Below is another fun Space Empires article from one of our newer blog contributors, David Waldorf. In his last article, he shared with us his thematic results for the “Danger!” chits in Space Empires 4X. You can find that article here. Enjoy! -Rachel
In Space Empires: 4X, it would be possible (if one had the inclination) to list the most efficient ways to explore and colonize your home system under every possible layout. Even though you are greeted with a fair amount of decision making early on, the opening moves of the game are quite simple once you realize that you know exactly how many of each resource you are going to find. The only variables are the location of the resources and whether or not you will lose a scout to your system’s single black hole. I will admit that this “sameness” has me conflicted. On one hand I am aware that it is a necessary design feature for the sake of balance. On the other hand, I find myself cruising on autopilot for the first few turns, since the decisions to be made are pretty routine and mathematical. Not that I don’t enjoy exploring my home system, it’s just that it feels a little like a mini game of its own—something of a pregame warm-up.
I also find it an interesting exercise to attempt a thematic justification of the first few turns. The foreknowledge you have of your system markers is comparable to knowing how many planets we have in our own solar system, but not having a clue where any of them are. I realize that each hex in the game represents a much larger sector of space than a single solar system, but it still doesn’t make sense that I know how many worlds are out there without knowing where they are. We could partially justify this by assuming that the game board and system markers are abstracted to show only some planets: your home world has charted thousands of possibly habitable worlds, but had to send out scouts in order to see which ones were actually suitable for colonization. Which is, I think, a great explanation—except you still can’t get away from the mathematical fact that you know your scouts are going to find eight planets, plus one more that could be terraformed.
Of course, you can always play the quick start variant from the scenario book (unless you are playing solitaire, in which case that option is not available to you), and just skip the home system exploration altogether. Or you could opt for the chaos of the completely random setup, which might make for a more exiting early game but could also mean that you are quickly eliminated if your corner of the board is filled with asteroid belts or worse.
There is, however, a third possibility that shakes things up a bit, yet allows you some control over your desired level of balance. After inverting and mixing all your home system counters, simply swap out a few of them for an equal number of those from another color. The number of pieces to swap is inversely proportional to your concern for balance; the more pieces you swap, the more likely you are to upset the balance in increasingly drastic ways.
Swapping one counter will throw some uncertainty into your counter mix while doing minimal harm to the balance. In this case, put the different-colored system marker somewhere on the far edge of your territory. Alternatively, you could obliterate foreknowledge by swapping out 11 counters (the number of minerals you normally have). It would then be possible for you to have a variety of system configurations from a crowded planetary cluster to a collection of minerals that will keep your miners busy for years. On this end of the spectrum it doesn’t matter where you put the replacement markers in your home system because you’re getting close to half-and-half.
To give every player a fair chance at getting an equitable counter mix, some care will need to be taken to where you draw your replacement markers from. If playing a one- or two-player game, each of you should take replacements from a different complete set of another color. If playing three players, create a pool of the markers taken from each player and add in a number of markers from the unused color equal to the contribution of one of the players. Take switchback turns drawing your replacements, with it obviously being illegal to select your own color. In a four-player game, swap pieces with the player who is farthest from your home system. That way if you chance to get a very bad trade (you give him planets and he gives you a black hole/asteroids/nebulae), the effects will be somewhat mitigated by the distance between you.
Personally I would suggest swapping only two or three counters, and putting the replacements somewhere on the outer reaches of your home system. The game was designed to be balanced for a reason, and I hate to tinker with that too far. But go ahead and experiment with what number works for you and your gaming partners, and then feel free to come back and leave a comment!