Galactic Era SOLO review – a great 4X experience
Today I’m reviewing Galactic Era, a 4X sci-fi board game game of space exploration and domination. It has technology research, exploration, expansion of your civilization, epic space battles, but also brings its own twist to the 4X genre, in particular with an interesting “light vs dark” game mechanic that works brilliantly with the theme, and fog of war aspect that means battles, despite being fully deterministic, are actually exciting.
But, more importantly for us today: Galactic Era has a SOLO mode, and that’s what I will be reviewing. I have *not* played the game multiplayer so please note that this review will 100% focus on the solo experience.
Disclaimer: a copy of the game was sent to me by the designer of the game for this review.
TL, DR: I’ve hinted at it above, but I’m really enjoying Galactic Era as a solo gamer. It’s a solid strategy, space exploration and battle experience, with surprising variety in the gameplay, and to my knowledge it fills a void in the 4X genre for solo gamers. It’s also clearly a work of passion by designer Channing Jones, and this shows in all aspects of the game, from its “background book” to the gameplay mechanics. The game of course has its flaws too, which I’ll try to summarize in this review.
This review is also available in video form if that’s more you thing:
Initial Impressions, Components, and art
As soon as I opened the box and the components, I was impressed by the art (which has a bit of a Wing Commander / Master of Orion / Old 90’s space games / Star Trek feel to it). The game emits an aura of grandeur, millennia-spanning civilizations and space battles right off the box, with the art of the characters in particular, but also the background story book, and the galaxy maps used in game.
I also want to praise the general quality of the cardboard components. This might be on-par for the course nowadays, but I’ve seen games with terrible card stock and poorly manufactured pieces. This isn’t the case here: all cardboard components look and feel great. The main trackers of players population in particular are made of thick dual-layered cardboard and they work really well, that’s really awesome.
I can’t extend my praises to the plastic miniatures however, which in my opinion look ugly, if functional. And the “functional” aspect is debatable too, but I’ll get back to that in the review.
It took me a while to play my first game of Galactic Era. This was probably one of the most complicated games I ever had to learn, maybe on par with Gloomhaven and Race for the Galaxy. And here I’m intentionally choosing two very different games in terms of the complexity of their rules. Gloomhaven is a game with lots of rules to remember. Conversely, Race for the Galaxy, once you know it, is extremely simple to remember. But somehow, I remember that Race for the Galaxy gave me a hard time with its rules initially. Is it because it’s a genre of game I am not very familiar with? Maybe. In any case, that’s how I felt about learning the rules for Galactic Era. There were so many new concepts to digest for me…
It’s a good time to let everybody know that although I have played my share of 4x computer games, I have never played a 4x board game, let alone solo. The closest experience I have to 4x is Scythe, and I know many people disagree it’s a 4x in the first place. All of this to say that maybe the initial complexity of the rules in Galactic Era comes from my lack of experience with that particular game genre to begin with. But also to say that some of my praises for the game might just “meet expectations” for you if you’re a seasoned player of Eclipse or Twilight Imperium. To my knowledge though, neither of these games have a solo mode, so I don’t think they’re competing here (let me know if I’m wrong!)
Anyway. The rule book isn’t particularly long or convoluted. I do believe it explains the rules concisely and precisely. But it packs so much information… I was glad that the designer has some helpful videos on their youtube channel with some recap of the rules as well as a gameplay video for the solo mode, which helped me tremendously.
With all of this, my first game was very long because it took a while to set up, verify the rules at each turn, and so on. But I’m glad to report that the first session was fun and promising. We’ve all been there I’m sure, the honeymoon phase, in particular with a strategy game, where all options still appear legit, and the strategy space of the game seems almost infinite. I managed to make an average score at the end of the game, and definitely was hooked for more attempts, and that’s usually a good sign. What I didn’t see yet was how much variety the game actually packs.
Galactic Era: SOLO Gameplay
Galactic Era is a 4x Game: you represent a race/civilization of aliens and have to expand your civilization through space travel and planet colonization, while maintaining either peaceful relationships with your opponents, or, on the contrary, be at war with them and destroy their spaceship fleets in combat.
Galactic Era is played in 8 rounds. The ultimate goal of the game is to have the most points. Points are acquired by various means (including, but not limited to: expansion through the galaxy, destroying your opponents’ fleets, etc…) which depend on the “scenario” and “goals” you’ve chosen (or randomly selected) for the current game.
An interesting aspect of Galactic Era is that the scenario goes through 3 different phases of “light” (2 rounds), “darkness” (4 rounds), then “light” (2 rounds) again. How points are awarded depends in part of the era you’re in: Light eras will tend to reward “peaceful” civilizations, while the “Darkness” era gives more points to aggressive actions (destroying opponent’s fleets, capturing their planets, etc…). This helps guiding your overall strategy but can also sometimes mean you’d rather play aggressively when everybody else is peaceful, if that helps you gain some advantage for future turns.
Each round is divided in 4 steps. Each step, players act successively, in initiative order (initiative starts randomly but can be changed – at a cost – each round):
- Move one’s fleet (and possibly engage in combat)
- Choose and execute 2 Growth actions (such as colonizing a planet, expanding population, researching some technology)
- Trade (exchange technology with friendly opponents)
- Score for the round
Players first move their spaceships on the map. Area control is essential in Galactic Era, and moving spaceships is required to go colonize planets, and/or to reach enemy fleets and attack them. If, at the end of movement, one of your fleets is in the same space as a fleet controlled by an opponent you’re at war with, you engage in combat. (There are ways for the defending player to evade combat). Combat is deterministic (whoever has the most power – determined by type/number of ships and your military level – wins) but there is a “fog of war” mechanism where you don’t necessarily know ahead of time how many ships are in the opponent’s fleet (this is done through chips that are face down), unless you’ve been keeping track. I’m sure this can make multiplayer combat very exciting in Galactic Era. For the solo game I found it anecdotal at best but I’ll get back to that in the review section.
When winning a battle, the winning side chooses how many of their opponent’ ships get destroyed. The winner also typically has to destroy half that number (rounded up) of their own ships so there are strategic choices involved here as well.
Once all players have moved their ships, and battles are over, the players get to choose two growth actions each. These can be to gain a star (if you have ships in the same place as a planet, that they can colonize), research some technology, grow population of your stars, build new ships, switch alignment (between light and dark side), or change initiative order.
I won’t go into the details of each of those choices, but I found that this is the most interesting part of each round, as each of these options seems strategic, rewarding, and (arg!) urgent. If you’ve suffered losses during a battle, it might be important to get new ships. But you could delay that by one more round, capture a star from one of your enemies, to get more points this round and gain some population (with the prospect to get more ships next round). Or should you research the next military level to ensure your ships, although in small numbers, are definitely stronger than everyone else’s? Tough, crunchy, rewarding choices in that phase.
After everybody has chosen their growth options and they all get resolved, players who are at peace with each other, and in contact (two players own spaceships in the same space) can “trade”. This means they both agree to “teach” each other a technology level, and is typically a win-win action (in particular in solo mode).
Last but not least, at the end of the round, players score depending on the current era (light or dark), their own alignment, and whatever points are awarded by the current scenario/era. (For example: “3 points for each technology field where you have the highest level of all players”).
At the end of the 8th round, an additional scoring happens for population size, “galactic goal” (a random card which gives bonus points depending on specific criteria such as “10 points per star you control in the central sector by end of game”), and overall ship ownership. There are also secret “goal cards” that each player has which can grant extra points ingame.
Galactic Era – So how about the solo gameplay?
I’m happy to report that the solo game plays mostly with the same rules as the multiplayer game. You play against two “bots” which are controlled by dice rolls. The “slavers” are, generally speaking, on the “dark” side, and will tend to go at war with you easily, create as many ships as possible, and try to destroy/colonize you. The “genetic farmers” are the other AI player, and tend to be much more peaceful, mostly here to trade with you.
There are specific rules on how to play these two bots of course, but for all intents and purposes, the solo game of galactic era plays like a regular 3 player game. You draw initiative for the 3 players, and when you have to play for one of the bots, you roll their dice and follow the instructions. After a few games, gameplay for the three players is smooth enough (But not perfect. More on that in the review part).
The main difference in the solo game, of course, is in the scoring: The bots don’t get a score, only you do, and your goal is to get the highest number of points.
Galactic Era: Solo Review
I’ve spent about 10 hours with Galactic Era by now (not counting reading the rules and my first game setup, ha!), playing a total of 6 solo games, and overall I’ve loved every minute of it.
You might want to read along, but if you’re only looking for the bullet points version of this review, here they are:
- Cardboard components, art, theme are great
- Clearly a work of passion that shows through the uncompromising gameplay mechanics and theme
- Checks all 4X boxes, and checks them well (in solo mode too). Spaceship battles, expansion, technology research, etc… are all fun, so much that I tend to forget the “victory points” goal when I play solo
- Variety of strategies and gameplay thanks to 16 species, 4 galactic stories, 10 Galactic goals, the “crunchiness” of choosing your growth options at the end of each round, and the light/dark/light era mechanic.
- Fills a void by being one of the very few 4X games offering an almost full experience for solo gamers. It’s underselling it to call it a solo “variant” IMO.
- The ships are fiddly (and they don’t look great to begin with). Is the map too small? Are my fingers too big? Are there too many ships in that one space? did I just spill all those chips while trying to reveal them? Gah!
- Icons in the game are generally hard to understand, I always need to refer to the rulebook in particular for scoring
- The fog of war mechanic, possibly one of the best aspects of the multiplayer game, is anecdotal in the solo game.
- The AI can sometimes be a bit dumb (e.g. the good guys committing suicide by moving straight into the bad guys’ space). This is somewhat compensated by additional rules that unfortunately pile up and are a bit of a chore to constantly keep in mind.
- (minor) Setup is on the longer side of things
A work of passion
The first thing I think everyone will notice, as they go through the rulebook, the “background” book, and the tutorial videos from designer Channing Jones, is that this is clearly a love project, a work of passion by the creator. The background book for example explains a lot about all the races and how they came to be, and most of that aligns mechanically with the specific benefits of each race during gameplay. It transpires through the game that everything possible was done to achieve the designer’s vision. Galactic Era might not be for everyone in terms of complexity, mechanics, or theme, but for people who crave that kind of gameplay and setting, it could be the perfect gem.
And as such, the game checks all of the 4X boxes, and it checks them all in the right way in my opinion. There’s exploration with your spaceships, discovery of new stars and (hopefully) useful alien artifacts that will give you extra technology points, expansion by colonizing these stars, growth of your population, technology research, and of course epic (and deterministic!) spaceship battles.
A variety of strategies and gameplay
I think one thing that wasn’t obvious to me in my first few sessions, but that later became one of the most important aspects of the game, is how varied it can be, thanks to a lot of factors.
First there is the choice of your race, among 16 possibilities. At first I thought this only had a minor impact on the gameplay, and for a lot of races that can be true (for those that only get a bonus in some technology at the start of the game), but a few of them stand out with very differentiating pros and cons. For example one of the races is limited in its “robotics” technology, meaning their best way to build more ships is to expand their population as quickly as possible. Another, a species that is very “bug like”, grows its population twice as fast as others. The “grey” Area 54 types of aliens are good at stealing technology, but cannot easily attack other species, etc… What I thought was just a minor early game bonus can actually be very significant and shape your strategy.
Next, the “Galactic Goal” and, more importantly the “Galactic story”, which both decide how the majority of points will be made during the game, change your objectives and strategy in a critical way. For example, “Galactic Journeys” rewards you for travelling far away from your home system, and research propulsion and spirituality technologies. “Galactic Migrations” wants you to conquer other people’s stars and invest in a technology that other players didn’t research… Galactic goals can for example give you points for having stars in the center of each sector, or finding (and keeping) more ancient alien relics, etc. Your own goal cards (“domination cards”) also influence what you’ll be trying to achieve in the game, whether it’s to focus on research, planet discovery, and so on.
It doesn’t stop there. The switch from “light” to darkness era, then back to light, at rounds 3 and 7, means you might want to (but don’t necessarily have to) evolve your strategy throughout the game. Better players than me will probably be planning all 8 rounds ahead of time, but I constantly found myself considering at the last minute whether it was a good time to spend a growth point and switch my race from the light side to the dark side, or just keep playing the entire game on one side.
Because, the last, and possibly most important layer of variety and choice in the game is of course the growth options at the end of each round. With so many possibilities, and only two you can choose each round, it’s always a tough decision! But every growth option feels like a mini Christmas day, as it brings you more population, or more ships, or better technology… one has to plan carefully which technology track they want to research, thinking of the possibility to later trade with the Genetic farmers as well.
In solo play, all of this variety helps to compensate for the fact that the AI enemies’ strategy is always more or less the same, and it also helps creating some thematic story in our head (“my monkey aliens are a bit primitive, they can’t build proper ships, so they had to expand throughout the galaxy, to win with numbers versus better technology. And we did! We have overthrown the dark slavers!”). At the end of the day, you are competing against your own best score, but the journey to get there is exciting and challenging. By the third part of the game (the second “light” era), I always feel like I’m waking up, realizing I’ve spent my time “having fun” battling the Slavers and growing my civilization, instead of trying to maximize my victory points. A game that achieves to make me forget about its goal, and being captivated instead by the journey to get there, is a very well made game in my book.
Galactic Era fills a void for Solo gamers
As I looked through the top 200 solo board games on boardgamegeek from last year, I found only one 4X game: Space Empires 4x. I haven’t played that game so I can’t exactly compare them, but I’m thinking that with only one 4X solo game in the top 200, there’s definitely room for some healthy competition. Looking quickly at the review for Space Empire 4X, I think Galactic Era brings multiple ideas that make it a worthy addition to the genre:
First of all, the solo game really feels like a multiplayer game, played against decent AIs. Although the AI rules aren’t perfect (see below), I was surprised at how well they worked, the slavers in particular. One clever bit here is their side board which gives them extra powers (in particular increases the luck of their rolls) if their action didn’t yield any successful result. This is a very efficient way to counterbalance the randomness of the AI. So it feels like you’re playing the real game against some competent opponents. I insist on “the real game” aspect here, because by comparison, in a game such as Scythe, the AI player doesn’t play by the regular rules, and to me that felt like a cop out from the designers (“we couldn’t make a competent AI so we decided it doesn’t follow the same rules as you”). I appreciate that Galactic Era gets me to experience 100% of its actual gameplay, against an AI that plays by the rules.
Furthermore, I think the deterministic aspect of the battles, even in solo mode (give or take the fleet bonus, also see the “bad points” section below) is something that games such as Space Empires 4X don’t do, and that works very well in Galactic Era, in my opinion.
Finally, the “light” and “dark” era system is novel (at least it is to me), and really influences how the game plays. Although I didn’t fully grasp it in my first sessions, I could really feel it the more I played: the game’s “philosophy” is that throughout millennia, all races start in an era of “light”, being cooperative and generally “friendly”, then become aggressive and want to assert power through battles and domination, but then become “enlightened” again, a go back to a more friendly and cooperative attitude. In terms of game mechanics, this works by rewarding you more for actions that match the era. But it’s also clearly visible, both thematically and mechanically, when toward the end of the game (era of light) the “Slavers” are still aggressive, trying to destroy my ships, while clearly my own focus is on what to do in the last two rounds of the game to maximize points. “War is over, it’s time to think of the (literal) endgame. How to get more population, or squeeze one last technological research point at the last minute? Why are these barbaric Slavers still trying to fight? There are much more important things to do for me right now than destroy their stupid battleships!“
Galactic Era isn’t without flaws. Although I’ve mostly had a great time with the game, below are a few issues I found with it.
(major) Fiddly ships
I’ve mentioned it in the components section, but the plastic miniatures representing your ships don’t look good. They look cheap. But I understand that making them look better would probably have required larger miniatures, which would have increased the cost of the game, and also it would have increased their footprint on the map, which would have been a big issue: see, even with how tiny they are now, the map quickly becomes a mess as soon as you have more than 3 ships in a space.
Speaking of the map, it feels tiny, in particular because of the ships issue mentioned above. Making the map bigger might have been an option, but then the game’s footprint would also increase, which isn’t good because it’s already quite huge. Maybe no good solution here.
The fiddliness of interacting with the ship pieces on the map doesn’t stop with the ships themselves. To address fleets with large numbers of ships, and to handle the fog of war mechanism, Galactic Era has a system where you can replace ships with chips, stacked in a plastic container. They’re stacked face down, so that your opponents can’t exactly know how many ships are in a fleet (each chip can represent a different number of ships, from 0 to 10). During a battle, you have to reveal those chips, to count the actual power of each army. Although, once again, I can’t speak for the multiplayer experience, in solo games I found this kind of manipulation annoying, sometimes frustrating. The pieces manage to be simultaneously too big for the map they’re on, and too small for proper manipulation in-game.
I’m no game designer, so I am not sure there would have been a better way to design that aspect, but generally speaking I have found that handling large number of ships in fleets (whether through the ship miniatures or the fleet chips) was cumbersome. To the point that destroying ships always brought a sigh of relief, because that would mean less complexity on the map for the following round. In the game’s defense, that only becomes a problem toward the second half of the game, when both you (hopefully) and the slavers start to have big fleets. Maybe a beginning of a solution would be stacks of cards (instead of stacks of chips) kept close to the player, each matching a fleet, itself represented by a miniature on the board?
Interaction with the ship pieces was by far my biggest, and only real issue with Galactic Era.
(medium) Icons are hard to understand
I’m sure the rulebook could be improved, but it’s doing a good job considering the relative complexity of the game. However, the game has a lot of icons, and they are tough to remember. Remember how the icons in Race for the Galaxy eventually “click” in your mind after a few games? I don’t think that’s going to happen here. The scoring ones in particular, on the Galactic Story, Galactic Goals, and domination cards, might as well not be there at all, as I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll prefer to refer to the Rulebook than try to figure out if you got the icons right.
(minor) Fog of War
The fog of War mechanic, which I must assume is a huge part of the fun in multiplayer games of Galactic Era (you have to keep mental notes of the number of ships in your opponent’s fleets, but they have opportunities to swap them without you seeing the end result), is only anecdotal in a solo game. You technically know exactly how many ships are in each fleet of the AI, and you could choose to take notes to keep track, or simply keep them face up constantly. Which is what I chose to do, I’m not taking notes, thank you. The nature of the opponent’s fleets themselves is however hidden (“is this the fleet with better assault power, or the one that can evade?”), so at least there’s that :).
It’s not a big deal, simply a “bluffing” aspect of the multiplayer game that, of course, cannot really be replicated in solo.
(minor) AI issues and additional rules
I did find while playing that there were a lot of extra rules to remember, in particular for the solo game. Each AI bot has its own set of rules, and they are somewhat scattered in the entire solo rulebook: additional rules for combat evasion, for declaring war/peace, for building fleets,… in some cases, the AI needs to ignore a dice roll and force it to be a 6 instead… on top of that, the Slavers have their additional “power board” which adds another layer of rules (roll two dice and keep only the smallest one, gain an extra technology at the end of each round…)
All of this serves to make the AI play “correctly” against you, and generally speaking this works ok, but despite that, there are still cases where the AI will do something a human player clearly wouldn’t do. The Genetic Farmers, in particular, had a tendency to just jump right into the space of their enemies, even though it is clear they will get annihilated. I didn’t see anything in the rules that prevents that, and they can’t evade combat in that case since they are technically “the attacker”. If we’re going with a bunch of exceptions in the rules anyway, why not add a safeguard for that?
(minor) Other minor bad points
I could also mention that the setup time is a bit on the long end. I would say 15 minutes at least to setup a solo game from scratch, but given that each session gives you 90 minutes of gameplay, I think that remains fair.
Should you buy Galactic Era as a solo gamer?
One of the questions one might ask is if Galactic Era is good enough if you’re exclusively a solo gamer, and have no play group to play it multiplayer.
Setting the price aside for a minute, I would say “definitely yes”! Unless your own “Solo 4X” world is complete (i.e. you already own some other 4X Solo game, or you really have no attraction for the genre) I really feel this game fills a void for Solo gamers.
In my opinion it has enough variety to keep you replaying many times, and I would say there’s at least 25 hours of gameplay in the box before you’ve “seen all the content” and tried all species and galactic goals (note that this isn’t a legacy or campaign game. Replayability is theoretically infinite, but I know we all have our limits). By then, it becomes a question of actually mastering the scoring, which personally I’m not really into, but here again there’s a lot of room for fun: after 6 games, I only managed to score a “planetary” level (second worst out of 5), in easy difficulty.
Now, bringing the cost back into the picture, if you can find it for $80 or less I would definitely tell you that Galactic Era is worth it for solo gamers no matter what. But it seems retail price is closer to $150 in most places, and at that price point I would say it’s up to personal attraction for the 4X/Space genre.
Galactic Era is a great 4X that fills a void in the solo gaming world, at least it does for me. It’s clearly a work of passion by the designer, and that shows in every aspect of the game.
As far as the solo game is concerned, I almost feel Channing Jones undersells it by calling it a solo “variant”: variant almost implies you’re not getting the “real” deal, but I feel that Galactic Era’s solo mode stands on its own as a great solitaire game. If you can find people to play it multiplayer with you, great, but if you are looking for a great 4X Solo game with a space exploration/expansion theme, great strategy, space battles and technology research, I think this is a great choice.
I honestly think the only reason this game hasn’t made it to the top solo board game people’s choice on BGG is because of lack of awareness and/or a small print run.
Games mentioned in this article
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