This article details the practical difference between the left and right sides of the screen in VCR combat. It also incorporates a brief description of battle order and carrier combat, but as this is an advanced topic, you should have some knowledge of basic combat mechanics before reading.
For a handy reference chart for battle values, click on this link.
Overview (or, Why Do I Care?)
In a combat between two ships, when at least one is a carrier, an advantage is given to each side of the screen. The attacker — usually the more aggressive ship — will be on the right side and may be given bonus toughness. The defender — usually the more defensive ship — will be on the left side and, if it is a carrier, its fighters will be marginally more effective in fighter-versus-fighter battles.
These advantages may at first glance seem minor, but in combat even the smallest edge can mark the difference between victory and defeat; when used strategically, this is the difference between life and death. Specifically, a left-side carrier does (on average) 50% more damage over time, while a right-side destroyer can occasionally survive an extra beam volley or two if it can hold off the enemy fighter waves.
It’s not perfectly simple; some smaller carriers actually do better in combat from the right side, and in some cases you’ll want your torpedo ship coming from the left. Generally, though, you’ll find the opposite to be true.
The Battle Order (or, OK; I Care. So How Do I Choose?)
When two ships meet, they won’t always fight. Enemy freighters, for example, will often sidle past one another in embarrassed silence. This is because people rarely set their freighters to “Kill” or give them a primary enemy. Warships, on the other hand, tend to be more aggressive (and, since they have weapons, combat is far more interesting).
The order in which ships fight is based first on their friendly codes (if numeric), then on their mission and set enemy, and finally on their ship ID number. For example, a ship with a friendly code of “147” will fight before one with a code of “783”.* Either will fight before a ship with a non-numeric friendly code. A ship with both “Kill” and a primary enemy set will fight before one with only “Kill”, and only “Kill” fights before only primary enemy. Finally, if two ships with non-numeric** friendly codes are both (let’s say) set to “Kill”, the one with the lowest ship ID number will fight first.
While this is important information in its own right (you might want your Iron Lady to go into battle before your Virgo does, for example), in this article we’re primarily concerned with one seemingly minor effect of this: that the ship that fights first (i.e. is more aggressive) fights from the right side of the screen.
What Difference Does The Side Make?
I’ve mentioned this before but it deserves to be repeated: this factor only ever enters play when there’s a carrier in the battle. If two torpedo or beam-only ships are fighting, there’s statistically no difference between right and left.***
This next bit will seem basic, but pay attention; the details are important and you don’t want to miss them.
When two carriers meet in battle, each will launch fighters starting from the most extreme range. These fighters will travel at high speed toward the enemy ship, with a small chance that they will fire at (and instantly destroy) any enemy fighter they happen to meet on the way. When they arrive near the enemy ship, they will fire at it seven or eight times (never missing). Each hit will deal one point of damage (a minimum of 1% of either the damage or shield capacity of the target). Then the fighter will fly home.
Here’s the catch: The fighters from a carrier are marginally more likely to shoot down enemy fighters in dog fights when they are coming from the left side of the screen, and carriers on the left launch marginally faster. This difference is reportedly due to an unintended bias in the pseudo-random number generator that determines combat events, but at this time the cause is less important than the effect: that, all things being equal, a left-side carrier will have an advantage against a right-side carrier.****
Conversely, a defensive bonus is often granted to the right-side vessel. Specifically, if it has a mass greater than 140kt, the right-side ship will, about 60% of the time, gain effective combat mass equal to about 360kt. The numbers get complicated, but for our purposes it’s enough to note that this mainly helps the right-side ship absorb the enemy ship’s beam weapon hits; for larger ships, it is of negligible utility against fighters. As such, either heavy or extremely lightweight “sacrifice” torpedo ships often fight better from the left side since this reduces (marginally) the rate with which enemy fighters will launch, whereas those of medium mass fight better from the right.
From time to time, small carriers can actually fight better from the right side than the left due in part to this mass bonus; there’s also a potential advantage (though rarely seen) to light carriers reserving fighters for late-stage close-range carrier combat, when the range is too close for fighters to target one another.
A Note On Planets
Ships will always fight from the left and planets from the right. However, due to a quirk in fighter-vs.-fighter battles, they are about 75% less likely to destroy one another in the furball when a planet is involved. As such, I advise facing fully-armed starbases with caution — and as many beam weapons as possible.
And then there’s the Evil Empire’s “Galactic Power” advantage, which means its Gorbies always fight from the left.
The question of left versus right in carrier battles is a complex one, and this article is just an overview. As you doubtless have noticed from the few numbers in the above summary, there’s some incredibly complex math that can be done to determine combat results with greater accuracy. Most of the time, generalizations will be enough to go on, but sometimes there’s no substitute for doing the hard work.
For further reading, I’d suggest the original “Master At Arms” article***** as well as the “Combat” guide, each of which can still be found at the DonovansVGAP website. Both articles spurred my own research, and both were invaluable for fact-checking this article. As always, all errors are my own.
* Ships with numeric friendly codes below 100 can behave erratically. The upshot, then, is that if you want precise control, you should avoid these low-numbered codes. The results of a recent test were that 012 came before 12 in every case, but 112 came before 12 most of the time. Confusingly, 12 then came before 141 but after 112. When 12, 012 and 112 were together, results varied but usually the 012 came first. All of these came before an all-alpha code every time. However, the opponent’s mission and friendly code can interfere, and below-100s are highly erratic when an ally is present in the battle, occasionally even coming before an all-alpha code. “Erratic” might even be said to be an understatement.
** These friendly codes may actually contain numbers, but unless they are entirely numeric they have no impact on battle precedence and the subsequent order. Ships with matching friendly codes will not fight one another, with the exceptions of codes “MKT”, “NTP” and “LFM”; as well, planets coded “ATT” and “NUK” will still attack ships in orbit with matching codes.
*** There has been discussion that the modern combat engine randomizer gives a slight statistical bonus to one side or the other in terms of beam weapon and torpedo recharge; specifically, mass testing suggests that the right side has this advantage slightly more often than the left. It’s a marginal difference, and it has been reported in non-fighter battles as well. It should be noted that, in matters of pseudo-random bias, simulators are unreliable due to battle-chaining; exhaustive testing, therefore, would need to be performed inside the client proper in order to confirm these observations. To further complicate things, other factors – notably the number of weapons involved in the battle – are well-known to produce repeatable non-random variations such as non-launching fighters and non-firing beams. Finally, the in-game simulator is reported to occasionally produce a left-side firing advantage for torpedoes during the first few rounds, but again, this is hard to assert. Thousands of actual in-game battles would need to be observed and mapped to make any definitive assessment of these claims.
**** In the “Master At Arms” article, it is reported in passing that analysis of the code indicates a right-hand fighter is actually marginally more likely to intercept a left-hand fighter. This seems to be more than offset by the left-hand combat advantage, but for those of you with a desire to experiment it’s a useful factor to bear in mind.
***** In 1997, a gentleman by the name of Jan “Sirius” Klingele penned the definitive article on the differences between documentation and reality in naval combat in VGA Planets. The title is “Master At Arms”, and it can still be read at Donovan’s site to this day. Much of the information and associated conclusions are still correct.
This article is copyright 2013 by the writer, J. Millard Simpson. Permission is granted to Planets Magazine and its editors to publish and reprint excerpts for purposes of publicity without compensation. Ownership and all other rights are reserved.