Neptune's Pride is an in-development slow-form browser-based strategy game from Iron Helmet games, currently in open beta. You can play it now. Over a period of a month or so, we did just that, with intriguing consequences. We've joined forces with PC Gamer (who are also posting this diary here) to bring you the full story of what happened...
Neptune's Pride is, in its current state, a simple space-strategy game. The aim is to conquer just 50% of the stars in the galaxy, rounded up. Each planet can be upgraded in economics, industry or science. Economics gives you money to spend on more stuff. Each level of Industry will churn out a number of space-ships every day. The total amount of science in the empire determines how quickly you can improve your ships in one of four categories - weapons, ship-speed, scanner range and jump-range. In other words, simple space-conquering. The twist is the aforementioned "slow-form". For ships to go from one place to another can take literally hours. The idea being, you drop in a couple of times a day, give orders, and go and do something else.
The something else rapidly becomes "desperate scheming".
It's in Beta now. It's developing constantly. It has changed considerably since this game was played.
The combatants were...
Phill Cameron aka Poisoned Sponge, Rock Paper Shotgun Affiliate
Tom Francis, PC Gamer
Kieron Gillen, Rock Paper Shotgun
Hentzau, FREELANCE SOLDIER OF FORTUNE.
Chris Pelling, Inventive Dingo Games
Quinns, Rock Paper Shotgun Affiliate
Jim Rossignol, Rock Paper Shotgun
Graham Smith, PC Gamer
And here's a rough map of where they were at the start of this war. Worth noting, all maps - with one exception have been re-created after the fact and should only be used for vague illustrative value.
Kieron: I didn't have a clue. While I'd quickly rounded up people to join a game, I didn't have time to actually read any of the rules. The game started on Friday, I believe, so the opening weekend was me flying without anything other than my base strategy skills to guide me. Economy? Sounds useful. Industry appears to make ships... yes, some of that. He who has the best science tends to win, so I'll take that. And what to research? Weapons, as I don't really get what the other stuff is for, and bigger guns are generally SEXY. All the sexy comes from the barrel of the gun, to quote Communism's Mr Sexy Mao.
And what to do with my ships? Well, just send them off. As quickly as possible, claiming as many planets as possible. I mean, territory grab is paramount in all these sort of games.
These are all fair assumptions. They pretty much immediately screw me.
I, too, sent out a wave of spaceships to do some early game land-grabbing. Unfortunately, I was hampered by two immediate problems.
In Civilization II, there is a unit called the trireme. It's the weakest ship, the first one in the tech tree. While its stats are truly pathetic, its main weakness is that it must end turn adjacent to land, or risk sinking. Since it can only move 3 spaces per turn, this severely limits its range. It's often nigh-impossible to leave your starting continent until your historical boffins figure out the whole "sailing" thing properly.
Although it's been years since I played Civ II, the Trireme Legacy haunts me still. You see, one of the technology categories Neptune takes such pride in is jump range, which governs the maximum distance that can be crossed by a single hyperspace jump. Jumps can only be made directly between star systems - and immediately Galactic North of my starting area was a vast empty gulf, containing no star systems. A gulf I therefore couldn't cross without first upgrading my jump range.
I set my space boffins to work immediately, but in the meantime, there might as well have been a gigantic Space Wall blocking me off from expanding towards Graham. Expansion to the "east" and "south" was more open, geographically speaking, but would quickly cause me to run into Sponge's and Kieron's territory, respectively. Expansion to the west was possible, but not without first veering southwards, leaving me with a large front to defend against Kieron. Yes folks, starting in the middle sucks!
This is not to say that the starting layout screwed me entirely. I could still have done okay had I not forgotten to log in for a while. Forget playing to win; I wasn't even playing! When I finally awoke, the entire galaxy had already been colonised. Although I now had the tech to penetrate the Space Wall, I couldn't actually do it without declaring war on Graham, who had taken advantage of my limited range/intelligence/attention span to annex everything to the Space Wall's north. Oops.
So I focused on improving the star systems I had managed to grab, established alliances with my northern and eastern neighbours (Graham and Sponge), and engaged in some minor skirmishes with Kieron, who I figured would be an easier target than the others since he was surrounded by other players on all sides. Clearly, I am a tactical space genius.
Sponge/Phill: I'd like to say how I'm one of those simple and elegant RTS players, but I'm not. I'd love to be one of those grand chess masters who can think a dozen moves ahead, predicting all my opponents moves before even they can think of them. Problem is, I'm not much one for strategy games in general. I can just about handle the tactics of organising a squad to flank a position or set up a pincer movement, but the more complicated nuance required to handle an entire empire of galactic proportions is mostly beyond me. So I've got a very simple concept when dealing with this sort of game; I stick as many grimy fingers in as many delicious pies as I possibly can. And in Neptune's Pride, pies are people.
So, first things first; I survey the map. I'm surrounded by four different people, at least three of which I know enjoy, and are good at, this sort of game. So I pick the two I expect to betray me the least, Jim and Graham, and leave Kieron to smoulder in his own filth. Then, looking further afar, Hentzau is the geologically furthest from me on the map, so my greatest natural ally. Quinns and Tom are similarly far away, kept from attacking me by a tricolour of Kieron, Crispy and Jim. So basically, I need to get chummy with everyone I'm not intending to invade.
This is made even simpler by there being four different types of technology to research. If I can rope three other people into helping me out, we can literally cover all the bases. And if I'm the only one they know of, I can be the only one with all of that tech, and I can dole it out to who I see fit. Basically, I'm planning to win through wealth of ideas, rather than overly aggressive tactics. If I'm the one with all the tech, everyone wants to be my friend, right? I'm pretty sure that's how it works.
So that means investing in science, and then economy. If I do that, I get more money tomorrow to spend on industry and all the tools of war, just in case one of my chums decides that my ever so delicate shade of light blue is best served decorating their wall rather than their battlemaps. This also means I need a hell of a lot more stars than the poxy amount you get to start with. Messages to potential allies sent, I shift out my ships, picking the biggest stars, because I like them chunky. (It may or may not also be the fact that the bigger the star, the more resources it offers, and thus the cheaper it is to build on them. I'm just glad that my intergalactic persuasions happen to coincide with sound tactical nous.)
Hentzau: My first reaction to Neptune's Pride is one of slight bafflement. This is space strategy stripped down to its most rudimentary bare-bones - only four areas you can research, only three types of colony improvement, ship construction is entirely automated, and ships themselves are abstractly represented by a single number telling you how many you've got in a given fleet. That's all there is in the way of empire-building. It's clear that the meat of this game is supposed to be in the ship movement and inter-player diplomacy, and so my first course of action is take a look at who the most immediate threats to my budding empire are going to be so that I can perhaps convince them to not smash my face in.
Neptune's Pride has given me what looks like an excellent starting position. I'm pressed up against the edge of the galaxy; to the west of my empire lies empty void. Everything interesting is to the east of my empire; specifically, my borders with the only two neighbours I've actually got to deal with in this game. One is Pentadact, otherwise known as PCG's Tom Francis. I duly send him a message saying that it would be terribly nice if we could just be friends. The other, though... the other is Quinns; henceforth to be referred to as That Bastard Quinns. Readers of the Solium Infernum game diaries will understand that I'm still nursing a slight grudge against That Bastard Quinns, and so he doesn't get any space-olive branches delivered by space-dove. I'll bide my time, build up my forces, and then annihilate him.
Or at least that's the plan. I'm hampered somewhat by my utter ignorance of all of the game mechanics. The sensible thing to do would be to find some sort of manual and learn about them, since forewarned is forearmed. Naturally I decide instead that it would be an excellent idea to just wing it. Other 4x games place great emphasis on technological development, so I assume that's going to be a good place to start and build a new science facility on my homeworld. Unfortunately this turns out to be the worst possible thing I could have done; the cost of improvements scales up depending on how many of that type you've previously built, and the homeworld comes with two science facilities as standard. I had two planets with no facilities where I could have built the thing for half the cost. To add insult to this self-inflicted injury, science facilities are about ten times as costly as the other types of improvement, meaning that building one on my homeworld has wiped out my entire starting budget. Bugger.
My fleets set out and start grabbing other planets for me. They're a pretty anaemic bunch, sadly - the cost of improvements also scales depending on how many resources a planet has, and the explorers are turning up a series of dustballs with resource levels as high as "0" and "1" - so the future of my industry is not looking bright. I get no reply to the message I sent to Pentadact, but the inevitable snubbed feeling is assuaged by some communication with Poisoned Sponge, who is waaaaay over there on the other side of the galaxy. It seems that since there's four different players separating us he feels that we're not going to be threatening each other for a little while, and so we're in the ideal position to do a little tech trading. I like this idea and expand the initial one-off transfer into a coordinated technology pact; I do ship speed upgrades, Sponge does everything else, and we exchange these technologies more-or-less freely.
With the diplomacy system having at least borne some small amount of fruit I concentrate on expansion for the next few days. The few worlds to the north are gobbled up quickly. Pentadact isn't moving his fleets, so I take the opportunity to snatch some of the planets near to him out from under his nose. However, That Bastard Quinns and I are both expanding into the area southeast of my homeworld. It's only a matter of time before our scout fleets run into each other. And when that happens? It's not going to be pretty.
Kieron: My fuck up was over-expansion. I grabbed stuff with no idea about whether I could defend it, quietly hoping that just owning a planet would give it some base defences. But no, only ships count. This means that my spread out forces, when they actually contact the opposition, pretty much dissipate. It's Sponge which causes the initial problems. He just expands directly in my direction rather than any of the other ones. Crispy, to my north, is also nibbling. I suspect Quinns will inevitably come in, and it's only the distance from Jim's empire which makes me think he's not going to bother. Simple mass dynamics mean that I'm going to be chewed apart. At this point, I have no idea actually how the combat works. If I'm going to play a defensive war, I'm going to have to learn to play.
And I'm going to play a defensive war, as I make extremely clear to Sponge. After he's claimed a few planets I got, we talk about a ceasefire. I stress that he's never keeping those two planets, and I'd ruin my empire rather than give them to him. This is only mildly hyperbole for the sake of diplomacy. If he keeps these planets, any fleet stationed there would be within striking range of the heart of my empire - with the high production planets without whom I'd be more screwed than I already was. He wasn't keeping them, as it would be game over. It was game over anyway, really. Survival was only my secondary objective at this point. My primary one was making sure Sponge got his face sliced for his unreasonable expansion. Thought for the day: Sponge is a right fucker.
Of course, there's some stuff I don't know...
One of the more fun parts of playing a new strategy game, at least one that's a slow-burner like this, is getting to know the game. When I first started, I was incredibly excited by the fact that, before a hyperspace jump, your fleet has to engage in a thirty minute 'pre' jump. Spooling up the engines, or some such. At the time I just thought it was an interesting moment of attempted fidelity in the game, and thought nothing less of it. Now I know different.
You see, that pre-jump is there so that you can change your mind. It's thirty minutes because that's just about enough time for even the most idiot of idiots to re-evaluate their decision and pick a better course. The reason you're given this grace period is because once you're in hyperspace, that's it. You're the bullet fired from the gun, unable to be rescinded or reasoned with. Once you've had the stars whiz past your windscreen and everything's turned into a blur of pixels and vacuum, there's nothing you can do. I explain all this because it's the seed that sows the beginnings of a very difficult situation.
You see, I headed brashly into Kieron's territory, thinking I wanted a deep border right near him so that I can pump ships directly up his nostrils when the time came. But naturally, this being early in the game, he was expanding outwards. And outwards means the star I just fired a fleet at. So I pop him a mail explaining how my race of fish-bowl wearing reptilians were vastly superior in almost every way to his terrifying looking thorn monsters, and therefore he should just be glad I'm taking a star he hadn't quite taken yet, rather than one of his homestars. I fluffed my gills and pumped up my chest, and he laughed. Mentioned something about destroying himself to destroy me, and how I was some sort of insignificant smudge on the vast screens that adorned his battleships. Basically, we were at an impasse.
So I cleared my throat and mentioned how I couldn't move my ships away from the course they were on, and I was just hoping to scare him off with some big words. Everything went a bit cordial, we had some tea, and figured out that if I withdrew as soon as I took the star, everything would be rosy. And I'm sure things would've been peachy between us from here on in, except I wasn't about to let him rebuff me quite that easily. So I moved my ships up after taking the star, attempting to create a border.
He didn't like that.
Graham: Patrick Swayze had it wrong: being in the corner is fantastic. Born in the northern-east quadrant of the map, my purple armies were free to expand without any grab-happy neighbours getting in my way. My nearest space-neighbour was Crispy, who I made sure to immediately turn into a space-friend. I didn't really understand how the game worked, but I figured delaying our inevitable battle would work in my favour. At the same time, I made an alliance with Jim, promising that together we would crush all that lay between us: Crispy, Kieron, and Poisoned Sponge.
In the meantime, I mostly pumped my funds into Economy and building fleets. In the early game, I had twice as many fleets as anyone else, though only an equal number of actual ships. This allowed me to quickly gather my nearby unclaimed planets, and put me comfortably in second place.
Jim: I was in the corner too, which proved useful because I really wasn't paying attention for the first three or four days, and hadn't even really worked out what the various resources were for. It's was only when Kieron sent me the link for the combat tutorial that I realised I was doing it all wrong. This is absolutely one of those games that I assumed I understood from a cursory glance, but actually wouldn't really understand until I began talking to people. Talking to people! In a game! What will these boffins come up with next?
However, as things unfold it becomes clear that I'm going to start checking this game four or five times a day. Just to be sure. Just to know. Just to check.
Quinns My goodness! Listen to these guys whinge. "Being in the middle is so bad!" "I was up against the side, which of course sucks." "My star systems were in space, leading to all kinds of problems."
Let me offer you something more upbeat, namely the story of how I ended up blasting off into an early lead despite being assigned leadership of a race with a face like a toilet brush.
The fact that developing your systems gets exponentially more expensive the more you build on them meant I clearly needed to start by grabbing as many systems as possible. Also, since none of my neighbours would be in fightin' range of me for at least 48 hours I chose to spend all of my starting cash on increasing the Economy of my systems as opposed to their ship-creating Industry stat, meaning I earned even more cash the next day, which again I chose to plough back into my economy. By day 4 I was the cigar-chomping baron of the Galaxy and still shunting most of my insane income back into my economy.
This was the easy stuff. The need for delicacy began when there were no more unclaimed stars for me to take and I was left with three neighbours- red Kieron to the right, Burgundy Tom above me, and lime-green Hentzau to the left. With my broad swathe of territory and monstrous economy I was a force to be reckoned with, but by no means a goliath. My planets were producing space-bourbon and space-flatpacked furniture, not fleets. I'd be able to happily crush perhaps one of my opponents, but taking on two at once would see my territory (and space-bourbon) being torn from my hands.
So began the anti-Kieron alliance. I got in touch with Jim and Sponge, the players beneath and to the right of Kieron, and proposed we all invade him at once while exchanging our technological advances. We all get a safe chunk of extra territory, enough tech to keep us in the game and the removal of one of our opponents. Everybody wins! Except Kieron, who gets spanked.
At least that was what I told Jim and Sponge. In practice, I had no intention of invading Kieron.
See, at this stage of the game neither Jim or Sponge had decent enough scanning tech to see that I wouldn't be invading Kieron. Instead, after Jim and Sponge invaded I got in touch with the poor, paralyzed Kieron, and happily proposed and signed a non-aggression pact with him. Through this series of plays I locked down my rightmost border, allowing me to turn my attention to Tom above me and Hentzau to my left.
Fortunately for me, Tom sucks. He forgot to log in for several days after the game began and as a result his holdings are pathetic compared to the rest of us. I send a quick mail assuring him I'll obliterate his people if he makes a move on me, making sure not to give so much of a whiff of the truth: it doesn't matter I have four times his territory, I'm still afraid of his fleets. If Hentzau and him attacked me together they might just crush me. So I'm bluffing, really. Making out in my communication with Tom that I'm only worried about him slowing down my inevitable conquest and that he should sit tight if he wants to live.
With that, I begin shifting my fleets left, my eyes set on Hentzau's territory. It shouldn't be that hard to quickly strip him of his systems. Right?