If this sounds like a lot to be getting on with then rest assured: it is. Luckily, the guys at Ironclad have done everything they can to stop it feeling like hard work. For a start, everything in your budding galactic empire is available at a click from the Empire Tree on the left of the screen. This collapsible, tree-structured list means you can click on a single ship or an entire fleet and send it off to battle in some far flung corner of the galaxy, then click on the frigate factory orbiting your home planet and order up some reinforcements, then find a construction frigate and order a new missile platform to be built around your latest acquisition, all without having to scroll around the map or click through a succession of menu screens. What’s more, you can reorganise your ships into separate fleets or ‘pin’ specific fleets or structures if you need to find them quickly, making an initially daunting display surprisingly easy to navigate.
In addition, a lot of things are quite sensibly handled automatically. Ships that ‘phase space’ to a new planet will automatically be added to the fleet surrounding that planet unless you command otherwise. That fleet will automatically attack hostile forces as they phase in, with individual ships picking targets appropriate to their own offensive strengths and defensive weaknesses. Units with special powers, like colonisation or heavy attacks, will use them automatically unless you decree otherwise. In other words, you don’t have to micro-manage every single little aspect of the game – you can keep your head on the big picture, moving the fleet that’s just attacked planet X to defend planet Y when necessary, without having to worry whether every last unit will know what it’s doing. Even construction isn’t a chore. Select a builder unit and ask it to build a metal or crystal refinery and it will pick out the nearest available resource, not sit their dumbly while you specify where to go.
Admittedly, not everything comes easy. The initial tutorials take you through the basics of construction, combat and resource management, but you’re well advised to start off with a short game against a single, easy AI to give you breathing space while you learn the ropes. Pick one without pirates while you’re at it. One thing the initial tutorials don’t make clear is that the pirates in the galaxy operate on a bounty system. Pay them off and they’ll attack your rivals. Don’t bother, and they’ll attack you, sending larger and larger waves of ships the higher the bounty goes up. This can be infuriating, because just as you’re preparing your grand offensive or recovering from a heroic defence, the blasted pirate fleet will show up and knock your right back to square one. Trust me; you’ll have enough to deal with in your first games without dealing with the pirate menace (though note that in games with more than one enemy faction you can make a little cash on the side by attacking the faction with the highest bounty and claiming the prize for yourself).