Star Ruler Review

by on 25th Jun 2011

Star Ruler is a real-time 4X space empire game developed by Blind Mind Studios. And what it does is allow you to fight an interstellar war, in a galaxy with as many star systems as you wish, building next to every kind of a ship you can think of.

If it sounds challenging to pull off something like that, it's because it is. It was released soon, perhaps far too soon for its own good, but, on the bright side, it was released, and has since reached a very playable state as a result of an astonishing amount of support by its creators, which added new content, ironed out many bugs and introduced changes to gameplay, eventually bringing it up to version 1.0.7.4. - the one I've used for this review.

Getting to play the game

Saying that Star Ruler has a steep learning curve is an understatement. There is an extensive tutorial but chances are, by the time you get through it, you'll have forgotten most of it. There is just so much of everything in the game itself that you'll never run out of toys and new ideas how to use them. Sometimes the downside to this breadth is that the player can easily be overrun with it all, but such toys are, in effect, what this game is all about.

For new players I'd suggest starting with a game without opposition other than Remnants. Remnants are... well, remnants. Presumably of an old empire and you will be unable to tackle them early in the game. They don't move from the systems they are in and you can experiment with non-military part of the game freely in the systems that are Remnant free, then proceed on to testing your warship designs on Remnants. Perhaps add another game with pirates to hone your planetary/system defence skills before proceeding to real opposition.

Space. The final frontier...

You can tweak a lot of parameters in galaxy creation. Number of systems, the distance between them, strength and density of Remnants, strength of pirates and even the general economic/political orientation of your empire.

Space is not much of a frontier in Star Ruler. As hinted at before, there is no limit to number of star systems you can place in your galaxy. Your only limitation is the computer you are using. I've seen people run a ridiculous number of stars but I've never seen much point in doing it. The sight is awesome but my attention span available for a single playthrough isn't. To each their own, say developers, and let you drown yourself in stars. And their planets! Most star systems have a star and several planets but there are huge stars with no planets and binary systems as well. As a special there are also "systems" with no star, just asteroids for mining.

Each of the planets can be colonized. What differentiates them from each other is their looks, number of building slots and additional planetary conditions that change the cost of the planetary structures, their durability, ore deposits and so forth.

Considering the scope of the game can encompass hundreds, even thousands of planets, using planetary managers is more of a must than an option. You'll want to hand pick individual structures or at least a planetary manager for the first system or four. Later your life is made far easier if you set your empire setting "New planets use planetary manager" to on and set the default manager to "Automatic". Sure, from now on your planets will not be as optimized but hey, you'll play in an empire leader style. There are exceptions though, like worlds with ship building stations - you might want to customize those. Why and how will be explained later.

Same empire-like principle applies to ships. Generally you don't want to babysit individual ships, you want to lead fleets. So you can join ships into fleets, move them all with one order and give them orders like guard system.

Designing ships and stations

Just for illustration purposes, the very first thing I thought of was: "Can I build a ship that builds other ships?". I've read a bit of Iain M. Banks and while I may not like the idea of super intelligent ships wearing their original makers more or less like ornaments I am fond of ships having their own shipyards. And building other ships.

So I used the design interface and designed a ship with a shipyard and ship bay. And built a few fighters. And it worked! It could only store three fighters - the rest were thrown into space - as it was not a huge ship, it was crap at building, it had next to no storage for the much needed materials and it was crap all round, but it worked! For kicks I ordered it to build a much bigger ship than itself, a carrier with a full fighter wing. Poor ship didn't see a problem in that and it started building. It hovered around a planet to constantly resupply with metals, electronic parts and advanced parts needed for construction of everything available. It was a slow build but at the end of the day a carrier was built.

I'm getting ahead of myself though.

Anything you want built needs a design. You start with some general, no-research-needed designs, but they won't stay your best available option for long. Sooner or later you'll need to design new ships and stations with newly researched toys. The design interface it actually simple and effective. You get a design circle to place everything you want your ship to have into. The closer to circle centre a system or a subsystem is placed, the longer it will remain untouched by enemy weapons. When you throw a system into a design it is placed at a regular size 1. Then systems can be resized to sizes from 0.25 to 4.00 which dramatically changes their effectiveness.

First you'll pick a hull. At the start this means normal hull, station hull and fighter hull (fighters have a maximum size 1), later on you may get new ones with research - heavy hull, stealth hull etc. Then you go on with adding systems like engines, crew quarters, life support, bridge, energy generators, weapons, shields... and subsystems that enhance performance of the systems, like cooling system for faster weapon rate of fire and shield recharger. Weapons come in many forms. Too many, if that is a concept one is prepared to acknowledge. So do the counters. Shields and armours are aplenty, some more specialized than others. Armour plates do not use space reserved for systems but they do impact your resource consumption a lot.

The only thing limiting your imagination is the available space, dependant on the hull you select.

You also pick the size of the ship. Note that the size of the ship will not change your available space for components, as a bigger ship needs bigger components in general, but it does mean that a size 1 laser in a ten times larger ship will pack ten times more powerful punch. In essence, the effects of all systems and subsystems are multiplied with ship size - and the size of the system at which you placed them into the design. Since you can save a design, then enlarge it with a huge factor and save it as a different design, you can in effect get hugely different ships with the same interior design. There is no guarantee that supersizing a design will keep it as optimal as you have made it though. The small surplus of energy that you have had in a fighter (generally size 1) may turn into a huge surplus in a size 500 ship meaning that you can power more, bigger weapons - and those need more control so you end up adding more crew or another computer core and at the end you may spend just as much time fine-tuning a changed design as you would when starting from scratch.

A lot of the future ship's behaviour can be tweaked too! From the preferred engagement range to making it run for the nearest docking at the first sign of the enemy. Very handy for non-combat ships, mind you.

All the above means that you'll spend a lot of time creating designs. This is really fun - the first few times around. It would be really boring creating the same design for the fifth time, and, fortunately, Blind Mind is not blind enough to overlook that fact. So you can export your designs and import them in your later games, saving you a lot of time.

Sadly the design has little to do with the ship's outlook when built. The toys you place into the ship are all abstracted, a price paid for extreme number of space objects present in the game. Factors affecting the outlook are the selected shipset and ship size - as different ship sizes use different models. Stations have their own model. And ringworlds have theirs... Yes, you read it correctly. Ringworlds. A giant ring built around a star, housing 100 building slots. Huge, beautiful, extremely expensive.

If you want to keep your life simple, try to design ships and stations with as little necessary prerequisite research as possible. That will allow you to import the designs faster. Also name your designs with abbreviations that designate their demanded research or find some other codes. You'll be able to figure out that Warship CC FU SH needs a computer core, fusion power and a shield much faster than if you name the design 'Warship 16'.

Building your designs

After spending tens of minutes designing and honing a ship, you want it as soon as possible. This can be done on planets with a lot of shipyards or you can build a big station dedicated to ship building. Beware though, as a huge undertaking like a ringworld can crash your economy entirely. It definitely crashed mine and I had ten systems fully occupied with seemingly endless quantities of resources. They all ran dry pretty fast.

Everything you want built will demand different kinds of resources. Your planets and miners mine ore and turn it into metals with Metal Mining Complexes. Electronic Factories will transform metals into electronics and Advanced Component Factories will build these components out of metals and electronics. When you want a ship built, you will need all three types of resources.

Each planet has some resources stashed but after they run out your production will depend on how fast new resources can be brought in or built on it. Even in the case of a ship building station (a station with construction bay) it will first use its own resources, then draw from the planet. Planets can be supplied via Space Ports, economic planetary buildings that either export the resources into a galactic bank (empire treasury) or draw them from it in times of need. One of the good combinations for space ship forges I tried was a ship building station built over a planet filled with as many Space Ports as possible. This allows the station to draw resources from the planet and it can replenish them through space ports fast.

Research

There are two things that define your research rate: you build laboratories on the planets and you... research for research. General Sciences is a research field that adds to your combined research output. It can not be ignored as the impact of this research is big. Trying to outdo it with lab quantity is useless. Naturally one can not afford to research general sciences alone with a premise of distant very fast research of other things. When another empire comes knocking on your planets you better have a gun in your hand when opening the door.

Research fields either unlock new toys for your ship designs and buildings for planets, unlock them in combinations with other research fields or simply upgrade your existing choices. If you want to apply all the researched improvements to your already built ships you'll need to retrofit them. Planetary managers will take care of keeping your buildings up to date for you.

Regarding weaponry, for instance, there are three types to research: projectile, energy and missile. Rail gun is a typical example of a projectile weapon, laser of an energy weapon and a missile rack of missile weapons.

Diplomacy

Frankly, diplomacy is the least noticeable part of the game. You can offer, accept or decline treaties but other than peace treaty they just don't have much of an impact on the game. There are no alliances so you'll need to destroy them all in the end anyway, the sooner you start the better. AI peace offers are best used when they attack you. For some reason their offer still stands so you can choose to take it when they attack and you are not ready. Yet.

General Observations

After all the great things described it's time I start bringing up some of the less positive aspects as well.

On the stability front, the game still does crash but it's getting to be quite stable. The main problem I had was game save corruption, which still occurred more often than would be desireable.

Also, while the game does feel like the ultimate galactic playground, and despite the unfailing continual improvement, it has not yet reached the level of deep, immersive space operas - it lacks a true soul...

Perhaps I'm just a spoilt gamer, but, practically all space empire games offer "standard" features, and, among those, races are a must have. Distinct visual and gameplay differences between them add to replay value of games a lot. Games usually use statistical differences like faster research or cheaper ships, but some games also have race-dependant research or even different ways of interstellar movement.

Star Ruler has none of that. There is no real feel to your empire, you are just like all the rest. You feel no affection to any of the other empires either as they are all the same. We are all of the same race, we have the same toys and our ships look the same. Well, perhaps not entirely, as there are two sets of ship visuals in the game now, but still...

It has to be acknowledged, regardless, that it has developed far beyond what was realistically expected when it was released: the replayability factor is high, the multiplayer is fun (even if I suck at it), and it's also an extremely moddable game - there are mods available that change the gameplay considerably, add pretty effects and a multitude of new toys.

Overall, it must be said that Blind Mind Studios kept its promise and made Star Ruler into a fully playable, quite enjoyable game.

Special thanks to Thorondor for his editorial assistance.

 

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Star Ruler Box
Developer: Blind Mind Studios
Publisher: Blind Mind Studios
Released:21/08/2010

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