This diary was originally published back in 2007, when this site was just a cosy corner of CVG. Tom has since switched careers to game development, and has made a space game of his own, Heat Signature.
"I just finished the game you saw me start at 4.30," I messaged Tim, at half past midnight. "It was a 'Medium' sized one." I'd gone home and eaten in the meantime, but other than that I'd been utterly lost in Galactic Civilizations II, specifically the Dark Avatar expansion, and I could no longer imagine what other people do with their evenings. Or jobs.
GalCiv invites careful thought about each turn—economies crash easily, people become restless and revolt, other races storm ahead of you in at least one respect, and rash choices quickly lead to war. So we got talking, or I got talking, about what lay beyond the seven-hour game I'd just finished.
The galaxy sizes go up to 'Gigantic', I had a third of the maximum number of opponents, and the AI on the third of 12 degrees of difficulty. Cranking that up too high would be counter-productive—my demise would be swift. But putting everything else on maximum would set me up for an epic game that would take me weeks, at least, to complete.
So this is the saga of the largest, longest possible game of the largest-scale, longest-lasting space strategy in years.
Day 1: Full of stars
Ulp. Gigantic appears to be somewhere close to the actual size of a galaxy. My race—the suspiciously bunny-like Spectres of Agony—found itself in a cluster of around 20 solar systems which, upon further exploration, turned out to have only one other race in it. We were isolated by a vast stretch of void on all sides, large enough that our ship's range would barely cover it, and which divided us from a chain of central clusters where presumably most of the other races lived. A few other islands like ours were dotted around, one as remote as us, but we were on the outskirts of an incomprehensibly vast nowhere.
I got off to what seemed like a good start. Conserving cash as much as possible, I put what little I could afford solely into grabbing the juiciest planets and asteroid fields, including an absolutely utopian class 18 right on my rival's doorstep. I even stole one in the same system as his homeworld—only a class 6, but it's the malicious, gloating thought that counts.
Nicely settled in, I locked my war-chest, cut spending, and dropped all taxation to zero. This made my people very, very happy. This made my people very, very horny. This made my population growth very, very fast. This is the Super Breeder ability, and at our peak, two-billion Spectres of Agony were being born a week. We were breeding like Spectres, definitely not space bunnies.
We were mighty.
Day 2: I did not have diplomatic relations with that species
It didn't last long. I hadn't bothered to build up a military, because I was neighbour only to an incompetent pacifist, an opponent so feeble he wasn't even worth the warmongering reputation crushing him would garner. And it wasn't like one of the warlike races—the huge Drengin empire, for example—was about to cross the void to conquer what must have been the two militarily weakest races in the galaxy, sitting on a cluster of superbly fertile planets.
In fairness, that isn't what happened. What happened was that I crossed the void with a single defenceless mining ship that didn't have anything better to do, and wandered around their territory for a bit. They opened negotiations and suggested I donate 132 billion credits and the Universal Translators technology in exchange for my 'continued existence'. I amended the terms of the deal to them giving me 4.5 trillion credits, their entire military fleet and their homeworld, in exchange for shutting the hell up. They impolitely declined. We parted ways, snarling. I knew our next meeting would be even less productive.
The trouble is, with no military—even with one of the highest populations in the quadrant—everyone fancies their chances. I was the defenceless fat kid being bullied for my lunch money. Before long even the normally upstanding Altarians were demanding tribute for my continued existence, and eventually the unthinkable happened. The Torians, my incompetent pacifist neighbours, were bullying me for pocket change. The Torians! The joke was on them, of course—my early-game economic balancing act involves making exactly no money for the first few years, and the only technology I had that anyone seemed to want was Universal Translators—the very devices both of us were using to negotiate in the first place.
Nevertheless, I had to sit back and breathe deeply for a while before I could trust myself to touch the diplomatic relations window without demanding every penny in their coffers for the privilege of being incinerated by the glorious ionised fire of the majestic Spectres of Agony military (which I would be building any day now). Instead, to vent my anger, I made a counter offer of their entire civilisation—their treasury, every planet they owned, their fleet, all of their technology—for 1bc. They ceased talks in a huff.
Day 3: Populous
I had a bigger problem. People were unhappy. I'd never quite been able to work it out, these plummeting approval rates as my civilisation expands—perhaps because by the time it kicks in, I'm usually in a position to obliterate any colonies my wretched inhabitants might want to emigrate to. But I'd still like to know why it happens. My dim red approval percentages offer only "-50% from population" as an explanation. I didn't understand. Every planet had masses more food than it needed, and yet they all cited as the cause of their malaise simply the number of people.
I was being stupid, of course. What it really meant was over-population, because however much food they might have to spare, eighteen billion people just don't fit on a planet. My fallacy had been to assume that high-quality planets—since they have more buildable land—were larger. In fact they're the same size or frequently smaller than their less habitable counterparts, and the game takes that into account.
My homeworld—my richest, most populous and most productive colony—was also my least happy planet, partially because its citizenry had swelled to fill the generous eating-room I'd given them by building so many goddamn farms. My generosity had been my downfall. My most loyal people were about to defect unless I stopped charging taxes entirely, and thanks to my knife-edge budgeting that would bankrupt me in weeks.
The solution was as clear as it was terrible. Six billion people on my homeworld of Blood had to go. I'd never be able to deport them with spacecraft—I didn't have any, and I wasn't even sure if I could move them to planets on which I already had colonies. No, there was a simple, cheap and very quick solution to this problem, and I took it. I razed my farms.
In one week, six billion people starved to death, and my approval rate among the survivors went from 49% to 99%. I could see why dictators did it.