Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Throne of Skulls Provokes Little Controversy

I sit atop a throne of skulls. Not all the time, mind you, only every few weeks, after I open my Descent Second Edition box to start a new campaign or continue with an old one. I open the box, set up the dungeon, climb upon my comfy chair perched on a bony mound and have fun, doing my best to be as horrible a person as possible.

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Contrary to what you might think, this post will not be about how much I prefer the new Descent over the old one (fans of Descent 1.0 are welcome to send their hate my way – but only after checking if I have no obvious spawn points close by, and cross-referencing their findings with the thirty-page FAQ and errata document), about how much I rock at being an Overlord (or the Overseer from Level 7: [Omega Protocol] for that matter) or how perplexing it is to have multiple skulls belonging to the same hero (albeit at different stages of their life) in my skull mound. It’s going to be about me happily becoming a power hungry and ruthless fantasy villain, while refusing to vie for the dubious honour of being the one kid that manages to inflict enough physical punishment upon other kids, to victoriously walk away with their Lunch Money.

Looking back at some of the recent debates and controversies in the boardgaming world (casually sacrificing slaves in Five Tribes, the idea of running a strip club in Lap Dance or our own little teacup tempest involving Progress and the Atheism card), I can only conclude that a lot, if not almost all, depends on sensibilities. And these can vary immensely, as some people will happily spread a supernatural plague in Chaos in the Old World, while others will shy away from literally shooting some crap or, to be more accurate, flinging some Poo. What’s more, you can also sometimes find that it’s not people, but one and the same person that will be able to commit acts much more heinous in one game, while refusing to do something seemingly more innocent in another.

With all that in mind, how can a publisher avoid creating a product with a theme that will be more a deterrent than an encouragement to play? 

First of all, a publisher should stay reasonable and, from time to time at least, perform a reality check. All people probably are ashamed of something they once said, but not all managed to manufacture their blunder in five thousand copies and put it on shelves of hobby stores around the world. That is exactly why, when theming the game, you should talk to people and see what they think not only of the mechanisms, but also about the thematic ideas of your game, before it’s all on paper.
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Secondly, while we’re on the topic of talking to people: talk to as many as you possibly can, preferably making your advisors culturally diverse, to save you a lot of grief. To give you an example, let me just say that I don’t know if creators of Carnival Zombie were aiming at making their game controversial, or if they placed a gun-wielding character named Columbine in their product simply because (much like me), they associated the name primarily with a Commedia dell’arte character, and not with a tragic shooting that took place in an American high school. I can only say that I was quite surprised when I stumbled upon Rahdo’s Runthrough of the game and discovered that to an American, what was my (a Pole’s) first association regarding Columbine, was merely an obscure reference, made completely superfluous by the relatively recent and tragic events.

Thirdly, while examining the theme of the game, take a look at the final message it sends – if it sends one, that is. And yes, I know that the jury’s still out on whether board games are actually capable of sending a message, as some say they are art (which implicitly grants them the aforementioned ability), while others find the whole idea preposterous. I’m not the one to judge, but – art or no art – I know that games can be built to be thought-provoking and meaningful, which allows them to at least give us some food for thought. And if you have any doubts about that, just take a look at the excellent Freedom cooperative game which (through some hair tearing and teeth grinding moments when sacrifices had to be made) did more to teach my group the history of slavery and the Abolitionists by putting us in their shoes than history books and, more recently, Quentin Tarantino and Jamie Foxx.
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Finally, if we agree that some games (not all by far) do have a message, there is one more thing you could consider – and I was made to consider it for the first time, while talking about CO2. As it happened, I was having a conversation about the game shortly after it came out and I (like a few others) expressed my doubts about its theme, considering not buying CO2 because of how one-sided it was in delivering its environmental message. The game finally ended up in my collection, but during that one conversation, I was asked a simple question: “But you had no problem playing Doom, right?”.

I will admit, it shut me up for a moment – I could feel that there was a difference, but at first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Until it hit me.

Doom is mindless fun with no aspirations, and it’s certainly not trying to seriously convince me that decorating walls with blood and internal organs of a couple of futuristic jarheads (which is the essence of the game if you are the Invader) is something good, noble or outright necessary for the survival of human race. Simply put, it wasn’t trying to teach me a lesson. CO2 on the other hand was – by making a case in a real world issue, and by trying to force me to take something very specific away from the game table. And that made me (and some other people) question the theme and the ideas it was selling.
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All the above boils down to a relatively simple formula, which by no means has the ambition to become the ultimate guide on how to avoid controversies when publishing a game, but which may ultimately help you out a little bit. If you want to say something through your game – be sure you know the consequences, and if you don’t – be sure you are really not saying anything (for a simple solution just make a game about trading in the Mediterranean). And as for the nature of mindless violence not being controversial while environmental issues making some people uncomfortable – I recognize the peculiarity of this situation, but it’s a topic for a completely different discussion. And one that I do not feel equipped well enough to tackle.

Not yet, at least.

I would like to thank our Twitter followers, our Facebook fans and our Kickstarter backers for inspiring me to write this post. It’s nothing short of awesome having people like you around to sometimes be reminded of how diverse we can all be – and how our great hobby allows us to share thoughts and ideas… or just sit down at the same table and have fun together.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The name of the game - Exodus expansion

We're taking a short break today from our weekly mini-series about the factions in the new expansion for Exodus: Proxima Centauri to ask for you help with a very important decision.

The expansion has almost everything it needs to bring an improved gaming experience and the one thing missing is a cool name. We have created a poll (right hand side of this page) with five proposals, most of them from our very kind fans and friends. Please take a moment and cast your vote, every opinion counts!

To have a better idea of what this expansion is all about let's see a few illustrations...

Arctic Dominion faction sketch by Odysseas Stamoglou
Han-Xia Dynasty faction sketch by Odysseas Stamoglou

You can also check our earlier posts about the making of the expansion and Exodus itself:
An expansion for Exodus - V. Sirius Theocracy
An expansion for Exodus - IV. Victory
An expansion for Exodus - III. Asymmetric game play
An expansion for Exodus - II. Technologies (part 2)
An expansion for Exodus - I. Technologies
Live from Spiel Essen and Exodus makes it to Tom Vasel's top 100 games of all times
An expansion for Exodus: Proxima Centauri
Exodus Revised Edition in images
A review of Exodus by Michael Barnes
An expert opinion
Exodus - making the first prototype and more challenges
From Alpha Centauri to Exodus
The Story

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Touch of Fate

“Dice are a thing now”, said one of my friends a few days ago, while examining my copy of Dice Brewing. I did not disagree out of fear of being disproven faster than paper disproving Spock. It would inevitably happen since Pandemic: The Cure and Nations: The Dice Game were conveniently sitting on top of my Essen haul pile, which I still failed to fully redistribute around my ever-so-packed gaming shelves. I didn't disagree, but I probably should have, as there is one thing he actually got wrong: the timing. Honestly, I am hard pressed to find a time when dice games were not a thing.

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It seems that dice games have been there always, either existing in the shadow of games they were merely the dice versions of (like Catan: Dice Game, Ra: The Dice Game, Alhambra: The Dice Game and dozens of others, including but not limited to – and I kid you not – Strip Poker Dice Game), or created from the start as titles that would use dice as the gameplay basis and stand on their own (like Kingsburg, Alea Iacta Est, the terribly overpunned Quarriors, the elusive Dice Masters series or the truly ingenious Alien Frontiers), without another property serving as a crutch.

But why are dice games so popular? Maybe it’s because the dice versions of other games are usually faster, simpler and lighter than their “bigger” cousins, so they may appeal to those of us who wish a similar experience, only in a shorter time frame? Then again, the same can quite often be said about “The Card Game” genre, which tries to distil full-blown board games into a smaller, more manageable, card-based experiences.

While the time and simplicity factor may be important, it is not truly distinguishing, and I believe it’s safe to say that the most important building block of dice games are (obviously) the dice themselves. And not only as a physical component, but as an unexpected randomizer that creates a specific dynamic to any game fully either dice based, or just using dice rolling as one of its cornerstone mechanisms.

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Although nobody would probably say that Castles of Burgundy, Troyes or Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia are “just” dice games, what makes those games what they truly are is the dice rolling and randomness management. The fact is that without dice none of these games would be what it is, and although we may argue over whether they would be better or worse, the dice based randomization is an element essential to each of them.

Whether the game revolves around pushing one’s luck or around careful dice manipulation, one thing stays the same: a player might be aided or hampered by what their dice come up with. And although the general consensus seems to imply that a good dice (or dice based) game allows low-rolling players to compete and even win, randomness always plays its part for better or for worse.

Modern board gaming is about smart designs that allow us to jog our brains and have fun while we’re at it, but it is not fully detached from the culture we live in. And that culture promotes the seemingly weaker, but determined individuals who fight against odds and win in the end thanks to their conviction, skill and a little bit of luck. Simply put: we like to see the underdog win, and sometimes, we are the underdogs.

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Although not exclusive to dice games, the randomness that levels the playing field is openly signalled by the use of dice rolling as a mechanism. For those, who like to play a decent turn despite a weak roll or to come back at the last moment thanks to a spectacular one, gaming is exactly the underdog fighting to the end – and sometimes even winning.

By no stretch of imagination am I trying to say that more randomness means better game. For some a luck based swing will be unacceptable, but for others chance helping them catch up after some botched turns is exactly what they need to feel invested in a game from the start right to the end. And it is still a win gained by wits and strategy, even if aided but a subtle touch of fate.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An expansion for Exodus - VII. Han-Xia Dynasty

As promised, we continue to present the different factions present in the Exodus expansion. Before we get to the main topic of the day and talk about the Han-Xia Dynasty, let's have a quick look at early sketches of the artwork....

Box cover sketch
Han-Xia faction sketch

Han-Xia Dynasty is the faction with the best skills during space combat. Using Advanced and Fringe tactics, the Dynasty can create positive outcome out of almost any space confrontation. With their unique Hyperspace Drives, they also have the ability to move unrestricted throughout space, surprising their enemies and engaging in fights they almost always win. Without being neither moral nor immoral, their simple yet effective set of laws and amoral vision among the most powerful and fearsome factions, equaled perhaps only by Blackwater.

When others were leaving Earth in panic, escaping the cruel fate of a dead world, we were ready. We had  the best and brightest of us chosen to become our future. We did not escape into the far blackness of space. We went as conquerors. We have a history longer than many other nations of the world. We stood the test of time when others faded. We flourished when others merely survived. As our fleets dominate the void of space, so will we dominate all those who try to oppose us. And who are you to judge our ways?

The Han-Xia Dynasty originated in greater China, which probably explains why this specific faction seems more closely tied to its nationality than any other. Centred around effectiveness and unrelenting exploitation of its seemingly endless human potential, the Han-Xia adapted to the new world with astonishing speed, assimilating and modifying Centaurian technology faster than any other survivor group.

Although the Centaurians welcomed humanity and peace and did a lot to impose their pacifistic doctrines upon their new protégés, the Han-Xia Dynasty knew from the start that humanity will need a single leader – a leader forged in the rapidly dying flame of an exploding enemy fleet. With that in mind, the Dynasty introduced a cruel but frighteningly effective training regime for their pilots, quickly building a force of specialists able to best any opponents in space combat.

However, the war for domination requires not only strength, but also speed, and the Han-Xia’s ships are quickly becoming a legend, for the Dynasty is the only faction controlling the technology of faster than light travel – and this but one of many technologies the Han-Xia scientists were able to not only learn to use, but also modify heavily so that it would serve the Dynasty’s purpose.

The Han-Xia Dynasty works with the fearsome effectiveness of a human hive, able to react to change with incredible speed and to respond violently to even the slightest of provocations. Some believe that it is because of its leaders inborn cruelty. Others, better schooled in the ways of Han-Xia know that the truth is far more terrifying. The Dynasty is here to rule, its purpose is clear, and it will not shy away from achieving its goal in the most effective way possible, even if the effectiveness means resorting to lethal brutality or cold genocide.

If you missed our earlier articles, you can read here about the Sirius Theocracy and the Arctic Dominion.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

The World of Mistfall: Part 2

We continue the story of the world of Mistfall and present a new sketch, as well as a fully finished illustration - one of many to be found in the upcoming Mistfall game.

On the error of creation.

Beastman Shaman - prototype sketch
by Enggar Adirasa
For more than a hundred years humanity fought a desperate battle, trying to fend off the Nightfather’s children. The beastmen, relentless in their cruelty, with minds forged in the Darkness by an envious and bitter god, were relentless in their pursuit to dominate the world. But the children of light were not easily destroyed. And although some kingdoms had fallen, others would resist with the strength and resilience born out of unwavering faith in the Mother of Day – or from humanity’s pure resolve and defiance.

Where children of Dusk came to rule, chaos would ensue. With minds set on battle and destruction, without common enemies, the wild beastmen fought among themselves, forming tribes to war each other, spilling blood over hunting grounds – and falling deeper and deeper into an internal strife that would in time leave them open to retaliation. Displeased yet again, the Nightfather tried to punish those of his children who were first to turn against their own kind, but quickly found that whatever ill fortune he would condemn the savage creatures to, it would only make their fury burn ever hotter and more savage. 

And then he came to realise the weakness of his creation. While men, made when Dawn and Dusk laboured together, the beastmen were condemned to the one purpose the Nightfather had forged them for – and all they wanted was the power and might gained by what he poured into them.

On the coming of the Mists

Unable to control his children any more, Dusk devised a most cruel punishment. The Nightfather took away all the power his support had lent them thus far and with it, all dark magic they called upon to strengthen their blows against humanity. Suddenly deprived of their might, the shamans and chieftains of the tribes called out to their father, but he would not answer, watching in bitter satisfaction as servants of Dawn started reclaiming the lands they had been banished from.

But the beastmen, unable to comprehend the change of their fate, would still call out, craving for their lost strength. Drums beat day and night, as the abandoned tribes preformed dark rituals, trying to win back the grace of Dusk by feats of strength and bloody sacrifice. Determined to regain what they had lost, they would call out dauntlessly, until something answered.

From the far north, from a land where night and day are almost like one, the Mists reached out to the abandoned children of Dusk, filling them once more with the power they had craved so much. But the touch of the Mists was far different from the gaze of the Nightfather, as it would twist and transform some of its new servants, and where it was thickest, even the animals or the land itself.

Skeletal Magus by Enggar Adirasa

On the Age of Heroes

Filled with a new power, the beastmen started yet again to gain the upper hand against the children of Dawn. Faster and more determined, as if filled with a rage unknown even to the Nightfather, they struck against all, mercilessly killing even those few among men that served Dusk. And as the cold tendrils of the Mists spew out creatures transformed into beasts even more fearsome and savage than the beastmen warriors, a new threat emerged from the impenetrable, ashen veil.

The tales were first told by the few survivors of the nightmarish battles against the servants of the Mists. And they were tales of ghostly shapes walking the barrows and the dark woods, of empty skulls and rotting flesh peeling off bones that would move once again. Tales of the dead raised from the ashes. Tales of former brothers reanimated and twisted by the power of the Mists, once again taking up arms, but this time in service of a power bent on only one thing: a total annihilation of all Dawn and Dusk had ever created.

Deprived of his power over the beastmen, Dusk turned to the few servants he had among men, once again lending them his power and voicing his will. Seeing the plight of her children, Dawn spoke to men as well. And while Dusk moved his pawns far away from the new threat, Dawn empowered the bravest of her children and send them into the Mist ridden lands. Many of them would not return, but the Mother of Day knew that the power that twisted her world and shaped it in its own malevolent image must be stopped at any costs.

And so came the Age of Heroes.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

An expansion for Exodus - VI. Arctic Dominion

Last week we started presenting the factions fighting for supremacy in Exodus: Proxima Centauri. We continue this series with the Arctic Dominion, the experts of trading.

The Dominion is the single faction with the ability to convert resources into victory points. This ability is backed by their trading, banking and mining skills supported by specific technologies, allowing the Dominion to convert very fast their territorial claims into power. Another unique technology of the Arctic Dominion, the Quantum Reflection, is their key to take full advantage of fighting the Centaurian Resistance, getting both the victory points and the direct benefits from the resistance cards.

Some see space as a dark, cold and unwelcoming place. In the ancient times seas were similarly perceived, but even then our ancestors braved the freezing blackness, acknowledging the dangers, but also seeing the possibilities it offered. They were warriors and traders; we are businessmen. If there is a price on something, and if it is the right price,  we can deliver. And as far as we know, there is a price on everything.

On Earth the Arctic Dominion grew where all else would either freeze, or have the right mind to leave. The cold and unwelcoming place of the northern part of North America and the territories north of Siberia, though rich with natural resources, forged the shrewdness and mettle of the people living there. With time it became clear that the common focus on turning a profit became more unifying than any particular nationalities and beliefs, becoming a deciding factor in the origin of Arctic Dominion.

There is and has always been only one guiding force behind Arctic Dominion: money. Leaders of the faction believe that although Old Earth might be merely a legendary home world with a legacy many hope to fall into oblivion, there are still lessons that should never be forgotten. And for the Dominion, those lessons allow them to flourish and profit where others struggle for survival.

Members of the Arctic Dominion are descendants of Earth’s miners, traders and bankers, today unified mostly by a mutual desire to build the wealth and power of their organization. A long tradition of trading with yesterday’s enemies and tomorrow’s allies makes them a group of business negotiators, with a level of skill unmatched by any other. Their economic potential allows them to also remain a challenging wartime opponent. It is not unknown for the Arctic Dominion to profit from their conflicts by auctioning off carefully obtained POV’s that are the key figures for other factions.

Although concentrated on their own power, the Arctic Dominion managed to maintain the closest relations with the Centaurians, learning as much as possible from humanity’s benefactors and supplementing civil science research with a focus on Centaurian technologies that allow them to maximize the gains even from fighting off indigenous resistance. 

We will continue our detailed presentation of the expansion next week with the Han-Xia Dynasty. 

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

The World of Mistfall: Part 1

A few days ago we started presenting new factions and mechanisms from the upcoming expansion for Exodus: Proxima Centauri. Today we are proud to present an introduction to the world of Mistfall, our fully cooperative fantasy game scheduled for 2015.

On the creation of the World and the Firstborn

The oldest of tales speak of a featureless, barren globe suspended in nothingness, and of two Prime Powers that descended from the void to shape the world and bestow upon it the gift of life. Some say that the divine beings had been different from the start. Others claim that it was when the sun rose and then set over the world for the first time that the gods separated: one embracing the Light and becoming Dawn, Mother of Day, and the other forever merging with the Darkness to become Dusk, the Nightfather.

Despite their differences, they laboured dauntlessly, always on two opposite ends of the globe, enveloping it in clear skies, sculpting mountains and valleys, separating the lands from the seas and filling rivers and lakes with water. They would also create life, Dawn crafting plants and all the creatures that would feed on them, and Dusk shaping beasts of prey and all things happy to live under a night sky. Finally, having built a glorious home for their offspring, they went about creating their masterpiece: the Firstborn.

The work was divided evenly: while Dusk crafted his children’s bodies by night, Dawn created their minds and souls during the day, instilling in them the love for all her creations. But when the Firstborn woke up, not knowing their father, they flocked to the Mother of Day, constantly following her into the light, and ever fleeing from their father. Despite his best efforts, they would remain fearful and indifferent towards his beckoning. Disappointed and scorned, Dusk lashed at the ground in a fit of dark rage, burning his creations with a wrathful black fire, covering the lands in ash and burying the broken bodies of his children under rock and stone.

On the great despair and the Last Sacrifice

Silence fell over the world once again, and Dusk could hear in the distance the cries of Dawn, as even she was not able to give life back to her murdered children. Remembering the pain of his own loss, the Nightfather harvested all of the mercy and hope still lingering in the cold Darkness, gave it shape and forged it into a Moon that would eclipse the sun for a single day. Thus, the Mother of Day and the Father of Night were united one last time, to work together on recreating their greatest achievement.

And so they crafted mankind, gifting it with both their essences in equal measure. Instilling human minds with Light and Darkness made the gods’ children truly free, for now they had the capacity to love both day and night, and the ability to choose between the two paths that started from the same place, but ultimately led into two opposite directions.

Since that last union, the Moon has stood as a solemn reminder of Dusk’s last act of grace, and some say that it reflects the light of the sun because the Nightfather used up all of his compassion to forge it, and all of his love for the Mother of Day to make it yield to his will and eclipse the sun – and that when it all happens again, it will be at the end of days.

A Beastman Tracker - prototype sketch
by Enggar Adirasa

On the passing of the First Age

From the day of the Awakening, humanity started spreading and conquering the furthest corners of its new home. And as men grew in the Light, the Mother of Day watched her children with pride. But as Dawn smiled upon men, Dusk watched them with a growing disdain, for in those times only few would choose the shadows over the light of day. And those who did were either too weak to make their father proud or so headstrong, that they would try to harness his power and use it to their own ends.

Bitter and irate, Dusk turned his thoughts to crafting a new race – one that would serve him without question. In the deepest darkness of the old forests, in the forgotten caves under the tallest mountains, he engineered his servants, building their bodies to resemble both humans and the beasts of prey he had made in the beginning. Without Dawn’s aid, he crafted their minds with his own essence, instilling in them rage and malice, and a desire to feed and to conquer, but no compassion and no regard for love and life.

Satisfied, the Nightfather watched his new offspring multiply and grow in strength, with minds focused on death and rampage and the Darkness that spawned them. And when their numbers grew, he unleashed them upon humanity. The war that came soon after brought many of the ancient kingdoms to ashes, dividing the world forever and showing humanity that it can never again feel safe in its own home. And thus the First Age ended in blood and a new order came to be. And henceforth it would shape the world, locking it in a bitter struggle between the Mother of Day and the Nightfather – and all of their children.

And so it remained until the Mists came to twist and devour the works of both Dusk and Dawn.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

An expansion for Exodus - V. Sirius Theocracy

With Spiel Essen out of the way, our focus is back on Exodus: Proxima Centauri. The long awaited expansion is our current top priority project and things are looking good. The prototype is ready and the we have a play testing session at the end of this week.

Since the major feature of this expansion is the asymmetric game play, let's start talking about the different factions in Exodus... today, the Sirius Theocracy. First, the technologies...

The Sirius Theocracy is a faction with a unique way to control the political aspect of the game and new means to assert domination - scoring VP from turn order cards and laws on the table. Their cunning political abilities are doubled by the clone factories which allow a quick spread of population across planets and the tachyon scanners providing an early advantage in combat.

The Lord has always provided, the Lord has brought us from the malice and destruction of Old Earth, and the Lord will bring us into a better future and this new world of His, before our lost Eden is once more restored to us. And when we return, we will rule it in His name.

The roots of what is known today as the Sirius Theocracy stem from the southern part of the former United States of America and northern territories of Mexico. Bound together by a mutual belief in a higher power watching over them, the Sirians believe that their destiny life both with Gaia, their new world, and Earth, were they are planning to return to rebuild and restore its former glory.

Although the Sirius Theocracy is unified by an idea of a benevolent deity being their creator and protector, perceiving them as simple minded religious fanatics would be a grave mistake. Members of the Sirius Theocracy are known as true masters of politics: they are cunning and deceptive, often hiding their true agendas behind an image of zealots driven solely by religious beliefs.

The immutability often associated with any societies bound by religious belief has never stopped the Sirians from committing to scientific research, allowing them to not only be the first to master human cloning, but to spearhead any new research in this field and become the only faction able to construct cloning factories not only on their home planet, but also on any world they decide to incorporate.

The leaders of Sirius Theocracy know that their power lies in their ability to exert political influence, so they are more eager to choose diplomatic solutions over open warfare. However, they do not shy away from armed conflicts when peaceful options are exhausted or when openly provoked. Although not as skillful in combat as in politics, they are still a formidable force one should never disregard.

We will continue our detailed presentation of the expansion next week with the Arctic Dominion. Stay in touch and get the latest updates on the Exodus expansion by signing up to our newsletter at

NSKN Games Newsletter

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