What I've found with the tech rules is that we have a few different outcomes that players generally want, and they are at issue with one another:
- A linear tech progression to handle historical scenarios
- Pre-generated force lists that make empires unique and so players don't have to touch the unit construction rules if they don't want to
- The ability to produce new unit classes as needed during the game
- A sense of meaningful progression so that there is some reason to invest in technology research
The classic VBAM approach has embraced the first two points, and for scenarios it works great. Even for settings like Star Trek or Star Wars it's not that hard to break things down to a rough linear tech tree, even if you don't use literal in-service dates.
The issue becomes messier in games that are more sandbox oriented and players want to be able to design their own units. At that point you almost have to use the prototyping rules and rely on tech investment as more of a way to open up new avenues.
Part of what I think we need to do to reconcile this is to keep the tech year system as the basic rules (as they are the simplest to explain) but then have advanced rules available for players that want something a bit more involved.
After discussing this with Geoff last night, I am thinking that an option could be to break down the units into macro tech levels like Starmada Edition did. Then you would use tech advancements to increase your macro tech level to unlock new "branches" of higher tech units, and then the prototyping rules could be used to handle the introduction of new units.
For example, let's say we broke units into five different categories. Rather than being categorized strictly by unit type, we could have things like Light Warships
(CT,DD,FF, CL), Heavy Warships
(CA, CB, BB, DN, SD), Support
(scouts, supply, assault, etc.), Strikecraft
(carrier, flights) and Planetary Defenses
(bases, minefields, troops). Then you'd start the game at TL-1 in each of these areas. For each successful tech advance you could raise your tech level in any one field by 1. So in 3000.12 you could decide to raise your Light Warships to TL-2. Now, starting on 3001.01, you could begin prototyping new ships of those classes that appear on your force list.
For a bit of a conversion situation, consider the following ships that I would have as the TL-4 TNG Era Federation fleet:
Under the above category assumption, you'd have the Freedom, Cheyenne, and New Orleans as the Light Warships, the Springfield, Challenger, Olympic, and Phoenix as Support, and the Nebula and Galaxy as Heavy Warships.
The above demonstrates that maybe Support doesn't work as well, and it could be better served to be broken into Escorts
(CL,CA), and Capital Ships
(CB,BB+) rather than function. In that case you'd have a more even split between the classes.
(I also realize that I'm missing the Saratoga variant of the Miranda, which would be thrown in here somewhere)
The other way to implement a Starmada Edition-like tech system would be to upend the current unit construction rules and have players research individual stats (DV,AS,AF,BC,CR) and then adjust the cost of the stats on a +-50% level based on their tech level. That could work as an optional rule, but it would make things very messy designing ships and I'd prefer to avoid that route outside of a very, very, very optional rule. I like being able to design a ship at a given tech level and not have to worry about fiddling with stat point costs.
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Going back to the idea of earning a pool of points to spend on new unit classes, I've thought of that and the one logical problem I have is that you are going to have some player that is going to just sit on all of their points until they pop the next tech level and then go whole hog designing new units without having anything at their previous tech level.
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All in all, this is a good explanation of why the tech year model, for all its flaws, continues to be the easiest way to present and use the rules. I'm still open to alternatives that are easy, such as being able to select up to X points of new units at your current tech level upon earning a tech advance, as those systems are easy to explain and adapt to sandbox games. With those rules it would also be fairly easy to say that you have to spend at least X points per turn or put other spending restrictions in place to prevent a player from carrying over too many between tech levels.
Example: The Federation player has 3 research points leftover from TL-3 and just advanced into TL-4 and got 5 more research points (assuming a 10/year, 5 year tech advancement rate). I now have 13 to spend unlocking TL-4 units. I choose to unlock the Galaxy (8) and the Cheyenne (4). This leaves 1 point that I can spend in the future.
I will admit to a bias against freeform unit design outside of specific scenarios where tech advancement is being used to earn some other bonus (like Starmada Edition where you are improving macro techs or getting new weapon modifications/systems for the tactical game). Otherwise you end up with situations where a player can completely abandon the theme or flavor of their empire and shift to some other entirely alien order of battle. We had a few people do that in the Glorious Stars playtest years ago, and it has stuck with me as something I really don't like.