Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Reach for the Stars: A 150-turn game

My previous post about Reach for the Stars described a full play session of the shortest, simplest game, in a manner to explain gameplay mechanics while also providing a narrative of a successful galactic conquest within those parameters. 40 turns isn't nearly long enough to conquer the entire galaxy against the hardest AI setting - at that duration you're just looking to outscore your opponents, which, as I discovered, is best done by achieving small victories early on.

For my final post on the topic, I played through a full 150 turn game, hoping to truly dominate the galaxy, Master of Orion-style, with all of the optional play features turned on.

This time, I thought I'd try a strategy that focuses on expansion and defense. I figured that peaceful colonization would be more beneficial over time, and if I could just outpace my rivals, then I could take them all down with an unstoppable endgame fleet.

The setup menu

The random star map

Start of turn 1

With the "task force setup" option, you begin in the middle of space with no planet. This is the only time in the game that your ships exist anywhere other than on a planet, and they don't even appear on the map; pressing Enter just automatically selects the task force so that you can give them orders. The sooner you find a suitable planet for a first colony, the better.

The "solar debris" effect slows down exploration and travel considerably. Ship movement, though invisible to you, is still hex-based, and when a ship enters a cloud of violet debris, it stops all movement and ends its turn there. In the above screenshot, sending an explorer directly to Shedir, the green star to the north, would take three turns.

Frustratingly, the auto-explore doesn't take this into account and just sends explorers to the nearest unexplored star regardless of how long it will take to get there. Nor can you manually override a ship's path and tell it to fly around the debris instead of through it. The best you could do here is to send a ship to the white star to the east and then on the next turn send it to the green one, making the journey in two turns instead of three.

Too tedious for me, though. I had the explorers auto-explore as usual, but sent the transports and warships to the nearby white star Alhena, as white stars have the best odds of Primary quality planets.

Turn 2 revealed no luck. Alhena had nothing but a tertiary planet. Nor did my other explorers find anything worthwhile. One of them was on its slow, merry way to Shedir, stuck in debris. Subsequent auto-explore was also proving weirdly inefficient, as it routinely sent multiple explorers to the same destination.

By turn 4, the Shedir-bound explorer arrived, and it did indeed have a Primary planet. By turn 6 I made planetfall, and allocated my meager resources on this undeveloped world according to math.

f(x) = x*(6+(276-38-10*x)/4)/16
f'(x) = 4.09375 - 5*x/16

Building up this planet was slow. Without any existing infrastructure to begin with except for what little I could buy with my starting RP reserve, and nothing to ship in offworld, I'd have to gradually expand industry and social structure. By turn 17, I had 28/40 factories, 67 social points, and was producing 133 RP's per turn.

I also noticed, on this turn, that my population was curiously low, at only 8/95. My homeworld had apparently been struck by a natural disaster, which will happen randomly without warning. The suddenly reduced population is the only indication that this has happened. Could have been worse - industry and social points are honestly much more valuable.

Exploring, on the other hand, was not slow at all. Once my explorers got out of the cluster of debris in the middle of the map, planet charting expanded at a rapid pace. By this same turn, I had all worlds explored, 17 of them Primary quality, and had transports parked at or en route to all but the few that I was certain had my rival's homeworlds, as my explorers sent there had mysteriously vanished. These planets were Phaeda and Castor, plus Vega, a tertiary world that I expect an unlucky player had to settle for. 

Only by turn 23 did I feel Schedar was developed enough to start colonizing a new world.

Preparing to max out economy stats while building a small colony fleet.

In the meantime, my transports at Almak and Thuban had been driven out by other colony fleets from players 2 and 4. I was behind schedule!

Etamin, with its 40 industry and 95 maximum population, just like Shedir, seemed to be the best candidate for my second colony. Naturally, Almak and Thuban were even better. As my colony fleet flew, I saved up money on Shedir so that it could kickstart my new colony's economy when it arrived. Also during this time, player three took Mirzam.

Etamin colonized on turn 27. With savings from Shedir I can buy 30/40 factories immediately and have 100 points left for social level.

Etamin on turn 31. Despite the low population it is almost self-sufficient, and I can start investing in defense.

With Shedir producing more resources than I could spend on Etamin, I built another colonizing fleet to send to Regulus, and the very same turn, Etamin got attacked by a colonizing fleet, taking out all but two of its warships. It was time to get serious about defense.

By turn 41, I had colonized six planets, and a seventh was underway.

  • Shedir - My fully developed homeworld was generating 300 RP/turn easily, and with 47/95 population was even recovering from the disaster. Defense beyond a token warship fleet seemed yet unnecessary.
  • Etamin - Fully developed economy, generating 267 RP/turn, but under constant attack from Player Four. At the start of this turn, it was interdicted, which is a very bad thing when the economy is still developing as it means the planet can't access the global RP pool, but for Etamin it wasn't too terrible. PDB's at least prevented the interdicting fleet from landing, but interdiction typically precedes a larger assault. I also noticed that player 4 had colonized its crappy neighboring planet. I built more warships in preparation for a storm.
  • Regulus - Global RP's allowed me to max out its industrial capacity in short order, and social/planetary development could follow.
  • Rigel - Like Regulus, but this planet came developed already, saving me a good amount of money developing the planet environment.
  • Zosma - A recently colonized planet, but I could easily afford the maximum allotment of industry, social, and planetary development for the turn.
  • Procyon - Another recently colonized planet. After pumping Zosma's economy, I no longer had enough reserves to maximize everything and had to figure out the optimal investments.
  • Altair - Colonists inbound.


The turn's end proved my intuitions about Shedir very wrong, as an inbound fleet from Player Three with M2 warships obliterated my pathetic orbital guard and started bombarding the world below. Player Two sent their M2 warships against similarly under-defended Regulus as well. Meanwhile, the newly commissioned warships at Etamin drove off the interdicting fleet, and then I bombarded their unfriendly outpost before it could become a threat.

At Regulus and Shedir, I scrambled to build more warships to put up some token resistance against the invading fleets while pouring the other planets' resource points into ship development.

This worked, and I was able to develop M2 warships of my own and repel these invasions, but even as I started to rebuild, Player Three sent a large invasion force to Zosma that I had no hope of defense against.

Oh well. Zosma was lost, but at least Player Three was stuck with an inefficient conquest world. I could focus on developing what I had left.

By turn 49, things felt reasonably stable again, and I continued expansion. I lost Altair in another surprise attack to Player Three's colony fleet, but gained four new worlds in the turns to come. One of them, though, had Xenophobes - unfightable invaders that block access to global RP's, making rapid development of its economy impossible until they left.

With my developed colonies now producing money more rapidly than I could spent it offworld, and the supply of uninhabited primary worlds nearly exhausted, I started colonizing those less desirable secondary, tertiary, and even hostile worlds, starting with those neighboring my existing primary colonies.

The AI must have had a similar plan, as when I started sending out single transports as scouts, a few encountered enemy colony fleets. I took notes on who seemed to control what - I'd need as much information as possible when it came time to conquer the galaxy.

On turn 57, Player Three was at it again, attacking Regulus, this time with M3 warships! I hadn't lost the system yet, as no colony-settling transports were part of this group, but they took out all of my defenses, bombarded my factories, and left little hope of building any sort of retaliatory force. I wrote off the system as lost, and started investing in ship development in the hopes of catching up.

Player 2, meanwhile, had a more modest but still outmatching fleet attacking Rigel. I built up my PDB's there while continuing to research M3 warships. Curiously, Player 3 abandoned Regulus of his own accord, but Rigel fell.

On turn 63, I made an unpleasant discovery.

Player two had invaded Etamin's orbital space, and conquered a planet there right under my nose! Reach for the Stars doesn't alert you when this happens, as SSG's logic seems to be that if an event requires no immediate decisions on your part in order to resolve, then it's not worth bothering you.

With an interdicting fleet superior to anything I could build there in one turn, there was no easy path to taking it back. I'd have to build a liberating fleet at the closest free world, which thankfully wasn't too far away, and I was able to take back Etamin's space superiority right away, if not necessarily my planet. But Player Two just sent an even bigger fleet to re-decimate my defense force and PDB's.

And then one of my worlds, Mizar, suddenly started flashing, and I noticed that it was possible to build transports for my entire population save one. Mizar was about to go nova. So I sent everyone offworld. On the turn after, I rallied an even bigger fleet from Regulus to Etamin, and finding only a remnant of the previous fleet there, I beat it easily and took out the PDB's on its occupied planet, winning it back.

On turn 73, Mizar was gone, and Etamin and Deneb were starting to go nova too. And after all that effort to keep Etamin! Player Four soon attacked it with a fleet of 51 M3 warships, taking out all of the PDB's - keep it, I say.

Turn 75 was the halfpoint, and I checked the scoreboard.

Third place overall, and not far from the bottom, but I'm way ahead in colonial development, which I think bodes well for my long term strategy. Despite all the colonies I had lost, I still had planets on 16 star systems, though I was about to lose two of them. My expansion had been rapid and aggressive recently due to overpopulation.

  • Etamin - Two planets, one primary, both colonized and partly developed, generating combined 466 RP/turn. Doomed to go nova, and besieged by a fleet that not only made rescue seem impossible, but even evacuation was impossible. I was ready to write them off, but perhaps not before investing in some PDB's just to hurt Player Four's fleet a bit before losing it.
  • Regulus - One primary planet, fully developed, producing 288 RP/turn. Often on the brink of overpopulation, and therefore a source of new colony fleets.
  • Nath - Two mediocre planets, both colonized and undeveloped.
  • Pollux - Two planets, one primary, colonized, and partially developed, producing 116 RP/turn.
  • Izar - Two mediocre planets, one colonized and undeveloped.
  • Capella - One primary planet, almost fully developed and producing 152 RP/turn.
  • Deneb - Two planets, both colonized. One primary, almost fully developed and producing 161 RP/turn, the other colonized but undeveloped. Shame about the nova.
  • Acrux - One hostile planet, undeveloped.
  • Mintaka - Two bad planets, one colonized and undeveloped.
  • Shedir - My homeworld. Two planets, one primary and fully developed, producing 229 RP/turn, and like Regulus often crowded. It was time to populate its neighbor.
  • Wesen - One tertiary planet, partially developed, producing 48 RP/turn.
  • Procyon - Two planets, one primary, colonized, and fully developed, producing 170 RP/turn and getting crowded. Time to settle its secondary quality neighbor.
  • Nunki - One tertiary planet, almost fully developed, producing 322 RP/turn.
  • Sabik - One primary planet, fully developed, producing 136 RP/turn.
  • Spica - One tertiary planet, undeveloped.
  • Hamal - Two planets, one secondary, colonized, and partially developed, producing 134 RP/turn.

With so many planets in various states of development, building them up took a strange path. I'd begin each turn with a fairly large global RP pool, from all the unspent RP of fully developed planets of the previous turn. Fully developed planets would contribute to next turn's global RP pool. Partially developed planets' RP's would be used to further develop themselves, subsidized if necessary by the global RP pool, and undeveloped planets would get huge influxes from the RP pool to build them up quickly until it ran out. As more planets shifted from "undeveloped" to "partially developed" and "fully developed," I'd begin my turn with increasingly large RP pools and be able to assist more and more of my planets each turn, until the takers became makers.

I also noticed that my primary planets were usually not the biggest makers. They were reliably pretty good, as they're quick to develop thanks to good planetary environments, but my most productive planets were the tertiary world on Nunki and the hostile world on Etamin (sigh). This is because of industry. Primary planets can support up to 50 factories, secondary 60, tertiary 80, and the most industrious hostile planets, such as the one on Etamin, up to 100 factories. That isn't to say that all planets can be developed to that limit; the smallest maximum is 25, and that goes for all planet types. But planets with over 60 factories will always be tertiary or hostile.

The major downside is that hostile planets take time to develop. Primary planets can be maxed out quickly for not too much money; if you settle a planet that supports 50 factories, you can buy all of them the next turn for just 500 RP as there's no limit to how many factories you can buy in one turn except for what your budget allows. Maxing out social points will cost less than 400 RP, spent 100 per turn over the next four production cycle - how much less depends on how much it increases on its own thanks to the environment. It should only take a turn or two for the planet to become self sufficient, and within four turns should be fully optimized.

But now take a hostile planet that supports 100 factories and has a poor planetary environment. It would cost you 1000 RP to buy all those factories, and they wouldn't be very productive until the planet's social value rises to match. With a poor planetary value, you would need to raise it and the social value together, which could cost as much as 1200 RP to max out, and could take as many as 8 turns even if you invest the maximum allotment of 100 RP to both social and planet development on every single one of them.

On turn 77, Deneb and Etamin were no longer flashing, but now Nunki was. I don't get it - is going nova like a game of musical chairs? And once again the fleet attacking Etamin was gone.

I had 1098 RP in the global pool, and continued developing my worlds systematically. This was enough to give a major boost to three undeveloped worlds, instantly maxing out the industry of 2 of them while also giving them both the full social/planet allotment, and boosting the third's to 20/30 industry. As before, partially developed planets boosted themselves, the rest of the undeveloped planets fended for themselves, and fully developed planets banked RP for the next turn.

By turn 89, I had colonized every single planet that wasn't, to my knowledge, on a star system controlled by someone else. There was no more room for peaceful expansion, except for moving colonists from overpopulated planet to underpopulated planet. 22 star systems were mine, and I had colonized every planet one each of them. Occasionally an attacking fleet would come to an underdefended system, and I'd respond to that by dumping my entire global RP pool into M3 warships on the nearest planet and sending them over, which cost delayed my planets' development, but drove the enemy off every single time. Also during this time, Nunki had stabilized, and I had a few more false alarms, but Sabik went nova for real.

On the beginning of this turn I had 2184 RP in the global pool, with which I could fully industrialize 2 undeveloped planets, promote another from partially industrialized to full, and improve the development of 5 fully industrialized planets, while other partially developed planets improved themselves still. It was beginning to feel like my conquest phase was in sight.

On turn 101, with a starting pool of 2669 RP, I finally had more money than what could be spent on economy. I was also out of room to expand - excess population had to be loaded into transports and just floated over their own planets. I had lost Kochab, and Etamin was partially colonized by Player Four and stationed with M4 warships that had been bombarding the other world, even affecting its maximum capacity for industry and population, but I still had 32 planets in 20 secure systems, most of them fully industrialized, and enough funds to finish building the rest of them up and have something left over.

I was also in the lead, with 7962 victory points, 7762 of them from peaceful colonization.

It was time to begin the last phase. Once again, I invested in warship technology as I built up my planets to maximum stats. You can only invest 100 RP per planet per turn, but I had enough planets to get it in just the one turn. I started marshaling everything I had towards the Nunki system to begin my final conquest.

It's a start.

I systematically moved my fleet from planet to planet, easily defeating the ships there, and reinforcing it turn by turn with new ships built at the nearest friendly base, wherever that might be, plus an endless supply of transports, until I felt sure I could destroy its PDB's and land some transports.

Gonna need more than this to take on 30 PDB's.

Much better! Both planets here are mine. Again.

With enough transports you can even take on a few M4 warships.

As I went on the warpath, my opponents swarmed in on my nearly defenseless colonies, blockading and bombarding most of them, and soon my main fleet ran into Player Four's, forcing a withdrawal as they retook the planets I had just conquered. Money spent repairing damage from bombardment and overpopulation meant less available for my main fleet, and as all of the planets near the front were interdicted, I couldn't even provide timely reinforcements there any longer.

And the game, infuriatingly, does not directly tell you when your planets are under attack. If your fleets are attacked, then you'll know, but when your PDB's are attacked, the "combat" resolves very quickly without your input. When a colony is bombarded, you'll briefly see a ship icon over a star system - no visual indication on whether or not it's your star system - and hear an arcane beep. It's up to you to recognize the star's name from its position and interpret the beep. When a colony is invaded, you get nothing. In all cases, the best way to find out what happened is to assess the damage on your own turn, which demands that you keep notes on all of the planets you control. Needless to say, with over 30 planets on 20 systems, this is tedious.

I changed my plan to instead make Aludra, one of my few non-interdicted planets, the new rallying point for my death fleet. Blockaded planets would focus on building PDB's to delay or prevent invasion, and their own defense fleets when the blockading fleet was only a ship or two.

19 new M4 warships at Aludra.

Where ever the blockades were too powerful to defeat locally, I'd divert some relief from my main attack fleet. Some planets, though, especially remote ones under heavy attack, I'd just have to abandon. One of these planets was in such a bad spot that it overpopulated and couldn't even summon enough RP to transport people off of it.

With this approach, my conquest was slow, but generally outpaced the rate at which I lost my underdefended planets to my opponents. No matter how many I killed, enemy warships kept appearing, mostly in small numbers, around several of my planets every turn. PDB's weren't reliable for stopping even single-ship attackers, but the only thing that really helped was outnumbering their M4 warships with my own, and those are just too expensive to waste on passive defense. I'd rely on PDB's to slow down attackers until I could send relief from my main fleet. Often they'd all get completely destroyed without landing a single hit and have to be rebuilt the next turn after the planet withstood bombardment. Sometimes they'd slip in transports between rounds, costing me the planet - at this stage in the game, I didn't care to keep track of who controlled what every round any more. Sometimes they'd leave on their own. Sometimes the PDB's would annihilate my harriers, at least until the next wave of them cave. The point was to slow them down, and this seemed to work well enough to keep me in the lead. If nothing else, the frequent space battles earned me some big lump sums of victory points.

By turn 131, I had possessed 40 worlds on 25 systems, but my rate of expansion was slowing, not accelerating. As so many empires in history had learned, you can't have a strong defense everywhere, and I was losing planets almost as fast as I was conquering them. Even if you were to focus entirely on defense, no planet can defend itself from a truly determined attacker on its own, and there were three independent empires now concentrating their efforts on punching holes in mine. Each production turn was also taking nearly 30 minutes of number crunching and planning, even using the map to coordinate my reactive defenses along with my own assault.

As I write this, I'm at the start of turn 139. I possess 50 worlds on 30 systems. Ten systems are interdicted, and one is seriously threatened. and have 3615 RP in the global pool, enough to build 30 M4 warships on any planet that isn't interdicted, though I expect quite a bit of it will be spent on building up my most recently conquered systems. Scattered around the galaxy I have over a hundred M4 warships and over a thousand transports. I have over 27 thousand victory points, and lead over my nearest rival, Player Four, by over 10 thousand, enough that I'm certain I will score a "substantial" victory no matter what, but probably not an "overwhelming" one, which is in fact is impossible once your score exceeds 32,000 (gotta love integer overflow).

There will be one more post on this, where I'll go into depth on my thought process and decision making in a late-game turn, finish the game, summarize my thoughts, and also do some versions comparison, as there were three editions of RFTS on the Apple II alone.

1 comment:

  1. That's why I always favored the smaller maps and/or shorter turn games. You get the same experience, but in a much shorter time. I never understood the player who wanted huge maps and tremendously long games, but those people are out there. Props for playing this out all the way to the end, way past the point where it was obvious you'd won.


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