So based on the recommendation of my friend, Joe Vasicek, I had downloaded a copy of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri from a handy little place called GOG.com. I was a rabid fan of the Civilization series by the same publisher, and my childhood is marked by periods of extreme obsession with Settlers, Railroads, and Wonders of the World. I'm still convinced that I learned more about the process of technological advancement and historical monuments from that game than I did from most of my history classes, but that may just say more about me than it does about my teachers. :)
Anyway, for those of you who have never played a 4x strategy game like Civilization or Alpha Centauri, let me give you a picture of how the thing works. You're basically given a civilization where you have to build cities, develop technology and create military units as your people expand over the course of a few millenium/centuries. You get involved in the diplomacy side of things once you run into the borders of another civilization. Given the nature of the game, things typically either degenerate to a point where all those military units come in quite handy, or the other civilization, cowed by your awesomeness, petition to become your allies. The level of difficulty chosen at the start of the game can often determine how decidedly unfriendly these other competitors are, as well as how quickly they develop, grow, and fight.
There are a variety of ways to win, whether by convincing your various competitors to choose you as their leader through diplomacy, completing a particular construction project, or even by simply wiping out all the other civilizations on the globe. The term '4x' is kind of derived from that fact--you're supposed to compete with the other players on several levels, the four main ones being how much you've explored, how much your civilization has expanded, how well your economy can exploit the available resources in your territory, and, of course, how effectively your military can eliminate your competition. This type of game is typically a very long term, involved process which can take days just to finish one simple game. You think that RPGs are bad for being near-abusive time sinks? You've never tried one of these babies.
Basically, I should have known what I was getting into when I bought this game, but I'm stupid enough to get a game like this when it is cheap and cool. (See Dwarf Fortress and Spelunky for a comparison.) Alpha Centauri does not disappoint. You basically are a portion of a colonisation crew sent to Alpha Centauri. The crew gets broken up into factions due to a disaster in orbit, so you're competing against six other groups right off the bat. You can chose the different factions, which each have their own benefits, from the militant Spartans to the enviromentally sound Gaians to the diplomatic Peacekeepers. Each one has their own playing style and feel to it, and it was fun trying them all out.
I had to say that the game was definitely a great experience. There were some low points; the global warming mechanic seemed to kick in at precisely the wrong times no matter what I tried, the scientific progression seemed a bit hard to understand, and some of the military progression just seemed to be a bit uninventive. At the same time, the improvement in the barbarian/alien mind worm challenge was awesome, the chance to customize your own units only made things better, and I loved the flexibility that floating cities gave me to expand. Definitely a worthwhile buy, though I'm sure I would have been a bit more productive if I hadn't been playing it... See you around!