Who will rule space? No Sponge, that's for sure. But who else might take the crown? Could it be Graham's exploding Empire? Or Jim's embattled corner of space? Or the vast Empire of Quinns? Place your bets for part four... And maybe go sign up to Neptune's Pride yourself. (PCG are also running a version of this diary, over yonder.)
Frankly, I've been torn between these conflicting desires. I'm abstractly helping Quinns. I'm also abstractly in an alliance against Quinns. Eventually, I'm going to have to fall one way or the other. I feel bad either way. This removes the moral dilemma. I'm with Quinns, and Jim and Graham can go screw themselves.
And Graham has screwed himself. His fleets are already in flight. I remix my defensive line, moving ships into the optimum position. I think there was one planet I couldn't hold, so I evacuate it, leaving the bare minimum of troops enough to do a damage hit. However, I also know that by morning, I will have the ships to retake it immediately. The main 100-strong attack fleets will be simply annihilated. I go to bed, and rest easy. Graham's going to wake up to find his fleet in ashes.
At this point, I'm thinking myself grateful that I've been forced into a siege state throughout all the game. I had a lot of experience in micro-managing combat lines. This move against Graham was the apex of my tactical manouvering, and I'm not sure I'd have pulled it off as well without all the previous attacks from Sponge and Crispy. Thanks, Sponge!
Hentzau: One extremely unsettling development is that while I started this war with a healthy tech lead, Quinns' economy has now kicked into high gear and he's left me in the dust. To make matters worse Sponge's empire implodes around about now, so I can't get tech off of him any more. All I really care about is keeping parity in weapons tech so that I don't walk into fights totally outgunned. Happily Gonnas is more than willing to supply me with arms as long as I make Quinns' life as difficult as possible. This gives me a faint glimmer of hope; if he wants me to tie up Quinns' forces then that means he must be planning an attack soon, right?
Quinns eventually gets control of the AI rebellion and starts building up his forces again. One fleet of a hundred ships is dashed against the defenses at Aldhibah, severely damaging them in the process. Another fleet of a hundred attacks. It too is destroyed, but now I'm running out of ships, and Quinns is starting to grab worlds on the shrinking periphery of my territory that I'd withdrawn ships from to defend the homeworld. He's losing fleets of forty, fifty ships per world now but those are small fry compared to what he's sacrificed in his effort to erase me from the galaxy so far. The final nail in my coffin is hammered home when Gonnas and KG finally invade Quinns, only to have their attack stall after taking just a few worlds apiece. If Quinns can hold them off whilst continuing to pour forces into his war with me faster than I can build my own, I'm as good as dead.
Things continue in this vein for a day or so, with a lot of maneuvering for position and taking-retaking of border worlds, but the end, when it comes, is disappointingly anticlimactic. When I logged off the previous night I was in possession a perfectly functional - if slightly skeletal - defence network. I probably could have staved off defeat for another three or four days if I'd kept an eye on things. Unfortunately I got up early and spent the next day out with friends, and when I got back late that night I discovered that Quinns had taken the opportunity to completely overrun seven of my ten remaining worlds, leaving me with less than twenty ships. After the amount of effort I'd expended trying to hold him off this wasn't how I wanted it to end at all. There was no thrusting and parrying, no feints, no desperate counterattacks, no final, apocalyptic last stand. There was just me, exhausted after a lot of travelling, logging in after a brief absence to discover that some bastard had repainted all my worlds a bright shade of orange. For a game that had seemed so glacial to start with, being away from a computer for twenty-four hours hurt me a lot more than I expected.
Never mind. My war with him was a real David-and-Goliath tussle, but without decent external support there could only ever be one outcome: That Bastard Quinns stands triumphant over the smoking ruins of my empire.
I hope he chokes on it.
Jim: Of course I've been feeding tech to Hentzau the entire time, just to prolong the struggle. Moreso when Quinns opens up the second front against me, although poor old H is clearly doomed vs the orange monolith of Q's empire. The situation for me is one of brutal attrition. I lose a handful of border planets, and then pump fleet after fleet into holding the remainder. Quinns launches a few heavy raids, and I mop these up, reducing my fleets even further. Eventually I push back hard, and begin to persuade both Graham and Kieron, who have been poking each other with large, pointy spaceships, that they should help me fight Quinns before all is lost. They agree, but what happens next is still a genuine surprise.
Graham: Oh crap. I've underestimated Kieron's forces. I thought I'd be able to wear him down, and slowly but progressively capture his territory. Instead he's destroying my ships and regenerating his own faster than I expected, and I'm now trapped in a dirty war against entrenched forces with no end in sight. It's still possible I could defeat him, but it wouldn't matter. Quinns is pulling further into the lead, and unless we turn to face him, he'll win. That's no good.
I send a message to Kieron, and rope Jim in as a mutual ally and third-party: How about we, uh, forget this war thing, and work together? Again? This time for reals, honest!
Kieron: Waking up to Graham saying HE'S MADE A HORRIBLE MISTAKE actually frustrates me. Things were simple then. Now they're hard. I'm back to worrying about the moral dilemma. While Graham arranges his attack fleets to move on Quinns, I'm sitting and chewing over what to do again.
Something's happened between then and now, in the day or so which I've been chewing over which way to go, in the time after I accept the cease-fire (And consider whether to attack Graham when his ships inch away). Quinns' ship production is enormous... but his wars have taken their toil. His actual number of ships, while still hefty, isn't exactly overwhelming. In fact, since I've been sitting comfortably in my turtle position, building my infrastructure, I have more ships than him. A lot more ships. Like, 400-500 more. And because I have the least number of planets of the remaining players, they're all concentrated. Quinns has far less ships to defend a far larger empire.
I realise I don't have a choice. I can only play the Loyal Lieutenant when I'm the lesser power. I've actually got the tactical edge right now. If I move on Jim or Graham, I essentially give the game to Quinns. I was willing to support him in a win... but to give it to him when, amazingly, I actually have a nasty little military machine to put to task... .well, that's not right.
I plan my move with Graham. The tactic's simple. I need to leverage those 500 ships into destroying Quinns' infrastructure. I'm not interested in taking planets. What I'm interested in is advancing as far as I can into his territory, only hitting high-industry planets. If I take enough, quickly enough, and his massive ship production won't matter. Because it'll be my production now. Hell, even taking planets I can't hold temporary stops them from making ships for Quinns. I don't plan this as a war. I plan this as an assassination. We have to kill the giant.
The added bonus is that Jim is on his last legs, and by attacking now, it makes it appear that I'm actually a nice guy saving his ass.
Well, appear. We're past the point where anyone can think of anyone else as a nice guy.
Quinns An assortment of fires, hailstorms, Irish internet service providers and the game's own servers being down mean I don't log in to Neptune's Pride for 36 hours. As the game loads I ponder worst case scenarios, revealing a cheery lack of imagination.
My vast empire is gone. It's just gone. The fleets Kieron and Graham had been using to protect themselves from one other have left their stations to skewer my territory like harpoons through a television set. I am devastated. Ruined. I'm almost reduced to Jim's level.
It's an exhausting thing to log in and discover after weeks of play, but I've got a little fight left in me. I send the orders for my fleets to regroup at key defensive systems and to take back industrial centres wherever they can. I'm not digging in, not just yet. Instead, I'm drawing out the chaos and wondering how I can go about breaking up Kieron and Graham's alliance. What would test their trust in each other most?
I don't have to spend very long thinking. Kieron and I are still chummy, and during an MSN conversation this happens:
Kieron: You know, as a thought
Kieron: And this is the cheekiest diplomatic message I've ever sent
Kieron: If you're happy coming second, I'll back off and turn on Graham
Oh, yes Kieron. Absolutely Kieron. Three bags full Kieron. I tell him (truthfully) that since he's been fighting against the odds since the game began and only recently risen from underdog status, I'd way prefer to see him win than Jim with his isolationism, or Graham with his opportunism. I put the word out to my scattered forces and point them straight at the planets Graham took.
I'll win this fucking game yet.
In the battle that follows, I capture around seven or eight of Quinns stars. I have fewer ships than Kieron to commit to the frontlines, meaning I make less progress, but for the first time in weeks I move into the lead. Finally it looks like Quinns might be toppled.
While this is going on, I'm messaging Tom every day. Attack Quinns! Gift me your planets! Gift me your tech! You're not using them! Do something! Help! By this point I'm fanatical about winning, and I'm not above begging for any kind of advantage. Tom finally agrees to login and attack some of Quinns weaker stars.
Unfortunately, he's not quick enough. Before Tom can log on and take command of his armies again, AI Tom attacks me. The computer has been turtling for days, sat happily with only four planets in the midst of Quintin's space. Now that I've moved into the area though, the AI has seen its opportunity. Fleets are heading outward, and they're all heading for me. Damn, I think. How can things get any worse?
At which point, Kieron turns on me.
It's hard to be mad at him for it. I betrayed him first, just a few days ago. But what really grates is that Quinns focuses all his vengeance on me, without attacking even a single of Kieron's stolen planets. I can't get my head around it. Kieron attacked you too, Quinns! Attack him back too, Quinns! You big orange space bastard.
I fall into a funk, slipping from first place back into third. I'm certain that my empire is ruined. Kieron and Quinns will eat away at my worlds, and one of them will win. I tell my girlfriend that I think my days of space war are over.
No. No, I won't let this happen. I'm not done yet. I'm the mighty purple space slug, and I will not let the salty tears of bitter defeat melt my empire. I open up the Mail system and send a message to Quinns, 'Kieron will win unless we do something. Let's work together to take him down, and set the stage for our own battle for 1st place.' I sit back and await his reply.
Kieron: Yeah, I stab Graham. I stabbed him because I couldn't trust him. Graham had stabbed everyone he ended up in bed with. Despite the fact I'd just vivisected the wonderful military machine Quinns had built, I trusted him more than Graham. After all, Quinns had never stabbed me - of course, at this point, I had no idea of the 4-way pact to take me out of the start of the game.
A lot of it was positional. As Graham and I pushed into Quinns' terrain, our empires were lying side by side, with these long exposed flanks. Huge swathes of planets were immediately available on a back-stab. By advancing in the planet-skipping way I did against Quinns, we'd actually intermingled our empires. Part of me wondered whether this would allow us to trust one another more. We could see what each of us were up to, so it was harder to do a sneak attack, and without a clear frontline, it was harder to defend and attack safely.
And part of it was that I'd rather win with Quinns than Graham. PC Gamer versus RPS, after all.
The stab is half-hearted. I don't get much terrain, and it ended up as cementing as a second front to the north of my empire. But it wasn't meant to be the blitzkreig that we did against Quinns - it was meant to be more a straightforward declaration of hostilities. Graham and I were allied. Now, we were not. Let's fight. Between Quinns and I, we should have this.
Ah, "Should". The foulest of temptresses.