It has been described as the “Dwarf Fortress of space.” If that means anything to you, you will probably like Aurora.
This game was created by Steve Walmsley, because he wanted a 4x space game to play and couldn’t find any that did what he wanted. Its development is still ongoing as Steve adds more elements to the already robust game. The one issue that I have with the game is that there are parts of the game that are not entirely intuitive. The game has grown organically and both the creator and many of the players have use the game long enough that the locations and orders of things is “obvious.” Those new to the game may wish to view the tutorials and read the FAQs to avoid frustration.
One main aspect if the game is the strong forum support. Steve is active on the forum and is open to suggestions (though any additions have to pass the “is it fun for me to play or program” filter). I would say that the forum is a large part of the appeal of the game. There is a lot of discussion about new rules and new ways of using the rules. There are also a large number of fiction pieces based on players games. It’s a fun game that is right up my alley and the forum is a really good community. Even if I didn’t play the game, I’d hang out in the forum for the space ideas and discussions.
The game can be found at Aurora Forum, maintained by Erik Luken. The forum hosts the free download for the game as well as tutorials, stories, rules & mechanics discussions, and many friendly people who will be willing and able to help you. Several languages are represented by players on the board. So, if you have trouble with translation, you can always ask if someone can explain it in your language.
Now, for the game itself, if you want control over every aspect of your empire, you got it. There is a lot of micromanagement. You decide what to research, how the ships are designed, where to send your ships & troops, what gets built on your planets, etc. Steve adds automation whenever a section gets so tedious that it is no longer fun for him (you may start to see a trend here).
If you want to build an empire to your specification and then go out and explore the stars, conquering and/or allying with any aliens you meet, this is a game to check out.
If you just want space battles, you can do that too. That is what Steve created the game to do. The rest of it is to create the strategic and logistical aspect to the space battles.
Currently, Steve is in the middle of a massive rewrite to change the movement system so that it follows Newtonian physics. He is also working to increase the realism in other aspects like weapon damage and ship visibility. There are some pretty intensely scientific discussions going on in that section now.
So, get out there and explore and conquer the galaxy.
* Anyone can play it but the complexity will probably appeal to anyone under high school