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!

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