My gaming PC was on the way out, after almost a decade of sterling service, occasional repairs, crises, and upgrades. I had a budget of $2,000 for a replacement, but no idea how to spend it, so I reached out to Callum Self, a guide writer at wargamer’s sister site The Loadout and a massive hardware nerd.
“What do you want to do with your machine?” he asked me. “Which game do you want to run as smooth as butter?”
That could have been Total War Warhammer: III: the huge armies and tides of Nurglings it renders on screen can crunch an unprepared GPU. Or Elden Ring, which bullies graphics cards with its combo of long draw distance, environmental detail, and terribly optimised 3D models. But the game I most wanted to improve performance on was Shadow Empire.
Shadow Empire’s minimum specs don’t even call for a dedicated GPU, but it will drain your CPU like a vampire. It’s also one of the best 4X games ever, blending elements of wargames, grand strategy games, and even traces of Railroad Tycoon to create something incredibly challenging and compelling.
In Shadow Empire you control a fractious city-state on a post-apocalyptic exoplanet. Your goal is to dominate the globe in spite of a hostile environment, rival nations, and internal politics – so far, so 4X.
You can move your armies and commission state construction projects as you please, but everything else depends on the personalities and skills of your appointed officials. You can set their budgets and tell them their priorities, use the strategy cards they generate for one-off effects, but ‘research’ and ‘government’ are out of your hands.
Maybe they’re inept. Maybe they’re corrupt. Maybe you set their budget too low, or they don’t have enough bureaucrats for their office to function, or for their operations to succeed. Maybe they just hate you. Maybe they’ve spent five months researching how to optimise conventional weapons and your army has already upgraded to gauss.
But you probably won’t notice the massive problems your bickering aids, ministers, and governors are causing you right away, because the planet you have inherited is a hellhole.
Each game starts by procedurally generating a planet, settling it with an interstellar colony, then smashing it all to pieces with the collapse of galactic civilization. Your faction picks up a few hundred years later. Your planet was only barely habitable when supplied with vital trade resources from the rest of the galaxy, and now it’s even worse.
Radioactive fallout from the last war might haunt entire continents. Water might be locked up in polar ice deposits that need to be mined. Maybe the map is covered in mountain ranges, or lava flows, or deserts. Maybe the nearest metal ore deposit is on the far side of two AI factions. Nothing is ever easy.
Despite this sci-fi setting, combat is realistic. Assaults are extremely hard to prosecute without an overwhelming numerical advantage or line-breaking armor units. Units entrench when left in a hex for more than one turn, becoming an ever more stubborn obstacle. A force cut off from supply will run out of bullets, bodies, and bars of nutrient paste.
Military logistics are right at the heart of the game. Train stations and truck depos generate logistical capacity that carries food, fuel, and ammo along rail lines and roads towards your units.
Your warmachine can grind to a halt for many reasons: enemy forces cutting the lines, domestic shortages of goods, sheer administrative burden. In one game my entire nation was throttled by a central mountain range with a narrow dirt road the only supply route between the two zones in my nation.
That’s not the only thing that can get slowed down in this game, however. Your CPU will also grind to a halt whenever it’s time for the AI to think. Shadow Empire has strong AI, with forces that act in coordination, assemble supply networks, mass troops for assaults, exploit vulnerabilities, or fall into defensive postures.
All of that gets calculated, one regime and one unit at a time. The bigger the map and the more units on the field, the longer that takes. I could take a tea-break between turns when running the game on my veteran machine.
Turning down the graphics settings on a GPU intensive game harms the spectacle but doesn’t necessarily harm the gameplay: if you’ve seen World of Warcraft raids or remember the early days of online FPS gaming you’ll know that reducing visual effects can even improve a game, for certain types of play. Shadow Empire has an option to simplify the AI, but for me, that would flatten out a huge part of what makes it so compelling.
There was nothing for it: I needed to put brains before beauty, and build a rig around a beefy CPU.
I took Self’s advice and followed a build that he had put together pretty closely. The crowning glory of his 1440p, 144Hz, ray-tracing monster was an RTX 4080 GPU, which I swapped out for a much more modest 6750x. That still handily hits 60fps at 1440p in all the games I’m interested in, while drawing less power than the 4080 behemoth. Where he put in a Ryzen 5 7600 CPU, I went for a Ryzen 7 7700.
|Motherboard||GIGABYTE – Aorus Elite AX X670 AM5 Motherboard|
|CPU||AMD – Ryzen 7 7700|
|GPU||ASUS Dual AMD Radeon RX 6750 XT OC Edition 12GB GDDR6|
|RAM||CORSAIR – Dominator Platinum RGB DDR5 5200 MHz PC RAM – 2 x 16 GB|
|Hard drive||SEAGATE – FireCuda 530 M.2 NVMe Internal SSD with Heatsink – 1 TB|
|Case||CORSAIR – 4000D AIRFLOW|
|Fans||PHANTEKS – T30 120 mm Case Fan – Triple Pack|
|Operating System||Windows 11|
After all of that, does it work? Oh boy yeah. Turns in Shadow Empire are rolling over far faster, and the rig is performing admirably in other games as well.
This has me thinking about other turn-based games that will give my CPU a workout. Stellaris, Civilization VI, anything that doesn’t put a cap on the number of background decisions and AI entities the game can spawn. And then there’s Dwarf Fortress, a game that puts so much effort into simulating a universe that there’s no supercomputer on earth it couldn’t eventually break…
For more in depth thoughts on a truly unique strategy game, check out Wargamer’s Shadow Empire review by contributor Joe Fonseca.
If you want advice on PC components for your next upgrade or build, our sister site CustomPC is the place to look. To check how well your PC will be able to run that one game you’re desperate to play, our friends at PCGameBenchmark have the answers for you.