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4X style games (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) have always been a bit like cocaine to me. They exert a powerful "one more go" feeling that often lasts far too late into the night. Finally I've found the answer: a browser-based Flash game called Neptune's Pride.
The reason this game solves my unhealthy obsession with this genre is twofold. One, it has simple-but-effective gameplay mechanics that are very satisfying in the style of all good strategy games. Two, the game plays out in psuedo-realtime. It is not actually possible to spend a lot of time with this game each day. I'll explain below.
Neptune's Pride is a 8-12 player multiplayer game that is free to play (although you can buy 'credits' to improve your experience, create custom games, etc). As mentioned, the gameplay is simple. Victory goes to the player that conquers a certain number of planets, from a starting point of a single planet (the kicker is, no one can win without at least half the players being wiped out completely).
All planets have three characteristics: Economy, Industry and Science. A point of economy earns you $10 per day, a point of industry generates two ships per day, and each point of science increases the rate you research each of the four technologies in the game: Weapons, Speed, Scanning and Range. Each level of technology takes progressively longer to research, and some (Weapons, Speed) are harder than the others to advance. The balance of improving your planets, plus the choice of technology to research, makes for some remarkably deep gameplay. In addition, some planets contain more resources than others, making them cheaper to upgrade and thus juicier prizes.
Planets are captured by sending a fleet of ships to them. Fleets consist of single giant "carriers" that can warp between planets. However, travel between planets is not instantaneous. It might take 10 real hours (or more) for a fleet to make the jump, and once under way they cannot be diverted. Given that there is a significant advantage to being the defender in a battle, this travel mechanic mean that fleet movement needs to be considered very carefully (especially when your opponent has a larger fleet in the vicinity).
Two other things make this a game that rewards forward-planning and taking the long view on strategy. One is the aforementioned delay in travel between planets and resource generation, making it impossible to react quickly. Victory takes planning, not reflexes. The second is that victory in battle is determined largely by the number of ships you have, and these are produced no faster than your planet's industry: two ships per point of industry, per day. Doesn't matter if you have a huge reserve of cash, you cannot buy your way out of trouble.
Beyond the satisfying strategy , however, is the best part of the game: the "metagame" of alliances and betrayal between players. There is a public bulletin board and private messaging between players. Private messages will soon be flying thick and fast as players negotiate to form and break alliances. Invasion is costly, and it is far easier for two players to conquer one. The one downside of this game is that it seems to be impossible to win without being a heartless, backstabbing son-of-a-bitch. Is your new ally holding back his fleets and letting you soak up the damage, ready for a backstab later? Better hold back your own first. Oh, the paranoia!
For such a simple (and free!) game, this is astonishingly good fun. A solid two thumbs up from me. Play it. Just be prepared to be getting up at odd hours to check on the progress of that enemy fleet on your border...