Build <generic production building>.

     Move <generic scout ship> to nearby star.

     Survey nearby star.  Find <generic world good at Stat X>.

     Build <generic colony ship>.

     Settle <World good at Stat X>

     Meet <Alien Race good at Game Attribute V>

You can fill in the blanks, if you want, with the details from just about any space-based 4X game in recent memory, and it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference to the player experience.  This is a big problem that SF games have in general, and it is felt most acutely in space-based strategy SF games.  The designers have to make up a universe and aliens and technology and everything to go along with them, and most often it seems pretty interchangeable.  In Master of Orion, the aliens that are good at tech were the Psilons, and in every game since, there’s been an alien race or faction that’s good at tech, and they all seem kind of interchangeable, and it’s kind of hard to care too much about any of them.  Planets are even worse – at least the Psilons got a face.  About the only thing differentiating Alpha Epsilon 6 and Tau Ceti 2 is the color chosen by the artists, and its production/research/whatever stats.

I got thinking about this listening to Episode 201 of Three Moves Ahead.  At around the 48 minute mark, they brought up three games released in 2012 that all suffered from this problem – Distant Worlds, Warlock, and Fallen Enchantress.  I can confirm it for Fallen Enchantress – I just can’t bring myself to care too much about why the factions are different, or imagine how life in the city of one would be all that different than life in the city of another.  Well, except that the grass around Imperial cities is blue, but changes to green magically if it’s captured by a Kingdom.  Every game tries to create some sort of lore or story behind its races, but they all boil down to whatever set of advantages or disadvantages the race or faction gets.

Master of Orion 1 and 2 stick out a bit from the pack, but in large part I think that may just have been because they were the first.  They set the mold from which all other space 4x games have been created.

The other standout, cited in the Podcast, is Alpha Centauri.  In that game, each faction really did seem different in a meaningful and memorable way.  People had favorites, some of them based on gameplay reasons but some of them also based on their own personal connection to the characters and the story.

In my opinion, this is in large part because the factions in Alpha Centauri were based on real and immediately understandable philosophical differences with relevance to modern society.   Economic Development (Morganites) versus Ecological Preservation (Gaians) is a burning issue in the modern world.  The needs of the collective (Hive) versus the civil rights of the individual (UN) has been a basic problem in philosophy since the ancient world – one reason that China has struggled with its historical memory of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di is because he so decisively came down on the side of the collective.

By drawing on such immediately recognizable issues of political philosophy, personalizing these issues in the leader of each faction, explaining the various viewpoints in the words and voices of these leaders, and building an (occasionally) plausible link between their views and their in-game mechanics, Alpha Centauri tied theme and faction together in a way that very few other SF or Fantasy games have managed.