I gave this game a try after a friend asked me to join a game with him. While initially it was an interesting and fun concept, I have to say that overall the experience was mostly one of disappointment.
To start with, the map was wildly, ridiculously unbalanced. I don’t know if this is typical of the maps in the game, or particular to this game alone, but it was literally game-breaking. It was a 32 player ring, with a dense, initially unreachable core of stars. The ring was fine, the problem was that there were two player positions could reach the core at range 3, while most couldn’t until at least 6. I couldn’t even get to it until range 7 - and this was true even at the point where I controlled close to a quarter of the ring and still had no access. This led to a single player completely occupying the entire core because the other decided - for some reason I can’t begin to fathom - to stop his advancement into the core and suicide in a war against his neighbor.
I’ve read the frequent response to this kind of unbalance is to “ally up” against them but, to put it frankly, that’s bullshit. This player had of course formed an alliance with both his neighbors, so each went a different direction (either direction on the ring and the core). When you are completely unable to act much beyond your immediate vicinity, especially early on, there is literally nothing you can do about it when a SINGLE player gets unfettered access to 60+ stars for more than 2 weeks that early in the game. If it had been an issue of just one range tech difference or so for all player positions, so that it could have been a strategic choice to try to contest core, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But four levels of tech difference is terrible map design.
Next, and I understand this is an acknowledged problem, but there was a very large number of afks/quitters at start which completely upend starting game position. Some players had extremely easy initial expansion because of this; in a game that is entirely about the snowball that’s a serious problem. However, what I was exceptionally bothered by was the number of “premium players” I saw that basically didn’t like their initial position and so chose instead to basically sit in game and do nothing but act as spoilers. Some openly admitted to doing this in diplo messages, others made it obvious that’s what they were doing simply through their actions, but given so much of this game is about interaction with your neighbors all did a disservice to the game with their blithe disinterest.
Worst of all however (or perhaps it’s what some of those “players” were intended to be all along) I was also thoroughly disgusted by what I can only classify as a “feeder player”. While it would be hard to prove it was explicit cheating, the dominant player in our game benefited from another premium player that did very little the entire game beyond initial expansion and building of infrastructure. Then, once the dominant player in the game reached them, they gave the “feeder” 7 levels of weapons tech (but nothing else) and the “feeder” fed their developed stars to said player while sending their entire fleet to suicide/weaken the next player down, opening the way for the dominant player. This dominant player was already in an alliance with the same player that took the entire core as well as the player to the other side of him, so it was patently clear the “feeder” player would not get any kind of win or position in the overall game and was acting only to snowball the dominant player. I was not playing close enough attention throughout the early game, so don’t know if he had benefited from earlier “feeders” that helped his rise, but it was readily apparent in the case I observed. Frankly, even if it’s just collusion and not actual “cheating”, it’s IMO shitty sportsmanship and completely antithetical to the spirit of the game. And once again, all these players are premium players, so they know exactly what they are doing.
Everything else: players being stupid or selfish, making short sighted decisions, fighting amongst themselves instead of banding up against obvious threats - those are all forgivable and just the nature of having human players (and I will readily admit that I reaped the benefit of those players myself). But the issues I first described are structural problems that ruin the game. It was disappointing in the extreme to spend weeks investing time in this just to have absolutely no chance of winning because of them. I don’t need to win, but I need the game to have an element of fairness - and each of these contributed to the feeling from start to finish that it was anything but.
Overall, I came away with the impression that there is a very strong undercurrent of veteran player behavior that is cliquish, unethical, and against the spirit of the game. I realize that it’s inapt to draw these kind of conclusions from a single game and do want to give it another try, if for no other reason than to see if a less broken map changes the game dynamic. But this first one left a very bad taste in my mouth, and I wanted to express my thoughts about it to see if this is a typical experience. Some thoughts as a first time player.