Here’s some early-game rules to live by:
(1) Try to build a useful ship every turn that you can.
(2) As a general rule, move every ship every turn, and develop every planet.
(3) Don’t overtax your colonists. Even better: Don’t tax them at all.
Those of you who can build bioscanner ships should probably do so ASAP; you need to find good natives. Those who own Hyperspace probes might consider building them soon. Until the tenth turn or so, it’s likely too early for a wise player to build battleships; if in doubt, build freighters.
(There are variations, of course; Birds like to use Ressies as freighters, and Crystals often use Emeralds. They’re heavier, but they serve nicely as second-line warships in time of need. Colonies have it really lucky; they get Cobols, arguably the most valuable ship in the cluster. A Colonies player should almost never build a Medium freighter.)
The Care And Feeding Of Colonies
New planets with natives need enough colonists for you to be able to get the maximum tax benefit out of them. Unless you’re insane and love to do math, you might have to guesstimate that number; figure a couple hundred for most natives, adding more colonists for better governments, happier natives, or nicer climates, and you won’t be far off.
Planets without colonists are mostly useful for their mineral mines, factories, and defensive position. The “magic numbers” for colonists are 51, 101, or 150 clans; these give efficient results for taxes, factories, and defenses respectively. Every planet that is worth having you there should aim for 101 plus to begin with.
The best thing about a colony is that it can support itself. Unless you’re rich enough to pay for massive expansion from your homeworld, the wise move is to build as many factories as possible on your new colony as fast as possible, and only then to worry about mines. Defense, unless you’re on a border, should come last.
All this means you really need a ton of freight capacity in the early game.
My own preferred tactic is to send a Large freighter out fully loaded to a single distant planet and use Mediums locally to spread colonists out from there. The Large will go back for more loads and eventually drop at a more distant planet… and so on.
This Master Class game is one of the few that you’ll play that permits you the luxury of developing lots of freight capacity fast; we’ve outlawed early-game “headshot” first strikes, so you’ve got some safety.
But that’s not normal, and you can’t absolutely rely on it even here.
My early game tends to involve lots of freighters. That changes around Turn 6; there’s no reason to court disaster for the sake of a ship. As a standard race, I’ll build a minelayer or three, and if I can’t build hyperspace probes, I’ll use these both for home defense and to explore my neighbors a little. It’s rarely too early for that.
Speaking of your neighbors…
You should read up on scanning ranges, Sensor Sweeps, bio-scanners, and other similar things. Start here: http://play.planets.nu/#/howtoplay/sensor-sweep
You have one neighbor to the left of you and another to your right. In most games, players will choose one of these to be a friend (at least for a short time) and the other to be… not a foe; that presupposes some sort of fight. No, when you choose someone to attack, they become your prey. Your goal is either to kill them or (more profitably) to turn them into your vassal, a willing servant who works for your cause.
At this point, it’s possible you already know one or both of your immediate neighbors. The moment you detect one, research him; know his past games and estimate his abilities. You should determine whether that neighbor would make a good and loyal friend… or perhaps instead a perfect target for conquest. Don’t forget their racial abilities; an Evil Empire player loves allying with a cloaking race or a fuel generator, for example.
In this specific game, I would like to encourage you to pursue diplomatic solutions to your wars when it’s profitable to do so, and when not… well, in that rare event, you should work to totally annihilate your target. If you can’t do either, you have no business going to war in the first place.