Space Empires 4x
Look, this is a gloriously retro game, with accounting, spreadsheets and charts.
It’s not everyone’s fun. Jim Krohn took the old school ideas and kept the great core while eliminating cruft. (Although I suppose the advanced rules and expansions let the cruft back in, if you like them). SE4x is the old Star Trek episode, Balance of Terror. Your fleet advances towards the neutral zone. Enemy ships are moving towards your colony. One blip, but is it a scout? Or a fleet? It’s joined by another blip. Or is it a decoy? The combined fleet is moving towards your outpost. And those other blips?
Your scientists have put great effort into your shields and phasers, so perhaps … suddenly the blips move two hexes. The enemy has better warp engines! They’ll get past your main fleet and ravage your outpost before you can get there.
And that’s SE4x. In my learning (2p) game, I built a fleet of scouts and cruisers with good technology, destroyed the enemy forward base and then a string of 4 more colonies. It was a great fleet. So great, in fact, that it had cost my me entire early production advantage and left the homeworld with a string of decoys and starbases. The enemies main fleet advanced on my rampaging marauders, but they had 5 more turns of new technology. Should I attack them or head home and upgrade? I’d gotten a forward post. I furiously through all my economy into homeworld defence, but those blips…. they were real and they arrived at Earth before I could defend it, and so I lost.
Total time — 3hours, with rules. The rules are only a few pages, but there’s lots of cases (6 classes of warship, about 8 technologies with various levels), but basically — you explore. You move. You fight. You research and buy. The advanced rules add lots of other stuff (mines and sweepers, fighters and carriers, cloaking and scanning, aliens and trade routes. The expansion adds … more, I guess. I intuited most of the rules correctly based on the components (although the details I had to refer to some player aids).
The rules are actually much simpler than Eclipse, because there are fewer subsystems. But you are dealing with fog of war. Massive fog of war. And logistics. (The infamous rule that buying a new technology does not confer it to older ships makes for an accounting headache, but gives you the feeling of a train rush in 18xx. Use your ships while you can!) Like all great games (if not necessarily true of all wars), attack has enough of an edge that things move forward.
My game, all told, took 3 hours, and I was shocked to discover that.
Would this be a great game with 4 players? Only after they’d all played, because you have to trust your opponents math and grasp of the rules. (I accidentally built a battle cruiser fleet before I had right shipbuilding tech. Not that it helped). And you’d have to set aside the time. I think this would make a stupendous PBEM game, particularly with a moderator that enforced the rules. I can see this game dragging with the wrong group, with most groups even, and I do worry that people will want to throw in all the chrome too early which makes decisions slower, adds randomness, but also gives you more things to be deliciously worried about.
A great war game is, to me, a fog of war game. And this has it. I don’t see it replacing Eclipse (which I haven’t played in a year and need to throw into the bag), but In My Opinion they share only theme. They don’t scratch the same itch.