Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords is a “4X” game, where your goal is to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. It’s also the sequel to 2003’s Galactic Civilizations. I didn’t play that earlier game, but from what I can tell people seemed to like it, and so developer Stardock Entertainment decided not to play with fire. They left the gameplay mechanics roughly in place, and they gave more options for creating spaceships and developing worlds, and they spruced up the interface. Their decisions were sound, because as a result Galactic Civilizations II is a nice but not great game.
Instead of taking over regions of a single world, as is the case in the classic Civilization games, in Galactic Civilizations II you try to take over a galaxy of suns and planets. You usually start out with a single planet, and then you must colonize or take over other worlds to increase your power. Eventually, you might develop a massive fleet to rain down terror over your adversaries, or you might instead travel a peaceful road, and just impress everybody with the awesomeness of your civilization, so that they clamor to join you.
Each turn in Galactic Civilizations II takes up a week of time. During that turn you might set up construction on your planets, to mold them to provide infrastructure or research, or perhaps to create spaceships for your fleet. You might also set up your research policy, so that you can stay ahead of the technological capabilities of your competitors. Finally, you might move around your fleet. Early in the game it’s important to create colony ships so that you can claim vacant worlds, and to explore with survey ships to find precious “anomalies” that can provide small bonuses to your civilization. But eventually it’s all about moving your wartime fleet around, if for no other reason than to protect your peaceful space stations and freighters.
The nicest thing about Galactic Civilizations II is that there are a lot of ways to play the game. You can play everything from a slavering warmonger to a peaceful industrialist. Or consider the “simple” task of developing a planet. Each planet comes with a series of grid squares where you can place improvements. Some of the improvements are simple things, like research labs or farms, but you can also place “wonders” in them, such as a special restaurant that gives you an influence bonus, or a special clothing store that makes your people happier. So you have to decide if you want the planet to provide basic necessities (and if so, which ones), or if you want it to take on a grander role.
Galactic Civilizations II is not a game that’s going to wow you with its special effects or its musical score. The planets and spaceships are modeled in 3D, but the galaxy itself is 2D. You see a face when you deal with other civilizations, but the face isn’t animated, and it doesn’t change its expression. There isn’t any voice acting, and the dialogue isn’t very exciting. There are space battles, but you don’t control the spaceships, and the spaceships pretty much just float around rather than maneuver the way you might expect them to.
The good news is that the gameplay largely makes up for the lack of bells and whistles. The game is simple and yet complex to play, and the turns are short enough to where you might keep thinking “just one more” until you find yourself still playing well after you should have gone to bed. Also, although there isn’t any multiplayer support, there is a pretty healthy skirmish mode, plus a so-so campaign, and you’re given a plethora of difficulty settings, so you should be able to find a mode that gives you lots of satisfaction.
And so, overall, I’d say that Galactic Civilizations II is a nice but not great game. It’s fun, it gives you a lot of options for how to play, and the interface is clean and easy to use. But it doesn’t look or sound great, you’re not given any control in combat, and the lack of multiplayer means you’ll have to rely on playing computer-controlled opponents, which is never a good thing (even if there are a lot of AI options, as there are here). I’d say that Galactic Civilizations II might be a little pricey at its $40 SRP, but there are certainly worse ways you could spend your money, like paying the same amount on Tycoon City: New York.