A Modest Proposal: The Hull Penalty

When the revised queue system was first released as an alternative to the Classic ship build process, it met with some opposition. Today, it is being systematically replaced by the new Planetary Production Queue with its random build options.

And yet, at least in my opinion, the original objections have yet to receive even a satisfactory hearing, and they certainly haven’t been addressed. Sure, anyone who objects to the new system can go back to play Classic if they want — but that’s no answer; some of the advances since 1991 haven’t been all bad. And it’s no use saying you can pick and choose in Custom games unless you and ten of your closest friends all agree on exactly which new options you like.

So let’s take a moment and review one example: the Hull Penalty.

In 1990s Classic, the carrier races had to race around with tons of minerals to be able to construct warships. With a lucky set of natives they might manage to do so without a cash crunch, but a war fleet of a couple dozen carriers was about all you could reasonably expect by the Ship Limit — and half had crap engines and guns, which made minefields a serious obstacle and intercepting Deth Speculas truly deadly.

Meanwhile, the destroyer races — Fascists, Privateers, Birds, and so on — also needed torpedo tech, and were forced to compromise on hull quality and weapons both. They relied on being able to build cheap replacements after the Limit hit in order to field decently armed vessels; meanwhile, their pre-limit heavy ships were often too weak to stand in a line of battle due to cash restrictions. Fortunately, light commerce raiders are still fairly effective even with underpowered engines; and if they should die while killing enemy freighters, they’re quite replaceable. And, though fresh battleships needed to wait on Queue movement, at least you knew where that was going to be taking place. You’d need more cash as time progressed, but your heavy-ship rivals needed cash plus mass quantities of minerals; quite often, that would balance out in your favor — at least for the first little while.

With the release of accessible guides, and the talent accumulation at modern host sites — including, but not limited to, Planets Nu — gameplay advanced to a point where today the unlucky will hit the Ship Limit with only half a dozen heavy vessels. Winning has become far more labor-intensive, and even bare survival is sometimes impossible in the face of the lucky — and the powerful.

However, each of the light-ship races was developed with an intrinsic race advantage that balances out the lightness of their fleet. Each has a path to victory, and all you need to know is where the path lies in order to pursue it, thus:

  • The Federation‘s Super Refit ability permits them to manufacture dozens of empty hulls in the early game, refitting them as time and materiel permit later on. When this is combined with their combat advantage, Novas can be stacked with cheap Kittyhawks in order to gain a PBP edge in fleet combat with their heavy carrier adversaries.
  • The Privateer and Crystal have the weakest war fleets in the game. However, they have the ability to steal vessels from their targets, which permits them to strangle their targets into submission while avoiding fleet battles. If they can freeze the Queue, they can win even against skilled opposition.
  • The Fascist fleet is similarly weak, but they have the unique advantage that is the Glory Device. Whether deployed on the D19b or the Saber, this can be used as guided missiles to level the playing field in fleet battles.
  • The Lizard hull advantage can make stacks of T-Rexes and Zillas a fearsome terror, and when combined with the early economic bonus granted by the HISSSing ability, they are under no disadvantage either early-game or late.
  • The Birds get a cloaking battleship, some of the deadliest commerce raiders in the game, and a partial immunity to minefields. That’s not much. Unless they are played with swashbuckling style, they are singularly disadvantaged against the carrier races after the early game — but when well-played, they become quite deadly indeed.

And then Standard came along, and brought with it the 1-point hull penalty — every hull costs one point more to Priority Build. Where before a battleship cost ten Priority Points it cost eleven; a Biocide went from nineteen to twenty. The disparate impact is clear — percentage-wise, this hurts the weakest races far more than the powerful — and it’s even worse when one considers the relative value of building even a Dark Wing against a rival’s heavy carrier. Meanwhile, light vessels suddenly became prohibitively expensive. Adding in the non-random build queue of the new Planetary Priority Queue exacerbated the existing problem, though it did neatly ease the logistic burden for continuing construction — particularly for the carrier races, who need it somewhat less since they don’t need to spend money on torpedo tech.

Remember too: All this change was an answer to the tactic of Merlin Build Control, little used outside of top-level play, and SDSF-based queue jamming.

Taking it race by race again:

  • The Federation can still cope; Super Refit has become if anything even more valuable.
  • The Privateer, however, is now laboring under an even greater burden. Barring extreme luck in early natives or highly skilled diplomacy, they now have little hope in high-level games. The Crystal, with their newly impenetrable webs, is now a pariah race, unable to profitably trade due to their weak shiplist and incapable of competing in fleet combat, while their rivals now have ever-greater access to Heavy Phasers. Neither can strangle the Queue; which makes both races virtually unwinnable.
  • The Fascist player has lost the PBP advantage previously granted by the D19b; the “guided missile” use is now excessively costly. And in fleet battles, fast beams are no substitute.
  • The Lizard never did rely on light ship construction. They are left approximately even by these changes.
  • The Birds still labor under the same disadvantages. However, they now have access to the Enlighten, which… given the ubiquity of late-game cash, is almost worthless, but not quite.

Bottom line, this change makes it almost impossible for two races to compete and far more difficult for a third. The Birds, of course, always have labored under an extreme disadvantage, but this does make it measurably harder to use them in a high-level game. As well, it’s been established that even the New Nu Queue can be easily and thoroughly jammed; the scoreboard of the present Cognitium War shows that quite clearly. Thus, with no gain for the weakest races, we have yet another bonus for the strongest.

Thus, we arrive naturally at my proposal: That those races most harmed by the 1-point penalty be made immune to it henceforth. Privateers, Fascists, and Birds can again become marginally competitive again. Of course, we don’t want 1-point builds jamming the Queue; thus, we can leave the minimum PBP cost at 2 even for the lightest hulls — but the Meteor again costs 2, as does the D19b (and the Saber is again accessible at 3). The Crystals remain a pariah race, unable to trade except perhaps with the extremely desperate — but, hell, maybe they can build discount freighters for someone. Regardless, this then becomes a rebalancing method much to be desired. (Out of pity, we might even consider extending it to the Robots — or then again, perhaps not.)

There does remain the possibility of Merlin Build Control. To combat that, I propose a new, smaller Alchemy Ship to replace it for the light-ship races; still a Tech 10 hull, the new Flaumel Class Alchemy Ship would have eight beams but only six engines, a cargohold of only 1800, and a far more affordable mineral cost of around 300 Duranium — and a mass of 600. Thus, it would no longer be profitable to build and destroy these in order to jam the Queue. Something similar could be done with the Refinery, though to be sure the high price and low mass are already deterrents.

It is my belief that we require rather more benefits to rebalance the Crystal and to make the Birds competitive; moreover, the Robots do have several disadvantages that could be addressed by granting them a not-unreasonable Ground Combat advantage on attacks along with a single vessel (perhaps the Cat’s Paw?) that is immune from planetary attack. But these are matters of fine detail, and somewhat outside the scope of this present article.

The Hull Penalty, however, has an undeniable, even a painfully obvious, unbalanced impact, and it would be a simple matter to fix that. Replacing the Merlin for a lighter version in each of the four weakest small-ship races would also be quite simple, and it would address the Merlin Build Control tactic quite effectively.

Failure to do this only makes the weakest races ever less likely to find players. This slows down recruitment in new games and discourages would-be players. If our present balance issues are not addressed — and right speedily — I project player attrition will continue to increase over the next few months. Where today we can’t find enough top-level players willing to take positions in the Wars, tomorrow it will be even worse. We’re reaching a point where our only other viable options will be to eliminate certain of the Eleven Races entirely.

Or the game will die. There’s always that — and Classic.

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