Landgrabbing For The Win

The first phase of this game consisted of securing every piece of colonizable real estate on the map. Now it was time for the consolidation phase to begin, and the Thalans have a number of different tools available to do exactly that.

My tech path to start out had been the three engine techs (using free Thalan starting beakers), then Planetary Improvement tech, then Xeno Commerce into Supportive Population (to solve morale problems). I wrote on the last page that Planetary Improvement tech had been a mistake, largely because raising the Food cap with additional farms was pointless early on, and due to the Thalan population growth penalty, the tier 1 hospitals were also useless. Only the first terraforming tile (also unlocked with Planetary Improvement tech) had done anything for my bugs. What I should have done was research "Hives" tech immediately after all that engine stuff, a technology unique to the Thalan tech tree. None of the other races get access to this particularly tasty morsel.

Hives tech allows the Thalans to construct the Hive planetary improvement, highlighted in this screenshot. Although the player can only build one Hive per planet, what a planetary improvement it is! Hives are one of the very few buildings to increase raw production in GC3. Most buildings will increase one particular stat (research, wealth, influence, etc.) by a percentage amount. The Hive adds a flat +4 to raw production. Remember, this isn't an increase to manufacturing - the Hive uses raw production, the base income that gets fed through all of the other building modifiers. Raw production makes the planet better at doing EVERYTHING: manufacturing, research, wealth, you name it. This building is akin to adding four additional population to your planet, without needing to grow them over time or provide morale to keep them happy. Hives are also ridiculously cheap at 30 hammer cost, and they can be researched immediately at the start of the game, no prerequisite techs required. Furthermore, they provde an adjacency bonus to every other building type, which means that they can be placed anywhere on the planet's tile configuration. The Hives are virtually idiot-proof.

In short, These things are ludicrously overpowered. I have no idea what the developers were thinking with these Hive buildings. My mistake was not researching them immediately and making them the first build on each colony. Unleashing them in a game where I already had the bulk of the galaxy under my control from the landgrab phase was just unfair.

Here's another small incident where GC3 behaved strangely. I finally collected a few ships together (the survey ship and another military ship that I popped from a goody hut) and decided to take on the pirates flitting around my colonies. The pirates badly need to be beefed up in some way, as they are completely ignorable right now. Pirates can't threaten colonies in any way, and with their laughably slow speed (two movement points?!) I can always dance unarmed ships past them with ease. Someone please buff these things so that I feel the need to build some kind of military, alright? Anyway, I went after the pirates mostly for fun here. The pirate fleet had more damage, but they also had that damage split amongst a bunch of Tiny hulls with few hit points. I thought this would be pretty close on the outcome, and I was curious who would prevail.

The battle animation for this clash was bizarre. The graphical display of ships at the bottom of the screen (indicating which ones were alive and which ones had been destroyed) did not match up with the combat taking place. Ships that were still moving around and fighting in the animations were marked as being destroyed at the bottom. Some the ships seemed to be firing at nothing, and other laser shots would hit ships and appear to deal no damage. It was definitely weird. The victory screen afterwards claimed that I won the battle without losing anything, and I knew immediately that this was wrong. I had seen at least one of my ships explode during combat. So what really happened? Well, after the battle ended, it turned out that all three of my ships had been destroyed and there was a single pirate ship remaining with 6 HP left. That screen above was wildly off, not even close!

Again, why was this game released? It's definitely not finished yet. You'd think that being in Early Access for 18 months would have fixed these problems...

I do love the bar graphs in this game. This is exactly the kind of information that I want at my fingertips from a modern strategy game. I'm displaying the raw production graph in this picture, and is it obvious when I started constructing those Hives everywhere? They effectively doubled my empire wide raw production overnight. And then, with those Hives contributing to the base numbers on each world, that in turn sped up how quickly I could build the rest of my infrastructure. This was highly reminiscent of the Klackons from Master of Orion, and anyone who's played that game knows how explosive the Klackon growth curve can be. The Hives get the Thalans out to a fast start from which they never look back.

So let's talk about growth for a minute. Slow population growth is supposed to be the huge weakness of the Thalans, with their Infertile trait providing a penalty of -30% to growth. This is indeed a weakness, although not quite as much as the developers likely intended. I've definitively answered the question that I posed during my Iconians game about population growth: Galactic Civ 3 DOES NOT track two decimal places for this stat. Only one. This means that growth only takes place in increments of 1/10 of a population point: 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.3 and so on. You can't grow 0.15 population or anything like that. The net effect is that there are key "jumping points" that you want to hit in terms of colony management. Here's the full scale:

-50% growth or lower: +0.0 pop per turn (no population growth)
-49% growth to 49% growth: +0.1 pop per turn
50% growth to 149% growth: +0.2 pop per turn
150% growth to 249% growth: +0.3 pop per turn (etc.)

All of the numbers within each bracket function exactly the same. In other words, there's no difference between -45% growth and +45% growth: you're still getting 0.1 new population every turn on that world. Now for most races, you want to hit a total of +50% growth ASAP in the early game, since that doubles the rate at which your population is growing from 0.1 pop per turn to 0.2 pop per turn. (Remember, 1 pop = 1 raw production. Growing population quickly is extremely important.) The target of +50% growth can be hit with a combination of the tier 1 hospital (+25% growth) and perfect morale (+25% growth). This is yet another reason why I push for perfect morale right away, since it grants a double bonus: +25% raw production and +25% growth, which also happens to hit that perfect growth target for the 0.2 double population surge. Get the tier 1 hospital together with perfect morale and your colonies will be off and racing.

The Thalans can't pull this combo off. Due to their -30% growth penalty, the tier 1 hospital effectively does nothing. Even with perfect morale, you're only getting 25 + 25 - 30 = 20% growth, not enough for the 0.2 pop per turn mark. This is the reason why I said going for Planetary Improvement tech was a mistake, since the tier 1 hospital was effectively useless. The Infertile trait of the Thalans is indeed a drawback in this regard. However, the developers didn't think this entirely through. For one thing, that -30% penalty to growth literally does nothing on its own. If there's no hospital present, the Thalans perform no worse than any other race on growth. Everyone is getting the identical 0.1 pop per turn. Secondly, if the Thalans simply prioritize hitting the tier 2 hospital, they can cancel out their growth penalty completely. The tier 2 hospital does very little for most races, as it takes them from +50% growth to +75% growth, and that's meaningless. But for the Thalans, it pops them over that critical +50% growth mark, and then they're right back to the 0.2 pop per turn that everyone else enjoys. The tier 2 hospital tech is easy to research, so I grabbed it quickly and effectively removed this race's biggest penalty.

Again, I don't think the developers were quite aware of how their math worked on population growth. The one and only weakness of the Thalans can be circumvented pretty easily in this game. And they get waaaaaay too many goodies in their tech tree to overcome something that wasn't even an issue in my game. Uh oh. (Later on, the Thalan slow growth does reappear, since other races can get to 0.3 pop per turn with the tier 3 hospital while the Thalans come up short on the math. But by this time the crucial early turns are already finished, and most colonies are close to their population cap already. It's usually past the key deciding points of the game.)

These were quiet turns for the most part. The AI races were too afraid to stir up trouble with my runaway Thalans, and I was content to build up my colonies for the time being. I had to do a little bit of micromanagement to keep the budget running, while waiting for the markets on planet Moneybin to be completed. I set up two trade routes to Iconia to help out here, as well as unlocking Galactic Tourism for additional income. The tourism tech isn't even out of the way, since it also unlocks one of the morale buildings as well. (I think it's the tier 3 entertainment center? Not certain.) Trade routes still don't seem to be that useful in GC3, and money in general doesn't matter that much. Some of the posters at the GC3 forums have suggested tightening up the economic side of the game, forcing players to invest a bit more into managing wealth, and I also think that would be a good idea. Right now, one planet on wealth + tourism seems to keep you easily in the black. Or just remove those silly 5000 starting credits, which allows players to ignore the budget completely for the first 50 turns of the game. That design decision still puzzles me.

I actually slipped into negative credits temporarily when the Iconians asked me for a gift of money. I discovered that the penalty for being in negative cash is an inability to adjust any of the planetary sliders. That's a nasty penalty, and I made sure to get out of that state right away!

Here was an overview map 50 turns into the game. My colonies were all developing nicely, getting close to finishing their infrastructure and starting to fill up their population. With the tier 2 hospitals in place, growth was back into the acceptable range. I had already upgraded to the tier 2 factories and research labs, and that allowed me to get into the research game in earnest. I set planets to "Cultural Festival" to let me know when they're doing research (the interface really should have a better way to indicate this). I was beginning to burn through techs at a fast pace, and a key tech in the form of Gaia Vortex was almost done. More on this next. On the map itself, my manufacturing-oriented homeworld had gone over to churning out constructors. I had no military technology, which meant that starbases and starbase upgrades were about all that I could build for the moment. I placed a few starbases in the center of the map to control that region of space, and then set about improving my planets with a series of economic starbases. They didn't really need more manufacturing, morale, or wealth generation, but hey, not much else for the capital to do at the moment. Might as well trick out some econ starbases!

Here's the Gaia Vortex in action. This is another unique tech to the Thalan race (it follows Hives tech on their tree) and allows the construction of the, well, Gaia Vortex. It is essentially a national wonder from the Civilization games, and it grants +4 raw production when completed. On each planet. Without even needing to occupy a tile. So this thing is even more absurd than the Hives, and combines with them for a total of +8 raw production on every planet. It's like getting EIGHT population for free on every world!!! Other races would have to spend dozens of turns growing that population, then keep them happy with morale buildings or techs or starbases. The Thalans simply ignore all that and pull magical free raw production out of the ether. On the one planet where you do build the Gaia Vortex itself, the wonder provides +3 building levels to everything next to it. Geeze, can this thing get any more ridiculous?!

Well, that answers the question of why so many people are playing custom races using the Thalan tech tree. Their research setup is just laughably unbalanced.

I don't think that I've shown this screen before. This Colonies tab under the Govern panel is a very nice overview of what's happening on all of your planets. Everything important is on here: reading across from left to right, we have planet class, population, influence, morale, research, wealth, manufacturing, military/social manufacturing, and then the actual builds themselves. It's too bad that raw production doesn't show up here, an indication of how it was added to the colonial screen after the original design. This Colonies overview is so nice that I don't really understand why it's buried in a submenu. Shouldn't this be featured more prominently on the interface? I'll have to find out if there's a hotkey shortcut, it takes too long to click through multiple menus without one.

Here's the homeworld being boosted by its Hive building and the Gaia Vortex. Thala gets 5 raw production for being the civilization capital, then another 5 raw production from the colony capital, then another 8 raw production from the two Thalan-only unique buildings. That's the equivalent of 18 population completely for free! The homeworld only has 7.6 people at the moment, and even growing at 0.2 pop per turn, it will take about 50 more turns to hit the Food cap. The Hive + Gaia Vortex combo accelerates every planet's development enormously. But wait, it's actually even better than that! The Hive building is also providing a bonus of +15% to raw production, presumably due to adjacency bonuses. That combines with the +25% bonus from perfect morale to get +40% in total. Thus a planet with only 7.6 population is resulting in 35.8 raw production, which is not something that should be happening. And the same kind of bonuses are operating on all of my other colonies as well. It's just silly.

Speaking of silly... I noticed this little project sitting in the Thalan tech tree as well. The Hyperion Matrix is like the Gaia Vortex, a Thalan-only national wonder that provides a bonus of +50% research when built. That's +50% research on EVERY PLANET, by the way. Yep. Because the Thalans are clearly just too weak, they obviously need another empire-wide bonus to help them out. The Hyperion Matrix itself provides +5 levels as an adjacency bonus to nearby research buildings - five building levels! That's absurd; the Durantium Refinery is a good early game building because it provides +2 levels to next door manufacturing. Five building levels is ludicrous.

I cannot fathom what the developers were thinking when they designed the Thalan tech tree. How in the world did they think all of this was OK?!

With vastly more planets than my AI competitors, plus the extravagent bonuses from the Thalan tech tree, this was the inevitable result. Every stat exploded on the bar graphs; I've chosen to highlight research here. I had the Hives + Gaia Vortex combo for the massive increase to raw production (which applies to research as well as manufacturing, remember) plus tier 3 research institutes on my colonies plus the Hyperion Matrix kicking in another +50% research on all worlds. The net effect was hitting about 900 beakers/turn while the Iconians were floundering around at 200 beakers/turn, and the Drengin and Yor less than that. I also feel compelled to point out this fact: we are only on Turn 65. This is not super lategame or anything like that. In Civilization terms, we'd barely be out of the Ancient Age. And yet this game is so completely and totally out of sorts that the remainder is a foregone conclusion. I could work on researching further economic techs, but what's the point? To increase my gargantuan lead even further? There really wasn't anything else to see in this game. I decided to pick up some military tech, invade the AI leaders, and put this game to rest.

I decided to research Mass Drivers in this game since I hadn't used them previously. The mass driver weapons have the shortest range but do the most damage, if I'm understanding the weapons triangle correctly. I researched as far as I could go before hitting the barrier of the third tech era, eventually reaching this particular weapon. Graviton Drivers are the tier 4 mass driver weapon, dealing 6 damage per module for a cost of only 10 hull space. That's quite cheap. Using a Large hull, I threw together this design with 42 total attack and 9 movement. There were no defenses on this ship, which wasn't a very good idea to be honest. I simply hadn't researched any of them yet! Heh. Well, the AIs were so feeble in this game that I doubted it would matter. Still, as a matter of good ship design, you generally do want to put some defenses on your ships to prevent taking too much damage. It takes a long time to repair in this game.

Let me be honest here: I don't have a very good grasp of the military side of this game yet. There are tons and tons of techs that add extra modules, and I don't really know what most of them do. The AI has been so feeble to date that I never face much of a threat. I'm hoping that eventually Stardock will beef up the AI, and I'll be pushed into experimenting more with all of the military techs. In a game this one-sided, it's impossible to know one way or another.

Here's one other issue I wanted to highlight. Check out the population of Havana in the screenshot: it's 13.3 pop, which is higher than the Food cap of 11.5 pop. You can go over the Food cap pretty easily by using transports or colony ships to move population between worlds. And the game currently does nothing to prevent this whatsoever. This can be heavily abused, skipping out on farms altogether and still stacking vast quantities of population on your best worlds. There are national wonders that put +200% manufacturing/research/wealth on a single planet, and you can use this mechanic to send them way over the population cap. All that you need to supply is enough morale to keep them happy. Or if you want to get really abusive, you don't even have to do that - theoretically, you can put infinite pop on a planet and simply accept the penalties of 0% morale. I don't abuse this because I think it's stupid, but it's definitely possible.

There's a really easy fix for this issue: make it so that planets can't go over their population cap! I'm genuinely surprised that the game doesn't work this way right now. I mean, what's the point of having a population cap with Food if you can completely ignore the thing?

Anyway, mopping up the remainder of this game. I had great relations with the Iconians (despite stealing all their planets away) due to mutual trade and shared Benevolent ideology. They were happy to sign an Alliance, and that settled them. The Yor did not like me at all, and I knew I would have to eliminate them before achieving a victory. With one planet to their name, that didn't seem too difficult. My sensor ships revealed the whole map, and there was nothing scary in Yor space. I'm highlighting their best fleet here; I think a single one of my Graviton ships could take out that stack. (Again, Incredible difficulty here? Really?) Note as well the pathetic 2 movement points on the Yor ships. I hate to keep sounding like a broken record, but the AI will never pose a threat if it doesn't emphasize speed more. Even if these ships had 1000 attack, they're useless if it takes them 30 turns to reach one of my planets!

The Yor homeworld was indeed defended:

By a single Tiny ship with 6 attack and 50 HP. Alright, so let's discuss this subject again. For all of the other problems in GC3 right now, I view the military side of the game as the most broken from a gameplay perspective. The fleet vs. fleet battles are mostly fine - they look cool and it seems like the AI does well enough in them. The main problem with them is that the AI doesn't put enough movement points on their ships, and therefore they can't ever force favorable fleet vs. fleet engagements. But this pales in comparison to the planetary invasion side of the gameplay. It's just way too easy to pull off these attacks. Where are the defenses here? The Yor have some ships, true, but they sure aren't protecting their homeworld... the single most important spot for them to be located. I've seen this pattern over and over again. Even when the AI has a winning fleet, it's trivial to slip past them with superior speed and snatch their planets away, which of course is the whole point of the conflict in the first place.

GC3 desperately needs some kind of static defense to protect against enemy fleets. Here's where instituting a version of Master of Orion's missile bases would really be a good idea. The AI in Master of Orion moves its fleet around foolishly as well, however that doesn't matter too much because planets largely rely on missile bases for defense. The combat in this game will remain hopelessly broken so long as there's nothing protecting AI planets from lightning human raids. If that's not possible from a programming perspective, then just force the AI to keep large defensive fleets over its planets at all times. I mean, it's not that complicated! For example, the Civ4 AI is programmed to keep large defensive forces protecting its cities, and this insulates it from total disaster, no matter how stupidly its armies in the field might behave. Right now, the GC3 AI builds credible fleets, but they achieve nothing from a strategic perspective, because they are too slow to attack and they don't defend their own planets. They just kind of move around aimlessly waiting to be picked off one by one. Until the AI is able to defend itself, the combat side of this game will remain broken.

The Yor actually had strong defenses against population invasion on their homeworld. For the first time ever, I saw something other than 100% chance of success. Fortunately, I could simply throw money at the problem via Information Warfare and make that go away. Sigh. This is so close to being a great system, and it's ruined by a combination of four things:

1) Lack of information: There's no way to tell how strongly defended a planet will be until after the invasion starts.
2) Weird mechanics under the hood: Why does 7.2 invader power beat 10.0 defender power? Either the formula needs to be clear to the player, or it needs to be changed so those numbers match up correctly.
3) Overpowered warfare types: These things really should not be in the game. "Spend 1000 credits to capture a planet" is dumb.
4) No way to destroy from orbit: There needs to be a way to destroy an enemy colony from orbit.

On that last point, currently an enemy planet cannot be captured (or even harmed in any way!) without conducting an invasion. The results in needlessly tedious busywork, having to capture every single enemy world intact. If the defenses are down and there's no defensive fleet, the attacker should be able to bombard and destroy the colony. Of course this would wipe out all the infrastructure and force any new colonization to start out from scratch, whereas going through the trouble of invading would allow for capturing local buildings intact. You know... exactly the system used in Master of Orion? There's no shame in stealing from other games when the mechanics work well. Again, the current system has the right idea, only to fail in the actual execution. (For that matter, if defenseless planets could be menaced by enemy ships in space, then maybe the pirates would actually pose some kind of threat in the early game. Something along these lines truly needs to be added to the gameplay.)

The Yor managed to collect this group of ships together... which apparently went invisible on the map. I've noticed this repeatedly: when ships are stacked in an asteroid field they keep disappearing from the screen. This happens to both the zoomed out icon and the zoomed in graphics. Another minor bug to deal with.

The Drengin were up next following the Yor. I genuinely felt bad for them, as we had been on pretty good terms throughout this game. They didn't want to sign an Alliance, however, and I didn't want to continue playing this game any longer. Here was one of my stacks clashing with their main fleet, and this too was a complete slaughter. The AI still favors using Tiny and Small hulls when larger designs are available. These little ships just die instantly to the first volley, and their DPS output gets completely wasted. Personally, I don't see much of a point in using anything but the largest hull sizes available. Am I missing something here? It seems like you would always want as much health and space for components as possible, given the logistics limits on stacking. This isn't Master of Orion where you can stack an infinite number of little ships together. Right (?)

I did take the trouble to desotry the Drengin fleet, although I could have simply raced my 10 move transports past them with ease if that had been an issue. Their planets went down like dominoes with no trouble. I had 1000 credits saved up for another use of Information Warfare, which proved not to be needed. It was all over on Turn 87, with the map almost completely covered in Thalan green:

This went down as an Alliance victory due to the treaty with the Iconians. The text about a "foundation of mutual trust and respect" was pretty amusing after my brutal elimination of the Yor and Drengin. Uh sure, if you say so. I was also in line to win an Influence victory here, the game was already counting down the 10 turns needed for that win condition. It looked like my Thalans controlled about 90% of the map. I don't know what role the Iconians would have played going forward in this galaxy, I tend to doubt it would have been as equals with the Thalans.

What do we make of this game? On the one hand, it's a demonstration of the power of early engines technology. Scout out potential worlds faster, move colony ships to their target faster, colonize the galaxy faster. I thought that I used the free Thalan research very effectively in this game. Even if the map layout had favored my bug race, I still would not have been able to run the clean sweep on planets without having those awesome ion drives. This game also demonstrated the silly nature of the Thalan tech tree, with its Hives and Gaia Vortex and Hyperion Matrix and so on. I believe there's even more stupid stuff further down the tree, my game ended before I could make it into the later stages. These things need to be toned down, way down, no - further down than that. As a tentative suggestion, try changing the Hives and Gaia Vortex bonus from +4 raw production to +4 manufacturing. That would merely make them good options instead of laughably overpowered ones.

I was left underwhelmed by the AI's performance on Incredible difficulty. We'll try the top difficulty level next time and see what happens. Thanks again.