Monday, September 14, 2020

The Second Gorf War

I think I'm approaching the endgame of Stellaris. I wanted to write one post summarizing the events in my late-midgame, from roughly 2350-2450, and then I'll probably have a last post describing how the galaxy ends. Whee!

As you may have guessed from the title, I had another round at Gorf. The treaty imposed a 10-year cease fire, which also included an open borders agreement, which was awesome. Again, if we'd had open borders from the start, we might not have gone to war. But of course they closed the borders as soon as the decade was up, which, among other things, meant that the northern part of my empire was cut off from the rest. That would not stand!

During the interval, I'd been repairing and refitting my fleets in expectation of a fresh strike. I was stationed at Gorfis Starhold, the former capital of my foes, which they had thoughtfully outfitted perfectly for the purpose, with plentiful Shipyards and Crew Quarters.

For actually declaring war, I still had a ton of Claims that I could draw on, but I decided to go with a different Casus Belli. There were two interesting options: one to Vassalize them, which would turn them into a dependent state of mine; and one to make them a Tributary, which would retain their independence but force them to pay me a yearly tithe. I decided that the latter option sounded more interesting. I demanded they pay me tribute, they said "No!", I said "All right then, I'm declaring War!", then they said "But why???"

The second war did not go as smoothly as the first. Right off the bat, I had forgotten that the Foundation of Majj had guaranteed the independence of Gorf, and as a result my declaration of war brought Majj into the fold. Majj had been my research buddies early in the game, and we still had mutual positive relations; but they had grown up from the scrawny nerds they used to be and were now throwing their weight around, with a muscular fleet and a sprawling empire of their own.

I had a very specific outcome in mind for the war: I wanted the one system I had neglected to fully conquer last time, which would make my borders contiguous again; and I wanted to conquer a sector with an uncolonized Savanna world, which the war weariness clock had run out on last time. I'd thought that I would hit them fast and claim those, then either force them to accept the tributary status or just call for a Status Quo ending and walk away. But, because Majj was on their side, their weariness wasn't just affected by the pitiful remnants of Gorf, but the entire resources of Majj as well. So, even though I accomplished my primary objectives with lightning speed, the war itself dragged on for many more years.

The individual encounters were much less effective as well. In the first Gorf war, I would set up enormous battles where I would annihilate their fleets. Now, I would enter into big battles against Majj where we would fight, I would lose a lot of ships, and, just as soon as I'd taken down their shields and armor and start hitting their hulls, they would emergency-warp out. I was the "victor" in all of those battles, but was slowly losing the war, as I was taking more attrition and my populace getting more fed up with the fight.

(I am curious why the battles went so differently this time around. Part of it might have been that Gorf was more desperate when defending their home planets and didn't have a safe place to retreat to, while Majj didn't have as much skin in the game and was fine with abandoning their allies' space. Or Majj might have had better tech on their ships that let them make quicker jumps. Or maybe the storms during the first war interfered with Gorf's ability to jump. Or maybe my split-fleet approach worked against me in the second war, if they could start spinning up their drives once the first fleet engaged, focus-fire them down, then complete the jump once the second fleet arrived.)

Even though I was the attacker in this war, it felt like I was playing defense most of the time. Gorf was MIA after the first month or two, either defending its few remaining planets in the far north or just gone altogether. Majj, though, was very much still in the game, and would send huge (20k-ish) fleets in from the north or the west. I was back in a situation where my combined fleets were more than strong enough, but individually too weak to take them on. So I would usually keep fleets as sentries in the north and west; when one spotted the enemy, it would slowly fall back, letting undefended systems fall while the other fleet would race in to reinforce. Then we would fight, take losses, and their ships would escape. I would try to pick up a few more systems to bring up my war score until the next fleet arrived and repeat it all over again.

I ended up claiming and taking a few more Gorf planets than I had planned, mostly to try and drive their weariness up. At one point I struck into Majj territory to the west, which felt good but didn't seem to have a huge impact. I made a huge tactical error and attacked a Majj starbase; there wasn't any fleet in the system and I'd gotten used to Outposts of 200-some Hull, so I'd completely forgotten to inspect the value of the Starbase, which turned out to be significantly higher than that of my expeditionary Fleet, not even counting the various defenses they had active. This time I took advantage of the emergency FTL escape. The transport ship that had been following the fleet and hoping to invade the planet then needed to play hide-and-seek to avoid some pursuing fleets.

I eventually realized that time wasn't on my side for forcing a peace through War Weariness: My fleets were too far back from our shipyards, their armor and hull were getting progressively more damaged, and we were in worse shape than the numbers indicated. Instead, I focused on getting them to accept a Status Quo peace. It was hovering between -10 and -5 for quite a while, mostly based on the Relative Fleet Strength, which actually benefited the Majj/Gorf alliance. I invested in reinforcements to push my own numbers higher, then used fresh ships to take on small Majj fleets. These were smaller engagements and not tactically significant, but did eventually nudge the Relative Fleet Strength needle in my direction. Eventually their Acceptance moved from -1 to +1 and I signed the treaty. Just in time, too, as a major Majj fleet was looking poised to potentially reconquer some planets.

The outcome of the war was pretty funny. Less than a month after hostilities ceased, Gorf agreed to become a vassal of Majj. I thought it was pretty striking that I hadn't gotten what I wanted through my aggression, and instead, Majj got it by defense. I wasn't expecting that, but it's actually really cool, and is something I may keep in mind for future games: a US-style force projection oriented around defending other nations but leading to significant influence and benefits.

The other interesting thing was that I had conquered a lot of systems, and I think maybe also a colony, that I hadn't actually claimed. When the war ended, all of those systems became a new nation called... hm, I think the Gorf Enclave or something? So, the Gorf Serene Foundation is now a vassal of Majj, and the Gorf Enclave is a vassal of Earth. It is kind of cool to have a vassal. They vote with me in the Galactic Community, keep their borders open to me, and also provide a helpful buffer between me and Majj, which keeps our border friction low. They do seem to have some autonomy, and we've signed a migration treaty, but for the most part they're a mini-me, which is kind of fun. They're way less stuck-up than Gorf, too: they inherited my Ethics, meaning that they are Fanatical Egalitarians and Xenophiles, polar opposites to Gorf Serene Foundation's xenophobic isolationists.

That was the last war, but lots of other stuff has happened since. In no particular order:

I've researched the technology for Gateways, and have been slowly connecting my empire with them. I'd initially thought it would be useful for military purposes, but actually, it's biggest impact so far has been in dealing with Piracy. My entire empire's trade flows all the way to Earth, and the last hop, in Barnard's Star, has had nearly uncontrollable piracy for a while, especially since my Ecumenopolis got off the ground and started generating tons and tons of trade value. I kept a Fleet permanently stationed in Barnard's Star, and had every starbase in range building Hangar Bays to try and tamp it down, but the Piracy still kept ticking up, and if I ever left the system it would get overrun immediately. Once I had the tech, I made a gateway in Sol and another in Gorfis. They take a long time to construct, but once you do: Bam! Instant transportation between the two, and there are no pirates in hyperspace. Basically, the entirety of trade from former Gorf planets could now directly beam into my capital instead of traveling through shipping lanes, and piracy is now a thing of the past.

I've since been slowly rolling out more Gateways, but even now don't have a complete network up. In addition to taking a lot of time and Alloys, they also require 100 Influence each to build, so you need to wait some time to get more. I was running especially low on Influence because I was also running the Mastery of Nature Decision on all of my freshly-conquered Gorf planets, and that also costs 100 Influence each. Since I'm not in an active military conflict, I decided that improving the planets would take priority.

I do really love how well the gateways work, though. I was expecting to need to manually travel through each one, but the path-finding algorithm automatically takes them into account: if I start with, say, a fleet in Sirius, and need to go to Jarvis, I can just right-click on Jarvis, and it will route the fleet back to Sol and then through the gateway to Gorfis and on to Jarvis. Very cool!

I'm glad that I took two bites to swallow up Gorf, as the integration process is slow and can be painful. As noted in my previous post, there's a "Recently Conquered" happiness malus on all pops of the new planets, which raises Crime and lowers Stability. For me there has also been massive unemployment and some housing shortages on those planets, though I'm not totally sure why. I think it may be because Gorf was running a Civic (or maybe a Decision?) that gave extra housing or jobs to Energy, Mine and Farm districts and less to City districts, so their builds were out of whack from mine. I also noticed that most of their buildings were un-upgraded when I took over, so maybe they get downgraded during combat. Anyways, my previous strategy was "ship all the troublemakers off to Fen Habbanis III and give them good jobs there", but this time I had a big enough glut on Fen Habbanis that I couldn't intake people fast enough without running out of housing there. So I selectively resettled from the least-stable planets and tried to just endure the troubles that remained. Much later, I would belatedly realize that I should have instead resettled people onto Mars and other core planets of mine that still had capacity to grow. Ah, well!

Once those planets were integrated, though, everything was awesome. I'm now getting a ton of raw materials, most significantly Minerals, from those planets, in addition to energy and processed goods and tons of research. I'm the most powerful non-Fallen empire in the Galaxy, by probably a 2:1 ratio to my nearest rival. It does add a lot of real-world overhead, though. I have 20 colonies to monitor, along with starbases and fleets and such, so it takes a lot more time to click through all of my planets and check who's running low on jobs or housing. But it's also satisfying, and I'm getting a lot of pleasure out of ensuring I have an efficient, well-run empire. The game does allow you to delegate day-to-day management of Sectors to Governors, and I might decide to do that if I get much larger, but for now it's (barely) manageable.

I mentioned before that I wish I had specialized more in my planets. Since then I've started to retrofit some of my older colonies to be more specialized: for example, Earth had a couple of Farm districts that were pretty useless, so I turned some of them into City districts so I could fully work all of my upgraded buildings. Alpha Centauri belatedly became an Energy specialist, so now I've gotten rid of the few Mines it had and turned them into Generator Districts. Lots of Gorf's planets were a mess; the districts are easy to fix, but it's tougher to figure out what to do with a bunch of low-level Civilian Industries and Commercial Districts and Science Labs. I usually end up building out the planet, then once it's near the max, figure out which older buildings to replace. This leads to some short-term pain with specialist unemployment, but if I space it out it isn't too difficult.

My Ecumenopolis is incredibly handy; I think the game would be a lot harder if I didn't have it, and I'm curious now whether you get one each game, or if I just lucked out by getting that Ancient Empire quest chain. It's not just useful, but it also makes decision-making a lot easier: whenever there's unemployment or a housing shortage, just move people there. It's now upto about 230 pops on one planet, more than twice the next-biggest, and still has tons of space left to expand. Crime has started to be a bit of a problem, but so far I've been able to manage it by occasionally building an Entertainment District; if amenities aren't enough to curb it, I might eventually put in some precinct houses. As it is, I've filled almost every available building slot with Research buildings, since the planet still has the +10% research bonus from being a former Relic World. Other than that, it has a Galactic Stock Exchange (further boosting already-insane Trade Value), Genetic Lab, Research Institute, and the essential Ministry of Production. After building enough City districts to work all my Buildings, I'm now just cranking out Alloy districts, which conveniently boost both housing and jobs by +10 each. The game will end before I hit my cap, but I think I could easily fit at least 400 pops on the planet.

The other cool and unique planet is a Resort World. The description initially didn't sound that exciting to me, but after the two Gorf Wars and the much larger empire, the empire-wide boost seemed worthwhile: you give up the ability to build any Districts or most Buildings, but in exchange you get a 25% boost to Amenities on all other planets, and an empire-wide boost to your Immigration Pull. I'd been hoping to turn Mars into a Resort, but it has to be a size 15 or higher planet. Fortunately, the one uncolonized Savanna planet in northern Gorf space was exactly size 15, so once it finally got colonized I flipped the switch. I followed an exploit I'd read about online: You can't build any Districts after making it a Resort, and any existing Districts must be destroyed, but if you queue up a bunch of District build orders and then make it a Resort, they will finish getting built. So my Resort is now a size 25 planet and doing really well on its own right, besides buffing the rest of the empire.

Maybe my favorite single thing in the game after the war has been joining the Galactic Federation. I'd been curious about Federations for a while. There's a single Federation in my game, which was founded by the Glebsig Foundation and the Iztran Harmonious Commonality. Those two nations happen to have the highest natural Opinion of me, thanks to our shared Xenophilia and generally compatible ethics. As usual, the biggest obstacle was our distance, as they are based in the southeast of the galaxy while I'm in the southwest. They extended Associate status to me, which I tentatively accepted. I wasn't sure if I'd be giving up too much sovereignty in joining a supernational group. After doing some Googling, I decided that joining would pretty much entirely be upside for me: many of the coolest features are locked behind the Federations DLC, which I don't have enabled, but one standard buff that jumped out at me was a 25% damage bonus when fighting Crisis ships. I'm expecting to see Crisis ships in the next few decades, and a boost like that is too good to pass up.

Unfortunately, by the time I decided to join they had launched a war against the nation between us, the Rax'Thalac Theocracy. I'm not sure if this war actually lasted longer than the Gorf wars, but it felt like it went on forever. In the meantime, I boosted my approval with the members. I got nervous when I saw that they had also extended Associate status to Majj, who were rapidly becoming my frenemy. The instant the Rax'Thalac war ended, I send a petition to Iztran, who were my biggest boosters, and asked for them to let me join. They did! I was a little surprised to see that the Glebsig Associated Planets, my vassal, automatically joined as well; Glebsig gets a separate vote in the Federation, which may be useful in the future.

When I joined, the Federation was just a touchy-feely debating society with no real teeth. It has been around for a long time and has reached the maximum Level of 5, which provides great benefits like the aforementioned 25% buff in damage to Crisis ships; but its Centralization is still nonexistent, which means that there is no Federation Fleet. I dumped 4 of my 5 Envoys into the Federation to quickly bring its Cohesion up to 100, at which point they all cheerfully agreed to increase our Centralization level to Low. Unfortunately, you need to wait a decade or so between Cohesion increases, so we'll be stuck here for a while, even though most people do want an increase. Oddly enough, people are resistant to a 10% Fleet contribution at this level, but most people would support a 20% contribution, and are even more enthusiastic about a 30% one, both of which are locked behind higher Centralizations. Weird!

I was mildly miffed to see our Federation expand some more, with the Federation welcoming in their defeated former enemy Rax'Thalac Theocracy with open arms. It feels a lot like the Klingons joining the Federation in Star Trek, which is cool, I guess. And at least Majj isn't a member yet. (I didn't vote against the addition because a failed vote would have hurt our Cohesion, but I think they had the numbers to get in anyways.)

But that does raise an interesting question about the future in general. One of the things I love about Paradox games is that they get away from the mindset of "the game is a failure if you don't conquer everybody and crush all in your path." Now that I'm part of a multilateral consensus, it's even more clear that my goal isn't to rule everyone. And, if I understand the game right, in the not-too-distant future we'll be facing a grave threat to the existence of the entire galaxy. Given that, maybe I shouldn't be so stingy with my precious research, and share knowledge with my fellow empires, and welcome Majj with open arms. The more of us that are working together, the better prepared we will be to face the threats that lie ahead... which feels like a much more useful reflection of the real world we all inhabit than the power fantasies I'm more used to experiencing in my video games!

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Space: Total War

 I was planning to wait longer before writing my next Stellaris update, but something exciting happened: I fought my first real war! It's complex enough that I wanted to put it down before I forget how it went down.

As noted in my previous post, in this Earth game I've been more-or-less-happily governing a relatively small segment of space. The Gorf Serene Foundation had boxed me in, preventing any expansion beyond the Jillis system; they are Xenophobic Isolationists, who never open borders for anyone, but who also never initiate war, so I was kind of like a turtle inside a turtle.

This did help me focus on technology and my economy; I did build a fleet and keep it upgraded, but it was a low priority. Once I discovered the Galactic Community, I realized that Gorf was actually the dominant civilization, and Earth not too far behind. That encouraged me to continue developing.

For most of the game, Gorf showed as "Overwhelming" on the Diplomacy screen, with superior fleets, economy and technology. I gradually caught up to and then surpassed their tech, and came close to parity in their economy. Once my economy was fully developed, though, I ran into a new problem: storage space. There's a cap to how many resources (energy credits, minerals, alloys, etc.) you can have stockpiled at a time, and any excess is lost. There are a variety of ways to spend that excess: use it to build something new, or trade it, or dump it on the Market. Those are kind of wasteful over the long run, though. After all, the main use of Alloys is war, and if you aren't using your Alloys for war, you aren't maximizing your potential.

So, much like in my Europa Universalis III game, I found natural economic pressures pushing me into a more belligerant mode of gameplay. Population-wise I could continue growing for a long time, thanks to the Ecumenopolis I'd restored; but the value of my surplus production was continuing to drop, and so I wanted to redirect that surplus to something with more lasting value: Another dude's planets.

Of course, this meant taking on Gorf. If he had just offered open borders, I might have happily gone past him to start a ruckus with the Yaanari Forerunners or another target, but as it was, I couldn't do anything else in the galaxy without going through him first.

For almost the entire game, any time I've reached my Influence cap I've spent it on claiming Gorf systems, and as a result Gorf hates me; I think their opinion of me was like -867. But, again, they are fanatic pacifists and won't do anything about it. For a while I was hoping to get dragged into a war with them, signing a mutual defense agreement with Majj  who border them to the west; but Majj is even weaker than me and eventually made their own non-aggression pact with Gorf, at which point Majj and I broke up in a huff.

 I decided to finally launch the war shortly after I unlocked Battleships. I think my Naval Capacity at the time was around 160, of which I used about 130. I had two main fleets: The Fourth Fleet, only consisting of battleships (initially 4 and later 8), and the First Fleet, mostly Corvettes with a few Cruisers and Destroyers mixed in.

Side annoyance: There doesn't seem to be any in-game explanation of how much different ships affect your Capacity, and even the usually-good Wiki doesn't seem to have hard numbers. I ended up tracking down the answer in a years-old Reddit thread. Weird! Anyways, each Battleship costs 8 Capacity, and not 1 like I had ignorantly assumed.

Now: While I hadn't done much with my fleet for most of the game, I had been religiously upgrading my starbase in Jillis. By this point it was a Citadel, with 3 Gun Batteries and 3 Missile Batteries and various jamming stations and such. I'd had 8 defense platforms on board, then upgraded all the way to 15 before hostilities started. My grand plan was to declare war, have Gorf attack me, then fight him in Jillis where my citadel and fleets would tear him to shreds.

Sadly, it wasn't to be, and Gorf never attempted to hit Jillis. I suspect it's because Gorf isn't stupid, and could see how much firepower I had in there; but I'm curious if it may also be driven by NPC behavior, and if a less isolationist foe would have been more willing to bring the fight to me.

Instead, I actually felt kind of bad when I announced my war of Conquest, as their leader plaintively asked "But... but why?" There was no response to say "I want your stuff" or "Sorry, it isn't personal."


I crossed the border and attacked a few systems. I saw a fleet hanging out near Great Gorf, their home world; it had a power of around 3000, much less than my own fleets (I think around 6000 for the battleships and 12000 for the rest), but I was reluctant to fight on "their turf", so instead I romped through a collection of minor systems, all undefended except for minimal Outposts.

My hesitation proved to be a mistake. Gorf was, of course, reinforcing. Much like my own empire, his was long and skinny and snaky, and his fleet wasn't nearby. In retrospect I really wish I had just hit him fast and hard; taking down single fleets weaker than yours seems to be by far the best strategy for space combat.

So I "took" a couple of systems, saw him consolidate his fleets, and start leaving Great Gorf. "Aha!" I thought. "He's going to chase me back to Jillis, the sucker!" So I scooted back to my citadel. And... of course, he didn't attack. He just went through and re-claimed all of the systems I'd "taken".

And then, something completely unexpected happened: Bad weather! A freak galactic storm started, with the popup warning it would last for at least a year and affect roughly half of the systems in the galaxy. Each system hit by the storm acts like you're in a Nebula: Shields are completely ineffective, speeds are reduced by 50%, and, worst of all, you lose all visibility into and through the systems. I was flying blind now: I could see when Gorf was attacking an outpost I'd left behind, but otherwise had no idea where he was or where he was going.

(As a side note, space storms are a really cool mechanic! Historically, bad weather has been hugely important in military campaigns throughout history, and it's neat to get some of that impact in a futuristic setting.)

While waiting for something to happen, I finished reinforcing my battleships up to 8 and upgraded some of the ships. Only some, though: upgrading takes a really long time! Once I finally accepted that he still wasn't going to attack Jillis, I moved my fleets back over to counter-counter-attack.

I was in kind of a tricky situation now, since the sum of all his fleets was greater than the sum of all my fleets, and I was fighting on his turf and so had to deal with his starbases as well. He also had more experienced leaders, mostly Level 3 Admirals as opposed to my fresh Level 1s. My big advantage, though, was that my fleets were more advanced than his, and more specifically, I could move a lot more quickly than him, thanks to my highly upgraded engines. I started to take a more tactical approach, not just watching the galaxy map but actually opening up maps for the systems he was inside to see which hyperlane he was moving towards, and then react accordingly.

I ended up planting my battleships in orbit around Great Gorf and unleashing (selective) Orbital Bombardment, while the rest of my fleet ran up north to claim more systems. His main fleet was east of me, and I figured that once he returned to defend Gorf, I'd slip to the south and have the battleships claim systems northeast. Either he would need to split his fleet and chase both of mine, or he would just follow one fleet while the other could capture territory without interference.

I kept a close eye on his movement, and was elated to see that, contrary to my expectations, he left one fleet in the system east of Great Gorf while the other moved north to reclaim territory. As soon as the other fleet left, I moved my battleships over and pounced. Battleships are slower than corvettes, but my battleships are faster than his corvettes, and we caught him with his pants down. It wasn't a huge engagement, but it was the first decisive meeting of our fleets, and an utter triumph for me.

I called off the First Fleet's Sherman-esque campaign and brought them back around towards Great Gorf. There was a little bit of tricky maneuvering here for a while, as his total fleets still outpowered mine, but I had gained confidence in my newfound mobility. I lucked out as the storm ended around now, finally revealing all of Gorf's fleets and not just the ones immediately adjacent to me. I continued to move around his periphery, claiming systems and taking out outposts, and as soon as I saw his fleet splitting, I would rush in to attack.

Around this time I also started preparing for a ground invasion. I was bummed to discover that the Titanic Army I had hired centuries ago and then disbanded couldn't be re-raised; apparently you are limited to a total of three Titanic armies over the entire game, even if, like me, you have multiple worlds with Titanic Life on it. But fortunately I had recently discovered some cool new techs: a Xenomorph Army (who requires little upkeep, ignores Morale effects, and causes immense Devastation), a Clone Army, a Gene Warrior Army, and a Psionic Army. I raised a few different ones and sent them to the front.

I had totally neglected to plan ahead for the ground assault part of the war; as I learned after frantically reading about war on the Stellaris wiki, you can take control of uncolonized systems by simply defeating the outpost, but for systems with planets, you need to actually land troops and defeat any defending armies. I'd thought I was screwed since I hadn't prepared any ground forces in advance and building ships takes forever. I was relieved to learn that armies are much faster to raise.

They do have their quirks, though. When I was sending my first armies over to Great Gorf, I neglected to realize that they were routing through a system that Gorf had re-claimed, and so the transport ships came under attack. It was a puny little outpost, just 200-something power, but still more than enough for the ships. I was able to make one flee, but the other was lost. Lesson learned! I carefully routed all future armies through a longer, manually-selected path to Great Gorf.

Around this time I decided to finally meet Gorf in a single, decisive naval battle. After picking off individual fleets, I finally outnumbered him. This would mean a lot more losses on my side - in most engagements so far I'd attacked with overwhelming force and hadn't lost anyone - but, with luck, complete destruction of his force projection capability. Once his fleets were off the field I wouldn't need to worry about defending my transport ships, and I could split my own fleets to cover more ground and re-take systems.

It was a huge, awesome battle. By this point both of my Admirals had also advanced to Level 3. We fought in an upgraded Starhold so it was favorable ground for Gorf, but by now I had a roughly 3:2 advantage over him; I'm not totally sure, but I think I also had longer-range weapons than him, which seemed to help a lot. The First Fleet took punishing casualties, losing all of its cruisers and half of its destroyers. The Fourth Fleet stood strong, with zero battleships lost. As for Gorf, he lost everything. The war would drag on for several more years, but the outcome was determined this day.

I'd gradually been merging assault armies in orbit above Great Gorf, and our first boots hit the ground as the space battle three systems over was raging. My battleships had previously damaged the defending armies, but they'd had time to recover by now. For some reason Gorf never attached a General to any of the ground defenders, but my own (Level 1) General led us to a resounding victory. Great Gorf had become even greater under the banner of the United Nations of Earth.

By this point, Gorf's War Exhaustion score had reached 100, while my own was in the high 70s. Once one side reaches 100, the other can choose to force a "Status Quo" peace after 24 months: this ends the war, and immediately transfers any systems that have been claimed and conquered. (I was interested to note that the default of Status Quo in Stellaris is quite different from the default of a White Peace in EU3; in that game, the most likely outcome was that all territories were returned to whoever held them before the war started, while in Stellaris they're given to whoever holds them at the end of the war.) Of course, with Gorf's fleet annihilated and my own military ascendant, I thought I could do better.

Switching to the Claims view, I noted that I had previously laid claim to, like, thirty or forty systems. I didn't want all of them, and started to think through what all to take. The systems closest to Sol made sense, of course; there were a cluster of four or five inhabited planets all within a few hops of Jillis, so those would be a priority. After that... I mulled over the strategic choices, and eventually decided to try and clear a lane towards the Yaanari Forerunners, Enigmatic Observers who I may try and conquer at some point.

The planets fell pretty easily, but I was caught off guard by another fleet who came in from the northeast. I fought them off, but my weakened First Fleet took enough losses to push me up to 100 War Weariness.

Suddenly, I had time pressure to worry about. Given enough time I could easily occupy all the systems I wanted to; but I only had a few months available, and a lot of territory to cover. I paused, revisited the Claims, split my fleets, sent the slower battleships to mop up around Great Gorf while the faster corvettes raced towards the northwest lane. A tiny squadron helped clear out planetary outposts, then move on towards the next system while my general's troops parachuted in.

It is really thrilling to see how quickly your military leaders can earn XP during a campaign. I don't think I'd ever recruited a General before, and I would only have a single Admiral hunting pirates until she died at age 110 at Level 2. Now, I suddenly had three Admirals and a General at rank 3, and another Admiral at 4. Of course, now there wasn't anybody worthy left for them to fight. I'm already mulling whether it would be wise to try and start another war while they're still in good fighting shape, rather than rebuild from scratch in a future generation.

I nervously hovered over the countdown, watching the systems gradually turn from purple to blue, wondering if I would make it. I... didn't, exactly. I was a single system off from the access to Yaanari I'd craved; the Influence cost of claims are doubled in wartime, and even though I conquered it I was unable to claim it. I was super-close to conquering an uncolonized Savanna world and would have gotten it in another (in-game) day or two.

More worryingly, I realized too late that I had completely overlooked an entire planet: I'd claimed a system and conquered it, but hadn't realized that it was inhabited. This meant that I ended up with a disconnected system: Gorf and the other planets were all connected to me, but the long landing strip to the north was not. Curses!

Of course, I had it much better than Gorf. His empire is now split into five separate disconnected pieces; most of his remaining planets are in the far north or bordering Majj to the west, but at least one is totally broken off on its own.

I was curious if post-war diplomacy would be possible; I have vague memories of another game which may or may not be EU3 where you could do horse-trading at the end of a conflict to clean up the map a little. I offered Gorf back some of his planets and a few miscellaneous systems in return for that one missing link in the chain. Nope. Out of curiosity, I ran through the diplomacy menu and clicked on every single one of the 25-30-ish systems I could offer him, offering him 30 for 1. It was still -1000 approval. I guess he doesn't like me!

The post-war reconstruction period has been fascinating. The hit to my empire is honestly a lot better than I expected: I was worried that absorbing hundreds of new foreign Pops would destroy my Administrative Capacity. Instead, it took me right up to the new cap; he had thoughtfully built a fair number of Administrative Offices on the planets, which helped immensely. I became responsible for maintaining the captured Starbases, but also got extra Capacity for those, which is good. And of course my Naval Capacity has gone up too.

The planets themselves have been slightly challenging, as the suspicious and hostile Gorfs adjust to life in the polyglot United Nations. The Great Gorf had a whopping -18 Housing Shortage to deal with, most of the planets had less than 50% Stability, a few had Crime. Ironically, given that I'd initially started this war to offload my surplus Alloys, I'd now taken possession of a huge number of Alloy Foundries and Civilian Industries. Now I was running surpluses of +300, +400 manufactured goods a month, and running a large and growing deficit in Minerals and Food.

I did a lot of different things! I'm not sure if this helped, but I did Distribute Luxuries (again, I have way too many Consumer Goods), and the extra Amenities may have helped. I changed my resettlement policy to allow for forced relocation, and selectively redirected unemployed and unhoused Gorfs onto Fen Habbanis III, my bustling Ecumenopolis with more than enough work and housing for everyone. I'd never built a Precinct House before, but I constructed a few in the planets with the most crime, and eventually started an Anti-Crime Campaign in Great Gorf to finally stamp it out. I also made use of the upgraded Starbases above each planet to make Deep Space Black Sites, which not only aid Stability but should also help shift ethics in my direction.

As with much of this game, I found myself thinking a lot of EU3 while playing. In EU3, integrating foreigners into your empire is extremely hard and may not be worth it: if they follow another religion or something, they're unlikely to ever be productive members of your society. This led to some occasionally squicky decision-making, where, for example, it might be "better" to kill off all the natives before colonizing a territory so you can put the "right" religion in it, than to peacefully absorb another culture and learn to live with them. So far, I'm vastly preferring Stellaris's approach. There are races in the game, but (unless you're Xenophobic) the race isn't very important to stability: what matters is the ethics. Each individual Pop in the game has its own ideology, which might be Pacifist or Spiritual or Materialistic or whatever. That Pop's happiness is largely determined by your policies: Pacifists will be upset if you start a war, Materialists will be happy if you have a lot of money in the bank. It absolutely makes sense that, after conquering an empire of Xenophobic Isolationists, most of the people in those systems wouldn't be too happy with the way I do things. But, everything is always in flux. Over time many of those Pops will choose to adopt Ethics more in line with mine; new immigrants to those systems will bring their own way of life; and future generations born on the planets may be more open-minded than their parents. (And there's also a "Recently Conquered" opinion malus that those pops have, which should be gone before too long!)

In this phase of the game, I've been interested in how refugees are handled. In another surprisingly resonant real-world theme, I finally understand how Unemployment works in the game. The form I'd been familiar with before was due to a lack of infrastructure: if there aren't enough jobs on the planet for all the people, then some of them will be unemployed. Whenever a new Pop arrives, it will take the highest-ranking job available, which will usually be a Worker. Whenever a new, better job opens up, someone will claim it: for example, a Technician might become a Metallurgist, or a Farmer might become an Enforcer, or a Artisan might become a Merchant.

Within the Worker stratum, people can shift between jobs with ease: you can click on a favored job and people will start doing it with no complaining. But, when a Specialist or Ruler job disappears, the Pop who was previously working it will become unemployed. They won't accept a Worker job for a couple of years; and, they won't accept another Specialist job if one opens up. When I realized that, I was initially irritated: "That other job is just as good! Why won't you do it?" And then I realized that, duh, that's how it works in the real world, too! When someone has studied and trained and gotten good at a specific career, and then it goes away, they won't just say "Whelp, I guess I'm going down to McDonalds to flip burgers!"

I don't have a great solution for this yet (in the game, I mean; I totally have a great solution in real life), and I'm running into it more often. I badly want to re-do many of the old Gorf buildings and turn planets into mining centers or farming centers or otherwise produce raw materials. But even if I side-convert a building (like, from a Foundry to a Precinct House), the old workers will be unemployed. Right now I'm mostly just trying to space it out so there isn't too much unemployment on a given planet at a time; when things start to get dicey, I relocate one of the unemployed specialists to a more stable world, just to break up the misery.

So, yeah! That war was 5000% more successful than the one that ended my first game. It was super fun, too. I'm not a great tactician or anything, but it was really awesome to see everything come together. To me, that's what makes something a Grand Strategy game: the scope of the conflict itself was epic, but it was epic because of the hundred-plus years of preparation leading up to the war that let me take to the field with key advantages; and it's epic because of the aftermath of the war, which is bringing new challenges but will result in making me even more powerful than I was before.

One last note before I sign off for now: other than the Great Gorf War, the coolest thing to have happened since my last post was "The Worm in Waiting". It's a really cool narrative event chain, which is atmospheric and creepy and surprising and has some really awesome gameplay attached with it. I wasn't expecting at all to get a plot-heavy quest in the middle of my crunchy strategy game; again, it feels like the good influence of Fall From Heaven 2 lives on.

Once more into the breach!

Sunday, September 06, 2020


One of the less significant casualties of the coronavirus, but one I've been thinking about lately, is my attention span. I feel like it was weakening before and has finally been destroyed; it can be hard to even sit through an entire thirty-minute TV show episode, let alone watch a movie or read a book. My novel-reading in particular has dried up to almost nothing. I used to mostly read novels, but looking back through my post history, it's been five whole months since the last fiction book I finished, and the one before that was back in 2019.

So, it was even more exciting than normal to finally pick up a book and be completely swept away by it. I've had The Three-Body Problem on my to-read list for years and years. After the local library system re-opened for (outdoor and socially-distanced) lending, I set a hold for it and eventually picked it up. Once I did start reading it, I was hooked! I had a hard time putting it down and would keep reading late into the night. I can't remember the last time a book has grabbed me that strongly.


All I knew about the book going in was that it was a Chinese science-fiction novel. It is that, ultimately, but also feels hard to categorize. It opens with a really compelling and intense historical fiction setting, morphs into a mystery novel, becomes a political thriller, and even feels like an urban fantasy for a stretch of time. But a foundational love of and fascination with science underlies it all, and by the end it's really clear that it's a science fiction book, but one different from any other one I can recall.

The story begins during the Cultural Revolution in China, which I was somewhat familiar with, but mostly in a dry, academic way. It feels very visceral here, and it was a little surprising to see a Chinese author portraying the terror and madness of the time. It reminded me slightly of the Holy Mountain chapter in David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, but with a broader perspective.

I really loved the modern-day sections, with Wang on the periphery of various movements and plots, sensing the action afoot but lacking a complete picture of what was going on. I was especially struck by the game, Three Body itself. This reminded me of the video game in Ender's Game: its origin and purpose is very different, but I'm really fascinated by both, particularly how the game shapes the player as the player shapes the game, and out-of-the-box thinking is necessary to advance.

I enjoyed the book from the start, but really got hooked once Wang started experiencing seemingly supernatural phenomena. Up until this point the novel had felt very grounded, so it was especially surprising and unnerving to see what was happening to him and his increasingly frantic and worried reactions. This part was starting to seem kind of Murakami-esque to me, as some strange and unseen world was starting to manifest in familiar surroundings.


The big difference is, that strange and unseen world is eventually shown and described. I was reminded of that famous Arthur C. Clarke phrase about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. What's cool about The Three-Body Problem is that this is not merely used to hand-wave away some superpower, or trotted out as a pithy saying, but is actually demonstrated: it takes some time, but he eventually breaks down exactly what physical properties caused those phenomena to manifest, how they worked and why they were deployed.

I was a little startled by just how explicitly and thoroughly everything is explained at the end. To make another David Mitchell reference, it reminded me of the last act of The Bone Clocks, where everything that previously was mysterious is now revealed: not just facts, but systems, rules, and processes. We learn not only that the Trisolarians exist, but how they think, how their society has functioned.

Unlike Mitchell, though, Liu is writing science fiction. I don't know enough science to be able to evaluate his system, but it certainly all sounds plausible. He's already led us through real-world discoveries and real-world theories, with SETI and protons and strong nuclear forces and quantum entanglement and such. He introduces us to the discoveries that might be awaiting us in the future: higher-dimensional objects (with some interesting ethical implications!), shifting dimensionality, massless objects, and so on.

Stylistically, it felt a little odd to get such a solid block of exposition at the end of the story; but it isn't bad, just different. And there are so many differences before it too, with the shifts in perspective and time and genre, that it doesn't feel that out of place in the big picture. I tend to think of the desire to tie up all loose ends and make everything perfectly clear at the end as a distinctive characteristic of American (or Anglophone) art, in contrast to more ambiguous and open-ended stories from other cultures like Japan and Latin America. But I guess I don't have much exposure to Chinese fiction, and of course there are different people making different types of things in all cultures, so I shouldn't be surprised.

That actually ties in with an explicit point that Liu makes in his afterword, which is really fascinating. He eloquently suggests that, while historically mankind has been cruel to other people on Earth and hopeful about alien life, it should really be the opposite: we should be kind to one another and cautious about what lies outside our planet. It was cool that he ends on a note on the importance of loving one another; if it wasn't for that afterword, I think I would have walked away from the book with the impression of Liu as a misanthrope, pointing towards the cruelty of the Cultural Revolution and the disdain the ETO has towards humanity. But on further reflection it's really the opposite. He's pointing out problems that need to be fixed, not embracing their nihilism but exposing it.

Likewise, within the body of the book I thought that science in general and environmentalism in particular come off rather poorly; the ETO leaders talk about how they use environmentalism to destroy faith in human progress and depress the species from further advancement. But again, the afterword suggests that Liu's own feelings lie elsewhere, as he carefully describes (without specifically criticizing) the rise in pollution and loss of trees in his own lifetime during China's aggressive industrialization. As I interpret it, there is a dangerous instability from environmental criticism; but that should be solved by addressing the root cause and caring for our planet.


At least, that's what I think! I enjoyed this book immensely, but I think I should also write about it with humility. It isn't from my culture and it's probably doing things that I'm not aware of or can't fully appreciate. But I do love it and have enjoyed letting it fill my thoughts during the last week or so.

Since finishing it I've learned that there are actually two more books in the series, and needless to say I'm very interested in checking them out! I'm already curious whether they will continue with the diverse settings, eras, tones and styles of the first book; or if they will lock into the plot that this one kicked off and focus on how the story continues. Either way, I'm eager to see what comes next!

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Anti-Gravity Engineering

In keeping with my decennial tradition of playing Paradox games, I figured now is a fine time to check in on my current game of Stellaris!

After my first abortive attempt, I plunged right back in. I played with the exact same setup as before, portraying the United Nations of Earth in a default galaxy with all the standard settings (but with Ironman Mode active). I resolved to keep playing through despite what setbacks I encountered.

The early game is a rush of exploration and surveying, as you chart your nearby star systems, identify promising planets for colonization, and find anomalies to research. This time I prioritized surveying adjacent systems first, and so quickly discovered habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri and Sirius systems. I was able to move off of Earth centuries earlier than in my previous game, where I had taken a much more scattershot approach to exploration.

I'm curious about exactly how much of the galaxy is randomized. In this game I spawned at the southern edge of the galaxy, unlike the previous one where I was near (but not at) the northeast edge; but in both cases I started near Barnard's Star, Alpha Centauri and Sirius. And in both games Barnard's Star was a really crappy system, while AC and Sirius both had habitable planets. And, of course, Sol itself is the same in both games. Anyways, I'm curious if that continuity is true for all of the star systems in the game, or just some of them, or if the Earth case is a special one.

I found that I had a lot of hyperlanes before encountering any other civs. My layout here was pretty narrow, with a couple of interior forks but in general my empire is very long and very narrow. Eventually I came around a bend and found my first neighbors, the Gorf Serene Foundation, who did not like me. They are Xenophobic Isolationists, so, while I don't need to worry about them declaring war on me, they'll also never open borders or sign treaties with me. I was able to squeeze a few science ships past them before they expanded far enough to cut off my expansion. Those brave scientists eventually perished to hostile forces, but not before uncovering the civilization beyond Gorf: the Foundation of Majj, who are Evangelizing Zealots. Unlike Gorf, these aliens share Earth's Xenophilic tendencies, and we quickly signed a series of agreements: migration treaties, research treaties, and eventually a mutual defense pact.

I initially felt bummed when Gorf blocked me in, and considered restarting the game. But, on further reflection, it seemed like a good, safe way to play a long game. I had a highly defensible position with a single chokepoint in the Jillis system: nobody could enter my worlds without passing through there, and there are no wormholes or gateways to worry about in my territory. And, while Gorf had denied me open borders, they denied everyone open borders; so, before anyone could even reach me, they would need to declare war on Gorf, invade them, and cut through their entire empire before they could even reach mine. And Sol itself is another dozen hops or so past Jillis, hopefully enough time to scramble emergency defenses if the worst came to pass.

Unlike my previous game, I actually built up a decent fleet relatively early on. This was mostly driven by events, as I found some hostile mining drones in a nearby system, and wanted to clear them out. In the process I recruited an Admiral and got some good experience. This was quickly followed by a banditry event that resulted in some precious mining stations getting destroyed; after resolving that, I learned about Trade Lanes and Piracy and Security, and ultimately set up a patrolling fleet to keep my core hyperlanes protected. I still haven't gone to war, but I've always kept my fleets upgraded to the latest technology (much as I did in EU3), and I've gradually grown them with new designs and numbers as my research and Fleet Capacity has advanced.

Currently, my 1st and 3rd fleets stay docked at the Sol starbase for reduced maintenance costs. They are my biggest fleets, with... hm, I think 25 and 30 ships respectively. Both were initially created with Corvettes, but the 1st has taken on some Cruisers and the 3rd some Destroyers. I have another forward operating starbase in the Chatlib system where I could repair and replenish fleets in the event of a war. I don't keep any fleets in Jillis, but it's maxed out for defenses: currently it's my one Citadel, hosts a full set of Gun and Missile batteries, a half-dozen defense platforms, and various jamming equipment. It should be able to hold the line until my fleets can arrive, even without advance warning of an attack. Finally, my 2nd Fleet is a much smaller strike force of 5 Corvettes, which just patrols between Barnard's Star and Bastamore to keep piracy under control.

My expansion has come in waves. My capital Earth has steadily grown, and now has around 80 pops. I colonized Alpha Centauri and Sirius in quick succession, and they have grown basically in lockstep, both recently passing 50 pops. I later teraformed Xarmaton into a Continental climate; it has since become my Mining specialization planet and is around 25 pops. Around the same time, I belatedly completed the Ancient Empires quest chain which led to the discovery of a hidden system with an impressive Relic world named Fen Habbanis. As I write this I am finally in the process of transforming it into an Ecumenopolis, which apparently will offer massive Districts with big Housing and advanced processing.

The last planet, which I'm still kicking myself over, is Bastamore. I discovered this relatively early on, and it's a decently habitable Savanna planet; but it was already inhabited by a pre-sentient species called the Klaggians. I got a Situation Log quest to Uplift the species and decided to leave them undisturbed until I had the requisite tech to do it. Once I did get the tech, I kept looking in vain for a button to click to start uplifting, without any luck. I finally went online to search, and found that you actually do need to colonize the planet before you can uplift a pre-sentient species; I'd just assumed that colonizing it would wipe them out, but it doesn't. Anyways, that's my newest planet, and it's been really cool: there's an interesting quest chain related to them, you get spend their Gene points on some custom beneficial traits, and it opens up doors for colonizing still more planets in the future.

If I ever find any other planets, that is. I'm still landlocked behind Gorf, though I did research a rare tech that lets me slip some science ships through them. I've been spending all my excess Influence on making Claims in their system, which makes them hate me even more, but still not enough to declare war. But I did eventually get an invite to join the Galactic Council, which in turn revealed basically the entire galaxy. There's a good dozen or so civilizations out there.

Once this happened, I started feeling much better about my position in the game. For pretty much the whole game I'd seen that Gorf's standing was "Overwhelming" compared to mine, mostly because of their Fleet, and I knew that their population and planet counts were much higher. But, once I saw the whole galaxy, I realized that Gorf was ahead of everyone; compared to the rest of the civs, I was arguably in the top 3 or 4. And furthermore, Gorf had no allies and less Influence than you would think (due to their isolationist stance), so while they are powerful they aren't really effective or influential.

I initially tried to make friends with other civs and angle towards forming a Federation, but quickly realized that the distances involved made that unlikely; even Majj thought I was way too far away to even consider it. Instead, I've redirected all of my Envoys towards the Galactic Community, and after some (maybe?) shrewd maneuvering I am now the single most influential member in the Community, guiding galaxy-wide policies to my own benefit.

There's honestly probably more that I could or should be doing here; so far I'm mostly just supporting resolutions that add Weight to factors beneficial to me (technology, mostly), and remove Weight from factors that I am weak in (mostly Fleet Power now, though earlier in the game Economy also fell in here). I do carry on some quixotic quests, like trying and failing to ban slavery, but so far I haven't actually proposed any resolutions.

As a side note, I'm really curious about how the AI for voting in the Community works. If you keep the Senate window open, you'll see empires constantly switching votes, from Pro to Con to Abstain to Con to Abstain to Pro to Con. I'm curious if they're constantly re-weighting the benefit based on some factors that really are changing that quickly; or if it's mostly just random while the floor is open and they pick their "real" position near the end; of if there is some bandwagoning effect going on, as civs are motivated to vote with their friends, against their rivals, join the winning side, or otherwise moving in response to other votes.

Like I said before, Gorf is far stronger than me in military might and systems and populations, but I've come to find that I do have one distinct advantage over everyone in the galaxy: the most advanced technology, by a good (albeit not overwhelming) margin. That was gratifying to discover, as I've mostly focused on tech (and, to a slightly lesser extent, infrastructure) while blockaded behind Jillis. I'm not sure what all to attribute my lead towards, but I think the following things have probably helped:
  • Generally, but not exclusively, preferring non-military tech over military tech.
  • Generally preferring tech that provides bonuses to research.
  • Building and upgrading a few Research Labs.
  • Maintaining a long-running Research Agreement with Majj (who are now in second place for tech).
  • Using the Research Subsidies Edict.
  • Prioritizing research-related Traditions.
  • Keeping my Administrative Capacity high enough to always combat Sprawl.
  • Always preferring a tech with an available specialist to research over a more promising tech without a specialist available.
Expanding a bit more on that last one: In the earliest phase of the game, I hired scientists willy-nilly and had them all off exploring.  Now, though, I've settled into a nice rhythm. Whenever a researcher discovers something, I review the alternatives and the specialists available. I try to keep 2-3 specialists of each color around; so, for example, I might have Biology and Military Theory in green, Computers and Field Manipulation for Blue, and Materials and Projectiles for Orange. If I'm low in a color, and/or my scientists are getting old, I'll see who's available to hire. Otherwise, I'll pick the best available topic that matches a specialist. Over the long run, you want all techs anyways, and this way you're always discovering things 15% faster than you would otherwise.

There were some rough periods in there, though. In my first game, I hadn't gotten far enough for any leaders to die of natural causes, and I was ill-prepared for it in this game. I had elections where all of my available candidates were nonagenarians. (Sound familiar?) All of my scientists died off within a few years of each other, and I went from having a ton of Level 5 scientists and governors around to a crop of totally green Level 1s. So, uh, I'm not going to let that happen again! I find that waiting for promising specialists to pop up ends up spacing things out nicely, and there are well-trained people waiting in the wings when their elders finally pass on.

It does lead to an interesting rhythm of research. For a long time, I was just researching Particles and Field Manipulation, but neglecting all Computer tech because I didn't have that specialist. So I fell behind in that area; but now I have a bright young thing who loves Computing, and am rapidly cruising through all those 3000, 4000-point techs. As an extra bonus, I'm getting the research acceleration from Majj since they discovered this stuff a century ago. So, yeah, I'm happy with how it's all worked out, and will probably follow this pattern in future games too.

While my empire does seem a little small compared to Gorf, that size definitely helps keep research fast, too. I have thought in the abstract about how to handle growth in potential future games; here, I probably would have expanded more if I could have, and I'm now pretty glad that I stopped where I did, since I think I would have expanded to just under my cap, and then population growth would have pushed me way over. Anyways, in a lot of 4X games a big key to success is getting the expansion just right. I've come to think of this as following two models: getting over the hump, or following the curve.

In the "hump" approach, the key is fast and strategic expansion: grow big before your rivals can, seize key chokepoints and resources. The game will punish you with whatever its anti-growth mechanic is: Corruption or Waste or Sprawl or whatever. In the short term, this will wreck your economy and make you weak and exposed. But, once you build up your infrastructure enough to support your economy, you will be in a much better position than any of your rivals. You're essentially in-filling your existing borders while everyone else has to fight to expand theirs, and you have the resources to keep growing at a faster clip than anyone else, leading to a nice acceleration of power. My favorite example of this is probably the Bannor in Fall from Heaven 2, where you need to get way too big and then you win.

In the "curve" approach, you want to stay just below the penalty line for the anti-growth mechanic. Build a new city or claim a new system once you have the gold or energy or resources to handle it, then make sure the new sector is defended and integrated before expanding again. This is the strategy I'm currently following in Stellaris and is a lot simpler. My favorite example of this type is probably the Khazad in Fall from Heaven 2, where you want to make sure your vaults are healthy before planting a new city. Anyways, if I keep playing Stellaris I might eventually get a better sense for what its "hump" feels like, and in future games I might try and risk some more-aggressive growth if I'm confident it won't hurt my long-term interests.

I'm thinking about growth a lot now that Earth has reached its limit of Districts and Buildings. Thanks to some beneficial techs and traditions I can handle another 10 pop or so, but then I'll need to start making some hard decisions. One thing I'm wishing now is that I'd thought more about specialization from the beginning: early on, Earth, Alpha Centauri III and Sirius Prime each built things I needed whenever they had slots; for example, whenever Sprawl was getting too high, any planet would build an Administrative Office. But now that I'm seeing what a great job Xarmaton is doing with its Mining specialization, I'm wishing that Alpha Centauri had similarly been planned from the start as an Energy producer. And since only Earth can build Embassy Complexes, I'm wishing that I hadn't built as many of those Administrative Offices there.

The good news is, this is all solvable: there's a neat system where you can replace one district or building with another, and the first one remains intact until the day the next one is complete. You do lose the minerals you spent building it initially, but that's nothing in the big scope of things. So I'll probably be retroactively doing more strategic planning in the coming decades.

We'll see if these plans align with those of my leaders. Elections have been interesting. There have been three pretty stable factions for most of history: the Democratic Foundation, which is my preferred faction; the Alien Friendship League, who are also cool; and the Religious Traditionalists faction, who have been the least helpful but aren't too bad. Recently I got... hm, I think they're called the Peace and Prosperity Party, but they're totally Neo-Liberals: In Space.

Early on, I paid really close attention to elections, trying to keep my favored Democrats in power. The worst was the widespead Death period, where I think I had 4 Presidents die in office before my first generation of leaders were finally replaced by young up-and-comers. That sucked since you don't get any benefit from fulfilling their Mandate if a President dies during their term. Since then, I haven't cared much about who wins. I do care about the Mandate, and I'll occasionally spend Influence against someone who, like, wants to build more Mining Satellites. (They're all already built, you moron!) But from what I can see it seems like the President doesn't actually change the Ethics of your civilization or mess too much with your Pops, so I don't care much now about what party is in charge.

In the game, that is!

Anyways! I don't think I'm even at the midgame yet. I'm having fun playing Space Nerds: Please Don't Hit Me, and am tentatively planning on continuing through to the end, which is in.... 2500, I think? A lot can happen between now and then, and I'm curious to see what happens. Who knows, maybe someday there will actually be a war!

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Message

I've long been interested in the intersection of politics and religion. It was particularly on display this past week at the Democratic National Convention, where each session opened and ended with one or more member of the clergy leading a prayer. As with all American political events, every major speech ended with some variation of "May God bless the United States of America." The final night, in its video biography of Joe Biden, went into some detail on his personal Catholic faith and showed his interactions with pastors from other faith traditions.

And, of course, the Democratic party is widely considered the less religious of the two major parties. I fully expect that the Republican convention next week will contain considerably more religiously-charged language throughout the event.

It's somewhat fortuitous that these events fell while I finished a book about another, far more intense relationship between politics and religious: the role of the Christian church in Nazi Germany. More than a year ago my dad recommended the book Preaching in Hitler's Shadow. Edited by Dean G. Stroud and published in 2013, this is an amazing book that focuses on the sermons preached by members of the Confessing Church and other antifascist German pastors during the time between the 1932 elections (when the Nazi party won a plurality of votes) and the end of WW2.

There is a fairly long and very well-written introduction introducing the historical context of the situation in Germany at the time. Stroud had initially intended to write a book about the sermons, but eventually decided to focus on the sermons themselves; fortunately, he presents all of his research in a very coherent and thoughtful way. I had only a very vague understanding of what was happening in the German church: I had seen photos of churches with swastikas surrounding altars and pulpits, knew that the Pope Pius has been criticized for failing to speak out against Hitler, and was familiar with Bonhoeffer's role in the Confessing Church.

As one might expect, there was a huge range of responses to the Nazis. The dominant group at the time was a group called the German Christian movement; Stroud notes the confusion of the name and reserves "German Christian" for that faction while saying "Christians in Germany" or other phrases for the broader church. The German Christians were heavily influenced by anti-semitic and pro-Aryan thoughts, well in advance of Hitler's chancellorship but even more so afterwards. They "modernized" Christian theology by eliminating the Old Testament and Paul's epistles to expunge Jewish influences from the Bible. In the remaining New Testament, Jewish people are cast as the villains, oppressing an Aryan Jesus; in the present day, they believed, they could finally avenge Jesus's death and create a pure Germanic Christianity. (This theology bears some eerie similarities to the Levitican theology in Neal Stephenson's "Fall": Jesus's sacrifice is a weakness, and Jesus must be strong, so the central tenet of Christianity is discarded, and a new faith is declared built around power.)

(Oh, and one other tie-in to recent reading: It wasn't until the appendix that I realized that German pastors actually had their salary paid by the state. That was surprising to me, and made me rethink a lot about their situation. It reminded me of trifunctional societies, as presented by Thomas Piketty in Capital & Ideology, where there's a balance between the warrior aristocracy class and the scholarly clergy class: in Germany, clergy (clerics / clerks) performed some administrative functions for the state, including recording births, deaths, and so on. As usual, I find that my American upbringing can make me kind of blind to how common it was to not have a separation between church and state.)

The German Christian movement went to great lengths to ingratiate itself to Hitler, seeking to unify all of the disparate Protestant churches under a single, powerful, "positive" umbrella, and going so far as requiring all pastors to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler. Ironically, Hitler didn't seem to care about this at all: for all the GC's fawning and obsequiousness, Hitler only had contempt for Christianity, whether German or otherwise. He paid some lip service to Christian traditions and values in the first year after his election, as he consolidated political support and power, but for the most part he didn't believe the church was a threat to worry about or an asset worth controlling.

Fortunately, plenty of other pastors within Germany disagreed, and the bulk of the book is devoted to their words: entire sermons, translated from the German, preached at great personal risk to flocks under the watchful eye of the authoritarian Nazi state. These pastors were variously interrogated, beaten, exiled, thrown into concentration camps, or murdered by the state. The courage of these people alone is inspiring, as merely speaking out carried enormous risk. But they didn't "merely speak out": they spoke with incredibly strong, prophetic words, with great care and skill, battling for the soul of their nation.

One of my favorite things about this book is how it focuses on language: in the introduction and the footnotes, Stroud draws attention to not merely what the pastors were saying but how they were saying it. They were operating in an incredibly charged linguistic atmosphere: Nazi theorists and propagandists took language very seriously, and intentionally bent words and phrases to shape the minds and actions of the German people. Pastors, and particularly those who follow expository preaching, seem to be in a uniquely strong position to counter this threat of the Nazification of the German language, minds, culture and society. I walked away from this book with an image of these pastors doing rhetorical battle against the poisonous words of the Nazis, using their own words to draw distinctions between the Gospel and National Socialism, or to ironically comment on Nazi obsessions, or just make people think about what they heard and said.

One way Stroud does this is by keeping particularly charged words untranslated in the text: throughout the sermons, he notes where pastors used words like Volk or Reich, which carried enormous weight in Nazi propaganda. Depending on the context, pastors sometimes subverted these Nazi thoughts, as when they noted that the Jewish people are also a Volk, or when they draw attention to the Reich of heaven. Some of the footnotes could be distracting, but those in-line notations are especially welcome.

The earliest sermons are from some of the most familiar names: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller. I recognized the name Karl Barth but didn't really know anything specific about him; fortunately, each sermon has a brief introduction that introduces the pastor's biography and theology and what they were doing in Nazi Germany. Barth was a very important figure in founding the Confessing Church, and long after the war was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. Throughout his career he was a proponent of what was called "neo-orthodoxy", which was a reaction against liberal theology and sought to refocus attention on the actual text of scripture. Reading his biography and sermon reminded me that my left/right division isn't very useful. Nazis were a very right-wing movement, and neo-orthodoxy seems like a conservative (even, in a non-pejorative sense, reactionary) movement; but these movements weren't at all aligned with one another. It's awesome to see how the strong convictions of neo-orthodoxy gave its proponents a strong spine in resisting Nazism, a spine that was often missing from people without strong convictions.

My single favorite sermon in the collection is probably "A Sermon about Kristallnacht" that was preached by Helmut Gollwitzer on the Sunday after Kristallnacht. Mere days before the Nazis had led a pogrom across all of Germany, smashing the windows of Jewish stores, destroying synagogues, ransacking and looting houses, beating and murdering Jews. His sermon opens on page 118 with "Who then on this of all days still has a right to preach? Who then should be preaching repentance on such a day?  Have not our mouths been muzzled on this very day? Can we do anything but fall silent? What good has all the preaching and the hearing of sermons done us and our people and our church? ... What do we expect God to do, if we come to him now singing, reading our Bibles, praying, preaching, and confessing our sins as if we can really count on his being here and on all this being more than empty religious activity? Our impertinance and presumption must make him sick. Why don't we at least just keep our mouths shut? Yes, that might be the right thing to do. What if we just sat here for an entire hour without saying a word, no singing, no speaking, just preparing ourselves silently for God's punishment, which we have already earned?"

(Transcribed by hand, please excuse typos.)

The whole thing is great, but to just pick out another passage on 122, he continues with "It is inside us all; this truth that upright men and women can turn into horrible beasts is an indication of what lies hidden within each of us to a greater or lesser degree. All of us have done our part in this: one by being a coward, another by comfortably stepping out of everyone's way, by passing by, by being silent, by closing our eyes, by laziness of heart that only notices another's need when it is openly apparent, by the damnable caution that lets itself be prevented from every good deed, by every disapproving glance and every threatening consequence, by the stupid hope that everything will get better on its own without our having to become courageously involved ourselves."

Throughout the sermon, he doesn't just condemn the actions of the attackers and the silent complicity of all Germans: he calls to scripture, specifically John the Baptist, using gospel words to highlight the evil of what had transpired and was still happening. Near the end on page 124 he rhetorically asks "'What then should we do?' In answer John the Baptist places your neighbor right before your eyes just at the moment of forgiveness. The unwillingness to repent destroys the bridge leading to your neighbor. Repentance rebuilds this bridge. This neighbor does not excel in any way that would cause the world to find him worthy of help -- nowhere is it said that he deserves our help. Nowhere are we told that between him and you there is a common bond of race or a people (Volk) or special interests or class or sympathy. He can only point to one thing, and it is that one thing that makes that person your neighbor -- he lacks what you have. You have two cloaks, he has none; you have something to eat, he has nothing to eat; you have protection, he has lost all protection; you have honor, honor has been taken away from him; you have a family and friends, he is completely alone; you still have some money, his is all gone; you have a roof over your head, he is homeless. In addition to all this, he has been left to your mercy, left to your greed (see yourself in the example of the tax collector!), and left to your sense of power (see yourself today in the example of the soldier!)."

These pastors were not preaching into a vaccuum, either politically or theologically. On page 81, Paul Schneider comments during a sermon "Let us never say that this does not concern us, for the German Christian Faith Movement is now claiming to be the religion of all Germans."

That aisde really resonated with me. It feels very unfair to feel pressured to denounce people who others see as sharing your community who you don't agree with; think of the demands for Muslim politicians in America to denounce terror attacks carried out by ISIS, or for Christian churches to denounce Westboro Baptist. You naturally think, "Those people aren't like me, and I resent the implication that I'm responsible for them and being grouped together with them." But, I think it's important when the faction in question is in power or is ascendent. During my lifetime, the "Moral Majority" and other Christian groups in America have claimed to speak on behalf of all Christians, and presented a version of Christianity that is almost unrecognizable to me: pro-war, anti-love, embracing guns and vengeance instead of mercy and sacrifice. I think we can safely ignore the small fringe groups, but when someone claims to speak for all Christians and has a large megaphone, it's important for everyone's sake for other Christians to make clear that this is not true.

The pastors in this book choose many different ways to speak out. Many pastors strike at the overall Nazi ideology, or the heresies of the German Christian movement, pitting systems of ideas against one another. Other pastors speak out against specific actions, as with the urgent sermons in the aftermath of Kristallnacht and the invasion of Poland. They're biblical sermons, anchored in scripture, but they don't shy away from denouncing the particular offenses taken by the Third Reich. Reading these reminded me of how some churches in the United States during Christmas have erected nativity scenes with Jesus, Mary and Joseph encased in separate cages, bearing powerful witness to the atrocities we are committing at the border as we tear families apart. Lots of people in America in 2020 were outraged by these Nativity scenes, and talked about how churches should stay out of politics, which is all distressingly similar to how many Germans criticized anti-Nazi pastors in the 1930s who spoke out against the evils being done in their own country.

We have separation of church and state in America, which I think is a good thing that protects both institutions from each other. But being separate from the government does not mean being separate from the people or the nation. For some time now, many people have thought of religious speech as being diametrically opposed to secular action, talking as a replacement for doing. "Thoughts and prayers" is the common soporific in America, inviting people to divert their energies away from meaningful change and into useless navel-gazing. But, it doesn't have to be this way. Later in life Helmut Gollwitzer said of preaching that "In no other form of speech are things taken so seriously, is our whole existence so challenged, even put at risk. In no form of speech does our word itself so much take the form of action, of intervention in the history of hearers, as in this." (page 115). Think of the powerful sermons from people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Dr. William Barber. Their speech spark literal movements, and, as Helmut implies, are a form of action, a kind of pushing that demands response. To be sure, not every sermon or preacher rises to this level, but this form of speech is capable of it, a divine intervention into earthly affairs that can shock us out of our complacency and move us to do what we must do.