Mankind’s Journey To The Stars: A History Of Space strategy Games | Starborne

Mankind’s Journey To The Stars: A History Of Space strategy Games

Tue Oct 19 2021 (Updated: Thu Oct 21 2021)

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Strategy games have existed for as long as we’ve had civilization but the invention of the computer has opened up ways for us to create new worlds. This naturally led to mankind playing out its fantasy of travelling to other worlds and creating the space strategy game genre.

Let’s take a deep dive into the world of space strategy games and map Mankind’s virtual journey into the stars.

What Is a Space Game?

Before we dive in let’s take a moment to look at what a space strategy game is. Like any other strategy game, space strategy games emphasize long term planning, analytics, and skillful thinking in order to achieve victory. Players' decisions are key in determining the outcome of the game, and players must weigh the potential impact of multiple decisions in order to win.

The key differentiator is that the game is set mostly, or entirely, in space. For our purposes this would discount games such as X-COM, which contain space elements, but are closer to a science fiction strategy game as they are set entirely or mostly on Earth.

There are many different kinds of Space strategy games, but the genre can typically be broken up into four broad categories:

4X Games

Many space strategy games, particularly those involving empire building, can be called 4X games. The term was coined by Alan Emrich when he described the father of 4X games, Master of Orion. It refers to the four key components, and stages, of a 4X game “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate”.

A player first needs to eXplore their surroundings, discovering new worlds, resources, and rivals. They then need to eXpand by capturing this space and eXploit the resources. Finally an Empire reaches its limits of expansion and is forced to eXterminate its enemies in order to gain new resources.

This format is highly flexible and can apply to both real time and turn based space strategy games.

Crew Management Games

A purist might not define these as strategy games, but a number of space games instead involve protecting and nurturing a small crew to help your ship survive difficult situations. These usually require some kind of resource management, and need long term planning in order to survive.

The most well known of these, Faster Than Light, spawned the genre, which combined strategy with rogue-lite elements to create a different sort of experience for players interested in small-scale combat.

Grand Strategy Games

These often contain many features of 4X games but the focus is very much upon macro-management and warfare. The game is about governing a nation at a high level, where players shouldn’t necessarily have to concern themselves with the outcome of tactical battles (although in some cases they do).

Hybrid Strategy Games

These are the oddballs of the space genre. Games like The Last Federation which feels more like a space simulator than a 4X game. These tend to have elements of 4X games, but have spins or features that help to separate them from other space games in interesting ways. In the last decade more games have begun to fit into this category.

Space Simulator games

These can be strategy or management games, such as Kerbal Space Programme, but they can also be more in depth simulations. The two most iconic examples of space simulator games are likely EVE Online and the Elite series. These games are designed to simulate a fictional future in space, and often include deep economic simulations alongside challenging flight mechanics.

How Did Space Games Evolve

The space game genre draws heavily from both the real-world space race and from a variety of science fiction sources. Space games have been around since the beginning of gaming. The earliest example of a space game was Spacewar! Released in 1962 on a minicomputer, the PDP-1. This was a simple arcade game where two players would battle it out over the gravity well of a star.

As time went on space games would become significantly more advanced. Some such as Rendezvous: A Space Shuttle Simulation and Kerbal Space Programme attempted to recreate the challenges of flying a real shuttle. Others, such as the Elite series or the X-Wing series of games sought to help players immerse themselves in a science fiction universe. Elite in particular spawned a generation of space captain simulators, where you had the opportunity to play at being Han Solo of your own ship.

Aside from this strategy games, particularly the 4X genre, became a defining feature of space games. This genre came into its own in 1993 with the publication of Masters of Orion, still widely considered to be one of the greatest 4X games ever made. Other hits, such as the critically acclaimed Homeworld series helped to add new spins on genres such as Real Time Strategy.

As the video game industry began to move into its “indie” phase a number of niche titles began to appear. The most notable is indie darling, Faster Than light. This game helped to add unique mechanics to the space game genre, despite using fairly simple mechanics. It went on to sell 1.6 million copies and remains hugely popular to this day.

However the biggest innovation came with games like EVE: Online and Starborne. These games bought together huge numbers of players to create player driven narratives, economies, and everything else. These kinds of games provide a unique sandbox in which players can carve their own stories within the stars.

To understand how we got there, let’s take a deep dive into the space games genre.


For the purposes of this article we will define a space strategy game as having the following criteria:

  • The game contains primarily strategy game elements, including - Resource management, long term planning, and analytics.
  • The game is based in space, or on another world, rather than being based on Earth with science fiction themes.

With that out of the way, let’s dive in.  

Reach For The Stars - The First Space Strategy Game

Reach For The Stars At a Glance:

  • The first space game was Spacewar! From 1962.
  • Reach for the stars was released in 1983 and is considered the first 4X space strategy game released as a video game.
  • The game was heavily influenced by Avalon Hill’s board game Stellar Conquest.

The first space game released was not a strategy game, but rather something closer to an arcade game. In 1962 Spacewar! was released on a minicomputer, the PDP-1, as a competitive two player game. Players sought to shoot each other down while battling over the gravity well of a star. While relatively unknown today, Spacewar! Is considered influential enough to merit a place on Lowood’s gaming Canon.

For the next couple of decades space game releases focused on simulators or combat games, until 1983 and Reach For The Stars, the first commercially published example of a 4X space strategy game. Reach For The Star’s was heavily influenced by Avalon Hill’s board game Stellar Conquest but the developers decided to create their own IP, rather than negotiate with Avalon Hill for the rights to their board game. Interestingly, the board game Stellar Conquest has strongly shaped a number of other 4X space strategy games, but Reach For The Stars helped to translate the format to video games.

Reach For The Stars was the first video game to lay the foundations of the space 4X genre.(Image via YouTube.)

Why Was Reach For the Stars Important?

Reach For The Stars is important because it was the first video game to lay the foundations of the space 4X genre. It introduced elements that are now familiar, including the introduction of exploration, colonization, and a tech tree. These are all key elements of modern space strategy games.

A typical game takes between 12 & 24 hours and players would start with a single solar system, limited funds, and a basic tech tree. This forces the player to prioritize certain things, such as military investment, domestic development or new technologies. For example an early investment in ships might net players a quick advantage, but if they neglect technology they may fall behind in the mid-late game.

As enjoyable as Reach For The Stars was, it was inherently a game about endless conflict. Diplomacy was limited, which meant it was fun but didn’t have all the features of an empire builder. Future games would fix this problem in the 90s.

Rendezvous: A Space Shuttle Simulation - The First Space Shuttle Simulator

The space race has been a source of inspiration and fascination for many of us and Rendezvous: A Space Shuttle Simulation was designed to show what piloting a shuttle was actually like. The game was released 1982 by Edu-Ware and was marketed as an educational game.

The game came with a thick operators manual that was designed to walk the player through the intricacies of operating a space shuttle. The simulation centred around a typical space shuttle mission to service a space station. Each mission was broken up into phases which included: Earth Lift-Off, Orbital Rendezvous, Approach, and finally alignment and docking.

The game was joined by Space Shuttle: A Journey Into Space in the same year.

Rendezvous: A Space Shuttle Simulation was the first game to try to put players in the role of a real-world astronaut. (Image via MobyGames.)

Why Was Rendezvous: A Space Shuttle Simulation Important?

Rendezvous: A Space Shuttle Simulation is important because it was the first game to try to put players in the role of a real-world astronaut. It created the foundation of a space simulation genre grounded in reality, as opposed to one focused on science fiction. Future games, notably Kerbal Space Programme, would attempt to emulate this edutainment approach.

Elite - Unleashed The Space Sim Bug

There are few games as influential as the Elite series. The game was originally published by Acornsoft for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers in September 1984. However the game’s open-ended gameplay and revolutionary 3D graphics saw it ported to the majority of contemporary home computer systems.

Elite was one of the first computer games to use wire-frame 3D graphics with hidden line removal. While Elite wasn’t the first game to try to simulate life as the captain of a starship (that honor goes to Star Trader) it refined the formula and helped become a genre defining game.

The first Elite game put players in the role of Commander Jameson, although the name can be changed, who starts with a small Cobra Mark III trading ship and 100 credits. Players then need to collect credit through a variety of methods, including trade, piracy, military missions, asteroid mining, and bounty hunting. The player can use these credits to buy better ships, equipment and weapons. Players can also explore the universe and complete missions, including some story missions.

Elite spawned a number of sequels which progressively improved on gameplay. For example Elite Frontier: First Encounters introduced Newtonian physics, realistic star systems, and freeform planetary landings. These features culminated in the popular Elite: Dangerous which connected players in a P2P multiplayer environment Elite Dangerous has already launched a “ground” DLC in the form of Odyssey.

The Elite series has been massively influential. (Image via Polygon.)

Why Is Elite Important?

Elite is important because it is probably the most influential series on this list. A number of games, including Wing Commander and EVE Online have cited that Elite was a major influence on their creations. Almost every modern freeform space game owes at least a portion of its design and mechanics to Elite.

Star Wars: X-Wing - The Iconic Space Dogfighting Game

Released by Lucas Arts in 1993 Star Wars: X-Wing and its successors were among the earliest space flight simulation games. The player character pilots ionic Star Wars ships, including the titular X-Wing. The game improved upon Elite’s Wire Frame 3D graphics with 3D Polygon graphics for spaceships.

It was also the first space game to use the iMUSE Interactive Music Streaming Engine in order to allow the game to provide musical cues in response to in-game events, such as the arrival of friendly or hostile ships.

Gameplay revolves around the player piloting various rebel alliance ships in first person from inside the cockpit. Like normal flight simulators the game was designed to be played with a joystick and centered around the iconic dogfights from the Star Wars movies.

There were a number of subsequent games, such as the Tie Fighter game that improved upon X-Wing’s formula. For example X-Wing vs Tie-Fighter enabled players to engage in multiplayer combat and X-Wing alliance provided a more dynamic storyline than previous entrants in the series. In general all of the games were well received, and X-Wing is still considered to be one of the most important video game titles to this day.

Star Wars: X-Wing remains highly influential. (Image via StarWars.com.)

Why Was Star Wars: X-Wing Important

Star Wars X-Wing remains a hugely influential title to this day. Its use of situational musical cues is now commonplace in games of all types, and the engaging dogfighter combat has been an inspiration for other space shooters in the future. It can be argued that X-Wing and its sequels leant heavily on their Star Wars IP, but this doesn’t diminish the quality of the gameplay itself.

Master of Orion - The Perfect turn based 4X Series?

Master of Orion At a Glance:

  • Master of Orion I & II are still considered to be the gold standard of 4X gaming.
  • Master of Orion III was an unsuccessful attempt to innovate the 4X genre and still remains an important part of gaming history.
  • The series has gone on to influence almost every space strategy game since its inception.

While Reach For The Stars would eventually fade into relative obscurity there was one 4X game that has stood the test of time. Master of Orion (MOO) 1 and 2 are still considered by many to be the gold standard of the 4X genre, and with significant modding the much maligned 3rd game remains a surprisingly enjoyable experience.

The MOO series tells the story of the universe in which competing races are forced into the stars. They come into conflict with each other, and the remnants of an ancient race. Each game in the series differs from each other and there are still disagreements over which is the best in the series.

Masters Of Orion 1 Built On The Foundations Of Sid Meier's Civilization

Released in 1993 MOO 1 took the format created by Sid Mier’s Civilization and transposed it on a galactic scale. Unlike Reach For The Stars the game offered players the choice of 10 distinct races, each with their own specializations:

The addition of these races is important for two reasons. The first is that it creates asymmetrical gameplay which forces the player to adapt their strategies to their strengths and weaknesses. The second is that it imbues the universe with a story about a species and its journey into the star, giving the player more reasons to care for their subjects.

When a game of MOO1 started the players were given a single planet. They then had to slowly explore the galaxy with the goal of finding the highly valuable planet of Orion, and eliminating its guardian. This would give the player access to the most valuable planet in the galaxy.

The goal of the game was to either conquer all of your opponents, or successfully win a vote for galactic unification, peacefully creating an interstellar empire. MOO 1 was very well received and to this day is considered to be one of the best examples of 4X strategy. However the game was criticized for its lackluster graphics.

Master of Orion II - Building on MOO I’s success

Master of Orion II took the formula that MOO I had created and built upon it by adding more complicated and advanced features. One of the biggest differences was the addition of the Antarans.

The Antarans were an ancient, belligerent race that was trapped in a pocket dimension by the Orions. They escape from this dimension and periodically attack players throughout the game. As the game progresses they become stronger representing a threat for the galaxy.

The game also included a race customizer. This enabled players to create their own unique species and Empires and is a common feature of many modern 4X games, such as Stellaris and Galactic Civilizations.

An important subset of race design was government. There are a variety of governments that come with specific penalties and bonuses. For example democracies are unable to annihilate aliens, but can but have significantly improved rates of assimilation and wealth generation. Unification (roughly analogous to communism) have significant farming and industrial output improvements and are protected against espionage. Feudal empires can make large navies, but have very slow research rates. When selecting a government players must spend a certain number of points.

The game also adds in multi planet star-systems and significantly improves upon the space combat of MOO2. Ships were able to turn in combat and marines would be able to board enemy ships. This was further enhanced with the expansion of the customizer, enabling players to create their own warship designs.

Another improvement was the addition of multi planet star systems. This allowed players to occupy the same starsystem, increasing the possibility of conflict between players and making the map more dynamic. Particularly valuable star systems are protected by space monsters, making them more challenging to acquire.

The game also added in a new path to victory. Players could either conquer all opponents, be elected the supreme leader of the galaxy, or successfully defeat the Antarans. To do this they would need to assault the Antaran homeworld and defeat its garrison. This does not technically win the game, but it gives the player a significant advantage which makes final victory trivial.

The game sold over 200,000 copies and MOO II was very well received by reviewers, who praised the improved, if slow, graphics. However the design choices polarized some reviewers. Some believed that the gameplay was a significant improvement over its predecessor, embracing its enhanced complexity. Others viewed it as overly complicated, and preferred the simplicity of MOO I. One thing is clear, everyone preferred MOO I and MOO II to what came next.

Master Of Orion III - An Ambitious Failure

MOO III remains a curious part of gaming history. The game was ambitious, really ambitious. The main goal of the game was to shift away from the micromanagement of previous MOO titles, and towards a macromanagement approach. The game significantly expanded on some features, while removing others.

One of the big changes was towards a more nuanced habitat system. Every species had a preferred environment and planets would range from red, least habitable, towards green, which are the most habitable. Planets would have unique features, such as temporary, atmospheric density, composition and gravity level. This led to a more nuanced and realistic exploration system.

It also changed the way ground combat functioned. If players used a species unsuited to a specific planet, they would struggle in combat. This meant that it was advantageous for players to use species suited to the world they were attacking. In addition to this the game expanded on combat. Ground combat could be fought over multiple turns, and players could assign an overall battleplan that could impact the planet’s habitability, or cause collateral damage to civilians and infrastructure.

MOO III added a new victory condition. Alongside the familiar conquest and diplomacy conditions, there was the new exploration goal. This involved sending out expensive exploration fleets to discover the five Antaran Xs.

The races were also significantly affected. The developers used the new game as an excuse to eliminate many of the classic races, and to introduce a number of new ones. This led to some interesting developments, but also upset fans of the original 10 species. Other complaints included the lack-luster AI.

In general the game received tepid reviews. This was in part due to the accidental release of the game’s alpha to Australian media. This was mistakenly considered to be a demo version of the game, and gave a misleading idea about its progress. The so-called KangaMOO demo also created confusion amongst players about whether there was a real demo version. Mediocre sales, and poor patch support have left the game with a poor reputation.

Despite this the game still has a small following and the community has released a number of patches designed to fix the flaws with the game, and when using those patches it becomes quite playable.

Few games that have had such an impact on the space gaming genre as the Master of Orion series. (Image via MasterOfOrion.eu.)

Why Is The MOO Series Important?

Taken together there are few games that have had such an impact on the space gaming genre as the Master of Orion series. MOO I and MOO II are still often used as the yardstick against which modern games are measured. While MOO III was considered a failure it was a very real attempt to improve the 4X genre and the influence of the series as a whole can still be felt today.

Homeworld - Bringing 3D To Space

Homeworld At a Glance:

  • Homeworld was released in 1999.
  • Homeworld was the first space RTS game to use 3D movement and graphics.
  • Homeworld remains a cult classic and has spawned sequels and a remaster.

One oddity of the space strategy game genre was that everything was a little… flat. That all changed in 1999 with the release of Relic Entertainment’s cult class, Homeworld. Homeworld wasn’t the first RTS, in fact it followed a fairly standard RTS format, what set it apart was the fact that it allowed players to utilize all three dimensions of space, opening up a completely new feeling.

Unlike the games we’ve previously mentioned Homeworld isn’t an Empire builder. It’s a fleet manager. Players are tasked with protecting the mothership of a species that has been exiled from its planet, and is seeking a home. When you enter a new system you need to gather resources, conduct research, and expand your fleet. This includes sending out scouts for enemies, searching for enemies or new resources.

Players are able to build a variety of different starships. These are unlocked as the campaign progresses through research, or by capturing and reverse engineering enemy vessels. Each ship is designed to fulfill a specific role in the fleet.

Each battlefield is a sphere, ships can be directly moved anywhere within this sphere, and can be grouped into a variety of formations. The player is free to move their camera anywhere they please. Additionally players can view a tactical map, which gives a clearer view of the battlefield.

The game included both single-player and multiplayer modes. In the singleplayer campaign players have to complete a new objective in each mission. These missions were praised for their difficulty, which forces the player to utilize a variety of strategies. Between each level a hand drawn cutscene plays out, explaining the story. In multiplayer games the objective is typically to destroy the opponent’s mothership.

The game sold over half a million copies in the first six month and was well received by critics. It was praised for its impressive soundtrack and graphic quality as well as its innovative gameplay style. The game won a number of awards and sparked two sequels and a popular remaster.

Homeworld marked a significant shift in both the RTS genre, and the space game genre. (Image via Steam.)

Why Is Homeworld Important?

Homeworld is important because it marked a significant shift in both the RTS genre, and the space game genre. It was heavily story driven, and utilized unique mechanics to help the player feel like they were in command of a fleet. This reduced scope makes the game feel very distinct from other space strategy games at the time. The focus on 3D space also gave the game a lot more depth than a 2D space strategy game would have done.

AI War: Fleet Command - Created Actually Good AI

AI War: Fleet Command At a Glance:

  • AI War took a novel hybrid approach to artificial intelligence which outperformed most decision based AIs.
  • The game and its sequel are still regarded as one of the best implementations of AI.
  • It is also one of the better implementations of a David vs Goliath scenario.

While it is possible for players to inadvertently place themselves in a difficult position in many strategy games, very few put you in an impossible situation. This is exactly what Arcen’s AI War does. The game’s premise is simple. Your people lost the war against the AI, your enclave was small enough to go unnoticed. Now you have a chance to fight back.

The game starts out with the human controlling a single system and the AI controlling the rest of the map. The AI operates using “AI Progress”. This is a measurement of how aware the AI is of the human threat. As players complete objectives, the AI begins to prioritize wiping out the group. This creates an interesting dilemma, if a player moves too quickly they risk being wiped out, too slowly and the AI might be too powerful to overcome.

Rather than encouraging players to micromanage units, the game focuses on macromanagement. Decisions about when to take a planet and when to leave it are more important than the exact composition of your units. The game is generally broken up into three stages, the opening, mid-game, and endgame. These stages are defined by how the player and AI interact.

The main thing that sets AI-War apart from other games is the complexity of its artificial intelligence. The game’s creator worked on creating something he termed “Emergent AI” in order to solve the weak AI that plagues many other strategy games.

Traditional RTS games rely upon decision trees (IF A, then C, IF B then F etc.) which can imitate human behaviour but it is open to flaws and exploitation. This takes a long time to programme and produces sub-par approaches. To get around this, the developer focused on utilizing a hybrid swarm intelligence. It is based on three levels of intelligence:

  • Strategic - Governs what planets the AI attacks, where it reinforces, and other large strategic decisions
  • The sub-commander - decides where groups of ships will go during actual engagements and defines the overall tactics
  • The Individual-ship - decides exactly how to approach the orders given by the sub-commander.

The sub-commander logic is interesting because it is designed to be emergent. Units will try to do what is best for themselves, but take into account what the rest of the group is doing. This is analogous to flocking behaviour exhibited by certain fish and birds. This allows the AI to react far more intelligently than a rules-based AI would and to pose a real challenge to anything the human player throws at it.

AI-War was well received. However some reviewers argued that it was too complicated and that the learning curve was too steep. There were also a number of valid complaints about the graphical quality of the game. Despite that, AI War has obtained a cult following and remains an important space strategy game to this date.

AI-War represented a leap forward in one of the strategy genre’s biggest challenges, artificial intelligence. (Image via Fanatical.)

Why Is AI-War Important?

AI-War represented a leap forward in one of the strategy genre’s biggest challenges, artificial intelligence. The novel approach to decision making created a game where the opponent feels alive, and created one of the most engaging asymmetrical strategy games to date.

Kerbal Space Programme - The Space Race Simulator

When Squad’s Kerbal Space Programme was released in its early access form in 2011 it was an oddity. The game centred around running the space programme for a species of small green humanoids called kerbals. The player designs and launches multi-stage rockets, similar to the iconic challenger series of space shuttles from the space race. To date the game has sold more than 2 million copies.

As the game progresses the player unlocks more advanced spaceship components that enable them to take on more complicated tasks. While players start with early Cold War-era equipment they will eventually be able to build networks of satellites and ships capable of visiting distant planets.

On a typical mission players will need to carefully design a ship capable of getting to and from its target destination. This means that it requires enough initial lift to actually get into orbit, and enough protection to survive the heat of re-entry. If a player fails to account for heat, parts of the ship could explode and the astronauts on board may be killed.

These challenges are compounded by material constraints. In the career version of the game players are limited by both technology and financial resources. This forces players to become creative with limited resources in order to achieve goals, just like real-world space programmes.

Setting aside the joys of strapping 20 rockets to a spaceship, the most important aspect of Kerbal Space Programme is the orbital mechanics. While these are not perfectly true to life they have been praised for their accuracy. The game’s orbital mechanics are strong enough that an educational focused remix of the game, KerbalEdu, was released as a classroom aid.

Kerbal Space Programme is the gold standard for simulating the challenges of the space race. (Image via GOCDKeys.)

Why Is Kerbal Space Programme Important?

Kerbal Space Programme is important because it is the gold standard for simulating the challenges of the space race. While you might be playing little green men, the tasks you must complete are similar to those that NASA completed during the space race. The game's realistic orbital mechanics pit players against physics and provide a degree of problem solving that helps even laymen get a basic grasp of orbital mechanics.

Faster Than Light - Popularizing Rogue-like Strategy Games

Faster Than Light At a Glance:

  • Faster Than Light is one of the most successful Kickstarter funded space games.
  • Faster Than Light sold more than 1.6 million copies on steam alone.
  • Faster Than Light helped to revive the rogue-like genre.

While most strategy games have you at the helm of an Empire, Faster Than Light (FTL) places the player in charge of a single ship. FTL is regularly listed as one of the greatest strategy games of all time and it is with good reason. The game was released in 2012 and places players in the role of a captain outrunning a rebellion to bring a message to the Federation, it culminates with the player battling it out with the rebels flagship. The kicker? You’re probably going to die, and that’s the point.

Rogue-likes are games where death is permanent and the player is supposed to learn from their past mistakes to improve. This gives the player real stakes while playing, and forces them to seriously consider their actions. In FTL’s case, the player needs to ensure that both their ship and its crew make it out intact.

The player begins the game with one ship, and a handful of crew members. They are forced to keep moving towards the exit of their sector by an advancing rebel fleet. As they jump to waypoints they will be confronted with a variety of events, from combat to dilemmas about how to expend resources. The player can use the unique abilities of a variety of species in order to overcome specific challenges, and it is possible to unlock new ship variants as the game progresses.

The meat of the game is the combat system. This requires the player to manage the ship’s system by distributing power, and ordering crew members to specific stations or rooms to repair damage or operate the systems. Fires or hull breaches create new challenges, and can be a way for the player to take out enemy ships.

The game has been very well received, both for its interesting gameplay, now iconic soundtrack, and graphics. However certain reviewers have found FTLs difficulty to be punishing, and it is difficult to beat the game.

Faster Than Light is regarded to be one of the major success stories of the Kickstarter era. (Image via PCGamer.)

Why Is Faster Than Light Important?

Faster Than Light is important for a few reasons. The first is that its focus on relatively small-scale interactions creates a more personal feeling, players care about the fate of their crew. Permadeath also forces players to live with suboptimal decisions and players are often forced to decide between two bad options in order to survive.

FTL is also regarded to be one of the major success stories of the Kickstarter era. The game sold over 1.6 million copies and helped to spark a wave of indie strategy games. This created a significantly more vibrant gaming landscape, and has opened up more room for innovative or financially risky titles to flourish.

Stellaris - A Strategy Sandbox Story Generator

  • Stellaris represents a grand strategy take on the 4X genre with a focus on Exploration.
  • The game utilizes a powerful empire customizer and story elements to help players tell compelling stories.
  • Stellaris builds on the work of many space strategy game classics.

Of all the titles on this list, Stellaris will stand out as the most controversial inclusion. It isn’t the first strategy game to try to tell a story, Galactic Civilization did that very well with its alignment system, but Stellaris arguably does it better than any other title to date.

The game, released by Paradox in 2016, follows a similar format to previous 4X games with a twist. While Stellaris does have a handful of standardized races, the game’s core focus is on Empire creation and its ethics system. Players are asked to pick from a selection of opposing ethics, such as pacifist or militarist, and these help to define the flavor and strengths of their specific Empire. Players are also able to specify “traits” for their species.

The ethics of the player empire and AI empires will define their interactions to some extent, and help to flesh out how the players interact with the universe. When the game begins each player is given a single star-system, and must begin exploring the galaxy. The meat of the early game is in exploration, and players will encounter a number of random events as they begin to search for life.

Like many games before it, Stellaris includes features such as ship design, colonization, and warfare. What separates it from something like Masters of Orion and Galactic Civilizations is the fact that it's a real time strategy game. This forces players to plan a little differently than they would if they were playing a turn based game.

Stellaris is also a grand strategy game. This means that players are not supposed to overly micromanage their worlds. While players can control everything if they wish, there are AI options to automate worlds as an Empire grows. Additionally players cannot directly control ships in combat, merely the fleet movements and composition. However they can watch the combat unfold in real time.

Stellaris includes a wide variety of science fiction tropes and the game is very much about exploration and the way your empire interacts with the universe. In many ways it is more about the stories that you tell, rather than winning or losing, placing comfortably in Paradox’s tradition of grand strategy gaming.

The game itself was well received at launch, however for many the game was a little too skeletal. The Stellaris team have significantly changed the game since launch, overhauling combat and many other mechanics, while also releasing paid expansions.

Stellaris represents a continued evolution of the 4X genre. (Image via CBR.com.)

Why Is Stellaris Important?

Stellaris is interesting because it represents a continued evolution of the 4X genre. The game contains many of the typical tropes and features of a 4X game but definitely focuses on the exploration aspect at the expense of others. This enables players to create interesting scenarios in the space opera theme, and arguably allows for greater replayability than many other 4X games. Stellaris is also interesting because it builds so well on previous games, taking the RTS elements of a game like Sins of a Solar Empire and merging it with the ethics system present in Galactic Civilizations.

EVE Online - The First Player Driven Massive Multiplayer Online Space Simulator

When it was released by Simon & Schuster Interactive and later by CCP Games, in 2003 EVE online changed the world of space gaming overnight. The game is renowned for its player driven economy and unscripted interactions.

The game went through a number of distribution channels, but was finally made free to play in 2016, albeit in a limited form. By 2013 the game had over 500,000 subscribers, and still retains a monthly active user base of around 300,000. The game has been so influential that in 2015 a permanent exhibit at the New York museum of modern art was created to showcase the player base’s achievements.

The game allows players to engage in a wide variety of professions and activities, ranging from trading, to piracy, and even corporate espionage. The more controversial or daring activities have made news in the past. When recounting the tales people often convert the in-game currency, ISK, into USD using PLEX, the paid game currency.

For example in 2005 players conducted a year-long infiltration operation against Ubiqua Seraph corporation’s CEO Miral. A rival corporation, the Guiding Hand Social Club, infiltrated Ubiqua Seraph and launched an assasination of the company’s CEO. Operatives of the Guiding Hand Social Club then proceeded to steal billions of ISK, amounting to about $16,500 in USD.

EVE Online has also broken not one but two Guinness world records. In October 2020 a 14 hour battle known as the Fury at FWST-8 took place. It now holds the record for both the largest multiplayer video game PvP battle, with 8,825 players, and most concurrent participants in a multiplayer video game PvP battle with 6,557 participants. Assets worth 1.443 trillion in-game-currency were lost during the battle, equating to losses of around $18,712 USD.

Despite its modern popularity and staying power, EVE Online initially received mixed reviews. However, as new content was added, the game proved to be increasingly popular with critics. It ranked number 12 in PC Gamer’s list of top 100 games of all time in 2013. To this day EVE Online remains an important part of the space gaming genre.

EVE Online helped to popularize the online space game format. (Image via EVE.)

Why Is EVE Online Important?

EVE Online is important because it helped to popularize the online space game format. It wasn’t the first multiplayer space game. The first online space MMO was Jumpgate: The Reconstruction Initiative, released in 2001, and the last server closed in 2015. However EVE Online is probably the most influential example of a space MMO.

By connecting hundreds of thousands of players from around the globe it has been able to facilitate emergent stories that have captured the imaginations of people who aren’t even players themselves. This feature has helped the game retain a highly active player base for more than 18 years.

Starborne: Sovereign Space - The Definitive Space Strategy Experience

Starborne: Sovereign Space at a glance

  • Starborne: Sovereign Space went into open beta on April 1st 2020 and is an MMORTS in the 4x genre.
  • Players are able to find victory in a variety of ways and must work together towards a common goal in order to win.
Starborne: Sovereign Space a unique example of modern strategy games.

With an Open Beta released on April 1st 2020 Starborne: Sovereign Space is a unique example of modern strategy games. Like Stellaris, Starborne is an MMORTS in the 4X genre but the creators of Starborne have taken stock of the rich history of space strategy games and produced something unique that neatly solves many of the challenges of building a compelling MMORTS.

One of the ways the team achieves this is by ensuring that there is an actual victory condition. Rather than using perpetual maps, each game is played over a set period of time ranging from four hours to around 10 weeks, depending on game mode. During this time players compete to achieve one of three distinct victory conditions, which all require their own approach.

The game has been compared to Neptune’s Pride for its social features. Alliances and social gameplay form a core part of Starborne’s appeal. In order to be successful players need to join Alliances that are working towards a specific goal. Additionally these alliances will often form informal coalitions (or alliances of alliances) that become an integral component of the end-game. This helps to maintain a broader social strategy that is lacking in many MMORTS games.

Additionally the game has created a logical framework in which players can find ways to thrive. Much like chess or go there are a number of different strategies and openings that a new player can use in order to succeed. There are a wide variety of ships and stations, with different specialities, that help players succeed in their plans. Players have to carefully balance how to spend resources, and decide whether to support their own personal projects or those of their alliance.

Players are able to specialize in military, espionage, or industrial approaches, which adds extra depth to the game and encourages specialization and co-operation. This means that there are a wide variety of strategies and counter-strategies. This adds significant depth to each session and leaves a lot of room for both experienced and novice players to grow.

The space strategy genre is going through a renaissance. Games like Starborne: Sovereign Space are the next step in that evolution and will help to refine and revolutionize the genre long into the future.