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GalCiv IV: Supernova Dev Journal #61 - Pressure vs. Sandbox Playstyles

Published on Tuesday, June 4, 2024 By BATTLEMODE In GalCiv IV Dev Journals

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that a lot of really exciting new content for Galactic Civilizations IV: Supernova is coming very soon! The bad news is that, unfortunately, I cannot talk about any of it quite yet. Frogboy has been disseminating bits and pieces over on our GalCiv Discord channel, though, so I invite you all to take a look and get involved in the discussions going on there.

As an apology for teasing you, I’ll make amends by showing off a core game feature you can play with right now. I personally believe it is one of the highlights of the GalCiv series and a big part of what sets it apart from many other space 4X games.


When discussing 4X games with other gamers and developers over the years, one of the most startling revelations I had was that so many people played their games in a way that I never would have.

It turns out that pretty much everybody who plays these games has their own idea of what makes them a fun experience, and even if a particular title has a rather rigid intended way to play, you can bet there’s a whole lot of people out there just playing it completely differently, or modding it to all hell to make it do something it was never intended to do.

The GalCiv series has had this idea baked into it from the very first iteration. I can still fondly remember reading the instruction manual to the first version of Galactic Civilizations that Stardock released on Windows way back in the early 2000s, and this guy called “Brad Wardell (Designer)” had written a little piece in there.


He was showing how he’d set the game up to reverse all the preset alignments of the Civilizations so they’d act the opposite of how they would play if left to their default settings and then try for a cultural victory.

This was the first time I’d seen a 4X game really go out of its way to highlight some of the wacky stuff you could do, and this rather extreme example illustrates a more subtle point that these are games we’re playing, and play is, by definition, a creative experience.

Getting back to Supernova, I want to briefly describe the “Pressure vs. Sandbox” scale and then give you a couple of examples of how you can set the game up very differently depending on the intended playstyle or experience you’re going for. We don’t need any mods for this; we’re just going to use the base game and adjust the map setup options.

We can roughly equate the experience you’re going to get with a strategy game as a two-pole scale: on the one end, you’ve got pressure-based play, and on the other end, you’ve got sandbox play.

Pressure can come in a variety of forms: enemies that want to kill you, time limits that end the game if you don’t win first, limited resources, and so on. Very competitive RTS games like Starcraft in high-level multiplayer games would be an example of a game high on the Pressure-end of this scale.


On the other hand, sandbox games tend to give you a bunch of tools and say, “Have at it!”. Non-competitive city-builder games like SimCity and Minecraft in the sandbox mode are examples of this.

4X games usually have a mix of sandbox elements (they’re empire-building games, after all) with pressure from AI opponents who are trying to win first. Some players like the time and space to build their empire up high and mighty before finishing the game by beating the AI when they’re good and ready. Others prefer a high-pressure game, with the AI or environment trying to kill them, forcing them to adapt their plans on the fly to meet increasingly dangerous challenges.

Most gamers are likely somewhere in-between these extremes. To cater to both, let's take a look at how we can setup a high-pressure game with lots of early action, and a more sandbox-oriented experience where the player has lots of room to explore, expand, and exploit, without much threat of extermination by a determined AI player.

A High-Pressure Game

For a high-pressure game with lots of tense action and critical decisions, we want lots of aggressive Civilizations crammed into a small map, with limited resources to fight over and, therefore, plenty of excuses to start picking war targets early on.


Let’s pick a Small, Single Sector map with Resources and Habitable Planets both set to Uncommon. Set the Civilization Proximity to Close and then jump on over to the AI selection. The key points here are to select dangerous AI civilizations and have more than the recommended number all squished into a smaller map.


This is a bit of a cliched selection of civilizations that tick the “dangerous AI” box, but I’m sure you get the idea: we want a motley crew of disagreeable, xenophobic bullies who’re going to be starving for resources and habitable worlds to expand out into, and have absolutely no excuse not to go to war when someone else has what they want.

If you want a bit less of a meme-ish setup here, you can swap out a couple of these civilizations and replace them with the Krynn or the Terran Resistance, and you’ll have a similarly high-pressure game.


I’ve got the AI to play for me as the Terran Resistance here (the light blue civ in the southwest of the map), and we can see what the game looks like on turn 50.

Here the TR have only two Core Worlds, with the dreaded Korath Clan to their southeast, and the Drengin to their north. The Drengin are expanding well and have already enclosed the Yor, although whether they can hold those worlds once the machines get going is another thing entirely. The Festron and Cosmic Contaminant are doing their own little dance over in the northeast, and its too early to tell who’ll win that one.

With only two Core Worlds, you’re gonna have to plan your game out right from the off and figure out a strategy that navigates your civilization between being crushed by one of your more powerful neighbors in the early game or being outpaced by everybody in the long term and lose because of a Prestige Victory later on. This is a challenging start and would require you to expand steadily enough that you can keep yourself alive while not being so big that the various AI players realize you’re winning and dogpile onto you.


Here’s the game state at turn 150. The Terran Resistance is holding on, but the Yor and Festron are looking very strong, having mostly eaten their neighbors. This is the AI playing itself, of course, but I suspect most casual players would find this scenario fairly difficult. My money is on the toasters.

You’ll note that I didn’t even have to adjust the AI difficulty settings to create a challenging situation to play with here. We’re entirely relying on the principle of organic difficulty, where the player sets their own challenge. Of course, we can use the traditional difficulty settings (Easy, Normal, Hard, and so on) to adjust the scenario either up or down, depending on taste.

Imagine this scenario on a high-difficulty setting like Genius or above. Now, if you like pressure, that one will probably fulfil your desires!

A Low Pressure, Sandbox-like Game

Next, let’s take a look at a more sandbox-oriented approach to playing a 4X. Here, we want lots of space to expand so we can focus on building a well-oiled economic machine, with lots of Core World and Colony management for those players who love to manage huge empires.


We want a big map, with plenty of space to expand into, lots of worlds to colonize, and fewer pirates and space monsters to get in the way. Now, this is a very big game and requires a fairly good computer. The crucial settings here are the Abundant Habitable Planets and the Common Star Frequency. The Slow Game Pacing and Research Pacing settings can be fun here too, so you get plenty of time on each tech level before advancing further, as there are some challenges to running a large, low-tech empire.


Here, I’ve included settings for a sandbox-oriented game that’ll give you the same experience with a slightly smaller map and is suitable for computers with less RAM or CPU Cores. Really, this isn’t so much about map size as it is about giving yourself plenty of space to yourself before you bump grills with your neighbors.


Again, the AI selection goes hand-in-hand with the map setup options to facilitate this specific playstyle. We’ve picked more reasonable civilizations this time, most of which are more likely to try to win with peaceful means (although I tend to see the Altarian culture push as anything but friendly).


Here, we see each civilization basically has its own sector.


We’re playing the Arceans this time, and this is our starting sector, with loads of space to expand into! This is a peaceful min-maxer’s paradise, and there’ll be plenty of opportunity to develop a big and powerful empire long before you bump into one of the other civilizations.

Now, just because you’re large and powerful, with friendlier neighbors to do business with, that doesn’t mean the game has to be easy, necessarily. There’s the Prestige Victory condition to watch, and at some point, decisive action might be required to take the win away from a bigger, stronger rival.

Now, these are both two extreme cases, and I’ve used them to illustrate this versatility in a fairly blunt way. If you take into account Frogboy’s original point in the GalCiv 1 manual about playing to a player-determined theme, too, I’m sure you can imagine many scenarios where you pick yourself some unusual game settings and selection of AI, set yourself a specific victory type or some other organic end condition for yourself, and then go wild with your creativity!