The 4X game is the Sunday papers genre: you spread out, prepare yourself for the long, luxurious haul, and tackle this glorious unwieldy thing, thick with features wanted and unwanted and packed with colour and far-flung intrigue. Your favourite part in it will be some aspect you were not expecting, and yet the whole thing is wonderfully awash with calming familiarity. I am still surprised that the new Civ does not drop a leaflet for life insurance when you pick it up and shake it.
To put it another way, the pleasure of these games is that they take time. You start off with one settler and an entire globe is waiting to be discovered and bent to your will. In space 4X games it’s even more daunting: a solar system, a galaxy, a universe is yours for the taking. Someday someone’s going to make a multiverse 4X. Maybe we are already playing it.
But there are downsides to these sorts of things – well, sometimes they feel like downsides anyway. There are problems with the four Xs of the 4X, of course. Isn’t the explore and expand element more fun than the exploit and exterminate part that follows? But there’s also the time question: sometimes you don’t have Sunday papers kinds of time on your hands. And while there is a pratfalls pleasure to opening up an ancient save and trying to work out why you were so hell-bent on taking out Leopold II – you monster! – the memory tax of these games is probably high enough already.
So what about the speedy 4X? The brisk 4X. The 4X that likes to jog or at least power-walk. Oh man, I am glad that I engineered this opening section to lead us to that question, because I have been playing two speedy 4X games this week. Well, they are kind of 4X games anyway. And they are kind of speedy.
Imagine Civ, but you can play it on the bus and finish it on the bus too. The Battle of Polytopia is a bit like that, even though in truth it feels like Civ less than it looks like Civ, and to make it look like Civ you really have to squint.
No matter: Polytopia is wonderful, a free smartphone game that allows you to pick a race and then drops you into a map covered by fog and asks you to explore.
Gosh it is quick. You push back the fog with every move you make, and you take over unclaimed villages just by landing in them and waiting a turn. It is streamlined, too: resource tiles ultimately level up your cities, and the goal of most of the things you do is to unlock different kinds of units. Battling is straightforward, although there is a bit of a meat-grinder element to it as you turn up with dozens of units and win, more often than not, by overwhelming force, but at the end of it all you still feel like you feel at the end of a long Civ game: you came, you saw, you conquered. You just didn’t have the destour where you thought you might be able to pull off a cultural victory and feel – moderately – less evil about everything.
Meanwhile, in the depths of the cosmos, Space Tyrant is waiting – and Space Tyrant, based on an afternoon with it, is very special indeed. It’s made by Blue Wizard Digital, which means it has Popcap genes flowing through it, and the genetics are readily apparent in the way the game takes a complex genre and makes it more focused, all while allowing the richness and the fun to shine through.
How’s this for focussing, in fact? In Space Tyrant you are evil – this explains, for starters, why there’s no need for diplomacy or culture or science, and it explains why everything you can do is so gloriously destructive.
Destructive and fast! Move in on a planet and you enter a battle screen that pits you against any enemy fleets already there. You can tweak your loadout of ships before you head in – and you can power them up through research or earn a greater fleet size through levelling your hero character – and then it’s all guns blazing and cooldowns and a choice of one of three unfair advantages that are randomly chosen for each battle. Fights are quick, and there’s an option to play them on double speed. And that’s just battling. Once the dust has settled, the invasion of a planet is handled with a dice roll.
And yet Space Tyrant, for all its streamlining, still offers some of the riches and sprawl of 4X. Each planet you conquer hands you, more often than not, a little FTL-like story snippet with a choice attached. Each mission chucks you into a fresh star system, to batter back the fog, colonise as many planets as possible, and meet a range of victory conditions. Tricking out the perfect fleet can be a dizzying treat in and of itself, and there’s even a card system – why wouldn’t there be a card system? – that allows you to do truly villainous strategic things from afar to balance out all the tactical stuff you’re doing as you move your fleets around.
Best of all, when you’re really sticking it to your enemies, you are generally riding high in Tyrant Power, and once that’s maxed out you’re allowed to fire a laser blast right across the galaxy and take an enemy fleet down a few ships. The pace of Space Tyrant meshes wonderfully tightly with the theme at such moments. Of course you’re in a hurry. Why not cut corners? Why worry about collateral damage? You’re already evil.
Are these 4X games? I’m not sure, really, and I’m certain that absolute purists would be horrified. What’s interesting, though, is that I have met strategy designers over the years and found them, as you might expect, to be uniquely thoughtful and questioning sorts of people. Nobody picks over the problems – and the pleasures! – of the 4X as attentively as the people who make them. And in all the swiftness and parody of Polytopia and Space Tyrant, who knows what sparks of inspiration may lurk?