Friday, January 10, 2014

Distant Worlds: Shadows - beginner's tips, pt. 2

Empire Summary screen (F6)

In Part 1, we covered pirates and resources in Distant Worlds: Shadows. Now, we're moving on to money. There's a lot to it, and it doesn't work like you might expect.

Distant Worlds seems to have a right-wing, trickle-down economic model, where lower taxes actually do produce enormous growth with very little downside. Think of it as if Bushanomics had actually worked.

In this game, pretty much the only thing your government needs money for is the military, and even then, you can continue to pay your soldiers and maintain your ships without actually taxing the citizens. Scientific research does just fine, too, without money. Furthermore, you can bankrupt your government - drown it in a bathtub, if you want - and not only do your interest rates not go up, you never pay any interest at all.

The only thing you really need cash for is to buy a new ship or base, or to upgrade to a new design. Otherwise, you can go along just fine deeply in the red. Taxes aren't completely unnecessary, but this game really does seem to be a Tea Party wet dream.

Forget about how realistic this is. It's just a game, after all. But managing your economy is a critical part of it, so you really have to know how this works.

In Part 1, the first thing I suggested was to pause the game and set your tax rate to zero. Partly, that was so the pirates would see how poor you were, and not charge as much in their protection racket. But setting your taxes to zero also causes a huge boom in population growth and GDP growth. (Amazing how that actually works in a game, isn't it?)

You can experiment with this, if you want. It doesn't cause any problems at all to rapidly change your taxes to zero, then up to 40 or 50%, then back down again, and you can quickly see the results in the growth rate of your planet. If you set your taxes too high, your people will become unhappy, and you don't want that (keep them "satisfied," at least). But you can play with this to see what happens.

At the start, you've only got one planet - your homeworld. For a long time, that will be your empire's powerhouse, so you want the population and economy to become as large as possible. Well, if you keep your taxes at zero - or as low as possible - your planet's population and economy will grow very rapidly.

Later, you can raise taxes and make some real money. You'll need the money, because you'll be colonizing other planets, and while they're young, you'll need to keep their taxes at zero for the same reason. (Practically speaking, when they're young, you won't get much tax money from them anyway, even if you raise the rate sky high. So tax your homeworld then, and let the colonies grow.)

Derelict ships from long ago, great loot for bold explorers

So, how can you run an empire with no taxes? You can't, not entirely. But you can go a surprisingly long way, at least in Distant Worlds: Shadows. (I wouldn't try this in the real world.)

Take a look at your Empire Summary screen (F6). I've posted a screenshot from my own game, at the start of this post. Click on it to enlarge the picture, if necessary, because this is pretty important to understand.

Note that there's a state economy and a private economy. You have little direct control over the private economy, but it's very important, nonetheless. Your private economy needs to remain healthy - rich, even. If they've got cash on hand, they'll buy ships (and you'll get the money from building them, plus useful resources will move to your spaceport on civilian ships).

Note their expenses. The taxes they pay are calculated from the tax rate on each of your colonies and the size of the economy there. (You can see that same amount as revenue on the state side of the ledger, too.) They also pay maintenance on civilian ships and bases - note that this includes the mining bases that you build, since the private sector pays the maintenance on them - and their fuel costs.

Obviously, taxes are a big part of their expenses, but the number of mining bases you build and the cost of resources also factor in to their maintenance costs. Earlier, I suggested hiring pirates to smuggle resources to your colonies, if a colony was short of a strategic resource it couldn't get elsewhere. That's a valid and quite necessary tactic.

However, note that any such resources smuggled into your planets are quite expensive. If you go overboard with this, especially if you have them smuggle multiple resources to multiple planets, you can bankrupt your private sector by increasing their costs. Keep an eye on your private economy here. You want it to be as healthy as possible.

Now, on the state side, your "cash on hand" can be negative without any big problems. You won't pay interest on that, and you'll still pay your troops and maintain your ships. (Your research won't be affected, either.) The only thing you can't do is to buy new ships and bases, or update the ones you have to more modern designs.

I wouldn't let your cash on hand get too far in the red, just because you might need a new ship in a hurry, sometime. But you can stay in the red for a long time with no problem, then greatly increase the tax rate when you need cash to buy something, lowering it again afterwards. (As I say, I'd keep the happiness on your planets at least at "satisfied" when you do raise taxes. You don't want them to revolt.)

Still, don't you need taxes, even in a right-wing paradise? Well, sure, but there are other ways to get money. And the benefits to low taxes are so great in Distant Worlds: Shadows that you really want to think long and hard before spending any money at all.

Passenger ships, braving empty space and pirates for an exotic vacation

Let's look at expenses first. At the start of the game, you'll be paying pirates protection money, and that will likely be a big expense. But it's a necessary one, at first. Later, you'll be laughing at pirate demands, but not now.

Ship and base maintenance will be a big expense for the whole game. You can look at the details at the bottom of that screen. Note that you pay to build mining bases, but it's the private sector that pays to maintain them. That's important.

On the state side, too, the cost of resources makes a difference. If resource costs increase, the initial cost of ships and bases will increase and so will the maintenance cost of existing ships. Just something to keep in mind.

At the beginning of the game, you'll be paying pirate protection, but if that keeps you from needing to build more ships, you'll save on both the initial cost and the upkeep. Again, just something to keep in mind. Remember, you're trying to keep your costs as low as possible, especially in the beginning, so think about what you're building.

Troop maintenance is another big expense. Now, I would love to let the AI handle troop numbers for each planet, but it's been my experience that I end up with far more troops than I can afford. So I would recommend handling that yourself.

On the one hand, you don't want to lose colonies to invasion. On the other hand, invasion doesn't seem to be a big danger at the start of the game, when you haven't yet encountered another civilization. (Pirates will invade, but usually not in large numbers.) And later on, an enemy can simply bombard your planet, destroying everything, in which case your troops can do nothing, anyway.

Besides, troops are expensive, and it's critical that you save money. I can't say this often enough. You'll have to decide these things for yourself, though. It's all part of the game.

Then there's the revenue side. Note that your cash flow can be negative, but you can still make money most years when the "bonus income" is added in. Space port income is a big part of that. Remember that, if the private sector is flush with cash and has reason to need ships (mining ships, transport ships, passenger ships), they'll order them at your spaceports, and you'll make money from that.

This varies a lot. You'll get a rush of building sometimes, when a new opportunity opens up (like a new colony planet, for example), but then there will be times when your spaceport is pretty much idle. Still, think right-wing economic fantasies: if the rich get richer, they'll invest that money in new ships and factories and everyone will benefit.

Foreign trade bonuses will become important, once you encounter other empires (and especially when you make free trade agreements with them). Note that you have to keep piracy down, though. If pirates are everywhere, hassling your civilian ships, they won't be able to make much money (or bring you needed resources, either).

Finally, there's resort income. You won't have any resorts at first - they're expensive, and you need mining bases first. But resort bases are a great way to earn money. After all, you've got all those rich people, eager to go on exotic vacations.

You'll want to build resorts reasonably close to your biggest planets, and you'll want to look for spectacular scenery, which will give you a bonus. Note that any planet with a ruin can be a suitable location for a resort base (even though other locations might give a bigger bonus), and you'll start with two of them in your initial solar system. That's great, because your homeworld will be nearby.

Um, one caution: note that it's dangerous for construction ships to build resorts at some locations, at least before you have good technology. If you try, your ship might just disappear, never to be heard from again. :)

Obviously, you want to protect your resort bases and your passenger ships from pirates, too. In the screenshot above, you can see a string of civilian ships heading several sectors away from my home space. It turned out that they were mostly passenger ships, visiting an independent planet quite far from my homeworld.

I'm not sure what the draw was, although there was a pretty big population of aliens on that planet. Unfortunately, the whole area was infested with pirates. I had to send a fleet clear up there, just to defend all the passenger ships which were being attacked. And now I'm building a colony ship, hoping to add this planet to my empire (before some other empire gets to it first).

A small part of the technology tree

So, to review, you want to keep the tax rate on your homeworld as low as you possibly can, even when it shows you a negative cash flow. Try to make up the difference in other ways, if you can. When you need cash to buy something, increase the rate for awhile, until you've got as much as you need. Then drop it again.

When you start to settle colonies, keep their taxes at zero and rely on taxing your homeworld, which by then should have a huge economy and population. When your early colonies grow up, you can start taxing them, too.

Oh, one other tip. Long-range sensors are really, really useful, but it's expensive to build monitoring stations everywhere. However, if you manually edit the design of your gas mining bases (not your regular mining bases), you can add a long-range sensor to them.

This will add to the initial cost of your gas mining bases, true. And it will add to the maintenance cost of them, too. But note that it's the private sector which pays the maintenance cost on mining bases, and your private economy should have plenty of money, if you've been keeping tax rates low.

Don't do this on regular mining bases, because you'll have way too many of them. Sure, you'll have some overlap with gas mining bases, too, but not quite that bad. And if there's part of the galaxy where you need a long-range sensor, just build a gas mining base there. Not only will you get sensor coverage, you'll also gain a useful refueling station.

Now, enjoy the game! :)

Note: Most of my posts about computer games can be found here.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the guide - this is helping a lot!

WCG said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I'm glad to hear that.

Note that Matrix Games has just released Distant Worlds - Universe, the latest - and apparently last - installment of the game. There haven't been too many changes, as far as I can tell, although this one runs on Steam (and there's lots of modding support).

However, you can get $10 off the game for every previous expansion you own. Thus, if you own Distant Worlds - Shadows, you can get $40 off the price of Distant Worlds - Universe. Plus, for another few days, the game is apparently on sale with another $10 off the full price.

With all that, you can get the new game for just $9.99. That's not bad. But they sure didn't advertise it much. I don't know why they didn't send out emails to previous customers. I just happened to stumble across this, myself.

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Not the same anonymous but just wanted to say that I came for the Distant Worlds tips and stayed for the other posts. Good quality blog all around.

WCG said...


Anonymous said...

Different anonymous here. I enjoy your writing style. There is a ton to your blog. Looking forward to reading the rest!

WCG said...

Great! Thanks for commenting.

Wow, I like comments like these! :)

Anonymous said...

Yet another different "anonymous". I wanted to comment that I found the economic model in the game more ... I won't say "left wing" (you said "right wing") ...let's say more "centrally planned" than I was hoping. The state builds every colony, pretty much every station, and owns all of the shipyards in the game.

The inclusion of a private sector that the player has no control over is a great step forward for the genre...but the player doesn't get to deal some of the other consequences of the public/private sector policy debates that persist in our own societies because the game gives them no choice.

I wish that Distant Worlds changed the fraction of the economy controlled by the player or the private sector AI when you changed government types. It would be cool if you could, by changing gov't type, create shipbuilding and resource extraction or colonization industries that functioned like the freighters, mining ships, and other "private sector" entitites in the game.

It would be even cooler if you could do a mix, like many real societies in our own world have today. The player would trade direct control off against economy or some such.

Sword of the Stars 2 makes a good stab at this...but the number of systems and ships is much smaller. So it doesn't have Distant Worlds' scope.

Anyway - thanks for the game blog posts. Very well thought out.

WCG said...

"The inclusion of a private sector that the player has no control over is a great step forward for the genre..."

Yes, I agree, Anonymous. And I like your idea about changing government types. However, since this is a game, the critical thing is to keep it fun, and I suspect that too little control would just be frustrating, rather than enjoyable.

Right now, I can play a democracy and dismiss the (presumably) elected leader of my empire. That's certainly not realistic, but I think it's important for game-play purposes.

The other side to this is that the game's economic model would actually have to make sense. That's the big problem I had with Distant Worlds: Shadows (though it's been improved in DW: Universe, the latest release of the game). I called it 'right-wing,' because it seemed so relentlessly 'trickle down.'

I like realism in games, though only to the extent that it helps make the game fun. In this particular case, I could accept an unrealistic economic model because it is just a game. (And face it, any economic model would have to be terribly over-simplified, anyway.)

Finally, I'm not, myself, a big fan of wargames. It's the economic, social, and technological development of a society that's most interesting to me. If you restrict the role of the government much more, the military would become an even larger part of what you could control, and I wouldn't like that.

In the original Master of Orion, still one of my favorite games of all-time (and still available at, if you haven't played it), there was a bigger emphasis on terraforming planets. Now that's something a government could do, and I'd love to see that added to this game. But I guess I'm getting off the subject, huh?

Thanks for the comment. I like your idea, even if I wonder how it would work in practice. I've never played Sword of the Stars 2 (I remember that it got terrible reviews when it was released). Unfortunately, I can't play everything, as much as I'd like to try. :)

Anonymous said...

I would like to see policy added to the game. Taxes used for general welfare of citizens for added happiness or approval. Public education for indoctrination towards war or perhaps faster research. Universal healthcare for happiness. Social programs would explode growth at the risk of complacency in a population. It depends on which side if the left/right spectrum you fall on. I've been looking for an anarcho capitalist mod to no avail. When I purchase the game I'm going to try and play zero taxes the whole game. I think there should be scaling corruption the higher the taxes personally we'll see what mods I can find

WCG said...

Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. Note that there have been changes to the game since I first posted these tips. In particular, zeroing taxes doesn't have such an enormous effect on happiness and population growth now.

Happiness is modeled in the game, and taxes are still a part of that, but just a small part. I like it much better now (though I still keep taxes at zero, as long as possible). But there are many different things which affect happiness.

I don't know if policies would add much to the game or not. There are a lot of games which implement policies, and I kind of like seeing something different. As I say, many things in Distant Worlds affect happiness, so a lot of that is included (healthcare, for example), just in different ways.

Thanks again for the comment. I've never used any mods in this game, so I can't say anything about that.