Review: Uciana07 May 2018 4
Released 31 Dec 2017
They say the mark of a good turn-based game is its insistence that you play for just one more turn. And as my bus stop came and went without me because I was too busy launching a space armada into the far corners of the galaxy, I can confirm that Space 4X strategy game Uciana is certainly hard to put down. But lacking any sort of meaningful tutorial and user-friendly design, Uciana’s unquenchable draw can be as infuriating as it is satisfying.
There have been few memorable 4X games on mobile, or any platform outside of PC really. As I’m sure you’re aware, 4X stands for ‘explore, expand, exploit and exterminate’, which Uciana follows to the letter. You begin each game with next to nothing. Well, you actually begin as an immortal ruler of a whole planet, but after an hour or so of playing, you’ll have claimed a dozen stars, and fought hard won battles in your quest for supremacy.
But on top of merely occupying as much space as possible, there’s a lot beneath the surface to consider. You’ll have to manage each space fleet and planetary production, as well as your galactic sized economy and scientific research. This is where Uciana’s depth becomes more of an issue than a benefit. For starters, the economy is never explained. Like, at all. In my first outing, I had reset the game because I was completely undone by an economic depression that came out of nowhere and would not go away. Each turn the game forced me to sell a building or fleet in order to progress without letting me weigh up my options. There’s also a taxation system that seems tied to a happiness gauge that remains a mystery to this day. Luckily, citizens seem extremely easy to please and even on the few starving planets I occupied the happiness rating was around 105%.
These moments when obscure rules emerge from the inky blackness are unfortunately frequent, even after several games, and often ruin your flow. One more turn is difficult to consider when the game would not let you end your previous turn for reasons it doesn’t choose to divulge.
While a certain amount of depth is comforting, allowing you to either spend a few minutes micromanaging for the perfect empire or distract yourself from its impending collapse, wielding so many unexplained rules just becomes exhausting. It feels like Uciana is purposely imitating its PC cousins but lacks the polish, control and time to effectively pull them off. Games like 2016’s Stellaris have similar mechanics which are more directly felt and controlled by the player. It feels almost as if Uciana took a little too much inspiration from these games but lacked the skills needed to marry the systems together in a way the player can easily understand.
But despite this massive black hole in the centre of the galaxy that is Uciana, it’s still remarkably fun to play. As 4X so aptly describes, the beginning of the game sees you launching boldly into the stars, exploring every system search of exciting new planets. Soon after you’re building colonies and outposts across the galaxy and harvesting the resources to build great empires. Finally, once all your pawns are in place it’s time to strike out and conquer your neighbours. The AI isn’t much of an opponent for experienced fans of the genre, mainly because their actions don’t make a great deal of sense, but you still feel that thrilling satisfaction when you nuke their planets from orbit.
Uciana also offers local multiplayer, letting you pass the phone around turn by turn. It is not the most elegant way to play with maddeningly varied turn times and difficultly understanding what other players have done. Nor is it something that can singularly hold a group’s attention for long, but it is great fun with friends over an evening. Making secret alliances while some are distracted or launching an assault while you lock eyes with your unknowing prey are, some of my favourite memories with this game. The world map can be changed at the start from the handful stars you might expect to see in inner-city London to the glowing small skies found out in the countryside. Uciana does warn you that bigger maps can drain your battery quickly, but my Samsung Galaxy S8 didn’t seem to struggle with the added load. That being said, my fingers were certainly complaining. Controlling a star spanning empire from the palm of your hands can be a little tricky, and without the option to zoom in you might accidentally send your ships to the wrong side of the galaxy or battlefield.
Combat, which can be entirely avoided, is also turn based. Each ship engaged is placed on a 2D hexagon battlefield. Ships are given some form of initiative at the beginning of the battle and are capable of moving and shooting in a turn. Occasional environmental obstacles can get in the way but combat once again is weighted down by a heavy, unseen rule book. You are shown the likelihood of successful shooting a ship each time you go to fire. These are displayed as percentages, but their value fluctuates wildly and seemingly at random. Sometimes moving closer improves your odds, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes lurking near an asteroid makes you a more difficult target, sometimes it doesn’t.
In these combat encounters the AI truly loses its competence, while players just get confused. It’s a shame that such an interesting take on the genre can be so undermined by its own rules. If the game featured a more thorough tutorial perhaps its many unexplained nuances could be understood and exploited. Or if some of the more ungainly mechanics were removed or toned down, the simple nature might prove even more popular. As it stands though, what can be gleamed from Uciana is still a lot of fun. But with an unseen hand that influences so much the game and stifles so much of the fun it can be difficult to keep playing. There’s a lot of promise in Uciana, but its over-complicated and largely unexplained rule-set holds it back.