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Game #12 : Galactic Empire (1979)

Your Highness, would you say the administration of your Empire was inspired by one of the great countries of human History ?

Of course, my dear Lieutenant Narwhal. Of course. The administration of my Empire is based on how the old Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms were organized

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms ? Really, your Highness ?

Indeed. It is based on only collecting taxes as I personally tour my Empire, whatever place is the easiest to reach gets taxed more because I can visit it every year !

Captain’s Log – Stardate 1.0

All Hail Emperor Tawala ! May he reign a thousand years.

I have received my instructions from Emperor Tawala. I am to conquer the entire galaxy, no less. He gives me 1 000 standard years, most of which of course I will spend in cryogenic sleep.

The forces from our homeworld – Galactica – are powerful already – probably powerful enough to conquer any individual system, but not the whole universe of course.

Given the fact that the “stardate” is 1.0, I am going to assume that Emperor Tawala’s first edict was I am so important the calendar will start at the beginning of my reign.” The second may have been “Earth ? How provincial ! Call it GALACTICA !”

I met with my officers :

  • Lieutenant Starbuck, in charge of our recon force,
  • Lieutenant Bayliss, probably my most important officer : he is in charge of collecting taxes, building ships and recruiting soldiers,
  • Navigator Kirman, who is in charge of making sure we arrive where we need to arrive. To be fair, I suspect a computer could have done his job just as well,
  • Doctor Henderson from Cryonics- honestly I am not sure who keeps inviting that civilian to our stand-up meetings, and he keeps rambling about how “technology should not be used for empire-building” and other “cryonics for peace !” non-sense,

As we checked the local map, we realized we had no information on what was around us :

Lieutenant Starbuck had 10 scouts, and there are 10 planets around Galactica, so as a high-functioning individual I allocated one scout by planet.

Lieutenant Bayliss collected the first tax on Galactica and recruited some men to fill our invasion transport ships.

The “local-map” as it looks like in-game. You navigate with the arrows to check the name of each planet.

Shortly after sending scouts to Novena, I considered I should just as well check it out myself. It is only 5 light-years away. I launched production of a handful of ships in Galactica, instructed that they should be delivered to Novena, and told Navigator Kirman to start the first leg of my galactic conquest !

I am heading to the cryogenics chamber. See you in 5 years !

Captain’s Log – Stardate 13.5

Well, I could not update my captain log on Novena – as I emerged from cryogenics my computer told me that my password had expired and I could only update it from my office on Galactica.

So when we arrived at Novena by Stardate 6.2, we found out it was a sparsely populated planet (25 millions inhabitants) that had barely reached atomic age. As such, they had no starfleet to defend themselves, and the land conquest went swiftly with negligible losses.

They were not technologically advanced enough to build anything locally, and taxes were meager so, with nothing else to do there, I headed back to Galactica immediately after the conquest.

A few more years of cryosleep, and I was back home by stardate 12.4. I immediately taxed the inhabitants again, and received reports from the scouts. Including the scout who had returned from Novena years ago and was waiting to deliver his report – boy this one was awkward. Only the scouts sent to Ootsie were missing :

As I write this report, news isn’t great. It turned out Moonsweept, Twyrx and Yang-Tzu all had civilizations with “sophisticated” technology – equivalent of ours. Twyrx also has more than 1 billion inhabitants – twice the population of Galactica. More worryingly, Proyc is more technologically advanced than us, but at least their population is small, so while destroying their space fleet will be difficult, the land conquest itself should be trivial. It is going to be our next target – we need to destroy them as soon as possible !

Captain’s Log – Stardate 26

Well, not many entries in the last 13 years. When I woke up from cryosleep above Proyc in SD 17.5, my computer had 4 years worth of updates to download, so I could not access my files before I cryoslept back to Galactica.

The conquest of Proyc was almost a fiasco. Their small space force was so advanced it caused catastrophic losses to our own forces, and we were one inch from disaster :

We were left with only 5 fighters – 1.5% of our initial force. Emperor Tawala, who is on board, was fuming : 5 fewer fighters and it would have been literally game over for his dream of an Empire. He called me “sus” and almost had me ejected in deep space, but I found a way to “appease” him while in the Cryogenic chamber, so now I have some time to redeem myself.

At least, the land combat was so quick we did not lose any transport.

Proyc‘s shipyard turned out to be quite capable : 9 ships a year when Galactica‘s shipyard is only producing 5. I ordered Proyc‘s production to be sent to Galactica upon completion. Of course, as always, I had to pay cash, so I could only cover a few years of production, and then I headed back to Galactica.

Back on Galactica (where several years of fighter production was waiting for us), we had an emergency meeting with my officers, plus Doctor Henderson who is to our officer meeting what Italy is to G7 : he does not really belong but after all those years it is a bit awkward to tell him to leave. We decided to build a lot of fighters before getting to “know better” the inhabitants of Moonsweep, Twyrx and Yang-Tzu

All those fighters waiting for me in Proyc are due to me not anticipating losing THAT much there.

On the other hand, our scouts from Ootsie came back and told us that its civilization was barely atomic, and the planet was not very populated, so while my fighters are being built up I will take over that planet.

Captain’s Log – Stardate 41.0

Ootsie conquered with some losses. The place is boring, heading back to Galactica

Captain’s Log – Stardate 92.1

I did not have much time to update, as I have been on a roadshow between Galactica, Novena and Proyc to build up my fleet back. You see, you can only reasonably tax a system once per visit, but if I go to Galactica, then to Novena, then back to Galactica, I can always make up some story to retax the good people of Galactica – and recruit more of them. With the cash, I sometimes travel to Proyc to pay for more ships to be built.

In any case, it took some time but I am back to 162 starships which hopefully will be enough to conquer Twyrx. I cannot wait forever for them as Twyrx‘s own starfleet increases over time.

Captain’s Log – Stardate 97.1

Twyrx has fallen. I am not sure why I was worried by their space defense, it was meager. On the other hand, their ground defense was spirited, and a good half of my transports were destroyed.

In any case, I am now in control of a system bringing more than 1300 credits every time I tax them – compared to roughly 400 for Galactica. Also, with over a billion inhabitants here I can fill my transports without any issue.

Captain’s Log – Stardate 119.1

Spent the last 20 years – about 2 days of non-cryosleep life between Galactica and Twyrx. I had to come up with a new sob story about why I need to collect more taxes and why more men need to be conscripted. The good news is that given that it takes 10 years to go to Twyrx and back, I can pretty much tell the same story every time and no one will know. I now have more than 200 fighters and 200 transports, allowing me to target Yang-tzu.

Captain’s Log – Stardate 135.0

Yang-Tzu resisted somehow, but it went down like the others. With 5 systems under my control out of 20, Tawala’s Empire starts to look fancy :

Novena and Ootsie became pretty pointless places, but with Twyrx and Yang-Tzu under the imperial thumb, I can travel back and forth between the two, amass incredibly high amount of cash, and then get the shipyards of Galactica, Proyc, Yang-Tzu and Twyrx to work. My order book for Galactica‘s and Proyc‘s shipyards is 40 years long.

I sent scouts to the remaining systems – it is time to change scale.

Captain’s Log – Stardate 145.9

The new fleet is ready : 423 ships strong, 234 transports !

I regroup all my officers. I cancelled the “weekly stand-up meeting” saying I did not feel it was necessary anymore, and then organized a new “regular SITREP meeting“, making sure NOT to invite Doctor Henderson, but that idiot Starbuck forwarded the Outlook invite and now Henderson is there.

Now that all systems have been scouted, I don’t need Lieutenant Starbuck anymore, really Bayliss, Kirman and myself is all the Empire needs – and even Navigator Kirman could have been replaced by a computer if you ask me.

In any case we are heading for Moonsweep.

Captain’s Log – Stardate 148.9

Moonsweep has been sweeped out. Space defenses were pathetic, ground defense solid, but my troops prevailed.

Captain’s Log – Stardate 204.2

Not much update in the log I am afraid. I wanted to update when I reached Bok but my Microsoft Suite “lifetime” license had expired so I could not add anything to my log. I had to wait to be back to Galactica to fix this.

In any case, with all the local system mostly under control, I had started to plan bigger, and my gaze embraced the whole galaxy :

Sparta is the only “special” system, and I should expect to meet a warrior culture that will cause me incredible losses. I can’t afford to wait for them to grow too strong, so I need to strike them soon.

While I was waiting for my forces to gather, I decided for a quick expedition to Bok, which my scout had described has having the same technological level and population as Galactica. Nothing that should resist 600+ space fighters and 360 transports.

And indeed, it fell without much resistance. On the way back, I stopped in Ootsie (they had not heard of the Empire for literally a century) and of course Galactica. The new fleet was waiting in Twyrx.

Captain’s Log – Stardate 238.7

Writing from Sparta.

We left Moonsweept in SD 212.5 with 800 fighters and almost 700 transport of troops, stopped at Viejo, a primitive world which was conquered in a few minutes (2 transports lost), and headed for Sparta.

In Sparta, the expected Mother of All Battles turned out to be… not much of a battle really. Sparta had barely 54 space fighters that went down with almost no losses on our side. As for the land battle, their defense was the most tenacious I have seen so far, but their numbers were too limited to threaten us – their 11 million men [109 units] were crushed, though it cost us 23 million of our own soldiers.

The very militaristic Spartans then very happily joined our own empire – when usually we cannot recruit more than 1% or 2% of a system’s population, in Sparta more 38 million men filled the 380 empty transports we had brought.

In Twyrx, we should have a real armada waiting for us. Victory is imminent.

Captain’s Log – Stardate 346.4

After returning to Twyrx, I gathered my officers for the Quarterly Steering Committee. Henderson was there, so I switched topics to discuss the new uniforms for our soldiers. After that, I had a one-to-one with Bayless to talk about serious business.

We decided we would strike directly the last system with a technological level above Galactica‘s : Eventide. Next to it, Utopia and its billion inhabitants would help us find more troops.

We jumped to Eventide, destroyed the defenses (with significant losses, but at this point we could afford it). Utopia was next. It had no significant space defense, though the ground battle was difficult. :

The taxes I could collect in Utopia were impressive, and Eventide and Utopia alone could fund the rest of our conquest – though the starship production rate was nothing to write Galactica about. I decided to use the time I had while my losses were slowly replaced to swing by Zoe and Alhambra, two primitive but distant systems (each 20 light years away from Utopia, but in different directions – those two systems cost me almost 75 years in total !). Neither system offered any resistance – nor any profit really. I am back to Utopia with 700 fighters, and 700 filled transport ships.

Captain’s Log – Stardate 357.7

I conquered the almost defenseless Llythill some 5 years ago – but really a couple days ago in “my” time, then attacked Kgotla.

Much to my surprise, my computer announced me 45% of chance of winning, but I still won, though my landing force is pretty much back to square 1:

On the other hand, Kgotla has a population of almost 4 billion, and pays 3 times more taxes than any other system, so it is just a matter of time before my fleet is back and ready to conquer the last 3 systems.

I tried to invade Harkon from there – the last system where I risk meeting a space force, but the land force was too numerous and I had to cancel the land attack. I will come back

Captain’s Log – Stardate 436.1

I came back.

Captain’s Log – Stardate 469.6

Javiny fell ! Only two systems to go : Drassa 2 and Farside.

Captain’s Log – Stardate 496.6

After a supply run to Utopia, I headed toward Drassa 2, which fell easily

Captain’s Log – Stardate 530.9

All Hail Emperor Tawala ! The galaxy is ours. I mean, his ! Farside fought to the bitter end (30 million dead people on our side) but they fell.

It is time to remove our Emperor from forced hibernation. Hopefully he will forgive me for this whole Proyc disaster. I mean, he certainly will – look at what I am now handing him on a platter !

Ratings & Review

Galactic Empire by Douglas Carlston and later Brøderbund Software, USA
First release : 1979 on TRS-80
Tested on : Apple II
Total Hours Tested : 3
Average duration of a campaign: <3 hours
Difficulty: Easy (1/5)
Would recommend to a modern player : No
Would recommend to a designer : No
Final Rating: 24/100

Galactic Empire is the first game by attorney-and-developer-hobbyist Douglas Carlson. Initially, the game was distributed among others by Adventure International ; but as Adventure International was not a publisher Carlston kept full rights on his game. With the oil crisis of late 1979, the game (and its follow-up, Galactic Trader) became the only significant source of revenue for Carlston, so he and his brother founded Brøderbund Software in February 1980 to make and distribute more games.

Manual for the Atari 400/800 port published by Adventure International… in 1981, so after Broderbund’s creation.

The early history of Brøderbund Software is interesting in its own right, but covered way better than I could ever do by the Digital Antiquarian. Honestly, check there – it is worth it. It includes, among other, the Swedish women’s basketball national champions.

In any case, Carlston decided to make a saga out of Galactic Empire and Galactic Trader, with two more opus : Galactic Revolution, and Tawala’s Last Redoubt. I will cover all those games, even though Galactic Trader is not a wargame. Each game is different in gameplay, but the name of the planets (including Galactica), the protagonist (“Julien du Bucque”), the Emperor are all the same.

Galactic Empire has the reputation of being the first 4X on PC (there were several earlier 4X on mainframe computers), and indeed it is a game with breadth and ambition limited not by the skill of the developer but by the limitations of the platform he used (TRS 80, affectionately known as Trash 80). To be honest, I would not really call it a 4X game, exploration is limited to scouting, exploitation is limited to collecting taxes, and extermination is limited to eliminating enemy defenses. Having played it, I would call it above all a “logistics management” game, where you try to minimize the time spend collecting resources and troops in order to make your universe conquest as fast as possible – after all your are not really fighting in the battle, just bringing enough troops to win.

Interestingly, 1979 also saw the release of a game called Galactic Empires, by Thomas Cleaver, more known under the name Galaxy under which it was released in 1981 by Avalon Hill. Both games share similarities (randomized universe, conquest of independent planets by ships, combat result depending only on number), though Galaxy/Galactic Empires is designed for multiplayer.

There are two significant differences between the Apple II port of Galactic Empire (the port seems to have been done by Carlson directly) and the original TRS-80 version, differences coming from the different capabilities of both devices :

  • In the Apple II version, I could queue as many orders as I wanted, so I sometimes toured several planets, ordering ships for the next 20 years in each of them and requesting all the new ships to be sent to my location. On the other hand, the player can only queue 35 orders on the TRS-80, which means that there is no advantage of having a large empire. This is evidently due to the low memory of the TRS-80.
  • Similarly, on Apple II, ships not in the main fleet could wait for the player to come get them for centuries. In TRS-80, only 5 years.

This makes the TRS-80 version significantly harder, the data-driven gamer has played that initial version if you want an idea about how it looked and how it played. Also note that despite the TRS-80 handicap he finished the game in 515 years when it took me 530 years, so his careful data-driven approach prevailed over my “good-enough” approach.

In any case, how does it play today :

A. Settings & Aesthetics

The game has some primitive graphics – primitive, but better than anything I have showcased so far, even though the game is from 1979. Transition from planet to planet is really well-done for the era.

Travelling from Harkon to Twyrx

Despite limited graphics and limited amount of text, the game manages to set an atmosphere I cannot really explain to someone who would not play the game, and it indeed feels like I am conquering the known universe.

Score : 6/20

B. UI , Clarity of rules and outcomes

Deep down, Galactic Empire is a simple game, but nonetheless the UI feels more modern than 1979. In particular, when so many games expected you to remember information, Galactic Empire’s computer section stores everything you know about your planets and all the ongoing orders.

On the other hand, the game gives little information on what to expect from a planet – in particular it doesn’t ever give you the number of ships nor the population above 1 billion, so comparable planets according to your scout reports could be trivial to conquer OR absolutely deadly. Moreover, I have no idea why, against a sophisticated world, I am sometimes losing 2 ships for every enemy ship destroyed, and sometimes the opposite. “Clarity of outcomes” is quite simply not there.

Scouting report. In theory, Proyc is more dangerous, but it is possible that Twyrx has 5 times the number of ships in defense, more than compensating Proyc’s technological advantage. 100 million in population is always going to be easy, but >1 billion could be 1 billion or it could be 3 billion, and that will change everything in ground combat.

Two small irritants as a modern game : time passes when you do nothing ; it passes slowly by default but you will be tempted to accelerate your emulator as everything is pretty slow otherwise – in which case the time passes a bit faster than you wished.

Score : 6/20

C. Systems

The loop of the game is simple :

  1. Collect taxes in the worlds – taxes depend on the size of a planet’s population,
  2. Use that cash to build ships in “sophisticated” or “more advanced than Galactica” worlds,
  3. Recruit soldiers to fill your transports,
  4. Conquer more worlds, using fighters for the space battle and full transports for ground conquest,
Different worlds, different prices and production capacity – capacity also changes as planet population grows. Scouts are totally useless to build in the Apple II version as you start with enough to explore half the universe and cannot lose them.

In theory, a large Empire should mean more taxes, but in Galactic Empire you can only collect taxes (and men) personally, and you can collect every visit, so you only need one high-paying world, ideally with another system of whatever quality as close as possible for quick back & forth.

On the Apple version, having a large empire allows you to scale up your production, on TRS-80 the limit on the order book means that you can at best add a third world to your little route to increase production. In both versions, there is no point in (re-) visiting isolated planets.

It works, but it is not really deep – that’s not where the interest of the game was for me.

Score : 3/20

D. Scenario design & Balancing

The universe is randomized each game, including the content of each planet, though as we have seen what is going to matter is whether a planet spawns next to Galactica for early, err, tax management, and then whether you can find a pair of juicy high-tech, high-population planets somewhere to really build up your fleet.

The only special planet is Sparta, noted in the manual as especially combative, but in exchange allowing almost unlimited recruitment should you control it. On the other hand, the population level and technological level of Sparta is still randomized, so sometimes it is far from the most dangerous world you will encounter.

Conquering my nemesis will be a piece of cake in this version of the universe it won’t even have space defense.

Planets not under your dominion grow in power as time passes, but slowly. There is no independent AI action to challenge you, either – it fells more like one of those racing games where you are racing against the clock rather than other cars.

Overall, the game is easy. You can only really lose by running out of time (but I used barely more than half the allotted time in my first attempt) or if you lose a space battle – but you can quite simply retreat from them.

Score : 3/20

E. Fun and Replayability

I would call the game fun for roughly one hour as you try to kickstart your economy. Once you found a pair of systems you like for back-and-forth, seizing the remaining systems is just tedious.

Despite randomization of the universe, the game does not have much replayability either.

Score : 4/20

F. Final rating

22/100. I want to add 2 bonus points for being part of an epic saga, though so far I have not played the rest of the saga, so that’s 24/100.

It beats quite a few other games I have reviewed so far, but it is really hard to compare Galactic Empire to anything else I have played – I’m giving most of the points for how immersive and slick it is for a primitive wargame, not for having better systems than its competition.

Contemporary reviews

The first review for Galactic Empire was, appropriately, in Space Gamer (August 1980). Playing an early version of the game for an audience of readers used to complex games, its review mirrors mine : the game is beautiful, but “once you have developed, the game can become repetitive (…) it is too easy to beat the system”. Conclusion : “A mediocre buy

But the beautiful graphics and innovative design found a more positive audience in generalist magazines, and after this poor start Galactic Empire collected rave reviews in almost every other publications covering video games.

Softside in November 1980 called it “the epitome of strategic space games”, though granted there were not so many “strategic space games” in 1980. I am amused by the following comment : “Broderbund suggests 14 as the youngest age to play Galactic Empire and Galactic Trader (…) but we have seen a twelve-year-old girl enjoy Empire thoroughly“.

In the August 1981 issue of “80 Micro“, Dan Cataldo explains that early versions of the game had quite a few issues (game length of 4 to 6 hours with no save, crash, issues with the order, possibility to cheat by having a planet produce more than it should) but that a new version would solve those issues imminently (including the addition of a save option, and interstellar travels that would go 2 to 3 times faster). Still, overall, “the good points far outweigh the bad” and Cataldo “heartily recommend[ed] Galactic Empire to anyone seeking a complex, intelligent and of course fun program“.

Same enthusiasm from Dale Archibald in Creative Computing (April 1981), who called the whole Galactic Saga “very good” and “different from anything I have seen up to now”.

Even Infoworld – not really a publication for hobbyists – reviewed the game in May 1981 :

The InfoWorld “Software Report Card” is clearly not fit for video games. Note the mention of 9 “scenarios”, which are probably the saves of whoever he pirated the game from – the game does not come with these.

As for reviews after 1981… well, they are very hard to find. You see, “Tawala’s Galactic Empire” was already competing with the Star Wars “Galactic Empire”, but in 1982 Isaac Asimov resumed its Foundation cycle (which includes a Galactic Empire) after a 25 years gap, and Tawala just cannot fight Asimov in the search engine.

As for exportation, the game seems to have had tremendous success in Japan, where for a time it was “the most popular item for Apple” (according to a November 1981 Softtalk article).

6 Comments

  1. Gubisson Gubisson

    “Julien du Bucque” sounds like Jean-Luc Picard’s poor cousin from Limoges.

  2. Phil B. Phil B.

    I came across your blog thanks to a mention on the CRPG Addict. I like wargames in the hypothetical much more than I do in reality, so your after-action reports are perfect, letting me enjoy them vicariously. I spent a chunk of today reading it all from the start.

    This game is shockingly competent for 1979. Limited, sure; repetitive, no doubt. But surprisingly featureful for the time. Thanks for showing it off.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I am always very warm inside when people comment.

      Indeed, I was positively impressed by the game; I do not really expect much from Galactic Trader in terms of gameplay but the atmosphere should make up for it, and then I cannot wait to get to Galactic Revolution and Last Redoubt, the short ad blurbs I read are extremely tempting. I also expect a lot from Broderbund, as I stated in the About section, their Ancient Art of War was my first wargame, and the first game I spent insane hours on (up to a point where my dad had to limit my hours).

  3. You can definitely see the (very) early glimpses of the Starflight and Master of Orion series here. For 1979 this game looks to have been quite an achievement, it just needed a bit more work on the production and tax systems, but maybe a centralized system was beyond what was technically available at the time.

    • I just realized playing the later installments of the Galactic Saga that the name of the ship is … the “Orion”. Amusing coincidence.

  4. DIntent DIntent

    I first read about this game over at Data Driven Gamer. I am super excited that you are going to go through all of them.
    I haven’t played this game myself, but the concept really captures my imagination.

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