Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Caffeine Cycle

FTL is one of those games that's been in the corners of my mind for ages, that I feel undeservedly familiar with despite never playing it. In my head it's become conflated with Kerbal Space Program and other games I haven't played, registered as Something Important but very hazy.

I received it on Steam as a gift from you-know-who, uh, [checks email archive] about a year and a half ago. It's been out for seven years now so I didn't feel particular urgency to start playing it immediately, and it finally came up in my queue.

Now that I've started playing it, though, I've become rapidly addicted! It's one of those games that blooms out and colonizes my free time. Do I have an hour before supper time? Let's play some FTL! Then eat supper, then play more FTL! Wake up early the next morning, squeeze in an hour of FTL before work! It's gotten so bad now that I even picked up the (very well done) iPad version, so I can play more FTL even when I'm not at my PC.

FTL is a roguelike, a genre I'm hot and cold on, but when I'm hot I'm very, very hot: occasionally something like Sil or The Binding of Isaac will really strike me and I'll dig deep into its systems, develop strategies, set challenges for myself, continually push myself to be better and faster. It's a delicate balance: most games rely to some extent on a Skinner box of stimulus and reward, which is necessary for the fun but becomes very offputting if the manipulation is too obvious. I need a solid hook to buy in to the treadmill. For Sil it was razor-sharp design (small numbers are important!) and a graceful honoring of a beautiful legacy. For TBoI it was the weirdly macabre setting and ridiculous variety of surprising items. For FTL it's the tactical/strategic balance and the morsels of story scattered through the game. It's a thin story, but manages to be very evocative and provides plenty of hooks for me to project stories onto.

That story: You are a member of the Federation that governs this part of the galaxy. The hostile Rebels are threatening to overthrow it. Just before the game started, you acquired the Rebels' secret plans, and now they are pursuing you. You must travel through the galaxy to reach the Federation base, staying one step ahead of the inexorably encroaching Rebels, and warn them of the threat.

As with every roguelike, the map is randomly generated with each game. Each sector has a number of beacons, which are connected in a graph, and from one beacon you can jump to a number of other ones. What awaits you at each destination is a mystery. You might find an abandoned shuttle and need to decide whether to risk sending someone on board to salvage it. You might find a quarantined planet and choose whether to help them. Often you will find a hostile space ship, but you may be able to sneak past them or pay a bribe, or even hire them to delay the Rebels. The theme of the game is "risk vs. reward": bolder actions risk damaging your ship and harming your crew, but offer greater rewards than the safer paths.

There's a good, manageable number of resources to acquire. Fuel is necessary to travel between beacons. Missiles let you unleash more powerful attacks against your enemies. Drone parts let you deploy a variety of useful robots to help you. And Scrap is an all-purpose currency that lets you purchase the other resources, as well as the wide variety of weapons, drones, systems, and upgrades that you will find for sale in stores and during special events.

Besides your physical ship and equipment, you will also need to recruit and care for your crew. They can man systems to improve their performance, like firing weapons more quickly or more effectively dodging enemy fire. They can fight enemies and repair damaged systems and extinguish fires and patch holes in your hull. And, as I've just recently started to experiment with, once you have a teleporter you can transport them onto hostile ships, wreaking havoc during a fight.

You start with a small crew, typically 2-4 members depending on your starting ship, and can gain more in a variety of random ways: rescuing them from slavers, hiring them on, accepting deserters. There are a multiple alien races that each have their own abilities. Engi can repair systems quickly, but are weak in combat. Slugs have telepathic abilities and can detect enemies at a distance. Zoltan are made of energy and can provide power to the systems they man, but have fewer hit points. Mantis move quickly and fight well but are bad at repairs. Rockmen have lots of health and are immune to fire but move very slowly. And humans are all-rounders, with no drawbacks, and train skills slightly more quickly. The more a specific crew member works at a task, like running the engines or fighting, the better at it they will become. Over time I find myself getting attached to particular crew: even though they're just a small pixelated sprite, with maybe a skin tone and a hair style and a unique name, I become very invested in their well-being and concerned when they are at risk.

The gameplay of FTL is definitely the highlight, but I want to also praise its style. The music is extremely catchy and fun, and I find its various themes running through my head throughout the day; it's a retro chiptune-style sound, but higher-fidelity than you often find in the genre. The art is also retro, blocky sprite-based graphics, but not aggressively pixelated like other indie games of the era; I found it pleasant to look at even while running fullscreen on my large monitor, and the graphics on iPad look really crisp and clean. The user interface feels a little crammed at first, but I've come to love it: it's a function-over-form approach that gives you immediate hands-on access to everything you need, and secondary screens (like the Store or Ship interfaces) are uncluttered and easy to use.

One very minor complaint: It would be nice if the in-game achievements were actually Steam achievements. 


I had fun for my first several runs, all played on Easy mode without Advanced Edition enabled. I think I got to sector 3, then 5, then 8; that last one barely squeaked in and got stomped before even seeing the Flagship, but reaching the sector was enough to unlock some fun achievements. After that I buckled down and read some strategy, and my games have been going much more smoothly since then, with a couple of (Easy mode) victories.

Some of the principles I've found most helpful for my success have been, in rough order of priority:
  1. Try to maximize the number of beacons you visit in a sector. There's no advantage to leaving quickly, and you'll permanently miss out on the resources from beacons you didn't visit.
  2. When you enter a sector, take a look at possible routes towards the exit. You don't need to commit, but you do need to be careful of disconnected loops that will force you down a detour and then back the way you came, which will almost always result in getting caught by the Rebel fleet.
  3. Your biggest priority should generally be survival, which means disabling the most threatening aspect of the enemy ship. Generally this is their weapons, sometimes it's their drones, rarely it's their teleporter and/or medbay. Taking down shields and piloting will end the fight quicker, but it's better to fight for longer and take less damage by disabling their offense first.
  4. Very broadly, your goal is to collect as much Scrap as you can over the course of the game, so you can upgrade your ship enough to defeat the Flagship in Sector 8. As long as you aren't putting your ship and crew at undue risk, take the course that will maximize your Scrap.
  5. You have a limited amount of resources and won't be able to fully upgrade everything, so be very thoughtful and deliberate in how you spend your Scrap.
  6. But, stockpiled Scrap doesn't do you any good, so you should be periodically spending it to upgrade your systems and otherwise improve your chances.
  7. In the early Sectors, you will want to be flexible. Look for the random rewards and free drops you get, and see if there are ways you can work them into your playstyle.
  8. By the later Sectors, you should have a concept for your ship and should stay focused on it. Sell off equipment that doesn't contribute to your build, and invest in the things that will support it.
Other random strategy-esque thoughts that I've gleaned (mostly thanks to the many many years of online sources, supplemented by my own time in the game so far):


  • Killing the enemy crew and leaving the ship intact will give somewhat higher rewards than blowing up the ship. So strategies built around boarding parties can be lucrative. But you'll still need a way to deal with automated ships. (That way may just be "run away", but hopefully you have a backup weapon or something.)
  • The most expensive equipment is the Cloaking System at 150 Scrap. After I've purchased my essential upgrades, I usually like to keep this much on hand so I can buy one if it shows up in a store.
  • Trade events are profitable, so over the long run you're generally better off accepting them. Make sure you aren't dangerously short on a necessary resource as a result, though.
  • Blue-text events are usually the superior outcome, but there are a few exceptions: if they just offer escaping from a fight, you're generally better off choosing the battle and collecting Scrap.
  • Surrender offers are usually lower than what you'd get from blowing up a ship. Sometimes they turn out to be more, but over the long run you're usually better off rejecting their surrender. But if they offer a crew member or a unique weapon, and you can use them, it's usually worth accepting.


  • You'll generally want to upgrade your reactor more or less in line with your systems.
  • But, you can squeeze some more power out by unpowering systems you don't need. I generally leave my Medbay inactive during a fight. You can keep Oxygen disabled for a while. Don't turn on your Teleporter if you won't be boarding, don't activate your Defense Drone if the enemy doesn't have missiles, etc. No one enemy should require you to have all of your systems fully charged. When you're tight, you can gracefully drop some Engine power.
  • So, you don't necessarily need to increase your reactor 1:1 with your system upgrades. I think I'm usually around 3 Reactor upgrades for every 4 System upgrades; during fights, keep an eye on whether you're regularly downgrading your Engines or if you are running surplus power (excessive shield bubbles, undeployed drones, unused teleporters, etc.)
  • Remember, a Zoltan is a crew member and a reactor upgrade all in one. A bargain at any price!

Ship Combat: Defense

  • Lasers are the most common enemy weapon. You'll want to have enough Shields to at least absorb the number of Lasers an enemy can shoot in a single burst. That usually means getting to level 2 by the end of Sector 1, and level 3 by Sector 5.
  • If an enemy has two of the same weapons equipped, they will fire simultaneously, which is very dangerous. Prioritize hitting their weapon system at least once. This will disrupt their firing pattern and make them fire at different times, giving your shields time to recover between volleys.
  • Missiles are the most dangerous common weapon you'll encounter. In the first sector you won't have a counter. You should prioritize disabling the weapons on these ships, but they'll still get off at least one or two shots. A Cloaking Device has a long cooldown and may not protect throughout a fight, but it will let you dodge their first missile volley. A Defense Drone is a more reliable counter for missile attacks.
  • Bombs are rarer and less deadly than missiles. You can cloak to avoid these, but have much less time to do it than with missiles. Bombs tend to have long cooldowns and don't damage your hull.
  • Beam weapons can't damage you at all if you have at least one Shield bubble. If an enemy has a Beam, you can ignore it and just worry about anything that can hit your Shield. 
  • Ion weapons also can't damage you by themselves, but they can make Lasers and Beams more threatening.
  • If an enemy can't hurt you, consider keeping it alive for a while to train your crew. You'll get a small skill increase in Shields with each hit you take to your shields, and an increase in Piloting and Engines with each successful evasion. This only works for lasers and ions, not beams. You do gain skills against Missiles and Bombs, but those are dangerous so you should end those fights early. On the weapon side, consider setting an Ion gun to autofire and disable your other weapons and drones.

Ship Combat: Offense

  • If you have a Beam, you'll definitely want to disable Autofire. Keep your Beam on cooldown, pause the game whenever you attack with lasers or similar weapons, and use it the instant their shields go down. 
  • If you're just using Lasers, autofire is generally safe. I'll usually prioritize hitting the Weapons until they're red, then Piloting, and finally Shields. Enemies will probably repair systems, so keep an eye open and shift targets as they come back online.
  • I usually try and hold my Missiles in reserve for the Flagship. They can be very effective in knocking out a threatening system at the start of a fight, like if they have their own Missiles, but note than in later sectors enemies tend to have very high Evasion.
  • It is very handy to see enemy crew. I'll usually try to get a Slug early on for this purpose; upgraded Sensors are good too, but don't work in Nebulae. You'll generally want to focus your damaging weapons (lasers, missiles) on rooms that have crew inside: this can kill them, or force them to run to the medbay, in either case diminishing their systems.

 Hand-to-Hand Combat: Defense

  • When enemies board you, the most effective response is usually to vent. Turn off your oxygen and open all the doors between them and the nearest airlock. Move your dudes to a safer location if you can. The enemies will start to attack a system, but once the oxygen drops (and before they destroy the system) they will attempt to flee to an oxygenated area. If you have upgraded doors, this will take them some time. They may asphyxiate before reaching you, or at least be badly wounded. When you do need to fight them, try to do so in your Medbay with at least 1 power: you will heal just as quickly as they damage you.
  • If enemies teleported onto you, they will flee once they reach low health. You can trap them on your ship by ionizing or damaging their teleporter. If they make it back, they will try to heal in their medbay if they have one, and then return to your ship. You can slow this process down by damaging their Medbay, setting it on fire, ionizing it, etc.
  • Enemies on board your ship will travel with you when you jump. Usually you will want to finish the fight and heal everyone on your ship before jumping, but in certain cases (like during a solar flare or in the final phase of the Flagship fight), it can be better to jump to a safe location and handle them there.
Hand-to-Hand Combat: Offense
  •  Make sure you have enough crew left. I'll usually only start sending boarding parties once I have at least 5 crew members. You'll almost always want a 2-person boarding crew, although 1-person may be situationally fine if you can kill other enemies with weapons or they can't reinforce a position.
  • Rockmen and Mantis are probably the best boarders: Rockmen have lots of health and Mantis get a bonus to fighting. Engi and Zoltan are bad boarders. Everyone else is fine.
  • You'll want a clear view of the ship interior before boarding. Don't get into a situation where your crew will be overwhelmed and killed before your teleporter comes off cooldown. In particular, avoid boarding ships with multiple Mantis. If the enemy has a Medbay, don't board until you've disabled it.
  • You'll usually want to board into a 2-square room, which keeps the enemy from outnumbering you. The specific room doesn't matter much. An unoccupied room far away may be helpful as it will take the enemy longer to reach and leave their stations unmanned for longer; you'll almost never be able to destroy a system, though.
  • Have a clear objective for your boarders. If you intend to kill all the crew, disable any Offense Drones so you don't hit your own people (and, obviously, don't target lasers on rooms your guys are in). If you just want to wreak havoc, an Offense Drone is fine, just make sure your guys can take a friendly fire hit or two.
  • Remember that you can make multiple sorties onto an enemy ship. The timing usually works out well to teleport back, run to the medbay, heal up, return to the teleporter, and finish the cooldown so you can beam back. Enemies can't heal unless they have a medbay. So, even if they have 3 crew and you have 2, you can probably kill them over two visits.
  • If the enemy ship blows up or is destroyed, your boarders will be gone for good! If their hull is getting low or their drive is charging up, GTFO.

Upgrade Priorities

  • These will vary a lot from one run to the next depending on your starting loadout and early events.
  • Getting a second shield bubble helps a ton with survivability.
  • Save up enough for either a Cloak or a Drone System + Defense Drone to deal with Missiles.
  • Maintain enough damage output to take down enemy ships. This actually may not take very much! A single source of Hull damage is sufficient if you can keep their Shields down.
  • Upgrading your Medbay and Sensors aren't very important mechanically, but do unlock some very nice blue-text events, so they're worth doing.
  • Upgrading your Doors and Oxygen at least one level helps with enemy hacks, but you don't need to worry about this until later in your run.
  • You'll want to upgrade your reactor along with your systems, but not necessarily 1:1, since you'll situationally be able to power down and up systems.
  • Improving your Engines up to level 5 gives you the most bang for your buck. There's diminishing returns and increasing costs after that, so save those final steps for after you've upgraded everything else you want. 
  • Piloting upgrades are pretty much useless if you can reliably keep a crew member in the cockpit at all times.


Not really mega spoilers; this isn't exactly a spoiler-heavy game, but whatever.

My first successful ship was the Engi Cruiser A. My crew was mostly Humans with a couple of Engi and a Mantis. It was a very Drone-heavy layout, with two Combat I drones and one Defense I drone. The drones were backed up with Burst Lasers and Ion Blast, adding an Artemis Missile for the Flagship fight.

My second victory was on the iPad with a Kestrel A. I got the achievement for many different races on board so had a diverse crew in the victory. This was my first run with a Teleporter and Boarding, though I was running every system as well (Easy Mode = plenty of Scrap). I selectively boarded the Flagship to kill off the Missile technician, "kidnapped" the enemy boarders in Phase 3, then boarded them and killed off everyone except their Laser crew.

I abandoned a Slug ship playthrough on PC; I made it to Sector 5 and was doing pretty well, but made some dumb boarding choices and lost much of my crew. I'm currently progressing with an Engi game on my iPad, which isn't going as smooth as my PC run did but still has a decent shot at victory. I'm now contemplating a Stealth-based approach for future runs: so far I've always prioritized low-cooldown weapons (misses are less crippling, can hit multiple systems in quick sequence, effective way to pound through shields), but I'd like to try a run with long-cooldown weapons and a fully upgraded Cloak so I can avoid damage while charging and then hit the enemy with synchronized volleys. In my current run I sold off Burst Laser 3 and now wish I'd held onto it and given that strategy a try.


I'm having a blast with this game, and I think I still have a lot more to go. I'm currently planning to get a few more victories under my belt, then start trying the Advanced Edition mode, which adds new systems (hacking! mind control!) and races and things. I'll probably try to get at least one victory in Normal Mode, but I don't see myself ever attempting Hard. We will see, though!

It has been really cool to see what an enthusiastic and dedicated community has sprung up around this game; any time I have a question, I can see spirited discussion and analysis from years ago debating the optimal strategies and outcomes. One small downside, though, is that my extensive wiki-trawling has caused me to inadvertently spoil a few secrets of the game. It must have been such a delight to be one of the early players of FTL, finding something out that nobody had seen before. By waiting so much longer, I'm now traveling a far more well-trodden path with few mysteries. But fortunately it's still an incredibly fun path to follow, and I plan to stay on it for a while longer.

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