Friday, November 1, 2019

Game 105: Galactic Empires

See my guide on Apple II emulation via MAME if you want to play, using the notes on AppleSoft BASIC. The game was originally distributed on tape without any instructions.

As I noted in my post on B-1 Nuclear Bomber, Avalon Hill’s Microcomputer Games division operated by picking up independently-developed games that impressed them, and giving them wide distribution on multiple platforms with professional packaging and instructions. At least three of the four Avalon Hill games that I played were first created without their involvement in the late 70’s, and then repackaged in 1980-1982, and none of those pre-Avalon Hill 70’s versions are still around today.

Tom Cleaver’s Galactic Empires is unique, in that its pre-Avalon Hill incarnation is still around today. Or, rather, one of them is. Details are scant on the very first version, but according to Cleaver, he wrote it in Integer BASIC for the Apple II and was able to sell program listings through wargaming magazines. In 1979, he re-wrote it in AppleSoft BASIC and distributed it through Powersoft, and in 1981, was commissioned by Avalon Hill to produce an updated version of it, which was distributed as “Galaxy” through their Microcomputer Games division.

This penultimate AppleSoft BASIC version of Galactic Empires still exists today, and is the main subject of this post.

Galactic Empires is a multiplayer-focused strategy game about conquering the galaxy, reminiscent of Empire before it and Master of Orion after it, but much, much simpler than either. Each player begins with control of a single planet, which has about 100 ships, and produces 10 more ships every turn. Players may order any number of these ships to any other planet, which will send them into hyperspace for as many turns as it takes for them to get there. When they arrive, if the planet is not under the control of the player who sent the fleet there, then the arriving ships will fight the orbital fleet for control of the planet, with an advantage to the defending fleet if numbers are equal. Conquering a planet puts it under your control, and most will produce ships for you every turn.

The game is played entirely by ordering ships to move from planet to planet. Each planet has a number; you give an order first by typing the number of the planet to send ships from, then the number of the planet you wish to send them to, and then the number of ships to send. And the only thing distinguishing one planet from another is their position in the galaxy and the “industry” level, representing the number of ships built per turn. A crucial gameplay factor is that your orders are concealed from other players; whatever numbers you key in to the computer will not be displayed on screen. Feedback is only given if you have entered an illegal move.

Most of the planets are neutrally inhabited, and will never send their ships to attack, but their orbital fleets’ sizes are concealed until attacked, and their industry levels are unknown until conquered by a player.

I played a few rounds with “R,” first a few practice rounds to get the hang of practice and theory, which quickly devolved into him sending wave after wave of undersized fleets against my bulwarked homeworld Zapp Brannigan-style, and then a for-realsies round.

After the title screen, the game asks you if you want instructions.

Then, there is an options screen.

We opted to have ten planets, a 20 turn game, and to allow the neutral words to build ships, which means their orbital fleets increase every turn if the planet has industry.

After the program creates the universe, you are presented with a map.

Take a screenshot! This is the only chance you’ll get to see the map. That’s what we did, and we used color brushes in MS Paint to keep track of who controlled which planets. Of course back in 1979 this wasn’t really an option, so the next screen is a “star location chart.”

This isn’t necessary now, but before taking a screenshot was possible, this screen would have been a guide for drawing your own galactic map on graph paper.

I controlled world 1, and “R” controlled world 2. We were both pretty close to worlds 5 and 9, him a bit closer, but I had the edge in reaching the rest of the galaxy.

The main screen, where most of the game happens

We spent most of the game fighting over worlds 5 and 9, occasionally getting bold and attacking each other.

Combat plays out slowly, and with lots of pew pew sound effects

The way combat works, is that first each defender fires, and a fraction (on average 43%, smaller if the defenders outnumber, greater if the attackers outnumber) will hit the attackers. Then the surviving attackers fire, and a fraction will hit the defenders. This continues until one side is annihilated, and the other will control the planet.

Worlds 5 and 9 traded hands several times, and I did eventually scout out and conquer worlds 3 and 4, but 3 lacked any industry and was worthless, and 4 could only produce 1 ship per turn and was too far away to be useful. The rest of the outer worlds, left alone all of these turns, had built up their defenses to the point where trying to take them would be foolish; it would require sending out so many ships as to leave the homeworld defenses thin and easily conquerable by whichever player wasn’t stupid enough to do that.

About halfway in, R snatched one of the inner planets from me without any real resistance after I sent my fleet from it to try to take one of his. My fleet just barely failed in its mission, and I never recovered from that loss. He used his advantage in planets and ships to take my homeworld, and then conquered planets 3 and 4, taking me out of the game, but he had no chance of getting the outer neutral worlds, so he spent the rest of his turns just sending ships back and forth around his network of controlled worlds.

Wait, end it all?

We both enjoyed this game, and felt it would be more interesting with more players, but neither one of us knows many who would tolerate such an archaic game.

I spent quite a bit of time playing this solo afterward. In solo, there is no AI, and you’re just trying to conquer the neutral planets, but you must conquer all of them within the turn limit, which you set.

The instructions say that in solo play, you should make the turn limit equal to the number of planets, but this is laughable. Five is the minimum, and five turns isn’t enough time to reach the farthest planet from your homeworld even if you send a fleet out immediately.

Ten planets in ten turns, assuming that neutral planets don’t build ships, is doable, with meticulously planned strategy, perfect timing, and a little of bit luck.

This was the starmap where I won my 10/10 game.

With only ten turns, there’s not enough time to build up your fleet, and industry from the other planets won’t matter much; it will take almost half the game before you’ve conquered enough for it to really supplement your starting industry, and by then there won’t be enough turns left to build all that many ships and still have time to send them to the last remaining planets.

World 1 had 64 ships. Experience taught me that 10 ships will conquer most planets, but there’s always at least one out there that takes a lot more. Worlds 2, 5, and 8 were the farthest from my start, so I sent 10 ships out each, on the hopes that none of them would be too tough. That left 34 ships, which I split evenly and sent to worlds 3 and 10.

Next turn, planet 1 built 10 new ships, which I sent to world 4.

My first fleet arrived at world 10, where it encountered 6 defenders, killing them all and losing 7.

Next turn, I sent the surviving 10 onward to world 6, and the 10 new ships on world 1 to 7.

My second fleet of 17 then arrived at 3, encountering 3 defenders, easily beating them, losing 4. This world had no industry at all.

On my next turn, I had the surviving 13 ships go to 9, the new ships at 1 go to 5, and the new ships at 10 go to 2.

Two turns later, everything came together like clockwork. The original three 10-ship fleets arrived at their destinations and won easily. World 9 had 15 defenders and held out against its attackers, and 2 survived, but more from 1 were on the way. World 6 also held out, leaving 5 defenders, but more from 10 were on the way. World 4 had no defenders and fell without a fight. World 7 fell with a fight.

And over the next two turns, my reinforcements on the holdouts landed, conquering them.

So, I conquered the ten-world galaxy in only seven turns. The game doesn’t end until all turns have passed, so I just waited for the end.

Granted, this was a lucky game. I had played previous games more conservatively, but found you just can’t win fast enough without taking some risks. Then I had played some rounds aggressively, and the risks did not pay off. For instance, I’d find that the outer planets were too well defended to be conquered by my initial fleets, and by the time my first waves got there, it was too late to send a second over such a long distance. But this one time, by sheer repetition, every decision I made turned out to be the right one.

That was a 10/10 game, but what about a 40/40 game?

As intimidating as that galactic map may look, it was easy. 40 turns is more than enough time to build up such a large fleet that you can eventually conquer multiple planets at once. I sent my initial force to conquer the surrounding stars, and then send the survivors inward to conquer multiple planets at key hubs in the galaxy. My fleets grew massive quite quickly, only growing bigger with each planet conquered, and I kept directing newly built ships toward my multiple hubs, using them as base camps to conquer their surrounding stars. The micromanagement was tedious, and I got a bit sloppy, but I achieved victory in only 22 turns on my first try.

All of that changes massively when you opt to have neutral worlds build ships. I’m certain that a 40/40 victory is completely impossible. I’m not even convinced it can be done in 100 turns. I tried, and the best I could do, after multiple hours-long sessions, was to conquer 39 out of 40 planets.

The first few turns, you will want to conquer as many industrial planets with your starting fleet as possible, as quickly as possible, not just to supplant your fleet, but also to keep those planets from building more ships that you’ll need to destroy later. If anything goes wrong – an attacking fleet is destroyed, a conquered planet completely lacks industry, you enter an order in wrong, etc. – you might as well just restart the game. Every industrious planet that you don’t conquer in the first few turns will be building up its own defending fleet, and eventually there will be planets that you simply can’t conquer except by building up a massive death fleet over several turns. Any wasted time means it will take that much longer to assemble an invasion fleet, which means the neutral planet’s defenses will be even higher, which means more time needed to assemble your invasion fleet, and the whole time, all of the other industrious neutral planets will be bolstering their defenses too. Small inefficiencies cascade very quickly, and keep cascading for the entire game's duration.

In addition, no matter how big your fleet is, I’ve found that a big group of defenders will always take out a number of ships nearly equal to themselves. Outnumbering them by a massive ratio will reduce this somewhat, but not nearly enough to make it worth the time to do this. It’s better to aim for narrow victories, where you take out planets as quickly as possible, and allow industry to build new ships to replace your losses.

I found this formula yields narrow victories most of the time:
A = 1.266*D + 5

The formula holds up pretty well when there are at least 100 defenders, and it doesn’t take long at all for defense fleets to start getting this big. Early on, when there are fewer than that, the randomness of combat makes this less reliable, and even later on, it’s not perfect, and it’s obviously better to have a bit of overkill than a narrow defeat.

Of course, this relies on knowing how many defenders there will be. And there’s a technique for that. Early on, you’ll just have to guess, but once you’re at the point where you’re marshalling your fleet to a single beach-head planet in preparation for an invasion, you can send out a 1-ship scout one turn, and another on the next turn. You’ll lose the ships, but by differentiating the number of defending ships each turn, simple algebra will tell you how many ships are produced there each turn, how many it started with, and therefore how many you can expect to encounter on any given turn for the rest of the game.

I wish I could say this was an enjoyable challenge, but it was numbing. Every single turn, I’d order every planet to send all its ships somewhere, usually all to the same waypoint, until I was satisfied that I could invade the next planet, and would then marshal new ships to the next waypoint in anticipation of the next invasion. Eventually, I started hitting the game’s limit of 50 concurrent orders per turn.

As the remaining neutral planets got fewer and fewer, their defenses kept increasing, and combat took longer and longer to resolve. My final successful invasion involved over 2,500 ships (and the one after would have been even bigger if I had enough time!).

Each “hit” takes about ¾ of a second, and that’s just the first volley!

32 minutes later…

The last planet produced 13 ships per turn, and would have had 1,325 ships by the last turn. I would need 1,680 ships to have a reasonable chance of taking it, and with my combined industry pumping out 110 ships per turn, this just wasn’t going to happen in time. So I lost, and didn’t care to try again.

This time I will end it all.

All in all, Galactic Empires seems like a pretty good multiplayer strategy game that I didn’t spend nearly enough time playing, with a lackluster singleplayer mode that I spent entirely too much time playing. Next post, I am playing its 1981 Avalon Hill incarnation, Galaxy.

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty sure I played this back in the early 80s... it is very familiar. We also had a game that was similar on our local bulletin board called Trade Wars 500, later updated to 2000, where you had a fleet of ships and could trade, fight, etc.


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