It takes an hour and five minutes to cook a frozen Marie Callender chicken pot pie. One of the curious properties of Space Tyrant, a sci-fi micro-grand strategy game, is how it reduces that time to about 20 minutes. Because there’s no way I put that chicken pot pie in the oven, sat down to play Space Tyrant, and have been at it for an hour and five minutes. That’s just not how time works.
Among the many clever things Space Tyrant does is packing every moment with stuff that usually takes a long time to get to. To experience grand strategy — called 4X by people who need genres to have two or fewer characters — you have to pay your dues finding planets you can live on, researching laser 1, then laser 2, waiting for your mineral factories to finish, waiting until you have enough credits, building two more frigates so you can have a fleet of three ships, and, oh, the chicken pot pie is ready, so that’s it for tonight. Then when you sit down tomorrow night, you forgot where you were. Which techs do I have? What was I building on this colony? Wait, why don’t I have more ships?
Space Tyrant distills all this stuff down into the fewer and more meaningful decisions that elude designers in love with their own clever details. It’s a compressed package of powerful fleets rampaging across the galaxy, star shaking random events, game-bending high-tech abilities, Vader-esque space admirals, and planets that get blown up. Some science fiction games won’t blow up planets until after a handful of paid DLCs. Developer Blue Wizard does this right out of the box. They don’t use the word tyrant lightly.
Don’t let the tone fool you. This is a colorful and enthusiastic game, as befits a development studio founded by a guy from Popcap. The artwork of wacky snails, evil toon rabbits, and rocket-bedecked hamsters belies the enormity of its genocides. It’s cute, but cruel. When you conquer a new planet, you get a random event with multiple choices. It’s the usual “pet the puppy or kick the puppy” stuff, but with the choices being to pet the puppy, kick the puppy, or throw the puppy in a pain booth. Minus the option to pet the puppy. Space Tyrant doesn’t want you to feel obligated to play a good playthrough. It’s not even an option. Remember, the word tyrant is in the title for a reason.
The cute cruelty is a consistent part of the tone and gameplay. You have to keep your tyranny meter filled by doing things like capturing planets, destroying enemy fleets, and oppressing your subjects. Your tyranny is reduced every turn by unrest, rising from the bottom of the meter like a groundswell of rabble demanding justice or peace or equality or whatever. Unrest varies based on what the do-gooders in the Galactic Senate are doing. If your tyranny zeroes out, you lose. There’s that tyrant part of the title again; this game isn’t called Space. If you keep tyranny high enough, you can shoot a death laser. A clawed bony finger extends from the corner of the screen. It shoots a beam that vaporizes a couple of the ships that might be bothering you. Your reward for being good at being evil.
The AI is competent because Blue Wizard doesn’t pretend this is a game about equal empires jostling for position. This is a game about your empire pushing back at a predictable system (Stardock did something similar with the loosely subversive Sorcerer King). The Galactic Senate plays by different rules that vary from map to map, but with predictable and familiar behaviors. Sometimes they might turn neutral planets against you. Other times they might spam fleets. Other times they might turtle and build remote debuffs to your economy. But there’s none of this nonsense about watching an AI cheat or, even worse, impotently scooch fleets around, or worst of all, randomly commit acts of nonsensical diplomacy. Furthermore, tyrants get to do things the good guys can’t, like break henchmen out of prison, squeeze planets for more spacebucks (don’t squeeze too hard!), hire secret police, and put puppies in pain booths. Also shoot a death laser, of course. The good guys have to do boring things like fortify and impose sanctions. How cute.
Blue Wizard borrows a page from rogue-likes to keep Space Tyrant going over the long term (if I wanted to enrage rogue-like purists, I might call Space Tyrant a grand strategic rogue-like). Whether you win or lose a map, you’ll earn some sort of persistent progression, and there’s a lot of progression to persist through. The three empires play very differently, but it takes a while to unlock them, which is a bit of a shame, since this is where you’ll really appreciate some of the variety in the design. Tyrannical rabbits aren’t like tyrannical bugs, which are nothing like tyrannical snails. You’ll see as you play.
You’ll also unlock new objectives for different tyrants, new equipment to wear, new powers to draw randomly. Over the course of a campaign, your tyrant accrues adjectives along with his new gear. He might be psionic, or curious, or sadistic. Certain events make it clear when you get an option because you’re psionic, curious, or sadistic. Space Tyrant keeps showing you what things you could have, whether it’s a locked option in a random event, a locked admiral, a locked dreadnaught, a new battle tactic, or the other races shooting at you with their unique ships. Hey, those other guys get shields on their spaceships. Why can’t I have shields? It’s so unfair that I can’t have shields until I unlock the next empire!
All these unlockables are tucked into a veritable Russian nesting doll of gameplay layers, each with some sort of progression or unlockables, whether it’s battle tactics, ship technology, admirals’ schemes, powerful equipment, faction traits, or what have you. At the top of the unlocking pyramid are the three factions. And you can’t fully appreciate Space Tyrant unless you’ve seen how differently a different faction plays.
A layer below that is the grand campaign in which you have to hold back the Galactic Senate’s attempts to win over the alien races. Not on your watch! So you pick campaigns to drive the Senate back, choosing among victory conditions, rewards, evil leaders, and difficulty levels.
Below that is the familiar planet-to-planet gameplay on a map of hyperlanes.
You know the drill. Move your fleets around to conquer planets. Pick which planets you care most about. Science or cash? A space gun or a trade world? A decaying crystal mine or a low energy primordial world? If you have the right card, you might even want to collect asteroid fields. Space Tyrant makes each planet matter.
And the tiniest nesting doll is the one-minute-or-less — no, seriously, one minute or less — tactical battles, in which you actually make decisions.
You might not be controlling the ships, but you are calling shots. You choose special tactics and decide which ship abilities to power up. Space Tyrant is never just going to make you watch.
Blue Wizard’s tag line is that you can conquer the galaxy during your lunch hour, but that’s a bit deceptive. Sure, you can conquer one galaxy in a lunch hour. But that’s not what Space Tyrant is about. There’s a larger context here, a persistent long-term commitment to keep you coming back even if the gameplay can be a bit glib. This is a game with the same stuff as its far more detailed and complicated cousins, but it knows how to move. It knows how to make things happen at different interrelated levels, without sprawl, with a laser beam focus on doing the stuff you came to do when you decided to play a grand strategy game. If I had to pick one thing Space Tyrant does best, it would be pacing. Because this is how a game has to move in order to cook a Marie Callender chicken pot pie in 20 minutes.