ISG does a solid job implementing the turn-based combat and dovetailing it with the ship designer.
With respect to the ship designer, I like the overall balance between the level of detail and simplicity. Each ship hull as a maximum mass rating, which is consumed by adding extra engines (which boosts speed and defense rating), the amount of shields, and of course the amount and type of weaponry. It’s nowhere near as intricate as something like Star Drive 2, but I think the simpler approach fits the game well. And at the end of the day, the equipment decisions you make do have a profound effect on ship performance and how well you are setup to counter the designs of hostile ships.
The turn-based combat system itself is straightforward, with one side gaining the initiative and able to move all of their forces first. The “I go, you go” is simple enough, although it would’ve been nice to see a more detailed initiative or variable turn order system used. That said, you can toggle on overlays for ship movement and range, control the firing and target selection of individual weapons, and trigger special heat generating actions (like boosting shield output).
Overall, the system is implemented well. It does the job and has a few extra bells and whistles gameplay-wise. The biggest shortcoming is that the tactical system isn’t the prettiest thing, but for me that’s easily looked past. There are some important nuances to combat that aren’t clearly spelled out in game, like how large (e.g. +/- 50%) differences in attack and defensive ratings can result in incredibly low hit % numbers (like less than 5%). While this is cool for being able to capture significant technological or strategic advantages, it can feel a little harsh if you’re not prepared for it. So consider this a warning!
Run of the Mill Victory Conditions
One of my long-standing criticisms with the 4X genre is the lack of innovation with respect to victory conditions. This is important, I feel, because reliance on the typical victory conditions (e.g. conquest or technology achievement) often exacerbates the syndrome whereby you know if you’re going to win (or not) about halfway through the game, and thus face the choice between either abandonding the session or resigning yourself to the slow, inevitable grind of conquest.
Unfortunately, ISG, despite its many impactful innovations in other aspects of the design, kept it traditional with just a basic conquest/elimination victory or its political counterpart, victory by galactic senate. The senate victory can be a means to circumvent the conquest grind – but it’s a bandaid over an underlying problem endemic to the genre. Perhaps it is unfair to expect ISG to shake up the formula with respect to victory conditions, but I feel like their creative juices could’ve come up with some clever ideas if so motivated. I’d love to see more faction-specific victory conditions or even something like the seals victory system in Age of Wonders 3, which provides a very different rallying target for military conflict instead of mindless, snowball inducing conquest.
Aesthetics: In the Eye of the Beholder
The overall visual aesthetics of ISG is a mixed bag. The whole design doesn’t feel like it has a particular sense of style of coherence, and this applies to UI visuals and in-game objects alike. The galaxy view, with a heavily reliance on flat 2D icons, feels like it wants to reflect some abstracted operational display. Yet zooming in or out doesn’t provide any greater clarity or depth of information. Zooming way down to the star system level depicts a (nicer) 3D view – but it looks quite different. Dropping further down the planetary level has the majority of the screen devoted to a function-less 3D rendered surface landscape that feels like a throwback to the early days of 3D graphics.
Overall, it’s a strange and eclectic mix. I’m hesitant to call it “bad” because for me it triggers a bunch of nostalgic vibes. And as “spiritual successor” to MoO2, this all makes an odd sort of sense to me. Then again, I’ve never been too hung on the graphics provided the functional elements (UI, etc.) are solid (which they are). Nevertheless, I do wonder whether the graphic design is going to be a turn-off for other 4X gamers that are growing accustomed to higher production values, or even just games looking for a more coherent visual style. I hope not a large barrier for people, because if you’re interested in 4X games ISG is certainly worth a look regardless of its graphics.
Interstellar Space: Genesis is a tough game to pin down.
On one hand, as mentioned in our preview article, ISG feels like a game where the developers have done their homework. They’ve implemented exploration, research, combat, and planetary management systems (aka the core building blocks of a 4X game) in ways that usher in a variety of exciting innovations. Few games have launched with so many of the core systems feeling like they are designed as artfully as in ISG. Add to this a robust leader system, a solid warmongering AI, and a highly functional UI, and we’ve got a definite winner.
From a gameplay perspective, the pacing of 4X games is enormously important for achieving that “one more turn” feeling. In general, ISG does well, although I should note that the early game can feel slow with frequent “dead turns” while waiting for a key research or ship to finish. But as I’ve become more experienced with the game, I’ve found subtle ways to accelerate my early progress – whether this is a sign of greater depth or just “more things to learn” I’m not sure. By the mid-game, there is plenty of fast-paced galactic activity to keep you hooked.
Occasionally, I’ve felt like some of mechanics is at odds with itself, and that maybe things could’ve been simplified a bit more. Did we really need a separate planet infrastructure and building queue system? Is the system really providing a deeper experience, or just a more complex one? I think it’s a bit of both. I also think there are some missed opportunities for greater narrative depth, play style variety (faction specific space culture?), and non-military means of empire interaction (markets? Galactic quests?). Hopefully these are avenues of consideration for future updates.
ISG, as a traditional 4X game, runs afoul of the classic “problem” that plagues much of the genre, the dreaded mid-game to end-game slog. However, ISG tempers the situation by the relatively small and focused scale of the game and the inclusion of things like the galactic council that can help bring the game swiftly to a close. It’s certainly not an egregious offender, but I hope the developers can revisit this aspect of the design (and it’s association with victory conditions) in the future. More broadly, I think it is unfair on my part to expect ISG to rectify the classic “problem” at a fundamental level, since by intent the game set out to modernize the traditional MoO2 experience, warts and all. Praxis Studios never intended to reinvent the wheel, so it’s unreasonable to hold them to that standard.
So I’ll leave it with this: ISG shows tremendous sophistication and design aptitude, and we ended up with a solid, traditional 4X game that brings along a host of subtle, but impactful design innovations. While ISG is not a game that will take the 4X genre in a bold new direction, it is a highwater mark for the design and execution of traditional 4X gameplay. On that basis alone, it’s worth a serious look
Caveats to the Rating:
- If you’re looking for a full-featured, traditional style space 4X, this is one to try
- The graphics are a strange and eclectic mix, which could turn off some people (the UI is functionally solid however!)
- Demonstrates lots of subtle innovations and best practices in 4X system design
- Turn-based combat done well
Oliver has played over 50-hours of ISG on a Surface Pro 2 and a Clevo Notebook ( i7-6700HQ Skylake CPU, 16GB DDR4, GeForce GTX 980m). Oliver was provided with an alpha access key by the developer.
I’ve played IS:G for about 25 hours and have mostly enjoyed myself. Though I’d recommend it, it’s probably a much softer recommendation than Oliver’s. I think it does a few things really well, namely exploration and staying true to “the formula”. However, as my preferences and tastes have evolved over the past 20+ years, the MoO formula just doesn’t do it for me anymore.
The pacing seems very off to me, still, which is something I mentioned in my Let’s eXplore video. It will take a significant number of turns to get anything done. Furthermore, there are a lot of empty turns in my experience, where I’m simply hitting the end turn button to move the game along. That’s not my favorite.
I’m not sure if this will change, but I would have likely scored this game as a “Consider”. It really depends on what you look for in your 4X games. Do you want something that sticks to the tried-and-true formula of Master of Orion 2 and doesn’t stray far from it, or do you want something entirely new and innovative? If you lean more towards the latter, you’re unlikely to enjoy IS:G as much.
That being said, I still think that IS:G is fun enough game. I wish they’d stuck with a consistent art style (I personally prefer the hand-drawn style of the factions and the leaders better than the poor attempts at 3D), and I wish they’d done more to make the game unique, but it’s a solid enough entry in the increasingly-crowded market.