One of the best 4X space strategy games I have ever played, Galactic Civilizations is a "masterpiece" in every sense of the word.
It may not have the complexities of Space Empires or the space combat intricacies of Master of Orion, but it has an excellent economic model, some of the best computer AI I have seen in strategy games, and a simple-yet-intricate blend of economics, military, and diplomacy that are legends are made of. Firing Squad's review says it so well:
"In many ways, Galactic Civilizations is the anti-MOO3. Whereas Master of Orion 3 built on the complexity of Master of Orion 2 and added AI elements to help the player cope, GalCiv took a cleaner approach to the manner. Resembling Civilization and Warlords more than Master of Orion, Galactic Civilizations is a deceptively simple game with deep gameplay that belies humble graphics.
MOO3 has a wild collection of factors displayed to a player that he considers before colonizing a planet. GalCiv just rates planets by number - the higher the better. A planet rating of 15 is the minimum one should colonize, and a world in the 30s is exponentially greater, a virtual Eden. MOO3 has AI governors who routinely ignore the demands of the ruler, while GalCiv's governors are nothing more than a production queue. Yet despite being the simpler method, GalCiv is far more effective. True, there are no specialized industrial colonies, research colonies or farm colonies, but systems and worlds retain a variety of strategic significance by their quality rating.
This kind of initial simplicity makes GalCiv easy to dismiss as yet another Civilization clone that adds nothing to the genre, except a space setting. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth, as Stardock has come up with some new tricks for the old dog, and delivered on age-old promises that other titles in the genre have never quite achieved.
GalCiv has some of the best AI we?ve ever encountered in a strategy game. GalCiv AI doesn?t cheat, at least not until the Genius and Impossible levels. Rather, it uses strategies based on actual player data, and gets a percentage chance each turn to react in a proper fashion to the moves of its enemies. We have rarely encountered scenarios where all the AI players gang up against the human. Indeed, it takes determined action by the player to draw his opponents into all-out war with him. The AI isn't just difficult, however. It's communicative and, well, intelligent in a very human way. A player with great cultural influence might not declare war against someone, but he may decide to destabilize him to cause his planets to defect. If that opponent declares war, then the cultural power will try to bring in an ally. The AI recognizes threats and communicates about them. If one race is becoming too powerful, the player may get messages from other races suggesting that this one race is a mutual threat.
AI aside, GalCiv's greatest gameplay achievement is the Starbase. Starbases are somewhat of a unique idea as far as games go. First of all, starbases are created by the player using special constructor ships. Constructors take a long time to build and really aren't practical until about one third of a way through a game. They are also very slow and vulnerable, making them prime targets for enemies, pirates and space monsters. So why bother with them? Well, first of all they capture strategic resources that can improve the morale, production or research of a race. Later, a starbase can be upgraded with further constructors to have better defensive structures, to improve the attack and defense of the player?s spaceships, make trade routes more lucrative, or gain a better effect from those strategic resources. The mere existence of starbases adds depth to a game; their specific functions make them even better. They can speed up cultural victories, or shore up weaknesses in combat technology. Like chess, or go, (or onions and ogres), GalCiv has layers of depth that don't overwhelm the player, but get added on in phases.
For all its strengths, GalCiv is far from perfect. The interface can be a bit clumsy, which is somewhat of a surprise as GC is designed by a company that sells improvements to the Windows GUI. Like MOO3, it often shows the player unnecessary information. Unlike MOO3, with a few games it becomes easy to discern between important and unimportant data. A planet's exact population, like that of a city in Civilization, is irrelevant. What?s more important is the quality of the planet, the happiness of the citizens, and its improvements. Then there are new concepts like tax rate and spend rate, which can be confusing. Finally, while [GalCiv] may have adopted Civilization-style unit creation (ie, no customized units) and combat, it just doesn't have the same zing to it as it should. Part of the reason is the unfamiliarity of the units - everyone can imagine an archer, a legionnaire and a rifleman. A space-borne battleship, frigate, or defenders are units without any character. Furthermore, there are far fewer units and unit types to play around with in GalCiv. A Battleship typically takes anywhere from 24 to 133 turns to build, depending on the planet. Since it is the first unit capable of assault defended starbases or planets, the combat that occurs before its appearance is not nearly as dramatic.
GalCiv is easily the best 4X game right now and the best that we?ll see for years to come. The AI of this spectacular title alone will keep gamers talking long after its moment in the spotlight is over. Though developed by a small company and published by a relatively small publisher, it has beaten the 900lb gorilla of the genre. The small marketing budget and low profile of the game may relegate it to being a moderate financial success, but anyone who passes this baby over will feel like those who missed System Shock or Master of Magic. Certainly these aren't perfect games, but they are ground-breaking and will doubtless influence the games of the future."