Given my strong desire to play a different game on the day of its release (today!), I wound up rushing through my last eight hours with The Last Federation. It was in the course of playing several games back-to-back that I discovered something quite disconcerting - this game is really easy.
I mean, if your aim is simply to wind up with all eight planets controlled by your Federation, winning is trivial. I discovered a fairly fool-proof way of winning (as far as I can tell) every time. I say "as far as I can tell," because the last game I tried this strategy on was my attempt at hard mode and I barely broke a sweat. I figure that, given the ease with which I won, I could probably get close to 100% victory on normal.
What you do is research technology for one of the three "good guy" races in order to earn money. Use this money to improve the relationship among them, then when it gets high enough, form the three-way "Alliance for Safety." At this point, they should have three planets and a significant tech advantage. So you improve the relationship between the Skylaxians and a fourth species (doesn't matter which) enough for them to be able to invite them into the Federation. Around this time, an anti-federation alliance will form, but since you have such a huge lead in tech, all your really have to do is bribe your guys to dogpile the ringleader. After that, it's just mop-up.
Once I figured out there was a winning formula, the game lost a significant amount of its appeal. However, just because I feel like I "solved" the standard game doesn't mean that it is completely out of ways to thwart me. I decided for my last game, I was going to get all eight species in a coalition no matter if I had to save-scum to within an inch of my life, and I have to tell you, even on easy, this particular goal is a huge pain in the ass.
What it comes down to is that there is a very fine line you have to walk between making a species (especially one of the aggressive ones) strong enough to survive, but not so strong that they don't casually take out a planet before you can assimilate them into the Federation. I'm not sure this is a challenge I particularly enjoy, but it did succeed in wiping the smug look of self-satisfaction from my face.
I also experimented with Observer mode for about an hour. I didn't really learn anything of note during that time, however. As far as I can tell, the inevitable result of the initial setup is that, minus the last Hydral's intervention, one of the aggressive species (either the bug-like Thoraxians or the brutal Burlust warlords) will swarm out from their home planet and take over the solar system. It really depends on whoever gets the momentum first. The "good" species are pretty much doomed due to their habit of rarely taking over planets and while the others can occasionally win some ground, they don't have the inherent combat buffs to make it to the top of the heap.
I guess that makes me feel less guilty about wiping out the aggressive species. It's either them or us.
All in all, I really like The Last Federation. It could probably use some more balance tuning - certain options are so powerful that they obviate the need to explore the game's nuances, but it offers an experience available in no other game. Playing a schemer and a peacemaker felt fundamentally different than your typical empire-building space strategy games and so if I happened to find an easy path to victory, it is nonetheless a path that I could only take while playing The Last Federation.