Fragile Allegiance & The RTS Formula That Never Was

The youngest of you won’t remember The Before Times. One of the minor side effects of the millennium bug killing off 90% of the Earth’s population was that not long afterwards, strategy games stratified into a tiny handful of highly formulaic subtypes. There’s a downside to the unquestionably better standards of design we’ve enjoyed in the last decade or so. It’s rare to find a genuinely bad game in the same way that games were bad in the 90s. But I can’t help imagining what other ideas were bounced around before everyone agreed that the wheel was indeed the way forward, and Unk and Thogg would have to resign their posts as Chief and Assistant Thing Hurler To The Village And Sometimes The River.

Take, for example, Fragile Allegiance [Mobygames link]. Its position in game history was odd even on release in 1996 – both a port and a remake and a sequel to the Amiga’s semi-obscure, direly-named, but terrific K240 (itself a sequel to 1991’s Utopia) – and its design still defies the neat categorisation we’re used to. Technically it’s a real-time strategy straddling “city builder” and “4X”, but not quite conforming to any common model.

You’re in space. Specifically, a huge asteroid belt on the fringe of the Federation, hotly contested by each of its loosely, sometimes nominally allied members. Your job, as one of many stinky humans to acquire a franchise from sinister mega-corporation Tetracorp, is to mine as much ore from the belt as possible. You do this by building directly on the asteroids – homes, hospitals and hydroponics for your hapless human hirelings, radiation shields and gravity nullifiers to prevent sickness and random collisions, and power plants to keep them all going. Then you need your mines, and somewhere to store the 12 different ores (two of which require special equipment, but we’ll get to that; in case it’s not obvious yet, Fragile Alliegiance is a complicated game) while waiting for the biannual visit from the Tetracorp transporter, which is your main source of income, and also graces you with any special staff or technology you’ve bought in the interim.

And you’ll need shipyards, to build scout ships who can find and prospect more asteroids, and start the whole process all over again. So, it’s kind of like Sim City in space, right? Well, a bit. But that’s not even half of it. Those other Federation races, see, they want ore too. And humanity, particularly Tetracorp, has a long and bloody history of brutalising aliens and humans alike in its pursuit of profit and power. Tensions can run high. One race is openly hostile, but even the friendliest neighbours will sometimes skirmish over a particularly prized asteroid. So you’ll need fighter craft too, and missile silos, turrets, and perhaps forcefields, and a spacedock to build warships.

Because, you see, Fragile Allegiance is also a wargame. But while open warfare certainly happens, it’s more about limited or even clandestine wars. Officially, you have neither reason nor authority to declare war, so while non-aggression treaties and joint action can be agreed, nobody is ever technically at war, and everybody’s diplomatic status just kind of is what it is. I’m on good terms with the Braccatia but we still open fire on each other’s ships. The Mikotaj desperately want a chain of asteroids on my Eastern border and have sent the fleets at my fledgling colonies there to prove it, but that hasn’t impeded trade, or a brief alliance against the Mauna. Someone is firing missiles at the Rigellians, but I can’t tell who. And then there are the spies. Oh god, the spies.

Aside from simply racing your rivals to nab the best asteroids, or bombing them into rubble (literally, with the right missiles), you can also attack them covertly, using agents to sabotage key facilities, gather information, or unleash bioweapons. And you’ll need spies to protect your own colonies if you can’t get your opponents to agree to a treaty.

Treaties, you see, are the closest thing you have to a formal diplomatic status. There’s no visible “relationship meter” of any kind, but a treaty can ban overt and/or covert action between two empires, for a negotiable duration. And even then, you’re free to break any treaty, if you’re willing to pay the penalty fee you agreed upon. You’re not sealed in some alliance that must be intentionally broken. There’s just you, them, and your word. There’s not “war” and “peace”, there’s just whatever actions everyone is willing to take. You never really know.

The game’s unique approach to diplomacy goes beyond this. You’re not some immortal guiding spirit or all-powerful emperor speaking directly to others. You’re a representative, who can only approach other races via their ambassadors, or by appealing to your own to lodge a formal complaint with the Federation. These are named, fully voiced individuals who’ll introduce themselves and their race at length, speaking of their formal stance on the Federation and their relations with you, of their people’s history and interests, and of their hopes that you can work together, and generally being, well, diplomatic. You can respond in kind, with interactions offering limited dialogue choices like a primitive RPG.

Think about it – when was the last time you spoke to a rival power in a 4X game and the process resembled any kind of interpersonal diplomacy? Most are all function, and boil down to coldly picking options from drop-down menus, utterly indifferent to the meaningless flavour text. Fragile Allegiance offers a few tricks that, though simple, change the whole feel of the experience.

Let’s say the Braccatia attack a weak colony you can’t defend. Combat doesn’t automatically mean unending war, so you could fight back. But you could also lodge a complaint with your ambassador, who might put pressure on them to stop… or could pretty much tell you she doesn’t have time to babysit you. And the Braccatia might just be offended that you went tattling instead of approaching them directly. So perhaps you’ll complain to their ambassador instead, who might deny all knowledge of the incident but promise to speak to her people and investigate. Will she investigate? Maybe. If the attacks stop, was she on the level, or was the mere challenge enough to warn them off? Or were they just not willing to fight that hard for the colony?

You just don’t know. And while opaque AI behaviour is often a huge flaw in strategy games, in Fragile Allegiance it fits. The setting matches the ambiguous, shifty nature of relations, and the other powers are given enough personality to make it work – you can even blackmail ambassadors caught doing something sufficiently illegal. The fronts provided by the ambassadors could well be so much smoke and mirrors, but the effect is convincing enough that your imagination fills in the gaps. I recently fought off a Rigellian attack against a near defenceless colony, not with lasers but by sealing a non-aggression treaty just in time to watch their incoming fleet turn round and head back home, presumably under much grumbling from the admiral about meddling politicians.

Combat itself is a little strange. Once ships leave your yards they’re best organised into fleets however you like, but once they’re on the attack you have no direct control beyond setting the damage threshold at which they’ll retreat. That’s not to say tactics don’t matter, but beyond arming and positioning your fleets and choosing your targets, the real thrust of the strategy even in combat is economic. Specifically, logistics.

Most empire-building games are about amassing industry and research points, or shunting icons back and forth. Fragile Allegiance is all about the logistics.

While buildings cost only money and space, ships and missiles require specific ores, not to mention cash, which is mostly earned by selling that same ore. Each asteroid has a limited supply, and ships and colonies alike are easily wiped out. While it’s possible to build shipyards and silos on every asteroid, keeping them supplied would be a full time job, and the range of both is very limited – missiles fired too far never land, and ships that fly beyond their fuel range seldom come back. Plus, you can only sell ore from one asteroid, necessitating regular shipments to a trading hub. So along with building and exploring and fighting, success in Fragile Allegiance depends on effectively moving your ores to where they need to be, and then on doing the same for your missiles and ships.

Clearly, there’s a lot going on here. It’s a slow game to begin with, but its complications quickly build a momentum that borders on relentless – as with all great management games, there’s always something to be doing. A new merchant has arrived! Maybe he’ll buy those sculptures you bought? The Mauna have taken that crappy asteroid in the East? Let them have it so you can spy on them, but ship away that precious Dragonium on Dessa II just in case. Workers on Shad IV are rebelling. Best build a security centre so your goons can club their big stupid faces in. Or wait, do we even need Shad anymore? Screw it, ship out the ore and demolish the hydroponics. Let that be a lesson to you, plebs! Ooh, scouts found a new asteroid. But do I want it, or do I need the money for a warp generator blueprint? Should I convert that selenium on Dolan into scatter missiles, or a skirmish fleet armed with vortex mines? The missiles will be faster, but watching the fleet go to town on a hostile base never loses its appeal, especially if you splash out on the best gear.

Speaking of which, there’s no research, but instead you lease blueprints, essentially buying technology outright. Blueprints range from the boring – more efficient shields and solar panels – to carriers, doomsday missiles, and the indispensable asteroid engines that let you extend the range of your scouts and missiles, create a refuelling point for that supply chain, or kamikaze an entire colony into an enemy.

Here’s where some of the flaws come up, however. Every asteroid requires a dozen vital buildings just to function, even if you just want to steer it into an enemy base. While setting up colonies is satisfying, doing it again and again with little variation soon gets old. To its credit, Fragile Allegiance took some convincing steps towards solving the micromanagement problem, and certainly mitigated it with the supervisors. Like the spies, these are named individuals with varying levels of ability. For a regular fee, they can be put in charge of multiple colonies and forgotten about. But even they must be used carefully, and occasionally managed – they can only cope with so much work. And be sure you can afford to keep them, or you’ll be lucky if all they do is leave in a huff.

The micromanagement of shipping and fleets is similarly mitigated with the right blueprints. But it does suffer from a certain fiddlines. Many functions are hidden away in awkward places in the interface, and keyboard shortcuts are sorely lacking (rather baffling given that K240 solved both problems). Some menus are overly nested, a sin compounded by some of those animated menu transitions the sensible person could see were annoying even in the 90s. They’re short, but when you’re already clicking back and forth so often, those unnecessary 1-second delays add up fast. And while it takes some big steps to reduce micromanagement and encourage delegation, it fails to take the necessary small steps. It’s the little annoyances that pile up in strategy games, and having to, for example, manually teleport every unit of ore yourself instead of leaving a standing order, can rather grate.

It’s a long-winded game too, as even small maps (randomly generated, with a couple of limited custom parameters) are much larger than the range of any scout ship or missile, and being left in the dark by the total absence of a statistics screen may be as big a turn-off to some players as it is a bonus to others.

But my biggest complaint relates to a frankly unbelievable problem: for all the dozens of messages you receive, there’s no warning for incoming missiles at all. Every other campaign I play ends suddenly and sourly when I come out of building a base to find another one has been devastated by missile fire. They even show up on the radar if you happen to be looking at the strategic map, so I don’t know how this got through. Did nobody think that we might want to know that we’re under attack? I can only surmise that it’s a deliberate choice to encourage the player to delegate, but the result is absolutely infuriating.

There’s a lot to complain about, is what I’m saying, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Fragile Allegiance is kind of flawed. But it did enough original things with just enough conviction to overcome its faults, and I can never play it without wishing it had been more influential.

Fragile Allegiance is available on gog and Steam.

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38 Comments

  1. Retzinsky says:

    Oh yes, this was my jam. Nothing quite like almost entirely covering an asteroid in missile silos and unleashing comically unnecessary levels of destruction on your foes.

    Many hours of enjoyment from this and K240. Such a shame that nothing since has really followed this mold.

    • Sin Vega says:

      This is one reason why stasis missiles were the BUSINESS. Initially I thought they were rubbish – they do no damage, after all. But freezing an asteroid for several minutes doesn’t mean that nothing can enter, it means that there is no limit to the number of ships and missiles you can fire at the place. Even the basic, dirt cheap explosive missiles can overwhelm an asteroid if you spend a solid minute of launching them and watching them freeze in place at the edge of an asteroid, just waiting for that stasis field to wear off so that they all hit it at once in a truly monstrous death of a thousand simultaneous cuts.

      Also, nuking your own asteroids to take out attacking fleets. God, this game makes me such a monster.

      • c-Row says:

        Or take the offensive route and let one of your depleted asteroids ram right into one of the enemy’s.

  2. Sardonic says:

    This game was extremely my jam as a kid. I was absolutely garbage at it, and only played the first few scenerios with only 1 or 2 vaugely non-hostile races. Absolutely loved the setting, and watching the combat. Always beelined to the ore teleporter too. In a way some of these systems feel almost anno-ish.

  3. Hanban says:

    Man, nuking was never more fun that in Fragile Allegiance.

  4. Tetracell says:

    This game has been on my computer in one form or another for 20 years solid.

  5. Nick says:

    loved the minimalist atmospheric music

  6. Tycow says:

    Blimey, I only mentioned this in the comments t’other day, and now we have a whole article on it! Good work that writer! :D

    K240 & Fragile Allegiance are two of my most favourite games… since playing them, no space RTS has managed to scratch the itch they created for me. Distant Worlds came close, but K240 & FA have a special place that I fear will not be recreated.

  7. Heliocentric says:

    I only ever played K240, Gods I loved that manual as a kid.

    • Tycow says:

      Agreed. It was a great read packed with detail about the universe.

      When I last visited my parents, I purposely went hunting for my K240 manual in their loft… found it in one piece fortunately! :)

    • Sin Vega says:

      I was just chatting to a friend of the person who wrote the manual! It was easily the best non-microprose strategy manual, absolutely overflowing with small but colourful details about the world, most completely unnecessary but being pure nitrate for a young imagination. I read it from cover to cover several times (once I snuck it into some mandatory, tedious multi-school sport event to read instead. No memory of why I didn’t grab an actual book).

      The manual for Fragile Allegiance is crap, but happily a lot of the same kind of detail went directly into the game instead, and most of it is new (apart from the Rigellians, all the FA races are new – no Swixaran plant people, sadly). Double clicking on buildings and blueprints! The latter even have sales brochure style animations explaining design features of every item. Lovely worldbuilding for what could have been a generic space game.

      • Tycow says:

        I remember reading about the vampire-like race, where the recommendation was avoid at all costs. The lore around them made them sufficiently creepy that I never played against them.

        • Sin Vega says:

          The entertaining irony is that by the time FA is set in, their secrets have been widely disseminated, and it turns out that they’re among the friendliest and most reasonable of cultures now that we’re not treating them like monsters.

      • valuum says:

        Tell the person I love him/her, that thing was *awesome*! I spent so much time reading it, though I barely remember it now. Probably played a big part in my early English readwritebable skills too. (#stillgotit)

  8. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    I loved this game. I mean, I was utterly, utterly terrible at it, but I loved it nonetheless.

  9. Gothnak says:

    Well done, you have dragged something out of my memory, even i didn’t remember. I do remember Utopia, loved that game and introduced me to Pachebel’s Canon, my favourite piece of classical music. But i didn’t remember K240 until you mentioned it and i looked it up, that was a great game too. I never got to Fragile Allegiance i think, was always an Amiga kid back then.. :p.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Ericusson says:

    Utopia !
    Ooh yeah, this game was so good at the time. Build more stadiums, planes and missiles.

  11. MrThingy says:

    Hah, yes, this sounds like me. I had no idea what was going on in this game. I used to play this game (there was a demo with PCGamer if memory serves?) to just blow the entire budget on missiles and immediately attack the nearest inhabited asteroid with whatever missiles I could get hold of.

    The pyrotechnics were remarkably satisfying.

    • MrThingy says:

      As usual, this was meant to be a reply (to “mashkeyboardgetusername” in this case), but RPS ancient soviet-era bulletin board software considered this too difficult a task…

  12. Bull0 says:

    I LOVED this game and Utopia (never heard of k240). Utopia was all about pouring funding into spies and reading their cool reports about the weird aliens. Really fired the imagination.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      Man, I remember playing Utopia on the computers at school. K240 kinda passed me by, though, which is a shame, because I would’ve appreciated some “utopia, but better”

    • valuum says:

      Late reply here, but mind telling me what Utopia was about? I was a bit too young to really understand, I just went about with basic base building. I have vague memories about enemies attacking, and fending them off.. Sending units off the sides of the map to attack, but having no clue what was going on, and never having them return.

      • Sin Vega says:

        Don’t know if you’ll get this, but you’ve pretty much covered what Utopia was about. It was a city builder (more so than K240/FA) where you colonised an alien world, and had to wipe out an alien settlement too. You never saw the aliens or their city, but had to build up enough military forces and send them off to attack. To do so effectively it was best to also send lots of spies over, which had the effect of telling you more about them and their capabilities.

        It played differently to the sequels, and was overall not as good, but you can see the similarities when you play them all. The whole concept of doing everything indirectly and never even seeing the aliens was interesting too, and the spying was pretty rewarding, especialy for such an old game.

  13. Spacewalk says:

    I played this at a mate’s house for a bit and was Not Very Good At It but it’s a game that stuck in my head. I was lucky to get in that much, it was a pretty big thing with him so all the other times I was forced to watch him play it.

  14. Premium User Badge

    keefybabe says:

    I still have yet to come across a space strategy game that got in my head like this did. Loved it to bits.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Big Dunc says:

    I thought I was the only person who remembered this little diamond in the rough of a game! I absolutely loved it and it’s good to see it’s getting a bit of love here.

  16. forwardirektion says:

    Utopia had sequels?!

    And there was me thinking it was just a nice to look at spacepunk “white label” Populous clone.

  17. fearandloathing says:

    Any modern games with similar emphasis on limited warfare like this, fellow RPSers? OTC does not really have that, and I’m and those I ask drawing blank on this.

  18. Kaeoschassis says:

    Sometimes I get partway through an article without having checked the author and just KNOW.

    Well, looks like I’m going to have to buy another old game I missed at the time. This really does sound right up my street, love me some machinating and double-dealing, and ESPECIALLY love me some strategy games with actual character (Following Sin’s recommendation of King of Dragon Pass was one of the best choices I ever made, for example).

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Wait, what. That is not my RPS icon. Where is my multi-armed purple guy?

      RPS, this will not stand!!

    • unacom says:

      You won´t ever regret buying this. In my opinion it is one of the best computer games out there and the article excellently details why. It manages to have a bit of everything without coming off as having too many half-baked ideas crammed together.

  19. Expers says:

    If I haven’t played this game for a thousand hours then I can absolutely say I have played it for 800 hours.

    This article has a small error, it is true that the European version of Fragile Allegiance (GoG and Steam sell this version) didn’t have shorcut keys, but the N.A. release does, also the N.A. version has a few more changes:

    It’s a little easier, it seems that the spies are more infrequent or greatly weakened in it, last week I was playing it and it was the first time I ever suffered so much.
    A Mauna spy,
    blew up a Transporter, still loaded with all that traxium I was holding for better market prices!!!

    launched all my missiles at my nearest neighbor who I had an Overt treaty with, the fines they would have hurt if the Mikotaj weren’t so generous (easily provoked, make a none overt treaty and placing sattelites.)

    destroyed a colonies life-support systems.

    aborted all current fleet and ship orders.

    It was also the first time I had a Supervisor (Earl Barthlomew) comment sui-cide from overwork.

    And that Tetracorp video at teh end is very insulting, reassess you!

    That said, it did have a few minor improvments cash has commas ex:

    10000000 = 10,000,000 (10.000.000) so much nicer to look how broke or well of one is at a glance.

    Over all playing the pal version it is like playing F.A. again for the first time. And is much more challenging then the N.A. version.

    Note: I was playing in the “Friendly” Atmosphere just to be casually playing it again, the N.A. version I usually played a “balanced” arena and occasionally the “decidedly chilly” one. (Custom games, all races)

  20. DobloDobsy says:

    Man I thought I was the only one who played this game! I adore Fragile Allegiance, the whole atmosphere of it is sublime. I’d love to play some MP games of it. Remember trying to get it working on a LAN with a friend around 1999 and we couldn’t get past random crashes. I was so disappointed.