Spacecom strips both the mechanics and graphics of strategy games down to the barest of bones, but keeps a satisfying amount of depth.
Lambda Penduli is a small star system—one rocky, lifeless planet in orbit around a dying star. Here, in this typically quiet system, a dozen ships are locked in battle. Colorful beams of light arc through the cold vacuum of space, piercing through shields and cutting holes in reinforced steel. The doors blow off one of my ships, flushing the crew into space before the emergency doors can come down. Two ships crash into each other, noiselessly. A cruiser plummets through the planet’s thin atmosphere, the crew’s mayday call screeching over the intercom. The ship reappears as a small bloom of fire on the surface.
In my head, this is Spacecom. In my head.
In reality, that massive battle is a red circle on a starmap with a status bar that tells me I am “Winning slightly.”
Spacecom is a science fiction strategy game where you build and control fleets of ships. Three types of spacecraft make up your forces—Battle, Siege, and Invasion. The Battle ships are your main fighters, taking out enemy ships the quickest. However, you’ll need Siege ships to destroy entire planets and prevent enemies from taking advantage of those areas, and Invasion ships to capture new territory.
Star systems are captured on a web, and are specialized from the outset. Some repair your ships, some build new ships, some produce resources to build ships, and then there’s your headquarters. Siege ships will destroy these star systems forever. You move your ships from system to system, and once in transit they cannot be turned around again until they reach their destination.
Lastly, you can build defenses. Ground troops are the basic units protecting your home stars, but you can also install shields or defense grids in each star system to prevent enemy invasions.
Three paragraphs and I have literally explained the entirety of Spacecom to you. That’s how minimalistic and stripped down this game is.
Which brings me back to the art. The graphical direction for this game is just as stripped down—every ship is a triangle. The only thing that distinguishes a Siege ship from an Invasion ship is which part of the triangle is shaded. If you have a fleet consisting of Siege and Invasion ships, then the corresponding two-thirds will be shaded.
It’s the space equivalent of one of those maps generals always seem to have, where they push the little soldiers around with sticks. Admiral “It’s a Trap” Ackbar would feel right at home with this game. No, Spacecom isn’t pretty, but it’s damn intuitive.
And that’s the story of Spacecom as a whole. I’ll be honest: One of the things that makes strategy games somewhat unappealing to me is the up-front complexity. Because so many people have played classic strategy franchises (Civilization, Total War, et cetera) for upwards of a decade (sometimes two decades) there’s a lot of feature creep. Jumping into Civilization V now is very different from jumping into the original Civilization. Sometimes that’s a good thing—we’ve gotten much better at presenting information and coming up with decent user interfaces. But there’s an intimidating number of systems to comprehend before you can feel skilled at Civilization.
Spacecom is strategy taken back down to a more manageable level. That’s not to say there isn’t complexity to be found, but it’s complexity arising from a limited toolset. You’re not poring over tech trees trying to figure out what will be most advantageous twenty hours down the road, or losing an entire match because of a choice you made ten minutes into the game.
Three ships. Four planet types. Three tiers of defense systems. An art style that conveys all this information at a glance. No flashy effects. No tech trees. There’s not even a save system, because matches are supposed to be finished in one sitting.
The game has hints of Neptune’s Pride except you can finish a round in an hour instead of weeks, and hints of DEFCON except with a different theme, and you know what? Those aren’t bad names to invoke when making a stripped down strategy game. Not bad at all.
Spacecom is simple, both graphically and mechanically—so simple it could almost be a board game.
And yet despite—or rather, because of—this unassuming exterior, there’s a lot of depth for you to explore within a limited space. That’s the kind of strategy I like! It’s like playing an actual game of chess where each piece has a very defined set of rules versus a weird game of pseudo-chess where each pawn functions slightly differently and you won’t really understand the point of half of them until you’re fifty hours in.
We like to say “Graphics don’t matter! Graphics don’t matter!” Well, here’s your proof. Just bring your imagination to the table, and there’s a deeply satisfying strategy game waiting for you.
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Hayden writes about games for PCWorld and doubles as the resident Zork enthusiast.
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