STRAIGHT TALK ABOUT THE TRACTOR BEAM
Written by ECV in 2013
Every ship with two or more engines has the capability of towing any other ship. Wow! This is so useful! You can tow around your own ships to save on fuel or to economize on engines. Towing can also be used to minimize risk in minefields and for countless other logistical bonuses.
Guess what? The tractor beam can also be a frightening weapon. You might want to tow an enemy ship somewhere and attack it or capture it. Or you could tow an enemy ship for someone else to attack it. You can pit players against each other and create chaos in the cluster using the tow mission.
Maybe you’ve figured out how to tow enemy ships away and exploited this to great advantage. It’s really great fun, isn’t it? But it’s not so much fun when you are on the receiving end of the fearsome tractor beam. What if you happen to be the victim of such a scheme and you get a ship of your own towed away? You might feel abused or violated. After all, who would dare to interfere with your precious ships’ movement?
More importantly, is there any way to keep your opponents from interfering with your ships’ movement? Is there any way to avoid the enemy tractor beam from taking you somewhere you don’t want to go?
Tractor beams in the Echo Cluster are just ridiculously strong. A Neutronic Fuel Carrier (hull mass 10kt) can tow a ship ninety-eight times heavier – Gorbie Class Battlecarrier (hull mass 980kt) – with no problem at all. There is no amount of mass that can break the tractor beam.
On top of it all, if the towing ship is successful, the target ship’s own movement orders are disregarded. Ouch!
So How Do I Get Away?
If you find yourself at the same point in space as a two-engine enemy ship and want to avoid being towed away by its ultra-powerful tractor beam, you have two choices. The first choice is to move away before it can tow you, which requires finding a way to move earlier in the host order. The second choice is to overpower the tractor beam, which requires the four fingers.
The Movement Phase of Host
In the host order, the movement phase is the only time when ships move each turn unless something unusual is involved like an ion storm. In the movement phase, towing happens first. Ships that are towing or being towed move before any other type of movement, including intercepting ships, hyperdrive ships, and chunnels.
Every stage of movement happens in order of ID number. So when the host gets to the movement phase, since towing happens first, the host will check the ship with the lowest ID number.
For example, If ship #1 is on a tow mission, attempting to lock its tractor beam on another ship, and is successful in doing so, ship #1 moves and its target moves with it. Next, the host checks #2 to see if it is on a tow mission, and if successful, ship #2 and its target will be next to move.
What if #1 had successfully towed #2? The host recognizes that #2 already moved and its own movement orders are ignored.
Avoiding a Tow by Moving Away First
The only way to move away before someone can tow you is by using the tow mission yourself, using a ship with a lower ID number. Whoever attempted the tow will receive a distinctive report if their tow was unsuccessful for this reason: “Unable to lock tractor beam on [name of ship]. They moved away before we could tow them.”
For example, let’s say you have the following ships at the same point in space: Large Freighter #100, Large Freighter #200, Medium Freighter #300, and Medium Freighter #400. Your opponent also has Cobol #250 at that point in space and you are afraid one of the freighters will get towed away and captured and just want to move them all away. Avoiding a tow in this situation is easy: just have the two large freighters tow the two medium freighters. Since both large freighters have a lower ID number, both will move away before the Cobol tries to tow, and they will carry the medium freighters with them. The Cobol will therefore have nothing left there to tow.
Alternatively, let’s say you have these ships in the same situation: Medium Freighter #100, Medium Freighter #200, Large Freighter #300, Large Freighter #400. You won’t be able to avoid Cobol #250’s tractor beam by moving away first in this situation because the Medium Freighter has only one engine and cannot tow. Among these five ships, the Cobol on a tow mission will move first, so there is no way to move away before the Cobol can tow.
Avoiding a Tow by Breaking the Tractor Beam
As we have established, the Echo Cluster’s tractor beams are ridiculously strong. Tiny ships can tow huge ships, provided they have two engines. If an opponent is trying to tow you away and you have not been able to move away first by using a tow mission yourself, the only way to avoid being towed is to overpower the tractor beam. Overpowering the tractor beam requires a set of criteria that we will call the four fingers.
The four fingers are: Fuel, Two Engines, Long Waypoint, and Speed. We use the hand as a symbol to remind us that overpowering the tractor beam requires all of the four fingers.
The First Finger: Fuel
On the first finger we ask: Does the ship have 25kt or more of fuel? If the answer is no, the ship cannot overpower the tractor beam and may be towed away. If the answer is yes, go on to the second finger.
Note that you must have 25kt of fuel clientside; if you have less than 25kt at the beginning of host, you cannot use the “Beam Up Fuel” mission to get more fuel and satisfy the first finger. You also cannot receive a ship-to-ship beam transfer from another player to get enough fuel to break a tow.
The Second Finger: Two Engines
On the second finger we ask: Does the ship have two or more engines? If the answer is no, the ship cannot overpower the tractor beam and may be towed away. If the answer is yes, go on to the third finger.
While on the second finger, we never ask about the grade of engines, only the number of engines. Two StarDrive 1s satisfies the second finger just as well as two Transwarp Drives. The type of engines is never relevant to the second finger.
The Third Finger: Long Waypoint
For a ship to have a long waypoint means that the distance between its location and its destination is greater than the square of its warp speed. For example, A ship traveling at warp 9 with a waypoint of 81.1 LY away has a long waypoint.
On the third finger we ask: Does the ship have a long waypoint? If the answer is no, the ship cannot overpower the tractor beam and may be towed away. If the answer is yes, go on to the fourth finger.
The Fourth Finger: Speed
Breaking a tow requires warp speed equal to or greater than the ship trying to tow. If a registered player is trying to tow you away, they will most likely do so at warp 9. Since warp 9 is the highest speed possible in the Echo Cluster, it is safe to say that you should use warp 9 if you want to try to break a tow.
So on the fourth finger we ask: Will the ship have a warp speed equal to or greater than that of the towing ship? If the answer is no, the ship cannot overpower the tractor beam and may be towed away.
The only way to be certain of satisfying the fourth finger against an opponent tractor beam is to set your ship’s speed as warp 9, unless you know that the ship trying to tow has enough damage that it cannot travel at warp 9.
Speed is different than grade of engines. A ship with Quantam Drive 7s can overdrive and travel warp 9 and therefore can satisfy the fourth finger. The type of engines is never relevant to the fourth finger.
Note that a ship with a certain amount of damage may be unable to travel at full speed, and any attempt to overdrive an engine or set a speed higher than the threshold allowed by the damage will cause the host to reduce the ship’s speed automatically.
If you have answered yes on all four fingers, your ship can break a tractor beam.
When ships try to tow each other, all of the above applies, with one exception. If both ships satisfy all four fingers and have an equal warp speed, they simply break apart, each toward its own waypoint.
To state this another way, when two ships try to tow each other, the low ID ship will win the conflict unless the high ID ship satisfies the four fingers. If the high ID ship satisfies the four fingers, the high ID ship’s tow will succeed unless the ships’ warp speeds are equal.
Special Considerations for Gravitronic Ships
Three ships are equipped with a gravitronic accelerator: the BR4 Class Gunship, BR5 Kaye Class Torpedo Boat, and Meteor Class Blockade Runner. The gravitronic accelerator allows the ship to move twice the distance otherwise allowed for its warp speed.
Planets Nu functions significantly differently than Host 3.22.047 in resolving towing situations with gravitronic ships. The information here applies only to Planets Nu.
If you are trying to break a tractor beam, you must satisfy all four fingers. If the ship has at least 25kt of fuel, it satisfies the first finger. Since all gravitronics have two engines, they always satisfy the second finger.
On the third finger, a gravitronic ship has a long waypoint if its waypoint is farther away than the square of its warp speed. A gravitronic traveling at warp 9 can satisfy the third finger with a waypoint of 81.1 LY away. Note that a non-gravitronic ship must have its waypoint set farther away than one turn’s travel; by contrast a gravitronic can break a tow and then travel to a precise destination greater than its warp factor squared but within its normal one-turn travel range.
On the fourth finger, a ship must have warp speed equal to or greater than that of the towing ship in order to break the tractor beam. A gravitronic’s warp speed counts double when it is trying to tow.
When a gravitronic is the target ship, its warp factor does not count double on Planets Nu.
Many thanks to Emork (the world’s most humble Planets guru) for testing, correcting, and verifying many things in this article.
Questions and Answers
When I was trying to tow somebody’s ship away, I set a long waypoint but it didn’t work. Why? The target ship either moved away first or broke the tow by satisfying the four fingers. Incidentally, the towing ship does not need a long waypoint.
Help! I got towed away but my ship was set to go 85 LY! Did you check all four fingers? If you had a long waypoint but still got towed, that means you failed on one of the other three fingers.
Do the tow conflict rules apply equally to my own ships as well as those of allies or opponents? Yes.
Why does my Mig Class Scout not have “Try to Tow” available as a mission? Because it has one engine. Ships with one engine can never tow.
So the more engines, the better, right? My Biocide Class Carrier with six engines can always overpower a two-engine ship, correct? Nope. Six engines are not more powerful than two. Any ship with two or more engines can tow any other ship. Any ship with two or more engines can break a tow provided it also satisfies the three other fingers.
I always set short waypoints because I don’t like for my opponents to see where I am heading. Can I still break a tow when setting short waypoints? No.
Can I establish a long waypoint even if my ship does not have enough fuel to reach it? Yes. To have a long waypoint and thus satisfy the third finger, the ship needs to have a waypoint farther away than the square of its warp speed. It does not actually need to have enough fuel to reach the long waypoint. In fact, a ship can break a tow and run out of fuel the same turn.
I have a Virgo with Transwarps set at warp 1 and … ? Sorry to interrupt. If you’re asking about towing or breaking a tow, the grade of engines doesn’t matter. The warp speed is what matters.
So I can have StarDrive 1s and successfully tow away a Meteor? Yes.
My ship has a lower ID number so it was not supposed to get towed! ID number is not one of the four fingers; therefore ID number is not relevant to breaking a tow. But having a lower ID number is important if you want to move away first to prevent a tow by using a tow mission yourself.
My Nova has Transwarp Drives and was set to warp 1 and … ? Well gee, I sound like a broken record. It doesn’t matter that you had Transwarp Drives. What matters is that you were set to warp 1. The tech level of your engines is irrelevant to towing or breaking a tow.
Can I overdrive my engines to tow somebody away? Yes, although you can’t overdrive if the ship is badly damaged.
Can I win a tow conflict if my engines are of a lower grade? Yes, by overdriving the engine. Remember to wear your seat belt.
Really? So bad engines can tow away good engines? You bet.
Does the strength of my tractor beam somehow get penalized when I overdrive and try to tow at the same time? Nope. I’ll agree that it does seem a bit immoral.
Can I daisychain? #1 tows #2 which is towing #3, etc.? No. Ships that are towing or being towed travel in pairs. Two by two, kind of like Noah’s Ark.
If I am going warp 18, that means I should travel 324 LY, not 162. The Meteor is not really traveling warp 18, right? That’s correct, the Meteor is not traveling warp 18. Don’t start splitting hairs here.
Can I tow a cloaked ship? Yes.
Can I tow a cloaked enemy ship two turns in a row? No, because the host locks the tractor beam at the beginning of each turn. You cannot tow a ship that you cannot see.
So you’re that nasty Privateer trying to tow me away at warp 9. Is there any possible escape? Not unless you can find a way to evade the gravitronic by using another tow mission at the same point in space.
Why do people say that you should try to get low ID ships to break a tow? ID number is not one of the four fingers and is not relevant to tow breakage. What they are saying is that you should try to get ships with two or more engines with low ID numbers so that you can initiate a tow mission and move away before an enemy with a higher ID ship can attempt to lock the tractor beam.
Can you give me any neat tricks to getting low ID ships for towing? On Nu, the Medium Freighters automatically given to all players on turn 1 have the lowest ID number. These can’t tow because they only have one engine. Here’s the tip: save your initial freighter and don’t lose it. Also capture the initial freighters from other players if you can. Late in the game, if you do it at the right moment, you can recycle the low ID freighters and exchange them for two-engine ships. Remember that there are two build phases, and with priority points you can build at the beginning of the turn so you get the ID number that you want. The only ship slots that open before movement are those freed by recycling or by ion storm destructions. Switching out stolen low-ID freighters for low-ID Meteors late in the game is one of my top-secret Privateer tricks (alas, no longer a secret now that it’s on a public blog).
Is there anything extraordinary about owning the very lowest ID ship – ship number 1? If you own ship number 1 and it has two engines, then it is the ship that can move first in the tow phase, always, with no exceptions, if you can see any other ship — your own or someone else’s — at the same point in space. Ship number 1 can move and tow one other ship of your choice before any other ship moves. If ship number 1 is on a successful tow mission, there is no possible way that any other ship can tow ship number 1 nor the other ship that it is towing.
Is there anything extraordinary about ship ID number 2? Well, yes. If ship number 2 is at the same point in space as another ship it can see and ship number 1 is not there, then ship number 2 can tow and move away before any other ship at that point in space. And so on. In towing and movement, there is great advantage to having two-engine ships with ID numbers lower than about 50; the advantage diminishes greatly if your ship’s ID number is higher than 200.
Are there any more secrets to getting low ID numbers? Please, just one more? Early in the game, particularly in the first three or four turns, it is very important to build two-engine ships to take advantage of the availability of low ID numbers. With some notable exceptions, players should avoid building Medium Deep Space Freighters or other one-engine ships until there are at least 75 ships in the cluster. Refer to my article Early Construction — an Opinion for more valuable information. The user comments on the article also contain some terrific advice (and diverse opinions)!