Sins of a Simplified Empire Game

For the most part, I’m enjoying Sins of a Solar Empire, but I can’t help but notice that there’s not all that much to it.

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Your typical 4X Genre game is usually a game of establishing a powerful economic base, then racing your way to the top of the technology tree while investing the minimal amount into your military necessary to assure that the barbarians battering at the gates can’t take over your planets.

Sins of the Solar Empire is no exception, but it has a greatly shortened tech tree. If you can lay claim to enough planets to build the neccessary eight technology structures, you can get maximum technology relatively easily. In the end, in any game that has lasted about four hours, any empire with enough planets should pretty much have everything researched.

The entire TEC military tech tree. Imagine a very similar screen for the civilian tech, and that’s all the technology you get in this 4X game.

At the point where everybody’s finished their research, it’s all about using what you have. The main tools that assert your offensive and defensive dominance are the ships themselves. As it turns out, each empire only has six kinds of frigates and four kinds of cruisers. There’s no ship customization, so you have the same ten ship designs from start to finish.

Of these ten ship designs, only three are really vital for combat. One frigate is your basic attacker, and it is replaced by a more durable and deadly cruiser once the technology to produce it becomes available. The third is a cruiser that is instrumental in improving the survivability of your fleet by repairing or reinforcing armor or shield points (depending on which race you are playing).

The other seven ships are a scout ship, a colony ship, a planet sieger, a lighter but longer range attacker, an anti-fighter/bomber flak ship, a fighter/bomber carrier, and a race-unique utility ship. They’re all pretty useless in a toe-to-toe fight, with the possible exception of the utility ship, but then there’s the question if it’s really worth sacrificing the firepower to take it instead. Forget these guys and put together a big fleet of half attackers and half repairers, and you’ll have a hard time finding a more efficient use of your fleet points.

Sort of: In addition to the nine ships mentioned so far, there are also five capital ships. These cost about ten times the fleet points as an attack frigate, but are functionally more than ten ships rolled into one. In addition to their large armor, shield, and weapon values, capital ships also have also have devastating special skills and the ability to “level up.” These are your “hero units,” and have an additional crew requirement besides fleet points to prevent them from becoming unbalanced. It doesn’t work, really, and whoever brings the most capital ships to the fight is usually going to have the advantage.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is this: Once you boil down the tech tree and ship capabilities in Sins of a Solar Empire enough, the units are actually pretty simple. To an extent, this can be a good thing: simple core mechanics mean that you don’t have to wrack your brain for hours trying to figure out what the best unit is to use in this situation because there’s only one specialized unit for the task. However, I suspect the resulting lack of depth is bad for the longevity of the game.

A really well made RTS will go out of its way to create a great tactical import to use units besides your basic attackers and maintenance ships. Supreme Commander has the commander, experimental tier, and the core three tiers of land, sea, and air units – about three dozen unique and viable units. Blizzard’s big RTS (Warcraft 3 and Starcraft) finely balanced the units to have unique roles and applications, resulting in a sort of a rock/paper/scissors approach to combat where there’s a counter to whatever the enemy is bringing (though there were exceptions). Even Dune 2, arguably the birthplace of the modern RTS, gave you more than 9 core units to play with per faction.

It’s looking to me like Sins of a Solar Empire does not have that kind of detail in its balance. Instead, it’s far too much about using up your fleet points optimally. The way the warping works, chances are you’re already engaged in a short ranged fight before your fleet has completely arrived. Considering these factors, you end up bringing your biggest brawlers and slugging it out. Consequently, you don’t even get to use the basic 9 units, it’s really about the first 3.

Maybe I’m mistaken, and perhaps with a bit of noodling with some tactics other than this very reliable “half attacker, half repairer” configuration, I’ll discover there’s something more effective than brute force in this game. For example, I suspect it’s possible to put together a carrier fleet or a raiding fleet. However, given the way your overall units are limited by “fleet points,” such experimentation is costly to my chances of success in the game.

3 Responses

  1. The point where things get interesting though is that fleet travel itself takes quite some time, and in a typical game with 4 or more players you end up controlling anywhere from 3 to 5 fleets at a time, juggling their targets while maintaining their individual unit balance.

    So while there isn’t that much micromanagement going on (fleets do pretty well on their own, although through the relatively slow turning speed of the ships there still is some micro), and indeed to me it seems as well that the best fleet is a well-rounded one, you shouldn’t for example neglect countermeasures to enemy strike craft, or they’ll swarm around big ships and make mashed potatoes out of them.

    Having the entire empire in your view at all times can be a daunting task as well. And concerning the tech tree: If you spend all your civic structure points on research, there’s nothing left for trade stations and you might end up lagging behind in economic terms, or media centers and your planets will be taken over by enemy culture without a fight. Myself, I haven’t played a game yet where I researched every single item in the end – although I did try and fill in gaps later on, I always had to juggle resources between research and fleet / planet development.

    Finally, the customizable ships are the capital ones – they have relatively few customization options in the end, but enough to make them individually distinguishable. Also, I found most ships useful in some contexts, and I had a fighter squadron fleet at one point as well and fared quite well with it.

    Sure, there had to be a tradeoff between complexity in tech trees and ship building, and the requirement to make the entire thing manageable in real time. I think Sins does a pretty good job at maintaining relatively much of the traditional 4X complexity, while taking the concept into the modern age – the one where turn-based games only target a very narrow audience anymore.

  2. On the other hand, you did make me buy Supreme Commander 🙂

  3. You make some pretty good points. Even though I find the ship portion of Sins of a Solar Empire to be a bit simple, I have to admit, the game gives you pleanty to occupy the mind with.

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