I think I discovered another “dead” genre.
The 4x genre (Xpand, Xplore, Xploit, Xterminate) is a genre of turn-based strategy game. Once upon a time it was very popular – with a large number of high profile releases, the most famous of which (and only survivor) is Civilization. Think of it as turn-based RTS on a much larger scale – you’re placed on a large map with a number of other players, you start off by establishing colonies/cities, but soon all the good spots are taken and you run into the other players, and the winner is the last one standing. Settlers of Catan is a 4x game with the combat removed.
So does it still stack up?
Which is s shame, because the beginning and middle bits of Armada 2525 are seriously fun. Like “one more turn oops it’s 2am again” fun. But once you’ve got the enemy on the ropes, it becomes a horribly boring slog. You can set the game to finish after X turns, but I’d just find that frustrating – I want to finish my enemies off! But first, let’s look at the game in a bit more detail.
Armada 2525 came out in 1991. It was not the first 4x game, that was probably Reach for the Stars (which incidentally I still have on 3.5″ floppy for the Apple IIe) which came out in 1982. But Armada 2525 was still one of the early examples of the genre, predating more famous examples such as Master of Orion and Civilization*.
The basic gameplay is dived into 5 phases: in phase 1, your colonies produce items. In phases 2-5, your ships can move, you can establish new colonies and combat happens. The big selling point of Armada 2525 is the production screen, which is below:
By the standards of the time this is quite accessible and easy to understand. Yes, there’s a lot of numbers by modern standards, but note how the icons make the screen very readable and easily understood. I played this game when I was 12 – I did not really play Reach for the Stars. Cleverly, the number of options will increase as your technology increases, so the game winds up with quite a few available options, but you’ll never feel overwhelmed.
The “simple” ethos carried over from presentation of information to the information itself. There’s the same number of available options for production as in other 4x games, but there’s a maximum number of each items (factories, missiles, etc) for each planet, and the maximum is always the same (usually 99 of each item). There’s also a maximum of 99 ships per player, so churning out legions of ships isn’t an option. That means the choices in production are considerably simplified, because you’ll be applying the same basic production strategies and priorities to each planet.
It also helpfully supplies all of the unit/tech information in-game, which means you don’t have to keep flicking to the manual
The combat is also simple, and you’d think this would be a bad thing – but it isn’t. While there’s a lot of strategy in building and moving your ships, the combat itself is mostly automated, with the ship moving/shooting automatically once you click begin. The only really meaningful choice you can make is whether to retreat**. Yet it’s quite gripping to watch. Watching a close-pitched battle, fingers gripping the mouse, cheering when enemy ships explode and gritting your teeth when yours explode; it’s really engaging.
Simple choices – wide range of possible combinations. It’s a great design that makes the game really engaging while your civilization is expanding, especially once you run into the other civilizations and have to start balancing offence/defence/development.
But the key part to that phrase is “while your civilization is expanding”. This is where we run into the problem with Armada 2525. Soon enough, either you or your opposition will get the upper hand; if that’s you, it means you’ll fully develop all your planets, uncover all of the tech tree, and build a mighty fleet with the maximum 99 ships.
And then the problems start. Because while getting the upper hand is exciting, once you’ve got, actually defeating your enemies is a painful slog. The ship limit becomes a real problem here – say you’ve got 20 fully-developed planets, your opposition has 10. The limit on ships means that your fleet will not be twice the size of your opponents – most of your production will go unused each turn. You’ll have an edge, and an immoveable one, but it will take so long to finally grind your opposition out of existence. And there’s no excitement, because the resolution is by now inevitable. Yes, there’s options that might help fix this, but I played the game on the default settings – because that should be the optimal way to play the game. I shouldn’t have to fiddle with settings to make the game fun, that’s the designer’s job.
This game encourages a LOT of war crimes. Fun with genocide!
Looking back, this was a common problem with 4x games. Although typically they had some system to help avoid it – in Civilization, you’d win if you got to the moon; in Master of Orion, you could vote yourself in as emperor if your population was large enough; in Warlords, the enemies would send you a group message of surrender once you looked unstoppable (and all co-ordinate against you if you refused them). Armada 2525 has none of those options, and is much worse-off for it.
That’s not the only issue with Armada 2525. While the UI is very clean and simplified, it has its irritations. First, it doesn’t speed up as your empire expands – so if you have 20 planets, your production phase will take 10 x as long as when you had two planets. At one stage I snapped an exploded a stack of my own planets to try and speed it up. Second, it doesn’t tell you where your ships are travelling to or how long it will take to get there. And finally, it doesn’t mark planets with enemy bases that you’ve detected – so often it’s a case of clicking on planets to remind yourself of where the enemy is.
All three of these problems would be addressed with Master of Orion, a far more popular game in the same style. But to be fair Master of Orion cam out two years later, and there’s a lot of similarities between the two games…arguably, the MOO UI is ripped straight from Armada 2525, with some tweaks to remove its more annoying aspects.
So where does this end up? Probably with Armada 2525 being a lot less successful than it should have been. It was popular enough for a “deluxe edition” to be released a few years later (which is the version I played), but it seems to have stayed mostly obscure. TIt also didn’t get the credit it deserves for introducing a UI that Microprose would develop into the (admittedly superior) Master of Orion. A sequel, Armada 2526, was released in 2009, but it also seems to have sunk into obscurity.
The end result?
I can’t recommend this game. The end is just too tedious, which is a crying shame considering how much fun the rest of the game is. If you’re curious about the 4x genre but a litte worried about how complex they are – this is a good introduction, but I recommend that you don’t bother trying to finish it.
Release date: 1991
Purchase date: June 2018
Complete date: 22 June 2018
Time spent: Approx 25 hours
Developer: Robert T Smith
Producer: Van Collins
Publisher: Interstel Corporation
Recommended if: You want to see where Master of Orion (presumably) got it inspiration; you want to try a 4x game and will have the will-power to stop playing once you’re clearly winning.
Not recommended if: You want to play a good 4x game. There are better examples of this genre.
* According to wiki Civilization came out in September 1991, the only release date I can find for Armada 2525 is “1991”. So there’s a 9/12 chance it came out before Civilization.
** You can place your ships at the start of combat, and set the behaviour of each ship. But I found that the game automatically set the best placement/behaviours anyway.
*** Yes I know some people are still making 4x games, in the same way people are still making point-and-clicks. But they heydey is definately gone.