I’ve been playing a lot of Civilization-type games recently. I’ve played Civilization since Civilization 2, and there’s just something about being able to take over the entirety of the known world that appeals to me. But just because I’ve been playing the 4X genre since 1996, it doesn’t mean that I’ve gotten “better” at them. No, I’m the player that likes to play on the easiest “Settler” difficulty, raking in the free approval and strategic resource points that these kinds of games generate for the newbies. Did I say “newbie?” I meant weenie. Yes, it’s always Monday here at Super Weenie Hut Junior’s, and I love watching my civilization slowly take over the equivalent of the whole world/New World/galaxy/galactic supercluster/randomized map, all while crushing my enemies and hearing the lamentations of their poorly-developed infrastructure!
(For those wondering how far back in PC gaming I go, check out Conquests of the New World on GOG. I have an intense love for old Interplay games; no wonder I got so hooked on Fallout back in the day!)
In particular, I’ve been playing a game called Endless Space 2. In traditional 4X style (meaning it upholds the four pillars of these types of pseudo-board-games: Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate), Endless Space 2 isn’t your usual Colonize The Stars Simulator. Unlike Stellaris or Sins of a Solar Empire, you’re not the first empire to invent the FTL drive. The galaxy has already been conquered. Good news, though: that empire fell a long time ago, and you’re the newest face in the newest Space Race. While a few of the races you can play with have only recently emerged as a space-faring civilization bent on establishing themselves as galactic rulers, many of the races are actually “old hats” at playing overlord and have only recently resurfaced to conquer all over again. Turns out even some sub-sections of humanity have been star-hopping for centuries.
For those that might not want to take the time to play the first Endless Space (which isn’t bad, just less polished than the current title), the story is revealed in the semi-randomized mission quests you undertake as a species during gameplay. In my opinion, it’s a great low-stakes way to get the player invested into the existing storyline of the series without cramming it all down the player’s throat up front (each race has their own introduction cinematic, though, which is beautiful). While some of these missions can get super-difficult, they play into the strengths (and sometimes the weaknessess) of the race you’re currently playing. Play as the warmongering Craven race that literally cannot declare ‘peace?’ Complete your mission objectives and you’ll get better at curb-stomping. Play as the scientific Sophons? Your missions will help you research faster, or help you overcome your general weakness in warfare. Play as the Vaulters, the humans who developed underneath the once-endless Endless? Your missions will help you find rare planets to exploit, including the Endless’s old homeworld you were once exiled from.
Oh, hi Auriga. Fancy meeting you here.
In the universe of Endless Space, it is not gold or the all-powerful “credit” that controls the galaxy. For you, and for the Endless (the once-biological-machine-hybrid race that once acted as the galaxy’s ancient precursor), the only currency that matters is Dust. These nanoscopic micro-machines were created by the Endless to do absolutely everything. And it can be found absolutely everywhere, from growing on semi-biological trees to taking root in the deepest of planetary cores. Dust gives this 4X-strategy game a good reason for being able to “buy-out” ships and buildings: once you have enough of it, it isn’t inconceivable for a mountain of nanomachines to instantly take the form of whatever you want to design. It’s either that, or your “culture” (which is indeed a resource of its own) becomes sufficiently-advanced that your public works projects just appear from the aether like magic.
One of the most fascinating concepts to me about Endless Space 2 are the “lesser races” that you can discover in the galaxy. They may be a splinter group of one of the larger main factions (the adorably-crimson Mavros, a mercenary group of Sophons that embrace conflict instead of science), a species that hasn’t quite fully evolved yet but have a peculiar adaptation to Dust (such as the Deuyivans, a race of insectoids that grew to like Dust a lot), a species created by the Endless for their own mysterious ends (like the Sowers, who continue to terraform planets for their long-dead masters), or even a race that used to be Endless, however indirectly, until something eons ago went wrong (like the Amoeba, long story).
Whenever you incorporate these races into your civilization, they offer specific benefits based on their culture and how fast their population grows amongst your own. That’s right: once you adopt a lesser race into your civilization, they will actually become part of your civilization, with bonuses all their own. This can usually mean a quick population increase for your developing capital, or boosts for systems that are struggling with your population alone (the Epistis, for example, are rocky creatures that grow more food on sterile worlds, which can make all the difference when your people are starving on systems with arctic or barren worlds.) If you’re the xenophobic-type, you do have the option to restrict voting rights to your own people, which can help when choosing a political faction to side with. This is more than a simple thematic choice. After all, you wouldn’t want to start off with a dictatorial war play in mind just to run into a bunch of freedom-and-peace-loving Amoeba and mess that up. Or on the flip-side, if you have a plan to craft alliances with as many players and lesser races as possible, things might get complicated if you run into the Mavros or the Eyder peoples who more easily benefit the conflict-minded. Depending on who you meet, you may have to switch things up a bit. Play your cards right, though, and the lesser races you encounter early on can help you mold your tactics as the game progresses.
I love the idea of lesser races. Not only can they directly benefit your preferred style of play, they can completely mess it up if you don’t run into the ones you hope for. Yet somehow, for how specialized some of the major races feel during gameplay, you’ll never want to say no to a little more manpower when you’re the first to come across these unique civilizations. Sometimes during random missions and side quests, you’ll be gifted populations from a lesser race, and it’s always a good idea to shuttle them to systems where they’ll do the most good. I also love that while a few of the races are wonderful early-game, some of these lesser races become even more helpful late-game, especially if you plan ahead and focus on their development. If you assimilate the Sowers, for example, there is a chance to acquire massive amounts of food on sterile planets (they are considered “soil healers”), and even massively reduce the cost of terraforming planets (they are the Endless’s planetary architects). The higher their population in your civilization, the greater the chance you have to gain these bonuses.
Although you can customize your own main civilization before each game starts, you cannot create your own lesser race to play with (outside of modding, I suppose, which I haven’t looked into with Endless Space 2). But I’ve actually been thinking about a fun possibility. What if there existed a lesser race that practically forced a player to perform a 180-degree turn strategically if they assimilated them at the wrong time? Okay, maybe not 180 degrees, but bear with me.
Imagine a race of crystalline golems. To match the style of Endless Space, I’ll call them: “The Lucidian Remembrance.” Granted sapience through centuries of Dust exposure, these dense and slow-moving behemoths retain within themselves the memories of all the living things that have previously interacted with their unique infusions. Bereft of sensory organs or physical forms beyond their crystalline framework, they rely upon the Dust to relay information to them and affect the world around them. Though the Dust grants them memories and wisdom, it does not provide a clear picture of organic life. Quite the opposite. When interacting with other life-forms, their first impressions of a species’s overall worldview tends to stick in their stoic recollections, and they have difficulty comprehending how quickly squishy minds change. This does not dampen their desire to prove “helpful,” however, as they are rather fond of learning from biological life.
Whenever they are assimilated into a primary culture, while providing a small boost to scientific research, they boost whatever political faction the player holds as their “majority” faction. The longer the majority stays in power, and the larger the Lucidians grow in population, the stronger the majority’s hold becomes. If the player wishes to change majorities mid-game (as a wise player sometimes does), the best way to change the Lucidians’ support is to pair them in smaller populations with your main population during the change. This way, while the Lucidians may take a while to change their opinions, it isn’t too hard to make a serious change when gameplay demands it.
The Lucidians’ true strength, however, comes from unchanging opinions. The longer they remain in a single “majority,” the stronger their bonus to the majority opinion becomes. If your society supports the Industrialists, for example, the longer they support them without changing, the more the Lucidians boosts your overall manufacturing and fleet construction. If your society supports the Militarists, the better the Lucidians become at maintaining morale during wartime and providing defensive bonuses during ground combat. If you society supports the Intellectuals, the Lucidians become masters at scientific research, providing ever greater bonuses as your civilization increases its Dust reserves. For Environmentalists, the Lucidians provide increased approval bonuses for planets undergoing terraformation. For the Religious faction, the Lucidians boost conversion rates on newly-conquered systems. And for Pacifists, big boosts to luxury resource generation the more alliances you gain.
Once a player comes across this lesser species, it would force them to consolidate a game plan and stick with it for as long as possible. Me, being the plebian that I am, would invariably focus solely on scientific research and simply out-science my rivals. In the hands of a better player who loves a lot of micro-play, I could see this being right up their alley.
Anyway, while I fully admit to having no experience in designing video games (especially games like Endless Space 2 that require the finest of fine-tuning to preserve a fair balance between races), I do love coming up with fun ideas on how to improve a 4X-style game. I love the subtle worldbuilding inherent to 4X games, as well as all the little bonuses that slowly snowball into gigantic strategies that can change the course of an entire game. Lesser races in Endless Space 2 fit that bill perfectly. In the very least, it’s the ideas like these that keep my mind busy while desperately trying to improve my own lot in life.
Never know when a good distraction might transform into something better.