There are a lot of articles out there on the mechanics of the game – how many mines you can get out of a Mk6 torpedo, how much an X-Ray Laser masses, that sort of thing. And there are several articles on good general strategies, opening gambits, the best way to defeat a Privateer ambush et cetera. But not much has been written on the big question: How do I win?
Perhaps this is because flawless generals are few; as such, it would require a good deal of arrogance to claim enough expertise to offer a definitive view on the subject. It’s also likely that those who happen to be qualified are (quite understandably) unwilling to share the deepest secrets of their success. For myself, all I can say is this: There’s nothing here that any of you couldn’t figure out on your own if you just sit back and think about the problem objectively for a while.
I’m not the world’s greatest player, and I’m hardly master of all the intricacies of the game. I’m competent at strategy and I’ve learned a few clever tricks, but that alone won’t make a person into the perfect invulnerable warrior. I don’t know everything, but what I do know has served me well enough in the past, and while there’s plenty of room for me to keep learning, the following are some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned so far.
Lesson One: The Will To Win
In order to win, first, you must want to win.
Show me a man that’s just out to play a good game, have some fun and maybe learn something, and I’ll show you someone you can take nine times out of ten. Oh, he may play his good game and I’m sure he’ll have some fun, but one of the things he’s certain to learn is how useful his small fleet is against a much larger one. Ah, but isn’t his approach saner and more well-adjusted? you may ask. Maybe so, but he ain’t gonna win – not against a skilled opponent with the will to win.
Don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have fun or try to learn things. These are important. So’s keeping your real life in a decent order; getting enough sleep and a bit of exercise are vital components of any mental state conducive to winning. Some people love roleplaying; others enjoy creating an ideal, well-oiled machine with their empire. Some love to field an unstoppable armada. These are laudable goals of themselves, but each one taken to excess can interfere with a victory.
So the first question you have to ask yourself is this: How much do I want to win?
If in the course of your game a dilemma arises, for instance: Should I capture that 200th planet if it costs me my homeworld? Should I seize the victory if it means betraying my friend and loyal ally? Should I engage his navy in honorable battle and may the best man win, or should I go harry his economy, crush his production, and hear the lamentation of his women? Will my family forgive me if I miss Dad’s funeral in order to complete my turn?* You need to know how to deal with these choices; if you don’t, you risk making the wrong one.
Sun Tzu said, “In war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.” It follows, then, that in order to win you must first see how you are going to win and then act accordingly. Attempting this in ignorance or without a solid plan is an excellent way to court defeat.
Lesson Two: How Do I Fight?
There’s a joke I’ve heard told over and over again. “Chuck Norris does not fight. To fight implies the possibility of defeat. Chuck Norris wins.”
On the face of things, the lesson heading is wrong. You’re not out there to fight; you’re out there to win. So how does a person do this? By knowing his own strengths and weaknesses, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents, analyzing the best methods for growth in the beginning. By knowing when to start the game by rapidly attempting to defeat which neighbor, what tactics to best employ for one’s own race and advantages and against one’s enemy’s, by mastering diplomacy, and by competent deception.
To do these things, the first thing you must do is know every race in the game: how to play them, how to defeat them, how to use them as tools. You must understand basic logistics and how to adapt them to the methods available to each race. You must know what to build and how to assemble it for battle, and you must be willing to expend all of your resources in pursuit of your goal — which is victory.
And so, in order to win, you must first learn how to fight.
Go read the race guides. Learn how the best players would prefer to play; sometimes, this is best done by going to their games and reviewing their histories. When doing this, always study the mediocre players as well; it is wise to learn what mistakes they made that in turn made them merely mediocre. And then, play some games; learn from your own mistakes. Eventually, you will have learned how to fight as any race; at that point, you will also know how to defeat any race.
Another thing you’ll want to do is play around on the in-game simulator in order to see for yourself how various ships and configurations fare against others. It’s all well and good to read in the Master At Arms guide about how left-versus-right makes such a big difference, but until you watch your own carriers fall ship after ship before an enemy onslaught it’s never quite real.
Which brings up another point: Read “Master At Arms”. Read up on battle values and ship stacking. Here’s some guides; read them and know them completely. That’s a good start.
- The definitive article on combat, Master At Arms, was written in 1997 by Jan “Sirius” Klingele and is still almost 100% accurate.
- One article on Battle Order can be found here
- and another related guide to carrier-versus-carrier combat is available at this link.
Lesson Three: Where Should I Begin?
It’s not so much “where” as it is “how”, and the answer to that one is simple: Start fast.
All things being equal, your goal (at least in a standard game) is 200 planets. Ask this simple question: Would you rather get them free just by dropping clans, or would you prefer to fight tooth and nail for each and every one? If your answer is that you’d rather fight, you’re playing the wrong game; I might suggest EVE Online.**
The other choice — the smart choice (by which I mean the choice that will help you win) — is to rapidly advance to the natural limits of your unopposed expansion. If you happen to have an armed warship at the forefront of your advance, you’ll trump anyone that’s expanding with a freighter or a probe. And if your race has an advantage that you can use to defeat one of your neighbors on the sixth round, you might just do that too.
In order to do these things, you’ll need not merely one or two decent warships but a vast armada. You’ll need to build it rapidly, mostly before the game hits the Ship Limit. Since resources are extremely limited in the early game, you’ll need to strike the perfect balance between fast production and the best ships you can make.
A great deal can be said on this topic. For example, some hold that your best bet is to build tons of starbases with little purpose other than to help you in the PBP game — whether by constructing dozens of SDSFs (Classic PBP system) or by adding two Priority Points per turn (new Priority Queue system). Others would have you construct as many of your largest and best supercarriers or heavy battleships as possible regardless of their armament or engines; additional starbases are useful in this scenario mainly as locations from which to pump out extra hulls. Most agree that concentrating on the highest-end vessels is not your wisest course; it’s a practice referred to as “gold-plating” and you’ll tend to run out of cash and minerals before you run out of free build turns.
There are no perfect answers. What I can tell you is that each practice has some value, even gold-plating. On the other hand, in the majority of battles, the power of a ship’s beam weapons is immaterial. Mk4 torpedoes do a solid amount of damage for a nominal price, while Mk7s deal nearly as much as Mk8s (and a lot more than Mk6es). Also, due to the gloriousness that is the Tow mission, only slightly more than half of your ships really need top-end engines — fewer if your enemy is invading you.
More on this in the next section, though. Here, I’ll end by quoting Sun Tzu’s advice: “Modify your plans as circumstance favors.”
Lesson Four: How Do I Assemble An Armada?
The Cyborg have it easy: Build tons of Biocides and Fireclouds. Move the Biocides around using the Fireclouds. Kill anything that moves; conquer anything that doesn’t. For everyone else (and the occasional thoughtful Cyborg), a trifle more complexity is called for.
During the first part of the game, you’ll always have limited resources, and the size and quality of your fleet will be a function of this. There are times when a tiny elite force is called for; a Bird or Lizard “headshot” attack against a neighbor, for instance, will cost the majority of your starting resources. It’s often worth the effort, however.
When considering later-game options, it’s important to consider well in advance which ships you’ll need. A Colonial will want multiple Cobols, for example, but the weaponry on these doesn’t always have to be first-rate. Likewise, a Robot will need several Mk7 Cat’s Paws but may find it more economical to tow them about with other ships instead of increasing both engine and torpedo tech at any single base. And any race will want a certain number of top-end heavy warships and functional industrial vessels by the time the ship limit rolls around.
One wise move is to determine in advance a solid fleet mix and build to reach certain targets. A balanced fleet of forty-five vessels, for instance, would include a couple of industrial ships, a dozen freighters, as many utility ships, a handful of light combat vessels, and ten to twelve heavy carriers. Mineral-intensive or fuel-intensive races (Robots and Empire come to mind) may need fewer utility ships but a couple more industrial vessels in order to achieve a proper balance.
Fleet stacking is also an important element in armada design. Lizard players, for example, often build one Madonzilla for every two T-Rexes; some prefer to rely more heavily on Lizard-Class Cruisers and cloaked clan drops instead of direct combat, and so will balance their builds accordingly. Some Federation players will deploy more Missouris than Novas; others prefer Kittyhawk stacking. Add to that the possibilities brought about by trading and fleet construction becomes painfully complex — especially when one considers that the lion’s share of the fleet will be built before one’s position can possibly be mapped. Given this, it can be difficult to properly prioritize; this makes it vital to know a bit about one’s race before playing it.
When assembling battle groups, it is important to bear in mind the relative number of PBPs generated by each side in hypothetical future engagements, as well as the value of ammunition, fighters, fuel, and supplies consumed. Any column sent out should have with it dedicated vessels prepared to resupply them after battle; these would carry replacement ammunition, perhaps, or varying amounts of minerals, colonists, supplies, fuel, and cash money. It’s useful to calculate likely combat results in advance in order to predict what you’ll need for resupply and how best to deliver it.
The same exercises should be performed immediately before engaging an enemy force. These do not always give simple answers about who wins or loses any given battle, mind; sometimes, a logistical sacrifice can profitably gain a strategic advantage (or vice versa). This is rather more common than one might think at first blush; all things being equal, a player that can generate inexpensive fighters will often be only too happy to trade carriers with an opponent that must purchase replacements at full cost.
It is possible to win many battles – perhaps even every battle – and still lose a war. While tactical considerations and the ordering of ship combat are of great importance, one must not neglect the value of logistical considerations while fighting engagements. In terms of production logistics, a ship has little cost if it is easily replaced; in terms of tactical logistics, support ships that have advanced well into enemy territory are of quite high comparative value. Battleships without torpedoes, carriers without fighters, support ships without escorts: these are but expensive targets; fleets without fuel aren’t even that.
Nevertheless, all things being equal, a player who can fight to advantage in most engagements will gain a parallel advantage in strategy and logistics. Superior tactics cannot win a cluster alone, but inferior tactics can and will lose one. Great attention must be paid to this topic, and this section can only be considered the barest overview.
Lesson Five: When Do I Attack? When Do I Defend?
One of Napoleon’s maxims was this: The logical end of defensive warfare is surrender.
Sun Tzu said: Invulnerability is with oneself. Vulnerability is with one’s opponent. First, make yourself invulnerable; then search out your enemy’s weaknesses.
Bear this in mind: your true target in a game is not your opponent’s ships or planets but rather the opponent himself. From time to time, you’ll be in a situation where one player in the game seems to be just marking his turns ready. He’s not expanding; he’s not fighting. He’s just waiting for the game to be over so he can start a new one. This player is your rightful prey.
Likewise, a strong player with rapid early development and a solid economy is your best ally. Seek him out and convince him that you ought to work together; after all, having followed my earlier advice you also will have this same advantage over the rest of the crowd.
It is wise to remember that every race has its counter; every strength carries with it weaknesses. If Crystals and Robots are neighbors, for example, each is such a powerful defensive player that a war between the two would result inevitably in mutual economic self-destruction. All things being equal, the Cyborg will find it difficult to defeat the Evil Empire; the Rebels will have a hard time defeating the Privateer; the Lizards will lose their ground assault advantage against Fascists and Cyborg.
Attack where you will win. Before that, you will prepare your attack so that it must win. That is the principle observed by the victorious general.
Nevertheless, there is value to risk; as Napoleon said, “If the art of war were the art of avoiding risks, glory would become the prey of mediocre minds.” A shot at an early win is worth a bit of a gamble; likewise, when you are surrounded and running low on options through an opponent’s careful and powerful attack, it is often wisest to choose an extremely non-conservative move. The trick lies in knowing when to move with deliberate inevitability and when instead it’s time to “toss the dice”.
Lesson Six: On Gamesmanship
There are those who would win by any means. Here is where you must draw the line; it is not acceptable to go and hunt down your opponent in Real Life, for instance. Out-of-game terror tactics, likewise, are universally deplored, and indeed even the mildest discourtesy is contrary to the site rules. We must play within the site, and as such all of the rules must always be honored. I would go further and state unequivocally that any who violate these rules to win a game does not in fact win but instead loses, whether caught and punished or not. A game with broken rules is a game without rules; a game without rules is no game at all.
(Please note, I’m not condemning sociopathy from a moral standpoint here but rather a practical one. This is not to imply that abhorrent acts should be considered when they’re worth the risk, but rather that they should never be considered because they’re never worth their own consequences, much less the risk. Having said that, it’s as well to remember that they are possible in order to defend oneself against them.)
With this as a guide, however, there are many methods that one may use to influence the game outside of mere play. An example of this is tempo, or the amount of time between turns. By rushing the play of others, you can make it so your turns are complete while theirs are lacking some orders. Occasional messages to the effect of “Thanks for making this such a quick game!” and “Let’s just hurry up and get this one over with!” are excellent examples of pushing the tempo. If nothing else, you should always be the first to complete your own turn.
Alternately, there are times when one is best served by delay. If a player (one that is not your neighbor) drops at the beginning of the game, it is advisable to play as slowly as possible so as to find a replacement. It is quite acceptable to ask for the game to be paused while such a player is sought.
This maxim is worth repeating: Your true target in a game is not your opponent’s ships or planets but rather the opponent himself. If, for example, you can goad your target into attacking you when he is unprepared, you’ve just guaranteed a victory. Even better, if you can get two of your opponents to fight each other, they’re going to be too busy to mess with you.
It’s not even necessary to be an evil conniving Machiavellian plotter in order to gain advantage in this fashion. The most successful diplomatic tactic that I’ve ever seen is to make another player into a genuine ally. Be his friend; help him wherever practicable. Be generous and reasonable; be magnanimous if you can. Oh, and on the off chance that he’s preparing to betray you, be prepared; have a plan ready to eliminate every one of his ships and planets even if it costs you the game.
This leads us quite naturally to the subject of one’s reputation. Every player that has managed to become Emperor has succeeded at generating a powerful rep; this doesn’t always work in one’s favor. I know firsthand of a situation where one former Emperor was facing another; leagues were formed against each, and neither was in a position to rely on the other for aid. What is more, as one of the two had a reputation for duplicity, he had a great deal of difficulty finding an ally that he could trust, and his subsequent paranoia was a painful thing to watch.
This situation was, of course, unique, but something similar will happen to everyone eventually, and sooner if you play to win. As such, we should always be aware of the reputation that will be created by our actions.***
A reputation of whatever variety can and should be used as a tool. Since a strong player will always be feared, this should be exploited. It will make one a target, true, but it will also give one’s threats — and one’s advice — a great deal more weight. It will also lend an aura of invincibility to one’s armada: if one advances slowly and methodically, it will generate despair; if one advances rapidly and with precision, it will engender confusion.
Properly exploiting a reputation for weakness and ineffectiveness is actually easier. To appear strong, you must needs have some strength, but to appear weak, all you need to do is hide. This, coupled with sudden weighted moves, will almost always catch an ostensibly stronger (and therefore far more arrogant) player off guard and can alone create the opportunity for victory.
Lesson Seven: On Deception
Liddel-Hart said: Indirectness wins. The direct approach is a sure path to defeat.
Deception in warfare has two components: the tactical and the strategic. (Logistical deception does exist, but in this venue it is limited and can be included in the strategic without cost to veracity.)
All deception has two parts: denying correct information to your adversary, and feeding him false information. A cloaking vessel can be always cloaked; this will deny information. If a planet has sufficient defense posts, it can hide from all but the Evil Empire until the ship enters orbit.
Consider if a player’s ship is close enough to Sensor Sweep your home cluster early in the game. All but one planet turns up on his scan. Naturally, he will assume that this strong world is your homeworld, and most of the time he’ll be correct. If instead several planets are hidden from scan by defense posts, he has a choice to make; therein lies deceptive power.
Now let us take our hypothetical cloaking vessel. We permit it to be seen (as it were accidentally) in one place and then we move it – cloaked, at maximum warp – to another place. The enemy has just spent a great deal of effort and resources laying minefields in the systems you had been near.
Races with excellent mobility have other advantages for deception. The Privateer can tow capital ships rapidly – and often unseen – from one point to another; the Cyborg can Chunnel entire fleets. Of course, a skilled player knows this, but it is one thing to know in theory and quite another to see in practice.
Even hyperspace probes may be used to deceive an opponent, if handled well. The Cyborg, of course, can create a producing starbase anywhere, and the Rebel Falcon has a large enough cargo hold to populate a cluster single-handed; if the resulting base can produce even a single substantial hull, this can be openly revealed as a sign of one’s apparent strength in an area. Conversely, showing only probes can demonstrate apparent weakness, which may cause an underprepared enemy to move in too quickly and with a divided force.
Most players know that using multiple waypoints on a ship’s travels will serve to confuse observers as to its origin and purpose. From time to time, however, it can be useful to send ships on a straight-line course; if you change the destination just before the final turn of movement, the viewer may be deceived into concentrating his defense at the apparent point of impact. Expand this principle to the scale of a battle-fleet and it soon becomes apparent that a defensive line can be bypassed entirely, leaving the enemy ships deployed too far forward. If you know your targets well enough, you can strike deep in the enemy’s rear; your followup squadrons may be enough to mop up what static defense remains on the border as the enemy’s fleet pursues your own spearhead.
Diplomatic deception is also a valuable tool but must be used sparingly and with great caution. When one develops a reputation as a tricky diplomatist, it soon becomes quite difficult to make – or keep – friends. Of course, it’s not always wise to tell the complete truth to one’s allies… but that’s a complex subject and deserves its own section.
Lesson Eight: On Diplomacy – A Primer
In truth, this subject deserves a whole series of articles, but we shall here do our poor best. The basic principle, of course is clear: There are eleven players; ten will not win. It is essential to gain the cooperation of others in order to be the person who does win. In order to have their assistance, it is sometimes necessary to give hope, sometimes fear, sometimes doubt, and sometimes even correct and complete information.
When in doubt, tell the truth.
This can be dangerous. As such, it is advisable to never actually be in doubt, at least about the most important things — how many battleships you really have, what your true goals are in the contested cluster, whether their northern neighbor is in fact your secret ally. Those things that another player should never learn, you should not tell him; you should take care telling even your closest ally.
It is not necessary to lie; in point of fact, it is seldom advisable. It is far better merely to give information only when it benefits you to have another know it. As well, gaining a reputation for being closemouthed is an excellent way to attract confidences; after all, who better to entrust with a secret than someone who customarily refuses to divulge information on other players?
You’ll have noticed that this has mostly been about what not to say. What you can say – and should – is simple politeness: exchange greetings with old friends, introduce yourself to your neighbors, mention casually that the planet someone just captured used to be yours and you’d rather like it back. There’s rarely any need to go beyond this in casual conversation.
As far as agreements and treaties are concerned, my advice is simple: Keep your word. Do what you say you will. Pay for what you buy. Be forthright, honest and honorable. If you’re not, word will quickly get about and your reputation will suffer — and a good reputation, once lost, cannot easily be regained.
One final point: When you have chosen an ally, remember to ally with the person, not just the race or the player. Form a personal connection. If done properly, this will always cost you (not least in opportunities), but the returns are worth the risk. After all, a game will end, but a friendship will endure.
NOTE: Quotes from Sun Tzu and his “Art of War” are taken from the Giles translation of that work, which is in the public domain. If you do not know the “Art of War”, go find a copy and learn it. It is as important as the Host Order with the added bonus that it can be used in more places than just Planets.
My own annotated Giles paraphrase can be found archived here, on my personal blog.
*The answer here is “Go to the funeral. Good on you for asking; shows the proper attitude and all, but some things are more important than victory in a mere game.”
** Actually, this isn’t true at all. You’re playing exactly the right game, and I want you as an adversary. You’ll make it a good contest and I’ll feel justifiably proud when I win the game — and you’ll get a great deal of enjoyment out of your clever attacks or dogged defense. In a very real sense, we both win… except that you won’t, ’cause I’ll beat you.
***It’s also worth mentioning that we should be careful about what we say in a public forum; since my article on ethics was published, for example, I’ve found it noticeably more difficult to find an ally in-game. I can only imagine what publication of this will do.10