We've been playing the epic browser-based strategy Neptune's Pride, and marveling at its dark psychological potential. A mix of the galaxy's finest generals, hand-picked from the slightly awkward ranks of the RPS and PC Gamer (whose coverage is here), would decide the fate of our pocket universe.
Read on for the second part of the battle, where there is no love to be made: only war.
Kieron: Yeah, I had no idea that Quinns was double-playing me. In fact, as well as a Non-aggression pact, I was doing tech trading wtih him. He was the only person I was giving a sniff of my hard-earned weapons. The fascinating thing here about the early part of the game was how I creepingly became aware of who was really allied with who. When someone gained a tech level, you noted who also gained that tech level, because it was a sign of someone from the alliance block was leaking the science to someone else. Quinns was gaining tech at twice the rate he should have been, so it was obvious he was being diplomatically slutty. But - y'know - it didn't matter. That was a problem in the far future. I was fighting for my life.
And I had actually learned how to fight. In the early game, I considered the combat system something mysterious and alien, based on some sliding scale of number of ships and weapon tech. Thanks to Sponge - and I suspect he ended up regretting giving me this bit of advice - I discovered it wasn't. It was just really very hard maths. The number of ships you have in a fleet makes no difference to the damage it does. Combat works in rounds, with you doing your weapon tech damage per round, with the defender attacking first and gaining a plus one to whatever their skill is to the damage they do. So if a fleet of 10 with 10 weapon skill attacks a planet with 10 ships and 9 weapon skill, the attacker would be wiped out before they'd even inflicted one casualty. However, if the defender had a weapon skill of 8, the attacker would win, leaving a single ship. Follow the implications on this one, as they're important. If you're defending, and you're going to lose, you're able to move all your ships away, leaving a single ship defending. That ship then will do your weapon-tech+1 of damage to the fleet. In other words, you'd take much less material losses in terms of ships-lost than the attacker. Since all the tech levels are open information, you can calculate every engagement to the best effect.
So that's what I did. I didn't spend much on my economy, throwing it all into industry and science. The former gave me the ships to dissuade further advances - and I managed to just stay ahead of everyone else in gun-tech this period. The latter gave me the tech edge which meant I did the most damage. My total lack of an economy would ruin me long term... but in the short term, my planet's lack made me a less attractive target. When you take over a planet, the economy is destroyed and the attacker gets a cash bonus. Attacking me would get you a minimal cash bonus, at best. So why bother, when the planets are bristling with space-guns all pointing paranoidly outwards.
I fought my war and, suddenly, I started gaining traction. Sponge and my positions stabilised. Crispy threw his forces at me, and was annihilated. Jim - positioned to my south - starts talking about invading both Sponge and Quinns. Looking at Jim's production statistics makes me think that sounds openly suicidal, but I wasn't going to dissuade him. I can see Graham attacking Crispy from the North. And, looking at my forces, I realise something - I'm not just in a position where I can defend. I'm in a position where I can attack. I push forward into his terrain. As I say to Graham at this point, Crispy=Poland, You=USSR, Me=Nazi Germany, yes?
And we all know how well that turned out.
Graham: Even when I outlined the initial alliance with Crispy, I made it clear: I will betray you. Then I betrayed him. He was small, weaker, sandwiched between Kieron and Poisoned Sponge. He was the cork blocking my delicious purple units from spurting all over the galaxy in a bubbly shower. I crushed him. And then I kept crushing him. And then I crushed him a bit more. And... yeah, still crushing. It turns out that no matter how fast you think you can destroy someone, it takes around ten times longer. I always knew I could defeat Crispy - I'd done the math - but I didn't expect it to take so long.
Meanwhile, Jim was sending me messages about Poisoned Sponge's incursions into his space. He could only hold out against Sponge's attacks for a few more days, he said. I had to attack Sponge immediately if he was to survive, he said. In response I told him Jim I was attacking, but I never was. It was too far beyond Jim's scan range for him to see, and I didn't want to stretch myself too thin until Crispy was eradicated.
Kieron: In which case... who was lying to who here? From my perspective, it was Jim who was attacking Sponge, not vice-versa. There was a lot of lies flying around. Hurrah for Neptune's Pride.
(Unless Graham's just got confused here)
Graham: I don't think I was confused. But then, I wouldn't.
Chris Pelling/Crispy: I'm a pretty timid person. My lack of killer instinct means I've never won an RTS game against another person in my life. I prefer not to go on the offensive; I'm much more comfortable hiding behind elaborate defenses and slowly plotting, with much evil chuckling and stroking of cats. (Besides, I'm a game developer in a crowd of games journalists here. I'm scared of angering them!)
I'm also trustworthy to a fault. This is an obvious disadvantage in a game which encourages temporary alliances - emphasis on temporary. So I was caught completely off guard when my "ally" Graham stormed through the Space Wall and seized half my territory in one fell swoop, much earlier than I had anticipated.
Graham sued for peace in exchange for my home star system (my only one with decent stats). I refused, since I figured that would screw me anyway - there was no way I was coming back from that. Instead, I opted for a blaze of glory, sending my remaining fleets on ridiculously elaborately-plotted circuits to temporarily reclaim parts of my territory. I even sent one fleet through the Space Wall to harass his own star systems. This hopefully annoyed him a little, but it was only ever a stalling tactic. Pretty soon I was thoroughly squashed, leaving Kieron and Graham to ingest my remains.
The Pelling Empire has fallen! Long live the Pelling Empire!
Sponge/Phill: So I was at war with Kieron, and that was fine. I had more stars, and better economy/industry, not to mention all the juicy tech that my various affiliates (read: Hentzau) were supplying me with. Me and Jim had a non-aggression pact concerning our border, and besides, he was a trifling force at best. I easily had the edge in any fight we would have, and between me and Kieron, things had all but stagnated. We'd both conceded a little ground, him first, then me, and things had settled into an awkward truce. I think we both knew that if we went into full blown onslaught mode we'd both end up the weaker, and easy pickings for Jim/Quinns/Graham. So a sort of uneasy report started between myself and Kieron. He'd mention how he knew I was trading with everyone and everything I could get my hands on, stating how someone would figure out soon enough, and I stated how it didn't really matter, as most of them had him between us. And in a blistering moment of 'oh hey I've figured out the combat system!' I told him how to get at the man behind the curtain, and work out with basic maths how to minimise losses while maximise damages. I mean, I figured everyone would read the tutorial. How wrong I was.
It was about this time that I saw that Tom was, to put it kindly, turtling. He'd taken about seven stars, and seemed to be making no move to expand. So I sent him all the tech I could, figuring an angry little hornet's nest of a PCG writer would be good to keep Quinns on his toes. At the same time I sent Crispy some fire power, figuring letting anyone gobble him up would be bad for everyone but the gobbler. Essentially, my main target was destabilisation; if no one is able to grow powerful, everyone's got a chance. Specifically, I've got a chance. And that's all I wanted. Just give me a chance!
Hentzau: By this point I'm starting to appreciate the drawbacks of my starting position. It's certainly defensible enough, but the economics of Neptune's Pride mean the lack of space for expansion is going to be a killer; after all, if it's more efficient to build one economy improvement on five planets than it is to build five economy improvements on one planet, then the player who has the most planets is inevitably going to end up with the largest industrial base. That Bastard Quinns is well in front in the planet stakes too, damn him - unlike Solium Infernum I can't go back and check, but I think he had half as many planets again as I did by the time our fleets clashed around Schear.
It wasn't a grand space battle by any means; my fleet was only ten ships, and Quinns' fleet was even smaller. We'd each been trying to get to Schear before the other one did, and unfortunately for me Quinns just pipped me to the post. I had no clue how ship combat worked prior to this little skirmish, but the truth of the matter turned out to be very painful: ships act as health points and weapons technology represents attack strength. The defender gets the first hit as well as a one point bonus to attack strength. In theory, fleets take turns to hit each other, with the enemy attack strength being deducted from the number of ships in your fleet and vice versa until one side has no ships left. What actually happened here was that Quinns' weapon strength of ten combined with getting the first attack due to being the defender at Schear meant that his smaller fleet obliterated my larger one before they even got a shot off.
The early stages of the war consist of repeats of Schear as Quinns moves into my territory. I'd notice him approaching a defenseless star and send a fleet to intercept - this being the point of my emphasising ship speed in my research efforts - only for him to get there just ahead of me and wipe out my forces. Quinns manages to take three stars in this way before I manage to assemble an enormous fleet of seventy ships, fully three quarters of my navy, and evict him from his most recent acquisition. But even here Quinns displays a damnable amount of cunning and evacuates his ships before I get there, leaving one solitary defender. A fleet does the same amount of damage no matter how many ships are in it, so this one ship blows away twelve of mine before it is destroyed. So far I've lost something like forty ships and have managed to kill only one. Not the best way to start a war.
With a better appreciation of the combat mechanics I start gearing up my economy to focus on a long-term war. Emphasis on economic and scientific improvements is abandoned in favour of ship-building industry centralised at Capella and the surrounding stars, close to the front line. I talk to several people attempting to beg better weapons technology; Sponge comes through for me here, which puts me on a more or less even footing with Quinns in terms of guns. It's just the disparity in the size of our fleets that I have to somehow fix - a disparity that is made all too clear when Quinns' own megafleet turns up and exterminates mine in something of a pyrrhic victory. It comes out of the battle totally gutted with less than ten ships left, but the fact that he could afford to throw away eighty-odd ships like that means that more are probably right behind it.
Tom Francis:Hm? Oh, a Procyonian hypercroissant, please. What? Fine, make it a pain au hyperchocolat. Now, Pembleton, how goes the empire?
"Not well, sir."
"Pah! What could possibly be wrong?
"Nothing, sir, but neither has anything gone especially right. Indeed, nothing at all has happened. For three days."
Why the blazes not?
"We've been unable to wake you sir. You've been completely motionless for seventy-two hours. If you don't give us any orders, nothing will happen."
Interesting. Have the other empires started colonising new star systems?
"Er, some time ago, yes sir."
Out with it, man, how many?
"It is... a different number of digits to our own count, sir."
Dear God. Open communications with the neighbouring empires immediately, I want-
"In fact, sir, many of them have already sent communiques awaiting your attention."
What? Why wasn't I informed?
"It's the motionless-for-seventy-two-hours thing again, I fear."
What do they say?
"The Exalted High Supercommandant Plenipotentiary, his Magnificence Lord Hentzau, wishes it to be known that he means us no ill, and that so long as our, ahem - forgive me sir, I have a slight cough - 'expansion' does not blockade him on this galactic penninsula, he will not attempt to encroach on our space. He also suggests we unite with him in his battle against the Dark Lord Quinns, to the Galactic East."
Marvelous! Signal our agreement and send the Supercommandant a box of his favourite Izarian whores as a goodwill gesture. What else?
"The Corpulent Embristled Polyoptical Overseer, his repugnance the Dark Lord Quinns, writes to offer his least unctuous tendril in friendship in his war against Supercommandant Hentzau. He promises a sizable cut of the conquered territory once the armadas have been crushed."
Capital! Agree to this too, another box of whores! We can sort out the contradiction later by watching Voyager re-runs: Janeway must have dealt with this at some point.
"Actually sir, there's more. Two days after transmitting his offer, presumably taking our lack of response as a refusal, Quinns invaded Izari with a sizable fleet. His empire is now in control of that world."
But- the whores! All is lost, Pembleton, signal our surrender! If we capitulate now, we may yet save the fondue moon of Dschubba.
"A brave ploy, sir, but if I might interject: we actually have a larger fleet of ships than Quinns. Not so much through any genius of management as simply not having used any of them."
Oh. Very well. Inform him that if he removes his ships from Izari immediately, we will spare his puny much-larger empire and accept his earlier offer. And send him a supercarrier filled with Dschubban fondue.
"Very good sir."
And before I forget, Pembleton, it's imperative that we...
Hentzau: Rebuild. Entrench. Consolidate. My shipyards are working at a fairly decent rate now, but I've taken a look at That Bastard Quinns' industry stats in the player browser. My navy has been built back up to a strength of 200 ships, dispersed around a few key stars in the south. That took me four or five days. Quinns has enough industry to build 200 ships in a day; a direct result of the vast area of space he controls. Fortunately it took him a little while to send in follow-up fleets after the battle that decimated both our navies, so I had a little bit of time to rush fleets to the critical industrial base around Capella. Since I have the defensive advantage Quinns is reluctant to strike until he's built up overwhelming force. Still, it's clear to me now that I can't win this war on my own. But who am I going to ask for aid? Pentadact roused himself from his slumber long enough to take half a dozen worlds but then lapsed back into unconsciousness; there's no help there. My one hope is that once Gonnas and KG have finished dismembering Crispy they'll turn and attack Quinns before he becomes dominant. But I have to hold out until then.
The only thing I've got going for me is that I can commit all my forces to fighting Quinns. Quinns, I assume, has to reserve at least some of his fleets to ward off potential attacks from other empires. That's scant comfort as I watch the gradual trickle of ships to Quinns' fortified border worlds become first a stream, and then a torrent. He starts grinding up towards Capella. I've learned from the opening battles of the war; I try to fight where fighting is feasible and pull back where I'm going to be overrun, leaving only the single suicide ship to do as much damage as possible. The casualty rate on both sides starts increasing geometrically as each of us throws more and more ships into the fray. I'm trading planets in exchange for conserving my forces, but my starting position means that I don't have that many to throw away, and eventually Quinns begins to encroach upon the valuable industrial worlds in and around Capella.
Capella is where I choose to make a stand, and another cataclysmic battle is fought involving nearly a hundred ships on each side. This time I emerge the narrow victor. But Quinns has learned his lessons as well; a quick followup attack destroys the the remnants of the defence garrison, and Capella falls. I'm destroying more ships than Quinns, but Quinns apparently has so many that he's perfectly happy to chuck them into the meatgrinder by the shovel-load, especially now that I've lost one of my main production worlds. The production capacity on four worlds at the very edge of the galaxy is expanded to compensate; they'll be the last to fall if Quinns makes it that far, but they have the drawback that they're a day's travel from the front line. And now that Capella is in enemy hands, Quinns is within striking distance of Aldhibah, my homeworld. If that goes down I'll lose half my empire with it.
Sponge/Phill: Well that's just useless. I mean, it's my own fault, but it's still horrendously annoying. Jim, in all his poxy glory, has attacked. Kieron, in all his anger, has attacked. I don't know why I didn't see it coming, perhaps it was the assurance on a widely available podcast that I had nothing to worry about from Jim, or maybe I just didn't think anyone was really that organised, but suddenly I'm not fighting one all out war, but two. This is very, very bad. On their own, neither of them have the fleet strength to take me out. Together, they easily dwarf me. At best I can bloody their nose before they take me out. So what I have to do is find backup. There are two possible choices, and I choose both.
First up we've got Quinns. Throughout the game we've been... I suppose trading partners is the best way to put it. Him and Hentzau have been fighting a war for the duration, and my clear alliance against him probably didn't help things, but at the same time I'd been happily trading tech with him to aid him in his war efforts. If I can get him to attack Jim, then I can force him to falter his attack, and then focus myself on fending off Kieron with a big pointy space stick. He agrees somewhat hesitantly, which makes me think he's just playing along to keep milking me for tech. Twat.
Second we've got Graham. Similar to Quinns, I've been trading with him for the majority of the game, and more importantly, I can really make this alliance worth his while. He's finished off Crispy, and like the ravenous, insatiable, facially fronded monster his race so clearly are, he's looking for a new target. With my scanning, I can see nearly every one of Kieron's stars. I give him the numbers, the raw facts. I break it down to him like no fish-race has ever done for a large amorphous blob of an alien. I give him infrastructure numbers; how many economy points, industry points and science points are on each of Kieron's stars. I tell him ship numbers, fleet strengths and locations. Essentially, I give him the keys to Kieron's kingdom.
And it's well worth his time to attack Kieron too; most of his forces are tied up in attacking me, and so he's all but left the back door open. If Graham does nothing, Kieron's going to take me out, and grow the stronger because of it. So it's in his best interest to attack now, pre-emptively, and net himself some tasty stars in the process. He agrees, sends a bunch of fleets towards Kieron, and I pray that he's listening to logic rather than his belly. Because right now I must look like a tasty morsel for him to digest.
Jim: By this stage I realised I was totally behind everyone else in terms of, well, everything. Nor have I had any serious engagements with anyone. The only logical thing to do was to start expanding aggressively, and the obvious way to do that was to backstab Phill. It's true that I could have made a march towards Quinns, but the distances were huge - the actual physical distances between stars - and I wanted to see immediately progress. By this time I had actually built up a reasonable force of ships, so it was also time to start talking to everyone. I chatted to Quinns, to Phill (before the backstab) then Kieron and Graham. It was going to be PCG's deputy editor I would come to rely on most heavily, thanks to his distance from me. We did plenty of tech trading as time progressed, and he eventually joined in with the great rout of Phill.