As the very first game review for the PBBG.com blog, I feel it's my duty to make sure that I review a game that has enough meat to really dig into. I thought about doing a deep review of some of the larger, more predominant games in the community; but I recently had a chance to do one of our livestreams [disclaimer: this is one of the first livestreams, please forgive the audio problems] on a great Sci-Fi PBBG known as SpaceAlpha.net. Coincidentally, that's also their URL.
[See all of our future livestreams by following the pbbgsite channel on Twitch!]
As always, this game review contains spoilers for in-game content.
SpaceAlpha is a Sci-Fi PBBG where you inhabit one of many planets orbiting a star. When starting out, you can choose your 'galaxy', which is more choosing which star your planet will orbit. Right out of the gate there's a lot of uniqueness, specifically you get to change the look of your planet and can choose from a LONG list of potential planet layouts. Want a planet with large orange continents and tons of maroon mountains? Want island chains and purple water? It's the planetary equivalent of a character creation screen. Don't like it? Change it all later!
In general, your goal is to spawn more 'Units', train them into specialties and wage war with your solar neighbors. Because.... what else are you going to do with billions of anonymous Units? You may get some serious Trimps vibes, mixed with some good 'ole long-term PvP. The concepts aren't novel, but SpaceAlpha gives enough spice between to make this worth playing.
Control, UI, Intuitiveness
Most PBBGs are about the information and the fun mechanics. They usually skimp a lot on graphics, or leave it entirely up to the community to enhance their UI (looking at you, Talibri and Pendoria). I mean, that's what sort of makes this genre iconic. However, SpaceAlpha's creator has decided to invest a lot of energy into the user interface. Once you get the first few strokes down, where everything is makes sense and is organized well. The popups are movable and don't block anything behind it, so you can easily multitask with larger displays. The actual graphics are hand-drawn and create a really quirky, under-stated humor to the game. It's all business in the numbers and graphs, but when it comes down to literally growing your new population from the ground and training them to be industrial workers, it has a certain self-aware aspect that is tastefully injected into the monotony we expect from idle games. Not to go without mention the charts and tables with numbers in them to make math nerds go weak in the knees. It's a min/max haven, built-in.
But that's not all, this PBBG features sound. The holy grail of instant-abandon-if-done-wrong feature. The sounds, in my most humble opinion, only add to the aforementioned quirky attitude. They're not high bitrate, Hans Zimmer scores meant to invoke your inner champion... they're lower quality and other-worldly in a way that completely matches the overall tone of the game in a way you really wouldn't expect. When you start training some of your new Units, there's a little creature's disgruntled mumbling that sounds off that gives you that 'I did a thing!' small kick for something super normal. Not only that, there's a sound that plays when a ship is traveling close to your planet. Not quite sure how they managed to calculate that, but it can serve as a super useful feature for when one of your neighbors is sending their entire attacking fleet to enslave the Units of someone else, leaving them vulnerable to attack.
The only reason I didn't rate it a 10/10 is because the initial interface for quests and some of the sub-menus isn't perfectly intuitive, but this is a subjective perspective. I loosely had the voice of the creator in my ear when first starting out in our livestream, but there are a few key windows I would have to stumble on over time.
Everyone's favorite eyeroll, but this is definitely worth mentioning. SpaceAlpha has two distinct seamless modes; Micro and Macro.
Micro mode is all about population and planet control. You train your Units to be farmers, that literally grow new Units from the ground. From there, your untrained units need to be trained in some sort of specialty to do anything. Workers to generate income, soldiers to fight and defend, engineers to staff your facilities, scientists to staff your research, assassins to merc the poor sap nearby, and doctors to take care of your populace, etc. There's an aspect of planetary management you have to account for; sickness running through the population is mitigated by doctors, pollution generated by your facilities, and deforestation created by cutting trees to get coal to power your various ambitions. On top of that, you can force your Units to work in different modes on a scale from 'chilling' to 'NON-STOP'. This lets you really take cater to your schedule – online you work them non-stop then change back to a relaxed work schedule to make up the effort you expended beforehand while you're offline. Your empire has a happiness scale that determines how effective all of your Units are at their job, which can fluctuate with sickness, being overworked or being TOO unemployed (slackers), that can all be mitigated once the onset happens.
Macro mode is more about domination and PvP. The game features a Galaxy view that shows other planets and transiting fleets, which you have to upgrade using money to see farther and farther out. A clever and thematic gate to PvP, it takes some time to be able to see other players orbiting. There's a keyword there though, 'orbiting'. As time goes on, the closest planets will orbit the star at a different rate than you, giving you access to quickly travel to nearby planets during certain time periods. So an abandoned planet with good resources will eventually orbit closer to me, making the trip faster. It also plays heavily into PvP, when you need to make successive strikes quickly along with your alliance. An experienced player will see what's up, but you can close the window as small as possible by playing the waiting game. There's also uncolonized planets that you can spread your (actual) seed on and claim as your own, adding to the complexity of both macro (defending now multiple planets) and micro (population and pollution management in multiple locations).
There's only one issue that I have so far with regards to Micro vs Macro. There's nothing specifically driving you toward the Macro play. You could build your planet and make sure you don't ruin it via pollution and deforestation, and never have a reason to join an alliance and go out murdering millions of other Units in the galaxy. Other than Slaves, which turn the game up from 1 to 11 really quickly – but you can buy those in the market much easier than you can actually capture them. The drawback could be mitigated by more players and more marauding enemies, so take this criticism with a grain of salt.
The replayability here is pretty high due to the population control mechanics and PvP. However, at the start of the game, there is very little consequence to going idle for a couple of days at a time. No one really attacks you, and it takes a while before you're able to really tussle with anyone. Like, weeks at peak performance. This is definitely a 'set your defenses and attack during opportunity' type of game. You definitely can YOLO your way into a conflict and just hope for the best, but from my experience that is almost definitely a path to blowing away several million Units in one action.
Catch-up mechanic; Turns. "But this is an idle game!" Yeah, not those turns. One of the great mechanics here is that you accrue 'turns' in game over time, which you can use to speed up almost everything, including Unit generation. It's one of the best examples of casual:hardcore gap fixing I've seen to date. I can NOT play for long hours and get the same boost in game as someone who is constantly playing. In addition, you can upgrade your generation of such turns and increase your capacity -- giving it an almost stand-alone mechanic.
Premium currency. Yes, there is premium currency in the game that can be purchased through Dogecoin. As of the moment of writing, you can spend premium currency on refreshing your turns, but in the near future that will be phased out and changed to cosmetic-only features as the creator has told me.
Launch reset. At time of writing, there will be no reset once the game launches. The creator is adamant about the philosophy of a persistent (and parallel) universe.
Full disclosure, I started out playing the game as a streamer trying to advertise the game. The community was largely attentive and supportive by sending me some starter stuff to get going. After the stream, the community has continued to be a kind and pro-active group of players that are just there to have some fun. I've been really impressed with the attitude, the geographic diversity, and the complete absence of toxicity. The developer does a good job of fostering positivity by being really active in the Discord to keep that energy going. The total number of players is pretty small, however, so that's the only reason it doesn't get a perfect score here.
This category is entirely subjective, and more about my entire experience in the game... which could obviously differ from yours substantially. I really enjoy the playful attitude that perfectly meshes with the PBBG genre, mesh that with a really well designed (and stable) UI, and you get a really phenomenal experience. The community helps to bring everything together and add extra dimension.
If you're looking to get into a bigger game early on the development process, this is what you're looking for!