I have had Star Dynasties on my Steam wishlist for a while now, and it has just released today into Early Access. If you like “grand strategy” games about ruling houses filled with dozens of interesting, conniving family members who use and are used to expand and exploit resources for selfish gain, then I’d advise you to put this one on the back burner. However, if you like clicking “OK” buttons while chuckling at what random events the nobility can get up to while you’re trying to find the game in your game, maybe add Star Dynasties to your wishlist and come back in a few months.
I will admit that the bias generated by the excellent Crusader Kings III (notice that it is the third in a series made by the ruling party of grand strategy, Paradox Interactive) has colored my interpretation of Star Dynasties, but it’s hard not to let it. The UI is really close to CKIII’s, the way you interact with the principals is really close to CKIII’s, and ideally the intrigue is really close to CKIII, but while the building blocks of the two games align on paper, it’s the mortar that binds those blocks together that’s essentially missing with this one.
Star Dynasties takes place in space, which is a massive departure from Paradox’s historical reliance on…historical places here on Earth (Crusader Kings, Sengoku, Hearts of Iron, etc). Here, you play as a duke of a larger house, exerting influence over your homeworld as well as one or two other vassal planets. Your goal is to keep those vassals and to generate claims — true or otherwise — on other worlds so you can go to war and take them for yourself. You can marry off your children and siblings to make advantageous alliances, and then sneak behind everyone’s back to assassinate, create unrest, and spy on your opponents in the hope of digging up some dirt for blackmail. Star Dynasties keeps the feudal flavor by going the Ye Olde Battletech route for it’s backstory: far in the future, humanity has lost the technological touch necessary to expand to other worlds the way it used to, so it’s down to fighting over what’s left. Because being in this situation apparently calls for a return to the days of dukes and duchesses, vassals and fiefdoms, we’re working with a familiar framework, just with a thin veneer of sci-fi laid on top. Aside from the main play-space having a starfield background and the baronies being familiar stars, there’s not a lot of sci-fi flavor in this game.
Booting up, the game immediately starts with a tutorial which consists of a bunch of triggered panels that ask you to click here or mouse over there. Grand strategy games are really hard to explain, and this method is as good as any, despite the fact that there’s so much information to be had that once the tutorial is over whatever was mentioned at the start might as well be ancient history. Star Dynasties‘ tutorial took maybe about 15 minutes (I had to get up in the middle of it a few times so I didn’t time it), but having played CKIII a lot of the concepts were pretty understandable.
It wasn’t until I started a new game from scratch that I started to become disillusioned. The key to putting the “grand” or the “strategy” in “grand strategy” is to ensure that there’s enough for the player to do so that he or she feels that they are actually making headway on multiple fronts. Running a kingdom is hard work, on Earth or in space, which means that there’s the home-town to work on — building infrastructure, quelling sedition, assigning council-members, marrying off relatives, squashing plots, and so on. Then there’s management of relationships, so that vassals don’t seek independence and don’t align with foreign powers to kill you in your sleep. There’s also diplomacy for good or for ill, forging new alliances, strengthening existing ties, and finding acceptable reasons to invade your neighbors. And when you do invade your neighbors, a good ruler knows who to call for backup, when to hire mercs, and how to route a foe on his home turf. The thing about Star Dynasties is that while it contains all of these factors in some form or another, I never felt I could deal with them when I wanted to deal with them. There’s always something holding an option out of reach, or the option just isn’t there at all.
For example, in my game I have three star systems under my control. My neighbor Quant is kind of a belligerent asshole so I wanted to mess with him. I could stir up unrest in his capital, or spy on him, or entice his vassals to shack up with me instead. I chose to send in my brother to prep the system for war, since I had a distant relative who has claims on the system.
That was about all I could do for my turn. I didn’t really have much to do with the two other systems under my control. I wasn’t able to send ambassadors to other factions. My kids weren’t old enough to marry so they were just sitting around idle. I buffed up everyone’s defenses, but when I was out of things to do I hit END TURN and sat through about two dozen various popups that were telling me about things that were happening elsewhere in the galaxy. Mostly it was a bunch of dukes crying about how other dukes were mean to them, with the occasional request for me to send my fleet to help out during a dispute, but for the most part I spent way more time closing popups than I ever did actively managing my realm.
Combat isn’t even that active of an affair. Most of the time I spent being a cog in someone else’s war, so the AI used my ships while I sat back and watched. Each combat engagement is three rounds long, and each side can choose one action per round from a roster of abilities that the fleet commander knows (you get to assign the fleet commander). At the end of the engagement, whomever has the most ships left wins. When the AI is fighting, there’s nothing to do but get up for a bathroom break.
I just feel that there’s a whole lot of something missing from the meat and potatoes of Star Dynasties. There should be more options for what I as the current ruler of my house can do, or at least more opportunities to put a foot on the road towards being able to do them. Even after I sent my brother to soften up Lord Smacktalker up there, I never got any kind of indicator as to the progress being made so I didn’t know if it was working or if it was better to just recall my agent. Meanwhile, I spent many rounds just checking up on my vassals, seeing if they were comfy but not being able to do anything about it anyway, and then pressing the END TURN button because there wasn’t a hell of a lot I could do otherwise. I had no success trying to lure other systems away from their lieges, nor could I make any claims on other systems so I could get that casus belli ball rolling. I felt that in the end, I was just waiting for the AI to cement it’s own alliances until it decided that my territory was next on the assimilation list, leaving me with absolutely no recourse but to go down in a blaze of ho-hum glory.
I’d really like Iceberg to take this Early Access time to build upon which is actually a pretty solid framework here. Really, if they’re going to cleave so closely to Paradox’s Crusader Kings franchise, they might as well go all-in and focus less on the surface similarities and more on what makes those games so engaging. As of now, I was calling for “one more turn” not because I wanted to progress, but because I wanted to see if anything interesting would happen or if I could suddenly hit some invisible stride that gave me options to do more than just be a fleet for hire.