Review crossposted from VGG.

Sword of the Stars is a space ‘4X’ game; that is, you start with a fledgling empire in the great unknown, and explore, colonize, negotiate, and eventually conquer your way to victory. In the main, this genre is best known for the Master of Orion series, which has defined most expectations of the genre for the last one to two decades. SotS itself is pretty much a fastball straight down the center of these expectations.

Complete Collection title screen

The game was developed by Kerberos, and the original version was published by Lighthouse Productions in 2006. Two expansions, Born of Blood and A Murder of Crows, were released before Lighthouse went bankrupt in 2009. The series is now published by strategy game developer Paradox Interactive, who published a ‘micro-expansion’, Argos Naval Yard in 2009, and the Complete Collection with everything in 2010, and now SotS II is due out later this year. I am only (partially) familiar with the original release, and the Complete Collection, so I will mostly be talking about the complete game, and not when certain features were added in this review.

The biggest thing to note about this game is that it is kind of the ‘anti-MoO3‘, since it is pretty well dedicated to simplifying and streamlining most elements of play, whereas MoO3 was roundly blasted by many fans for being too detailed, and too full of micromanagement. No building individual structures, no multiple planets per star system, ship design has only three sizes, and is streamlined with the use of ‘modules’. Some of the missing complications I mourn, but I am generally a fan of ‘less is more’, and I think the simplifications are overall well chosen, and they gave me a very favorable first impression of the game, once the initial shock wore off.

It also lets you start building a competent (if primitive) navy straight off the bat, whereas most space 4X games make the initial ship building horribly expensive. The ability to terraform most anything (slowly) off the bat was also a surprise, but a nice way to further streamline the game. This game does not fool around with trying to get the action going as fast as possible.

The second thing to note is that there is a limited number of races in this game. Usually, in a modern 4X game, there’s a fair selection of races, and often the choice to mix-and-match abilities to create your own take on how to conquer the galaxy. SotS only has four races, with two more introduced in the main two expansions. This limitation is important to the game, as each race has its own method of FTL travel, which are generally different enough that playing the game is a generally different experience when playing as a different race. With such a fundamental difference lying at the core of each race, the need for a limited number of choices is evident.

Unusually for this type of game, it also comes with a number of scenarios. I’ve only really tried one of them, but I certainly like the idea of that one, which references the background of the universe of SotS; I wish the set of scenarios had been laid out into a rough timeline of events, but that’s just a small missed opportunity to strengthen the background of the game.


The first place that the design policy of keeping the game simple shows up is with how stars and planets are handled. While many space games recognize that any stellar system is likely to have all sorts of bodies floating in it, [i]SotS[/i] goes for the simple formula that one star equals one usable planet. Indeed there are not even any empty systems in the game; any star shown is going to have something there. (Hardly unique—MoO I and Emperor of the Fading Suns both did this, but it is somewhat uncommon. Meanwhile, MoO3 had the most detailed system accounting I’ve seen; moons still weren’t directly depicted in the game, but they did add to the ‘size’ of the planet.)

Not all planets are the same of course, though they are all considered to be at least somewhat terrestrial in composition; gas giants and asteroid belts do not appear in the game at all. The three primary physical attributes of a planet are its size, its ‘environmental hazard’ rating, and its resources. The first determines the eventual maximum population of the planet, the third determines eventual industrial output, while the second one tells you roughly how hard it will be to terraform. A last statistic on an uncolonized world is how much it is going to cost to develop it.

The empire’s budget is the sum of the output of all worlds, which then goes into savings, research, ship construction, ship maintenance, or supporting worlds that are not producing enough to support themselves. New colonies will generally be sucking down large amounts of cash trying to terraform the world and build up infrastructure. The more unfriendly the environment, the larger and longer the drain will be.

As I mentioned before, unlike many other modern 4X games out there, SotS does not present you with a bunch of different buildings to construct on a plant to boost its abilities, like a city in Civilization. Instead, everything is boiled down to an infrastructure percentage, which affects both monetary and industrial output. In some ways this is too simple, but I find the ‘building’ model can become tiresome after a while, so don’t really miss it here. I’d like to see a game where worlds can be industrial powerhouses, or economic hubs, or places where innovation naturally occurs, or otherwise differentiated, but otherwise be about this simple.

The expansions add an extra wrinkle to the game: planets now have an ‘Imperial’ population, and a civilian one. After playing the game for a while… I still don’t get the point of the split. Colonists come out of the civilian population, and they seem to be the main tax base, while the Imperials operate the industry. Civilians also have morale, and might revolt if things are bad. But I still don’t understand the point of it, and what it was meant to add to the game.


As with most modern space 4X games, space ships are one of the major focuses of the game; not only are they needed for exploration and combat, but there is a rich design system for creating custom ships for your navy. The usual idea in these games is to have a number of standard ‘hull sizes’ that systems must be fit into. The number of these hull sizes varies from game to game, though around five sizes is fairly typical. MoO3, as usual, went for the maximum number of things to do, and uses fourteen hull sizes; SotS has again decided to simplify as much as possible, and there are only three hull sizes available.

Ship design is streamlined in general, with all ships having three modules: command (front), mission (middle), and engine (rear). Instead of fitting specialty systems and weapons into the available space, modules are picked for the ship’s mission, and the number of weapons allowed is dictated by the modules. This is streamlined, but does have some problems. Notably, you have no choice about where certain functions go, and you cannot combine certain functions as they take the same module slot, and some modules can never go on certain ships, because there’s no module for it at that size.

For the most part it works out, since all the logical modules are there. However, the number of them does get fairly large as the game goes on, and it can be a bit confusing. The main thing that leads to module proliferation is that weapons mounts are directly tied to the modules, so a combat oriented one that specializes is large, forward-mounted weapons is a new module, as is one specialized in small defensive weapons.

The interface suffers at this point too. If you click a weapon mount on the ship diagram to check weapons options, you see the location of the mounts light up on the main ship display. It also shows you firing arcs for the mounts. However, since the default view on the main display is a side view, and combat all happens in a single plane, all you see is an unhelpful, flat, easy to miss, line, unless you remember to rotate the view on the ship display.

Finally, ship design in SotS actually shares a problem with MoO3. Many technologies offer new ship abilities, some of these are automatic upgrades to everything, some of these are new ‘checkbox options’, and some of these are new modules. The last is fairly clearly marked on a technology description, but the first two cannot be told apart from the descriptions, forcing you to check the design screen to see if anything new showed up. Also, I find I get annoyed that I might want to update a design purely because I have a new checkbox to choose. At least it is nowhere near as prevalent as it was in MoO3.


Obligatory random encounter

Combat in SotS can be skipped over (presumably when it will be a boring one-sided fight), but is ordinarily played out as an RTS mini-game. This fact becomes the crux of most of my problems with the game.

I’ll admit I’m a traditionalist, and I greatly prefer turn-based to real-time systems for just about anything. However, I don’t automatically turn up my nose at RTS games, they can be great fun. The problems here lie directly with the interface, and several things that the game seemed to promise to me, and did not do.

The crux of the trouble is that I had to treat it very much like a normal RTS game. In the main display, ships are always in fleets, which you can change around easily enough through drag-and-drop. This is mostly administrative, and allows you to group tankers with your fleet, so you can reach stars more distant than your normal range. However, you can also build command ships that allow you to define what formation your fleet is using. It’s pretty simple, and kind of neat to fiddle around with.

So, with all of that, I expected that I would be able to hit a button in combat that would select the entire fleet, and use it as a single cohesive unit. This doesn’t seem to have crossed anyone’s mind. Selection is either clicking on a single unit, or using pure drag-select techniques. If you have a fleet formed how you want it, and you want to engage something 90-degrees off of where it’s facing, you have to either have a circular formation, or be ready to do a bunch of individual clicking to reorient the elements of your fleet. If you tell a bunch of ships to go to a new location, they will maintain their relative positions, including any half-done re-working of their formation. To me, it is a real shame that there’s all these ways to set up fleets outside of combat, and it is pretty much wasted inside of combat.

The irony here is that all these gripes come after being spoiled on the relative simplicity of MoO3’s combat.

Needs to be 20% cooler.

Also, there’s no fire discipline. If there’s a friendly ship in between the target and themselves, they’ll fire anyway, doing damage to their own side. Since combat is still generally all on one plane, this can be a real problem. This just adds to a more endemic problem: combat has a decided tendency to turn into Electric Football, with ships (literally) shoving into each other, which points up the problem of scale: to make the ship models visible at reasonable distances, they are rendered all out of proportion to the scale of everything else (to judge by the size of the planet anyway…). So tight little formations of ships slamming into each other are frequent occurrences, and I’m not sure what causes the game to show the ships passing above/below each other, or just shove into each other (not actually ‘colliding’, just shoving the opponent ships around).

As a final gripe, I’ll note that sensor ranges can be a bit short, and the only fix is to have a specialty ship, which still doesn’t entirely alleviate the problem. This can lead frustrating hide-and-seek sessions as you try to figure out where the last enemy ship has decided to park itself. One hint I can give, is that if neither side controls the planet/system the battle is at, the opposing fleet will almost always be directly to your left (no matter where the systems they came from are relative to each other). Also, the planetary defenses (automatic heavy missile launches) seem to always be able to know where the enemy is.

Beyond that, there’s an interesting bit: There is a limit on how many ships each side can have in combat at one time. One of the points of the command ships is they raise this number, and the screen that establishes the formation also establishes what ships you start with. If you’re ‘over budget’, new ships will join the combat as old ones die; whether they’ll appear where your ships are now, or where they started the fight seems inconsistent. I’ve seen notes that there is a technology that allows you to set up the order reinforcements come in as ships die, but I have yet to come across it.

In all, the combat is kind of pretty, kind of neat, and really needs rethinking from the ground up.


Near the beginning of the game.

As with any self-respecting modern 4X game, there is a complex tree of interlocking technologies to research and use. The presentation format is fairly novel: you are in the center of a cylinder that has the eight categories marked on it, with known and researchable technologies marked, with lines going up from the base to the more advanced (and expensive technologies at the top of the cylinder.

The tech tree is pretty good, though from the format, I expected to see more crossovers between adjacent fields; instead you’re more likely to unlock things on the opposite side of the cylinder by getting a key technology. In the original release, there was no cue to new technologies when there is no line between them, and you have to keep a closer eye on what’s available everywhere than you should have to. Somewhere in the line of expansions, the ticker of status updates started giving a list of new technologies made available, and they would glow in the research screen for that turn, which is a big help.

However, it would be nice to just be able to get a list of everything currently available to research and how long each would take; currently the decision making info is very scattered. It’s also disappointing to see industry and C3 exploding into dozens of technologies, while Star Drives and Power technologies remain stubbornly stuck at two to three.

A nice touch is the fact that in each game, random technologies will be taken out of each player’s tech tree, to keep you guessing about whether a certain branch of research will really get you what you’re seeking.


I’ve touched on pieces of the interface already, but there’s a few consistent elements that need going into. The most notable thing is that the game is 3D, but the controls for navigating around a 3D space are a bit primitive. You can swing the camera around very nicely, and a mouse scroll wheel works very consistently (I’ve seen some games where spinning the scroll wheel will generate a ‘bounce’ where it goes back in the opposite direction at the end). However, all of this is around a ‘focus point’ which is troublesome to change. In the main screen ‘focus points’ are either systems or fleets between systems, and you have to double-click to change the focus point to that location, which seems to be a bit touchy. If you want a ‘focus point’ away from any actual objects, tough.

Camera control in combat is much the same. Your ‘focus point’ will be one of your ships, and will follow it around, which is fairly good, especially since [tab] will also cycle you through your ships. Of course, if you’re the defender, it will also cycle you through your defense satellites, which isn’t nearly so handy. And, if your focus ship is destroyed, your viewpoint will naturally halt, and you will have to shift it to a new ship if the action continues moving.

(And a final odd note: If you try taking a screenshot while the game is in the normal full screen mode, you just get a shot of your desktop outside of the game. To get a screenshot, you have to go into windowed mode, which has a single fixed resolution.)


In general, Sword of the Stars is a good space 4X game, and all fans of the genre need to give it a real look. If you were unhappy with MoO3, you should especially give it a look, since it seems to have been designed with a goal of going in the opposite direction from that game.

However, I cannot consider it a landmark game in the genre, despite several very well thought out bits. The combat and the interface in particular are serious marks against the game. I will also mention here that the interface has improved over time. Just the last patch to the base game (before any expansions) helps the main interface with some new features, and the expansions also include some tweaks that help.

Right now, I’m rating the original Sword of the Stars as a 7.5, with the Complete Collection as 7.6, and I don’t think I’m going to shift that rating any further. It doesn’t merit as ‘Very Good’ from me because of its issues, but is quite solid in spite of that. This notches it right above MoO3, and a bit below MoO II, which I also consider to be good 4X games with their own troubles.