One of my favorite aspects of this game is solving the Travelling Saleman problem, or at least creating different routes and managing them. One of the saddest aspects of the game is watching your beautiful empire get devoured, seeing your homeworld in foreign hands, hearing the lamentations of your women, etc…
Using the basic mechanics but applying a different theme, it might be possible to create a less confrontational game. Instead of ships at war, maybe it’s trade ships, or settlers. maybe players could share a planets resources, both having partial influence based on the number of settlers they have, or the amount of capital they have invested in a planet (maybe it’s capital rather than ships?)
Imagine multiple players having different percentages of the available resources of a planet, investing in the planet. maybe they have a choice of investing in something that is generally beneficial for the whole planet, or in something that is only beneficial to themselves.
You could also do an airport theme, like moving people around the country or the world efficiently. Everyone is competing for customers in different airports and can overlap in any particular city.
Silk road, building trade routes across continents and oceans as bigger ships and airplanes develop over time.
I guess the point in this is kind of a whole new game class. Call it Graph Games, or something like that - where it’s all about connecting nodes with edges, etc… Obviously train games have existed in board gaming for decades, and this is naturally the 21st century version of that. There are an endless number of possible themes that could be applied for various effects on the gameplay.