Ever since I played Auralux all those years ago I’ve been keenly interested in what I like to call “essence” games. They are, as their name would imply, extremely stripped down games that focus on the core of their genre, doing away with many of the deeper mechanics in favour of incredibly solid fundamentals. Of course there aren’t many of these kinds of games around, I can think of maybe 3 I’ve played total over the years, but they’re always great to use as internal reference points when comparing other games in the genre. I never thought I’d ever come across one in the 4X genre, given that mechanical complexity is kind of that genre’s jam, but Slipways does an incredible job of boiling down the specifics of the genre into an approachable, readily consumable game.
Slipways takes place in the far future where you’re set about colonising a new sector of space. You’ve got 25 years to build up your new empire and whether it turns into a grand jewel of of your civilisation or a failed, bankrupt state is completely down to your choices. Unlike other games in the genre Slipways actions all have immediate effect and there’s no rival civilisations to complete with militarily. Combine this with a simple resource system that’s based around trading between planets you’ve colonised and you’ve got the core of what Slipways is about: making the best of what you can in the time you have. This also puts it in the strange place of making most of its games run no more than an hour, something which no other 4X game really aspires to do.
Graphically it’s quite a simple affair as all you’ve got to look at are planets spaced out across an isometric plane. I have to admit that it’d be nice to have the planets scaled up a bit and given a bit more detail so they were easier to distinguish when you are fully zoomed out. As they are right now some of the more similar planet types have a tendency to look pretty similar to each other, which can mean a little bit of frustrated clicking back and forth as you try to figure out the best trade route. Other than that there’s not much to say about the audio visual experience, it’s good and in keeping with the genre’s general style.
Trade is the name of the game in Slipways and it’s a much more striped down version of what I’ve come to expect from 4X titles. All planets have a requirement and an output; they’ll need the input for the colony to not be a drain on your happiness meter but they’ll continue to produce their output without it (with a couple notable exceptions). The more trade the colony does the more successful they’ll be, earning more income for you. There’s a tech tree which is progressed through establishing research bases that require people and a resource as an input, which will then generate science points every year for you to spend. There’s also tasks from your council (which you select 3 different races to represent, also influencing your tech tree) to complete which give you bonuses and also unlock options for random events that you’ll encounter. That might still sound like a lot for a single game to cram in but, compared to other 4X games of recent memory, it’s a laughly simple amount of things to juggle.
That doesn’t mean it’s a simple game to pick up however. The maps (even the campaign ones as far as I can tell) are all procedurally generated, which means that you’ll need to employ vastly different strategies depending on how your galactic landscape works out. The choice of your council can be a great benefit here, although it can be hard to figure out which bonuses you should take given you don’t know exactly what situation you’ll end up in. That being said, given that each game isn’t meant to go for long there’s really no shame in abandoning a less than stellar start after 5 or 10 minutes, something I did a lot early on to get a feel for how to start (and maintain) a successful empire.
There’s a couple pointers I can give you that will hopefully make your first few hours in Slipways a little more successful than mine were. For starters, whilst the tutorial helpfully states that you should start out with an established ring of a handful of planets before expanding out, they don’t tell you the best way to approach expansion. Long story short: go slow as the more planets you add to your empire the more opportunity you have to optimise between the ones you already have. Getting colonies to successful/prosperous will likely help you out more than getting more colonies (in general) as getting more colonies means there’s more requirements you need to satisfy (and more chances that you can’t, for whatever reason).
Tech is also a hard thing to balance, I’ve found. Whilst it’s easy enough to setup research stations there’s always a good chance you’ll put one in the way of something or you’ll only be able to supply it with one unit of people and a particular resource, severely limiting your ability to tech up. I’ve found it’s generally better to not rely on tech given the heavy cost it requires in both time and resources, something you don’t typically have a lot of in the 25 year span of regular games. When you are going through the tech tree though do note that once you’ve gone up a tech level the next lowest one will be locked out from you, so it’s usually best to grab the lowest techs first (especially since most of them will allow you to colonise more planet types).
Slipways gets the grand honour of being called my essence game for the 4X genre and it’s rightly deserved as it achieves a lot without too much. The 4X genre is renowned for its intricate complexity and Slipways manages to distill out many of the key elements (expansion, tech, trade and resource management) to make a solid game that doesn’t take up eons of your time. I can see it having the potential to expand into a fully fledged 4X game if they opened it up to modding, something which I hope the developer is considering doing in the near future. For fans of both casual and 4X games alike Slipways is certainly something you should consider giving your time to.
Slipways is available on PC right now for $23.95. Total play time was 5.8 hours.