Galactic Reign is a head-to-head 4x space strategy game for Windows 8 and Windows Phone, focusing on strategic fleet movement and ship design. The game was developed by Microsoft Studios and Slant Six Games and I was a designer on the project, focusing primarily on combat and balance. In each match, two players start with one or more colonized worlds and four fleets which they can use to colonize additional worlds, attack enemy fleets, or destroy enemy colonies. New ships can be built into these fleets, but new fleets cannot be made. If one of a player’s fleets is lost on battle, it can be respawned, keeping the number of fleets at 4 at all times. The objective of the game is either to wipe out your opponent or – more commonly – to earn 25 victory points, which are awarded for controlling the map’s three victory planets.
Tutorial Video here.
When we started Galactic Reign, our goal was to create a deep 4x experience in the tradition of genre greats like Masters of Orion and Sins of a Solar Empire, but adapted to tablets and phones. Given the limitations of those devices in terms of UI real estate and player habits, it was immediately apparent that Galactic Reign would not have as many features as traditional 4x games. Early in the project we were concerned that the end result would feel incomplete and the aspects missing from other 4x titles would be glaring holes in our design. But as the title moved forward we discovered that it’s very possible to leave out complexity while leaving in depth. In fact, in many cases removing the complexity dramatically increased the depth and tension of the game by making each choice both more important and more understandable. Essentially, depth in a strategy game is the options a player has and how those options interact while complexity is systems that a player needs to understand in order to make informed choices. Galactic Reign’s design was all about limiting the latter while emphasizing the former.
The underlying principle we focused on is that it isn’t understanding systems that is interesting for players; it’s using them. Understanding systems is merely a prerequisite for using them intelligently. Some of the more complex systems from traditional 4x games aren’t easily understandable and mastery of those systems doesn’t allow a player to use them in interesting ways, it only allows them to optimize how they play at a very base and often invisible layer. That’s complexity without depth, which is nothing but an obstacle to the real heart of any competitive strategy game: to pit two minds against each other on a level playing field. To that end, we took inspiration from games like Chess or Go which have simple rulesets, but ample opportunity for cleverness and expression. Vast arrays of subtle rules act as both a barrier to entry for new players, and an obstacle to true competition for players not intimately familiar with them. To that end, the design of Galactic Reign centers around providing gameplay that is easy to both understand and execute so that the interaction between players is as pure an expression of skill as possible.
Before I go into detail on the aspects of the design that create the intense feeling of competition, I want to look at the limitations and goals that lead us in those directions.
When it comes to multiplayer on mobile devices, being turn-based is the natural fit. The only real option other than async would be a persistent-but-slow game like Kingdoms of Camelot or Neptune’s Pride. But we wanted a game that was an expression of skill between two players, rather than one with extraneous factors such as when a player happened to be able to log in. A simple turn-based structure is an ideal framework for mobile strategy games and was an easy tenet to accept. Even on other platforms, turn-based is the optimal choice for any strategy design that wants the gameplay to be 100% decision making, without a reliance on physical execution.
Limited real estate
The tiny size and lack of button/stick/mouse input on a phone is a huge limiting factor on design. You can’t take a complex game and squeeze it into that tiny space. Details get lost, touch controls become frustrating, and the experience quickly becomes more than a player wants to deal with. You don’t want cramped screens or tons of nested functionality, so everything that a player needs must fit comfortably on a screen or two. It also means that the game’s maps would have to be fairly small, compared to the massive galaxies of games like Sins of a Solar Empire or Neptune’s Pride.
For example, the following images show Galactic Reign's maps compared to Masters of Orion and Galactic Reign's ship design compared to Gratuitous Space Battles.
Combat early and often
For Galactic Reign, the combat videos are a driving feature. In order to make them a big part of the game – especially for first-time players – combat needs to happen early and often. There are many choices we made during Galactic Reign’s design to support this. Maps are designed so that players’ starting fleets are in close proximity and the highest-value positions on the map are generally between them. Because victory points determine the winner, players are forced to push into the center of the map or risks their opponent getting an early lead. These choices revolve around encouraging early conflict without tipping the game too far in the favor of the player who wins those first battles.
Short play sessions
We wanted to make a game that players could become engrossed in for a long period of time, but shipping on phone and tablet meant Galactic Reign also needed to be a game that you can take a turn in when you have 5 minutes to spare, even if those turns are hours or days apart. This became another limiting factor for game complexity. Essentially, every possible decision a player might make on their turn needed to be able to fit inside a small 5-10 minute window.
Paring Down 4X
The heavyweights of the 4x genre (Master of Orion, Pax Imperia, Galactic Civilization, Sins of a Solar Empire, Endless Space, etc) have a ton of both depth and complexity. Complexity is at odds with short play sessions and limited UI space, so our initial task was to find the aspects of 4x that add the most depth with the least complexity. Our design process quickly focused on paring down the things players need to learn and understand, while still allowing a wide variety of options for players to express themselves.
What we ended up with was strategic space conquest without the frills. We got rid of diplomacy, espionage, planetary management, production queues, complex ship design, and any technology related to anything other than warships. There are no colony ships, there are no star ports, and there is only one resource. There are worlds, fleets, and ways for those fleets to move between and colonize those worlds. Focusing on those mechanics allowed us to craft an experience that focuses on what we see as the core of the genre, meaningful choice.
We wanted an experience similar to a board game in which steamlining a player’s choices makes each one important. The 4-fleet limit in Galactic Reign, the ways technologies interact, and the jump lines between planets all focus on one goal: making each choice very specific and making the consequences of that choice apparent on the following turn.
This process starts at the beginning of the game. Galactic Reign has almost no build up before the two sides come into conflict. On turn one, players have barely enough resources to colonize, research technology, or build a meaningfully powerful fleet, and we designed maps with the potential for very early conflict so that none of those choices is particularly safe or obvious. This was partially driven by our desire to create battles – and therefore battle videos – as soon as possible, but it was also to cut out any rote openings in which players would grow their economy without any interesting choices for several turns.
One of the game’s most obvious choice-constraining mechanics is that each player has only four fleets, which function as game pieces. Fleets are the only entities that can produce ships, colonize planets, or bombard enemy planets, and because you can’t make a new one until one is destroyed, their placement is critical at all stages of the game. Additionally, the manner in which fleets take actions is also very specific. Colonizing and bombarding both require a fleet to stay where it is and survive the turn, meaning that colonizing not only costs resources, but also restricts the player’s mobility for the turn. We wanted every action you can perform with a fleet to be a trade-off between options, so that no one thing is an obvious choice.
Similarly, we didn’t want there to be an obvious choice of when to research technology. In most strategy games, tech provides immediate advantage, with no down sides. New units are better, while old units either need to be sacrificed in a battle, scrapped, or upgraded. We didn’t want technology to be another way that early victories would snowball into an inevitable win and we didn’t want to make an interface for scrapping or upgrading obsolete ships. In fact, ships becoming obsolete is not particularly fun in general. Along those lines, technology in Galactic Reign provides options, rather than power. A high-tech fleet geared towards killing opening-technology ships will still dominate those fleets, but those high-tech ships have other weaknesses. The “low tech” ships you can build at the start of the game are actually great counters to some middle and end-game fleets. Because of this, buying technology is never something to do just because a player has the resources to spare, and just building ships with the newest tech is not always the best strategy. Each technology is a specific tool to help craft a game plan or respond to an opponent’s choices.
We iterated on ship design a lot, moving between several designs with more or less flexibility and complexity. Our aim was to make a system that is simple and clear, yet allows customization and expression. What we settled on was a system with a fair number of options, but that specifically walks players through the process of design and asks them, “What are you here to do?” Although we expose underlying systems and numbers, we also explain what each hull, weapon, and special component is for as directly as possible. “These flak cannons are your best defense against fighters.” “This dispersion matrix is ideal against high damage weapons.” We expected that players would always enter the ship designer with a particular intention. In other games you might buy Lasers 3 because it’s better than Lasers 2 and then go design a new ship because you want to use Lasers 3. Galactic Reign assumes that you bought cloaking devices specifically to protect your ships from long range guns until they get within firing range of their targets.
Technology granting choice rather than power was one of many systems designed around the idea that early advantages don’t guarantee a win. In some strategy games, the player who wins the first battle is strongly favored to win the game. It was important for Galactic Reign to allow comebacks in several ways at various stages of a game. Then, once one player accumulates an insurmountable advantage, the game should rush towards a conclusion.
The core of comebacks in Galactic Reign is that there are multiple aspects of the game that a player can be ahead in at any particular time, and which player is leading in each is unclear due to hidden information. These aspects are in some ways complex, but because they are all focused around a couple core concepts and goals, they are easy to grasp even by players who may not be consciously aware of them. The potential advantages that a player can have in Galactic Reign are Victory Points, Fleet Value, Economy, Information, and Flexibility. Each is related to the basic concept of fighting for control of the map, so there’s never a danger that a comeback will manifest as one player winning by surprise.
- Victory Points are the most apparent of possible advantages, since they’re shown in the game menu and are never hidden. Because Galactic Reign ends as soon as a player reaches 25, keeping an eye on both your opponent’s victory points and their positioning around the planets that give them is critical at all stages of the game. Much of the tension in the game comes from one player gaining an advantage here and trying to maintain it to the end, even as their opponent gets ahead in economy and fleet value.
- Fleet Value is the easiest factor to understand. Having larger fleets on the map gives a player obvious ways to control the game, by being able to secure economy and victory points, or by attacking the enemy’s worlds.
- Economy is also easily seen and understood, although its effect is more subtle than fleet value. Having more colonies gives the player the ability to build more ships and research more technologies, allowing them field larger, more complex fleets as the game progress.
- Information is a powerful tool in Galactic Reign, although mastering how to best use it can be a subtle art. Knowing what an opponent has colonized and where his or her fleets are is key, but so is knowing their technology choices and fleet composition. Because fleet compositions are largely hidden except during battles, information about an opposing fleet is a valuable consolation prize for losing a fight. Your opponent may have a large fleet remaining, but you’ll know exactly what’s in it and be able to construct a perfect counter, making that fleet vulnerable for a short time.
- Flexibility is the most subtle advantage a player can have, but is very important. Because fleets can only respawn on colonies and because players can’t split fleets or transfer ships between them, it’s easy to find yourself with powerful armadas that are entirely out of position to defend what you need them to defend. An opponent’s fleet advantage can be completely negated simply by getting the bulk of their forces out of the way of your objectives.
In order to make information a potential come-back factor, ship design needed to be very important. As a result, the combat layer of Galactic Reign has a lot of very hard counters. A well-designed fleet can crush a fleet that is twice its size or more.
In order for both information and flexibility to play key roles, Galactic Reign also has the concept of “sectors”. A sector is a group of planets that provide an additional economic bonus when a player controls all of them. This plays a huge role because it allows one fleet to deal significant damage to an opponent’s economy by bombarding just one colony.
Victory points as a win condition is unusual for a 4x game, which tend to base military victory on wiping out all opposition. The victory point mechanic exists partially to push games to conclusion. Having a significant advantage over an opponent allows players to easily secure the victory planets and end the game quickly, meaning that there’s never a drawn out and frustrating stage of the game where the obvious winner tries to stamp out the last world or fleet of their opponent.
Psychology vs Randomness
Most turn-based strategy games are back and forth, but Galactic Reign is simultaneous, which leads to a very different feel. In a back and forth structure you may not know how an opponent will react to a move, but you know what the immediate results of your move will be. Taking a bishop with a rook in chess may not be the best move, but you’re certain that you’re taking that bishop. In Galactic Reign, since your opponents actions resolve at the same time as yours, none of those outcomes are certain. Does this add randomness in a bad way?
Let’s step back and take a look at the game of rock-paper-scissors. Most people don’t regard it as a serious game because even though the game contains no randomness, there aren’t strategies that allow you to win. But what if I said, “Let’s play a game of RPS, best 4 out of 7. But whenever you win with Paper, that’s 3 points.” Suddenly the players have a way to get inside their opponent’s head and assess motivations and risks. There still might not be a way to be ‘good’ at that game, but the players are more engaged. If you take that principle and expand it a hundred fold, you get to Galactic Reign. What your opponent will build and where they’ll move is outside your control and as a result you have to examine all their potential choices and figure out the best way to manage risks.
This does two things. The first and most obvious is that it magnifies the tension of the gameplay. Players are never certain of the outcomes of their moves, and can’t be certain what their opponent’s response will be. Every time a new turn is available, the player is immediately excited to see what happened and release the tension from his uncertainty. This feeling makes the game very engaging, although that degree of tension might be undesirable for some games. Games in which choices are more plentiful, but each choice are less impactful are more relaxing and forgiving than Galactic Reign’s gameplay.
The other effect is that even though the game contains almost no randomness, it can create the impression that there is a lot of randomness, especially for new players. This is useful because the more randomness in a game, the more likely a player is to keep playing after a loss. In a game with zero randomness and absolute information, it’s very easy to compare skill levels and a loss in one match strongly implies a loss in a subsequent match against the same opponent. In Galactic Reign, even without true randomness, there is still a sense that next time you can do something trickier or better anticipate the same opponent’s fleet movements.
We were happy with the ways our goals resulted in Galactic Reign’s approach to 4x. The game is tense and competitive, but simple enough that it’s approachable by players who are not intense strategy gamers. We accomplished this by pruning away systems that would require detailed understanding to play optimally. The game focuses on giving players very few choices, but providing a variety of options for each and making the results of each choice both significant and quickly apparent. This, combined with a heavy psychological factor and constant interaction and conflict, makes the game feel different than most 4x games, while retaining much of the theming and skillsets that make that genre a loved one.