Pax Galaxia starts out as intergalactic sumo wrestling. No, it isn't two prodigious BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters) trying to shove each other out of a gravity well. As the admiral in charge of a space fleet based in a given star system, you order your ships to hit certain force points in the galaxy and, ideally, drive your enemies progressively away from your end of the galaxy. In the tradition of other so-called real-time strategy (RTS) games, your opponents (artificial or human) are making the same kinds of moves at the same time. If you pay attention to your defensive lines, you can quickly push the enemy back and extend your "beneficent" influence across the simulated galaxy. If you aren't careful, your fleets and empire can quickly shrink to nothing.
The play mechanics are astoundingly simple. You always start out at a single star system. In Easy mode, you always start with enough space ships to heavily outnumber any single opponent (and sometimes, you have roughly equivalent to the aggregate number of enemy ships). At higher difficulty levels, you get less. Before the timer begins, you can establish your initial orders. Orders amount to holding down the left mouse button (or the single mouse button on the Macintosh) and moving along the path of star systems to where you'd like to attack. When you let go, the orders are input. Then, clicking on the START button gets you going. As with many real-time strategy games, you quickly find a flow in selecting fleets, ordering movement, watching developments, and reacting to victories/defeats.
Intergalactic Strife (Play Mechanics)
But the game isn't quite as simple as that. The galaxies can bend back on each other when you're not paying attention and there are white stars that serve as warp points in allowing enemies to cross back and get behind your lines. Certain bases have defense bonuses, production bonuses, attack bonuses, travel bonuses, and repair bonuses, adding a bit of variety to the challenge. It's certainly tougher to win when a rival empire is outbuilding your own or rebuilding its fleets at a faster clip than you can do so.
Pax Galaxia plays fast and can drive you crazy. It isn't to be confused with the intricate complexities of a Master of Orion III or a Space Empires IV Deluxe. It doesn't even have the ship building and fleet management of Galactic War or Space Federation: Galactic Conquest. Pax Galaxia is a real-time strategy game with more emphasis on flow than strategy.
Of course, the play experience is so fast and smooth, that it feels more like an arcade game than a strategy. Some will think this is good and others will think it is bad. Strategy is primarily concerned with getting the most fully operational ships (represented by the large numbers on-screen) to the right nexus points by the fastest critical path. Until you are playing scenarios where ships can jump past you, you really (as in Galactic War) don't have to worry much about your back lines. You can just keep sending everything toward the "front."
The only other consideration is trying to capture as many star systems as possible in such a way that you can still keep defensible lines. More star systems mean more ships being built, but they also require more defensive measures and consideration.
New Life Forms (Multiplayer Experiences)
Hot seat play is pretty interesting. In fact, I think it is harder than the single-player mode because it is played in timed rounds. Players take turns doing all they can against the artificial opponents during a set length of time. Then, they switch. Of course, the artificial opponents appear to be working the full time, so the AI actually has a slight advantage. It's a really interesting design decision, however.
Online play can be handled by joining a public game, hosting a public game, or hosting a private game (peer-to-peer) using your IP address. These games are ideally suited for online play since you can get in and play almost transparently and the games never last very long. You do have to be careful, though. Sometimes, as pictured below, you can enter a current game in an untenable position.
Interstellar Intelligence (Conclusions)
On the whole, it is very clear that Pax Galaxia is designed with the convenience of players in mind. In addition to the variety of modes for online play and the clever implementation of "hot seat" play, Pax Galaxia has a number of features that definitely have the player in mind. For example, once I needed to ALT-TAB out of the game to handle an unexpected problem. I was focused on the problem rather than the game and didn't think to hit the handy PAUSE button. The game automatically paused for me and allowed me to resume upon my return.
In addition, the game has a level editor included which is extremely easy to use. You can decide which star systems have bonuses (and what kind), what pathways are available between the systems, when and where teleport areas will be, and forces for each player. Another marvelous touch is that the level editor allows you to test the levels and determine how well-balanced (or not) the scenario is before saving it. The editor plays all the forces at the same time through several play sessions of the game and reports back the winner and the winning times so you can see if anything seems to particularly favor one side or another.
For me (and you can tell by the reviewer's bias that I prefer 4X games to real-time strategy games), the strength of Pax Galaxia is that it is a fast, challenging real-time experience. My disappointment with the game is that it is much like abstract strategy games like Othello, Score Four and Albedo. It doesn't feel like there are enough new surprises or interesting twists in the 30 levels and custom levels to keep me coming back on a regular basis. On the other hand, there are plenty of gamers who love that rush of real-time strategy challenge and the ability to play several games in one sitting over a quick succession of similar, but different maps. For the latter gamer, Pax Galaxia is a terrific buy. For people like me, it is at the top of a class that we don't play very much.
Reviewer's Snapshot: 6 (on scale of 10)
Replayability 6 (sense of sameness, in spite of number of levels)
Software AI 7
Flexibility 10 (amazing level editor)
Reviewer's Bias: 4 (it wasn't the 4X game I was expecting)