You’ve never wrestled with a game quite like Apollo4x

, | Game reviews

Apollo4x has made an odd choice calling itself a 4X, and making sure you know it by putting it in the title. But it’s really not a 4X, at least in any conventional sense of the term. A 4X is a game like Civilization and its space-based Master of Orion brethren. I know 4Xs. I play 4Xs. Apollo4x, you’re no 4X.

And, after the jump, you’re the better for it!

The charm of the obtuse but eventually charming Apollo4x is that it’s not a 4X. 4Xs are called 4Xs for exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination. You only ever do about one and a half of those things in Apollo4x. I guess Apollo1.5x is too awkward a title.

So what do you do in Apollo4x? That’s a great question and not easily answered, because it’s not immediately clear, even as you’re reading the manual and learning to play. This is such a weird little curio that it deserves description. So let me take a stab at it.

You’re some sort of space tycoon on the planet Apollo, sitting at the center of a galaxy festooned with planets. Most of them are entirely undeveloped. A few of them are occupied by hostile alien races, who will eventually try to conquer more planets. There are three ways to win the game: 1) conquer the alien races, 2) expand out to 20 colonies connected by a sophisticated interplanetary internet, or 3) stockpile a ridiculous amount of resources. So, basically, military might, infrastructure, or wealth.

Before the game starts, you get to claim/colonize three planets. Then, when it’s your turn, you’ll spend most of your time setting out from Apollo in a space caravan, flying among your planets, refueling, and buying/selling goods. It’s a forgiving economy, and it’s easy to make money. The trick is to optimize how much money you make. Once your space caravan gets back to Apollo, you can end your turn. Did I mentioned Apollo4x is turn-based? Because it is. Very. You’ve got all the time in the world to optimize your trade route. Take it. You’ll need it. More on that later, because it’s the game’s undoing.

The action has more in common with Railroad Tycoon than a 4X. But the charm of the design comes from how much more is piled into the gameplay than simply flying around to buy low and sell high. Your main resource is the money you earn from trading generic commodities (as near as I can tell, it makes no difference whether you’re trading space artifacts, culture, or minerals). You also have an approval rating that you have to keep above zero and political clout to pay for special abilities. Then there are “services”, which are resources you buy with your cash. Services include spacecraft for your caravan, the weapons for your armies, infrastructure to develop your planets, colonial power to claim new planets, and so forth. Every planet you own demands some of these services every turn. Give them what they want and you’ll earn a point of approval. Don’t give them what they want and you’ll lose a point of approval. As long as you keep your approval above zero so you don’t lose the game, you can pick and choose among demands. It’s a smartly tuned resource model and even though the actual stuff your space caravans trade doesn’t really matter, everything else matters neatly.

Apollo4x_citystates

One of my favorite features is based on the premise that the planet Apollo has a bunch of different city-states. You can spend your approval, which is a precious commodity for how expensive it is to maintain and for how you can never let it drop to zero, to buy favor with the city-states. Each one unlocks new gameplay mechanics or special rules. For instance, a trading faction gives you completely new kinds of space caravans. A banking faction manipulates the services market and trades clout for cash. The scholar faction can use wormholes for free and trade more readily with a wandering alien fleet. The resistance faction can call troops in the middle of battle while the warrior faction gives your troops entirely new abilities. One of the most important decisions in any game of Apollo4x is which city-state you’re going to take first.

And there’s even more. Deposit money into the vault to earn interest every turn. An achievement system gives you clout when you hit certain thresholds. Build infrastructure on your planets to improve your buying and selling capacity, and the range of your fleets. With all these systems feeding into each other, informing each other, turning each other like gears in a clock, with clearly defined relationships and simple numbers, Apollo4x feels like an elegant but complex boardgame. It’s got a fairly steep learning curve because it’s so unconventional, but once you learn it, it’s easy to follow.

It might seem weird at first that there’s only one player. What kind of 4X doesn’t have other factions also doing the Xing, vying for control of the galaxy? But your opponent in Apollo4x is the clock, represented by the hostile aliens that will eventually start gobbling up planets. If you’re not going to try to conquer them as your victory objective, you’re still going to have to fight to keep the aliens from your planets.

Apollo4x_combat

At which point Apollo4x reveals an almost entirely separate game. Your units line up at the bottom of the screen and the enemy units line up at the top of the screen, represented by cards. When you pick one of your units to engage an enemy unit, they each choose one of three tactics specific to that type of unit. For instance, your stellar marines can choose frontal assault, hold the line, or assault the position. Unit stats are determined by the choice of tactic. Stellar marines that frontal assault are attack 3 and defense 2. But stellar marines that hold the line are attack 0 and defense 4. That’s not even half the story. Stellar marines build up flanking points on an enemy that boost the stats of other stellar marines attacking that enemy. Certain tactics actually cost health points as a way to represent using up resources. Morale match-ups during engagements swing an overall value for the battlefield that dictates which units retreat before the next turn. That’s the main way you win battles. Swing morale in your favor to chase off the enemy.

It’s a great system for how much character it gives each unit. Your mech suits build up charges for their attacks, your space support satellites can zero out enemy stats, and your science battalions have nano-warfare damage-over-time attacks. Each of the various alien races has three units with unique tactics as well. Battles against the Centaur hordes with their champions play out differently than battles against the Minerva broods with their weird nanite clouds and healing scavengers.

Where it starts to lose me is how you can’t just pick a unit to attack another unit. Instead, a web of red and blue lines dictates who can engage whom, turning battles into puzzles about untangling colored lines. What a mess. It’s even more complicated because some units get special modifiers in the form of text written above their cards. This isn’t explained anywhere, but it makes a big difference. Why does that guy get a lethality label? What does it mean? How can I get one? Or better yet, how can I get that invincibility label? For the most part, the documentation in Apollo4x is very good. That doesn’t apply to combat.

The battles don’t necessarily get harder as you go because all the units are available from the beginning of the game. There’s no tech tree, your armies don’t gain veterancy, and you’ll never have more than nine slots to deploy your units. So to represent harder battles, you just have to win multiple times. A counter at the top of the screen tells you how many more victories you need. I’m not convinced drawing out the playing time is a good way to make a battle harder. The idea is that the alien homeworld requires the most victories, but it’s based on how many planets the aliens control. You want to conquer outlying worlds before going in for the kill, but this is another part of Apollo4x that could use more transparency. Why can’t I find out in advance how hard a battle will be? Why do I have to jump into battles blind to the enemy strength? Why can’t I see how the alien homeworld is faring?

Apollo4x_2

So with all it’s got going for it, you’d think I’d be one of Apollo4x’s biggest fans. Unfortunately, it’s got nearly insurmountable problems, mainly related to the interface. As I mentioned previously, you’ll spend most of your time each turn with a space caravan, setting its paths to buy low and sell high. You’ll eventually do this several times in a turn, sending out multiple space caravans, managing the shuffling demands of each planet with the consistent supply of every other planet. You choose where your caravan will go, one step at a time. Should this caravan go here next, or there next? Should I pick up culture or labor? Should I sell minerals at this planet, or two planets down? Should I make room for artifacts?

This part of Apollo4x is an astonishing clusterfuck of ill-conceived interface management. To see different prices and supplies and demands, you have to twirl the camera around a 3D universe. And I don’t mean 3D in the sense of a 3D engine. I mean 3D in that there’s stuff above and below you that you can’t see. Zooming out will make the relevant information disappear. Furthermore, you can’t move the view around freely. You must anchor it to a planet. Information panels often get in the way of other information panels. It’s like managing a spreadsheet by peering through a keyhole into a clockwork representation of that spreadsheet. Why can’t we just use the spreadsheet? I can’t imagine a worse interface for such a simple trading system. What should be the gratifying sensation of seeing your account balance grow is instead a maddening exercise in lousy camera management.

You can mitigate this a bit when you set up the game by selecting a galaxy on a flat 2D plane. There’s also a colony list on the right side of the screen, but like so many of the information displays, it’s glutted with ornamentation, overlarge numbers, and an inability to scale to higher resolutions. If trading was a minor aspect of the game, it might be tolerable. But it is the bulk of the game. Knowing that I’m going to have to do this every single turn kills my desire to hit the end turn button. It is Apollo4x’s sad and absolute undoing. Furthermore, the game is afflicted by a raft of bugs. For such a smart design, it’s got an appallingly bad implementation.

I can still appreciate Apollo4x as a weird genre outlier among strategy games, a delightfully strange fringe design so much its own thing that it’s liable to never find an audience, even among people who can stomach its fundamental interface problems. We need more games that only a handful of people would ever care to play. But we need them to be more playable than Apollo4x.

  • Apollo4x

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Apollo4X is described by the developers as a casual-to-difficult space trading tycoon game, where success is measured in earnings from how efficient your trade routes are in transporting supplies to demands on your planets. Combat is card based, and uses a unique system the developers claim they "invented". Which is probably true, because I can't think of any other combats that involve untangling red and blue lines.
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