Space Empires Gets Reborn on Facebook

In 1993, a new era of strategy gaming was born, in the form of Space Empires. It quickly became popular among strategy titles of the time and eventually paved the way for four sequels. Over time, though, the game’s following died out to some degree, but nearly 20 years later Nvinium Games is set to launch a new, social version of the cult classic in the form of Space Empires: Battle for Supremacy.

It comes out today but we’ve gotten a chance to take an early look at the application. A compilation of concepts from popular science fiction titles such as Mass Effect 2, StarCraft, and a sea of social apps, the game is, if nothing else, going big.

First and foremost it appears play similarly to social strategy titles such as Starfleet Commander mixed with various Civilization clones. However, that is only two of many social games that has been merged into this concept. From Starfleet, Space Empires incorporates the basic concept of building up a base and armada to both defend and conquer the Facebook galaxy. However, unlike the strictly text-based Starfleet, Space Empires takes on a much more visual approach.

In each world the user controls, they can establish visible colonies and military bases in which structures are physically placed upon plots of land. In essence, this is no different than just text, but to have an actual visual of the big picture does create a rather grand sense of accomplishment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as if the player can actually place buildings wherever they wish (like in a city-builder), rather only on sections of terrain that are dubbed free plots of land, similar to Kingdoms of Camelot or Evony. In fact, Space Empires could in part be described as a sci-fi rendition of these popular titles.

Regardless, these buildings — and there are a lot — come in your standard shapes and sizes. Like in any strategy game,  there is a typical technology tree to work up before more advanced structures can be created. These include basic buildings that allow for building ships, defenses, researching new tech, and probes as well as resource gathering and defensive buildings themselves.

Resource buildings are perhaps the most interesting. In a slight page from StarCraft (vespene gas geysers), resource gathering structures for crystals, metals, gas must be constructed atop actual resource nodes. The only one that does not require this is energy, which is created by various power plants and the like. Nevertheless, it is a resource structure called the Colony Farm that is even more curious, housing a very common social element: Farming. In the preview we were given, the user can actually create a colony farm where they can plant crops. Just like FarmVille, Farm Town, and the sea of others, players plant, care for, and harvest (lest they wither) goods for a currency called “Sigil.” Unfortunately, the requirements to build one take a little while to fulfill, so we have yet to unlock it.

In fact, that is an aspect of Space Empires worth pointing out. The game, though a lot like Evony and its ilk, is very slow to get started. Only a small handful of elements take under 10 minutes to make, and unlike the noted games, there is no means to speed them up for free. Typically speaking, anything that takes under 15 minutes in such games could be built instantly, for free,  if the user desired. They still can do so here, but at the cost of constructions drones that cost varying amounts of the virtual currency Credits, based on how much time they take off the building. In the long run, this is not a huge deal as this would be the case for advanced users anyway (there are also Evony-style quests that often reward items that cost Credits), but for a brand new user it does hinder the ability to really hook them.

If one does stick with the game long enough, one of the first things they will notice is that there are a finite number of resources on their home planet. This is where exploration and expansion come into play. In a nice addition, users can send out probes to various regions of the space to find suitable worlds for colonization (or conquest if that’s their thing). Once a “colony ship” is built, they are free to expand.

The term “expand” may be an understatement, though. As you can imagine by now, the scope of Space Empires is already pretty broad, but it gets bigger still. The galactic map may have players start off on a single planet, but they can actually zoom out from the base view to see the planet and any nearby celestial bodies. From there, they can zoom out to a solar system view; then to a galaxy view. From here, players can then hop back and forth between, currently, two massive galaxies, revealing all of the worlds for users to explore, colonize, or conquer.

This visual magnitude is stated to be inspired by the galactic resource gathering and surveying mechanics from Mass Effect. There was just something awe inspiring about seeing an entire galaxy, and it’s an effect that Nvinium hopes to at least somewhat recreate.

As for social features, the core elements appear to be battling. For those wanting to fight right away, rather than explore the galaxy looking for one, they can dive into an instant battle with a random, online player, that is presumably in the user’s level range, choose what fleets to fight with, and enter a shootout, of sorts, with the enemy Mercenaries of War style. Based on the preview, the battle doesn’t look all that pretty with barely moving images shooting awkward looking lasers, but here’s hoping it gets polished out more. Sadly, there’s no way of knowing yet as people have just started playing and, suffice to say, no one has any significant ships yet this morning.

Friends are not left out of the picture either, as Space Empires now takes a page from the Facebook role-playing genre (e.g. Castle Age). In Space Empires, your Facebook friends can be added as one of four “Commanders” for your various fleets and bases in order to grant them various bonuses. Unlike what was noted in the preview though, it appears that they do have to play in order to be recruited, but if they do, then at least you earn extra allies (alliances, with friends and other Space Empire players, will almost certainly be critical to have at advanced levels) and means to earn a few free gifts from them.

On the negative side of things, the most dominant issue is still the new user hook. It’s one thing for someone who has been playing for a while to build only two or three objects a day, but even at 10 minutes, most new players aren’t going to stick around long enough to do much else.

The other current issue is an expected one (and one that will surely be remedied quickly), but there are still a number of obnoxious bugs. The two most annoying was a situation where mousing over a plot of land created one contextual menu, but before it faded away we opened up a building’s menu and the close buttons were overlapping, making both inaccessible. To top this one, at one point, a publish request for a finished structure appeared and would not stop popping up. It required closing the client twice to stop it; something a new user will never take the time to do.

Again, such qualms will no doubt be fixed. From a game play perspective, most of Space Empires works very well and is pretty straight forward. In truth, the only unclear element for a beginner is what Sigils do. Even in our searching, we only ever found three items that require them. Additionally, there is even a galactic exchange for them where users can trade in crystals, metals, or gas. Certainly, this must mean there is greater use at upper levels, otherwise the farming and this Galactic Market aspect would have no point.

Overall, Space Empires is still looking pretty good and ought to be a nice addition to the Facebook strategy genre. Not all the bells and whistles look amazing yet, and there are some concerns with hooking a new user who is not already a Space Empires fan; especially with the current bugs. Regardless, as an early version, these will be fixed and if the quality ends up coming anywhere close to the level of quantity, then Space Empire fans ought to be very pleased. We’re looking forward to seeing more.