The thing that people love about a good PC strategy game is that you can play one for dozens (if not hundreds) of hours. But the kind of complexity and variety that makes games like Crusader Kings 3 and Civilization 5 so appealing can feel interminable in a tabletop setting. Classics like Dune or Twilight Imperium can easily trap players at the table for six or more hours at a time.
Designer Gunter Eickert thinks he might have solved that problem by combining the latest innovation in board gaming with a niche genre of PC strategy games. His next project for publisher Academy Games is called Stellaris: Infinite Legacy, and it’s one of the most ambitious new tabletop games announced this year. Polygon got the exclusive first details on how the game will work.
Stellaris is a PC strategy game released by Paradox Interactive in 2016. It’s part of a niche genre of strategy games known as 4x games, which stands for explore, expand, exploit and exterminate. Players take on the role of an alien civilization and embark on a journey to colonize the stars. Along the way, players harvest resources, build up their armies and their infrastructure, and ultimately come into contact with other civilizations. It’s the kind of game that takes 20 or more hours just to figure out. Once you get your feet under you, it’s possible to play a single campaign for years at a time.
There have been similar kinds of 4x board games, but all of them take an extraordinary amount of time to play. Add in the fact that you need four to six experienced players to actually have a good time, and you can understand how rare it is to get a decent game in with your friends. I’m lucky if I can play a 4x board game once a year.
But, oddly enough, Eickert says 4x board games aren’t simply too long. They’re also too short.
“I spent all this time, had all this fun developing this awesome empire, and then it just ends,” Eickert told Polygon in an interview Friday. “I want to see what happens. I want to keep playing this awesome empire I built up.”
The solution, Eickert said, is to apply the latest evolution in tabletop gaming: the legacy system. Pioneered by designer Rob Daviau with Risk: Legacy in 2011, legacy games change over time. From game to game, player characters or factions develop new abilities or are permanently damaged. New gameplay components are revealed from inside sealed packets, while others are destroyed, never to be used again. Over the course of 10-15 games, an individual copy of a legacy game is completely transformed into something unique, ideally something that can be played and enjoyed for years to come. Some folks will even hang their game boards on the wall as testaments to the dramatic narratives that emerged over dozens of hours of play.
Eickert’s new board game wants to do the same thing, but for an entire galaxy.
In Stellaris: Infinite Legacy, each player at the table will get a customizable player screen and a box of cards. Inside that box is everything they need to build their own unique civilization, including special abilities, styles of government, preferred planetary biomes, and even a set of morals and ethics. Everything — cards for technological and infrastructure improvements, exotic starship weapon systems, everything that could potentially be created or destroyed in the game — is inside that box.
When the two-hour session is over, players just close it up. Everything unique about that civilization is still inside the box, right where it should be, ready for the next two-hour game. The next time you sit down at the table you can take out the same civilization you played before, pass your box to the right and mix things up, or even start over from scratch with something new.
Eickert says the game will be balanced throughout — even when a new, inexperienced player sits down with some old hands to play for the first time — thanks to random objective cards that are drawn at the start of each game. The older and more advanced your civilization is, the more of those objectives you’ll need to achieve in order to win.
But Stellaris: Infinite Legacy also boasts a complex tactical wargaming system. Players won’t come to blows every round, but when they do he says it will be just as epic and consequential as it is in the video game. The secret, he says, is the unique modular game board. Every civilization will retain its home worlds from game to game, but the shape of the galaxy itself will always be different. That will force players to adapt to new tactical situations every time they sit down to play.
It’s an ambitious project, brimming with unproven concepts. Making matters more complicated is that Stellaris: Infinite Legacy is a crowdfunding campaign hosted on Kickstarter and, later, Backerkit. Tabletop strategy fans won’t really know if Eickert’s pulled it off until the game ships sometime next year. For now, they’ll just have to take his word for it ... and fork over at least $100 for the privilege.
But anyone who has played Eickert’s games before, or any of the titles from Academy Games, knows that they have the skill to pull it off. The boutique tabletop publisher is known for its historical games. They include the squad-level World War II simulations in the Conflict of Heroes series; the popular wargame 1775 Rebellion: The American Revolution; and Freedom the Underground Railroad. All of those titles are well-regarded for their complexity, their ease of play, and their balance.
Recently, Academy Games stepped into the world of licensed intellectual property. I demoed the publisher’s Agents of Mayhem: Pride of Babylon with Eickert at Gen Con a few years back and was impressed with how he used cards to expand and grow a simple tactical miniatures game into something much more lasting and satisfying. I have high hopes that he’ll be making bold design choices here as well.
Don’t expect to find the game on store shelves next year, either. Like Vampire: The Masquerade - Chapters and other direct-to-consumer offerings, there are no plans for a retail product. Academy does hope to be able to sell the game online for around $150 if the campaign goes well. The crowdfunding campaign starts on March 11.