Sins of a Solar Empire - Diplomacy Expansion Review
One of the best strategy games made in the last five years has a new expansion. Has it further improve the gameplay, or is it just the same old, same old?
Diplomacy: Peace at Last
Sins of a Solar Empire was one of the most surprising games of the last decade. It came from the no-name Ironclad Games and was published by the respected - but still small - Stardock. Many were skeptical of the game, which claimed to combine the intensity of real time strategy with the strategic depth of a 4X game, yet somehow Ironclad pulled the trick off flawlessly.
Ironclad followed up with the incredible Entrenchment expansion, which drastically altered the game's mechanics for the better. Now they have released another, slightly smaller expansion called Diplomacy. It's aim is obvious, as diplomacy has never been strong in Sins of a Solar Empire. But adding new mechanics is always a risk.
Gameplay - Diplomatic Elements
The Diplomacy expansion isn't far off Entrenchment in scope. Like Entrenchment, Diplomacy adds new unit types and also a new research tree for players to use. More importantly, the mechanics of diplomatic relations are fleshed out. Sins has always had the concept of missions, which the AI would give out to players asking that they accomplish certain tasks in exchange for better standing with the AI player. Now however, there are greater rewards in terms of resources and brownie points and players are allowed to give out missions to other players. There is also a new (optional) diplomatic victory condition which allows players to win by earning diplomatic points, which are gained through completing missions and through the use of the new diplomatic units.
The units themselves are diplomatic ships and are the typical Sins of a Solar Empire special unit fare. Speciality units, with abilities likes shield generators and targeting computers - not to mention the all-important capital ships - have always been central to Sins, but have largely been oriented towards combat. These diplomatic units give players additional methods of gaining an advantage outside of normal combat. They can prove very potent, but they also add another degree of micro-management which isn't pleasant to macro-minded folks like myself.
These changes all sound important, but in practice they're a bit less than the sum of their parts because they're mostly optional. Using the tools given in Entrenchment is important to winning in Sins, but players won't have to use the tools given to them in Diplomacy. They're just there, offering another path. That's not a bad thing, but it does feel like the new options could have been integrated more tightly.
Gameplay - AI Improvements
Besides the new diplomacy mechanics, the new expansion also makes some tweaks to the AI. While subtle, these tweaks may be the defining reason to buy the expansion. The AI in Sins has never been awful, but it has had room for improvement. The AI in Sins seems more logical than ever before. A normal difficulty it will, as would any good player, attack early and constantly worry your flanks. The AI will use pirates to its advantage and also knows how to attack by non-conventional means. In one recent game I was thoroughly pounding one AI player with my military only to suddenly hear that my homeworld was about to be lost. To my dismay I found that the second AI player had silently undergone a culture war and was about to flip the allegiance of several of my planets.
The new diplomacy mechanics also work perfectly alongside the AI. It is now possible to have meaningful relations with AI players. Those players who do choose the diplomatic route can form alliances with AI players and give them missions to try and direct their anger.
Sins of a Solar Empire isn't an essential expansion. But it isn't priced like one, either. At only ten bucks it isn't going to make you pull money out of your 401K and the new options are certainly worth your time.
More than anything, however, Diplomacy is great because it gives you a new reason to play Sins. I had not done so for about eight months, and I had forgotten just how good the game is. New players will also be happy to know that a new package, Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity, is available. It includes both expansions and is usually sold for around forty clams. If you haven't played Sins recently, or at all, I suggest you do so now. You won't regret it.