How to play with the big guys ...
By Thomas Voigt
1. About this guide
2. Newbies welcome!
3. Building an empire
Starting the game
To be or not to be ...
Quick assaults - brute force
6. Tips & Tricks
7. Recommended utilities
1. About this guide
You have been warned!
This guide is biased. I love PHOST, I hate a lot of popular "host enhancements" (Race+ etc.), host features (engine tech shield bonus) and I'm an oldtimer - meaning I started playing back in the v2.2 days and played most of my games with v3.1, so I got used to some old utils and never bothered to try the new ones.
This guide is mainly for newbies and moderately experienced players. My experience is that new players bother too much about gimmicks and fail to build a good economy - one of the most difficult things is to decide which abilities are important and which aren't. So here is my personal opinion what's important and what isn't. That also means that this guide is in no way complete since I left out the bits that I considered unimportant. If you think I'm an arrogant moron (since I pretend to know what's important and what isn't) - well, you don't _have_ to read further.:)
Why another strategy guide?
There are a lot of good strategy guides around. However, most of them focus on race-specific strategies and a lot of players fail to build a solid economy - the base for all victories. So the main focus of this guide is the building of a big empire without going into details how to play specific races. I always favored smash-mouth games: Build lots of really big ships, strike hard and fast and see how your opponent reacts. Most opponents can't :) Note that this strategy is unsuitable for Privateers and Crystals, both races usually have to be played completely different (at least as far as the combat is concerned).
What's in this guide?
You _will_ find:
You _won't_ find:
2. Newbies welcome !
This section is for first-time players.
OK, so you got the game, followed some links and discovered alt.games.vga-planets. You read the latest host documentation and discovered that there are about 1000 friendly codes, special ship abilities and addons. And most likely you're already planning how to use your Lokis, NUK-trap your opponents or blow them away with glory devices. Listen to me: FORGET all these things for your first game.
The problem is to know which roles these abilities play - some are crucial, some are helpful and some are completely useless. There is one thing that will win game - and it's called economy. I played a lot of plain just-keep-building games where I hardly ever used all those neat features - I built loads of bases, a huge fleet of big ships and ran over my opponents. Yes, I did lose a few planets due to Rebel Ground Attack, Imperial Assault and whatever - but once my enemies had no bases left I could easily deal with these annoyances.
Just think of it as a football game - if you watch your very first game then you'll want to find out what touchdowns, field goals and quarterbacks are. You can worry about the zone blitz later ... After playing a few turns (say 50-100) you'll be in a position to decide which things are important and which aren't. But here's some advice for your first game ...
Choosing a game
Try to find a plain game without any add-ons that introduce new features. Don't worry about alternative scoring, PHOST, multiship combat/alternative combat, alternative maps - but do avoid Race+, Starbase+, Aliens and all these addons that provide additional features. Lots of sites offer newbie games - but avoid slow unregistered games. Once you find out that you like the game you'll register the game, and then you'll hate playing unregistered. So if you really join an unregistered game then make sure that it is fast paced (at least 3 turns a week). An alternative shiplist is not really a problem, but 95% of the available tips focus on the original shiplist, so you'll get fewer help.
Choosing a race
Some races are easy to play, and some aren't. Try to get Feds, Lizards, Robots, Rebels or Colonies for your first game - they are easy to play (Feds), very strong (Lizards) or both (Robots, Rebels, Colonies).
Playing the first game
Once again - forget all those special ships and friendly codes. Focus on colonizing as many planets as possible, build lots of starbases and go for large ships (large freighters and the top battleships). If you attack then always go straight at the homebase of your enemy, and always use fleets of ships. A single ship is usually an easy target for your enemy (see combat section).
A few recommendations (assuming that you use the original shiplist and original-style combat):
3. Building an empire
Economy is the key to winning. No matter if you play a finesse race or just smash-mouth
races, you'll need to outnumber your opponent in bases and planets.
There are 3 major phases :
Starting the game
Unless you start really close to your enemies you'll want to build freighters, freighters and more freighters at the start of the game. If you're a cloaking race then you might want to build cloakers to sneak attack your neighbour, but usually you'll try to negotiate a border and expand fast (see Quick assault, Quick cloak assault). If you really want to hurt your neighbour then you have to take out his homebase - and this is only possible if you have some big ships. So your primary goal is to get a quick cash and mineral flow from your colonies to your homeworld - and hopefully you can use some diplomacy to be left alone until you're ready. I often built 8 or 9 freighters in the first 10 turns - this enabled me to get a Merlin-Monster-Monster combination before turn 20 (with monster I mean the biggest warship my race had).
Forget about small and medium freighters. You can build 3-4 of them to move money around (if you lack the minerals to build a real ship), but they don't have any cargo space worth mentioning. In the beginning of the game you have to plan for several turns - it will take some time before the first money comes back to your homebase. In a standard setup (normal money) you'll have to start with large freighters with Hyperdrive8 - this way you can build about 4-5 large freighters (with Transwarp drives you'll run out of money immediately). However, upgrade to Transwarp as soon as the first money comes in from your colonies. If you play a mineral rich game then you'll need a few Super Freighters in the middle game as well. With PLIST you can start nicely with Talarians with Enerpsi drives, and Ferengis with Improbabilities later on. (Ferengis require just one more engine than the Hansa so the cost is basically the same - but Ferengis can hold almost twice as much cargo.) Note that Bistromatic drives make a lot of sense for freighters because they burn less fuel, but of course they are very expensive. All this changes of course if you start with disunited kingdoms and good natives: Use the 2 free ships to keep the money flowing to your homebase and start out with Transwarp/Improbabilities right from turn 1.
It's tricky to know when to stay hidden. It's not a big problem if you start in a group of planets - even though your enemy will know that your homebase is in this group he won't be able to figure out which planet your homebase is. If he attacks you then you've got a good chance to counter before he finds your homeworld. A more difficult situation is if you start in wasteland (i.e. less than 3 planets in 81 ly range). Sooner or later you'll have to send freighters in a way that your enemy can guess your homeworld. Some strategy guides advise cloaking races to expand with cloakers (lizard class cruiser etc). This is a terrible advice. These ships have a small cargo and cost way too much for the early game, so players who use them for expansion (instead of freighters) are always easy targets. Basically it's just bad luck if you start in such a bad spot - you'll have to live with the fact that your neighbours know your homeworld. The best you can do is to delay the time until he detects you - if you got planets in 81ly range then try to use them as much as possible. If you can't make peace with a cloaking neighbour then lay a few small minefields around your important planets. Even 5 Mk4 torps make a decent field that will blow up his cloakers at very small cost.
If you don't start with disunited kingdoms you can use the 2 free ships for exploring. Load them up with clans and a few supplies (roughly 10:1) and drop all supplies and all but 20 clans on the first planet with decent natives you encounter. Then simply hop from planet to planet and drop 1 clan at each of them. Just keep those ships going until they run into enemy territory and are killed. The one clan ensures that you can unload clans, supplies and money in just one turn. But even with disunited kingdoms, there will inevitably be a turn or two where you can't build a large freighter. In this case use one of the hulls you've got in storage (usually a small freighter and a scout), put a cheap engine on (Quantam) and send this ship exploring.
Expansion management always depends on the natives you find. You'll want at least 200
clans at each planet, this way you can max out mines if you want to. Whenever you find
good natives you'll want to get enough clans there in a hurry, and "enough"
means considerably more than 200 clans. (It's never a mistake to drop a large freighter
full of clans at a warm planet with good natives.) If you're not sure how many clans
you need then try VPA - it helps you to estimate
how much money you can get, i.e. how many clans you need to bring there.
Planets without natives do need money to get going - between 300 and 1000 MC (depending on mineral richness). There are 2 ways to do this : Pick up clans at your homeworld and stop at a planet with natives on your way to uncolonized territory to pick up money. This is a good strategy if you already got a clan on the planets (if you don't you'll have trouble getting the right amount of money down). However, if you start the game then you'll usually don't have such a planet where you can pick up money, so here's plan B: Just drop clans and supplies on all planets (even the ones without natives, but don't drop too many supplies - even if you drop 100 it's still a looong time until the planet starts producing minerals). Eventually you'll find a planet with natives. Drop enough clans there and continue colonizing. The money management comes in on your way back home : After dropping all clans, go to this planet, pick up money and ship it to the planets without natives. (Pick up those surface minerals - in the early game even small amounts will help your homebase.)
Be careful not to run out of fuel. As your empire grows you'll have to bring colonists further and further away from your homeworld - this can make your fuel situation dramatic. Here's one way how you can deal with it: Around turn 8-10 the first planets will have mined some minerals and collected some cash, and assume you've got a freighter at your homeworld which you'll send out to collect the stuff. Try to find a planet with decent temperature (close to 50, but between 20 and 80 will suffice), preferably with some fuel , in an expansion direction (but not to close to your homeworld). Start collecting your minerals at this planet, but instead of sending an empty freighter you load your freighter full with clans and drop them there. Wait a few turns and these clans will grow fast. In the middle game (turn 20-40) you can pick up clans at this planet instead of getting them at your homeworld. Repeat this procedure as your empire grows so you'll have warm planets with lots of colonists everywhere. Once you start raiding your enemies you'll be able to put clans on the new planets very fast so you take advantage of all those factories and mines he built.
Even in the early game you have to consider the ship limit. I played in games where we hit the ship limit before turn 25, so you'll want to have most of the freighters you'll need throughout the game at turn 25. (15 large freighters is the minimum), because later on it's always more important to get the big warship. Plan a second and a third base as soon as possible, preferably on planets with Humanoids, Ghipsoldals or a large number of Bovinoids (great place for a Merlin). But be sure that there are enough minerals close to the new bases. Fuel is always critical and it's easy to transport money over big distances, but minerals require lots of fuel and cargo space (even small warships can move money around).
Once the ship limit is reached you'll have limited capabilities of building ships. I assume that the game hits the ship limit around turn 30. There are 3 main goals in the midgame:
Unless there is a very specific winning condition you'll have just one more goal : Expand (usually by conquering more planets) and keep your fleet strength at the same time. A few freighters remain in the home area and keep building more bases. If money is a problem then you should go for hull tech 10 (and torp tech 8-10 for torp races). The first ship built will be a ship with warp 1 drives and cheap beams. The more advanced bases build ships with warp 9 drives who tow the warp1 ships into battle. If you don't know how fast the ship build queue moves then just build the parts for 2 complete ships and have a freighter move all leftover minerals to the next base. Once the first ship is built you have the parts for the second order ready (and you'll have plenty of time to bring new minerals to this base). Don't be afraid to use your minerals for building bases - your Merlins will make sure that you have enough minerals for the ships you want to build.
The remaining freighters follow a few turns behind your warships. Collect whatever resources he has left and turn them into bases. They will protect your conquered area and eventually add to your fleet. (Make sure you have enough colonists so that he can't take those bases by ground attack). If he leaves you not enough minerals to build decently defended bases then you can build torps and lay minefields. If there is no money then you can build bases anyway (even a few supplies will accumulate and you'll be able to do something with the base - in any case the minerals are gone in case he takes the planet back).
Base building is somewhat tricky. When and where is a base useful ? Here are some things to consider.
Once you've built some bases you'll have to decide which ships to build. Always plan a few turns ahead: When will the next money/mineral shipment arrive at your base ? Sometimes several small ships will help more than one big one. A Lizard always needs Hssss ships (a few of them should have good engines to move the money around), a Borg can't have enough Fireclouds and if you're really out of money then you can still build a large freighter with w1 engines (and tow it around). Also keep in mind that some races need some ships at every base (a Gemini on every Colonial/Rebel base, but I also like to have a Merlin on or near most of my bases).
Managing the build queue
To be or not to be ...
Have you ever played the board game Diplomacy? No? Well, you should. VGA Planets is just like that - either you kill your enemies (and win) or you lose (even if you don't get killed). But one key is to know who your enemies are, another key is consistency - if you join an alliance then you have to be a reliable ally. There is no state between peace and war. A lot of players will negotiate a border and suddenly take a few of your planets or steal a few freighters. Some of them are pretty surprised when they see 10 big carriers heading their way in the next turn.
If you decide to stay at peace with a neighbour then make sure that you
If you are at war with some race then it's a "to kill or to be killed"-situation - so be sure that you're ready for war before you attack. Strike with every ship you have if you attack - don't give him time to recover. And once you're at war there's no way back to peace - not in this game. So you have to know what you want and whom you want attack. Ally with players who aren't your enemies. Keep alliances as long as they don't hurt you and break alliances only if it helps you to win the game. Try to find a few friends, not all alliances are temporary.
The art of diplomacy
Always start negotiating, always answer your messages. If a player doesn't respond to my messages then I'll conclude that he (a) has enough friends or (b) he's plain stupid. In either case this means he's my enemy. Even if you don't plan a lasting alliance, if you negotiate then you've got a much better chance to keep peace with that race (or perhaps you'll be able to decide how long you want to keep peace :-) And of course you don't need a full scale alliance just to trade a few ships with special abilities. Remember that there are only 3 kinds of races: Allies, Enemies and races that will eventually become enemies. The goal is to win, and a race which doesn't help me is my enemy (even if I decide to keep peace until I have the resources for a war). If you don't communicate then you'll likely end up in the "enemy" group.
If you're playing against mediocre players then alliances may help you to win games. But if you're playing against big guys then you won't even survive without alliances. But what can you gain ?
Preparing an attack
First of all you have to make your mind up - who's your victim and who's your ally. There's no way of telling the difference _before_ the war starts - a good player who wants to attack his neighbour will negotiate a border, make a peace treaty, but he will also assemble his forces silently and suddenly strike. If you attack right away (in the early game) then you'll simply have to take the risk that your other neighbour may attack you since you don't have enough resources to fight a two-side war. If you plan an attack later in the game then it's a very good idea to build a lot of bases near your borders. The bases near your enemy will protect these planets while the other bases will protect your back side when you attack. You don't have to spend too many resources defending the bases if you don't expect a war there, but do make sure that you can quickly upgrade them. Make sure you have a lot of good ships in the build queue before you attack because you want those empty ship slots.
Beating an enemy
There are 2 ways to beat an opponent: Just go in and smash his bases (a classic fighter race strategy) or try to use cloakers. If you go for smashing then you'll simply have to guess his strength - if he is stronger than you then you'll find out. But he'll have a hard time fending off all those carriers you hurl at him. Cloakers offer two options: You can find his battleships and tow some them to your waiting ships (suitable if you play Birds or if your battleships are close enough). This way you can split his forces and a single ship is always easy to destroy. (If you are lucky then his ships aren't ready for combat.) And there's always the cloaker lurking at planets and waiting for freighters. But whatever you do, make sure that you surprise him - once he knows you're fighting him he will take countermeasures. So you want a sneak attack where his fleet is badly damaged in the very first turn. It's generally a pretty bad idea to strike his planets first - you do no real harm, you signal clearly that you attack him and he'll be ready for the next battle. Whatever you do, try to make sure that the battlefield is in _his_ area. Protect your planets with minefields so you know when he's coming, and keep your planets producing. Both of you will lose a lot of ships and you need your bases intact.
It is always a good idea to trade for a few ships with special abilities. Take the Feds: Even if you plan to attack the Feds eventually, it's a very good idea to trade for a couple of terraformers and anti-cloakers. Here is my very personal priority list:
Quick assaults - brute force
If you go for a quick assault then you want to hit your opponent when he's not ready for any war. That usually means you have to attack at or before turn 20. There's a lot to gain : You get a lot of planets where he just built factories and mines (but who are still mineral rich) and you eliminated a (potentially dangerous) neighbour. Planning a quick assault means collecting 2-4 big ships, depending on shiplist and race. With the normal shiplist 2 Virgos/Rushes/Golems will usually be enough, while torp races need at least 4 battleships. Build these ships as fast as possible (that means after the initial expansion you'll have your freighters bring all available money and minerals back to your homebase) and go straight at the homebase of your neighbour. With any luck he'll be unprepared and you can wipe him out. After you got his homebase it's just a matter of time until you completely kill him, he won't have enough colonists to expand and you've destroyed his best base. (Obviously this has limited effectiveness against the Borg.)
This strategy works best if the races start on a circle, because in this case distances between homeworlds are small and you have a good idea where the homeworld of your enemy is. It is much harder to do this in a game where races start distributed all over the (wrapped) map. It helps a lot if you can persuade the Empire to dark sense the enemy homeworld...
Quick cloaker assaults
Cloaking races have another option - get your enemy before he builds a decent economy. However, this strategy is more difficult because you'll have to guess what your enemy plans and your economy will get a late start. The basic idea is: Build a few cloakers, sneak in and just get all freighters you can get. Conquer the planets close to his homebase and wait until his supply of minerals run out. Then send a few big ships to finish his homebase.
No matter how agressive you play, you'll need a few freighters at the start of the game. The minerals at your homebase will last for 5, maybe 10 decent ships - then you're done. If you start with 10 warships and care about freighters later then you'll be out of minerals at turn 11, and it will take about 10 turns before you can get fresh minerals. The strategy works best if you start with disunited kingdoms and a few planets that supply money - just build 3 freighters, send 2 colonizing and have the 3rd one collect money and minerals. The colonizing freighters will return once they're out of clans so they can help collecting too. Then go straight for cloakers. Make sure that you chose the ones with 2 engines (so they can tow) and equip them with X-rays and a few Mk4 torps. (Mk4 are the most cost-efficient low tech torps and X-rays are the best beams if you want to capture freighters. Later you can use Disrupters, but Duranium is precious in the early game.) I'd prefer ships with decent hull mass, a 160kt ship like the Lizard Class Cruiser will survive a mine hit and can still move at slow warp, while a Deth Specula is immobilized after a mine hit. Add a few ships that have some more firepower (better torps if you can afford them and Blasters, Positron beams or Heavy Blasters).
Send these ships in enemy territory and find his homebase. Place 1-2 ships at his homebase and a few more on adjacent planets. Then just wait for freighters and as soon as one arrives, tow him a few light years away from the planet an capture him. (Towing ships is better than intercepting them since they may end up on a base or on a planet with defending warships - but be warned, figuring out how towing works is tricky. If you play PHOST then read the documentation carefully, and if you play HOST then pray that you figured out correctly how towing works.) Be aware that you enemy will intercept his freighters with warships as soon as he knows he's under attack - that's where you need ships with some firepower. Just wait at the base of your enemy and kill his warships just as you took his freighters - tow them to your waiting ships. If you strike fast enough (around turn 10) then he won't be able to build big ships that you can't handle.
Have a few ships with spare Mk4 torps ready, your enemy will lay a small mine field around his base. The easiest way to handle this is to destroy his mines with your mines (if the host config enables it). However, there are several things you should consider. If your opponent plays quick cloaker attack too then you'll be engaged in a messy war. As long as such a war last you won't be able to get your economy going - and your other neighbour will realize what's going on (and you'll be the #1 target for a quick fighter assault). On the other hand you'll have very good chances of killing your enemy if he goes straight for economy.
Early game defense
Around turn 10 you should have established contact with your neighbours. There will be a lot of games where your neighbours start building warships very early, sometimes they'll neglect freighter building altogether and build only warships. Maybe you'll be the target of a quick cloaker assault ? In this case you've 3 options : prepare for defense, prepare for a quick assault or just ignore them. Preparing a quick brute force assault is effective, but it also takes some time (possibly more than you've got) - so you'll want to couple this with at least some defense. Preparing a quick cloaker attack has the economic drawbacks I discussed earlier - if you didn't go for this strategy right from the start then you may start now, but you won't get him fast enough and he'll have few freighters (i.e. nothing worthy of capturing). Defensive tactics includes 3 things: building defense posts on your planets, preparing a few small warships and trying to get some big warships fast. Defense posts won't really hurt his ships, but if you're lucky you'll damage him enough so that his ships can't stay cloaked. Small ships (like the Nebula or the Patriot) will guard your freighters - always intercept them or tow them (depends on the waypoint, so if you want to tow your freighter then make sure that your ship has a reasonable chance of beating a cloaker who also tries to tow the freighter). It's obvious why you'll need big warships: Your attacker won't be able to build them anytime soon, and if you've got a few of these babies you'll counterattack and watch his empire crumble. (Of course the whole point of a cloaked attack is that your enemy wants to make sure that you never get that far.) The third option (ignoring him) isn't as stupid as it may seem. Of course it involves a healthy portion of gambling (that you aren't attacked before you get your first big ships), but it may be worth the risk. Maybe your neighbour attacks another race and you'll have no trouble killing him because he can't defeat your big ships.
Preparing for an endgame war includes managing the build queue. Since you don't attack immediately you don't have to focus on equipping your ships - just try to build as many hulls as possible (cheap engines, cheap beams). 2 Mk4 Battleships with SD1 engines are always better than 1 Mk7/Transwarp battleship. Just keep building ships and have just a few ready (in case you are attacked). As soon as the ship limit is reached you can build all the fighters and torps you need. (The Feds are in the best position here because they really just have to build hulls. They can refit the weapons and engines later on. And Nova hulls aren't that expensive - Diplomacies are dirt cheap.)
Taking out planets
I often see strategies how to destroy enemy planets after you've captured them. That's completely the wrong objective ! Either you kill him (then you'll get this planet) or you can't kill him (which means you're most likely dead). Try to put a few clans on the planets you conquered, build up some defense and enjoy the resources that you just got. However, if you really want to make a planet a hostile place then set the tax rate for natives and colonists in a way that they'll reach level 40. In the next turn you can set the tax rates to 100%. This way you'll make the natives as angry as possible.
Setting up fleets
Most of this is covered in the race-specific guides. Just keep in mind that you can destroy single ships cheaply by sacrificing a small ship and following up with a big ship. (For instance a Lizard in a traditional game will destroy a big carrier easily by sacrificing a T-Rex and finishing the carrier with a Madonzilla. The Madonzilla survives so he traded a T-Rex and a few fighters for a fully equipped Golem. In PLIST games a medium-sized ship will do enough damage so that your big ship wins the next battle easily.) So don't make this mistake, always send groups of ships. You can attack a big target (like a base) with the whole group or you can split up and take several planets at once. Just make sure that your enemy doesn't know what your're planning until it's too late. By the way, don't forget to include a few minelayers. Laying minefields is the most effective way to sweep mines.
Always know the roles of your ships. You don't want to take all his planets with your big ships because this costs a lot of fuel and wastes time (the role of big ships is to take out his ships and bases). The traditional shiplist offers very few decent medium-sized ships who will easily take out planets but also hurt a big ship (Instrumentality, Missouri). PLIST has a pretty good range of medium-sized ships. Forget the small ships. All they can do is take out a planet - so what ? It's annoying to your enemy, but it does no big harm. If you can destroy his big ships (and you'll need some other big ships to accomplish that) then they may help to take out a few planets, but sooner or later they'll run into a big ship or a base and will be destroyed without doing any damage. A good fleet consists of big ships (to do the heavy work), medium ships (to kill planets and intercept small enemy ships) and a few specialists (decloaker etc.).
6. Tips & Tricks
Defense and mine fields
Minefields are essential against cloakers, helpful against medium ships and ineffective against a large-scale attack of big ships. If you play against cloakers then mines are perhaps the best weapon because cloakers will become visible after a mine hit. On the other hand most big ships have enough beams to sweep minefields fast and they need to carry just a few supplies to repair damages immediately.
Several small minefields are more difficult to sweep (at least without entering them), but don't make your minefields too small (usually mines will destroy enemy mines, so a cloaker can fly in and drop a minefield of its own, destroying all your small fields at once).
By the way, if you lay the first (or the biggest) minefield around your homebase then you could just as well write an universal message "Hello enemies, my homebase is at ..." :-) The same applies for other bases. Look out where your enemy lays his first minefield: Inexperienced players usually drop mines right where they built the minelayer, so it's worth to take a shot at this planet (maybe he has a base there).
A handy trick is available if master was used to create homeworlds on a circle with radius X: Just run master a few times, check if your homeworld is a homeworld in the new game and look where the other homeworlds are. If you can figure out a few extra homeworlds (through diplomacy) then you can almost always predict all other homeworlds. This makes Quick Assauls easy (remember, you'll always take out the enemy homeworld first).
If your ship can't jump from planet to planet but will reach its destination after 2 turns then don't give away the waypoint. Set the waypoint to a random point between the current location and the destination, if possible in a way so that your enemies can't predict which planet is the destination or the origin.
7. Recommended utilities
I play planets v3.X since 1993 and use some of these utils for a long time. Some of them I wrote myself, not to get famous or whatever, but often I couldn't find a util that did exactly what I wanted to do so I just wrote it myself. So please forgive me if this list is (again) highly biased.
Look for these utils on the host side: