Friday, April 23, 2021

Reach for the Stars: A 40-turn game

Coming to grips with galactic-scale strategy packed into a 48KB machine with a largely text-based interface wasn't easy, but I've now played through a 40-turn game of Reach for the Stars with its original 1983 presentation.

Before playing, there are a number of options you can set, but I stuck with the defaults.

  • There are always four players, but each can be assigned human or computer control, with three selectable AI difficulties. The most difficult, "Veteran," is the default.
  • Scenario length can be 40, 80, or 150 turns.


Six gameplay features can be toggled on or off. All default to off.

  • Novas, a randomly occurring disaster that destroys a star system, becoming more frequent as technology improves.
  • Natural disasters, which impact a planet's population, industrial capacity, or social/environmental level.
  • Xenophobes, parasites that may irrevocably infest a planet in orbit, disrupting interplanetary trade and meddling with the outcome of any space battles occurring there.
  • Solar debris, a stellar map feature that slows down any space ships crossing it.
  • Random star map will randomize the galactic layout, though there will always be 54 star systems.
  • Task force set up causes all players to begin with a fleet in search of a home to settle on rather than starting with an already-settled planet.

Finally,  you can change the game values pertaining to what things cost, and to what achievements grant victory points. If you want to make the highest ship technology available for a song and cut the manufacturing cost in half while making space combat the only thing that gives you points, you can do that.

After setting your options, the game starts.

The basic game flow is based around two phases, Production and Movement. Odd-numbered turns have both phases, beginning with Production, in which you give build orders to all planets under your control, while even-numbered turns only have Movement, in which you form your ships into task forces and issue travel orders.

At any time, you can enter a "flickering cursor" view, one reminiscent of earlier SSI games (especially Keating's Superpower series), where you can move a white-box cursor around a scrolling 2D map of the galaxy that wraps around at the edges. The big numbers in space represent sectors, of which there are nine in total - a feature lifted from Keating's SSI games.

Unfortunately, this view is pretty badly designed. Thankfully, you don't need to rely on it too much.

The screen just doesn't give you enough information. You can see the stars' positions in relation to each other, but there is absolutely no information at a glance about any of them. After a star has been scouted, or even colonized, you've got to move your white-box cursor over it to find out its name, its planets, and whether or not you have any colonies there. A "utilities" view, from which you can access planetary and colony reports, is much more useful for that kind of querying.

Take the above screenshot. This is sector 4, and we can see that selected star system Schedar has a single planet of "Primary" quality, and five other stars are nearby. I know right now that they are unexplored, since this is the start of the game, but let's say in later turns, I am ready to send colonists from Schedar to a new planet. You simply can't tell from a glance which of these stars have been scouted, let alone explored, so you've got to manually move the cursor from Schedar to each one in sequence, which scrolls the screen, and so by the time you are querying one of the stars, you can't tell which one was Schedar.

There's also a full galaxy map, but it's not very useful either.

This late-game shot shows my fleets but not planet ownership.

I also have to critique the use of hexes in this game, as I can't see what purpose they serve here. Hexes make sense in a wargame where terrain matters, but in Reach for the Stars, it barely does. Any ship can travel from any planet to any other planet, and the only things affecting the journey are its speed and the distance from point A to point B, which is easily calculated by Pythagorean theorem on an orthogonal grid. The solar debris option complicates this a little, but BASIC Star Trek managed a grid-friendly solution to Pythagorean movement on a playfield with debris. There are no zones of control either - ships only "exist" when orbiting planets, and only engage other ships orbiting the same planet. They could have just kept the grid square-based, lost nothing, and made navigating the map much easier.

Like I said, though, you don't really need to rely on the map very much. Lists of ships, planets, and colonies are always just a few keystrokes away, and are overall much more useful than the graphical map, though these lists still leave a bit to be desired - I found Excel to be a crucial tool for keeping track of the game state. You don't have to rely on the map to select your units and planets either - at any time on the map, you can hit Enter to jump to the next planet or ship that needs orders. It's only when you need to give them tasks in a particular order that this becomes a problem.

The planetary production view looks much more complicated than it is, thanks to the fact that everything you might want to know is crammed onto one screen in numerical form. Master of Orion and Civ are considerably more complicated, but feel more manageable thanks to a more modular interface that limits how much you can do on any single screen. Here's an overview of what items on the upper half of the screen mean:

  • This star system, Schedar, has a single planet of "Primary" quality, the best. The owner is player #1, me. Spectral class is a moot point for explored planets.
  • POP 50/90 - The population is 50 points out of a maximum of 90, which can never be expanded. Population marginally affects productivity, and every transport built decreases population by a point.
  • IND 15/40 - There are 15 factories out of a maximum of 40, which can never be expanded. Industry significantly affects productivity.
  • SOC 52/70 - The planet has 15 "social points" and 70 "planet" points, which can be thought of as infrastructure and environment respectively. Both of these can be developed to a maximum of 100 points. Social points significantly affect productivity and will slowly trend towards the planetary value automatically whenever you don't invest in it. Population tends to increase when social points are high, and decrease when they're low.
  • PDB 12 (*) - There are 12 planetary defense bases, which are your last defense against planetary invasion. They won't help you kill enemy warships in high orbit over your planet, but will prevent transports from landing, and if an enemy fleet bombards the planet, each PDB will fight with the strength of the best warship you've researched. PDB's are cheaper than warships up front but require maintenance fees. The asterix indicates that the planet was peacefully settled - on conquered planets, PDB's serve a different role.

A planet's productivity is measured by this formula, which is oddly missing from the manual:
2*Min(P,MF) + F*S/16

P here is population, MF the planet's maximum factory capacity, F the number of factories, and S the number of social points.

On this planet, 40 is the maximum number of factories, which P exceeds, so it gives us 80 resource points and this is as high as population-based productivity will get. The 15 factories and 52 social points will be worth 48 rounded down, for a sum of 128 points, which matches the "Planet RP's" line exactly

The planetary production summary tells us that we have a global reserve of 200 RP's available to all planets, plus this planet's 128, for a total of 328RP of immediate discretionary spending. 62 are already allocated, leaving 266 available. Anything not spent will go into the global reserve next turn, which is useful when you need resources from a developed planet to help build up a newly settled one.

The bottom half of the screen shows this turn's production orders. Confusingly, the left side (build orders) is measured in units, while the right side (research) is measured in RP's spent.

The build orders available are:

  • Industry - Cost of 10RP/unit. A maximum order of 25 new factories will cost 250 RP's, but will make the planet much more productive, at 210RP/turn up from 128RP/turn, and will continue to increase as social points go up.
  • Explorer - Cheap, fast scout ships, cost of 3RP/unit. No combat ability whatsoever, but important early on. Maximum output capacity of 5 per turn.
  • Transport - Cost of 5RP/unit plus one population. Mainly used to resettle colonists or to land invasion forces on enemy planets. You may never build an amount in one turn greater than 25% of the population. Surprisingly okay combat ability in numbers, but don't expect miracles.
  • Mark I - Basic warships. Cost of 14RP/unit. Better warships are unlocked through research and cost more accordingly.

Research orders available are:

  • Social level at 4RP/point. 100RP/turn is always the largest investment allowed, adding 25 social points.
  • Planet level at 8RP/point. Again, 100RP/turn is always the largest allowed, granting 12-13 planet points.
  • Ship development for unlocking better warships. 100RP/turn is the maximum allowed per planet, points invested are cumulative and unlock the Mark II, Mark III, and Mark IV ships at 400, 1000, and 2000 points. Unlocking them also improves your PDB's.
  • Planetary defense is automatically set to the minimum needed to maintain PDB's. Spending more than this will purchase new PDB's at a cost of 4RP/unit. Spending less will cause your stock to decline.
  • Service population is also set automatically to the amount needed to maintain your population. There's no point in spending more than this. The manual warns that bad things will happen if you spend any less.

I decided to take a risk and de-invest in PDB's, expecting that I could jumpstart my economy that much faster by allowing them to decay now, and buy them back later. I also bought the maximum amount of explorers allowed. Math that I won't go into tells me that to maximize resource points next turn, I should buy 16 factories and spend the rest on social development, but this math assumes that the resulting social value of 77 won't decay too much from exceeding the planet value of 70. Three points are unspent and will be available next production turn.

One interface hiccup here is that pressing Esc will commit your production orders, and when you do this, there is absolutely no way to change your mind short of reloading a saved game. If you wish to return to the map view to size up the situation, you must press "L" to back out. Unfortunately, in most other contexts of the game, "Esc" is used to back out of a decision while "Q" is used to commit one, and so far too often, I've unintentionally committed orders that I didn't want! Because of this, I save my game quite often.

After committing all planets, you enter the turn's movement phase.

You get ingame icons to represent orbital fleets. That's pretty much it.

The movement interface here is impressively powerful. Ships are organized into task forces, and at any time, you can reorganize the ships available at a planet into any number of new task forces. Right now I have one task force orbiting Schedar, consisting of the five explorers that I just built, but it can be split into five task forces consisting of one explorer each, which is the optimal way to use explorers.

Movement is elegantly designed too, with multiple ways of setting a task force's destination. You can use the on-screen cursor to select a star on the map, but the method I use the most is to type in the destination name. It even has autocomplete - type "PR" and it immediately jumps to Procyon, while you'll need to type "CAPH" or "CAPE" to select Caph or Capella.

For explorers, though, there's an even simpler option - press Ctrl+X and the AI takes over this boring task by splitting the explorers up into individual task forces and sending each one to the nearest unexplored star.

Five explorers en route to five new planets. They should all be reached next turn.

At the end of each movement phase I always take stock of my task forces and their destinations, especially explorers, because RFTS does an awful job of showing you what happens in between turns. Your explorers have no combat ability at all, and if they encounter any non-explorer ships, they'll be immediately destroyed in an animation that zips by so quickly that you might not even notice it happening, let alone process information such as where it happened and by who.

Guys, this is really not helpful.

Basically, if at the beginning of one turn, you seem to be missing an explorer, that probably means there's an enemy colony at the star where it was headed to last turn.

Speaking of which, you'll also need to take notes on enemy colonies whenever they're spotted. The game doesn't make it obvious when this happens - a "colony report" which you must manually select to view only lists enemy colonies when you have unopposed ships in their orbit, and should you withdraw these ships or lose them in battle, there's no persistence of memory; they'll appear to be explored but unoccupied whenever you are not directly observing them. So, take notes on where explorers vanish, where combat occurs, and review the reports every single turn.

Afterward, the turn is ended with the Ctrl+E combination, and turn 2 begins.

The explorers moved in a star pattern. All of them made it, this time.

Turn 2, being even, has no production phase, so there's nothing to do but move my explorers again, but first I checked the reports. As I could see from the screenshot, all five ships arrived at their destinations - the more spread out they get, the less obvious this will be from graphics alone. None were settled, but none were really worth settling. The planet report showed that Algol had two tertiary quality planets, Procyon and Wesen each a secondary, Nihal none, and Alioth a hostile planet. Earlier experience had taught me that only Primary planets are worth the bother, and the AI rarely settles for anything else. So I continued the auto-explore and ended my turn.

Results from the second turn were much better! Each one of the five explorers found a system with one planet of Primary quality. I checked on my homeworld of Schedar.

As expected, planetary production was significantly up - up to 170/turn, from its initial 128, and the social points hadn't decayed.

Once again I defunded the PDB's, and this time I put 56RP's into planetary environment to boost it to 77, bought 14 transport ships, and spent the rest on 5 factories.

For the turn's movement phase, I kept putting the explorers on auto, but I sent five of my transport ships to the newly discovered worlds, not to settle, but to stand guard. Transports won't be any use against a real invasion, but they're more useful for guarding than explorers for a number of reasons:

  • Transports will destroy enemy explorers automatically.
  • When a real invasion fleet arrives and encounters a transport, a space battle will occur, and even though you won't have a chance of winning, you'll at least be able to see the size of the fleet. Then you'll have a pretty good idea of what it will take to beat the fleet and conquer the planet they just took from you. But if you only have an explorer there, then there's no battle - the explorer just dies. You might not even notice it.
  • It's far too easy to accidentally send guarding explorers off into space by using the auto-explore command too soon.

On turn 4, I noticed one of my explorers was missing. It had been en route to Acrux, which was even marked as explored, though all it had was two tertiary planets, but this told me there might be a colony there. No other newly charted planets were interesting. I kept exploring.

Space combat! One of my transports had met Player Three on the planet Gemma - evidently they got there before I did.

This display is a little confusing at first, but is simple once you know how to decipher it. Combat can potentially involve all four players, but this time it only involves players one and three, whose fleets correspond to the first and third columns. I have "fair" odds of winning, and player three has "good" odds.

Combat is based on rounds, and one round is assumed to occur automatically, after which either player may opt to withdraw their forces. The "0/1" cell for my transports shows that in the prior round, I have lost one transport, and none are left, so I've already lost. Player three has 3 Mark I warships, and hasn't lost any.

On turns 5-6, I noticed two more of my explorers missing, which had been headed to Shedir and Tarazed. I had Schedar (not to be confused with Shedir) build three more explorers to replace the ones lost, and invest in more factories and social/planetary development, while continuing to autoscout.

On turn 7, Schedar was at maximum industrial capacity and close to maximum social capacity, producing 305 RP's per turn. I finished maxing out the social/planet levels and let the rest of it go into savings, which generates interest, so that by turn 9, I could buy a respectable fleet and send them to Gemma, likely a soft and easy target. Leaving only 2 PDB's and no ships in defense was risky, but no guts, no glory.

Attack on Gemma! Here's a re-explanation of what's going on, since there's more data this time. My fleet of 20 transports and 22 Mark I warships fights Player Three's fleet of 6 Mark I warships. My odds are good, his odds are poor. In the first automatic round of combat, I've lost 2 of my transports, leaving 18, and all 22 of my Mark I warships survived, killing one of his six.

I kept at it, but he withdrew from the hopeless fight before another round could elapse, granting me two victory points and space superiority over Gemma.

Next, I have the option to attack the planet itself.


As I thought, it's a soft, easy target, with only 4 PDB's. I could also choose to colonize either of the inferior neighboring planets on Gemma, but why would I?


Planetary combat is similar to orbital combat, but only the attacker may withdraw. The third column represents the PDB's, which stand no chance against my fleet. On the next turn, I may land my surviving transports as victorious conquerors.

Because the defender can't withdraw, planetary combat really sucks when you're the one being invaded. What happens is that the computer automatically advances each round (or, rarely, withdraws), and it does this fast. Usually the entire combat will be over before you can figure out what's going on - how big the invading fleet is, what planet it happened on, who won the fight - until the next production cycle when you notice (or don't) that one of your planets is missing.

On turn 11, I declined to build anything on Schedar, allowing all of its resources to pool into the global reserve so that they could be used on Gemma the following turn. This is the only fast way to build up undeveloped planets, whether conquered or newly settled. 

Turn 13 on my newly conquered prize planet.

"Global RP's" represent unspent points from prior turns and may now be spent on planets that did not produce them. Since Gemma only produces 20 RP per turn on its own - not even enough to maintain my PDB's (more on that in a second), it needs this extra kick to get its own economy started so it can be self-sufficient.

Conquered worlds operate on somewhat different rules from ones settled peacefully. The original population remains, and your landed transports are converted into PDB's which serve as anti-ship bases, but also pacify the local population.

The original owner isn't forgotten, and if the population ever more than doubles the number of PDB's, they will revolt and destroy some of them. If the PDB's ever run out, whether through revolt or annihilation in battle, then the planet will revert back to control of its original owner. Furthermore, you may not buy more PDB's as you can on your own planets, though failure to pay the maintenance costs will still erode them.

However, when the population starts to get out of control relative to the PDB count, you can simply build some transports and immediately re-settle them, which simultaneously lowers the population and raises the PDB count. I'm not sure SSG thought that one all the way through.

For the next few turns, I focused on building up Gemma's economy, Schedar's defenses, and also began investing in ship R&D. Schedar began to get overpopulated, which causes rapid social and environmental decline, so I started building transports to put them on, with nowhere in particular to send them. During this time, my scouts finished exploration, and I ordered them into hostile territory to dispose of them, their purpose now complete and unworthy of my micromanagement. Meanwhile, an enemy fleet attacked my transport at Diphda, marking it as a contested world. So of course I had to take it.

And it's fairly well developed too!

A quick check at the scoreboard showed I had taken the lead, and as the only player with any conquered worlds this lead was sure to quickly expand. This also painted a big target on me, so I decided to lay off the conquering and focus on building up and defending my planets.

I launch Schedar's surplus population at its attackers, Zapp Brannigan-style.

By turn 33 I had developed all three of my worlds, unlocked Mark III warships, saved up a lavish RP pool, and had a comfortable point lead over my rivals, so I bought a whole bunch of these new warships at Schedar and sent everything to the nearby world of Shedir, which I was pretty sure was a colony, leaving PDB's behind to defend.

Craft superiority beats numbers here, though I lose a few of my M3's.

Shedir falls, at the cost of most of the remaining fleet.

I spent the rest of the game focusing on defense and build-up. Thankfully, my opponents never attacked with huge fleets - even with M3 PDB's I probably would have lost, but on the other hand, my score was so far ahead that I could have lost my homeworld and still won the game.

Now, I've got to be clear about something. Even though I beat the AI on the hardest setting, there was both luck and skill involved. I had a few not so successful runs before this one. Being aggressive early on pays off, but you can't have strong defenses on all of your planets at the same time, especially not while mounting an attack of your own. In other runs, the AI attacked my colonies, or even my initial homeworld with massive fleets, forcing withdrawals, sometimes leading to endless back-and-forth battles over the same planet, draining both of our resources quickly while the other opponents built up impenetrable fortresses. One time, all three opponents attacked my colonies at once, conquering two of them in one turn. This time, I was lucky that I never faced a credible counterattack while vulnerable to one.

That was the 40 turn game, and despite my interface gripes, my impressions are pretty positive. For my next and probably last post I'll give the full length 150 turn game a try, with most of the optional features turned on.


  1. It's amazing how many concepts from this game made it through untouched to Master of Orion.

    MoO added a lot for sure, diplomacy, greatly expanded tech tree, ship design, expanded planet types, but you can see how these were all natural evolutions that added to the game.

    Funny thing though, this game actually isn't 4X. As in, you don't win by eliminating all opponents. Games have a set number of turns and the objective is to score points. It's nifty that it lets you choose what actions score points, though. The default definitely encourages conflict.

    Who cares though, it's just a label. RTFS is the "space conquest game" that computer games always wanted to be.

    1. I am curious which aspects of MoO actually came from RFTS, and which aspects are just similar because both borrowed from Stellar Conquest. As I've never played Stellar Conquest or even read the rules, it's difficult to be sure.

    2. RTFS is basically Stellar Conquest, but with the bookkeeping tedium removed and the hidden information aspect greatly improved due to the computer taking the role of referee. It was a fine game, and it still gets play at boardgame tournaments today, but it really was a computer game looking for a computer. The one-player computer game solved the Stellar Conquest's biggest problem: four players sitting silently over their hidden sheets. Maybe check some of the video reviews:

      I played RTFS before MoO and it was obvious to me that they took the game and turned it up to 11. RTFS is rather sparse but does a good job at what it is: a space conquest wargame. MoO put a ton of bells and whistles, improved concepts, entire new sections of gameplay, and more chrome than a '57 Chevy. All of it worked and a classic game was born. There is a fan patch that fixes some bugs and makes some obvious improvements if anyone feels the itch to play again.

      To me, it's pretty clear that SC -> RTFS -> MoO. There are probably some other games in there, as the space conquest game is a pretty obvious genre that someone was going to start.


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