Meklar, Average, Large, 5 Opponents
This was an Imperium game created and sponsored by RefSteel. Check out the full rules description here on the Realms Beyond forums.
The basic premise behind this game setup was a requirement that all ships must carry beam weapons of some sort. Small ships must carry one beam weapon, Medium hulls must carry at least two, and so on up to four guns of some kind on Huge designs. This meant that all of the starting ships (the two scouts and colony ship) were all scrapped immediately at the start of the game. RefSteel also mentioned that this galaxy would have large numbers of asteroid fields, empty spaces surrounding stars with no planets in place. In fact, every planet other than Orion would have to be colonized in order to trigger the Galactic Council. Although this wasn't my favorite setup for a game, and Average difficulty doesn't provide enough of a challenge to lose in anything but the most hogtied of variants, I decided that I would give this game a shot. I had been on somewhat of a Master of Orion kick of late, and I was hoping to get a chance to play one of the Imperia games after many years.
Let's look at the starting position. There were only two stars within three parsec range, the green star to the east and the blue star to the northwest. There were about six more stars in the four to six parsec range. Normally I would order up a round of scouts and send the colony ship to the green star, but nope, no ships on hand at the start. Furthermore, our designs were strictly limited by the need to put beam weapons on them:
No unarmed scout ships for this particular game. This strictly limits how much scouting can be done in the extreme early game, since you cannot fit Reserve Fuel Tanks along with a Laser onto a Small hull until discovering more technology. I could build Laser fighters, but they were limited to the default starting range of 3 parsecs, and they also were almost double the cost of a normal scout. (Reserve Fuel Tank scouts cost 8 BC at game's beginning, compared to 14 BC here for the little Lasers.) In order to investigate anything 4-6 parsecs away, I would have to build some of Sirian's Long Range (LR) Laser ships, Medium hull with two lasers on board. At 65 BC each, these were almost ten times the cost of normal scouting units, and far too expensive to build here at the start of the game. It would take two turns just to build a single one of those LR Lasers, and that wasn't very cost effective when I needed a half dozen of them to stake my claim. Ugh. Not a lot of good options here. At least the Colony ship design was almost exactly the same, the three lasers taking it from 570 BC cost up to 594 BC. That was a non-factor.
I went ahead and built two Laser fighters on the first turn, one for each of the planets in range that I could reach. We did have a few credits in the Reserve from scrapping the original ships, and I went ahead and used that immediately on the second turn to double the rate of factory construction. It was all gone by 2304, but that was the right time to burn that Reserve, as soon as possible, to get the growth curve of Meklon up and running faster. Laser scouts quickly reported back that the green star to the east had a habitable world, Arid 60 I think, while the blue star in the northwest had no planet. I moved both Lasers to the Arid planet and kept them there to scare away any early AI poachers.
I decided that I would build factories until Meklon reached 2x population, which is fairly standard for playing the Meklar. You don't want to sit there and construct the full 400 factories right away, as it puts you too far behind in the expansion race. So I did that until a little after 2320, when the homeworld was sitting at roughly 85 pop and 170 factories. No second world to ship colonists back to Meklon, unfortunately. At this point, I paused to build some LR Laser ships to scout out the surrounding environment. I built six of them in three batches of two per turn, then started to work on a Colony ship for the one star in range. When the LR Lasers fanned out, they found some distressing news: nearly every star to the west was empty! Any expansion over there was going to be extremely difficult to do. On the other hand, the yellow stars to the immediately north and south both had excellent planets, size 90 and size 100. That would make for a nice core, but getting beyond those four stars was going to be tricky.
After colonizing the green star (Anraq), I had Meklon start doing some research. The homeworld had to send about 10m population over to Anraq to get it started, which was OK since all of the existing factories were already being worked. Still a bit frustrating; every planet other than Meklon was extremely weak in the early game, with no second world to help out. The homeworld had to do EVERYTHING in the early game. Anyway, I went ahead and did my standard Meklar tech opening in Construction, Planetology, and Propulsion. The Meklar build so many factories that I find either Improved Industrial 9 or Reduced Waste 80% to be almost mandatory picks. To my delight, I was able to take my preferred option in the first two fields: II9 along with Improved Eco Restoration. Cutting factory costs are simply huge for the borgs, and Improved Eco was plenty in waste cleanup for now. In Propulsion, I had the option to take Range 4 or Range 5, and took the former because it would allow me to claim both yellow star worlds. Range 4 is about 1/3 the cost of Range 5; I hoped to leapfrog from there onto more expensive techs. Given the paucity of tech costs at Average difficulty, I was able to research Range 4 very fast indeed, in just a matter of a few short turns. That allowed me to grab both of the other habitable planets in range.
Unfortunately, at this point I was stuck. There were no other habitable planets within range. The ocean planet in the southeast was only 5 parsecs distance, but that was also an Ultra Poor world, and it was claimed by the Sakkra before my LR Laser even got there. Already gone by 2330, absolutely no chance to take that spot even if I had wanted it. Sssla is located where the finger is pointing in that picture above. Further east, more empty stars and a pair of Inferno/Radiated planets. No help there. To the south, there was only a Tundra and Toxic group, nothing habitable. The west was even worse, with four straight "None" stars and then another Inferno/Tundra pairing. To make matters worse, the tech tree in this game didn't have the early hostile world colonization techs available. I think Controlled Barren was there, totally useless for this start of course, but there was no Controlled Tundra or Controlled Dead. Eventually, I would be able to research Controlled Inferno, but that was it. No Controlled Toxic, no Controlled Radiated. This meant that colonization options were slim indeed.
I made an attempt to grab the two non-hostile worlds visible in the west, but the Arid planet was already owned by the Mrrshans when I arrived, and kitty chased off my blocking fleet at the Terran world with her frontline navy later. I had a dozen LR Lasers there, but the cats brought way too many ships for me to fight. It's not exactly easy to be facing someone with Reserve Fuel Tank ships at a planet located 9 parsecs away!
So I was stuck. Nowhere to go and nothing to do but research more tech.
Of course the Meklar are the best race in the game to be stuck on a small number of planets, and I have the feeling this was intended in the scenario design. These four planets all constructed the full 4x population count of factories, built a missile base each for security, and then piled on the research. There was nothing else to be done; the only planet in range that I could even attack was the Ultra Poor world that the Sakkra had in the southeast, and I had little desire to pick a fight there. I concentrated on Propulsion and Planetology techs, the former for extra range and the latter for more habitability classes. I researched Warp 2 engines early on at the second tier of Propulsion, increased speed being a much bigger deal here on a Large map, and then went after Range 6. Even with the tech in hand though, there was simply nowhere to send colony ships. Blargh, what a boring map setup. I don't know if this was hand designed by the game creator or the result of a really weird map roll, but I did not like this starting position. The many empty stars just made the map boring, and the start appeared hand crafted to ensure a small, confined four-planet Meklar empire. While I don't mind if that happens naturally, it felt like all the hostile worlds and "None" stars were designed to force that result. Yes, I can play out of that, but it was... boring.
Eventually, more tech arrived and I was able to begin to expand outwards. This was noteworthy for being one of the most remote planets I've ever seen:
At this point, I have Range 6 tech in hand, and found this unexplored Artifacts planet out in the extreme east. (Sadly it gave me Range 5, after needing Range 6 to reach it, d'oh!) I still needed a bit more Construction tech to be able to fit Reserve Fuel Tanks plus three lasers onto a Large colony ship. However, I wasn't in any real danger to lose this planet due to its ridiculously barren surrounding neighborhood. The green star to the northeast of Anraq had an Inferno planet, which was lush in comparison to the rest. Every other visible star, the two purples and the two reds, all had "None" planets. Just to the south of this picture was another white and blue star... which also had no planets. Fun with scenario editing, it seems? This obviously unrealistic result meant that Kulthos was supposed to go to the human player, and of course I colonized it as soon as I had the range to get over there. I was not a big fan of the obvious edits or the forced gameplay though; I would have much preferred a natural map with more options and more freedom.
The key breakthrough tech was the discovery of Controlled Inferno, which opened up the colonization of four more planets. Along with the Artifacts world, that more than doubled the size of my empire from four planets to nine:
I had met the Mrrshans, Sakkra, and Alkari thus far, all of them giving me no real trouble. I would eventually grab another Barren world in the extreme west, over in Mrrshan space. See the five stars to the west of the kitties in the northwest corner? That planet was the second white star from the top. The other four stars - the two blues, the green, and the northern white - they all had no planet present. Again. I mean, what's the point of even scouting if the map has so many dead zones of space? I was not digging this map setup.
At this point I was now effectively out of room to expand again. I had ten planets to my name... and I had explored fifteen total "None" planets in the northern hemisphere of the galaxy. Heh. Anyway, outside of one Toxic and one Radiated planet still up for grabs, that was pretty much it. I would have to conquer anything else from the AIs. While I was still in the process of building up my new planets, the Sakkra decided that they would get the party started early:
From "Relaxed" to war in an instant, nice. Well they were pretty badly squeezed and had only three planets to their name, so the pressure to expand must have been enormous. I had no fleet beyond my initial blocking laser ships, which must have made me a tempting target. I was not scared of the Sakkra, as I had seen their tech tree and that had exactly three Weapons techs: the default starting Lasers, Gatling Laser... and Fusion Bomb. Uh oh. With so few weapons choices available, the AI would surely have at least one ship packing Fusion Bombs. Sure enough, when they brought their fleet, they were packing some bombs:
19 Fusion Bombs on each of those Large designs?! Why couldn't they have just researched something like Ion Rifle instead! My missile technology was somewhat lacking; Hyper-V was available at the first rung, and I skipped that in the hopes of getting something better, then had to belatedly backtrack when nothing showed up later on the tree. No Hyper-X, no Merculites, no Scatter Pack V. When war broke out with the lizards, I dialed up the Mrrshans and traded for Hyper-X missiles, giving them Automated Repair special in a wildly lopsided trade. The cats had not researched even one Construction tech to that point (!) and so this trade gave them something like a dozen free levels of Construction tech. But despite that, it was a worthwhile deal, as the Hyper-X missiles saved one of my core worlds. I had just enough bases (I think about 20) to shoot down all of the Juggernaut ships pictured above. Hyper-Vs would not have gotten the job done. This being only Average difficulty, after trashing this Sakkra fleet I did not see much of anything out of them again.
Over the following turns, I built up a fleet and got down to the business of rolling over the Sakkra. They were extremely backwards in technology, and of course the Average AI doesn't build enough missile bases to pose a real threat. Their three planets were easy pickings, and Sssla in particular became a very nice core world for me after the takeover. I went ahead and eliminated the lizards completely in the process. Why not? The Galactic Council hadn't met even once in the game thus far. Diplomatic relations were essentially meaningless. I could be as ruthless as I wanted and it mattered not one whit. I'll say more on that at the end of this report.
Crushing the Sakkra eventually brought me into contact with the Psilons, who were the resident superpower of this galaxy as they so often are. I have the finger of the cursor above pointing to their homeworld of Mentar. This map certainly seemed custom tailored to produce a strong Psilon opponent, with only the Darloks starting anywhere close to the brains, and them hampered by a series of hostile/none planets surrounding their start. Despite expanding as far as I possibly could in the north and devouring the Sakkra, the Psilons still outnumber me in planets, 14 to 13. It was laughable how much more advanced they were technologically compared to the other AIs; the other races would have 3-4 techs in each field, and the Psilons had every field completely filled, with more invisible off the top of the screen. If this had been Impossible, these Psilons would have been extremely difficult to beat.
Fortunately this was not Impossible, and that meant that the Psilons were only 5-10 tech levels ahead of me, instead of the 20-30 tech levels ahead that they would have been otherwise. They also didn't have anywhere near the fleet strength that I would have seen on the max difficulty, where their death fleets would have been absolutely terrifying. I had earlier designed some Huge Autorepair ships making use of my own Fusion Bombs and Blaster tech, which had been more than enough to deal with the Sakkra. I sent them out after the Psilons as well - the brains declared war literally on the turn after we met - and found that they were just strong enough to get the job done. The Psilons had pretty decent defensive tech: Stingers for their missiles and 11 points of shielding (Planetary V + Class VI Deflectors) for their bases. They even had Zortium Armor (100 HP) which they soon upgraded to Andrium (125 HP). However, the AI just doesn't build enough missile bases on these difficulty levels. On Impossible, they will build one base per every three population; an average world at this tech level would have 40-50 bases. Here on Average, they appeared to build one base per every ten pop, or about 10-15 bases instead. That just wasn't enough, and I slowly invaded each world one by one.
I don't know exactly when the war started, in part because there were no Council meetings to break up the flow of the turns. I'm guessing that it was around roughly 2450 that I finished off the Sakkra and was brought into war with the Psilons. These bar graphs were from a quarter century later, by which time I had finally done enough successful invasions to catch the brains in tech. They had some very good stuff, one of the best prizes being Warp 6 engines (I had been using Warp 4). I got the most appalling outdated junk in my first couple invasions, and had to go through quite a few planet to get to the good stuff. This crucial tech didn't appear until I was on the sixth successful invasion:
Yeah, that was the big one. There was no Controlled Toxic or Controlled Radiated in my Meklar tree, which meant that I had to collect this tech from the Psilons. None of the other races had anywhere near that kind of Planetology, they were all laughably stunted in tech. Now I could finally invade and remove those Toxic/Radiated eyesores from the map and continuing amassing more of my own population towards a victory. I had earlier researched Atmospheric Terraforming and Advanced Soil Enrichment to go along with Terraforming +40, which meant that all of my planets were just huge.
The Psilons were the ones with all of the tech that I wanted, and their immediate declaration of war upon first meeting had ticked me off. I was determined to humble them, and grind them into the ground no matter how long it took. Over the course of a long campaign, I did exactly that; I'll spare the boring details. As mentioned before, the AI doesn't build enough missile bases to defend itself on Average against an experienced player. I started along my border with Psilons and methodically rolled them up, taking time to invade each world and capture it intact. This became much easier once I captured their Warp 6 tech and got my transports moving up to speed (which unfortunately didn't appear as a prize until about the fourth or fifth world captured, argh). I moved a lot of population around during these turns. I mean, a LOT. I also was fortunate enough to have a Rich and Ultra Rich world on hand as well; I used the Ultra Rich planet for shipbuilding, but the Rich planet fed the Reserve and allowed me to do a lot of colonial spending. I stood up all the new worlds by flooding them with colonists and spending extravagently from the Reserve. This is one reason why I don't like Large and Huge maps very much, as all of this takes a considerable amount of micro work and doesn't really add much to the gameplay. The bigger the map, the more planets you're managing, and it all can start to become tedious. But I had the planets on hand, I had the Reserve to use, might as well do this the right way.
Towards the end of this process, I rolled over the One Planet Empire Darloks as well, who had never managed to make it off Nazin. I might have left them alone if they had left me alone, but of course my vast size caused them to declare war almost immediately. The Alkari had declared war too a couple of times, and I would later begin munching on their empire as well. The Mrrshans were the only ones who never decared on me - the kitties, of all races! Go figure. Since they left me alone, I left them alone as well.
Here's an example of the sort of factory construction that most planets can only dream about. Vox was a Radiated Rich world that I had captured from the Psilons and heavily terraformed up to size 115. With the Reserve doubling its production, it was able to hit 365 factories/turn. (I have actually gotten more than double this in extreme lategame with an Ultra Rich planet. Never quite hit 1000 factories/turn though.) Note also the many population transports buzzing around as I prepared one invasion or another. I tried to hit one planet every 2-3 turns whenever possible, again always taking care to stand up each planet taken. I'm sure I could have gone faster, as I tend to overestimate the capabilities of the AI from playing Impossible so often. That said, I never lost a single planet after it was taken. Always moving forward, never taking a step back.
By the year 2500, the Psilons had been humbled, and the map had been revealed:
I have Advanced Space Scanner, which can see all but a handful of planets on this map. The unclaimed Terran star is of course Orion. I've pointed out the single uncolonized star on this map; I knew that so long as no one had a base there, the Galatic Council would never meet. This meant that diplomacy was almost useless in this galaxy, which I feel was a real mistake in the scenario design. The Council is what creates tension in Master of Orion's gameplay; as soon as it meets for the first time, the player always has to be thinking about it in the back of their mind. I've been in innumerable situations where I wanted to attack one race, but was prevented from doing so because of the diplomatic fallout in the Council. It's also the reason why you can't be too nasty to most races, as they will then vote against you and pose the risk of a Council loss. In this game, all of the empty planets essentially removed the Council from the game, and the result was not very interesting. There's a reason why the game was designed in the fashion that it was. I found things to be pretty boring without the vote as an ever-present concern.
Speaking of all the empty planets, this revealed map now also showed how they were highly concentrated in the northern hemisphere. They were obviously placed to box in the player to a handful of worlds in the early game. I genuinely did not enjoy this mechanic; it was not much fun to keep scouting out empty star after empty star. I would have much preferred a more open map which had more room for interesting choices. This map setup felt like it placed players into a straightjacket with very few options available, and I expect most games to have nearly identical first 100 turns. While this was an interesting idea, the scenario design didn't work for me. I would have much rather seen a random map than this heavily edited one, which never felt quite right.
Anyway, I was holding off colonizing that last world until I was confident that I had enough population to win the Council vote. I did not want to come up just short and then have to wait 25 turns for another vote to win the game. By 2500, I believed that I had enough population to win:
Those bar graphs are notoriously unreliable. Still, this seemed like it should be enough. When I settled that last Toxic planet in the corner, the Council met for the first time, and I found that I had overestimated again:
I actually had 3/4 of the overall population, not the needed 2/3 of galactic pop. Oh well. As I said, better to overestimate what was needed than come up short. No one voted for me, and I didn't particularly care.
Here was the final map, after defying the Council vote to take a last screenshot. The victory was achieved on the very first Council vote as planned, in the unusual date of 2501. I had planned to hit the 2500 date, and then missed it by one turn. Oops. It was strange to see the Council message stating that the leaders were merging together in "2500" instead of "2499" as it normally displays. (The message on the victory screen always displays one turn before the round number date.) I seriously doubt that I will win another game on the first vote in 2501 any time soon.
Overall then, it was an unusual game, but ultimately too unsatisfying. I felt like I was playing a scripted scenario instead of an open-ended game. Too much of the map seemed hard coded to force a small Meklar empire versus a runaway Psilon down the road. I also didn't find the variant rules to be particularly interesting. They created a deeper hole in the beginning, by removing the second colony, and they made it very difficult to scout in the early game. After that, however, the game played out almost exactly the same as normal. The start was simply a lot more painful, and that ultimately wasn't too engaging. As I said, a creative idea which didn't work for me. I did not find this compelling enough to try the Impossible version, which I think would be very winnable with a Galactic Council not meeting until very late in the game, but also another long grindfest. I'm sure someone will try it and win it. Thanks again.