In the years since Civilization VI was released by Firaxis, you could say it’s gotten a ton of post-release support. If you consider “support” adding stuff rather than fixing things that don’t work. The process has been fascinating. Rather than adjust the design or the AI to make a game that actually works, Firaxis has instead piled up increasingly absurd ways to play, with no regard for balance, tuning, or even the principles of good game design. Civilization VI has become a ridiculous, slapdash, and profoundly idiotic sandbox. One of the folks on this site’s forum called it “Goat Simulator for 4X games.”
And given that every Civilization since IV appeals to people who don’t care whether the AI can play the design, it’s a pitch-perfect approach. I suspect it’s done very well for Firaxis. They’ve correctly identified their target audience and they’ve given them what they want.
Meanwhile, I’ve been playing another 4X with pitch-perfect post-release support that includes perhaps the most dramatic change I’ve seen applied to a strategy game, short of a total conversion mod. Age of Wonders: Planetfall was given a free update last November that introduced Galactic Empire mode. It’s nothing short of revolutionary and as a result, Planetfall is now the definitive expression of Dune.
Okay, maybe not the incidental details of Dune. There are no sandworms, or CHOAM, or Bene Gesserit, or spice, or Sardaukar, or mentats. If you’re looking for that stuff, the Dune Wars mod for Civilization IV is the definitive expression of Dune (this Tom vs Bruce was always one of my favorites). But the Galactic Empire mode in Planetfall reminds me of Dune because it’s about sending representatives to specific planets for specific objectives on behalf of specific factions. Planetfall, more than any other 4X, is now an interconnected latticework of political intrigue, personal heroism and villainy, advanced technology, and exotic life forms in a sprawling science fiction universe. If that’s not Dune, I don’t know what is.
This month, I’ll share a few chapters with you as they unfold. But to explain what I’m getting at, I need to explain Galactic Empire mode. Normally, you play a 4X as a one-off. You win or lose your game, then try again. But Galactic Empire introduces a persistent progression scheme that weaves context around all your games. For starters, this adds some compelling decisions when you start a new game. Which leveled up hero will you take? Which unlockables will you pack for your trip?
But the most significant decision is which planet will you visit. In other words, which mission will you accept on behalf of your empire? One of the challenges 4X games face is encouraging players to experiment with different set-up options. I’m guessing players rarely do this, since 4X games are already richly varied. The faction you play, and the factions against whom you play, add a ton of variety. Not to mention the choices you make as you develop your cities, build your army, and research new technologies. So who needs different layouts for land masses, or different types of native threats, or different victory conditions, or different rules for founding new cities? Never mind that Planetfall has a ton of cool options for your starting planet, each themed according to its lore. “If there’s one thing Planetfall doesn’t need,” the average player might think as he clears brainspace to make room for all the unit mods he’s about to research, “it’s more variety! Leave the wacky parameters to the Goat Simulator of 4Xs!”
But Galactic Empire mode refuses to let you opt out. So it gives you a choice of planets, each with dramatically different layouts, and each with different rules and victory conditions. Each planet isn’t just some template for procedural generated terrain. Instead, each planet is also a mission. Let’s consider the planet Virginia, which I’ve just chosen for my next assignment. And, yes, that’s what it’s named. No number, no funky astronomical designation, no sci-fi gobbledygook words. Just “Virginia”.
On Virginia, the Amazons want five spawners destroyed. The Prometheans also want five spawners destroyed, but they specifically want Hopperhound spawners destroyed. That’s a two-fer for me. If I do what the Prometheans want, I’ll also be doing what the Amazons want. And part of why I’m choosing Virginia is because I want to unlock more Promethean perks. Once I meet these goals, I can declare victory and call it a game. No need to follow through with all the usual endgame stuff. That’s what’s revolutionary about Galactic Empire mode. It lets you play Planetfall in a variety of different ways without having to play all the way through to the usual victory condition.
The problem with Virginia is that its local fauna are tougher than your average local fauna. All the native creatures have mutated to have extra armor and hit points. Furthermore, Virginia is classified as a Hopperhound Hive, so hopperhound spawners are common and they spit out more powerful armies. Basically, this is a planet overrun by ornery critters. The Amazons and Promethians want me to do something about it.
So I’m sending in Jewal Gruvich, one of the characters I’ve leveled up in previous games (I’m only picking from Planetfall’s pre-made characters; custom characters are non-canonical!). He’s a Dvar, which is Planetfall’s name for space dwarfs, so I’ll be starting with a Dvar colony. Gruvich is a cruel Imperial sniper. The cruelty means he gets a morale bonus as he kills units, but it applies a happiness debuff to all my colonies. As many of us know from experience, cruel leaders make people unhappy. But in the case of Gruvich, it’s nothing the occasional Recreational Dome can’t handle. If things get too severe, we can throw the colonists a Botanical Garden. Here, we tell them, look at some flowers.
Gruvich starts with a sniper rifle. He gets a bonus to ranged accuracy, damage, and critical hit chance. From his military background, he begins with more units in his starting army, and his followers earn experience faster. Basically, he’s perfect for leading a skilled hunting party.
We’ve just landed. My colony has that wonderful new colony smell. It says “anything can happen!” But I’m not here to play Planetfall. I mean, sure, I’m doing that. And depending on how things go, I might stay and see it through. But primarily, I’m here to hunt hopperhounds. So long as these other factions stay out of my way, I couldn’t care less about them. Now I’m sure there’s some mode in Civilization VI where you just run down barbarians. It’s probably called something wacky like Whack-A-Barbarian or Vandal Vanquish or Smack My Goth Up. I’m sure it’s a lot of fun. But I’m also sure there’s no context for it other than you probably had to pay Firaxis a little extra money to play that way.
But Gruvich’s Virginia mission feels to me like the premise of Dune. Gruvich is just a guy here to do a job on behalf of his House, just like he burned the Growth faction off Panemia-0 and just like he forged an alliance between the warring Dvar factions on Cabal-42. He’s here to cull hopperhounds on behalf of the Amazonian and Promethian factions in his empire. There are five other factions here doing their own thing, and if we get tangled up with them, well then, we get tangled up with them. But until then, Gruvich and his Imperial Sniper Rifle are just out for a little hunt, not looking to cause any trouble, not looking to conquer or unite or burn the world with Promethean fire or anything quite so grandiose.
We’ll see how things pan out.
Next: Welcome to Hopperhound Blind