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.