Friday, June 28, 2013

Distant Worlds: Shadows - pirates!

Terran Federation, 2126

I described my initial steps in Distant Worlds: Shadows a month ago, shortly after I bought the game. But I ended up starting over, when it was updated to a new version.

I don't think that was necessary - indeed, I'm pretty sure it wasn't. But I'm always tempted to start over when I'm playing games, since I keep thinking I can do better the next time. I'm not sure that's the case - certainly, I seem to be just as short of resources in this game - but that's the way it is.

And I'm still playing that game, at least. :)

But I thought I'd talk about pirates in this post, since I'm now 26 years into the game, and pirates are no longer the threat they were. Note that they've been a very grave threat - in fact, the only real threat I've faced. And I really like how that works.

There are a lot of pirate factions in the game (a good thing, in a way, since they also fight among themselves), and they start with ships and technology which we empires lost when galactic civilization collapsed previously. In particular, they have ships which can travel between star systems.

Diplomacy screen: most of these are pirate factions

As an empire - I'm playing a human democracy - the Terran Federation started off very weak, with literally nothing but a home planet. We had to build a space port before we could start building ships and slowly start exploring our own solar system.

The thing is, we couldn't even start researching hyperdrives until we discovered clues to the technology on another planet in our system. Despite the name, that initial technology, Warp Field Precursors, does grant the ability to build FTL ships. It's a primitive technology, still too slow for effective star travel, but it makes a huge difference in exploring (and building) within a solar system.

Anyway, there's really no sense in building anything but two or three exploration ships before you get that first hyperdrive technology. If you've played the game before, you'll know where to send them, but you can also just let them explore the system at random. But even after you've researched Warp Field Precursors, there's no sense in building fighting ships right away, because you're just too weak to fight (and that Warp Bubble Generator is much too slow).

Pirates show up almost immediately, so you really have no choice but to pay them protection money. Later, after you've built a few ships, you can cancel that, but don't believe that your escort ships are a match for theirs! They have a real technological advantage - and they've got the further advantage of being able to explore the galaxy before you do.

After you develop real hyperdrive technologies, you can start to explore the galaxy, yourself. And you can make construction ships to build mining facilities and other bases in nearby star systems. But the problem is trying to protect them from pirate raids. It does you no good to waste money and resources building what you can't defend.

One of my prosperous colony worlds

This is a very different dynamic from similar games (or even Distant Worlds games set in the 'classic' era), where you inevitably want to expand as quickly as possible. In the Age of Shadows, you have to be careful how quickly you expand, because it's very hard to protect what you've got from pirates.

I started in a particularly rich solar system (a starting option I chose), and I only built mines there, at first. Even so, it was hard to defend them. Pirate ships were faster and stronger. I needed a fleet to attack even one escort, and a fleet can't be everywhere at once. (Plus, note that defending yourself from pirates just makes them angrier.)

But it wasn't until I colonized a new planet that they really became a problem. I had a suitable planet in my home solar system, so I figured I could defend it OK. Well, pirates just sent wave after wave of ships against it. On the one hand, the AI wasn't smart enough to send them all at once, so I could defeat their ships piecemeal. But they still did a lot of damage.

I'm not sure if it wouldn't have been smarter just to pay them off, but throughout this game, I didn't want to give them money. Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute, right?  :)  I figured that tribute would just make them stronger, so I should use the money to build more ships, myself.

And maybe that was wise,.. but building ships - and repairing ships and bases - also requires resources. Also, there's a civilian economy - civilian freighters, mining ships, passenger ships - which suffers under frequent pirate attack. Even when you kill the pirates, it disrupts that civilian economy, as unarmed vessels flee the area.

My latest escort design

You can hire pirates to attack other pirates, but that's very expensive, and you don't know which pirate faction will accept the bid. Again, I thought it was better to use that money to build up my own fleets, but I'm just not sure that was the best decision I could have made.

Ordinary pirate ships are dangerous enough, but they can also find very advanced ships - far bigger and more powerful than anything you can build for a long, long time - as galactic derelicts. Those ships can take out an entire fleet by themselves. Early on, I was attacked by one capital ship - the biggest ship in the game - which I thought would destroy everything I had, all by itself.

That didn't happen, mostly because I'd designed my own escort ships - normally, a ship so small as to be completely worthless - making them much bigger, with better shielding, and arming them with rail guns. Rail guns bypass shields, so even when I couldn't get through the shielding of powerful pirate ships, I could still do some damage. A fleet of them drove off that pirate ship, even though I don't think I damaged it much.

I kept my ships in large fleets, so I could destroy lesser pirate ships before they could escape (and without taking too much damage myself). Bigger ships I tried to capture, and, eventually, I succeeded in capturing two capital ships from pirates (and my exploration ships found a couple of powerful derelicts, themselves).

Pirates can attack almost anywhere, but they tend to send wave after wave of small ships against the same colony. I don't know what the AI reasoning is, but that makes it easy to park a fleet there and defeat them. You still take damage, but you can wipe out a lot of pirate vessels that way! Still, they sometimes seem to have an unending supply of ships.

I didn't attack their space ports, not at first. Partly, I wanted to weaken them, but keep them attacking other pirates and my empire rivals. However, our closest and biggest 'rival' is friendly, and we were making money through trading with them. Eventually, I attacked and destroyed a few of the closest pirate bases, and that has made a huge difference in the number of pirate attacks we face.

That might be coincidence, I suppose. Certainly, we were destroying every ship they sent against us. And they have other space ports, so they can still build ships elsewhere. But those ports are some distance away, and we are far from the only enemy they face.

There are lots of different resources in the game

At any rate, there's been a significant drop in pirate attacks, so we've started expanding - rapidly. Just in case, I've got a powerful navy on guard in nearly every significant system, but without those constant pirate attacks, our young colonies are free to trade and to build. So the game really seems to have turned a corner.

We don't have any empire enemies, either. At least, we haven't been to war with any of them. We're quite willing to make friends - we benefit from peaceful trade - and those civilizations which don't like us tend to be weak and distant. (Our main ally has been fighting a war with a hostile civilization close to both of us, but so far, we haven't been drawn into the fight.)

Actually, we are very close to winning the game - at least, as the game defines it. We're a long, long way from researching everything in the technology tree, and certainly from expanding throughout the galaxy, but we're meeting most of our victory goals.

This game is a lot of fun, though it won't be to all tastes. It moves rather slowly, and there's a lot of micromanagement. You can set the AI to run anything you want. In fact, you can set the AI to run everything, while you just watch, if that's what you want to do. But the AI doesn't do things the way I would, so I end up... micromanaging - not everything, not by a long shot, but probably too much.

But there's always a lot to think about. You have to juggle your budget of course, but that's no different from most strategy games. The big difference here is resources. There are a lot of different resources in the game, and you need resources to do almost everything - including building mines to get more resources.

And all of those resources are delivered by civilian ships you don't control directly, so it's very easy to get bottlenecks. You need a healthy civilian economy, you need to provide effective security, and you need enough mines for every resource - and you still end up with work stalling for lack of a particular resource or resources.

It really is pretty complex. But if you like complex games, you might check this one out. I think the whole bundle is still on sale at 40% off, but that won't last much longer.

Note: Check here for more posts about PC games.

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