Alone Time: Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire
Have you ever wanted to play a solo science fiction board game about running a galaxy-spanning super-empire that’s more Asimov than Herbert or Lucas? And carefully sheltering it from alien invaders, power-hungry usurpers, and squabbling offshoot empires? Or observing the rise of cults that worship your emperor as omniscient, sweeping galactic enlightenment movements, or the appearance of a future-predicting Institute?
And would you like that game to have tight, enjoyable, and logical rules?
Because if you answered yes to that last question, Struggle for the Galactic Empire is not for you. All that other stuff is in there though.
To illustrate, here’s the shortest possible summary of how to play Struggle for the Galactic Empire:
Each scenario is played over the course of a set number of turns (usually between 10 and 20, though one of them lasts for 5), each of which comprises 14 phases. The first few of those phases are all about the placement, movement, and attacks of the “chaos” forces, representing the various dozens of forces opposed to the order of the Empire. So you’ll draw random tiles and place them on the board, then go through each of the game’s 70+ sectors to resolve their actions. Some, like independent empires, usurpers, invaders, and rebels, will move and wreak havoc across the empire, while others will sit passively and wait for you to wrap everything else up and fly over to commit plasma genocide on their homeworlds. You’ll check to see if they make attacks, if they usurp your government, if they colonize new sectors, and if they bother with recruiting telethons that month. Then you’ll collect your own empire’s resources and use them to buy new starfleets, control groups (mind control and propaganda corps, in essence), colony ships, worldships, and the like. Then you’ll blast through space to put down the rebels/aliens/(enemy) imperials/non-alien invaders/ transhumans/space-monsters. Finally, you’ll oversee a hodgepodge of actions as you try to guide the empire’s extropy to gradually push back the tide of unrest, get attacked by other aliens, send expeditions into the void, and do some end-of-turn bookkeeping.
If that doesn’t strike you as daunting, then you just might the cold calculating bastard this space-empire needs to keep things running. And even if you are cold and calculating (not sure about the bastard part), I still doubt you’d find it particularly rewarding.
The problem is that even if it sounds compelling, in practice it’s far too dependent on the luck of the draw. You’re as likely to end up with three powerful independent empires threatening your core systems and your main fleet staffed with your empire’s best general turning traitor to aid them, as you are to have a galactic crusade called in your name while ultra-powerful transhumans pledge allegiance to your cause and the Institute is founded to predict and cancel out the worst future events. None of these things have to do with the actual management of your space-government — people aren’t more inclined to rebel if you brutally suppressed their demands for reforms, for instance; nor are generals more likely to go rogue if you keep ignoring their space-calls about how their fleet hasn’t been paid in over a century. The only real consequences are that sectors switch hands a few times and the chaos index ticks up and down until you reach the end of the scenario or generate so much chaos that you instantly lose.
This means that a lot of the game’s coolest stuff has very little impact: an alien messiah might appear to annoy you out on the fringe worlds (and probably make the space-pharisees throw a fit too), but nailing him to a tree won’t spark any particular outrage unless you randomly draw an aggressive alien biomech predator army on the next turn and draw your own narrative conclusions. And as rad as it sounds to have control groups traveling around with your doom-fleets to brainwash your enemies into rejoining the fold, in practice they’re just another bland all-or-nothing combat roll that might occasionally cause a traitor unit to flip back to your side.
When you get down to it, you’re not really managing an empire, you’re commanding a response force. The events are so heavily randomized, and the solutions so based around swarming your fleets to stamp out brushfire problems and then breaking them up into smaller fleets so their inevitable betrayal won’t claim too large a force at once, that this game would be more aptly titled Firefighters of the Galactic Empire. You know, assuming firefighters betray their brethren and try to conquer their station house.
The upside of my brief time trying to play Struggle for the Galactic Empire is that the experience has helped me charter something of a manifesto for this series. As I look at the reviews and ratings for this game, many from two-plus years ago, they say things like, “It has rule problems and lots of tedious bookkeeping, but that’s to be expected from single-player board games.”
I say no to that, madams and sirs, because I don’t believe that’s true. Maybe it was true a couple years ago, but today there are piles of awesome solo board games, just waiting to be played. Alone.
And that’s the goal of Alone Time — to highlight the best ones. And next time we’ll do exactly that.