Stardock Entertainment initially released Galactic Civilizations 3 (GC3) almost four years ago at the time of this writing, so naturally, I figured it’d be good time to write a comprehensive review of the game. Not surprisingly, Stardock has done a pretty good job of supporting the game, despite the lukewarm reception it initially received.
Four expansions and many DLC later, how does GC3 stack up against the (admittedly stiff) competition?
That’s a good question and one that I’m going to try to answer for myself in the same process.
I was an open critic of the state of GC3 at its initial release. Sure, it was faced with the near-impossible task of living up to its predecessor, Galactic Civilizations 2, a game that many consider to be one of the best space 4X games of all time. However, it didn’t feel like anything special whatsoever. In fact, GC3 was initially a very by-the-numbers space 4X game, which was a true shame considering its lineage.
And in a market increasingly more crowded by legitimately good games, it was very disappointing to see Stardock’s misstep.
As I mentioned before, however, Stardock has stuck with this game through it all and now, with a significant amount of content and gameplay-changing mechanics, let’s take a look at how Galactic Civilizations 3 shaped up. As I did in my Civilization 6 review, I’ll be sure to highlight mechanics that came with specific expansions.
What I Like:
The Engine: From the ground up, Stardock developed this game with future-proofing in mind. Most of the games being developed at the time were built in 32-bit, which limits the amount of RAM the games could utilize, among other things (also, please excuse my minimal understanding of these systems). However, GC3 was built with a 64-bit engine, thus allowing multi-threading and greater RAM use.
The result is a game that runs much more smoothly and has faster turn times than most, if not all, of the turn-based games of this size that I know of.
The weird thing about this aspect of the game is just how much Brad and Stardock initially marketed it, as it was one of the primary “look at what we did!” bullet points for the game and honestly, barely anyone gave two shits what the engine was capable of, as the initial game did disappoint for gameplay reasons.
However, now, with the gameplay is full swing, the engine that GC3 is built in has been allowed to truly shine, as turn times are absurdly fast compared to other large 4X games and the game just generally runs faster and smoother than most.
So I guess all that marketing and hype was on to something, but it took a while for it to really feel like something I’d want to add to this “What I Like” list.
Colony Management: Perhaps my single favorite gameplay mechanic of GC3 is its planetary/colony management system. Each planet has a limited amount of space and each planet has a random number of tiles that boost certain types of buildings. There’s also other random resources (and now, artifacts) that you have to account for, too.
Further fleshing out this system is an adjacency bonus mechanic that provides bonuses to certain structures if they’re built next to other structures. For example, a factory receives a bonus if it’s built next to another production building or certain resources, etc. I really, really like it and it creates this pseudo puzzle to figure out at each colony.
It’s one of my favorite colony or city management systems in existence and I really like that it encourages specialization and completely prevents that whole “build everything, everywhere” trap that a lot of 4X games fall in to.
Plus, we finally received the ability to repeat production queues and that was my final gripe with this system. I really hope to see other developers learn from this management style and adapt their own take on it.
The Artificial Intelligence: There’s not a single 4X game in existence with better AI. That’s all that needs to be said. It’s calculating, capable, and almost always a true adversary. Even on lower difficulties. This is Brad Wardell’s forte and he continues to refine and sharpen the AI regularly and it shows. Sure, it’ll still do some really weird shit, but for the most part, it’s leagues beyond every other major 4X game.
Mercenaries (Mercenaries): Basically heroes units for hire (who would have thought?!), mercenaries are good for a wide variety of things, like increasing production at your colonies, acting as super survey ships, or even just acting as powerful flagships for your armada.
Some of them are wildly unbalanced and that’s going to either be something you love or hate, but they do shake up the game and can dramatically sway the balance of power if you pick up the right mercs at the right time. I personally like them, but I wish that the AI was a bit more intelligent in purchasing them (though they’re always getting better) and that they were perhaps a wee bit more balanced. However, their current implementation is interesting enough that I keep a close eye on when I can afford more and get excited at the chance of adding new mercs to my fleet.
Citizens (Crusade): A truly inventive system that allows players to take a more active role in their ability to play either tall or wide, Citizens are a unique gameplay mechanic that I really enjoy.
Every ten turns, a new citizen can be trained in a wide variety of specialties. The professions are limited at first to only a handful, but the more you research and advance, the more variety your given. Eventually you can train your citizens to help nearly every aspect of your colonies OR your empire as a whole.
Choosing to train these citizens in professions that are subsequently stationed at your colonies provides those colonies with moderate-sized boosts to that colony, but that colony alone. However, you can also use your citizens to provide moderately smaller boosts to your empire-wide production, research, morale, etc, too. Thus, this system allows the player to focus on either creating a few super colonies, or spreading that talent across many colonies, or a mixture of both.
It’s a great system and nearly every ten turns, you’re faced with a crucial decision in where and how to use those citizens. Better yet, the citizens add a bit of personality to your empire and provide some fodder for role-playing, too.
I just wish there was a bit more depth to their “leveling up” system, as I think the small amount of character improvement that’s in game is pretty exciting. Maybe the inevitable GC4 can take this system and run with it, as citizens are the kind of quality game mechanic that should become a staple of this series moving forward.
Strategic Resources (Crusade): The strategic resource system was completely revamped for the Crusade expansion and radically altered and improved the system that was previously in place.
Strategic resources need to be mined using your (quantity-limited) constructors, which build mining stations near these resource deposits. In balance with the above citizens mechanic, you’ll need more administrators to build more constructors, which prevents an old gameplay issue (pre-Crusade), starbase spam, from occurring. It also requires you to use your initial constructors wisely.
Strategic resources are initially mined very slowly. Because they are required for a variety of structures, starbase upgrades, and ship components, the player is forced to make tough choices for a while. Hell, they’re never super plentiful, unless you’re on large or huge maps, so the decision to use your strategic resources always feels like a calculated one.
The system is engaging and thoughtful and can create tension between you and the other factions who may want those resources that you have (or vice versa). All good things…
Invasions (Crusade): While not the most visceral or artistic take on ground combat that a 4X has ever seen, it is much more engaging than most and is a unique take on the genre trope.
You’ll have to train legions to both use as planetary defense and as an invasion force. Once you begin combat, you’ll only make some very broad choices as to where to place those legions. However, it’s just enough interaction to keep your interest, while not being so involving that you feel too glued to it. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, t’s definitely an improvement over what it was pre-Crusade.
The fact that I will almost always watch them says something about their balance of engagement and speed of resolution.
Governments (Intrigue): Based on what I’ve read, the new government system is a bit polarizing. I’m surprised by this, because I actually really like them. Governments unlock as you research them, or through the ideology system, and each of them provide certain bonuses to either production, ship capabilities, or they might even provide unique ships that have pretty rad bonuses.
You can switch governments every 26 turns, which makes the system even more interesting, as it’s not something you can just change on a whim. You have to plan ahead and consider what your goals are moving forward and what government will best suit your needs.
You’ll also need to manage your empire well while your government is in place, as you’ll face elections that are either in support or opposition of your government. If they support what you do, you’ll stay in power with little to fear. If they oppose your government, then your empire will fall in to disarray and you’ll eventually have to pick up the pieces.
They’re interesting enough to keep you looking for them on the tech tree and sometimes you’ll focus your efforts towards adopting a form of government as you transition towards another goal. I enjoy the mechanic and find myself referring back to them to see what I might want to adopt next.
Galactic Bazaar (Intrigue): There’s not much to say about this, as it’s pretty standard in 4X games now, but the ability to buy and sell strategic resources is very helpful in light of how important they’ve become, post Crusade. It’s also a nice little revenue generator for when you have excess of any particular resource and want to unload it for some extra cash.
Not revolutionary, but still nice to have.
Artifacts (Retribution): Artifacts are randomly found on planets and unlock active abilities that can dramatically enhance your capabilities. One immediately finishes your current research, while another might transform a previously-dead planet to something habitable. There are many, many different types of these and each of them do something pretty unique.
The best part of these are that some of them are powerful enough that they’ll create incentive to wage war against other factions in possession of artifacts that you want. I love anything that creates tension like that and artifacts definitely do that.
Tech Tree Changes/Pacing (Retribution): I’ll be surprised if these changes don’t end up making their way to the base game, as they’re significant and game-changing. Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock and clearly a very talented game designer and programmer, gutted the tech tree and reorganized it in a way that makes more sense and that allows the game to flow much better.
There’s so much change that it’d be hard to pinpoint any particular change as the main reason that it all feels so much better, but as someone who has put a massive amount of hours in to GC3 pre- and post-Retribution, it’s easiest to just say that whatever the exact changes and rebalances were, they’ve made GC3 a better game.
A lot of it was just consolidating different techs and pairing them up better, but it’s a great example of how seemingly small changes to established systems can make a game feel much better paced.
What I don’t Like:
Ship Combat: I’ve come to the conclusion that developers don’t quite understand what 4X enthusiasts want from combat. I’m someone who could be convinced that non-tactical combat would be ideal for some games, but at the end of the day, I truly believe that tactical combat – be it real-time or (preferably for me) turn-based – is what most 4X gamers want.
I have fond memories of certain battles in the original two Master of Orion games that came down to the wire. If it weren’t for my mildly intelligent decision making (I’m likely just imagining this), the battle may have gone another way. Mostly, though, it’s just fun to tactically maneuver ships that you’ve likely had a hand in designing.
Games like Stars in Shadow negate the often-used argument that tactical combat is “too time consuming”, as you can create a system of tactical combat that still concludes quickly. More so, an intelligent “quick combat” system can help alleviate this perceived issue.
All of this to say that I don’t like Galactic Civilizations 3 combat. I almost never watch it, as it’s often just a minor light show, and the cameras aren’t really my favorite, either. I would KILL to see a combat system similar to Endless Legend’s, in that the combat could unfold on the strategic map, but then it’d take place in a more traditional turn-based fashion like Master of Orion or Stars In Shadow.
GC3 is ripe for this type of combat for two main reasons: first, the strategic map is hex-based, which would allow for an easy transition to hex-based tactical combat. Second, the amount of effort you can put in to creating your own ships seems almost wasted in the absence of more meaningful combat.
Stardock has proven themselves capable of creating great tactical combat. Hell, Sorcerer King’s turn-based combat is some of my favorite in any 4X game in existence for its important player input and its speed of play. If they could figure out a way to bring that same magical balance to the inevitable Galactic Civilizations 4, I’d be incredibly happy.
Faction Design: Granted, the newly-introduced Slyne and Onxy Hive are a step in the right direction, but the faction design of the Galactic Civilizations series has always been a bit…boring. The Yor are a bit unique in that they don’t eat food, but beyond that, they all play pretty similarly, with some minor gameplay tweaks.
The Drengin are a bit more capable of waging war, the Krynn are a bit more capable of spreading influence, the Iridium are a bit more capable of creating cash flow, etc. etc. etc.
In contrast to games like Endless Space 2 or Endless Legend, Sword of the Stars or Ascendancy, GC3’s faction feel pretty bland.
In addition, I’m not a huge fan of their art direction for the most part, either. The recently reintroduced Drath look amazing, however:
I understand that this is just a matter of personal opinion and I’m sure that others may disagree, but when compared to the likes of the aforementioned games, it’s hard to get too excited about the GC series factions.
Diplomacy: Aside from my strange qualm with my inability to reject an offer, (it only allows me to go “Back”):
I also just don’t find diplomacy in GC3 to be interesting or fun. When other games have started trying new systems, like using influence to broker deals, or situational diplomatic exchanges, GC3 has played it particularly safe in its diplomacy and it feels dry and uninspired.
Sure you can trade stuff and ask others to attack factions of your choice, but there’s very little else going on here. Nothing situational, like, say, “STOP YOUR COLONY SHIP BEFORE IT COLONIZES IN MY TERRITORY”, or something like a grievances system from Civilization 6, or even a system that allows you to use influence or diplomatic favor to persuade others to do your bidding.
I almost never feel the need to get too involved with it unless I want to buddy up with someone or appease a stronger faction before they declare war.
In a few words, diplomacy is just…boring. Which is a shame.
Commonwealths: Clearly an attempt to mitigate the micromanagement of large empires and maybe even an answer to Stellaris’ sectors mechanic, Commonwealths “allow” you to break your empire in separate factions, who are permanently allied to you.
Think England and its commonwealth countries, like Australia, Canada or New Zealand and how they’re all still part of the “British Commonwealth”.
The difference is that commonwealth factions in GC3 all contribute some of their income, research, etc to the originating empire, i.e. you. But truth be told, it just doesn’t work all that well because you have zero control over the commonwealth faction(s) and their contribution to your empire isn’t nearly significant enough to offset what they likely contributed before.
Also, they do not contribute to your faction’s “power” and though the commonwealth faction(s) will always go to war alongside you, AI factions do not consider this whatsoever when determining your overall strength. Additionally, the AI factions also see the new commonwealth faction as low-hanging fruit and frequently declare war on them, sometimes destroying them and taking “your” colonies, which is often something you can do very little about.
It’s just not an elegant “fix” to the “large empire problem”. Personally, I’d go back to the proverbial drawing board and find something controllable in a more general way, as in allow me to set broad directions or goals for the commonwealth factions. This solution likely looks like something closer to Stellaris’ sector system, but with some much-needed general ability to give them orders.
As it stands now, I never use them and keep my maps on the smaller side, as I hate micromanaging large empires. Which is true for every game, but GC3 in particular, as there is much more that goes in to effective colony management here than most games.
Hypergates: Okay, this may seem a bit petty, but hypergates are both ugly and not nearly as effective as you’d think. They are upgradeable, but their initial speed increase is 100%, which doesn’t feel terribly helpful, and if there’s anything in the way of the hypergate line, like an unseen planet body or nebulas, the ship will auto-path around those things and limits the hypergate’s effectiveness.
Also, the ship pathing isn’t nearly as good as it should be. Period.
Finally, and here’s where I’m gonna sound especially petty, but the end game, with possibly dozens of these things built up around the galaxy, looks pretty ugly in my opinion. Hypergates are represented by a shiny white line from point to point, so there will be a bunch of shiny white lines all over the map. It’s not aesthetically pleasing:
The Bugs and Typos: I’ll give Stardock the benefit of pointing out that they’re a relatively smaller game developer, but GC3 has always been littered with minor bugs and typos. Typos EVERYWHERE. It makes that game feel less professional than it should and honestly, bothers the proper-English-minded person in me.
Initially, Galactic Civilizations 3 was one of the biggest disappointments I’ve had in the 4X realm. The base game was uninspired, a bit empty, and all together too familiar.
However, the Crusade expansion pack dramatically changed the game for the better and Stardock has mostly continued to make it better and better since then. A few missteps, mainly Commonwealths and Hypergates, in my humble opinion, can be overlooked, as the overall package that is now Galactic Civilizations 3 is a pretty damn good game.
I wish that they’d chosen a different combat system and I really wish that they’d revisit their faction design, but those can both be addressed for the fourth iteration. Hopefully they’ll take cues from the likes of Stars in Shadow for combat and Endless Space 2 for faction design.
Those items and mechanics that I didn’t touch on above are mostly just aspects of the game that don’t necessarily hurt or help the game. However, as a whole, GC3 is a game that I’ve come to recommend much more than I ever expected to. It’s a relatively safe game, but it’s still a pretty great game and I applaud Stardock for sticking with it long enough to make it a game worthy of the Galactic Civilizations legacy.
If you’re a fan of space 4X and haven’t yet given it a proper chance, now’s the time to do so. Galactic Civilizations 3 has become its own, unique game and one that I’ve happily sunk over 200 hours in to and will likely continue to fire it up from time to time when I want a 4X focused on resource exploitation, colony management, well-above-average AI and fast turn times, among other things.