Galactic Civilizations III is the long-awaited sequel to Stardock’s enormously popular Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords and the third title in the Galactic Civilizations series. It was published by Stardock in 2015 and has since then received two expansion packs, Mercenaries, and Crusades, and a third is to be released later in 2018. Similar in nature to the Civilization series of 4x strategy games, Galactic Civilizations holds one of the premier positions among the space 4x titles of the 21st century.
At its core, GalCiv III follows a familiar pattern of 4x gameplay. Individual planets take the place of cities or settlements, with each planet featuring a number of build slots where improvements can be added to increase planetary production of such resources as research, credits, and production. Each planet contributes to a global fund for credits and research but utilizes production individually and production is further diversified into social production, which is used on other improvements, and military or ship production. All planets that sponsor a shipyard can contribute their military production to the construction of space vessels.
Spaceships are the units of GalCiv and serve utility or economic roles as scouts, surveyors, freighters, and colonizers; as well as forming fleets of warships and invasion transports. The GalCiv series is famous for its ship designer feature, a tool which allows players to customize existing spaceship templates or design new ships using the graphic components included in the game. The customizations are cosmetic and/or practical in nature, with a ship’s role in a fleet determined by the equipment that has been applied to it. Each ship can hold a number of components, or modules, as determined by its overall mass versus the mass taken up by each module. Technology and larger hull designs increase the number of modules that can be applied to a ship.
Unlike many 4x games the GalCiv series has a detailed and expansive single player story arc. GalCiv III continues were GalCiv II ended in its progression through galactic events, primarily from the Terran (human) faction’s point of view. Yet it is not the story line itself but the universe that is built around it that forms an important part of the game’s design. There are eight initial playable factions including the Terrans, with each of the alien races featuring their own abilities and traits derived from their lore. Each race has built in opinions towards the other races, some of them drastically so, as well as preferred ideologies and methods of victory, and unique aesthetics for their ships. A custom race generator is also included where players can mix and match existing traits, abilities, and aesthetics to create their own playable race.
Another factor that sets GalCiv apart is the nature of a space setting. Ships can move onto any tile anywhere. Certain “terrain features” like asteroid fields and nebulae can affect ship performance, but do not damage the ship or prevent its movement. Under this system, faction borders are a much more fluid concept and are determined by the influence production and proximity of nearby planets and any starbases that the player has constructed. This zone of influence is the sole determining factor for faction territory and planets that are swallowed up by another faction’s zone of influence have a chance to “culture flip” and convert to the other faction.
Culture flipping represents one of the sneakier ways to gain territory in GalCiv III and is primarily considered to be a pacifist corollary to military conquest. Players can achieve a military victory by wiping out all other factions, a technology victory by researching a string of top level techs, a diplomatic victory by confirming an alliance with every remaining faction, and an influence victory by dominating seventy five percent of the planets on the map. GalCiv III also includes the new Ascendant Victory, which is achieved by acquiring ascension crystals from randomly placed Precursor Ascension Relics across the map.
GalCiv III’s numerous factors and mechanics ensure a variable experience with each playthrough. Not only are there multiple paths to victory, but oftentimes each race will need to modify their chosen path to counter the efforts of other races. No aspect, especially warfare, can be neglected for too long or another race will leverage their advantages to achieve supremacy. This encourages numerous playthroughs and makes games very unpredictable and exciting. Unfortunately this also leads to a very steep learning curve.
Veterans of the GalCiv series can dive into GalCiv III without much trouble, but a new player will need to experience multiple defeats to learn the importance and nuances of each aspect of the game. Much of GalCiv III’s beautiful details, like planet design and ship combat, are lost by the need to remain zoomed out on the strategic level. Additionally, no matter how skilled a player is at managing planets, their race will always be eclipsed by other races that managed to acquire more colonized worlds, leaving all but the most experienced players at the mercy of the random-number generator.
The AI in GalCiv III is also grossly simplified and relies on inherent bonuses to match player performance. AI attitudes towards the player are difficult to modify and trade deals tend to be heavily imbalanced. A race that at one time was an amiable trade partner will attack without warning and races will ignore past aid if their current intolerance of you is too high. Their level of tolerance is determined partially by behavior like trespassing in their territory, but also by factors like ideology and military strength which the player has little opportunity to modify without immense sacrifice, making most diplomatic relationships fixed from beginning.
One great strength and weakness of GalCiv III is how easy it is to modify. The online community has already produced numerous customized features and most of the game’s files can be changed. The level of modification increases GalCiv III’s potential immensely, but also makes it quite buggy. It’s performance is usually stable but occasionally the game will crash or malfunction without obvious cause.
GalCiv III, as a 4x game, has fine visuals but is not too graphically demanding. Maps with a great deal of explored terrain can cause older machines to slow down, but for the most part turns are quick and smooth and internet matches are stable even on low-bandwidth connections. As long as the game itself does not malfunction, single and multiplayer matches can be enjoyed on most modern machines.
Galactic Civilizations III is the best 4x game to enjoy space with. It features heavily detailed aspects of ship design and combat, planetary colonization and management, and a sense of galactic scale. Yet all of its elements are tedious and frustrating to learn and some of its detailed design leaves the AI and the player struggling to catch up. As a space game it is top-tier for gamers in general, but as a 4x title it will leave many genre fans with much to be desired.