Epic space battles, new technologies and managing a galactic empire are all at the heart of GMT Games' newest science-fiction board game for two to four players, Space Empires 4x.
The 4x stands for "eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate," a mechanic once confined to computer games that is increasingly making inroads into board games. Players must explore nearby star systems, found colonies on habitable worlds, make use of minerals and space wrecks to grow their economy and battle against other players in a war of extermination. The first player to wipe out his opponent's home world is the victor.
Unlike similar games such as Eclipse and Twilight Imperium, which cover much of the same ground, Space Empires 4x plays much more like a conventional war game. Rather than plastic pieces, units, systems and resources are all represented by cardboard chits. Units have relevant information written upon them, such as attack and defense values, ship type and battle rating. Ships are placed upside down over a second chit denoting how many ships exist in that particular group. This adds a fog of war element not seen in most other science-fiction games, but is well known to historical wargamers.
After three turns players enter the economic phase, where they can buy new ships and technologies, but also must make sure that their empire is fiscally sound. Ships away from shipyards are not automatically upgraded with new technologies and are required to move back and pay a fee to enjoy the new benefits. Newly built ships automatically have new technologies installed.
Where this game really shines, however, is in the combat engine. Technologies may add to attack or defense, and other factors such as fleet size can give other bonuses. If one side has more ships than the other, they can screen some of their own, effectively keeping them out of combat for the first few rounds and husbanding their power. Each ship fires according to its rating, and combat is not simultaneous. Ten-sided dice are used to resolve combat.
There are a few minor problems with Space Empires 4x. Some people no doubt will be turned off by the bookkeeping, which is too bad because it fits in great with the overall theme and mechanic. And besides, a little light math never hurt anybody. I have only played two-player scenarios, however, and in three- or four-player games, this phase may take a bit longer. Additionally, sometimes it's hard to keep the number of ships hidden beneath the unit chit, often exposing secret information to your enemies. Again, these are minor complaints in what is generally a very fun game.
I recently wrote an article on my top five science-fiction games of all time, and had I played Space Empires 4x earlier, it definitely would have made an appearance on that list. I am a huge fan of science-fiction-themed board games as well as classic war games, and Space Empires 4x succeeds brilliantly in amalgamating the two genres into an intense, highly playable board game that players 12 years and up should really take to.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org