Sins of a Solar Empire is Hard. And I Like It. And That’s Weird.

Here I am: the sovereign of an upstart space empire. I have a single world to my name, some asteroids to mine for resources, and a frigate factory to start what will one day be a glorious fleet, hundreds of ships strong, spreading my will across the solar system. One day. But now is the time to plant the seeds of my empire; to expand, gather strength, and test the waters (so to speak) of the great unknown that surrounds me. What does the final frontier hold for me, I wonder?

“A pirate raid is imminent,” my faction’s “voice” informs me. Ok, then. My fleet has grown a bit, there’s a defense platform or two in orbit around my couple of colonies; I can handle a few pirates.

Moments later, I’m promptly annihilated by a fleet easily three times the size of my own. My home world is no longer mine.

[New Game.]

My empire’s growing, slowly but surely. I have several planets colonized, my fleet has grown to include a capital ship or two and is big enough to hold its own in an occasional skirmish against my peers. The meager “fleets” of neutral corporations are no match for me as I seize their colonies and expand my influence. I’ve already made a few quick enemies, but I have also formed the foundations for what will one day, hopefully, be a grand alliance of super powers. Things are going well. Pirates? Humph.  I’ve learned my lesson; I devoted more resources to defenses and growing my fleet. I already repelled the first raid. I took some losses, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle.

“A pirate raid is imminent.” Whatever. I’m ready, and now that I know how to handle simple pirates, I’ll be ready when one of my neighbors decides to invad–

Wow. That’s a lot of pirates. No, like, for realzy — A LOT of freaking pirates. Within minutes they destroy most of my fleet, all of my planetary defense, and my ship factories. I surrender.

[New Game.]

Ok. Not going to happen this time. I have two capital ships, at least two dozen frigates, a sortie of ships at each planet, repair platforms, defense platforms, defense hangers…my empire has almost no civilian economy since I’ve devoted all resources to military and defense. Those pirates aren’t going to get me thi–


[New Game.] [Options.] [Pirates: Active.]

A-ha! Got ’em.

[Pirates: Inactive.]

So who’s Big Boss now, eh pirates? Me, that’s who, because I just turned you off!

Sins — as I’ll refer to it from now on because it’s much easer to type than even the acronym for the full name — isn’t just posturing when it defines itself as a new hybrid genre: the “RT4X,” or “real-time explore expand exploit exterminate” strategy game, combining the fast-paced action and immediacy of a real-time strategy game (StarCraft) with the forethought and careful, deliberate pacing of a turn-based, 4X, strategy game (Civilization). At first thought, it doesn’t like chocolate and peanut-butter — the nature of the two genres strongly contradict each other — but developer Ironclad Games makes it work in a number of ways.

For starters, the AI is some of the best around. There’s no need to micro-manage every battle, allowing you to multi-task more easily. You can fight multiple battles, manage your economy, forge and break alliances, and research new technologies all at once without skipping a beat. More often than not, you can feel confident that your forces don’t need too much hand-holding. That’s not to say that they don’t need some guidance, or that micro-management won’t give you an edge (it will, especially against human players or overwhelming forces), but you don’t need to worry yourself with every single skirmish. As long as your side has even a slight edge, you can worry about more important things, like larger battles, the defense of a key world, or fulfilling missions from other factions.

Then there’s the vast amount of dead space. Any actions that don’t take place in menus, such as building and combat, can only be performed in the “gravity well” of a world, represented by a radius surrounding any large heavenly body. Between worlds is just empty space that ships need to traverse in order to travel between these active areas. During transit, ships are invulnerable and can’t be interacted with any way. It sounds restrictive, but the time it takes for ships to travel gives you a lot of time to focus your attention elsewhere. You know in advance when an attack is coming, so you can bolster defenses and gather reinforcements. Or maybe you don’t have any imminent issues, and you can just use this time to browse your tech trees, trade and deal with other factions, or engage in a pirate bidding war.

Ah, yes. The pirates. Sins newbie version of me…how misguided you were. In searching for a solution to my pirate woes, I discovered that they have been considerably beefed up in the latest version of the game. While this seems to be an issue of contention among long-time players, they do serve a purpose in the game as a resource to be exploited. Any time you’re notified of a pirate attack, you have the ability to enter into a bidding war against other factions, raising bounties on your enemies so the pirates attack them and not you. Ideally, this keeps everyone on their toes and levels the playing field a bit. An economic-minded player who lacks an edge in brute force has more money, and therefore, more influence with the pirates.

Incidentally, if any player ignores this feature completely, they’re going to have a lot of pirates to deal with. For the veteran players, pirates present a sort-of wild card. For newbies like me — well — I still prefer to turn them off. Maybe some day I can swim with the sharks, but today is not that day.

Don’t underestimate the learning curve of Sins. Those not interested in taking the time to really learn all of the ins and outs of a system, critically study its mechanics and really think out their strategies will never see the full potential of the game. But that’s not to say there’s no place for you. Indeed, I count myself amongst that group. So one thing that’s great about the game is its variety.

Most RTS games are just about combat and, to a more simplified extent, economy (as far as resource management is concerned). Sins incorporates all of that while also featuring the robust alternate ways to play prevalent in 4X games. Warfare is a constant aspect of the game, but by no means is it the only road to success. As I mentioned, an economist can exploit trade alliances and manipulate pirates to do their fighting; you can adopt a slower pace by building a powerful and influential culture over time, devoting resources to technologies that spread your influence and inspire revolts amongst your enemies; you can form alliances and treaties and win through diplomacy.

Alternately, you can adopt a combination of any of the above strategies. My go-to tactic became weakening my opponent with my overwhelmingly awesome culture, sewing discord on their world, then sending my fleet in to destroy their defenses.

At its most, Sins is not for the light of heart. A casual player would find swift destruction in multiplayer or on harder difficulties. Certainly, I wouldn’t stand a chance. But playing on low or mid difficulties, preferably with pirates off, even casual players will find a rich and unique experience. Who knows? If you really do take to the game, practice will only make perfect, and you just might be surprised by how invested you actually get.

Sins of a Solar Empire (whole name because this is the conclusion) has this quirky way of being mind-bogglingly complex while maintaining a strong sense of accessibility. Ironclad Games combined two genres I suck at, and only occasionally enjoy, and got me to completely buy into the product of their incestuous union. I regret avoiding it for so long. If you have even a mild interest in the game, you should give it a shot. Approach with patience and an open mind, and you won’t be disappointed. Pirates could probably stand to be nerfed a bit, though.


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