I've been playing this game off and on for about 2 weeks, after reading the manual and watching a few videos. I wanted to give a perspective from a game designer (me) and someone who enjoys games like Distant Worlds and the WITE/W/P series, as well as some fears, and advice.
Imagine viewing a gorgeous engine running through a window that is caked with vegetable oil. You can hear all the parts, in all their glory, humming and whirring, but you can't quite see the engine working. You know there's something special there, but when you try to wipe the window to get a glimpse of a game system or a function, you end up smearing more oil around. To really see the whole engine in all its glory, you have to scrub and scrub and scrub.
For me, it was worth the scrubbing. I have purchased Matrix games for almost 15 years (my first game was Uncommon Valor!) and I have by this time a full idea of what to expect from a Matrix game in terms of accessibility/manual/developer consistency, and obviously I've been a loyal customer for quite a while. As a designer, the game loop is (when it works properly) highly addicting; the beauty of it is that you can as the player design your loop the way you want to get from where you are (small civ on a hostile planet surrounded by death) to where you want to go (king of said hostile planet). Research, combat, leadership, production, economy, cards(!), diplomacy, spying... it's all here.
And that's the thing. This game could be literally the best 4X ever made. When you finally understand the relationships between the factions, leaders, Profiles, and Strategems, it's really bordering on genius. You can over time literally shape the direction of your empire, simply by the leaders you find and develop, the factions you support, the feats you attain, and the choices you make, without doing anything else militarily or scientifically. It's ripe for role-playing, and the game happens quickly enough that you can see your empire shifting gears realistically and dramatically should you wish to change your governing style. I am to the point where I enjoy the hard decisions about what to build, how to lay my LN, what armies to raise, what to develop, and how to play Strategems (and who should play them, and how to develop them), and it is great fun to me!
But to get to that point! Here is my concern.
It probably took me about 15 hours to get to this point, counting reading the manual, watching a few videos, playing about 3 or 4 learning games, and a LOT of trial and error. The LN system was confusing to the point of almost causing me to give up the game (and I play a LOT of wargames, both computer and board, so I am quite familiar with various supply systems in games), the OOB system was highly frustrating (what do you mean I can't build an army of motorcycles? I just researched them, didn't I?) the science system was RNG at its worst, I was frequently given situations where the only good options were far beyond my ability to pay for them, my leadership seemed to have the worst self-control or restraint because they kept pissing off the citizenry every other turn doing bonehead public things, I couldn't figure out for the life of me why a building that was supposed to take 3 turns after turn 10 was still supposed to take me 1.4 more (4/10's of a turn? Whaaaa?), and the cherry on top for me was when I was trying to play a Stratagem and the game literally told me in red letters 'You can't play that Strategem right now, and we can't tell you why'.
That's when I walked away for a few days. But much like the excellent Tom Chick review/agonizing mental window said, I kept wanting to come back. I wanted to see that engine. I wanted to wipe away the smear on the glass and see what everyone else who had put in the time and scrubbed that glass over and over was seeing. I wanted to be in the club. And finally, I persevered. I am by no means an expert, but I can certainly play and know more or less why things are happening and what my strategic and tactical options are.
But I'm a 'Matrix guy' and I sort of knew what I was in for. When this game goes on Steam? I fear it will be a bloodbath of bad reviews and refunds because Steam players tend not to 'put in the work' needed for games like this. Distant Worlds could have suffered this fate but it went through 4 expansions and years of polishing, and it had a very loyal fan base. Ditto the WIT series, which helped to get it over the rough patches when rolling out to a new audience, as well as having a legendary developer's name on the tin. SE has neither of these built-in advantages.
So I say this to Vic and Matrix. Before you release on Steam, I deeply, strongly recommend some sort of guided tutorial game added to the game. I know that would be a decent amount of extra effort at this point and I know that some of the systems are either being revised or locked down, but I can't recommend enough some sort of game-embedded guide. This could be a seminal game for the genre, and I would hate for what may well be Vic's masterwork in his game development career to crash on the jagged rocks of impatience, ignorance, and frustration. I (and many others) chose to wipe that glass to see the vision beyond.
Many, many others, will not, and not only that, they will tell others how their elbow hurt from trying.
Just my $0.02.
Lifetime "You Magnificent Bastard!" callouts: 5
Lifetime slaps across the face by a female: 2
Lifetime games that hold my attention longer than a month: 3