On the borders of my galactic empire's scanners I see a fleet of over 100 ships on a battle course for Arcturus, an undefended star of mine. I glance around to see if there are any fleets I can use in defense, but there aren't - my forces, though greater than my enemy's, are scattered among the many star systems I control. I will be forced to watch, helpless, as my enemy's fleet unflinchingly marches towards my helpless star... over the course of several hours.
What I just described wasn't some epic space-empire management game. It was Neptune's Pride, a free-to-play browser game that isn't even finished yet, founded by former Irrational Games developer Jay Kyburz.
And it's everything a browser game should be. The game itself is deceptively simple - as the leader of a civilization, you control a number of stars and fleets. Each star has three ratings: economy, a measure of how much income the star generates for you; industry, or how many ships the star will produce; and science, which contributes to improving your technological levels. The quality of the star determines how expensive it is to improve these ratings, with each additional level in a field costing more than the last.
The only way to move ships between stars is to form them into a fleet for a small amount of money. These fleets are the "armies" that you use to attack or reinforce specific planets. The combat is simple - there is only one type of ship, and the number of ships in your fleet is more or less equivalent to the "hitpoints" of your army, with your attack corresponding to your weapons technology and a small bonus for being the defender. The fleets can only move a specific distance, meaning that to move over larger distances you'll need to hop between different stars. The game makes this easy with a simple waypoint system, allowing you to chain up movements that may take days to play out. Keep in mind, though, that once a fleet is on its way, its course cannot be changed until it lands at a star, so you'd best be sure you want to launch that assault.
In terms of technology, there are four different areas of research: weapons, or how damaging your fleets are; speed, which determines how quickly they move; range, which allows your fleets to move further in a single "jump"; and scanning, which allows you to see enemy fleets and the defenses of enemy planets at a further distance.
Every 24 hours, you receive income based on the total economy rating of all your stars. At any point during the day you can use this money to improve your stars, create fleets, trade technologies and stars or send a gift to another player. You can also send messages at any point using the simple and clean in-game mail system, which allows either one-on-one conversations or messages between multiple players.
What makes the game different, though, is that unlike most browser-based strategy games of this type it doesn't boast thousands of simultaneous players in the same game - the free games are set at 8 players. And that's also what makes the game so great, because at no point is any one player too powerful to completely disregard every other player.
Some can hope that their superior strategic abilities will win the day, but in reality the most devious bastard will usually be the victor. Alliances shift and change with the leaderboard, as there can be only one winner per game. Someone in first place will often find themselves facing a coalition of every other player in the game. Technological trades are tentative, because there's nothing stopping the other player from not holding up his end of the bargain - except the threat of your battleships. Why become embroiled in an unnecessary war, especially when you've just convinced another player to help you in a war against your larger foe?
Even more so when you don't even plan on attacking your foe until he's committed all his ships to the war with your "friend."
It's this social facet that goes on behind the scenes that really brings the game together. Neptune's Pride only requires your active attention for a few minutes a day, but this only makes the diplomacy that much better. The machinations your mind can come up with over the course of a day often turn out to be much deeper, even with the simpler tools at your disposal, than the sort used in faster-paced games of this nature.
In its current state, the game is both playable and enjoyable. It's still in the public beta, however, which means that things are regularly changing and being tinkered with. In the not-too-distant future we'll be seeing different races with strengths and weaknesses, team games and deeper trade, combat and research systems.
So how crafty are you, really? Will you promise that leading player an alliance, only to rush his undefended flank at the last moment? Or will you be feeding your real friends the tactical information they need on the alliance you're only nominally in? Because in the end, it doesn't matter how you got to first place - just that you got there.
You can play Neptune's Pride here without even signing up - it links to your existing gmail account. So get to it, you treacherous scoundrel.