I’ll be blunt: if I were to rank prominent space 4X games of the past decade, Galactic Civilizations IV would come in near the bottom of the list, even behind Galactic Civilizations III. It’s not a disaster – like the previous three Galactic Civilizations games, this is a decent, functional 4X space game – but its predecessors were good for at least a round or two before they wore thin due to the lack of an “X factor” to really keep me hooked. None of them stacked up to Endless Space 2, Stellaris, or even 1996’s Master of Orion 2, which each deliver more substantial variety, flair, polish and creative identity than any GalCiv game managed for me.

I had hoped that GalCiv’s fourth iteration would finally find and deliver the spark that the series has been searching for. Instead, it’s had the opposite effect on me: After completing several playthroughs, its glaring design problems and balance issues are painfully clear, to an extent that I worry that Stardock won’t be able to pull it out of this tailspin and salvage its handful of smart ideas anytime soon. If the stars align I can see playing Galactic Civilizations IV and not having an unpleasant time, but it’s done so disappointingly little to keep up with the heights the rest of the genre has reached since 2015 that I’m usually wishing I was playing one of those instead.

Upon hitting the new game button, you’ll be greeted with a generous selection of nicely animated space empires both familiar and original to the franchise. There’s a decent array of colorful and bizarre alien species amidst the human and humanoid, with the terrifying Festron bugs or literal giant mantis shrimp standing out the most at first glance. Each race comes with a selected set of traits that (supposedly) dictate the style of play they lend themselves to, but you can customize a number of these bonuses to your liking. It’s also possible to make your own empire entirely from scratch.

You’ll continue the customization spree right into your game details, where you’ll set up the size and qualities of the galaxy. There’s a respectable selection of options in all these areas, and Stardock is kind enough to give you a system specs suggestion when you start scaling up the settings to insane degrees (my measly 16GB of RAM and four CPU cores were half of what a “Galactic” size map suggests).

I was constantly having to shift my perspective just to glean basic information and get all my commands through.

Beyond the alien/empire selection, the most important cornerstone to this setup process are Sectors. By default, I was just playing with a couple of average-sized regions, but you can scale it up to your CPU-melting desires. By breaking the map up, Stardock’s stated intention is to dial down the amount of dead space and empty tiles we see between systems in previous GalCivs. It’s also meant to keep empires relatively contained to a smaller playing field in the early game, until a few technologies have been researched. Unfortunately, with the way things are currently balanced it completely fails at both of these goals, and it doesn’t take too many turns into a fresh campaign to see why.

Arrayed before you is a grid of your starting sector, which contains your homeworld, shipyard, and a couple of starter starships. It can be hard to tell just what you have at a glance, as planetary icons and names tend to blot out the ships beneath them. Zooming out a little will shift objects to icons, but zooming out a little further than that will hide smaller ones. I was constantly having to shift my perspective just to glean basic information and get all my commands through. Just about every time I wanted to deploy survey ships I’d have to zoom in to click the ship underneath a planet banner, then zoom out to get a feel for the map layout, only to zoom back in a little for the anomaly icons to actually show.

Even once you’re familiar with what the icons and tiles all represent and how to find them, it still proves to be an unclear and ugly mess to try and sift through. There are a lot of systems at play and information to keep track of in any 4X game of this scale, sure, but in Galactic Civilizations IV I frankly struggled to uncover the essential information I needed to manage them. Plenty of times I was having to mouse over a dozen or so tooltips to figure out the specifics of how some resources and statistics interacted. I’m still not convinced everything is there either, such as the exact impacts of citizen skills, and even after playing multiple games I still felt like I was winging it.

To be fair, the rest of the initial experience was much smoother. Galactic Civilizations IV is a turn-based strategy game, so you have all the time you need to consider your moves and come to grips with things. This includes deploying the many fleets of starships you’ll be building. Combat is simply a matter of moving fleets onto the same tile as another fleet and then seeing the results. While you are given the option to see a cinematic view of the battle play out – which looks cool, but is prone to all sorts of camera issues and display bugs – there’s no influencing the outcome. All you can do is build your fleets and move them across the map, hoping that your fleet is bigger and more powerful when conflict happens. That’s fine, as this is a strategy game rather than a tactical one, but considering the impressive ship editor it feels like a missed opportunity.

To be fair, the rest of the initial experience was much smoother.

The colored blob that represents your empire’s sphere of influence will form through a combination of building starbases and colonizing planets. Starbases can be built anywhere, though they gather minerals and trigger the effects of precursor relics in their field of influence, making tactical placement important. Planets, on the other hand, can have colonies built on them. But most colonies aren’t going to be all that impressive, as many planets lack the resources and space to be worth developing in full.

In previous Galactic Civilizations games, you’d have to manage each of those worlds individually regardless of their quality, and that got tedious as your empire grew. So one of GalCiv IV’s new features that I’m fond of is the Core World system, which aims to mitigate all that micromanagement. Rather than force you to hand-craft each of them, unimportant colonies will instead transfer their resources and stats to the closest Core world (with increasing decay over distance). If a colony world becomes lucrative or of strategic importance, you can opt to install a governor and promote it to a Core world. This streamlines the process for when your empire gets massive and spreads across multiple sectors.

Still, this means the early game narrows into a galactic land grab – which is true of most 4X games to some extent, but especially so here. If there are loose resources, floating relics, or even the most inhospitable rock with a mineral count on it, you’d best be setting up shop on it. Because if you don’t, then one of your AI opponents absolutely will.

My first game (playing as the Terran Resistance) was going decently enough, but I quickly realized just how outclassed I was getting in terms of production and territory relative to the neighboring Yor or Drengin empires. It turned out that I was being too selective with my colony ships, mostly focusing on claiming worlds and regions that I’d want to later convert to core worlds and fully build up. Merely a few turns later, I’d find all the other planets in that solar system sporting new colonies from the Drengin, who cared naught for anything except that they had claimed the territory.

That leads me nicely into a major issue: the AI has no clue how to prioritize which planets to colonize and which are a waste of everybody’s time. Computer empires might see snapping up every unoccupied world that I hadn’t as the correct decision, but nearly all of those colonies only lasted a couple of turns before they belonged to me. Part of that was because they were left undefended, but oftentimes, I wouldn’t even need to fire a shot! During peacetime, those brand-new colonies were so deeply within my empire’s zone of influence and away from theirs that decay affected 100% of their resources. They literally did nothing for them, only to then have cultural rebellions that saw them joining my faction. So this actually worked out to my advantage, with the downside being it exposed the reality that my opponents have no idea what they’re doing.

When it comes to war, territory control becomes even more annoying.

When it comes to war, territory control becomes even more annoying. You conquer a world by putting a fleet in orbit and, after a couple turns – depending on the colony’s strength and size – the planet will flip to the invader’s side. The colony itself can do nothing to stop this, and only other fleets can intercept and destroy the besieging force before the turn count runs out. However, “fleet” is a bit of an overstatement because you only need one single ship to take a non-core planet. It doesn’t even have to be a specialized battleship or transport; any ship will do. Core worlds at least require a ground invasion via transport and take longer to capture, but by nature they’re few and far between.

This means that every single ship, big or small, is a threat. This results in wars becoming an endless game of whack-a-mole in which you’re frantically trying to deploy enough fleets and hopefully have enough sensor coverage to stop every single ship from getting past your front lines. Of course, it’s not exactly a huge deal should they succeed, as you can just as easily undo any damage they inflict with your own ship. It’s just a constant annoyance, and it means that there’s a huge amount of tedious trawling through vast sectors of space until all opposition is quashed.

Another idea that doesn’t pan out is Sectors, which might break up the galactic map in theory, but in practice? Every sector is still thousands upon thousands of tiles to manage, even on smaller map sizes, so the empty space problem is still very much in play.

And if a war does happen to spread across multiple sectors, this just means there’s a very narrow funnel – just one tile – through which reinforcements can arrive. That sounds like it could get tactically interesting, but the substreams between sectors cannot be blockaded: even if you plant a starbase on either side of the stream, other empires can just fly their fleets right past your defenses if they so choose, and the whack-a-mole game across galactic miles resumes in earnest. All your efforts at tactically controlling the space accomplished was to give you vision and a staging ground for launching an attack of your own; it’s a good start, but it makes the entire concept of sectors feel pointless. With a grid size this vast, Galactic Civilizations IV needed something like the hyperlanes of Stellaris or Endless Space for Sectors to work; without them it’s just more space. Rather than solve the problems of GalCiv III, Stardock has only amplified them.

In Galactic Civilizations IV, building tall was never an option.

Do Sectors at least buy you time in the early game to get established before too many rivals are knocking at your door? Not really! The technology to see and travel between sectors is fairly low tier, so it’s usually not hard to unlock. Technology choices are randomly selected from what’s available when it’s time to research something, so you might get unlucky… but you can reroll the choices at the cost of a slight penalty to their research rate, so not having the appropriate technology pop up when you want it is only a mild inconvenience. What’s more, there’s a trait that you can simply start with to be able to use them anyway (which the Navigators get for free). At absolute best, it might keep your unluckier opponents low in the opening land grab, but I sincerely doubt you’ll be able to fully capitalize on that before new challengers arrive to your sector.

The way things are balanced, Galactic Civilizations IV inadvertently discards a staple tactical choice of 4X strategy games regarding empire building: you can choose to “build wide,” meaning you spread out many colonies across huge territories, or “build tall,” where you focus your efforts on a small number of hyper-developed core worlds. That decision leads to some very different playstyles and adds to a game’s replayability. But in Galactic Civilizations IV, building tall was never an option. No matter how much you micromanage the efforts of a core world or two, that can’t compete with having the input of potentially dozens of colonies added to it. The inability to actually set up chokepoints and really maintain your territory only compounds that frustration.

Actually micromanaging your empire can be a fun process, at least. Core worlds have a grid layout of their own representing the buildable spaces on their surface, and you can fully plan out the construction of specialized improvements to maximize the incoming resources. Add in adjacency bonuses, tile bonuses, and later the ability to terraform to access more tiles, and you have a system that gave me probably the most enjoyment I had in GalCiv IV – it was one of the only aspects that didn’t end up feeling hollow or incomplete.

Speaking of, the Citizen system is among those that felt hollow. Every citizen in your empire will have a name and a selection of stats, and you can assign roles to them (such as workers, farmers, scientists, entertainers etc.) to best capitalize on their strengths. But the minor boosts I was able to squeeze out of them never seemed to reward the time spent. It’s worth keeping your people happy, as approval rating is a flat multiplier of your trade and manufacturing income, but that can be handily accomplished without directly interfacing with your needy citizens. This isn’t Crusader Kings III, which sports all sorts of vignettes and story development that can occur to make citizens seem like fully fledged characters; your people in GalCiv IV are just thinly veiled sets of numbers. And it’s inessential, too: when I outright ignored the Citizens system, the difference in my empire’s performance was negligible – so why bother with it?

Ideologies fall equally flat. There are 14 different Ideologies split into seven pairs of “conflicting” beliefs, and as random events occur throughout your campaign your choices can increase the Ideology score of your empire. For example, you might find a scavenger ship in your territory; choosing to trade with it might boost Opportunity, forcing it to turn over its haul boosts Authority, and helping it with its task rewards Compassion. On occasion you’ll gain culture points, which can then be assigned to an available ideology tree for a bonus. In theory, this should let you tailor make your empire to better suit your playstyle and get into the roleplay aspect that usually accompanies 4X games.

Galactic Civilizations IV, however, has no restrictions on letting you take qualities from completely opposing ideologies. You can just cherry pick the mechanical boon of your choosing – which you’ll want to do, as the balance (which Stardock says is still being tweaked across the board) is wildly inconsistent – and eat the minor approval hit of going against the wishes of a couple of your citizens. It’s made even worse by how flat and repetitive the random events are: most are just a single dialogue box of bland description and the same generic image with up to three choices. There’s little variety here, and I saw the exact same events multiple times within each and every playthrough I’ve done.

What actually stuck out with me during these events was not their contents, but how utterly bizarre or nonsensical some of the outcomes were.

What actually stuck out with me during these events was not their contents, but how utterly bizarre or nonsensical some of the outcomes were. Switching off life support to the dangerous aliens in stasis is “Equality,” but waking them up and giving them a colony ship to claim a new world has no ideological gains? Frankly, there are enough oddities in the descriptions of anything to do with the Ideology system that I’m convinced the writers must have radically different ideas of what these concepts mean.

Likewise, it doesn’t appear much thought or effort was put into developing a sense of individuality or personal story to really hook you into any given run. The story campaigns of previous Galactic Civilizations games are gone in IV, but frankly that’s no great loss, as they were usually just abridged versions of regular, randomized games with a little more flavor attached to them. Still, Stardock claims that GalCiv IV is full of lore and storytelling in the standard mode in order to replace those. Unless we’re counting random communications from other empires that provide an impromptu lore dump and the single option of “OK”, I’m not sure where that’s supposed to come from. Not a single thing I’ve encountered in multiple games of Galactic Civilizations IV came even close to having the lore or development of GalCiv II and III, let alone the race-specific stories of Endless Space 2, or the wealth of random vignettes Stellaris can throw at you.

On top of that, I’ve found more errors and weirdness with every subsequent game I’ve attempted. It was the final playthrough that really highlighted just how much of Galactic Civilizations IV doesn’t work as intended, though. See, I’d noticed a pattern in every preceding game where the Yor Singularity – a race of robots – seemed to dominate the scoreboard. So this time I decided to play them, and it was here that everything unraveled.

Synthetic races don’t develop population normally, and instead have to manufacture new ones as a building project. They need a specific resource to do that, but it’s commonplace enough that it only slows them in the early game until they find an additional source and start snowballing. Then, in exchange for that labor, they don’t need food. That’s a big deal because normally, investing heavily in manufacturing has the offset of increasing pollution, which decreases the growth of food and therefore stunts your population growth. But if food is pointless, nothing stops me from going all in on industry. Furthermore, Yor citizens ignore any approval loss from high pollution or from hitting the population cap on planets, so again my growth was completely unchecked. This is an oversight in the faction design, sure, and it can (and hopefully will) be patched and adjusted to prevent every game ending with the galaxy bowing to its new robot overlords. But this flaw is just one of many in GalCiv IV, and they are so prevalent that balance seems more than a few simple patches away.

Here’s another: Yor citizens have no expectation stat, which is intended to further balance approval rating when you deploy them to distant starbases or lackluster colonies. As such, I would just deploy them to land-grab everything as I’d learned to do in previous games. It’s a minor and inconsequential modifier, nothing more, and made the citizens feel even less worth interfacing with than they already were.

I then encountered my first competing empire in my starting sector. Diplomacy requires you to research a universal translator technology which becomes available shortly after first contact. Afterwards, you’re able to open up dialogues with them, trade resources or technology, and arrange for treaties or alliances. More often than not though, I would struggle to reach terms that would really be worth my time at all, even when in a position of significant power. Otherwise, I’m constantly being asked to declare war on whoever else is present in the galaxy, because the AI just never seemed able to make nice. As the Yor, I just decided to pre-empt the lackluster deals I would be rejecting and chose to disregard diplomacy entirely.ly.

Before I’d even developed a translator to start listening to them, we were at war and sniping each other’s colonies. The sheer manufacturing advantage I had meant that they were quickly swamped and overrun. This also translated to a research advantage, since I could rapidly build new science buildings. The only diplomatic message I received from them at any point was on the verge of their total subjugation. What did they say? I quote: “Hey Yor, we’re really tired of fighting. We ask for peace.” That’s it. No offerings of placation or attempt to smooth things over.

“Hey Yor, we’re really tired of fighting. We ask for peace.”

So I refused their request, which drew my attention to the fact that Galactic Civilizations IV also has nothing akin to Stellaris’ Casus Belli systems or war weariness. With no mounting cost outside of manufacturing spaceships, these conflicts can last forever without any issues or incentive to stop before absolute victory is achieved.

At this point, I decided to flip the switch on another new feature: Galactic Challenges. Completing these themed challenges – such as building a new wonder first, or spawning waves of hostile space monsters to survive – nets you prestige. This is needed for the primary victory condition and can allow you to speed up completion of a game that’s already “won,” but might otherwise take hours to fully complete the task of mopping up. GalCiv III felt like that at times in the late game, so it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

The vast majority of these challenges, however, are a single text box of brief, simplistic dialogue and then an incredibly basic quest objective. Given that many of these should ostensibly be major lore moments or defining achievements, the writing and descriptions are incredibly lackluster. By contrast, reaching early milestones like building your first colony or starbase will reward the player with a short little video celebrating it. It feels like the wrong allocation of resources and attention, and leaves these bigger moments and marquis features feeling undercooked. There’s also nothing stopping you from selecting multiple at once, and some feature quite a bit of overlap.

So I activated the Everwar, forcing every empire in the galaxy to declare war on everyone else. It sounds a lot more impressive than it actually is; this is no end-game Crisis from Stellaris, just a switch to flip based on how things are going to expedite the game’s conclusion. Activating the challenge gave me another bland dialogue box about dwindling galactic resources, and then a countdown timer which I must survive to achieve prestige points. I was intending to conquer them all anyway, so I might as well be rewarded for the effort and have the task made easier by having them fight amongst themselves before I got there. And then I started jumping across sectors in pursuit of my continual goal of conquest – only to find that the sector borders once again proved totally ineffective at stopping rogue ships from making a nuisance of themselves (even colonizing one planet I had missed in the heart of my empire). One last mole to whack.

There are still systems that I haven’t described here, like the Leaders and Executive Orders. If they had made enough impact then I might have done so, but I’ve been able to handily win games both when using them as intended, or just flat out ignoring them. Again, the differences in my experience between playthroughs was minor at best. There wasn’t even any point in engaging with them for the sake of forging my own thematic identity for the run. Nothing seemed to change the bland, boring experience I was having. This was all on Normal difficulty, mind you. Higher difficulties might force you to engage with every system in order to be competitive, but given how minor an effect they seem to have currently, that just sounds more adding more tedium to a game I was already feeling bored by.

One system I did attempt to use was the weapon types. Weapons are split into three categories (beams, missiles, and kinetics) each with a corresponding defense system to counter it. But I quickly stopped worrying about it when I realized that it just didn’t matter: whether through balance issues or bugs, the defensive systems barely seemed to make a difference in outcome even in textbook situations. The battle predictions didn’t seem to matter, either; I would frequently demolish fights that I was told I had no chance in while also being defeated in what were said to be certain victories. I thought these outliers might have been determined by hit points or hull size categories instead of weapons systems, but absolutely nothing proved certain despite my best efforts to figure it out.

The final nail in the coffin for Galactic Civilizations IV came when I was halfway into conquering the second sector as the Yor.

The final nail in the coffin for Galactic Civilizations IV came when I was halfway into conquering the second sector as the Yor. Only one other empire that was a threat still remained: the dreaded Manti, who had equally little regard for other species and who had forced most to surrender to them as the Everwar continued. Yet despite my absolutely overwhelming superiority, with the vastly larger infrastructure and spaceship fleet, the significantly more powerful technology… I was dangerously close to losing the battle in prestige points to this opponent. I outclassed them in every other category by a long shot, barring two: they had more sectors controlled (thanks to the surrenders) and they had an extra relic within their starbase control to farm points from. This put them at 82% of the way to a points victory, compared to my 64%. That seems incredibly off to me.

It’s worth mentioning that there are fewer victory conditions in GalCiv IV than in previous Galactic Civilizations games. There’s Conquest, which requires the elimination of all other empires; Culture, which requires your blob of influence to dominate the majority of the map while also being at peace with everyone; and then there’s Prestige, which is a points-victory based on a total sum of empire statistics and further bolstered by sector control and points earned from completing Galactic Challenges.

In short, there’s no real way to play without coming back to the galactic land-grab, most likely forcing you into the wargame. The Culture victory might seem like the best way to approach things peacefully, but having borders come into contest very quickly makes neighbors unhappy, so trying it will eventually antagonize them into fighting you.

If you’re going just for a Prestige victory, most of your points will come from territory control and the resources you amass. The Galactic Challenges on offer are largely war focused, or else you’re just building what unique wonders you can manufacture. The condition of unlocking those is entirely based on how many worlds you control, though. Thus, everything comes back to the land-grab. Anything that doesn’t directly contribute to that is pointless, or undercooked, or has the balance and design issues outlined thus far. There’s very little variety from game to game, and wholesale features can just be ignored with little consequence.

Perhaps the one aspect of Galactic Civilizations IV that actually has some unique expression is the ship designer. Out of the box, most species have their own style of fully modular and customisable ships. If you jump into the editor you can freely outfit its stats and abilities, but what’s much more fun is being able to change up the look of it entirely as you see fit. Whether you want to design ships from scratch (and knock off any protected intellectual property you see fit), or just tweak the look of a cruiser that you didn’t care for, there’s a wealth of options and tools to do so. There’s even the promise of community support for accessing and downloading player-made ships, but this was presently unavailable in the review build.

Regrettably, playing with this system was the only time I experienced a hard crash to the desktop, thereby losing all the work I’d put into making a TIE Defender. (Stardock says it’s aware of stability problems with the ship creator and multiplayer and will patch in fixes at launch.) The toolkit here is certainly extensive, but realistically, this is a specialized feature for a small subset of players.