No, the following article won’t be about worshipping the devil or dancing around a fire naked. (Although that does sound appealing if it’s with the right people)
This will be about a rather old game now named Sword of the Stars. It’s one of the older 4x space strategy games out there but what is 4x I hear you ask? Well to find out just head here. Don’t worry, doing so won’t lose your place in this article, it’ll open in a new window.
You might also be wondering what makes a game fall into the cult games category. Usually, it means the game is good but never got much of a following and sort of flew under the radar. But, even years later it still has that following and community keeping it alive.
So let’s get into the meat of the matter, shall we?
Space, the not so final frontier.
When you load up the game it begins with a cut scene explaining the basics of the story and that’s pretty much all you’ll get as far as that goes. Mainly because the game isn’t based on story, it’s based on the story you make for yourself while playing a match.
Given how old the game is multiplayer matches are very hard to come by and organise. Almost solely down to the fact that the multiplayer was hosted by the now bought out and defunct Gamespy which was a network that hosted many games for multiplayer support. Although you can still play with other real people through direct LAN if you choose.
In the main however you’ll be playing against the computer AI. You set up custom scenarios to play with up to seven computer opponents and get to choose from one of six races to play which i’ll go through in a bit. As you can see there is a variety of options to change to make the game to your liking as well as a rather large selection of star maps. If you want even more maps that cult following I mentioned has even put out some modifications that are a simple download and a drag and drop to add more of them!
You can make the game as hard or as easy as you like. From your empires economic efficiency to research efficiency, your starting colonies, tech and your treasury. See that random encounters slider too? I’ll be going into that later as well. As for the AI itself, it’s actually rather competent and your first few games you may find yourself getting owned if you’re new to this type of game. Of course the AI does get cheats I believe, mainly to their economy so they can keep up with the player.
Thankfully the game is turn-based so you can really think about what to do and your next move.
You’re not alone out there.
Honestly, one of the most surprising things to me is that each of the races has its own background and lore explaining pretty much all you need to know about them. It’s a pretty interesting read.
What’s more, each race has it’s own unique version of space travel to get from star to star.
- Human: The easiest race to relate to I should hope, after all, they’re us. Human faster than light travel is based around something the game calls ‘Node lines’. Essentially premade space lanes that connect from star to star. The Human Node drive is the quickest out of all of the races available allowing them to expand quickly. However, they are limited entirely to the node lines to achieve this speed. So if you’re aiming to go to a certain star you best find the correct node line for it.
- Liir: The Liir are basically telepathic space Dolphins, they were enslaved in their past but rose up against their oppressors and broke free of their yoke. Liir are incredibly smart and have a bonus to research speed because of this however they’re not really specialised for war so their ships tend to be the most fragile. And as you can imagine, being Dolphins their ships are filled with water so they can breathe. This of course makes their ships heavier and have more inertial mass. Liir warp drive is called ‘Stutter drive.’ Due to the mass of their vessels the drive basically warps them micro amounts forwards in rapid succession. Liir are faster the further they are from a planet and their warp slows down the closer they get to a planet.
- Tarka: Imperialistic Lizards. Although don’t call them that to their face. Tarka are rather average as far as the races go although their ships are far more resilient and built for combat giving them the toughest hulls. As an AI player, they can be quite aggressive too. Tarka space travel is the most bog-standard as it’s just basic warp travel. You just tell your ships to go to a star and they go there with their speed being solely based on what technology you have researched.
- Hiver: Perhaps the most unique out of all the races available to choose from. They are the games insect race and thus have a much higher population growth speed than anyone else as expected from being giant bugs. Their ships are also very resilient too although not as much as Tarka. Hiver’s are incapable of warp so they have to travel to stars at sublight speed which makes them the slowest to expand. However, with that said they do have an advantage in that they use gates. Basically, you slow travel to a new star with your scouts, tankers and a gate ship, when you get there you set up the gate. This makes travel between stars with other gates instant. As you increase your gate network you increase the size of the fleet you can travel instantly between your worlds. This makes the Hiver playstyle more reactive in that you don’t have to have a fleet stationed for defence at a world as you can get an entire armada there in one turn.
- Morrigi: The games Matriarchal Avian race. Morrigi gets a bonus to trade and specialise in drone technology. Their version of warp is called the ‘Void cutter drive’. Basically the more ships you have in a fleet the faster the fleet will move as a whole between stars. Morrigi vessels are in the middle ground as far as strength goes although their dreadnoughts are to be feared if they reach that level of tech. As is the amount of the drones they can send at you in a fight, so you better hope you have some point defence!
- Zuul: Basically the games asshole race. Their main goal is to kill everything and harvest everything. Their worlds are always in a state of overharvesting which consumes the planet’s resources. You always have to be expanding as Zuul or you run out of steam as your planets become exhausted. The Zuul are the worst when it comes to research and their main way of getting tech is to salvage it from other races. Their ships look like junkpiles in space which goes with their destroy and salvage theme, bits and pieces welded together to make a functional vessel, they also have the most weapon mounts out of all of the races. Zuul warp travel is unique in that they need a special ship to do it called a bore vessel. It literally looks like a spaceship with a massive drill mounted on the front. Moving this vessel from star to star creates a lane between the two allowing quick travel through the lane, however, these lanes degrade over time so you’ll need to remake them again after a few turns. Higher-level tech can make the lanes last longer.
As you can see the races are all varied and all have their own unique playstyle and methods of travel as well as weaknesses and strengths. So you’ll have to play a few games before you find one you enjoy.
Personally, I’m a fan of the Hiver.
Research, Ship Design, Combat and Random Encounters.
Sword of the stars is interesting in that each game never really plays the same. Mainly due to the research tree which is very extensive. You see the tree is randomised each game which means you never really know what you’re going to unlock. So that amazing laser you relied on last game might not appear at all. Although there are some technologies that are core and will appear every game.
So you can see that in the image the tree stretches out and links to various different things. It extends to more than shown with other categories too. And I should note that the above image is taken using a game modification so yours will not look quite the same but will behave the same. You can set how much budget you devote to research, however, it isn’t always as simple as it reaches it’s end and it’s complete. Past 50% complete, every research has a chance to have a breakthrough which means you finish it early. Or it can have the opposite and reach 100% and go overbudget which means you’re spending more than you should be on it. Those lazy scientists, using the money for parties no doubt!
The research itself has a variety of effects from simple production boosts to opening up more sections for you to use for ships or different types of weapons. What’s more, if you’re playing with other races, when you meet them for the first time you won’t be able to understand or communicate with them so you’ll have to research their language in order to communicate non-aggression pacts and alliances.
Speaking of alliances, if you’re in one and your friend has discovered a technology you don’t have access you to they can set up a research pact with you so you can get that technology after some time, you can also do the same for them.
As for design. Your ships are made out of three sections. A Bridge, a mission section and an Engine section. Depending on what research you have done will open up more sections or allow you to add bonuses to pre-existing sections like armour or reflective coating to protect against lasers.
The Engine section is self-explanatory.
The Bridge can house certain specialised capabilities, like a deep scan function to reveal cloaked ships and to detect ships coming to your worlds from further away. The ship in the image above has a deep scan bridge. In addition, you might notice that in the bottom left the deep scan bridge has zero weapon mounts. A trade-off for being able to detect cloaked vessels.
The Mission section really decides what the ship does. Whether it’s combat-focused or utility, a colonisation vessel or a tanker. As you can see in the image above it’s a battle section but with cloak. So it’s designed for combat. As ships can fire while cloaked. However it’s still a trade-off as due to the size of the ship, a destroyer, all that cloak tech squeezed into a small hull leaves limited space for weapons.
There are some specialised mission sections that make up the entire ship, meaning you don’t get to pick a bridge or engine, but can still add other bonuses.
As tech improves so does the size of the ship available.
Destroyer > Cruiser > Dreadnought.
Unlike the Empire management aspect, combat takes place in real-time. It will 90% of the time take place at planets, however, there will be some cases where your trading vessels are raided by pirates and the combat will be in a small open space arena.
As for the planets they are not easy to take out. In the image above you can see some yellow trails coming out of the south pole, those are planetary missiles. This particular planet also has defence stations orbiting around it for extra protection. There are various weapons you can research to directly attack a planet from assault shuttles to bio missiles to literal giant nukes.
You can give your vessels various commands as to how to engage the enemy or control them directly by selecting and clicking within the space. Different sections of ships can be targetted as well as individual turrets. Ships with individual sections can have those sections destroyed. For example, if you had a deep scan bridge and the bridge gets destroyed then you’ll lose the ability to detect cloaked ships unless you have another deep scan in the fight too. If a ship loses two sections then it is destroyed completely.
I’ve been trying to avoid talking about the games random encounters because it’s personally my most disliked feature. I usually have it set to 0% so they don’t occur at all. As they’re hardcoded into the game it makes them difficult to modify without fiddling with game files a lot.
But basically, random encounters are just that, random. There are various ones that can happen to both you and the AI. You can have an asteroid impact and if you have no fleet in orbit and it happens to a new colony then that colony is wiped out. There could be alien attacks, slavers and numerous other things. The late-game encounters step up a notch and there some galaxy-wide encounters.
An example of such is the Peacekeeper. It’s a giant ship that flies to middle of the galaxy then announces to everyone that all hostilities and such must stop. If you break this rule by building lots of military ships or attacking someone then the peacekeeper will fly towards you and attack you directly. It’s a very tough nut to crack but with the right tech, it can be beaten.
I’ve started playing more with random encounters lately, so we’ll see if I continue with that or note.
Unlike more recent 4x games the empire management side of things is rather simple in design. And lacks any of the micromanagement of planets. Every star only has a single world that you can colonise depending on its environmental hazard. When colonised they terraform and develop infrastructure over time which means that they won’t be profitable for a good few turns. Planets range in size from 1 to 10. Bigger worlds naturally have more resources and can host more defence stations in orbit. The blue lines are node lines which are only visible if you’re playing as Human. The circle in the top left is your economy at a glance, the pie will fill out with different colours depending on what you’re spending your funds on. Ship maintenance, colony development and the like. Your research budget can be set using the slider just below that, the more money you put into research the faster it will complete.
Every race has the ability to overharvest a planet. Overharvest basically strip mines your planet and puts those resources directly into development, it makes your colonies grow faster, make more money and build ships faster. However, the more population a world has the faster it’s resources will deplete. Remember that the Zuul race cannot switch off overharvest, which makes their planets temporary and also means that if any other race invades them and takes over a world that world will never grow at all if it’s resources are depleted.
So you travel from star to star, build your empire, research and design ships. Make and break alliances all in an effort to come out on top.
Sword of the Stars is a gem of a game. With basically unlimited replayability. The random tech tree and the design function mean that no game is ever really the same all based on how you set it up.
If you’re a fan of these types of games I highly recommend you pick it up. The good thing is that it’s available on both Steam and GoG for a cheap price that includes the base game and all of the expansions. The expansions add the Zuul and Morrigi to your game as well as a variety of new ship sections and tech. But as the complete edition is the only version available to buy it’s a no brainer and will mean you miss out on nothing the game has to offer.
Although if you like micromanagement you might find the game a bit too simple or boring for you. But I’d honestly still give it a try.
Enjoy building your empire and happy gaming!