I remember downloading the demo of Emperor of the Fading Suns (EFS) and being terribly confused. I expected a Master of Orion clone, but instead I was at the command of a vast imperial bureaucracy. A vaster imperial bureaucracy that I had absolutely no idea how to govern. I was confused, I was scared, I was facing a nearly insurmountable learning curve . . . and I was in love.
This game is really three games all in one, three games that are all incredibly grand in scope but (sadly) less grand in their implementation.
The first game is at the planetary level. It is reminiscent of games like Civilization, where you have to build resource mining centres, such as mines (which can produce iron, a second type of metal, and gems), farms (which can produce food and ‘exotica’), and oil rigs (which just produce oil). You have to carefully plan the placement of these centres, since certain areas are richer in various materials and a centre cannot be within five hexes of another centre of any type. This forces often difficult decisions – do I build an oil rig in these oil rich fields to fuel growth in my electronics sector and possibly not have enough peasants to work because they are starving, or
do I sacrifice my economic growth for the well being of my citizens? All of this is going on while you have to build armies and repel barbarians and other lords (or worse) that might be present on the world.
If that sounds like it would be enough for one whole game, just wait, since there are roughly 31 such worlds for you to conquer as you play the second game, which is at the space-level. This part of the game feels very much like Master of Orion: you command fleets of ships and send them zipping across space to find new worlds to conquer. Keep in mind, these fleets are incredibly expensive, with a battle cruiser often costing as much as full armies on the planetary scale. Indeed, often the best way to win a way with another human player (more about that later) is to ambush his fleet and simply bankrupt him without ever having set foot on his world.
This brings us to the third part of the game: the political game. There are five noble houses, of which you are one, the Church, the Merchant League, the aloof by benevolent alien Vau and the very aggressive children of man the Symbiot. While communication with the last two on that list is minimal at best, there will be a great deal of interaction with the others. Trading technologies, hammering out peace treaties, all the things you are used to . . . plus so much more. The diplomatic interface for this game is, quite honestly, the best I have ever seen, especially around election time. The whole point of the game is to become Emperor which can only (realistically) be accomplished by being voted into the position (it is, theoretically, possible to kill everyone else but I have never heard of this happening). But that isn’t all you are voting on! Since there is no Emperor, there needs to be an Imperial Regent who rules for five years at a time and can appoint three very powerful positions to any of the five noble houses. So, oftentimes it is better not to seek the regency at first, but to have a friend elected and appoint you to command a powerful military outpost or to serve as a spymaster over the other lords. All this while you are trying to balance your trade (and debt) with the Merchant league and desperately trying to avoid the Church’s Inquisition or (worse yet) excommunication.
So, what isn’t to like about this game? First off, it is simply incomplete. Thankfully, fans have made patches (both the Hyperion and Nova patches come to mind but there are others. Search for EFS and Hyperion and that will get you started) that correct this problem and make the game truly worth playing. The second is that the AI is lacklustre at best. Thankfully, there is still a community that still plays this game (which can be found in the same places where you can find the patches), so you can set up play-by-email games and fight a worthy opponent. I, however, still enjoy the single player just for the grand feeling of adventure and expansion. Turn off the universal warehouse (which means that a planet can only use the resources present on that planet) and see how large of an empire you can support through space-mediated trading lanes!
Basically, if you love other 4X games, but feel that you just didn’t have enough control, this game will satisfy your micromanaging needs. But, I find, that as I micromanage, I get lost in the rich universe of EFS in a way I never have in other similarly focused games. After the patches (I like the Hyperion the best, but there are others worth seeking out as well), this is one of my favourite games of all time.