Crossposted from the Design and Effect blog over on GameSquad.

Civilization-conquering space games have been popular for over thirty years (reaching back to Stellar Conquest and Star Web in the 70s). With space being really (really, really) big, and a desire to provide as much of a ‘grand sweep’ as possible, planets, pretty big places in their own right, are generally reduced to a single point, which troops fight over (if there is ground combat at all) as a unit.

There have, over the years, been a few games that have bucked this trend.

Godsfire (Metagaming, 1976)
This was a fairly simple one still. Each planet consisted of four equal areas that could have separate control, production and tech level, but were otherwise generic (no terrain, etc.). It did have other features, such as hexes with a ‘stack’ of hexes in them, to represent the third dimension in a board game (a system reused in Metagaming’s Holy War).

As there could be occasional nova events in the game (which happens in a small star cluster) the zones also became important as you would have to determine which two got burned and which two were in the ‘shadow’ of the event and were relatively untouched.

Star Viking (DwarfStar, 1981)
In some ways, this game may have been the most ambitious treatment of the subject I’ve seen. However, it isn’t directly related to the typical 4X-space genre, dealing with a scenario straight out of H. Beam Piper’s Space Viking, with a defending Federate player trying to fend off the depredations of the Viking player.

Each system has it’s own card that depicts the worthwhile areas of the system: worlds, moons, asteroids and space stations. These are grouped in different orbits, and each orbit has a “deep space” zone, the area around the same distance from the star, but far away from everything else. Each world has a habitability index which determines what kind of troops can operate there. (Primitive units aren’t going to be shipped to Mars and do anything but stay on the ships that brought them.)

In the end, there’s not quite enough to be fully satisfying. The biggest of worlds still have 10 undifferentiated zones (two bands of 4, plus the poles), which do wrap around the sides. But there is still no terrain.

Buck Rogers (TSR, 1988)
This game keeps the scope down to the inner solar system, but that allows it do a very nice presentation of what is covered. The planets are actually less detailed than in Star Viking, with Earth being split into seven somewhat geometric zones with no rhyme or reason.

The (much appreciated) strong point of this one is the orrery of the inner solar system. The center of the board is dominated by a display that gives tracks for all the planets (and asteroids) to move around each turn. Turns are apparently 44 days, as Mercury has two spaces in it’s orbit, and it therefore takes two turns to make a complete circuit around the Sun. The structure demands that each ring has twice as many spaces as the next one previous. This actually works very well through Mars, and continues to work for the Asteroid Belt by inserting an extra ring between it and Mars.

Star General (SSI, 1996)
SSI’s expansion of their successful Panzer General system to the reaches of outer space was a mixed success. It built well on a good engine, and brought a couple unique things to the table. However, the lack of most of the concerns endemic to science fiction warfare made it very weak title overall.

The main map is a hex grid that is mostly empty, but has planets scattered about and occasional nebulae that slow movement. Presumably, the planets are merely stand-ins for the main settled body in an entire system. And the tried-and-true ‘rock, paper, scissors’ combat of the original works well with the small multitude of ship types available for each side. However, ships cannot stack with one another, and you end up with neat formations of ships covering each other, as seems logical… over distances that must be measured in parsecs.

However, the game includes troop transports, which must be loaded with units, and moved over to an enemy planet to invade it. These units are straight out of the Panzer General mold, redressed in SF clothing. Since the combat in PG always worked very well, that is not a problem.

The ground game consists of a traditional hexagonal board with terrain varying depending on the general planet type. The size of the board could vary a bit, along with the number of cities available. When you first possess a planet, you can spend on various resource-producing facilities—up to two per city (these can be destroyed in combat). Once a planet one each of the normal money-producers, two special facilities can be constructed: military complexes, which allows the construction of normal ground units (as opposed to the weaker militia, which can’t leave their home planet), and a starbase, which allows construction of spacecraft.

While the combat is good, there’s still quirks. The planet map is square, with no wrap around. I guess these are all geographically limited colonies. Also, there are certain designated ‘landing spots’ along one edge, which is the only place where the landing ships can come down. Enemy units that are adjacent to these when a ship lands are automatically destroyed.

There’s obviously a lot that was done in the interest of the game, rather than logic. Still, the game generates plenty of interesting opposed landing scenarios. And the combat systems themselves (space and ground) are fun.

Emperor of the Fading Suns (Holistic Design, 1996)
This is probably the most thorough-going look ever at ground combat in a game that also features space combat. This is balanced by having space combat be simplified.

Combat is a fairly simple affair of a ‘stack’ attacking another ‘stack’, and things are automatically determined over a series of rounds until all of one side’s units are forced to retreat or are destroyed. This holds true for space combat, and while everyone may have fleets in orbit around the same planet, there’s no maneuvering involved beyond the strategic concerns of which system your fleet should be garrisoning.

In broad outline, the ground portions are much like Star General‘s, however, it is a much richer and more diverse experience in this game. Buildings can be constructed, but these are in the service of a very complex resource system, with a dozen or so things to mine, harvest, or create. The maps are much bigger and diverse, and wrap around from east to west, feeling more like Civ on a hex-grid. Not only that, but the maps feel right, like a world with that geography could really exist. Sadly, that last is also a limitation, as they work so well because they’re fixed, hard coded for each world.

In the long run, game starts to pale, generally because of the amount of micomanagement needed to continue growing the economy towards the more outre materials. The combat system is also slightly lackluster, although I could not really say why. (It is certainly light-years ahead of anything seen in a Civ game.)

While there are doubtless more space games with planetary maps out there, these are the ones I’m aware of. None of them is a perfect mix of both elements, and the micromanagement that bogs EotFS down shows that it may be impossible to do at the level I’d like to see. Nevertheless, I think something like a slightly more complicated Star Viking would be well worth trying.