Have you ever been frustrated by how shallow the mechanics are in a strategy game? Have you ever just craved a game that simulates every tiny detail, something on the order of Dwarf Fortress’s obsession with realism, but in a 4X / grand strategy setting? Did you play Galactic Civilizations 2 and think, “I love this ship design system, but I wish I could actually design this stuff instead of slapping together all these pre-made parts”? Did you ever play X-Com and think to yourself, “Yeah, but what are all the names and personality quirks of my scientists?” Did you ever want to not only assign city governors in Civilization, but also your entire military and administrative staff, down to customizing the names of their ranks and giving them custom medals? Did you play EVE Online but think to yourself, “This is pretty okay but I was promised a lot more spreadsheets”?
Okay, one last question: how nostalgic are you for Microsoft Office circa 1995? If you answered “very”, Aurora 4X might be the game for you! Wait, don’t leave, I promise it’s good!
Aurora is a game made by a single person, to satisfy a very particular set of desires and specifications, originally for use as a storytelling aid for a pen & paper RPG campaign from the 70s. If you’re not literally Steve Walmsley, you’re probably not going to like absolutely everything about the game. But he has generously decided to share his work with anyone else who might have similar tastes and wants to try it out, for free. That’s pretty commendable, and without Mr. Walmsley’s generosity, the sci-fi grognard gaming space would be a poorer place.
You can check out the wiki or the forums, both of which are okay (though good luck getting a new account approved for the forums). But as much as Reddit’s culture really bugs the hell out of me, the Aurora subreddit is actually a great resource for starting out. They have quick links to a nice installer and wrapper for getting the game working on modern hardware (that also comes with music and a lot of extra faction portraits), and it’s a sorta-decently active community at the time of writing, so you can get answers to questions in a timely manner (compared to the forums).
The game itself is utilitarian in appearance. The emphasis is on conveying lots of complex information, and explicitly not on accessibility/transparency. I hope you enjoy super-saturated blue and green, with naked light-theme Visual Basic-looking windows everywhere. Database entries for miles. Everything is text, with dots representing the positions of ships, planets, missiles, and everything else on the galaxy map. Lines indicating trajectories. Plain gray rectangles for buttons. You get the idea. Personally, I don’t find the interface that off-putting, because of how efficiently it tells you what’s going on and what your options are. But I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the UI from others, so it bears mentioning.
Hiding underneath that crusty and intimidating exterior is a game of startling, nearly-overwhelming complexity and depth. If you take the time to come to grips with it, and you’re willing to exercise your imagination a bit, you’ll have access to one of the richest experiences on offer in sci-fi strategy.
The two best examples of complicated but interesting things you can do in the game are probably terraforming and missile design. Terraforming involves directly choosing which gas to pump into the atmosphere of a given planet. So, rather than pushing a “terraform” button, you have to be mindful of your race’s preferred breathable gases. For humans (the default choice), that would mean ensuring that you achieve a ratio of 79% nitrogen to 20% oxygen, with 1% argon (the other minor gases in actual breathable air aren’t accounted for, sadly), pumping it in in tiny amounts, keeping an eye on the atmospheric pressure. You can even do genetic engineering to create alternate genetic strains of your chosen race, with different pressure, temperature, gravity, and gas tolerances. But all of this needs to be researched, first.
Designing missiles (pictured above) is actually more complicated than terraforming, which is just a crazy sentence to write. Take a look at this spreadsheet aid a player named Romalar1 created to help with designing them, for instance.
Missiles have 4 main stats: warhead strength, fuel capacity, agility, and reactor. Reactor isn’t important for most normal missiles, since your engines will power things like your electronic counter-measures and active sensors, but it’s important for buoys (missiles without engines). Warhead strength is how much damage the missile will do. Aurora has a complicated damage model because of course it does, but for now, take a look at the damage diagram below (missile damage is on the left, lasers on the right).
Basically, missiles of damage 1 will just do a single point of damage on a single spot. Damage 4 means you’re going a layer deeper and also getting some spread out to the sides (add together all the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 on the diagram). What this means is twofold: the best missiles have damage that’s a perfect square (1, 4, 9, 16, or 25), and also missiles are good at knocking out big sections of enemy ship armor, whereas lasers are better at penetrating through to destroy ship systems. Compare a missile of damage 4 to a laser of damage 4, which penetrates one layer deeper while only hitting one additional spot to the side.
Fuel Capacity is pretty self-explanatory; everything in Aurora needs fuel to move around, which you get by mining an element called Sorium and refining it. Agility is also an easy concept to grasp; it’s how quickly your missiles will be able to change direction, and by how much.
The more you increase these stats, however, the larger the missile becomes, which is expressed in Missile Size Points (MSP). MSP is also increased by other components you put into the missile, such as its engine and active sensors. You can choose to forgo an engine to make a “buoy” (an example of why you might do this would be to create a minefield), or forgo active sensors, relying on your ships’ fire control systems (which also have to be designed and researched, of course, like everything). If you want engines on your missiles, those will also need to be designed. You can tweak the size, power, fuel efficiency, and thermal profile of these (just like for your ships’ engines). And finally, however large the missile ends up being, you’ll need to design launchers capable of firing them, and make sure any ships or planetary defence centers you want firing those missiles have those launchers on them.
Missile design is thus one of the major brick walls waiting for a new player. However, mastering it gives you unprecedented control over the kind of game you want to play. Many players believe the best doctrine for defending against missiles involves using AMMs or “Anti-Missile Missiles”, which are designed to be as small and fast as possible (without regard to fuel efficiency), with very good sensors. Some players like to design the largest possible behemoths of explosive power, or lay out minefields around their systems to trap enemies unawares. I haven’t even touched on ECM and ECCM, both of which are very important to the meta design aspect of missiles. I’ve never played another game that lets you have this kind of control. If you’re like me, just hearing that Aurora lets you design the engines your missiles will use gave you chills. It’s what originally got me to check out the game in the first place.
I’ve mentioned research twice now, so how does that work? Research is linked to a few other game systems (surprise, surprise!), in that you need both scientists to think about stuff and labs for them to work in. The labs are built using your construction factories on a given planet, and they cost minerals and time to get going. Scientists are automatically recruited over time, along with naval officers and civilian administrators, from your military academies (also built by factories, though your homeworld starts with one).
Once you have a collection of scientists and some labs for them to work in, you can assign research projects. Research is divided up into eight specialized areas, and so are your scientists. Every scientist generated by your military academies will also have a percentage boost to research. This applies to any research points that scientist generates, but if you assign them properly to their specialized field, the bonus is multiplied by four! This strongly incentivizes you to match people up correctly. The bonus (like all leader bonuses) can also be built up over time through practice. So, you might want to assign all your labs to a scientist with a big boost to knock out a big project quickly, but then you’ve got all these other scientists lying fallow, not doing anything, not building up their bonuses for when you need them later. It’s a balancing act.
Bonus research points can also be acquired through doing research on a planet or other body that is host to an anomaly (found by doing gravitational surveys). You can also get research points by salvaging components from wrecked ships and reverse-engineering them.
Designing your first engine is a lot like designing missiles, only much simpler. First, you research the basic theoretical tech required for a general kind of engine (such as Nuclear Pulse Engines or what have you). Next, you go into the Design window and use that tech to create the design concept for a particular engine of that type. This generates a research project, which you assign a scientist to (hopefully one with a Power & Propulsion specialty) to prototype the engine in reality. Once you’ve done all that, now you can design ships using that engine. This process also applies for all your weapons, shields, sensors, cloaking devices, anything you want to put on a ship that isn’t something structural. Stuff like cargo bays, new types of armor, new sizes of fuel tank, fighter bays, that kind of stuff can just be researched and then built outright without needing to be designed in this way.
Ship design is completely open-ended. Categories of ship exist in a drop-down menu, but they have no function other than role-playing and giving your ship classes little abbreviations before their names. So, “Geosurvey Vessels” are “GEV [whatever]”, but you can’t actually scan planets for minerals with one until you equip it with a geosurvey scanner device. You are perfectly welcome to build GEVs without scanners, if you want something useless flying around eating up fuel, or make them your destroyer gunboats. It’s your game, do whatever you like!
You start off by designing a ship “class“, and then you need to fit your shipyard(s) to that class in order to build particular ships of that class (which you can name individually). If you build certain kinds of ships within certain weight (and part?) tolerances of each other, then you can sometimes build multiple classes of ship from a single shipyard, but this is kinda hard to do and I’m not 100% sure of the math and conditions involved in making it happen. Generally speaking, you’re going to need one shipyard for each class of ship you want to build. Shipyards have a maximum tonnage of ship they can handle, and they’re limited to building one at a time for each slipway they have. Adding slipways and increasing tonnage is very expensive in material costs and time, especially as your tonnages get larger and you need more and more slipways. So, there’s a balancing act here with how many shipyards and slipways you actually want, and it all depends on the size and composition of the fleet you’re fielding.
When designing a class of ship, there’s a few ideas to keep in mind. You want to ensure that the ship has enough fuel, spare berths, and recreational areas to keep the crew happy for however long they’re supposed to be deployed. You designate the maximum deployment time on the class design screen, and it will automatically populate the parts list with some bare-bones essentials based on that. Exceeding the intended deployment time causes crew morale to decrease, which in turn causes your ship’s effectiveness to decrease. How much this materially affects your mission varies by what you’re trying to do. Freighters aren’t impacted by low morale very much at all, whereas you want to keep your fighters in tip-top condition. Personally, I pride myself on keeping morale high across my fleet no matter what. Crew morale can only be raised by spending time orbiting a colony doing nothing, to give your people shore leave to decompress.
Another thing to keep in mind is whether the ship is classified as “commercial” or “military” for maintenance purposes. Commercial ships use lower-grade, larger, more efficient parts, stuff that’s less cutting edge. Consequently, they never really break down or suffer catastrophic failures that they can’t rectify themselves with routine parts and procedures. Military vessels, with their tiny, powerful, cutting-edge parts and intricate weapons and defensive systems, are prone to maintenance failures. If you design a ship that’s classed as military, it will have a “maintenance clock” that goes up as it spends time deployed. Think of this like the morale meter (which military ships also do have), but the only way to lower it is to do an “overhaul” of the ship at a planet with the right equipment to do one. And instead of decreasing your mission effectiveness, the ship and its parts can just explode if you ignore it. In addition to needing enough maintenance facilities to handle a ship of the size in question, you also have to burn maintenance supplies to do overhauls, which cost production time and materials, and the ship has to sit in dry dock doing nothing while the clock rewinds to zero. Unless and until you need to start raising a force to repel an incursion, then, you probably want to hold off on building up a military just for the purpose of sitting there eating through your supplies.
If you’re suffering from colony unrest but don’t want to make military vessels, that’s what PDCs and ground units are for, FYI. Ground units are also used in planetary invasion. It also bears mentioning here that absolutely everything in Aurora is nameable. You get to decide what everything is called, from your ship classes and individual ships, to your leaders, to the companies that make all your weapons and engines and such, to your colonies, to your types of ground units, everything. There’s so much RP fodder and imagination-stimulating potential here.
When you’re designing your parts, it will tell you ahead of time whether a ship using it will be classed as commercial or military. Having only commercial parts on a ship is the only way to ensure it’s classed as commercial. Pop even one military-grade part on there, and you’ll have to deal with the maintenance clock. The flipside bonus you get from having military vessels is that the parts they can use are vastly more powerful than those available to commercially-classed vessels. Military ships can also engage in task group training, to increase their effectiveness and team coordination with other ships in their task group.
Oh, did I not mention task groups? This is how you give orders to your ships.
For instance, let’s say you’ve designed a freighter class with a big cargo hold and lots of cargo loaders, to make it load and unload things nice and fast. You pop some of your biggest commercial engines on there to help it move all that junk in the trunk, and you fit your commercial shipyard (the one with enough tonnage) to make that class. You’ve built your first freighter, and it pops out a year later. Okay, now what?
Let’s say you want to take 100 automated mines and pop them on Venus, where your geosurvey ship found a nice supply of Sorium, so you can refine more fuel every year. First, you go into the task group window. Then, you split the freighter off from the Shipyard TG into its own TG. Then, you select Earth and tell it to Load Automated Mine (the standard cargo bay can only hold 1, these things are huge). Then you select Venus and tell it to Unload Automated Mine. Then you select Earth and tell it to Refuel at Colony, because you do not want to have to figure out fuel resupplying at this stage of the early game. Then, you can go down to the field next to the button where it says “Repeat”, put the number 99 in there, and click Repeat. Close the window and start advancing time, and the freighter will zip back and forth 100 times. When it’s done, you’ve got automated mines on Venus just like you wanted.
Time advances according to your wishes, by the way. Aurora doesn’t have a set turn length. Instead, you advance by anywhere from 5 seconds (useful in combat) up to 30 days at a time, with an option to take automatic turns until something interesting happens. Everything outside of combat (orbits, industrial stuff, research) mostly happens on a 5-day “tick”.
Ah, but you wanted to bring those minerals to Earth, right? For that, you can either keep using the freighter with a standing order to pick up minerals from Venus and drop them on Earth, or you can take a mass driver to Venus. Tell the mass driver to fling huge packets of minerals at the Earth. Make sure you leave another one on Earth, or you’ll kill billions of people because there won’t be a receiving system in place for the packet (read: giant death asteroid). Okay, now you’ve got a steady supply of minerals coming in from Venus for use in your Earth production lines! Good job. Repeat this for every mineral site you find!
If you wanna find more minerals, you’ll need ground survey teams for that. You hand-pick a team of scientists with good Survey skills, form them into a geology team, design and build a little shuttle for them, load them onto the shuttle, and start taking them around to various bodies you’ve surveyed, looking for additional minerals! They’ll build more Survey skill this way, and you have a (small) chance to find more stuff for you to mine.
Once you’ve exhausted all the asteroids, planets, moons, and comets in your home system, it’ll be time to design a gravitational survey ship (and a jump drive) so you can go through the jump points in your system and look for other systems to strip mine and conquer to feed the never-ending machine of your empire. Do an interstellar colonialism all over the universe, it’s fun.
Colonies can be established by designing a ship with cryogenic stasis pods on board, to transport colonists over there. You can pick any celestial body from the map and immediately claim it for the government, and there’s no limit to how many colonies you can have. However, you’ll be limited in practice by the suitability of each body for colonization, which requires you to build and transport over “infrastructure” so that people can actually live there (or do genetic engineering to make people perfectly suited to living there, either way). You’re also limited somewhat by planning around the potential activities of the private sector.
Oh, that’s right, you might be the omnipotent immortal God-Queen of a galaxy-spanning empire, but you’re the government. There’s still private industry, and you don’t control them! You can subsidize them to give them more money (one of the few uses for that sweet “racial wealth” lucre, actually), but they build their own ships, make their own colonies, do their own mining. You can buy out what they mine, or you can tax their shipments. Each option has its upsides and downsides, and choosing what to do with each private colony will be based on whether it’s worth it to buy what they’re selling. You can also trade commodities with the private sector for wealth, and you can fill out contract paperwork to have them ship things around for you.
Another limiting factor on colonization is unrest. Colonies like to not feel overcrowded, and they like to feel protected by the empire. That means bringing to bear military vessels, ground units, and planetary defence centers (PDCs), to help them feel safer. Yeah, that’s it. Safer. PDCs are designed similarly to ships, but they get a bit more armor, and you can build and ship them to other places in pieces that you assemble on arrival using a construction brigade (or factories, if you’ve already built them there and unrest isn’t so high as to render your production useless).
There’s still so much I haven’t even begun to touch on. There’s little things, like how you can split up your production into percentages and do multiple builds at once instead of waiting on each in turn, or how fighters and ordnance have their own production lines, or how to manage your stockpiles. Two other big things I’d like to at least mention in passing are diplomacy and the Spacemaster mode. Lots of things can happen when you meet and interact with other species, not the least of which is that technology can “leak” between you through trade exposure and having colonies on the same worlds. People talk, you know? There’s espionage, war, all kinds of intricate stuff, easily surpassing the diplomacy options available in most other 4Xes.
Spacemaster mode is there to give you total control over the universe’s very fabric, for setting up alternate scenarios or causing specific things to happen. Chiefly, you’ll use SM to design alternate species and systems, for when you don’t want to just be humans on Earth. If you want to be the Xenon from the X series, or the methane-breathing Fards from their homeworld of Big Fard, you’ll need to get to know Spacemaster mode. It’s complicated, though, so just start as humans for your first few games. Trust me.
So, again, this game is fucking free. For all its complexity, all its depth and all the cool and interesting shit you can get up to in it, it’s absolutely amazing to me (and it should be to you) that it won’t cost you a dime. All Aurora will ask of you is your time, your imagination, and your persistence. In return, you’ll have access to a truly amazing world full of wonderful details and lots of little knobs and levers to control. I strongly urge you to get in there and start flipping some switches. Go get Aurora, learn it, play it, struggle with it. It is absolutely worth your time.
And finally: Steve, if you’re reading this, thanks so much! I love this game, and I hope you keep up the good work for many years to come.