Gameplay of Stars!
In the Gameplay of Stars!, each player begins the game with a small fleet of starting ships and one planet (or occasionally two, depending on Primary Racial Trait and universe size.) From these beginnings they develop their empire until they come into contact with the races of other players.
Players initially send scouts out to scan the planets around their homeworld. These scouts determine the environment and also the mineral concentrations. When a planet with a suitable environment (one that matches the environment settings defined in the race wizard) is found, coloniser ships are constructed and sent to the planet. Additional population and minerals can be shipped to the new colony in freighters.
Each new colony will develop its economy by building factories, mines, defenses or eventually a starbase, according to what the player adds to its production queue. Once a starbase has been built, the planet can construct ships.
In this way, colonies spread out throughout the galaxy from the homeworld, until the empire's boundaries meet those of another race.
During the game, each player builds up their economy through development of their planets. The economy of a planet is based on the number of colonists living there, and each 10,000 colonists contributes a certain amount of resources. In addition, the colonists can build factories (which in turn produce more resources) and mines (which produce minerals). The amount of resources produced by each colonist and factory, as well as the cost of building factories and mines, is configurable during the race design phase.
In addition to building factories and mines, the resources and minerals can also be used to build planetary defenses, ships and for technology research. No player ever has enough resources and minerals to accomplish all the tasks they need, and so trade-offs are constantly being made.
Another element that adds to the complexity of the game is ship design. The game defines a number of standard hulls, each of which has different numbers of slots into which various components can be placed. Some slots can contain only engines, some only weapons, etc. There are also general purpose slots on some hulls.
Which hulls are available, as well as which components can be placed in those hulls, depends on the technology research level that the player has reached at a given point in the game.
Due to the complexity of the game there are no best designs. Advanced players continually counter-design ships as they battle against their opponents.
A significant complication to player's lives is caused by a limit of only 16 different ship designs per player. This means that older ships must be scrapped before new designs can be implemented, once the limit is reached. This limit acts to prevent unlimited counter-designing.
A relatively large number of ship hulls are available on which to base new designs, most of which are listed below. Generally, in each category the capability of the hull, and the level of construction technology required to build it, increases from left to right.
- Warships: destroyer, cruiser, battlecruiser, battleship, dreadnought
- Bombers: mini-bomber, B-17, stealth bomber, B52
- Freighters: small freighter, medium freighter, large freighter, super freighter
- Support vessels: mini colony ship, colony ship, mini minelayer, fuel transport, super fuel x-port, super minelayer
- Multi-role vessels: scout, privateer, frigate, rogue, mini-morph, metamorph, galleon, nubian
- Remote Mining Platforms: midget miner, mini-miner, miner, super miner, ultra miner
Battles occur whenever fleets from two different races arrive at the same point, unless the players have set each other to "friend" in the player-relations manager.
Due to almost infinite number of possible ship designs, combined with a number of possible battle orders for each fleet, battles can be very difficult to predict. Advanced players will frequently try out a battle in a test-bed game against themselves prior to a particularly significant battle.
When a new game is started, the host defines the victory conditions for the game. Victory conditions can be managed by the game (for example, winner must have 100 capital ships and a score over 10,000) or, in multi-player games, may be by a simple vote.
Another important aspect of the game is research. There are six fields of technology that can be researched: energy, weapons, propulsion, construction, electronics and biotechnology. Each technology can be at any level between 0 (the default starting value) and 26 (maximum). Players can increase their level in technology by assigning resources to research, and can choose which technology to focus their research on. As players advance in technology, better components become available for use on their ships or planets.
The amount of resources required to increase a particular technology area depends on the current level, and also can be heavily influenced by choices made during race design. For example, one race design may take 3.5 times the resources to increase one level in a particular technology as another.
Also, several unique technologies may be obtained from the Mystery Trader as he passes through the galaxy at infrequent intervals.
It should be noted that there is no direct support in the game for technology trading. Experienced players accomplish the transfer of technology by exploiting game features that result in technology advances, including:
- Having a fleet survive a battle against superior technology
- Successfully invading a planet owned by a race with superior technology
- Scrapping ships that contain superior technology
The first two mechanisms also rely on the fact that the game allows allies to deliberately attack each other or invade each other's planets. All technology trading is based on reverse engineering.
Because many games take place over a period of months between players spread across the globe, diplomacy plays a very large part in the game. Alliances form, backs are stabbed and the outcomes of wars are decided by long email conversations.
Stars! games begin with race design, in which the player creates an alien race using the custom race wizard. This is a points based system, with advantages costing points and disadvantages giving them back. The total points left at the end of the design must be zero or greater. Each race has a primary racial trait, possibly several lesser racial traits, environmental settings, economic settings, and technology research capabilities, all of which can be adjusted. Good race design is one of the keys to playing Stars! successfully and sets apart advanced players from less skilled players.
Primary Racial Traits
- Claim Adjusters (CA). Terraforming experts enjoying instant, free alteration of any planet they acquire (instaforming). They have the ability to affect the quality of both friends' and enemies' planets through the use of specialised miners and bombs. Claims Adjusters are generally considered the most economically powerful trait.
- Warmonger (WM). Very good at offensive warfare, though not so good at defense. Warmongers can build specialised offensive equipment such as the BattleCruiser and Dreadnought hulls, but they can only build basic planetary defenses, and have no mine layers. They receive a bonus for invading troops. Warmongers favor the early-to-mid game, with most of their advantages disappearing in the late game.
- Inner Strength (IS). Very good at defensive warfare, and can research a wide variety of equipment to enhance their ships such as combined shields and armour, cloak disruptors, and miniature gatling lasers. They have access to the huge Super Freighter, and both standard and speed trap mines. Their colonists receive a defensive bonus and can breed on board transport ships. Inner Strength is generally viewed as one of the weakest Primary Racial Traits, though it can become economically strong.
- Packet Physics (PP). Experts at launching "mass packets" using their advanced mass driver technology which can be used for scouting, as a weapon, or a means of terraforming. Will often start with an extra 'outpost' colony. Viewed as one of the weakest Primary Racial Traits, excluding Tiny games where small distances cause packets to be dangerous weapons.
- Interstellar Traveller (IT). Have unique advantages when it comes to building and using stargates. Stargates are cheaper and IT ships can carry cargo through them, as well as taking less damage for exceeding the gate limits. At high tech levels, gates can be built with no limits for distance or weight. Often starts with an extra 'outpost' colony.
- Super Stealth (SS). Experts at keeping hidden, all their ships have a base 75% cloak and can carry cargo without losing cloak effectivness, as well as being able to travel through minefields 1 warp faster than normal. Can build specialised stealth equipment with built-in cloaks (such as shields and scanners), and has access to the Rogue and Stealth Bomber ships. Also receives a research bonus based on the total galaxy-wide research spending.
- Space Demolition (SD). Masters of minefields, Space Demolition races are able to build all types of mines and use them as an early warning system. They can plough through minefields two warps faster than normally safe and can remotely detonate their own standard minefields. They can build specialised minelaying ships which double minelaying rates.
- Alternate Reality (AR). AR is a unique race, which plays quite differently to the other races. While they can be vulnerable in the early stages of a game, they can become very powerful later on. Rather than colonizing planets, they live in starbases, and can eventually upgrade these homes into huge Death Stars. They have the ability to 'remote mine' their own planets.
- Jack of all Trades (JOAT). While not having any unique advantages, they get built-in scanners on their Scouts, Frigates and Destroyers, as well as 20% higher maximum population per planet. They start with level 3 in all techs.
- Hyper Expansion (HE). One of the most feared races, and the first with which 'monster' status was achieved. Hyper Expansionists can build totally adaptable Meta-Morph ships, as well as super-efficient energy capacitors with which to enhance their weapons. Their colonists' growth rate is doubled, but planets can only support half the usual number of colonists, making rapid expansion necessary for survival. Unable to construct stargates.
Lesser racial traits
In addition to the PRT, each race can select Lesser Racial Traits (LRTs). There is no limit to the number of LRTs that can be selected, although the race wizard penalises taking too many.
Each LRT is generally either an advantage or a disadvantage, although some have elements of both. Advantages cost race wizard points and disadvantages give them back.
- Improved Fuel Efficiency (IFE). Engines for races with IFE use 15% less fuel than normal. However, the main advantage is the Fuel Mizer engine, which is only available if you pick IFE. While nominally a fairly slow Warp-4 engine, it uses a lot less fuel at Warp-9 than any other engine until real Warp-9 engines become available at high Propulsion tech levels. It is fairly standard for modern races to take IFE for this reason.
- No Ram Scoop Engines (NRSE). Ram-scoop engines generate fuel as they travel. Taking NRSE makes these engines unavailable for the race, and hence the race wizard counts this as a disadvantage. However, taking NRSE does make available a relatively low tech Warp-10 engine. Thus, a race with NRSE can build Warp-10 capable ships much sooner than one without the LRT. Again, most modern races take NRSE. Additionally, taking NRSE and IFE still allows use of the Fuel Mizer engine.
- Advanced Remote Mining (ARM). Allows for construction of advanced mining equipment and vast mobile mining platforms. ARM becomes useful in the late game, but is only recommended if you know you are going to make heavy use of mining, e.g., if playing as Alternate Reality.
- Only Basic Remote Mining (OBRM). Mutually exclusive with ARM, selecting this disables all but the most basic mining equipment, but it allows your colonies to grow 10% larger than normal. This results in a significant increase in economy, and is very desirable to players who don't favor remote mining.
- Improved Starbases (ISB). Allows for the eventual construction of cheap Space Docks and huge Ultra Stations. All starbases have a built-in 20% cloak and are much cheaper to construct.
- Low Starting Population (LSP). Your homeworld starts with 30% fewer people (17500 instead of 25000).
- Total Terraforming (TT). Makes terraforming cheaper, and allows eventual change to planets of 30% instead of the normal 15%. Can be very expensive.
- Ultimate Recycling (UR). Allows more minerals and resources to be recovered from scrapped ships. Since scrapping ships is rare, this is an unpopular advantage.
- Generalized Research (GR). Provides a 25% boost to the overall number of research points, but spreads them through all fields making progress in a specific area difficult to achieve as all fields are advanced evenly.
- Regenerating Shields (RS). Makes shields 40% stronger and allows them to recharge 10% for every round of combat, but halves the effectiveness of armour.
- Bleeding Edge Technology (BET). Increases the potential for miniaturisation and cost reduction, but makes new technology more expensive to use. Almost always a bad choice.
- Mineral Alchemy (MA). Makes conversion of energy to minerals more efficient. In the extreme end-game, this is very powerful, but the high cost puts most players off from its conditional benefit.
- No Advanced Scanners (NAS). Makes penetrating scanners unavailable, but doubles the range of normal scanners. This doesn't restrict JOAT or SS racial scanners. Very ill-advised unless playing Jack of All Trades or Super Stealth, though it is quite good for Jack of All Trades.
- Cheap Engines (CE). Decreases the cost of engines, but all ships going faster than Warp 6 have a 10% chance of failing to move. Generally considered to be a bad idea.
Each race has a defined tolerance for an environment's gravity, temperature and radiation levels dissimilar to their natural one. Higher racial tolerances will result in more worlds available for colonization, and that the colonies will generally be more habitable. The habitability rating of a colony determines its maximum population size.
Population growth rate (PGR) determines the base rate at which a planetary population increases. However, this rate is reduced if the population is greater than 25% of the planetary maximum. Conventional wisdom suggests a PGR at 16% or higher, with 19% being a popular choice.
Three areas fall within a race's economic settings: colonist resources, factories, and mines. Colonist resources determine the pre-factory resources, which are most useful for getting a colony on its feet. Factory settings include resource cost, efficiency, maximum factories per population size, and the "G box". The "G box" is a checkbox that lowers the germanium cost of factories from four germanium each to three each, and is highly recommended. Mines settings are also based on resource cost, efficiency, and maximum per population size. It's recommended to lower racial mine cost from five to three.
Each of the six fields of research has a racial setting, which can be either normal, 50% cheaper, or 75% more expensive. There is also a checkbox providing tech three in all expensive fields at game start. A common choice is to set weapons to cheap and all fields to expensive, with the checkbox selected. Although advanced players often diverge from this, it is the standard from which they operate.
As Stars! has been around for so long, the community has developed some very effective techniques for getting the best out of a race design. There is still a lot of discussion along these lines in the discussion forums.
The population of a planet grows as the planet dwellers reproduce, but at 25% of maximum planet capacity the growth rate starts to slow. For this reason it is best to keep a planets population at exactly 25%, shipping excess population to another world. However, transport between planets is not instantaneous, and while moving the population is not (except for Inner Strength races) growing at all and so it is a good idea to have population in transit for the minimum possible time. In addition, a point will be reached at which there is nowhere left to put excess population; in this situation it is advisable to start filling planets to 100%.
Good population management is one of the keys to advanced play.
Starships in Stars! may be armed with beam weapons (such as lasers) or missiles/torpedoes. Amongst the most powerful weapons are "capital ship missiles" which do enormous amounts of damage. However, each missile fired will destroy at most one ship, and so advanced players will field vast numbers of very cheap ships called "chaff". The purpose of chaff is to be hit by the missiles (and die) before the players' valuable warships are targeted. As it is expensive to build missile ships, this has become an indispensable tactic.
The counter to chaff is to include "beamers" (warships with lots of beam weapons) in your battle fleet. Beam weapons are not limited to one ship killed per shot, and so a powerful beamer can be used as a "chaff shredder". However, without chaff of their own, beamers are quite vulnerable to and generally weaker than missile ships. This results in a rock-paper-scissors arrangement that is far more complex. Pre-chaff tactics largely consisted of large slow fleets of missile ships trying to engage each other, with victory going to the player with the biggest fleet. Modern fleets include missile ships, beamers, and chaff in order to win, with the outcome of battles being much harder to predict.
Advanced race design
Over the past few years, race design has been raised almost to an art form. The most commonly used benchmark in race design is achieving 25,000 annual resources by the game year 2450. Any race that can meet said benchmark is considered a "monster", and is probably viable in advanced play. Some race designs can hit several times this level. Other benchmarks include "Armageddons by 2460" and "100 Armageddon Battleships ASAP", these include both race's economical capability and player's minerals and resources management capability. Benchmarks are tested by playing the race in a single player game, using the most favorable settings for growth. Experienced players will not play a race in a real game without performing such testing.
There are three widely recognized design philosophies in advanced race design: hyper-growth (HG), hyper-production (HP), and tri-immune-HE. HG emphasises empire size, with high population growth rate and high rates of planet habitability. The Claim Adjuster, Hyper Expansion, and War Monger Primary Racial Traits tend toward HG, although other PRTs may also go the HG route. HP focuses on maximum potential per planet, with very good factory settings, usually sacrificing population-produced resources and small amounts of population growth rate and habitability (relative to HG). The Super Stealth PRT has the strongest tendency toward HP, although other PRTs may go the HP route. The Hyper Expansion PRT with immunity to all three environmental factors and very low population growth rate is the original heavy-hitter of advanced play, earning a perpetual mention in race design discussions. However, modern HG and HP races have surpassed it in performance, and triple immunity is no longer considered the best approach.
In large games, two players may spend significant periods of time building huge warfleets. When these fleets meet, the factors that determine who will be victorious can be difficult to judge. For this reason, most advanced players will attempt to predict the outcome by running a separate copy of the game, attempting to duplicate the composition of the fleets as closely as possible, and watching the results. If the result is the loss of your fleet then it is better not to engage.
- http://www.starsfaq.com/articles/basic_race_design.htm Basic Race Design. Art Lathrop. 1 August 1999. The Stars! FAQ.
- http://www.starsfaq.com/articles/sru/art138.htm Race Design, Step by Step. Mahrin Skel. Stars!-R-Us.
- http://www.starsfaq.com/articles/sru/art198.htm Living with Chaff. Art Lathrop. 10 September 1999. Stars!-R-Us.
- http://www.starsfaq.com/articles/sru/art35.htm The 25k by 2450 FAQ. Alberto Barsella. Stars!-R-Us.