When it comes to sci-fi settings that stretch beyond the stars, it feels like the stories too often land on a spectrum between Star Trek’s pristine bureaucracy of benevolent space colonialism and the mythopoetic swashbuckling of benevolent space colonialism in Star Wars. Star Dynasties, the latest grand strategy from Iceberg Interactive and Pawley Games, tries to have it both ways by using a galaxy-shaping disaster as the excuse to dive headfirst into the administrivia of intergalactic feudalism, texturing its space colonialism with a tangled web of shadows and political intrigue.
To accomplish this, Star Dynasties looks to tap into the viral successes of Paradox’s Crusader Kings franchise by rescuing that franchise’s RPG-tinged design from the drudgery of medieval European politics and interpolating its collection of assassinations and familial betrayals into a turn-based frame. The player is positioned not as an individual character that heroically charges forward into conflict, but as one character in an ongoing bloodline whose goal is to further the political standing of their house, even if that means greatness must be achieved by future heirs to the family line.
While many grand strategy games go deep into a lengthy tech tree of gradual advancement, this ‘lineage’ approach goes wide with a dizzying array of actions available from the jump. As the head of a feudal house, the player has a network of family and council members at their disposal. They can be assigned various tasks in Star Dynasties, much like a worker placement board game, and each character carries a set of ability scores that influences their effectiveness. From the shadowy levers of espionage and sabotage to the (mostly) benign statecraft of colonial infrastructure, these tasks and their trusted appointees will steer the player’s fiefdom from turn to turn.
Of course, by giving players such an extensive palette of mechanics to work with, Star Dynasties must also overcome the challenge of how to present all those actions in a concise and legible way, which will be an ongoing battle all the way to release.
Tooltips do a lot of legwork in providing useful context behind the dozens of icons that litter the game’s UI, but the guided tutorial scenario also does a serviceable job of introducing different UI elements. I found that the quick bar in the lower-left corner of the screen was especially useful for setting up comparisons between characters, since so much of the strategy comes down to careful study of relationships.
That complex web of interactions also means that players should have measured expectations for the AI in this early build. Just to take one of my own turns as an example, a rival duke condemned me for one of my earlier actions and then, later in the very same turn, that duke became my ally by accepting a vassalage from an associated ruler in my star system. The sprawl of available actions can make it difficult for both human and AI players to land on an effective long-term strategy, so it will be up to the designers at Pawley Games to find an effective way to signal when the most meaningful components of a winning strategy come into view.
Despite the rough edges, I still see a great deal of promise in Star Dynasties. The absurd level of systemization of the interactions is almost a marvel in itself, and the raw design can certainly be refined and polished via Early Access period, especially when the developers are attentive and responsive as they were for our questions when we spoke with Glen Pawley from Pawley Games.
The combat in Star Dynasties has a sort of pen-and-paper RPG feel to it, with its character abilities and dice rolls to resolve attacks. How did your team go about designing these elements?
Star Dynasties is fundamentally a game about characters, politics, and social drama. Combat is important, because conflict is at the heart of interesting narrative, but it shouldn’t distract from the character-driven experience.
One rule I wanted to stick to is that the player does not build units directly, or move units around on the map. That’s a big part of what makes for a complex and time-consuming tactical layer. So I wanted to find ways to deepen the moment of combat, and in ways that would have an impact on decisions the player would take outside it.
Character abilities are a perfect way to give you interesting decisions in combat, while reinforcing the character-focus of the game. The intention is to make characters more valuable based on the tactics they know, make the choice of who will command the fleet more interesting, and provide an interesting combat decision.
One element of the game’s star map that caught my attention was the appearance of “uncolonized systems”, which are described as non-interactive systems that humanity no longer has the technology to colonize. How did this concept influence your team’s approach to the game’s map generation?
Uncolonized systems were created as a way of solving two design problems.
First, politics and combat in Star Dynasties are more interesting if there is a moderately high degree of connectivity between systems. Contrast, for example, a star system that has two lanes (one with the rest of your empire and the other with your neighbour) with a star system that has four lanes (potentially exposing it to 3 neighbours). The latter scenario will create more interesting interactions.
Now simply increasing the number of lanes per system creates a map that looks like a land map, and doesn’t fit our theme. The use of uncolonized systems, that essentially “split” lanes into two or three, is an alternative way of increasing the connectivity between systems. And it fits perfectly into our setting, where a pre-Collapse humanity would not have had the resources or technology to colonize every star system it could reach.
The other design consideration is that, because combat in Star Dynasties locks you into using the military resources of the surrounding region (you don’t move units on the map, so you can’t bring in military units from another part of your empire), the geography of the region around the combat location directly contributes to how interesting the combat is. Systems in regions with lots of empty systems are harder to conquer, because your fleets suffer supply penalties over longer distances.
What are the team’s plans for supporting the game once you formally move out of Early Access?
For a start, naturally I’ll keep resolving any issues that arise with the game after launch.
The world of Star Dynasties is ripe with areas that could be explored further. One idea I’m very fond of would be to introduce the concept of different cultures for different parts of the galaxy. Another would be to add other organizations, such as guilds, or pirate bands. Players have already suggested many other areas such as tutoring children, or creating more interaction with those uncolonized systems we talked about earlier.
Of course, as a solo developer, my ability to keep supporting the game with more features will depend on how well the game does financially. But I would love the opportunity to keep adding more systems and content to the game after we launch it.
Many thanks to Glen Pawley for speaking with us! Star Dynasties is currently in Early Access and available on Steam.