Gratuitous Space Battles

Gratuitous Space Battles
Gratuitous Space Battles Cover
Platforms Windows
Genre Space battle simulator... gratuitously
Buy from Developer

We finish off our second annual indie games month with Gratuitous Space Battles, an epic space battle simulator from Positech Games. During our first independent games month last year, we featured Kudos 2, a life simulator also created by the one man team of Cliff Harris at Positech Games. This guy likes his simulators, whether they're of space, life, or Democracy, but Gratuitous Space Battles is a seriously awesome game.

Gratuitous Space Battles is the first game I ever played of its kind. It's almost like one giant, single turn of a board game, or Civilization. Your opponent's pieces are in place and visible on the board, and it is your job to create and deploy a fleet of ships that can combat and destroy them, hopefully while taking minimal losses yourself. Once you click Fight, there's nothing else you can do. It feels very... unnatural at first, like the developer is taking away control of the most enjoyable part of the game. There are explosions and debris everywhere, and you want to be part of the action. But then you begin to realize that the actual simulation isn't the game, but everything before it.

It's fairly obvious that Gratuitous Space Battles is not a game for everyone. There's no real-time micro-management, no hotkeys to quick select a group of ships, and especially no mouse button spamming to get your point across. Gratuitous Space Battles is one of the finest, genre-defining games I've ever played. The game is simply in its own category. I honestly can't give the game a final score because I don't know what to compare it against.

Gratuitous Space Battles was developed for Windows but also works great in Wine on Linux, which is how I played it.

Gratuitous Space Battles Blue Lasers

The supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy

Gratuitous Space Battles doesn't hide anything from you. Before going into a battle, you know how many ships the opponent has deployed, generally what kind of ships they are, and their exact formation. You also know how many finite resources are at your disposal and thus, how many ships you can deploy against the enemy. Since everything is laid out on the table, it's all about strategy and a plan of attack.

Once you begin the battle, you have exactly zero influence on the outcome of the battle. The game explains this saying your officers didn't go to school and study military strategy to be ordered around the battle by some guy back at home. You have to trust in your ship commanders that they will execute the plan you laid out. I like this idea a lot, we've all played a hundred real-time strategy games, and there are a hundred of them in development, leave it to the indie developer to create a great niche for himself.

The ships you can deploy yourself are limited by two factors: the amount of money you're allowed to spend and the number of soldiers you're allowed to use. Each ship you place on the map takes away a certain amount from each. A single frigate might only use up one pilot, but a squadron of fighters will encompass more than ten. A beefed up cruiser might cost twice as much as the tutorial cruiser, but the bang for your buck might be worth it. This is one of the game's great balancing acts and was something I enjoyed fiddling with.

GSB features three base types of units: fighters, frigates, and cruisers. In their default setup, they play a sort of game of rock-paper-scissor, but we'll get into why that isn't a huge factor a bit later. Before the battle and after you've placed some units, you can give a particular ship or squadron some orders. Do you want your fighters to pick away at the cruisers or skirmish with other fighters? Should your frigate serve as defense for your cruisers against fighters or attack enemy frigates. This is one of the deeper aspects of strategy, and you can really dive in if you'd like to immerse yourself.

So you've set up a perfect formation and given your ships an ultimate strategy, but you're still getting decimated in battle? Feel free to try, try again without any repercussions. But chances are, it's time to start creating your own spaceships.

Gratuitous Space Battles Ship Design

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war

Gratuitous Space Battle's learning curve is set up so that you can get away for quite a while without getting too deep in strategy and ship management, but if you want to take on the tougher difficulties and really win the war, well, you've got to head to the shipyard and do some thinking and building. You earn Honor Points by winning battles, which you can then spend at headquarters to buy new stuff. Improve your ships and strategies, earn more Honor, buy better stuff.

You start with picking a hull, the major choice selecting whether you want a fighter, frigate, or cruiser. Each hull option has a different number of available module slots to attach your purchases. The basics are additional power sources, stronger armor, more shields, and a variety of weaponry. There's also some unique stuff like tractor beams to keep fighters within range while you blast them away. You're limited in what you can attach in a variety of ways, but mostly it's power and available crew. Basically every module sucks up power and requires someone on hand to maintain it. Another balancing act.

Slapping on too many modules also weighs down your ship and reduces its maneuverability and speed. If you were to put some really heavy parts on a fighter, its usefulness of being a speedy attacker would basically be tossed out the window. But weigh down an already impressively large cruiser and it may not be that big of deal.

There's also weapons, and a ton of them at that. Lasers, plasma, missiles, purple beams, etc. Every weapon you would expect in a science fiction universe appears in Gratuitous Space Battles. It's a bit overwhelming at first since there are so many, and they all have stats such as minimum range, maximum range, and optimal range, along with how much damage it does. So many numbers, but if you spend the time to play with your options, it's one of the most rewarding parts of the game.

Gratuitous Space Battles Red Background

Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat

Gratuitously noisy. And beautiful.

So we've covered the strategy of battle and designing your own fleet, you finally click Fight and the battle begins. And a glorious battle it is. Shields light up as lasers hit them, swarms of fighters buzz around cruisers picking away at their hull defenses. Clusters of missiles slowly float across the screen making their way towards the targeted ship, debris flies by from the wreck of five worthless frigates. Slow the action down to take it all in, or speed it up to get to the meat of the battle. Watch the vitals of your last remaining cruiser as it pounds away on their last remaining cruiser and pray you win the battle of attrition. Even after the battle begins, you will be having fun.

With the right imagination, Gratuitous Space Battles feels like you're reliving the final space battle in Return of the Jedi, or watching a Battlestar Galactica skirmish take place on your monitor. My only wish was that I could zoom out even further to take in more of what's going on, you often find yourself clicking on the mini-map to catch up on what's going on across the map. A split-screen view would be seriously awesome, Cliff.

It's honestly a lot of fun to watch the battles unfold, especially after you carefully created and deployed your fleet. It's almost as equally satisfying to watch yourself lose as it is to win, or have a close match as a total blowout. All are possible, and if you play long enough, you'll see a ton of cool effects. There's also a funny little communications panel at the top of your screen with the latest humorous update from your ship commanders. For example, "Decks four and six were just blasted away, it's a good thing we're on deck five!" I can tell he had some fun writing these.


Gratuitous Space Battles is a great game for the right kind of gamer. If you like turn-based strategy games or are even a fan of war board games, you will probably love what GSB has to offer. The gameplay is incredibly deep (vastly, beyond belief), I've barely even scratched the surface of it. There's also a great learning curve for what the game has to offer: you don't have to spend all your time building the perfect ship if you don't want, just don't expect to stand a chance on Hard. Plus there's great replayability with four races to choose from and infinite different ways to design your ships.

If you feel this game fits your style of play, get it. You will not regret your decision and you'll be supporting one of the most honest and hard-working independent developers around. Cliff Harris and Positech Games have striven to deliver great games at good prices and without DRM. Buy it, it's even on Steam.

Quotes courtesy of Sun Tzu in The Art of War.