Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

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Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby Tyrel Lohr » Tue May 21, 2013 2:36 am

Three Moves Ahead did a podcast that focused on space 4X games, specifically the problems the genre has experienced in the last 20 years and how all of us seem to still be striving to recreate Master of Orion (whether consciously or not).

http://www.idlethumbs.net/3ma/episodes/lost-in-space

It made for an interesting listen, and I agree with a lot of the points that they made. I know that I personally still hold MOO to be the pinnacle of the space 4X genre. I really didn't care for MOO2, though I went back to it after buying it on GOG and decided it wasn't quite as bad as I remembered it being -- but at the end of the day, MOO2 is still Master of Magic in Space and as much as I loved Master of Magic I didn't feel its mechanics worked well in a space game.

Listening to the podcast almost made me realize that the reason I like playing VBAM is probably the same reason that I like Crusader Kings 2: I'm playing more as a dynasty without any clear victory conditions or goals in mind. I just expand and explore until I run into conflict, and then I see if my empire survives or not, or if it splits into a number of successor states. The game can still be fun even when you're losing, and its relatively hard to have a complete "game over" state unless things go really poorly for you.
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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby PaulB » Wed Sep 25, 2013 3:23 am

Interesting podcast. Thanks for the share.

Haven't had much experience with 4X games beyond MOO and MOO2, unless you also count VGA Planets.

My problem with MOO2 was always that the tech progression was too fast. Couldn't fight a war before your ships were obsolete. Picked it up off GOG however so might give it a go again

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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby Tyrel Lohr » Thu Dec 04, 2014 4:56 pm

I'd count both VGA Planets and Stars! as 4X games, although I think both of those games place more of a focus on competitive multiplayer which changes the way those games approach the genre.

I've really been enjoying 3MA, and it's now one of the podcasts that I really look forward to every week.

MOO2's tech progression was pretty rough, which is one of the reasons I couldn't get into it. MOO1 has problems with early ships not being worth the resources, but with MOO2 you're really discouraged from building anything before the mid game because they take too long to build and aren't going to be useful once they are built.
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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby PaulB » Fri Jun 26, 2015 12:24 am

Revisited this site after checking out a few discussions the first time and found that there's a relatively recent podcast on the 4X genre:

https://www.idlethumbs.net/3ma/episodes/the-4x-genre

Haven't given it a listen to yet (about to now) but as they reference MOO in the description I imagine it touches upon space genre.

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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby Tyrel Lohr » Fri Jun 26, 2015 3:04 pm

Yeah, they revisited some of the topics and looked at the recent crop of games to discuss what they liked and didn't like.

I was kind of surprised that Rob was more open to the unit design rules in Stardrive 2 based on his comments about the original Stardrive. I hadn't thought about it much, but I really agree with his original position that most unit design rules are fundamentally uninteresting, either because they have little real effect on the game or because they amount to busy work. Games like Civ where you have fixed unit types just seem to work better because they give players a fixed set of units (including some uniques per faction) that it's easier to memorize the abilities and strengths of.
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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby PaulB » Wed Jul 01, 2015 1:14 am

I've always kind of liked designing my own units, at least in MOO1 but admittedly haven't played a huge amount of 4X games. That said I'm not sure about the stardrive design method which seems overly involved. If the tactical battles are great then might be worth it.

I do think though that the idea of encountering an alien race and having the ships of their fleets an unknown quality to be very appealing. A first encounter with an alien race, if hostile, should really be a learning experience. The capabilities of their empire should likewise need to be learned, not simply given.

Another thing I'm not fond of for example is that a lot of 4X games simply tell you what systems the enemy has whether you've visited them or not.

To me it's all about discovery and progression.

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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby Tyrel Lohr » Wed Jul 01, 2015 4:09 am

MOO1 hit a sweet spot with unit design because you didn't need to design very many of them, and there was a limited number of options based on your available tech. Games like Stardrive where unit design takes on the worst elements of the Infinity-engine "inventory Tetris" mechanics just become monotonous.

I'd liken it to the Great Works bonus system in Civ V; it's a nice concept, but it's something that could just as easily be done for you by the computer instead of you sitting and trying to "solve" the puzzle to find the correct answer. Just give me size units and let me cram X Fuzzy Dice on to my cruiser. I'll let the game figure out how they are all going to fit into the ship!

The old computer 4x game Stars! did the unknown fleets thing right. You could tell what class a ship was, but if you had never fought the ship before you didn't know anything else about it. That game also had a limited number of unit classes per empire due to 16-bit architecture limitations, but you still had that massive uncertainty when you picked up a stack of unknown battleships and have to start inferring based on their mass just what they might be armed with.

In VBAM campaigns, it's fun when you do have a moderator that is good about just telling you about how many ships of each type an opponent has but nothing else about them until you encounter them for the first time. That way you really don't know what you're up against, and you have to gamble on whether you're attacking a bunch of heavily armed cruisers or a wayward convoy of military supply ships.

Part of my problem with writing 2e was that I am almost exclusively a solo player, and that is largely because I really like the exploration and discovery element of 4x games. For me, half the fun is pushing out the map and revealing new systems and empires on the map and seeing how everything falls together in the end. Elements of play that are conducive to that experience aren't necessarily all that much fun for people that just want a simple wargame that gives them an excuse to break out some tactical rules and blow things up :lol:
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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby PaulB » Wed Jul 01, 2015 6:04 pm

Yeah after finishing a console game yesterday I tried out GalCiv1 and MOO2 for a couple of minutes.

In MOO2, I explored a bunch of star systems and found 90% of the planets were pointless gas giants. Created a colony base and immediately had them start starving and couldn't transfer them any food because apparently freighters are "mysterious technology" and need to be researched. Also I found the game involved a lot of "next turn" button press, once my ships had exhausted their effective range and I wanted more colony ships or some planetary improvements I'd need to wait some 25 turns.

GalCiv seemed a bit more forgiving, but in that game I sent my colony ship to a new system and managed to accidentally colonize the terrible planet rather than the good one so those colonists started dying immediately too.

From first impressions, I'm not overly fond of the multi-planet system, at least not in that point of view. Maybe in a 3d view where you could have some sort of zoom-in and it displays the system in 3d it would be cooler. For a 2d interface, it just seems a bit cumbersome. I don't know if either game offers split ownership of a system. MOO2 seems to be trying very hard to be Civilization in space with the city view and worker allocation. Also finding a bunch of alien leaders from different races before you've even contacted any other species is a big knock against immersion to me.

- - - -

VGA Planets I think was a bit like Stars in that regard. There were different classes but you would know what weapons a ship had until you fought it. You could only tell its weight. A Biocide Carrier (Borg Cube) could be full of 200 fighters or it could have 200 minerals onboard or maybe its completely empty and just has some fuel. Unfortunately one of the game's failings is that many of the weapons were subpar leading to only a few types being built more often than not.

- - - - -

Solo play for something like VBAM can very appealing for a lot of people. I'm kind of surprised looking at BGG how many people talk about playing games solo though its probably the minority.

I've recently also been reading a book about the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 and its surprising to me how much information there is even in that era. Forces seem to have spies placed all across the world who inform their governments of when ships have steamed out, where they're at port, and so forth. Mind you this is a single planet with a single species and allies all around, having the same sort of intelligence against another species entirely would probably need to be garnered in other ways. Either through perhaps listening posts or through trading ships and ambassadors.

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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby Tyrel Lohr » Wed Jul 01, 2015 6:43 pm

I've never been sold on the multi-planet star system rules in space games. It can be interesting under certain circumstances but it breaks down as a map gets bigger, and I'd much rather have a larger strategic map where movement and territory control mattered rather than spend an entire game fighting over individual planets in a single star system.

You can have split ownership of systems in MOO2 (not sure about GalCiv, but I think so), but in both cases there's not that much difference between the way they handle star systems and if they just had each "planet" be its own system (as in MOO1 or VBAM) and leave it at that. I always just assume that the system stats are a combination of the best planet in the system and anything else of value that might be there.

The food problem I ran into with VBAM before when I tried grafting the mechanic in. Everything held up until that one playtest when we realized that one-system empires that didn't have access to Biosphere were all going to starve to death. Sigh.

- - - -

VGA Planets was very much in the same vein as Stars!, and from the same era. I never got a chance to play VGA Planets, but I remember looking over their online tech guide and seeing what they were doing with their rules. Stars! had the same problem with optimal weapon sets, which is why we had to homerule that you couldn't put missiles (which did double damage after shields) on anything but starbases because they broke the game pretty hard. Stars! also incentivized building thousands of "chaff" ships to soak up hits because the combat AI prioritized firing on the ship stack with the most boranium, so a cheap scout with a piddly laser would draw its fire and leave your actual combat ships alone.

- - - -

One of the significant changes in VBAM 2e is that Intel is now a system-based resource, and you can purchase Intel in any inhabited system (including those controlled by another player). That makes it easier to simulate a nation's ability to gather information from the distant ports.

We've had rules in the past that said that if you had a trade fleet in another player's system the mission difficulty would drop, too. That didn't survive to the end in this current draft, but it's things like that which can help to show that having foreign nationals running around could be detrimental to your internal security.
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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby PaulB » Wed Jul 01, 2015 7:48 pm

One thing I'm not fond of in ship design, even in MOO1 is the idea of a limit. The idea that your ship has a limit of say 300 Tons or Megatons or whatnot and you need to fill it up with components up to that limit. Many tabletop starship combat games do this as well.

But from a real world analogy, ships didn't have tonnage limits unless that country was bound by some naval agreement like the Washington 1922 treaty (and even then, people cheated). Rather they created the picked the specifications and simply built it.

That's personally how I'd want to see a 4X ship building system. No templates. No tonnage limtis. No pre-defined roles, just build the ship you want and have the computer do any necessary calculations to adjust for cost, weight, etcetera.

Personally though I would also want a game wherein the player was more intimate with their fleet. Where refitting an old cruiser with new tech is both necessary and a joy to do. Where an individual ship can be refitted several times and serve over many turns and can have a history much ilke a soldier might in Xcom.

But from what I know of most strategy games, ships are pretty much disposable. Two exceptions maybe being some older games like Star Control II or Homeworld 1.

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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby Tyrel Lohr » Wed Jul 01, 2015 11:05 pm

Having lived through VBAM 2e development (barely), I have a better appreciation for why designers use template limitations to drive unit development. The biggest reason is because it is easier to balance 5 things rather than a much larger number of variations. It's also easier for players to remember and compare the units at each fixed size. But it's definitely an artificial limitation.

I think I heard that the Star Ruler games on Steam had a system kind of like you describe, where you just load on equipment and the unit scales up to make space as needed. I might be wrong, though; I just vaguely recall someone telling a story that they went in to design a ship and ended up creating a vessel that was larger than the Death Star without realizing it. But the game let them do it, as long as they had the resources to build it.

I think it would be doable to create a game that focused more on ships as characters rather than massive fleets, but the scope and theme of the game would have to adjust accordingly. Combat would likely no longer be the focus of the rules, or if it did it would be more like the Battlestar Galactica board game where you take damage to sections of your ship and not be destroyed until all of them have been destroyed. The best model would be something like the Wing Commander games where you have ships that are probably pretty important and act as motherships for other fighters or consorts that are more expendable.

The XCOM unit progression would be a good fit in such a setting, with you slowly leveling up and expanding the capabilities of your unit over time, likely as the result of research efforts. In such a case, though, I would still be tempted to have a single "hero ship" class, and then treat its escorts as expendable add-ons that boost its capabilities or soak damage for it whenever it gets into a fight.

Another older game where individual ships mattered was Ascendancy by The Logic Factory. In that game, the number of ships that you could build was based on the number of systems that you controlled. At any given time you might only have half a dozen ships roaming around the galaxy. It was a fun but flawed game, let down by its poor AI and burdensome planetary micromanagement.
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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby PaulB » Thu Jul 02, 2015 12:04 am

On the subject of free-form design, I think player confusion can be largely eliminated if they're given some feedback on what sort of vessel they're building. If for example the ship had a basic name and if the classification of that ship within the name dynamically changed as the player added more equipment.

Start with an engine and a basic amount of mass and maybe its' a probe, bump up the desired speed and armour and maybe it's a frigate. Add guns, becomes destroyer, then cruiser then battleship then super battleship or whatnot. Take a battleship, strip the guns and put in fighter bays and its a carrier or if mix of guns then becomes battlecarrier.

Give the player feedback while allowing them the freedom.

From a tabletop perspective, the player could be given different ballparks for ratios or overall weights for different ships. Or simply given some examples to compare their own designs to.

I know that, Sid Meirs Starships maybe does some of what I'm talking about with regards to getting attached to a ship but the few videos I've seen on that game do not impress.

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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby PaulB » Wed Jul 08, 2015 7:40 pm

I was trying to get into MOO2 these last few days and cant' do it. Still cannot really understand why its lauded as the best game of the series. A few problems I have with it:

1. The spaceships all look the same. MOO1 actually has very distinctive looking designs that are easily recognizable and identifiable, but in MOO2 most of the ships are just a mass of pixels. There are differences but overall the ships look a lot less distinguished from each other.

2. Combat really does not seem appealing. One of the biggest problems I have with it is that ships START in combat range. Played a game as the space kitties and had a decent sized fleet and the antareans (terrible mechanic) came in and basically wiped out my entire fleet before I was even able to scroll over and see what they had.

Another game I was the space jellyish and again my fleet starts in combat range, and is nearly wiped out before I even get the chance to act.

In MOO1 the ships didn't really start in range. You had to move closer before you could engage with beams and the missiles of course had travel times.

3. And finally I honestly don't get the combat. I had a destroyer for example with 5 Mass Drivers. I was fighting some Mrrshan who were fielding the basic scouts wtih a single laser you get at the start of the game. Despite firing 4 or 5 times in two different encounters I was only able to land like a single hit. Not really that fun when your empires are both piss poor and you can't even hit the other guy.


This game is for me much like Alpha Centauri, two games which are massively popular and considered by many to be pinnacles of the genre but are ultimately two games which I cannot in any way get interested in. Maybe I'm just cut from different cloth.

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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby Tyrel Lohr » Wed Jul 08, 2015 8:13 pm

I agree with your points on MOO2. It took me a long time to come around to the game even being 'meh' because I was so profoundly disappointed in it at the time of release. Adding to your points:

1. I think this was a case of them blowing their art budget somewhere else and just reskinning the same set of sprites to save money. The MOO1 ships, as you said, were all individual and iconic along with having different color schemes.

2. Ship combat is full of trap options, the biggest of which being that while you can build larger ships at the start of the game it's a wholly terrible option because they take long enough to build that they'll be junk when they're finished at the rate that tech and production upgrades become available. I really don't like games that give production upgrades for that very reason: it creates too many situations where you never want to build anything but infrastructure improvements unless you have to, because those improvements just make everything happen faster.

3. I think they were trying to get small ships evasion abilities which IIRC were either bugged or had some issues in one of the two games. I can't remember at this point. But the combat was anticlimactic, and I much preferred the MOO1 chessboard and stacks.


Alpha Centauri I like a bit better, and I can understand the appeal but it is entirely aesthetic and background setting that earns nostalgia there. The rest of the game seems like pretty much a Civ 2 reskin. Like you, I think I am just looking for other things in the 4x genre that are pretty hard to deliver, but it's hard to put my finger on just what it is that I enjoy. I do think if Paradox did a EU4/CK2-in-space opera mash up it would probably be right up my alley.
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Re: Three Moves Ahead: Lost in Space

Postby PaulB » Wed Jul 08, 2015 9:20 pm

My problem with Alpha Centauri was for the most part the aesthetic. Particularly the units which were all module designs which ultimately came across look pretty unappealing. This is another game I should try to give another shot when I get the chance. Perhaps it's the atmosphere which was so much different from the civilization games.

But yeah I haven't played a huge amount of 4X games in my time - maybe there's another game waiting for me that I'll absolutely love. Probably the only other game I played was Rebellion which had a terrible combat system, or at least one I never grasped. Built a huge fleet of ships, engaged some numerically inferior Imperial force and for about 10 minutes watched my ships plink away, damaging the enemy shields, and then watching those same shields regenerate. Basically the combat was playing but nothing was actually happening or if anything I was losing.

Then I hit auto resolve and got a crushing victory.

There's a few new games like Last Federation and AI War which are dramatically different sorts of 4X games, might be interesting to give them a go.


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