Personally I find reviewing expansion packs to be the most difficult type of article I write. And to write about an expansion to a very solid and popular game is by far the most difficult. Even should a new game, from an unfamiliar genre, turn out to be really lousy, I still find it easier to objectively review and rate it strictly on it merits. Why? Because an expansion pack must be viewed as both its own entity and in context with the game it is expanding. If it is a great game originally, it is harder because the expansion really needs to add something special.
So here we have a really excellent science fiction, turn based strategy game, Galactic Civilizations. GalCiv has been heralded since its release in March of 2003 and garnered a plethora of awards. And now, in 2005, GalCiv developer Stardock has followed up its breakout strategy with an expansion pack, the Altarian Prophecy.
First lets recap the listed features; A new campaign editor, map editor, and scenario editor. Two new races, the Korx and the Drath. Four new ships, Paladin, Wraith, Vamp and Sovereign. Ten new scenarios and a Galactic Encyclopedia.
Now, I’m not sure why the Galactic Encyclopedia is included in the feature list. It is really the same Encyclopedia hosted on the GalCiv web site. In fact, many of the expansion features are largely similar to the Encyclopedia, that is to say, more of the same and not terribly substantive. Don’t get me wrong, the new ships are cool and a welcome addition, but are they really outstanding additions that drive GalCiv to a new level of game play? Not really. They are just cool.
The races are different matter entirely. All games in GalCiv give you the option of enabling or disabling any of the races as well as setting their alignment and intelligence level. Every race added to a map changes the game by limiting the total number of available resources, most notably, habitable planets. So if you play a map with very few races (hostile or otherwise), the race to find and colonize available planets is somewhat less congested. Add more races to a map and the number of available planets, and other resources, for each player are reduced. So, by adding two more races in the expansion, GalCiv gets to be a much more frenetic and energized game. The actual races, the Korx and Drath, provide no fundamental difference from the other races. However, their portraits are very cool.
Editors. Think editors. The big additions in the Altarian Prophecy are three new editors. The map editor allows you to create any type of star map you like. Group all the yellow suns in one tight place and push all the other resources to the edge of the map? No problem. Pack all the suns into one corner and add only a few scattered around the map? Done deal. You can really set up the star map any way you like. And believe me when I say this can drastically change the gameplay. It can really give a new meaning to the term “Space Race”.
In juxtaposition to the simplicity and straight visual elements that are used when creating new maps, the scenario and campaign editors display far more complexity and subtlety. The scenario editor incorporates several text boxes for entering a scenario description as well as victory and defeat conditions. Additionally you can customize the races, relations, teams, universe elements scenario rules, allowed technologies and triggered events. Essentially you can customize the way in which the game is played by customizing the elements that comprise a scenario. Change the teams, change the tactics needed for victory. Change the races, change the technologies, change anything and it changes the tactics of the game. Players have to adjust. Very cool.
When it comes to subtlety and simplicity, the campaign editor has both in spades. Simplicity is achieved by adding a custom prologue and epilogue and then adding a series of custom scenarios and coordinating them with custom maps. This is where the magic happens. What you are really creating a storyline. Think of it this way, you can create a custom campaign that starts simply, just two rival races. Then expand the map and add another race. Now keep the map static but dump into two invading races. And viola, you’ve just created a story worthy of the Sci-Fi channel.
Personally I recommend opening up the scenarios, maps and campaigns that comprise the Altarian Prophecy itself. And speaking of the prophecy, it is an excellent campaign. As I indicated earlier, the campaign editor allows you to craft a story by mixing in maps and scenarios, and that is exactly what Stardock did with the Altarian Prophecy. The campaign itself is quite engaging and really leverages all of the elements that make Galactic Civilizations such an excellent game.
Boil it down and it looks like this: Galactic Civilizations is a superior game and while some of the elements to the Altarian Prophecy don’t make GalCiv a fundamentally better title, serious players should run out to the store immediately and buy this expansion pack without hesitation. The editors alone are worth the cost, but what really sells it is the community. That’s right, the community. This is exactly the type of tools which can infuse a game community with drive and passion. Players can craft their scenarios and share them with other players. Now that is really cool.