Gratuitous Space Prattles

Jim and Kieron got to talking about the beta of Gratuitous Space Battles. Their ruminations follow.

Jim: I totally dig the idea: set up battle and let it run. I can totally see where Cliffski is coming from with making a strategy game operate like that.

Kieron: BUT!

Jim: Yeah, BUT, it’s kind of baffling at the moment. It took me a long time to figure out how to create a fleet to get past the first mission. The worst part, I think, was that it wasn’t clear where I was failing. I was trying to analyse visual cues from the battle itself. And I think there’s some mileage in that – oh those missiles are getting wiped, etc – but it’s not enough

Kieron: I think clarity is what’s one of its current biggest problems in the Beta. The thing is, to get past the first mission, I’m pretty sure you can’t actually just use the ships its provided. You need to build some. But there’s not much actual structure to build stuff. It’s a question of stopping and actually reading all the pop-up text on the equipment you get to slot it. Because the weapons aren’t arranged in categories or similar at the moment – even just having a subsection called “BEAM LASERS” or something, with a brief bit of text explaining what beam lasers as a group do would be a major help for that?

Jim: Yeah, you have to do quite a lot of work on the ships to get past the first battle and i think it was beam lasers that got me through, actually.

Kieron: Did you actually grok the rules at all?

Jim: Not grok, I had to go back and decipher what was happening after a couple of attempts.. I think I needed either more visual cues from the battle stage, or more LOOK AT THESE STATS in the set up stage.

Kieron: Yeah. That’s the thing – you really don’t know what the enemy are firing at you, except in loose “that was a missile” ways. That’s clearly a design choice, but you kinda question it. That said, I actually think the problem is the other way round to you – I found it too easy to make progress. When I grasped even a couple of the rules. As in, an Anti-ECM, millions of fast missiles, low shield, acceptable armour on a cruiser. Oh – and an anti-missile gun. And a tractor beam. The latter took out missiles and fighters. The former stopped that horrible stun thing. And the stuff in the middle pummeled every fucking thing.

Jim: Yeah. I mean I think each fleet you face is tuned to be badass against some particular setup.

Kieron: I walked though something like the first six missions with just plonking down as many of that build of cruiser as I could.

Jim: But then the possibility space for min-maxing on your own account wasn’t quite clear. It took a while in the ship builder to work out how to be a beam-laser death boat, which then didn’t work on a later battle.

Kieron: Yeah – but as a teaching device, having the enemy fleets being built to be so touch against one sort just means an average one pile-drivers them… and it teaches you nothing. I had a plan of making a heavy defender ship to suck in all the shots and unarmoured heavy-defence ships to do all the firing.

Jim: I found the pilot limit a little odd too, as in – do i really need fighters? If so, why?

Kieron: But I didn’t do that in the end, because just the gunboats by themselves worked fine. Yeah – the fighters, at least in what I’ve played, don’t actually reward picking. I bought them only when I spent all my money on cruisers and could only afford them. I think that’s the problem with the game at the moment – it’s too easy to win with fleets which don’t resemble fleets. You do best by seemingly lumping them all in a blob to maximise their firepower. And just take the biggest guys you can.In other words, it’s got what I always think is the trickiest issue in postech’s game – a balancing problem. Their traditional SP games haven’t mattered that much – as in, finding the way thruogh was the solution. But in a multiplayer game… well, I’m glad they’ve taken it to a proper beta like this, as I think it’ll really help improve the game. There’s no reason why it can’t be good just by tweaking the rules in the system that’s already existent. Hell, I find it fun now. But it could be much *more* fun.

Jim: Of course, all this being said, Cliffski has said he’s in this for a long, long test beta. He was talking Mount & Blade / Dwarf Fortress sort of longness

Kieron: I missed that. And that’s the way to go with this. It’s the thing – this feels like the game which could cross over more for him. It’s still very him – but it’s also something which hits a button. I mean, remember MyBrute? That webgame I was obsessed with a while back? It’s basically that, but with gameplay.

Jim: Yes, precisely. This does have that kind of potential. It’s that sort of play-by-mail format. But re the beta idea, it’s only ever going to work by being played heavily.

Kieron: Yeah.

Jim: Balancing the builds as a single dev is impossible unless you’re some kind of super-AI from the future, which I don’t think Cliffski is.

Kieron: I dunno I agree. Balance is one thing. But making the structure to encourage even mixed fleets is within a dev’s ability. and it’s not something that’s right there in the game. I mean, we don’t need a rock/paper/scissors sort of formation between cruisers/frigates/fighters, but there’s not enough between them. Especially when stuff like fighters have the hard limit of a maximum number of pilots.

Jim: I think it’s a hard design problem for space games of any kind. Eve took years to balance out frigates-cruisers-battleships

Kieron: I think Eve has the problem that people can bring along what they want. As a wargame, you can make hard rules. Even shit like outflanking bonuses to encourage people to attack from both flanks rather than mobbing.

Jim: well it’s not an rps structure, really, more of a tiered structure, as in, fighters shouldn’t necessarily be a counter to a cruiser, but you could fit one to take on the other – hence the attack balance sliders. You could, from what I understand of the commands, set up fighters to specifically go after a ship type, and have their loadout for that.

Kieron: Yeah, but there’s a question of efficiency and all that. When I’ve done best dropping down 10 cruisers and not caring, what tactics am I learning? I can’t see *why* I should experiment. Heh. This is an odd conversation – I think I actually like the game more than you, but I’m being far more negative.

Jim: Yes, but then I found it hard, and you seem to have found it easy.

Kieron: We should challenge each other and see who wins! And lo: the game is born.

Jim: Aye, bring it.


  1. jarvoll says:

    Huh, cool conversation. This has piqued my interest. Moar plx.

  2. LewieP says:

    But is it pretty?

  3. dan says:

    I find it strange to hear you guys refer to rock/paper/scissors.

    Game looks worth a look though.

  4. Nimic says:

    I struggled for a very long time with the first battle, and I didn’t understand where I went wrong. Then I came up with the idea of just using as many frigates with a certain gun as I could, and I breezed through the rest of the game on all difficulties (though in the end I had to have an anti-armor frigate, an anti-shield frigate and an anti-fighter/missile frigate). Oh, and one fighter squadron up front to draw the fire at first.

  5. BallisticsFood says:

    Got to agree, at the moment just spamming one kind of frigate does let you blitz the single player campaign. Trying that in a challenge, however, just gets you killed by a better designed fleet.

  6. Gap Gen says:

    Wasn’t there someone who built a neural network for pretty much this sort of thing? There was some kind of similar space battle league, and he built a neural network to create the “perfect” fleet that wiped the floor with every other fleet. In the end, the organisers told him “stop entering, or we’ll have to shut down because you’re way too good”.

  7. cliffski says:

    Yes, the game was trillion credit squadron, an offshoot of traveller, and a major inspiration for GSB. The AI ended up building really weird fleets that everyone thought would get wiped out, but always won massively.
    Right now GSB is far from perfectly balanced, but there are plenty of keen players issuing open challenges with real bastard fleets.
    Plus you can always see how much honour you can earn in a battle (the cheaper your fleet, the more the honour)

  8. Tim James says:

    Ah, MyBrute was the game I had forgotten the name of but kept trying to suggest for the multiplayer here. Depends on how much server-side effort you want to put into it, cliffski.

  9. DMJ says:

    The very idea of Gratuitous Space Battles resonates with me. I’m a tinkerer and planner and designer by gaming inclination. I build off-the-wall experimental BattleMech setups. I set up the most elaborate and carefully constructed fortresses in Stronghold. I spend most of my time in Galactic Civlili(s)ations II in the research and shipbuilding screens. I even used to spend hours in EvE searching for the choicest modules to bludgeon my ship into a new tactical role. Plus this is a multiplayer game I can play on my laptop on the London Underground while I don’t even have mobile signal!

    Heavily customisable games always tend to look bland until the community starts to get to grips with the subtleties. It was ages in EvE before anyone took their ship’s capacitor seriously, nowadays ships live or die by how finely a pilot can shave their cap usage through skills, modules, and simply knowing when you can and when you can’t use certain equipment.

  10. Tiktaalik says:

    What it really needs is a more extensive multiplayer – beating other players fleets is where all the fun in the game is, but currently you just upload your challenge to a challenge database where people can download and play it from – you never get to see any of the battles against your fleet played out, or any kind of detailed stats breakdown. With the addition of the ability for both sides of the challenge to watch a match at once (and possibly some kind of best out of 5 thing where you can tinker with fleet composition in between rounds), and a league structure, it would be truly gratuitously awesome.

  11. arqueturus says:

    To get in the Beta is a pre-order thing right?

  12. Alex Hopkinson says:

    Yep Arq – if you pre-order now you get to play the beta within minutes.

  13. nabeel says:

    Nice to see a return of this roundtable kind of thing.

  14. Biscuitry says:

    I remember reading about the fleet-building AI mentioned above. I wish I could remember where.

  15. MrBejeebus says:

    Once I start getting EMA I think I’ll get this, if only to help speed up the beta :)

  16. arqueturus says:

    Cheers Alex. I think I’ll hold off for a demo though in this case.

    Also, your name seems strangely familiar, do I know you?

  17. Schaulustiger says:

    I already love the beta version.

    Fleets could use some variety (I seldom use frigates, but find fighters pretty useful as anti-fighter-defense), but it is already a great deal of fun once you get to know all the components. I just hope that additional ship components will be released over time to ensure long-lasting motivation.

  18. Tei says:

    MODDING!.. somehone has to mention that this Cliffski game let you some limited-unlimited modding.

    For all I can see, It will be possible to have your generic Star Wars / Babylon / Battlestar Galactica / EVE ships in this game with a bit of .DDS painting export/inporting and a bit of .TXT / .INI tweaking.

    What this means?

    Hordes, Pirates, GIGALASERS, Lexx drones swarms, and stuff.

  19. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Yes, the difficulty curve for the campaign is somewhat borked at the minute. After the initial hump it’s a little too easy to find a cruiser or frigate design which is capable of taking on all of the missions when sufficiently spammed.

    Still, great fun. I’m in the beta as ManRaisedByPuffins if anyone wants to toss challenges my way.

    @ Tei: Indeed (not my work, I must confess).

  20. Pod says:

    I’m suprised that the laser frigates worked — I just pimped out a cruiser with plasma guns and made 10 of those, with 2 fighter squadrons to cover the gnats that plasma fire can’t hit.

  21. Wisq says:

    @Biscuitry: If it helps, the program used to create the fleets was known as “Eurisko”. link to

  22. Radiant says:

    I had a similar issue to Kieron’s with Plants vs Zombies.
    Once I built the big gas mushrooms and paired them with the garlic [to channel the zombies into the gas lanes] it was all I needed to kill EVERYTHING other then the roof levels.
    I actually think it’s [the super build] a problem endemic to all tower defence games.

  23. Alex Hopkinson says:

    Statecorp (as Alex Jerusalem) Feb 2007 to Jan 2008 :)

  24. amishmonster says:

    I’ve been playing this since it went up for preorder, and it’s quite enjoyable (and pretty). The balance definitely needs some work, but that’s what the beta’s for. And Cliffski’s been quite good with the patching; there have been several and we’re only a week or so out, improving UI, bug-squashing, etc.

  25. Serondal says:

    How about those uber fleets that are created from now until the game launches may find their way into the main campaign? That only makes sense after all that the best created fleets in the BETA phase should end up in the game proper to offer people a real challenge?

  26. kandalf says:

    I agree that the enemies are currently very unbalanced, and there is that hump as Man Raised By Puffins said. However, I think the game is very fun and has the potential to be awesome. Also, the fleets will obviously get completely redesigned once beta is over: they’re already getting outdated after just a week of beta.

  27. Baylith says:

    I love the game, but as you said, it can be a little difficult to get into at first, and a little too easy if you find 1 good ship build. But then I noticed that the amount you gain during each mission was directly related to the amount you spend. So then it becomes a test of building the most efficient fleet to tackle the challenge presented to you. And in most cases, this can only really be done with a multi-faceted fleet. I too created the monolithic “One Ship to rule them all” design that worked great if I capped my resources with it. But as soon as I dropped that number in half, I noticed that their effectiveness as a fighting force dropped even further. So it was in this that I learned to enjoy the more subtle aspects of ship design.

  28. Arathain says:

    I’m really loving this, not least because, to answer LewieP, it is very pretty. Gratuitously so, I might say.

    Balance-wise, considering the complexity of the game, things are in a pretty good place, with the outliers becoming pretty obvious. I have confidence things will be fixed over time. Actually, judging by how fast Cliffski’s turning out great patches, not very much time.

    For those underestimating frigates and fighters: try making a group of frigates or a bunch of more heavily armed fighters, and placing them in formation to a front line ship, but set way in the back of the fleet. When that front line ship gets destroyed your reserve formation gets released. It’s the only way I’ve found to get torpedo bombers to work, but darn can those things be nasty.

  29. Yargh says:

    I’m really enjoying the beta so far. Blowing Arathain and Man Raised by Puffin’s fleets into tiny bits has been loads of fun.

    Send more sacrificial offerings to Yargh…

    Note that the scenario fleets aren’t currently being kept up to date with the latest patch changes, but they will be.
    And I agree that trying to build the most efficient fleet to beat each challenge is quite rewarding, not to mention that the honour thus earned is used to purchase groovy new toys.

  30. Bowl of Snakes says:

    I think this game is gonna be great, you get to tweak equipment RPG style and then watch shit go, its like Dungeon Siege with spaceships and no shitty plot.

  31. Corbeau says:

    Good job hitting the nail on the head: the standard challenges provided by the game are not varied enough. GSB is a puzzle game, and only by going to the online challenges (puzzles created by other players) can you begin to experience the variety of the game. There are a few tactics that seem to destroy everything (though not necessarily the ones that the initial campaign teaches you!), but cliffski knows about them and is working to force a change.

  32. Stromko says:

    I feel pretty sure I’m going to get into this game in a big way down the line, but right now, splitting my time between Champions, DDO:Unlimited in addition to the usual junk, I think I can wait awhile. Surely the game’s just going to be better for it, and I can avoid getting used to the game being balanced the way it is now and then inevitably being rebalanced to make it a better game.

  33. vagabond says:

    I’ve only been playing the single player stuff so far, but I have found that one of the four slot fighters with a reactor, an engine 3 and an engine 1, and the lighter of the beam weapons can kill almost anything without being touched in return. They only run into trouble when there are cruisers with enough armour to fully absorb their fire.

  34. Diji says:

    I caved and bought it, it’s downloading right now. Yay for supporting indie!

  35. Scandalon says:

    Beta-test question: Does it auto-patch itself? One of the biggest annoyances w/ beta-ing is the constant download -> Extract -> run patch.exe (which itself has to extract…) rigamarole.

    Also Cliffski – when’s the mac version going to be out? ;)

  36. Sokemguy says:

    scandalon-=> Game should auto-patch now, with every re-start. For me though, the auto-patch stopped working, so I had to re-download the game (wasn’t a big hassel, doesn’t take too long, and your saved games aren’t deleted.) I just re-downloaded with the original link sent to me.

    This game kicks ass.

  37. Mad Doc MacRae says:

    Also caved in, getting murdered in the first mission. I was going for missile cruisers with a target painter per cruiser. It works great until there are no frigates left to destroy. For whatever reason, the missiles don’t go after the cruiser I have painted, so they mostly miss. All the while the enemy melts my cruisers. :(

  38. DMJ says:

    Bought. Ouch, that first fleet is hard, there are two cruisers which seemed for a while to be indestructible once their shields were down, but reading the manual showed me that they must’ve just had a LOT of armour which my rapid-fire weapons couldn’t penetrate. My next assault included some heavy bombardment cruisers, and the assault after that included actual battleplans more involved than “KILL EVERYTHING”. I still lose my entire fleet, but I take a couple of cruisers with me… Tonight they’re going down. Hard.

  39. Arathain says:

    The moment early on where I realised what a well constructed game this is was upon failing an early mission fairly badly a few times. I went off to do other things, and got to thinking about it. On the strength of those ruminations I came back, made some small adjustments to my fleet, and won handily. It’s a very responsive game.

  40. Tei says:

    There are about 90.000.000 things Cliffy can do, and 9000 must do, to finish this. Poor guy :-(
    Has to be hard.

  41. R3D says:

    i had no real problems with the first battle i went straight for the ship builder and had a nice mix to play around with. however later on i ended up doing the lump one type of cruiser in wipe the floor path. and when that failed i made a good fighter and took out whole fleets with just those. the game dosent reward a blend of ships anough and the ai needs to scale the next dificulty to what u played against it in the first so as to stop the same 30 cruisers wiping out the “tougher” force. i also think if cruiser wepons that where stacked like 4 beam lazers should fire as one fat beam and have a + modifier and a mix of weapons should get no mod or a – one. that would stop my curent uber cruser from being the answer to all my battles. allso something like fighter bays on a cruser so as fighters in escort could repair by docking would make them more appealing to mix in. a power drain cloke for frigats would be nice to and make them sneaky and usfull. all up it needs reasons to not stack one ship and mix it up like if escorting fighter poilets where deducted from the spare piolts in the cruises crew pool to reduce the no of piolts thy require to feeld, thay are some ways i can see that would make me want to not spam my uber ship.
    one last point i hate not being able to tell what the ai has on there ships a scanner type wepon for fighters or whatever that gave you a flash 3 to 5 sec vew at what they had in battle would releve this, i dont wont to studie the ai just have a better vew than oh he has rokits/ beam/ emp.

  42. Hypocee says:

    I love the fact that armour serves as a resist threshold – i.e. no, actually, your Kalashnikov will never ever ever kill that tank. Not enough games dare to do that – for very good reasons, yes, but still. Not enough.