I’ve been asked questions about my game model, and in particular about my goal to build a Merlin. After all, why build a Merlin in the early game? It may make sense as the ship limit approaches, but at this stage you do not have masses of factories churning out surplus supplies.
It’s an excellent question. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a simple answer, or even a single answer. The truth is, there are as many ways to play this game as there are races — probably more. So let’s deal with things race by race.
Most players concentrate on their own game, even if they find someone with whom they can ally. It makes sense; if your ally is half decent, he can play for himself; if he’s not, why would you ally with him in the first place? So let’s take a look at things from the perspective of a solo player.
Every race relies on gains in the early turns in order to win, but three are particularly good at a rapid expansion. These are:
There are five who rely on long games with extended periods for setup. These are:
Finally, there are three who prefer to win through the mid-game:
It’s quite possible for a good player of any of the three races in the first list to pound out an extremely rapid expansion followed by the crushing defeat of one neighbor; in fact, it’s often a good tactic for them. These three races, in a normal game, might not need a Merlin for thirty turns. (The same could be done by an expert Bird player, but it’s harder.)
The conditions of the Master Class game, however, are artificial; for the sake of certain specific lessons that I wish to teach, I’ve asked you to avoid the crippling first-strike kills mentioned above.
If you don’t happen to own one of the five carrier races, don’t worry too much; another of the lessons I aim to teach is how to win as part of an alliance, or even a coalition. Another is that the construction of multiple starbases in the early game (at least under the Priority Queue system) will provide enough of an advantage for any player of any race to have a reasonably level playing field in the middle and late game. It is important that everyone with aspirations for success be able to master this portion of the game — even, and I daresay especially, the Crystals, Privateers, Fascists, and other light-ship races.
We each need to master the Ship Limit, and starbases will help with that. Multiple starbases require massive mineral stockpiles, and that says Merlin to me.
The other thing that we’ll each need in order to win is the ability to use diplomacy as a survival tool, and perhaps, eventually, as a weapon. ANY race, played competently, can win ANY game if the player succeeds diplomatically. In order to win without diplomatic success, you really either need extreme luck or immense incompetence on the part of your opponents — and we’re not likely to see either one in a Master Class game.
So let’s talk about diplomacy for a bit.
Clausewitz, “On War”, is widely misquoted thus: “War is an extension of diplomacy by other means.” Even in our simplified universe here at Planets, the truth is nearer the opposite, that diplomacy is a weapon more potent than any to be found in the battlefield. I once won a game in part by convincing a distant player that my borders were five hundred light years nearer to him than they actually were. We set up borders and talked trade; I even laid minefields — all while mopping up his true neighbor, who was in an incredibly weak position right next door. At the same time, I worked closely with the player on the other side; I helped him fight off the gentleman who had invaded him with apparently overwhelming force. Over time, the players near my front each melted away, and I would advance to meet the next one. Finally, after several turns of nearly bloodless expansion, I allied with another large player to end the game. I did all this never telling an actual lie (at least as far as I can recall), always keeping my promises, and by honestly helping my friends.
That was a perfect situation and it won’t happen here, but it does serve to illustrate the concept: Diplomacy wins games.
The best way to succeed at diplomacy? Talk. Honestly converse, whether in character (“We’ll have to wait for the Senate to vote on that. Since I’m the Evil Emperor, they’ll vote the way I tell them. I’ll have your answer at the end of the next session, in about a turn or so.”) or out (“I never set Safe Passage with a cloaking race. Minefields or Shared Intel; that’s your choice.”)
The best way to fail at diplomacy? Be silent, or even worse, offer impossible trade deals and unpleasant terms in negotiations. If you make deals only to break them, if you try to change terms halfway, if you backstab or betray — these are the acts of a villain, and everyone loves to fight the villain. Even if you achieve your goal, you only succeed in painting a target on yourself.
“So what does this have to do with attacking?” I hear you exclaim in frustrated confusion. The article is titled “When To Attack”, and all I’ve done is utter platitudes.
Here’s how it works: If you attack a player and fail to kill him, he’ll probably just ally with his neighbor and come back at you; therefore, allying with his far neighbor before you attack can be useful (just like Stalin and Hitler). But then you end up surrounded by friends (one to each side of you) and have no space to attack, which leaves you stuck — it’s time to betray someone, which makes you “the villain”, and… See how complicated it gets? Even worse, if you never attack, you’ll stay small until someone else comes and conquers you. That’s no good for anyone.
The answer isn’t simple, but there’s a basic principle that might serve: Attack only when either you have no choice or you have an overwhelming victory ahead of you. If you go into battle prepared to fight for the win, you have at best even odds — but if you go in prepared to kill or totally disable, you’ve got a solid chance.
Go back to Lesson 1 and look at all the things you’re not supposed to do in the early game. Get them ready to use if you can, or prepare to fight them off if you can’t (heavy carriers and large minefields work well for that). In a few turns, we’ll cry Havok! and let slip the dogs of war. In the mean while, go read up on “honor in warfare”.
(There’s a rebuttal; it’s fascinating. Know them both well.)
Regarding the early building of Merlins, there are definitely situations where they are needed.
In a recent game with low surface mineral settings I was playing the Fascists who are fairly thirsty on duranium. I knew on turn 7 I needed to scrape together an early Merlin because I had not located any good duranium depots near my homeworld. The Merlin was built on turn 11 and saved me from the initial duranium crunch, enabling a decent fleet before the ship limit.