Who knew that Space Miners were so sophisticated? They're one of the bigger changes the Dark Avatar expansion makes to the joyfully light-hearted turn-based space empire game GalCiv 2.
You build colonies for them on asteroid fields, guard them jealously with your ships, and they're your citizens in the first place. But if the Altarians build so much as a fancy restaurant, the whole lot of them suddenly defect, diverting their production bonuses halfway across the galaxy to the race they deem - and I quote - "culturally superior". I hope that, as they sit sipping their Earl Grey Space Tea in their Space Hardhats before descending into the infernal dust-choked mines of Hull (my solar system), the splendour of a planetside eatery 88 parsecs away is somehow enriching the goddamn experience.
So the new asteroid mining colonies are valuable and vulnerable in equal measure, and
they make this 4X game (eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation and eXtermination) a lot more volatile. And despite that fit of pique, the absurdity of the mechanics behind this is actually part of the fun. I love building a Hyper Invadinator 9000 (my design), bristling with guns and troops, and warping straight to the source of my enemy's cultural splendour to decimate it. My Zero-G Stadiums don't look so boorish now, do they, you crumpet-munching pickaxe ponces? Whose cultural refinement you gonna admire now, huh? HUH?
Expansions to great games often suffer because of the quality of their parent: even when they're just as good, it's less impressive a second time round. But Dark Avatar rejoices in the genius of GalCiv 2, enhancing and highlighting everything it does so well. It recognises that the best bits are before war breaks out: that fierce and uneasy competition for resources when no-one's strong enough to risk open hostilities, but bickering over resources is heated enough to light the touchpaper at any moment.
That period is extended, complicated and enriched by a smart trio of tweaks: treaties, more sophisticated AI and racial Super Abilities. Treaties benefit both races by sharing resources, but attacking a treaty-mate makes you deeply mistrusted by other races, usually forcing you both to remain allies long after you come to hate each other's space-guts. The AI - which has always been wonderful - can now be cranked up to make full use of modern (particularly dual-core) CPUs, but to be more convincingly human rather than simply harder. And Super-Abilities give each race a hefty bonus to the one thing their racial personality means they'll be doing a lot of (see 'Super-power superpowers').
The other key change to the landscape of whatever galaxy you happen to be civilising is the type of planets you encounter. Previously a planet was either immediately colonisable or irredeemably uninhabitable (Hull Prime, for example). There's now some middle-ground: the irradiated, desolate, entirely submerged, and leg-bucklingly high-gravity (Hull II through V) can all be tamed to habitability with the right technology. The idea is to slow the traditional early-game colony-rush for fertile planets (Hull VIII and IX are surprisingly pleasant), but it's not a complete solution. Too few planets are fixer-uppers, the technologies to fix them up are too easy to come by, and frankly, even after you've researched reinforced trousers, your colonists aren't going to thank you for dumping them on Hull V.
The only other slight disappointments are espionage - which sounds cool but quickly becomes an irritation to counter - and the new campaign. It's well-made, but GalCiv 2 still doesn't really suit a long series of short missions. It feels increasingly tedious and absurd to have to reinvent the wheel - then the Space Wheel, then the Space Wheel II, then the Ion Wheel - every time you're given a new post.