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!

No comments:

Post a Comment