Review crossposted from VGG.

Sins of a Solar Empire is an interesting hybrid game: It is pretty much a pure RTS game that is centered around delivering the feel of a space 4X game. Since I got it a mere week or so after Sword of the Stars, many of my thoughts about it are in contrast to that game.

There have been two expansions (Diplomacy & Entrenchment) released since Stardock published the original in 2008, and I believe a third one is expected soon. However, I only have the base game, so this review will not cover the expansions at all.


The scale of Sins is a lot smaller than is usual for a 4X game, with most maps depicting several planets inside of a single solar system. The ‘huge’ maps go up to six systems. Ships move between planets by FTL (Phase Space, a hyperspace system by the GURPS Space categorization), reducing travel times of hours or months to seconds. FTL does not function inside a gravity well, so each planet is a mini-arena where ships must maneuver and fight at ordinary sub-light speeds. Nearby worlds are connected by lines denoting FTL paths, though the ships don’t need to be terribly close to the actual line to use that path, they just need to get to the edge of the gravity well.

There are four types of terrestrial worlds that show up: terran, desert, ice and volcanic planets. The first two are colonizable initially, and one faction does better on desert worlds, while the others require getting a second-tier technology to settle. There are also asteroid clumps that are colonizable (this may be the only 4X game that does this!), though they are much more limited. All of these worlds will start with neutral defense forces that will need to be defeated before the planet can be colonized, which is an effective way of making the early game much more than a ‘race’ to all the best spots.

In all cases there will be 2-4 nearby asteroids for mining resources from. There are occasional single asteroid gravity wells that can’t be settled, but can be mined. There are also a few ‘oddity’ types that are generally empty gravity wells.

One of the bodies in the system will of course be the star itself. The scale is apparently variable, as it and its gravity well don’t appear all that much bigger than a terrestrial world’s. Normally, this is no more than a hub for a few jump lines. In large multi-system games, a technology to allow you to use longer jump lines is needed to get from system (but you’re part of a government that already has interstellar travel…), and these are accessible from the star’s gravity well.


Like almost all RTS games, resource gathering is a large part of how the pace is regulated. In this case it is designed to be constant and dependable, as there are no gathering units, nor waits for the resource to be delivered somewhere appropriate. (Kind of like the Total Anniliation model, actually.)

There are three resources in this game: Credits, Metal, and Crystal. Credits come from the population of your planets, while the other two come from asteroids that are scattered about the various gravity wells. Of course, planets normally wouldn’t have asteroids near them, and no true moons show up in the game. (Unless some of these planets are really moons of a gas giant, but there’s no gas giants shown in the game at all….)

All of these resources are unlimited, and are cheap to begin production of; the limit is on the number of places where they can be gained. Crystal is the rarest resource, and is needed to conduct research, and build the more powerful ships. The standard frigates however, just need credits and metal.

The entire model is definitely designed to keep anyone from being completely cut off from anything. Part of that is also the fact that there is a black market where you can buy and sell metal and crystal, allowing you to convert a surplus of one resource into any other, at a suitably inefficient exchange.


There are three races in Sins, with zero options for customization. This would be disappointing in most 4X games, but is perfectly understandable in an RTS. The manual notes that each one has it’s own strengths, but I must admit I have yet to really notice them. They all have the same general types of units with different names to do the same jobs. There is more seeming variation in the tech trees, but I’m not sure if it’s real, or just terminology changes.

Planets themselves can be developed for better population growth and taxes (in fact, a completely undeveloped world will cost you money), better protected from bombardment, explored for special qualities, and upgraded to be able to support more logistics and military structures.

Logistic and military structures are deployed throughout the gravity well and are constructed by automatically generated specialist ships. The logistic structures include the resource extractors (which are nearly free), shipbuilding structures, and things like trade posts (extra money) and cultural centers (strengthens loyalty of your planets in the area, and interferes with others colonizing nearby, akin to culture in Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords), and research stations (each one you have unlocks one ‘level’ or ‘tier’ of technologies). The military structures are of course mostly defensive weapon installations, and also includes a repair facility.

There are three different types of ships, built at two different facilities. Frigates are the most numerous type, and are small specialist ships. Cruisers are larger ships built at the same place, and are usually specialized around a role (like carrier) that the frigates can’t handle, as well as being much tougher to kill. And then there are the capital ships, which are extremely tough to kill, and have extra layers of complexity.

There are six types of frigates, of which three are available at the start (being the scout, colonizer and general combat versions). The other three have to be researched, along with all the cruiser types.

All five types of capital ships are available at the beginning of the game, and the first one is free to build. The catch? Well, there’s two actually. There are two separate limits on the number of units you can build, and the capital ships hit both of them. First, there is a ‘fleet supply’ capacity, with different ships consuming different amounts of the supply. Frigates use from 3 to 12 depending on type, cruisers use from 5 to 14 (hmm, I need to try the ‘support’ cruiser, at only 5 supply it makes a lot more sense), and capital ships use 50. There is also a hard limit on how many capital ships you can have at one time, using the idea that the crews take an especial amount of training, and those crews are limited.

At the beginning of the game, the two limits are 100 supply, and 1 crew. Both of these can be expanded by investing in them in up to eight steps, each of which is not exactly cheap. At max, you can have 2000 supply and 16 crews. A nasty extra consideration before upgrading the supply situation is that levels beyond the base 100 will consume a percentage of all income (75% at max). Worse, there is no way to ‘dial back’ your supplies if things go bad, and you want your income back to rebuild a shattered empire and fleet.

The bonus to the capital ships, beyond just being large and tough to kill, is that they have experience levels. Each ship kill will provide some experience, and at each level there is some bonus to the hull and shield strength, and the ship gets a new special ability point. Each class of capital ship has four special abilities, which it can purchase as it levels up. The fourth ability is usually especially nice, but can only be purchased at level 6 and above.

I have to say that I really like the interplay of the different ship types, and while the leveling system could have gotten annoying, the capital ships are rare enough that it doesn’t, and really points up how special they are.


In general the interface is very nicely done. Over on the left side is a menu of various units and objects, including your grouped fleets. These can be folded up to just show the main subject (planet, fleet marker, etc) and dots for the number of ships there, color-coded by player, or expanded to show everything.

There is no fixed ‘focus’ as in SotS, so scrolling with mouse nudges against the edges of the screen works as normal. Of course, despite being 3D rendered, the entire game takes place in a 2D plane, with no acknowledgment of the third dimension outside camera controls. When zooming in, the screen will focus on where the mouse cursor is. This takes a little getting used to, but works really well, and zooming out and then zooming in to another area is very easy.

Ships are realistically small in the vastness of space. (Well, they are somewhat outsized compared to the planets, but not too egregiously.) Most of the time, you have a bunch of color-coded icons representing ships and structures on the screen, but if you zoom in close enough, you’ll start seeing the actual ships show up. Zoomed really close in, the game can look stunningly pretty, but at any common zoom level, you’ll just be seeing the capital ship’s models at most.

There are a number of problems with the interface, however. I have yet to discover any way to make planet names show up short of hovering over or clicking on the planet. Since messages will go by mentioning that forces near ‘x’ are under attack, this would be extremely handy. And no, you can’t just click on the message to go to the location, or highlight it.

The only way to get the full statistics of an object is to hover over it. Selecting it will provide an extremely abbreviated form in the bottom control panel, but nothing else. Since a ship could be moving at speed, this hover could be hard to maintain. Hovering over the icon on the side menu will also work, but it may not be obvious where it is in there until you click on the unit in the main screen, making it a two-step process.

Pausing the game brings up a message that it is paused… which then fades away. I have managed to forget if the game is paused or not on occasion.

Finally, there is the scroll-wheel ‘bounce’. It might just be my settings or mouse, but when I’m zooming in or out (which is constantly), the zoom has a habit of ‘bouncing’ back in the other direction at the end of the wheel motion. Since this even happens while just going one notch to correct the last bounce, this can become quite aggravating. I’ve seen it happen elsewhere, but I don’t think that was my current system, and I know that SotS does not suffer from this on my current setup at all.


Sins is a very interesting experiment in melding two distinct genres of games. In a way, it’s kind of the opposite of SotS. SotS is a 4X game with a lot of RTS combat feel, Sins is an RTS with a lot of 4X strategic feel. I’ve long felt that the RTS genre really stalled early and did not produce much more than variations on the same theme, so seeing something that tries for a whole new outlook on the genre is very refreshing to see.

Overall, I must say I like SotS far better of the two. This is interesting, as Sins has many points of technical excellence and polish where it far outshines SotS. Notably, the controls and general interface are decidedly better done in Sins. But it comes down very heavily on the ‘I can’t think as fast as the game’ side of things that annoy me with almost all RTS games. I always find that my attention is one of the resources I’m managing, and I’m far too contemplative of a person to take that for long.

I’ll also note here that that ‘reality’ takes a back seat to the demands of gameplay in pretty much all cases here. The solar systems presented in the game are a completely at odds with how they are likely to work; that is, there’s far too many inhabitable worlds, and a complete lack of gas giants (though it is the first game I’ve seen that goes for colonizing an asteroid—long a staple of SF). Considering how important relatively short-distance hops inside a solar system are, I’d expect relative orbital motion to start having an effect (I’m assuming that there is some compression of the time scale, and a game that takes hours to play, would happen over a couple months—at least—of ‘real time’.) I don’t insist a game hew to ‘reality’, especially if it helps make it fun, but there’s enough different structural oddities that it does get my attention.

My personal rating is a solid 7, putting it equal with the original MoO, but below SotS and the rest of the MoO series, and also equal with Total Annihilation (the RTS I’ve spent the most time with). However, I must say that for an RTS fan, this rating should easily be much higher, unless they disliked the 4X aspects for some reason, and I strongly recommend any RTS fan give Sins of a Solar Empire a close look.