Wot I Think: Pandora – First Contact

By Adam Smith on February 17th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

After several months in cryosleep, I finally landed on Pandora, a world teeming with life and ripe for exploitation. The setting and intro movie stirred memories of Alpha Centuari in the muddy pool of my mind, and while it would be unfair to expect any game to live up to that legacy, I was hoping that Pandora would scratch certain troublesome itches. I spent a few hours with the game just after release but only just found the time to plunge in for an entire weekend. Here’s wot I think.

Pandora: First Contact is a game about escalation. All 4X games are in a sense, with players travelling across maps and swinging through the branches of tech trees to gain an upper hand. Buildings are usually improvements, as the very first Civ recognised, tiered buffs studded like barnacles across a city rather than independent structures with an impact outside the central crunch of numbers. Everything in a 4X tends to be replaceable, recyclable and upgradeable, until the end-point arrives and there simply aren’t any larger numbers to discover. An altar becomes a shrine becomes a temple becomes a cathedral. Culture is complete.

Thankfully, Pandora isn’t simply a sci-fi reskin of Civ or Age of Wonders. It’s also not quite the update of Alpha Centauri that many of its individual elements suggest. Yes, there are ideologically distinct factions attempting to colonise a new planet and, yes, that planet eventually turns against the newcomers. Pandora handles the growing hostility of alien life in its own way, however, and deviates subtly but significantly from the cycle of improvements described in the previous paragraph.

The most obvious and potentially divisive change from the usual 4X formula is a randomised tech tree. When a new game begins, the player can choose how many ‘steps’ along the tree are visible, with a default of two. It’s possible to go in entirely blind, so that it’s impossible to know which tech will be unlocked by current research, and it’s possible to have the entire tree exposed from the first turn. The default setting works well, allowing for short-term plans within a mysterious framework.

Tech itself isn’t randomised. Advances, whether they unlock units, buildings or operations (more on which later), are tiered, so early game research always entails the same selection of choices. You won’t discover planetary bombardment before you invent rocket launchers. It’s the connections between one tier and the next that are randomised so the discovery of heavy war machinery may only be possible if recycling plants have been researched, or nuclear weaponry may lead to extremely robust economic policies.

There are some seemingly nonsensical chains, as you’d expect when progression is jumbled in this way, but the way that technology is rediscovered on the new world provides a sufficient frame to justify the occasional oddity. The colonists are rediscovering concepts that were once known – not rediscovering the concepts themselves, in fact, but methods by which they can be applied using alien materials and atmosphere. I assume that many breakthroughs are accidental – a man standing in front of a radar with the stain of melted chocolate spreading from his trouser pocket.

In theory, I reckon the tech tree works. In practice, it’s too compact to provide a great deal of variety from one playthrough to the next. Exceptional circumstances might require a quick dash down one branch of the tree to reach a desirable or necessary goal, but it’s usually more efficient and sensible to progress steadily, sweeping each tier clean. The randomisation would be far more interesting if it were possible to lock off certain tech, thereby forcing factions to specialise if capabilities were lost.

As it is, apart from a smattering of lovely flavour text, each faction has a couple of positive and negative attributes that tweak their output. They interact more often than is usual in strategy games and there are frequent pop-up messages informing of agreements, alliances and wars. Diplomacy isn’t complex but the AI is at least active, occasionally throwing plans into disarray with its rather unpredictable offers and demands.

I haven’t explained how the aliens work yet. A cross between the wandering bears and giant spiders of a fantasy 4X and the barbarians of Civ, they are the main point of escalation. A cauldron of bubbling biomass, with chitinous croutons, that threatens to boil over at any moment.

They wander at first, showing no signs of hostility and only occasionally causing a nuisance of themselves when they block the route to a decent piece of land or a ‘goodie hut’ ruin. There are several varieties, from the xenomorphs that spawn in bubblegum-pink hives to the mountainous monstrosities that gallop across the land, causing cities to quake. There are flying critters and leviathans in the deep. None of them will bother you unless you bother them first, and they are not connected by a hivemind, so individual groups can be culled without causing the rest to descend in a flurry of teeth, claws and acid.

But there’s a doomsday clock. It’s hidden but it links to the factions’ pollution levels and exploitation of the planet’s natural resources. Eventually, the native fauna is going to fight back, when the planet suffers and their habitats are destroyed. Certain technologies unlock methods by which the uprising can be postponed, and others allow troops to tame and control aliens.

Tension rises as the threat approaches and the landscape swarms with critters, and the knowledge that the change is coming neatly separates the first act of the game from the rest, preventing each campaign from becoming a turn-ending exercise in patience. The factions aim to control the planet and move toward victory over one another, while ensuring that they are capable of resisting attacks, or clearing their home continent of native life altogether. I usually opt to utilise the aliens, as a living minefield that enemies must cross, rather than committing a horrible xenocide.

The threat of alien attack and the speed of research helps to accelerate the early game. Time is precious on Pandora and the spread of the colony is rapid. City-building and management is familiar – ‘formers’ add features to the landscape, such as farms and mines (no terraforming though), while new research is applied to improve cities. Oddly, most technology doesn’t provide immediate benefits, instead requiring further work be done in a city to apply the knowledge.

Advances affect the entire faction, however many cities are controlled, and all resources generated go into a nation-wide pool rather than being tied to individual settlements. This allows for greater specialisation but detracts from the positioning and geographic considerations that can make frontier cities an interesting problem. Cities lack character.

Sadly, the aliens and the planet lack character as well. The aquatic beasts are terrifying to behold but the rest are all a bit Starship Troopers, and they swiftly became counters of ‘strength’ tokens in my mind. A number that told me whether to squash or to avoid any particular stack of bugs.

And, of course, I have stacks of my own. Troops are customisable, with ‘body’ types ranging from footsoldiers to giant war machines, with a weapon, and optional slots for armour and gadgets . The number of components isn’t huge, and most tend toward being better at dispatching either biological or mechanical enemies, which means that in a war involving several factions and the aliens, balance must be sought. But still, I ended up looking at each stack as a number.

Operations can help in wartime and occasionally out of it as well. Unlocked through research and construction, they are one-use effects that can be manufactured by cities and stocked for future use. Some allow for rapid exploration of the planet surface, scanning distant areas and revealing their contents, but even those abilities are best used against enemies, to track troop deployments and locate cities. There are operations that strike directly at enemy/alien forces, like a warlock’s spell in a fantasy 4X, and there are others that boost various stats in their area of effect. Because operations are constructed from the same pool of resources used to create units and buildings, there’s a constant need to balance choices but Pandora’s greatest issue is that there are rarely enough choices.

Too often, campaigns play out the same way. I rarely felt like I was defining the character of my faction or shaping the planet through my presence. Instead, I was playing through Act One, before the aliens turned, and then enduring the onslaught while racing through research to find quicker ways to kill my neighbours.

Despite the good work in the game’s basics, the lack of personality and mystery makes repeat visits to Pandora a bit of a chore. Multiplayer improves things, as it usually does, but the pacing is still problematic. In my experience, the factions develop at roughly the same rate, which means their starting position and the decisions of their leaders start to seem arbitrary.

There are wonderful moments though. Finding a landmass crawling with aliens that are just about sick of human interference is horribly intimidating, and I once had an entire army trapped at sea because the nearby islands were teeming with angry wildlife. Right on cue, a city-sized monstrosity rose from the deep. It was the last of its kind and it was extremely irate.

I tend to categorise 4X games into one of three types, with obvious overlap. There are those that are solely about winning and perfecting the machine, those that are about exploring and experiencing with an imbalance that means every game cannot be won, and there are those that are about playing a role within a wider context. Pandora is somewhere between the first two, although the lack of real challenge places it closer to the pursuit of perfection. It’s a solid example of the form but too simple in execution to live up to the more ambitious and unusual aspects of its design.

That’s a shame, because the theme – exploration and uprising of the unknown – would be incredible well-suited to the final 4X ‘type’, as SMAC proved all those years ago.

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75 Comments »

  1. LionsPhil says:

    Not really surprised to see this get a lukewarm reception. Hopefully it won’t fool too many people hungry for a new SMAC, because it seems to have a poor understanding of what made SMAC special.

    • azrd79 says:

      I’m curious as to why Firaxis hasn’t given SMAC any love in all is time. Don’t they own the rights or something?

      • Gap Gen says:

        I think EA have them.

        • nimbulan says:

          Yep EA owns the Alpha Centauri license and Firaxis works with 2K now. It’s an unfortunate circumstance because there’s a lot of people out there who would love an Alpha Centauri 2. I remember reading that Sid Meier was interested in doing a sequel but it may never happen. Perhaps Firaxis can just make a new sci-fi 4X game and forget about the Alpha Centauri name.

          • DrManhatten says:

            That is a rather lame excuse as they could just call it differently. I think Sid is too afraid to make something that can compete with his earlier games. Hence that’s wh in Civ V he was barely involved at all. And I think even in Civ IV (still the best so far) his role was minor.

          • GiantPotato says:

            Ok, this is something that confuses me about the current generation of games. What if Firaxis were to develop some spiritual successor to AC that wasn’t named using any of the words owned by other companies? Can a niche game from Firaxis even succeed if it’s not actually called “Alpha Centauri 2″? The name is the only thing that can be owned, there are no copyrights on gameplay mechanics. So it’s confusing why the gaming crowd puts so much stock into IPs, when these are such a limiting factor.

          • Gap Gen says:

            Yeah, I expect it’s that Firaxis don’t really want to make it, or have focused on other things (or really are that attached to IP, given that Civ has a Vth iteration). Also worth noting that SMAC was headed by Brian Reynolds, who left Firaxis a while ago.

          • Xocrates says:

            Mind you, between making a Civ-like game in a new IP or just making a new Civ it’s not hard to figure out which one corporate will give the go ahead to.

            Though I do think that as a Civ spin-off they could probably get away with it.

          • jalf says:

            Well, never say never. Would you have guessed, a few years ago, that Firaxis was going to revive XCOM? :)

          • LionsPhil says:

            Can a niche game from Firaxis even succeed if it’s not actually called “Alpha Centauri 2″?

            I’m pretty sure that if Firaxis announced “Sid Meier’s Tau Ceti (wink wink nudge nudge)”, the Internet would wet itself in excitement. I’d bet that most people who like the kind of game SMAC is pay attention more to the whos-making-it than the what-its-called.

            Edit: Although in counter to my own point, I’ve remembered that Brian Reynolds left them…

        • Lemming says:

          So we’ll be getting an SMAC fps or pay-wall app then.

    • Gap Gen says:

      I think part of it is that SMAC did so much right – it had factions that were identical save for a few modifiers that drastically altered how they played. It had deep tactical play, where you could use needlejets to cut off enemy reinforcements or probe teams to turn an entire enemy army, or mindworms that could circumvent enemy defences, all while playing the long game of shoring up your continent against your enemies and plotting vast invasions of your enemy’s continent. It had flavour text and personality that makes up some of the best writing in a game that I’ve seen.

      I don’t think it’s 100% the fault of the Pandora devs – trying to recreate a classic game without the license is a risky ask, since even positive deviations from the formula might look like a failure – a new dev would certainly face less risk trying its own formula and avoiding comparison, even if they have a crowd of people willing to trade a kidney for a sequel. Certainly SMAC isn’t perfect. But yes, I can see how you’d have to be incredibly good and very lucky to recapture what made SMAC what it was.

      • DrManhatten says:

        Seriously SMAC UI is horrendously bad designed. No one in their sane mind would play it nowadays if they hadn’t played it in the past. Especially the workshop is completely shiiit compared to Pandora.

        • azrd79 says:

          Comparing the UI of a DOS game from the 90′s to a modern one is like comparing the graphics tech. Don’t really hold water when comparing merits.

          • DrManhatten says:

            Not really because the only way to understand the UI in SMAC is via try & error which definitely can frustrate you for a while. Civ I & II were better streamlined and they were DOS too.

          • azrd79 says:

            Right AC can be a bit of a mess but in all fairness earlier CIVs are much simpler in comparison therefore simpler UI. Plus you compared AC’s UI to Pandora’s initially.

          • LionsPhil says:

            Both SMAC and Civ 2 were Windows 95 games, unless there’s some obscure DOS version I (and Mobygames) have never heard of.

          • Gap Gen says:

            Yeah, they were both Windows games. I remember getting up early to play Civilization (which was a DOS game) before my parents got up, and loading it up from a boot disk my dad made. The intro was amazing, and still evokes a sense of mystery and new horizons for me today: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hz0XfNwQhM

          • azrd79 says:

            Right my mistake, I was confused by the fact that I have it installed and it runs perfectly on my current PC. Win 95 games are notoriously incompatible with modern setups with few in my collection working, on the other hand almost all my DOS games still work thanks to Dosbox.

        • felix6 says:

          Well I was always bummed out that I hadn’t tried supposedly one of the best games made, so I bought it on gog and got stuck right away. I had to stop playing to not let it take over my life.. ;P the “just one more turn” sickness is very hard to cure ones u get it. Sure it have its flaws, and yes I did have to browse the web to learn how some stuff worked, but just reading the manual was actually helping a lot.

        • Gap Gen says:

          Oh, I agree that SMAC’s UI is incredibly clunky. I didn’t discover the Social Engineering panel until about my second playthrough.

        • Rindan says:

          SMAC might have a mildly clunky interface by today’s standards, but that game stands the test of time. Every time I play a new Civ game I rage that they FINALLY have done something SMAC already had done, or I am frustrated that they still don’t have what SMAC had.

          I have played a lot of old loves and found them lacking. You view the past with rose tinted glasses. This is not true of SMAC. I actually just downloaded SMAC again on GOG after getting the itch and failing to find my old CD. Man, was I not disappointed. SMAC stands the test of time like absolutely nothing else out there. The factions have personality. As the story moves along it gives you a chilling sense that your society is changing into something so advanced that it is alien. The world fights you, and you fight back or cooperate. My Morgan that slams down boreholes, terraforms the shit out of his homeland, and is ready for the planet to react. On the other had, my Gaian plays wildly different and snuggles up in the alien fungus, using mindworms to overcome superior technology. Where Civilization is bland and one civilization might as well be any other, SMAC brims to personality and character. My University faction can’t help but get into constant conflict with the Lord’s Believers. Morgan and Hive are all but assured to be in conflict.

          SMAC is a masterpiece that stands the test of time like very few other games. If I was told I can only ever play Civ 5 or SMAC for my 4X fix for the rest of my life, I would pick SMAC without a drop of remorse.

        • Don Reba says:

          Seriously SMAC UI is horrendously bad designed. No one in their sane mind would play it nowadays if they hadn’t played it in the past. Especially the workshop is completely shiiit compared to Pandora.

          I played it recently for the first time and enjoyed it immensely. And I know others who did, as well. The UI is fine. Could be better, could be worse (case in point — Windows 8).

        • Gap Gen says:

          Actually, just reading Dan Gril’s blog and came across: “Essentially, they were making an Alpha Centauri-style game, which was nearing completion, when they realised they didn’t have a backstory, dialogue, and the rest of the things you need a writer for. ” (http://funambulism.com/2013/11/13/on-pandora-mars-and-making-games/)

          Nonononono. Do not do this. By all means come up with a game idea before a story idea (this is a good thing) but don’t treat story as something you slather over your game at the end. If you’re gonna beat SMAC, story has to be an integrat part of the game. I appreciate for a small studio hiring someone costs money, but there’s no reason you can’t hire someone freelance for a few hours of consulting here and there and then throw them a big chunk of hours on writing text.

          • LionsPhil says:

            Yeah, mention was made of that before on RPS, and that’s when several red flags went up to me about this game. Especial Dan’s comments, sadly.

          • Gap Gen says:

            Yes, I respect Dan as a writer, so it’s not their fault if the story doesn’t mesh with the game. And it’s interesting to know that they weren’t familiar with SMAC when they wrote the dialogue – I suppose at least this would give it a fresh voice. But sure, it seems like it was done from a tongue-in-cheek perspective rather than the mostly-serious gravitas of SMAC’s writing.

    • Ionsoment says:

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      >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> http://WWW.JOBS84.COM

    • prian says:

      I”m conflicted on this title.

      On the one hand it seems interesting and a fair enough take on alpha centauri (although how they managed to basically rip everything off from that game and not be called out on it is… surprising) but on the other hand it is a Matrix game.

      Matrix’s choices over the past few years have totally rubbed me the wrong way plus the way that they interact with people outside of their little niche circle… yeah. No, bad experiences all around combined with bad decision making combined with a remarkably short-sightedness combined with stubborn pigheadedness to refuse to acknowledge mistakes… I don’t want anything to do with that group.

      For reference: this is the company that runs two identical websites (Matrix and Slitherine) with two identical forums and forces users to switch between forums based on.. I’m not sure what it seems like a whim.

      Their “biggest” press event of the year is a niche trade show for military wargamers that draws in a total (including children) of under 2000 people and for that they go silent for two to four weeks. Their “press releases” are a series of one liners like, “We’re going to be releasing X.” and they totally ignored / did not announce Pandora when it came out. That game literally came out and there wasn’t even a note on the main site for Matrix about it.

      Not to mention this is the company that refuses to use Steam….

      And the list goes on from there.

      Buuut… it’s a small development team and the game looks neat but it’s Matrix and that’s such a foul taste to try and bite into. Meh.

      Sorry Pandora – still not going to buy you. Maybe one day you’ll get out from under the wing of Matrix and then it’s a buy for sure.

  2. Hunchback says:

    If Alpha Centaury never existed, would this be considered a good game?

    • GernauMorat says:

      This is the question I want answered before I get this

    • azrd79 says:

      Don’t know but this game certainly wants to be AC very badly, don’t think it’d even exist without it.

    • Gap Gen says:

      I suspect the last paragraph tries to say something like that: “…although the lack of real challenge places it closer to the pursuit of perfection. It’s a solid example of the form but too simple in execution to live up to the more ambitious and unusual aspects of its design.”

  3. DadouXIII says:

    The color pallet is nauseating :s

    • Shadow says:

      I don’t know about that, but the screenshots look like a muddled mess and the whole art design feels quite generic. Lack of character seems to be a major game-wide ailment, affecting more than just cities, aliens and the planet itself. As if that wasn’t bad enough.

  4. Ninjakuchen says:

    Great, now want to blow up some Believer or Gaian bases with my trusty Spartan gravtanks. Damn you Godwinson, damn you!

  5. DrManhatten says:

    I think it is too early to write it off as the devs have said they have a lot more in store for the title in general. So I would wait for the upcoming updates and DLCs. I definitely enjoyed it so far more than I first enjoyed Civ V when it came out. Besides it is nice to see a scifi-themed planetary 4x game as you can count them on one hand. It might not be worth its full price but if it ever goes on sale I definitely recommend picking it up!

    • Rindan says:

      Remember the good old days when games were released feature complete and work on expansions and sequels were started only after initial success and interest?

      • DrManhatten says:

        Well consider that V1.0 was pretty much bug free how often can you tell that about other indie or even AAA games on initial release? Also the Pandora Team is at best the tenth of the size of Firaxis.

  6. DanMan says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but what does 4X stand for?

  7. penryn says:

    Any examples of the three types of 4X games? Particularly the second and third?

    • SuddenSight says:

      For “exploration of an unfair world” I would like to be horribly biased and direct you to Dominions. (I’ve played III, but they just made a IV which is probably newer and better? Illwinter games has tended to make steady improvements on the game over the years.)

      For “role playing” type 4xes, there are games like “Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic” and “Heroes of Might and Magic.”

      Wikipedia informs me that Europa Universalis might be considered a 4x, but I hesititate to categorize it as such because the tech system is rather straightforward (tech is a common staple of 4xes) and the “eXploration” requirement is hampered by the fact that it uses the real earth map.

      I am happy if someone wants to correct my opinions of what a 4x game is, though!

      • MaXimillion says:

        EU IV does have an optional random new world generator, which adds an exploration aspect to it.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Also in EUIV you’re not always expected to win or conquer the map or whatever. You can play as the Ottoman Empire or some tiny city state. I like the idea that 4X games don’t have to be entirely balanced with victory as the only acceptable outcome; I suspect it comes from the diplomacy models in these games often being quite bad, so conflict is the only satisfying way to interact with other states. I’d also love a Foundation-style game, where you start out as a tiny advanced faction and have to interact with a vast, crumbling galaxy.

  8. Laurentius says:

    “For I Have Tasted the Fruit”

    I guess i’ll skip on this one though…

  9. pullthewires says:

    It’s shit. A cut-down Alpha Centauri that borders on plagiarism. Doesn’t even offer any entertainment as a stripped down ‘lite’ game. Adds nothing new to the genre, and purchasing it is my biggest gaming regret. Just don’t bother.

  10. fauxC says:

    The 3MA guys were quite a lot more positive about this.

  11. Zankmam says:

    I like this game a lot, it’s very fun and a good entry-level game for the genre.

    A lot of you veterans seem to be shitting on it and comparing it to SMAC, and while that is quite logical – I don’t think that it is the only way we should look at the game… It’s a very good game in its own right, and as someone who hasn’t really ever played 4X or Civ or whatever, it’s a very good way to start.

    So, I guess: For veterans of the genre, it should be O.K. but nothing specially remarkable. For newcomers, good way to start. You will find it enjoyable.

  12. Hunchback says:

    Apparently every hex-based 4X game will forever be compared with AC, and every space-based 4X with MO…

    • SuddenSight says:

      In this case the comparison must be made because the devs brought it up (for better or worse).

      It seems like an interesting a somewhat decent game on its own merits, and I will certainly keep an eye out in case the devs make an update/expansion/DLC that fixes the apparent lack of character and replayability.

    • MaXimillion says:

      But SMAC wasn’t hex-based.

      • LionsPhil says:

        It also had a much more sophisticated terrain system, with climate effects, than just “ok, and this tile is a mountain, that one is a forest…”.

        • Gap Gen says:

          In a recent game I built a land bridge to my enemy’s continent, which I then flooded with mindworms and conquered in 2 turns, thanks to an army of formers building maglev rails in front of my vast hordes of murderous aliens. I’m sure that seen in reality, it’d make me a war criminal – I suppose it was done for balance to make the Gaians stronger, but it strikes me as bizarre that a big bomb is anathema but sending waves of worms to burrow into people’s skulls is okay.

    • Bugamn says:

      The factions on this game can be described as the same from AC, minus the UN. It is inspired heavily by AC.

    • jmtd says:

      It’s pretty hard not to compare this to AC: a Civ-like on an alien planet with a hardly understood, mostly hostile planet responding to your activities with a strong ecological element…

  13. Sidewinder says:

    Another thing- it may have been changed since; I bought the game when it came out, and haven’t played in several months, but on release, at least, the manual absolutely sucked. It had minor technical support details, background information on the factions, a short history of the game world, and that was pretty much it. No, for example, instructions. If you’ve played a Civ game before, you don’t even need to read it, just jump right in. If you haven’t, you’ll be totally lost. That was what really killed it for me; the game was afraid to stand on its own.

    The main thing I got from Pandora? That loved as SMAC is, it’s still underappreciated.

    • Fenix says:

      Really have to agree with the last sentence. As good as the Civ series is, I think it’s not even close to the perfection and immense depth that Alpha Centauri had.

      Just reading this comments section makes me want some SMAC in my system, the game is just that good. Everyone that missed it should find a copy and experience it right away.

    • jmtd says:

      I bought AC about a year ago from GOG and actively sought out the printed manual on eBay. It’s a gem, IMHO, a classic example of the old, big-box era of gaming… full of extra bits and pieces, short fiction, notes from the developers…

      • Gap Gen says:

        They actually published a series of novels: http://sidmeiersalphacentauri.wikia.com/wiki/Centauri_Dawn I’ve never read them, but it’s interesting that the game spawned something like that. And certainly it’s impressive that a science fiction game had such good, relatable worldbuilding – a lot of science fiction games come across as cold or mechanical (even stuff like Endless Space that has some great writing doesn’t really have a story that features in the game progression itself, more hiding in the flavour text, with the bizarre effect that ancient empires start at the same time as young upstarts according to the game lore).

  14. Askis says:

    A small correction:
    Terraforming does exist, it’s very late tech that allows the formers to adjust the ecoregion of a tile one step at a time.
    But since the research usually sits at the beginning of the fourth and last tech era and ecoregions are mostly about how much food a tile can produce, you really don’t need it.
    A single city with good terrain around it and some of the food bonus buildings can feed your entire empire easily.

    The best use of terraforming seems to be screwing over a faction that is friendly enough with yours that you have an open borders treaty.
    Just bring some formers to their cities and turn the vicinity of them into deserts.
    The AI doesn’t react to it in any way, unless they have the tech too, then they’ll send their formers to re-improve the tiles…

    • Gap Gen says:

      I remember in SMAC it was usually an act of war to mess with your neighbour’s terrain, but I think some of the simpler stuff like changing a solar farm into a mine might have been acceptable. One interesting thing about SMAC was that your ability to harvest the fungus meant that at some point you went from wiping it off your continent to replanting it to give your cities better growth. An enemy getting the Cloning Vats was terrifying because their economy rocketed up thanks to cities growing up to their food limit near-instantly.

      It seems like bad balance to allow a single city to feed your entire empire, although granted a move away from subsidence farming as your society advances seems realistic. And having famines because your one farming city was captured is also an interesting possibility; it makes conflict more interesting if you’re not just taking cities in distance order from your borders, but are thinking about plotting risky amphibious invasions because one of their cities on the other coast has something that’ll cripple their war effort if they lost it.

      • LionsPhil says:

        There were also indirect actions possible in SMAC, like raising mountain ranges to change rainfall patterns, drying out land elsewhere. (Cool, but admittedly incredibly situational.)

        And, of course, you can knock them back down into memorial lakes with planet busters. Heightmap terrain: it means your superweapons can actually leave a hole.

        The war between Earth forests and Planet fungus was an interesting background one, in particular given how the benefits of each change over time, yes. As Gaians, I usually just let the fungus be, because I know soon I will be wanting it everywhere.

        • Gap Gen says:

          My favourite tactic was finding the volcano on the map, building mines all over it and making one huge, terribly environmentally unfriendly industry/secret project-focused city by converging all my supply crawlers on it. This reeeally pissed off the planet, but as long as I managed any worms that showed up without being overrun it also made a bunch of money from harvested planetpearls.

          • Askis says:

            Well, Pandora tries to be SMAC in a lot of ways, but it lacks most of the complexity you guys have described.
            While the roaming creatures are a nice touch, they’re just a minor nuisance once you get a few groups of soldiers with flamethrowers up to protect your cities and Colonizers, get to Mechs and a single one with Machine guns or Lasers can take out full Hives on it’s own

            Essentially, unless you need the shiny graphics, get SMAC on GoG if you haven’t already, unless Pandora gets patched heavily.

          • Gap Gen says:

            Sure – while SMAC is an incredible exercise in making simple systems give a lot of depth to the game in making vast changes while being mostly balanced, it’s still a game made by a large team, and a 3-person team is going to find it hard to do the same thing to the same degree of finesse. I remember reading that the SMAC devs spent a lot of time playing the game and refining it, and one of the big things that having a larger team gives you is the ability to iterate – if a smaller team doesn’t have that, then it’s no surprise if the game is a bit rougher around the edges.

          • Askis says:

            Pandora was made by just three people?
            I didn’t know that, the game is quite a feat for such a small team.

            But after delving back into SMAC after years of not playing it, I will say that Pandora is just way easier to get into and play successfully, especially if you’re used to the newer Civs.

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