Neptune’s Pride – Some Strategy Tips
Feb 5th, 2010 by AlexWeldon

As stated in the review yesterday, I’ve only played one game of Neptune’s Pride, and it was a free one. However, in the two weeks or so that it took to play, I learned a thing or two. I ended up winning, but in some ways, I was just lucky… however, I think, based on my observations that first game, I might know how to duplicate that luck in the future.

United we Stand

This may be obvious to players of Diplomacy and other, similar games, but in Neptune’s Pride, the most valuable asset is not money, tech, stars or ships, but allies. Except for giving a small advantage to the defender, combat essentially boils down to a straightforward numerical comparison of forces, and more so as the game goes on, and tech levels go up, and fleet sizes get larger.

Thus, if you’re fighting someone who’s about on equal footing with you, it doesn’t matter that much who has the better strategy – either a few stars will get picked off and you’ll call a truce, or more likely, you’ll both lose most of your ships in the conflict, and someone more powerful will swoop in to claim both your stars.

On the other hand, if two players gang up on one, they will both still have enough ships left to defend themselves from others once the dust settles.

And so, the game is a lot like reality shows like Survivor, where the best players tend to form coalitions, and pick everyone else off one by one. There is also a more subtle power struggle within the alliance, of course – whoever reaps the greatest spoils while sacrificing the least for his allies will win the game in the end… unless he overdoes it and his former friends decide he’s no longer on their side. You can worry about this later in the game, though; the important point is that if you’re not in a strong alliance early on, you have no hope of beating those who are.

More generally, we can say that the ultimate goal of this game is to be a member of the larger side in any conflict.

The Neighbour of my Neighbour is my Friend

So, given that allies are of the utmost importance, one’s choice of allies is clearly going to be a big decision early in the game. Like most people in my game, I started off by contacting everyone adjacent to me, and trying to negotiate border agreements. Although there’s nothing wrong with this as a stopgap measure until you’re ready for war, it’s clearly not going to work in the long term – in order to win the game, you need to expand, and you can’t do this while remaining at peace with everyone you share a border with.

Rather, if we go back to what we said in the first section, the objective is to be on the larger side of any conflict. Thus, the most appealing target for you is going to be a player who shares borders with multiple other players, and your best allies are going to be those other players. Best of all is if these other players do not initially share a border with you themselves – then you have an opportunity to cooperate with them against a common enemy, and no reason, nor possibility, for one of you to betray the other, at least until the “sandwiched” player is dealt with, and you and your friend meet in the middle.

The Dangers of Exponential Growth

What this game shares with other 4X titles, like Civilization, is the idea of “booming,” or exponential growth. You collect money each turn, and can invest it in a variety of things, including Economy upgrades, which earn you more money. Theoretically, if left alone, a player who started off investing only in Economy would eventually be able to outpace everyone else in the galaxy. This, however, is a risky path.

The main problem is that ships are not purchased directly. Rather, the best the player can do is upgrade his stars’ Industry, which in turn affects the rate at which they produce ships. This means that Economy has a second-derivative effect on fleet strength – Economy affects rate of income, which affects not the rate of fleet growth, but rather, the rate of Industry development, which in turn determines the rate of fleet growth. What that means is that, while a strong Economy can have an even greater long-term impact on fleet strength than if ships were purchased directly, in the short term, there’s a great deal of inertia in switching from economic development to ship production.

In my first game, I noticed from early on that I was WAY behind most of the other players in Economy (and Science), but ahead in Industry, and thus way ahead in fleet strength. I knew this would put me behind in the long run, so I had to strike quickly… so strike I did, capturing, in the process, many desirable stars, and pillaging their economies. I could also make up for my Science deficit by capturing other players’ Science stars, and by trading military support for technologies researched by others.

That’s the problem with going all-out for economy and neglecting your fleet early on. It makes you both a very dangerous long-term threat, and a very appealing short-term target. Put this together with the principle I arrived at in the first section, above, and you’ll see why this doesn’t work – your objective is to make sure people want to work with you, not against you.

Thus, investing in Industry early on means that the risk involved in attacking you will outweigh the rewards, and people will be more likely to want to work with you than against you. Investing too much in Economy has the opposite effect, unless you have neighbours willing to trade fleets for cash.

Needless to say, this isn’t a suggestion that one should only purchase Industry upgrades – a balancing act is required. It’s merely an observation that at least six out of the eight people in my first game invested much too heavily in either Science or Economy early on, and neglected to defend themselves adequately. I imagine this is a bad habit developed over years of playing against comparatively “nice” AIs, rather than brutal human opponents.

Built like a Walnut

The most obvious way of choosing where to develop is to decide what you’re investing in that turn, and use the “Find Cheapest E/I/S” button, but this isn’t generally going to be correct. Stars with a lot of Economy are appealing targets, due to the immediate cash bonus of capturing one. Science, even more so, as it’s so expensive to purchase. Thus, if you develop the Economy and Science of stars in scanning range of your neighbours, you’ll need to keep them heavily guarded in order not to make yourself too succulent. This means you’ll have fewer ships available for your conquests elsewhere.

Rather, you should think of your territory as a walnut. Keep the delicious part inside, and a hard shell outside. Build up industry around your borders, and find high-resource stars that are as far away from everyone else as possible, in order to build your Economy and Science there. This will be more expensive than spreading everything out, but better in the long-run.

That said, buying one level of economy in a system with decent resources costs less than $20, and will pay itself off in 48 hours if you can hold it that long. So, it is worth spreading your economy out a little, especially since it doesn’t matter to you where the money comes from, as it all ends up in the same place.

By contrast, there’s a strong incentive to concentrate most of your Industry in a few systems, or clusters of nearby systems. When waging war, you’re going to want to pick up ships from systems far from the battle zone and transport them into combat. The fewer stops your carriers have to make in order to achieve “critical mass” (be that 30 ships, 60, 100, or whatever, depending on the stage of the game) and become useful combat tools, the faster they’ll be ready to join the fray. Eventually, you’ll have a sort of “bucket brigade” system going, with depleted fleets returning from the front to fill up at your Industrial centres, while others are already on their way out. If you plan your Industry well enough, and are responsible in sending your fleets only into battles they can win, you’ll be able to make do with far fewer Super Carriers than your opponents. Although they only cost $25 a pop, that’s usually enough for an Economy or Industry upgrade somewhere, so making do with fewer, rather than more, will help inch you ahead.

No System Undefended

A common mistake I observed in my first game was players only leaving ships in developed systems. Small, resource-poor stars may not be appealing to develop, but they can serve as entry-points to your sector of the galaxy; having claimed them, an opponent will have a much better view of where your forces are located, and a convenient staging ground to launch fleets deeper into your space, where – if you’re employing the walnut strategy – you won’t be adequately defended.

Leaving one ship behind in each system you visit is an excellent policy. The cost is minimal, even early in the game, and the difference is substantial – although it won’t stop an enemy fleet from taking such systems, they will lose W+1 ships every time they do (where W is your Weapons tech level), while you only lose the single ship. Since war in Neptune’s Pride is a straight-up numerical comparison, this is a trade you want to make all day and night, equivalent to sacrificing pawns for bishops or rooks in chess.

I’ll be the Bait, You be the Trap

As the saying goes, the best offense is a strong defense. Fleets get a pretty substantial advantage on the defense, so destroying someone else’s 100-ship fleet might cost you 120 of your own if you attack, but only 80 if you trick them into blundering into a huge fleet of your own.

This leads to one possible exception to the above “Walnut Rule.” If you’re not sure if you can trust a given neighbour, try building a Science upgrade in a lightly-defended system within his scanning range, especially if you can see a large fleet of his stationed nearby. In the meantime, move a larger fleet of your own to a system just behind the “bait” system, outside of his scanning range (be sure to check the Player Browser, as his scanning tech may not be the same as yours).

To make the bait even more appealing, you can tell him that you’re starting a war with a player at the other end of your territory, and let him see you jumping some fleets away in that direction. He’ll assume that you’re committing your forces over there and the time is ripe for a sneak attack.

Just make sure that your “trap” is close enough, and your Speed technology good enough, that you’ll be able to get it into the “bait” system before his attacking fleet gets there.

Once the trap is sprung and his fleet annihilated, there will probably be several poorly-defended systems for you to snap up in its wake, since he will have collected ships from them for his attack. Best of all, and especially if anyone else was in range to see what happened, you’ll be able to point the finger at your new enemy as the one who violated the border treaty, and come out looking like the good guy.

The Right Tech for the Job

Not all technologies are of equal value at all stages of the game. People tend to rush for Weapons early on, because the game is, after all, about fighting. However, there’s generally quite a bit of build-up before the fighting gets going. Rather, Speed is probably the most important tech at the very beginning, in order to expand your borders as quickly as possible. Scanning is also more valuable than most players seem to believe, as it allows you to claim the best stars, rather than wasting time jumping blindly to distant stars, only to discover that they’re barren.

After a couple of Speed upgrades, Range becomes important as well. However, unlike the other techs, which continue to be useful no matter how high you get them, Range seems to peter out around level 4 or 5 in most galaxies. You need to get those first few upgrades early on, in order to be the first to reach remote star clusters that are out of other players’ grap… but other than that, its only advantage is in allowing you to plot a straighter line between distant points, and a high enough Speed tech can easily compensate for a slightly more crooked path with more waypoints.

Scanning and Speed are also very valuable in battle, as they allow you to see where your opponent is going, and get there first. This goes with the point above about baiting your opponent into blundering into a strong defensive fleet.

Of course, choosing which technologies to research is greatly dependent on your allies, and ideally, you’ll be trading with enough people that you can get a little of everything – nonetheless, my feeling is that, all other things being equal, it’s good to focus on Speed and Scanning early on, and trade for the others. Partly, this is because they’re so useful, but also because they seem to be researched less often (especially Scanning) by other players, so you’re more likely to be able to trade them. Perhaps, as people gain more experience, Speed and Scanning will become more commonplace, and researching something like Range from the get-go will be the way to get something of value. Time will tell.

That’s all I have to say for now, but it’s already a longer piece than I’d meant to write. As I said in the review, it’s a surprisingly deep game for such simple mechanics. Please feel free to comment and discuss your own findings, and I’ll include them if I write a follow-up after my second game.

Web Game Review – Neptune’s Pride
Feb 5th, 2010 by AlexWeldon

Gameplay: 8/10 Graphics: Minimal Sound: Minimal Originality: 9/10 Overall: 8/10


Play at: http://np.ironhelmet.com

Neptune’s Pride is a multiplayer, real-time strategy game with the emphases on “real,” and “strategy,” and a heavy dose of diplomacy. Whereas Starcraft and its ilk unfold at a breakneck pace and stress reaction time and memorization of effective development sequences, Neptune’s Pride is slow-paced, maddeningly so… and that’s what makes it brilliant.

Starting from a small number of stars and a handful of ships, the players seek to expand their territory and vie for dominance of the galaxy. This is not remotely original. What makes it special is that space travel is slow, as it’s meant to be. Of course, your fleets, even with starting technology, still travel at physically impossible speeds, measured in light years per day. But compared to most so-called “real time” games, where events happen on the scale of seconds, sending your fleet to a “nearby” star and seeing an ETA of 8, or 12, or 14 hours is a very different feeling.

The graphics and sound are extremely minimal, too, just simple dots to represent stars, chevrons for fleets, and lines for plotted trajectories. There is a pretty nebula in the background, but that can be turned off for those seeking the ultimate in stripped-down experiences.

You’d expect that a game paced so slowly would take advantage of the added time to allow players to do more of the fussy micro-management that characterizes many other “4X” (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) strategy games, but in fact, Neptune’s Pride goes completely to the other end of the spectrum. Most of the time, there’s really very little to be done except wait.

If one has the cash, stars can be upgraded in terms of Economy (cash production), Industry (ship production) or Science (technology production). However, cash is only paid out once every 24 hours, and one is generally wise to invest most of it as soon as possible. Fleets can be moved around, but as stated earlier, they take hours or days to arrive at their destination, and cannot be redirected in mid-trip. Moreover, waypoints can be set, so that one can plan a multi-leg journey in advance, and let the fleet plod along on its own. Finally, one can switch one’s area of technological research; the four options are Weapons, Range (that is, the distance that one’s ships can travel in a single jump), Speed and Scanning. That is all there is to it – three stats per star, one per fleet (number of ships is all that matters), and four kinds of technology.

Despite all this, for the entire course of my first game, I found myself compulsively logging in about once every two hours. And, in fact, I came to the conclusion that doing so was instrumental in my victory. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, one’s visibility is limited to a certain distance from one’s occupied stars, as determined by one’s level of Scanning technology. Especially in the early middle game, when players’ expanding borders first make contact with each other, it’s critical to take a look around frequently, to see if any potential enemy ships have entered scanning range.

Secondly, and more importantly, Neptune’s Pride is a game of communication and diplomacy. Battles are a straightforward numerical comparison, with no luck involved and the advantage going to the defender. Thus, it’s very difficult to make headway in a one-on-one confrontation. Rather, the game places an emphasis on strategic alliances, persuasion, sharing of information and, of course, betrayal. Although a single fleet may take half a day to make a single jump to an adjacent star, the ramifications of that jump may involve several players, and may necessitate several exchanges of in-game messages in order to avoid (or instigate) a war. Thus, the players who log in most frequently have the most opportunity to communicate with one another, and therefore have an advantage compared to players who plan their movements for the coming day and then don’t log in for another 24 hours.

Someone over at RPS mentioned Neptune’s Pride in passing, in an article about another game. He brought it up as part of a list of games that he says he wishes the gaming media were giving more coverage. I found it funny, because I’d been thinking for a while about making a blog post about it, but I know exactly why it’s not covered very much.

The reason why I was waiting, and the reason few people have written about Neptune’s Pride, is that any respectable journalist wants to give a game a fair shake before writing anything about it. For a multiplayer game, that implies playing at least one full game… but in the case of Neptune’s Pride, that can take a week or more. That’s a big time commitment for a game reviewer who has new titles showing up for review on a daily basis.

So, now, I’ve finished (and won, I’m proud to say) my first game of Neptune’s Pride, and I think I can now assess it fairly.

First of all, and most importantly, it’s a fun game. From beginning to end, there will be plenty of tense moments, watching your fleets inch their way across the void, worrying about whether a larger enemy fleet is hovering just beyond the range of one’s scanners, negotiating for much-needed support from a neighbour of dubious character…

Also important, from my point of view, it’s a good example of minimalism in game design, as I discussed in my post Density, not Volume. I can think of a few flourishes that probably wouldn’t hurt the game, but I definitely can’t think of anything else that could be taken away. The mechanics of the game take only minutes to grasp fully, but have pretty deep implications.

One thing that’s sorely lacking is email alerts. The game reminds you once per day that it’s still going on, and that you’ve had your daily paycheque come in and should log in to spend it… but other than that, you simply have to log in to see what’s going on. Having an option to turn on alerts for e.g. new ships coming into scanning range, battles being fought, etc. would help immensely, especially for those who work 9-5 jobs and can’t be logging in constantly.

Another addition I’d like to see is some sort of numerical player ranking, similar to an ELO rating in chess. Aside from pleasing those with competitive natures, like myself, it would serve the important function of keeping losing players in the game – if finishing in 6th place resulted in less loss of rating than finishing 8th, players with no hope of taking 1st would be given an incentive to keep struggling, and looking for alliances with stronger players. As it is, my experience in my game was that only one losing player kept going until the end – everyone else, once crippled, either simply stopped playing and was placed under AI administration after 48 hours of inactivity, or began “donating” all their stars and fleets to whichever opponent they hated the least, or whichever was most likely to hurt the one who’d attacked them.

Although I love this game, and I’m glad someone made it, I have grave doubts about its possibilities for financial success. I’m a big fan of the micropayment model, and that’s how Neptune’s Pride works – you can play small, standard games for free, or buy credits to play in larger and/or custom games. Joining someone else’s custom game costs the equivalent of $1, while creating one’s own is $2. These are reasonable prices, and in fact, I doubt many people would pay more than that for a single game of anything, especially not something as minimalist as Neptune’s Pride.

The problem, however, is that the game’s innovation is also its probable financial downfall. It simply takes too long to play. Most gamers these days lose interest in a new game after a week or two, if that. That’s how long it takes for someone to get through their first free game. Even those who like the free trial enough to by credits will probably get their fix after only one or two games, and not buy any more credits. Given that some of the larger games could go on for over a month, even the most dedicated users will only be netting the site maybe $10-15 a year, which is a low subscription fee by any standard.

Furthermore, I suspect that many players will not get the strategy right away… and given the game’s slow pace, the trial-and-error method of strategy formulation adopted by most players will take too long to get them there. Many will simply decide that they’re not good at the game, and abandon it early. As for me, I learned a lot in the course of just one play through. I’ll do my part in helping this game’s chances of success by posting a strategy guide tomorrow, with tips to help first-time players. It may seem a little pretentious to be making assertions about “correct” strategy after only playing a game once, but I doubt many people have played two or more full games, and we all know what they say about one-eyed men in the Land of the Blind.

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