GC3 Tutorial: Surrounded on All Sides

We'll pick up again with the same overview shot from the previous page. I had been very pleased with the expansion phase of the game, in particular how I had sniped two different planets away from under the noses of the AI empires. I would have been in a significantly weaker position with only five planets rather than seven. Praise be to the sensor ship design! Now the focus was on developing the planets where I had staked my claim, and the first priority there was improving my dismal morale situation.

Yoloswagulus and Unicorns of Love were both designed to be research planets. After they finished their initial factories and hospital/farm pairs, I had each one build a few research labs and then turned on research at both worlds with a few tiles still remaining to be filled out. I wanted to grab two techs in particular before pausing research again to continue further infrastructure:

Xeno Commerce is another basic tier tech that confers all kinds of helpful benefits. Much like how Interstellar Travel grants access to extra movement, better engines, better life support, and better sensors, Xeno Commerce also does about four different things at once. The tech unlocks the tier 1 market building (+25% wealth) and the ability to create trade routes to other empires, with a starting limit of two trade routes. Xeno Commerce has a starbase bonus as well, unlocking the first cultural module to spread influence into space. Most importantly, it also unlocks the tier 1 morale building, the entertainment center, which adds +2 morale to the planet. Because I was running Benevolent ideology in this game, I could pair entertainment centers next to missionary centers on each colony, with the missionary center granting two free levels to adjacent morale buildings. That would mean another +2 morale, for +4 total from the entertainment center. See how the adjacency bonuses can be such a big deal? It would double the benefit from the entertainment center!

Even more important was the next tech pictured above, Supportive Population. This tech grants +4 morale to all planets, which is disgustingly good. No need to add buildings and tie up precious tiles, just a free +4 morale on every colony for the rest of the game. GC3 occasionally has techs on the tree where the player will be asked to pick between one of three competing benefits, and Supportive Population is an example of this. The other two options here are an absolute joke, however; Wealthy Population is +10% wealth on all planets, while Designated Trading Partner grants an additional trade route. The morale bonus from Supportive Population is an order of magnitude better than the other two - I can't possibly see anyone wanting the other options in anything other than a deliberate variant challenge. I would speed towards Supportive Population as fast as my research could take me there.

While the research project was underway, most of my colonies were happy to continue building their infrastructure. On the homeworld of New Iconia, I used one of the Durantium resources from my mining starbases to construct a Durantium Refinery. This is one of the few buildings that grants a flat production bonus rather than a percentage modifier, with the refinery adding +2 base production. However, the real benefit was the adjacency bonus, with the refinery granting +2 levels to all of the bordering factories. That was 10% per factory, or 40% total, plus the Durantium Refinery itself picked up 20% bonus production from bordering the other factories, then there was the flat +2 production to consider... Long story short, these refineries are very powerful when they can be placed next to four or five factories. New Iconia was nowhere near its population cap and it was already getting 80 hammers per turn.

Speaking of population, here's an illustration of the factors that go into growth. The base rate is only 0.1 population per turn, which will obviously take an ungodly long time to grow all the way up to the population cap. I'm doing my best to stack as many growth modifiers as possible here, with the hospital providing the biggest one at +30%. (Why 30% and not 25%? It's next to the farm and gets the 5% bonus from that.) High morale is also contributing a bit, and next turn the colony will finish its entertainment center to reach 100% morale for the 25% growth bonus. After including the modest Iconian racial ability, the homeworld will grow 0.2 population next turn instead of 0.1 - that's double the default rate. Don't be fooled by the small numbers, doubling the rate of growth makes a huge difference. (Does GC3 keep track of another decimal place for growth, or does it truncate to the nearest tenth? I'll need to test soon.) This is one of the keys to the economic side of the game, pushing growth as high as possible while also keeping morale at 100%.

This was an unpleasant surprise:

The Krynn poached the little PC3 world in my home system, Sanctum! I was not expecting that at all. Unlike in the Civilization games, the cultural borders in GC3 are a much more fluid thing. The AI ignores them with their ships, and they're perfectly content to colonize planets and construct starbases within your borders. I don't particularly like this aspect of the game, and I wish the borders played a more important role in the gameplay, but those are the rules. I had been planning on colonizing this world once Supportive Population tech finished with its morale bonus, only to see time run out before that. My fault, I should have been watching the map more closely. I did not notice the Krynn colony ship until they had already claimed Sanctum for themselves.

Now they could claim the planet, but could they hold it? I was dubious that the Krynn could make this work. Sanctum was deep within my influence and all of three tiles from my homeworld. This would be a nice test of the culture flipping mechanics in GC3. I was honestly curious as to what would happen. Hovering over the planet also revealed the degree of AI cheating on this difficulty level. A PC3 dirtball world with only 3.8 pop was already prouding 10 production AND 10 beakers on the very first turn of colonization? I call BS on that. Yeah, uh, my colonies do not look like that. The AI cheats outrageously on the highest difficulties.

Half a dozen turns later, one of my scouts found a system with an uncolonized planet down in the southwest. The Trillykins system had two planets in it, a normal PC8 planet and this highlighted PC12 frozen world. This is one of the neat features of GC3; like Master of Orion, there are some planets that can't be colonized from the start of the game. GC3 refers to them as "extreme planets", and they start to become available about a third of the way through the Planetology tech tree. Only the cybernetic Yor can make use of them at the start of the game, with that being one of their Silicoid-like racial abilities. For the moment, the frozen planet was off limits, but I might as well make a play for the normal world. Having another planet behind Krynn space seemed like a useful addition to the empire, assuming I could get down there before them. With the distances involved, and the fact that the AI starts the game with a revealed map, I wasn't terribly optimistic about the chances of landing this world. Might as well try though, right? Colony ships are cheap in this game. I designed a new colony ship with only 6 movement due to the need for additional life support / extended range, and queued it up for construction at the homeworld.

Once I finished researching Supportive Population, all of my morale problems vanished into thin air. Entertainment center + missionary center + the new tech were enough for +8 morale on each world, and that would keep them happy until about population 12. Most of them were sitting around population 4-5 at the moment, so they had a lot of growing to do. This allowed me to finally research Universal Translator tech and talk to the other AI races for the first time. Here's the diplomacy window:

This should look pretty familiar to anyone who's played a Civilization game. GC3 is reminicent of Civ3 in having literally everything available for trade, including individual colonies, starbases, and even ships. Techs would also appear here if I didn't have tech trading turned off. (One complaint that I do have: with tech trading off, there doesn't appear to be any way of seeing what techs the AI empires have researched. That should be visible somewhere.) Many of the balance issues in GC3 revolve around exploiting the AI here on the diplomacy screen; apparently they are willing to sell virtually anything for a high enough price. Maybe someday we'll explore that in a game, not today though. Again, I highly recommend turning off tech trading, the balance of this game is much better without the endless brokering of free goodies that it enables.

Anyway, this is what the Krynn look like for the curious. They were one of the stronger AIs in this galaxy and seemed to be doing well despite my empire claiming all of the planets along our border. Iridium also appeared to be in a good position, and the Drengin had six or seven planets down in the deep south. The Thalans, the Altarians, and the Yor were all struggling, especially the Yor. The cyborgs are supposed to be the most overpowered race in this game, but they weren't doing well this time. Not enough planets near their isolated northern start, I suppose. I signed the Altarians to an Open Borders deal to improve relations and planned to send my first trade ships down to their homeworld.

One of the next techs that I researched opened up Xeno Factories, the tier 2 factory building, so let's discuss how the building upgrade system works:

There are relatively few basic building types in GC3. The main ones are factories (production), research labs (research), consulates (influence), markets (wealth), entertainment centers (morale), and then farms (food) / hospitals (growth). Although there are other basic buildings, like the ones for tourism and military defense, these are the seven types you'll be seeing again and again on the average planet. Every building type can be upgraded into higher tiers as the player researches additional technology. For example, the basic factory costs 30 hammers and provides a bonus of +25% production. In this screenshot, I've just unlocked the tier 2 factory; the xeno factory costs 45 hammers and provides a bonus of +30% production. Now think about that math for a second. The xeno factory is significantly more expensive, and only provides 5% more production than the basic factory. What a rip off! This is a part of the game that can be unintuitive: adding more basic factories will provide a lot more production than upgrading basic factories into xeno factories. The tier 2 factory is only a tiny bit better than the tier 1 factory. This is why I don't rush to the tier 2 factories and the tier 2 research labs at the start of the game. They simply aren't needed yet. Better to research faster engines, unlock hospitals/farms, and then pick up morale stuff. As long as planets are still filling out their tiles with new basic improvements, there's no need for the tier 2 buildings.

So why get tier 2 factories at all if the tier 1 factories are so much more efficient? Well, it's because eventually you run out of tiles to build upon. Yes, adding more basic factories would be better, but there's only so many tiles where you can build factories! Once you've finished growing outwards on a planet and occupied all the tiles, the only way to improve further is to grow upwards into higher tier buildings. And later tiers also provide more substantial benefits; the tier 3 factory is the Mega Factory, for example, and that one is +40% production for 67 hammer cost. Mega factories are quite a bit better than basic factories - at more than double the production cost, of course. Choosing when to upgrade your buildings to the next tier is therefore a strategic decision (make sure to have "Auto Upgrade Improvements" turned off!) A research planet that has to go back to 100% production to turn its tier 1 research labs into the tier 2 xeno labs isn't conducting research during the transition. But at the same time, you don't want to spend the whole game on tier 1 buildings either, especially with the tier 3 and tier 4 versions being so much more powerful. GC3 forces the player into some difficult choices here. It's a pretty cool gameplay system.

While my planets were building the new xeno factories, my survey ship made a surprising discovery:

Holy crap! The Stehlen system had a PC16 planet, with bonuses to growth and food! This was the single best planet that I had seen to date while playing GC3, an absolute dream world. Forget about that PC8 further to the south in the Trillykins system, which the Krynn had just grabbed with one of their colony ships anyway. I had my own colony ship heading en route to that previous planet, and now it could divert to this far superior location instead. The ship was just to the west of Kane in this screenshot, about to leave my borders and enter open space. It only had 6 moves instead of 8 due to the need for extra range, but I didn't expect that to matter. I did have the range to reach Stehlen IV, just barely. My survey ship was fogbusting and making sure that there were no pirates in the area to kill my colony ship. Only a few more turns and that incredible planet would be mine.

Or maybe not:

At the very last moment, when I was one turn away from reaching the planet, a Krynn colony ship appeared out of nowhere to snatch away the prize. That Krynn ship has three moves and it's only three tiles away. It will colonize Stehlen IV on the interturn. And there's nothing that I can do about it; I can't even declare war and kill the colony ship, since my survey ship (which does have weapons on it) has already moved this turn. It can't get there in time either. Losing this godly planet by a single turn was a tough pill to swallow. If I'd only had the colony ship done one turn sooner, or if I hadn't needed to slow the thing down for the additional range, or if the Krynn still only had two movement on their colony ships instead of three... Lot of ifs there. I'd been on the winning end of these races earlier in the game, and now I was on the losing end. I was going to have to accept it.

I did learn one lesson from this setback: instead of building a colony ship when a new planet appears, it's better to have one already constructed and ready to go ahead of time. That could be the difference in one of these single turn races, which can be pretty common occurrances. You don't even need to load up the colony ship with population; it can sit in the shipyard indefinitely, and then only fill up with colonists when it embarks on its journey. In the future, I'm going to make sure that I always have one colony ship on standby throughout the early game. Better to build the colony ship and not use it than miss out like this.

The Krynn had foiled me twice now, in my home system at Sanctum and down here at Stehlen IV. If I needed a first target for aggression, I knew where to find one.

Here's a picture of Dodge, a planet where the tile configuration lined up just the way that I wanted. Two factories first, on a little island off by themselves and since upgraded to xeno factories. The hospital/farm pair were located next to the colonial capital, giving them another small adjacency bonus. The entertainment center and the missionary center were placed in another pair off in the west, together ensuring 100% morale for the forseeable future. And then the core of the planet's infrastructure was located in a clump together, four markets to generate wealth. Later on, I would use terraforming to expand the cluster of markets and reap even greater income. Dodge was the only planet of mine dedicated to wealth specialization. With the use of tourism and trade routes, I've found that you don't need too many of these. Maybe one planet in ten needs to be dedicated to making money if your goal is only to break even, obviously dependent on the size and quality of the planets involved. The starting bank of 5000 credits also plays a major factor here. If GC3 didn't start with such a ridiculous amount of cash, getting some income rolling would be a much higher priority. As it is though, the player doesn't seem to need that much in the way of wealth planets.

Here's a composite of the trade screen and the wealth overview. Trade routes are established using a ship with a trade module installed, in the same way that constructors build starbases with a constructor module. Establishing a trade route also consumes the trade ship in the same fashion. The player decides the starting point of the trade route when the ship is built, and the other end is wherever you move the ship. There are bonuses to the value of the trade route based on distance, how long the route has been active, size of the other planet, etc. At the start of the game, Xeno Commerce grants a maximum of two trade routes, and additional technology can unlock more of them. I haven't experimented too much with trade routes yet in GC3, but they don't seem to be especially strong as an option. Maybe if you invest in them more heavily by going down that part of the tech tree? I dunno. Like I was saying above, there doesn't seem to be that much of a need for more credits in GC3, aside from the planetary invasions. I guess it would be different with tech trading on. Unlike Civ4, the key limiting economic factor in this game is MORALE, not money. That's why I snap up everything morale related in a heartbeat. The money stuff is more of a "meh" feeling. Nice to have without being critical. I'll fill out the trade routes because they're easy income, without feeling any huge need to push for them on the tech tree.

Another thing that undercuts the trade routes is tourism. This mechanic was added to GC3 because a common complaint of GC2 was that influence was effectively useless. If the AIs will move through your borders regardless of treaty status, and having tiles in your borders don't even grant vision, then what's the point of emphasizing influence at all? Well, in this game higher influence will provide extra income in the form of tourism. I have no idea how this formula works or where this money is coming from, only that tourism does indeed function this way. Tourism has to be unlocked on the tech tree (you don't start the game with it), but it's a nice tech to go after because it's the same path as the tier 2 morale building. Tourism is also completely free money; you don't even need to build the trade ships like with the trade routes. May as well take advantage of it. I had good influence in this game as a result of emphasizing culture at Gambit and along the Krynn border. I also was taking advantage of the influence bonus that comes from running 100% morale on every planet, and of course the Benevolent ideology tree is full of stuff that gives further bonuses to influence. Tourism was covering about a third of the budget all on its own. With the money from Dodge added, I was well in the black on income. (Dodge was upgrading something at the time, so add another 35-40 credits/turn to this picture for the real number.) I generally like getting some influence going, and the tourism mechanic helps make it worthwhile.

With my planets getting close to finishing their development, it was time to enter into the warship business for the first time. The AI will only leave you alone for so long, and I needed to start getting some military together to defend my claims. I researched the techs for the Small hull size (remember you only start the game with Tiny and Cargo hulls) and the tier 1 weapons, then threw together this sad little Laser ship. Just ignore all those red dots, those are where the ships can be customized with cosmetic changes in the ship designer screen. It's possible to spend hours doing nothing but customizing the appearance of the ships, and people have done full setups based on Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar, etc. The important parts of the ship design screen are the modules down at the bottom of the screen, and the stats in the top right corner.

I've highlighted the basic tier 1 laser module to demonstrate its numbers. The Galactic Civ games have three different weapon types, and everything fits into one of those categories. Lasers (blue) are the medium weapon type, with average range and average rate of fire. Missiles (yellow) have the longest range and the slowest rate of fire, while mass drivers (red) are short range with the fastest cooldown time. Each one has their own defense type as well, with shields defending against lasers, point defense protecting against missiles, and armor stopping mass drivers. The defensive modules are cheaper to add than the weapons, but of course defenses don't do anything on their own, and weapons will always be able to deal at least some damage, while defenses are completely useless against an enemy packing a different weapon type. Obviously you want to defend against what the AI is bringing and pack weapons that they have no defense against. At this point though, I hadn't even researched the defensive module techs yet. Whoops. Sorry about that, Iconian recruits! This little ship simply had three laser modules and no defenses at all. The tier 1 lasers do two damage per shot, meaning that this ship could do six total damage per volley if all the shots hit (they are not guaranteed to do so). That damage is taken right out of a ship's HP total, you can see here how Small hulls have 50 HP. The numbers are fairly easy to calculate. There was only enough space here for the three laser modules and an engine module, enough to get up to 4 moves per turn. This design wasn't fast, or powerful, or sturdy, but at least it did have weapons on it. I would start building one per turn from New Iconia to begin the semblance of a fleet.

Another nice feature of this game are the graphs. As in Civ4, the player can call up a series of charts at any point in time to get a sense of where they stand in the game. I've highlighted research here, and there are quite a few others visible on this screen. It's the kind of small touch that makes the difference between a decent game and a great game; I always felt that the barebones Demographics and graphs in Civ5 were a major step backwards. It's nice to have so much information at your fingertips in GC3. Especially the graph for military power, that's a very important one to watch.

With regards to research, you're seeing the effects of developing the infrastructure on my planets before doing anything else. I've been running full social spending on my planets for the longest time, first getting their factories and then slowly adding hospitals, farms, entertainment centers, research labs, etc. Then I paused further to upgrade many of those buildings to tier 2 for the added benefits. The whole time, the AI has been splitting their sliders 33/33/33 or something close to it, very slowly increasing their research at a constant rate. That produces more research out of the gate, but in the long run, well... After about 50 turns, my colonies are all done baking. They're fully upgraded for my current tech level and ready to roll. When I turned on research in earnest for the first time, you can see the result on the graph. Even with all their various high difficulty bonuses, I blow right past the AIs and leave them in the dust. I'm still trailing in tech for now because they've been researching at a faster pace for the last 50 turns, but it's only a matter of time until I catch up to them and take the tech lead. And the AI will only get more inefficient as time continues to pass, since their starting bonuses will become less and less relevant. The AI flat-out stinks at the colony management side of the game right now. I hope that they can get better at it with time, since right now the only way to make them competitive is to give them absurd bonuses. They actually get SIX TIMES normal production on the highest difficulty level right now! Insane. I'll probably be heading there soon enough, since even here on Tough/Genius, they're just not good enough to beat me.

Speaking of research power, here's Yoloswagulus with its tier 2 level of buildings completed. Five xeno labs along with the bonus from being next to the resource tile are enough to hit 82 beakers/turn. It was a shame that the resource was placed in that particular spot, as otherwise I could put a Thulium Data Archive (the research equivalent of a Durantium Refinery) over there. The planet was still running at 100% morale, and population was finally getting close to the Food cap. The colony had been growing without pause for almost 60 turns and it still wasn't at the maximum yet, despite perfect morale for most of that time. It takes a long time to grow in GC3! I was still hoping to get a missionary center here at some point, probably with later terraforming of some kind. I think the consulate was worth building, placed on a tile that added bonus levels to influence. Still need more experience with this game to get a better sense of these tradeoffs.

With my research finally roaring along, techs started to come in very quickly. A lot of them were 1 turn techs, and a few times I was able to research two techs in a single turn. That's not possible in the Civ games, and in GC3 it's only possible by queuing them up ahead of time. However, when you queue up techs in this fashion, the interface will always choose the top option for any tech with three choices. Since you must queue things to discover more than one tech in a turn, this can honestly be quite frustrating. The whole interface when it comes to research is screwy; the game still doesn't tell you the actual beaker cost of any techs! That boggled my mind in version 1.00, and there's been three patches since then that didn't address this. How hard could it be to display the actual cost of each tech?!

In any case, I burned through a series of military techs in case one of the AI empires decided to come calling. I had the most population and was out-researching everyone else, which meant that I was fine on the economic side of things. The only danger at this point was an attack, and I took steps to prevent that. I researched up to Medium hull size, picked up the initial defensive systems, then invested into tier 2 missiles and tier 2 missile defense. Here's the design I came up with once I had those goodies:

The Krynn seemed like the most likely race to attack me, and I'd seen their newest warship design. It was relying on missiles for offense and it had shields for defense (did they see my Laser design?), which meant that I wanted either missiles or mass drivers to attack, and point defense to protect my own ship. The tier 2 missiles are named Stingers in this game, a nice homage to Master of Orion's own Stinger missiles. I've won a lot of MOO games with Stinger bases and missile boats, heh. Sadly this version doesn't do 15 damage per shot, but 4 damage per unit is a major upgrade from the 2 damage done by the first tier missiles. There was enough hull space on this Medium design to fit three Stinger modules, one tier 2 point defense module, and an engine module for additional movement. (Warships need some speed to be effective; even 4.5 moves is honestly too slow.) This all added up to 12 offense / 12 defense rating, all in the yellow missile field. I had to hope that I wouldn't run into too many lasers or mass drivers with this design, although simply having 100 HP per ship would make them relatively sturdy. Bigger ships are a lot better in this game. The homeworld had about 150 production at this point, and could almost crank out one per turn from the shipyard. I stopped building the old Laser ships and switched over to Stinger construction.

I'd also been squeezing out some constructors for additional starbases from time to time when New Iconia didn't have a useful military ship to build. While I did put one economic starbase over the Iconia/Yoloswagulus cluster, mostly I used the constructors to add cultural starbases in different parts of the map. I put two of them over by Gambit to help push back the Thalan borders, uncertain of how much pressure my colony would be under. I sent another one up to the empty region in the north, mostly so I could stuff a sensor ship behind the starbase defenses and watch if the Yor or Iridium tried to get too aggressive. And I also dropped a cultural starbase right next to the Krynn planet in my home system in the hopes of flipping it. Prior to adding the starbase, my influence didn't seem to be making much progress. The starbase made a major difference, however. My influence counter kept going up, and eventually a rebellion percentage began appearing:

What would happen when it hit 100%? I assumed that the colony would flip to me at that point, although I'd never seen this mechanic in action before. Notice as well how dominant my influence was on every border. The two Krynn starbases down by Kane had been completely enveloped by Iconian borders. The border used to be just south of Kane and Dodge; now it was a good half dozen tiles away from both planets. Whatever the Krynn were working on, it wasn't an influence victory.

Sanctum did indeed revolt over to my control the next turn, and the Krynn were not pleased:

They declared war! Now was that because of the culture flip, or had they been plotting war anyway? Relations had been distinctly cool for a while, and perhaps seeing their colony revolt away was the tipping point that sent them over the edge. Fortunately this war declaration didn't catch me off guard. In fact, I had been planning an attack on the Krynn myself, and delayed a turn to find out what would happen to Sanctum when it hit 100% rebellion. The poor Krynn had Chosen Unwisely (TM). My ships immediately blew up the shipyard that the Krynn had constructed at Sanctum (could they even use that thing without any planets nearby?) and prepared to begin hunting down the Krynn navy. I had seen what their ships were packing, and I was confident that my ships were superior.

Here's an overview of the front lines. The circled ship is one of my sensor ships, hacking the map and revealing everything in the Krynn sector of the map. Yeah, I don't think the game is supposed to work like this, but until they put a cap on sensor units, I'm going to keep abusing them because they're just so useful. I could see where all of the Krynn ships were located and move my own warships accordingly to cope with any threats. I've highlighted the largest Krynn fleet in view, nothing too scary due to the smaller hull sizes the Krynn were using. Only 145 HP for all five of those ships put together. I thought that this fleet was headed for my mining starbase over in the east, and I shifted a group of Stinger ships (the stack of 5 near the top of the screen) off in that direction. Note that the AI has idiotically failed to put any engines on their ships, and the whole stack is crawling along at 2 moves per turn. Anything that slow is not much of a threat; I'd have plenty of time to reinforce the starbase. (Or heck, just build some more constructors and upgrade its own defenses! Even the mining and cultural starbases can add defensive modules.) As it turned out, that Krynn fleet was indeed headed to a starbase, but not one of mine. It attacked the Altarian starbase over in that direction and destroyed it, at the cost of losing four of the five ships. Wait, they were at war with the Altarians too?! Yep, apparently so. There are no pop-up notifications in GC3 when other races go to war and I hadn't known. Well, good news for me!

There was one other Krynn stack of five ships over in the west near the Kane system. That was the most ships that the Krynn could stack together with their current level of logistics, 15 logistics points or 5 Small ships. (Logistics is a number that refers to how many ships can stack together into one fleet. Like everything else, it can be increased with more technology.) I had better logistics tech and my cap at the time was 25 points, 5 Medium ships or 8 Small ships. This tended to make the fleet on fleet battles lopsided in my favor. Of course, having map hacks from the sensor ship didn't help the Krynn either. I hunted down their other stack of five ships and destroyed it. After that, the space battles consisted of my grouped fleets hunting down isolated Krynn ships:

Those are eight of my old Laser design (Small hull) against a single Medium Krynn ship. The space battles themselves are completely automated, which I honestly think is a good thing. If they were player controlled, this would become another Total War game with players kiting mobs to death and winning against enemies with five times their numbers. No, it's better to keep the combat entirely in the hands of the AI, which maintains the emphasis on strategy (who can research and build better designs) instead of tactics (who can maneuver better in battle). I personally like the space battles, especially when using lasers. The missiles aren't nearly as impressive looking in action, even if the explosions when they blow up enemy ships are satisfying. Combat is completely skippable, and there's an excellent summary report after each engagement. You can go through the combat log and view the effect of every single weapon that fired if desired. For the moment, this game is still new enough that I like watching all the battles. I'll probably skip past them eventually.

Long story short, I mopped up all the Krynn ships pretty quickly and took up an offensive position over their core planets. That allowed me to kill all of their new ships as soon as they popped out of the shipyards, stopping the Krynn from ever amassing a fleet. They had no chance at all once that happened. For that matter, I could destroy the shipyards themselves, but the Krynn would simply rebuild them, and shipyards are fairly strong. It wasn't worth the effort. I had bypassed the Krynn starbases for the same reason, with the intention of coming back and smashing them later at my leisure. I wasn't winning flawlessly by any means; my ships were taking damage in each combat, and I was losing some ships here and there. Ships heal slowly in GC3, only 1 HP per turn in space or 4 HP when resting over a friendly planet. However, I had more than enough production to replace my losses, and the Krynn were suffering far worse. I was content to keep this dance going.

With nothing to challenge my space supremacy, I could begin sending transport ships to invade the Krynn worlds themselves. Planetary invasions are a bit strange in this game. They can't be launched at all until researching Planetary Invasion tech, which is in the second age on the tech tree and therefore can't be one of the first 10 techs researched. The idea is that there's a bit of a grace period before anyone can invade you in the early game. Planetary Invasion tech allows the player to put transport modules on ships, which again function just like colony modules or constructor modules. Each transport unit can hold 3 population, and like Master of Orion, that population comes out of your own worlds. Since growth is so slow in GC3, invading planets carries a sizable cost. You don't want to have your transports get shot down before they reach the target.

Here's the planetary invasion screen. I didn't have enough default range to reach the Krynn homeworld, but if I took over this planet (Kryseth Gamma), that would do the trick. The basic invasion mechanic works off of modifiers, like seemingly everything else in GC3. My transport had 6 population on board, painfully lifted from New Iconia a few turns earlier. They received a bonus of +20% thanks to the invasion techs that I had researched, for an overall score of 7.2. Conversely, the Krynn had 9 population on their world, and an invasion resistance percentage of 39%. I have no idea how this score is calculated, and it feels like it's a bit too low. I think the highest I've seen has been around 50%. Anyway, that gave them a defending score of 3.5, which meant that I badly overcalculated how many people I needed to conquer this world. I'm still getting a feel for that. The likelihood of success was 100%, so I clicked the invasion button and the planet was mine a few seconds later. Nice and easy.

That's kind of the problem though: it's a little *TOO* easy to conquer planets right now. I like the general idea here, having to load up your population on transports and suffer through that slow growth to replenish them. In theory this system looks a lot like Master of Orion's excellent invasion gameplay, and with some tweaking I think it could be a winner. Unfortunately, the invasions are definitely not there right now. The defender resistance is clearly too low, they need to buff that in some way to make this more challenging. I could have sent 3 population here and been victorious against 9 defending pop. Unless I'm playing as the Bulrathi, that shouldn't happen. The AI also needs to do a better job of stopping transports before they hit the target. In Master of Orion, for example, the whole game operates on a grid of points. There is no "space" in Master of Orion, only planets to move between. This is a major reason why the AI can be effective in MOO, the game is inherently easier for an AI with only 48 points of interaction instead of thousands of tiles. MOO invasions are even simpler than GC3, but the player must get past the defending missile bases first, and that's the challenge. The AI defends its planets very well with those bases. In Civ4, the AI struggles mightily to maneuver in the field, but it's programmed to keep large numbers of defenders in its cities at all times, and cities naturally get a series of huge defensive bonuses. These factors make it difficult to conquer cities. Here in GC3, the only defense against transports is shooting them down in space. Can the AI manage that? I'm doubtful.

Making things worse are the planetary invasion techs, different tactics that can be used as part of an invasion. These are horribly, horribly broken and need a complete rework or removal from the game. In essence, the player can spend credits to make it easier to take over a planet. Spent 1000 credits on Information Warfare and watch the resistance of the defending planet plummet. In practice, the combination of AI inability to target transports and the broken status of the invasion techs makes the AI a complete weakling on defense. Design a transport ship with 20 movement points, alpha-strike six AI planets on the first turn of the war, spending 1000 credits on each to take out 15 pop of defenders with 3 pop worth of attackers, and you've eliminated or crippled an entire empire on the first turn of the war. It's a disaster. I did things here in the expected way, removing the AI fleet and then sending in the transports after that, but with enough speed that's not necessary at all. There needs to be something that prevents transports from waltzing right up to colonies and unloading the marines. A Galactic Civ version of missile bases, perhaps? At the very least, the AI needs to be programmed to hold fleets on top of its own planets for defense. This is a potentially good system that needs a lot more work to be ready for primetime.

After conquering the first Krynn planet, I had enough range to jump to their homeworld of Kryseth next. It fell just as easily to the second transport off the production line, and Kryseth became part of the Iconian empire. Here's what the AI had done with its buildings on the surface of the planet. This is far from the worst that I've seen, although it's not especially great either. The AI simply doesn't specialize its worlds. It always tries to do a mixture of everything, running those sliders at the ridiculously inefficient 33/33/33 or something close to it. It doesn't even group its buildings together very well, as clearly the morale building should be over on that island by itself, and the three factories placed next to one another. Note as well the lack of a hospital - the AI does not prioritize growth enough. They only grow quickly because they have cheats boosting their performance, and even with them, I still took over the population lead with ease in this game. Without their morale bonuses, the AI would be in dire shape. I saw it firsthand when I played on the lower difficulties, and it was ugly. As for as the Krynn home system, I planned to turn this into another shipbuilding area, leaving anything else that I captured in the war free to do more research and wealth. All three of the planets in the Kryseth system could focus on production and combine together to create a very powerful shipyard.

Ten turns into the war, I had completely destroyed the Krynn fleet and taken over two of their four core planets. I was also pleasantly surprised by how dominant my influence was in this part of the map. Did I simply take control of Kryseth's influence when I conquered the planet? I guess so, since my own planets certainly wouldn't have borders 15 tiles away to the south otherwise. At this point, it was simply a matter of rolling over the remaining worlds until the Krynn were eliminated. They had seven worlds when this started: the four in the core, plus Sanctum, plus the two planets off to the southwest. Those acquisitions would potentially double my empire in size, jumping from 7 planets to 14 planets, and making my Iconians the runaway empire. For that matter, I still wanted that godly PC16 planet for myself!

Here's the Krynn home system a few turns later, after all three worlds were flying the banners of Iconia. I noticed these little icons popping up over the planets, and I was trying to figure out what they meant. There are no tooltips explaining their purpose. OK, the little hammer one indicates the planet is building something (I think?), but what does the green shield thing mean? And I'm assuming the smiley face is supposed to indicate morale, except that Kryseth Beta was sitting on 100% morale with an unhappy red frown. That can't possibly be correct... Looks like more interface issues again. Small icons over the planets are a great idea - if they're accurate, and if I know what they mean!

Once the core Krynn systems were all captured, I began the process of invading their colonies in the far southwest. Those were the planets in the Trillykins system and the Stahlen system that I had nearly been able to grab myself earlier in the game. Both systems actually had a pair of planets, a normal planet and an extreme planet. In the Trillykins system, the Yor had colonized the other world (that's their racial ability remember) and then seen it flip away to the much stronger Krynn influence. I guess you can culture flip a world even if you don't have the tech to colonize it yourself! I was also able to invade the planet despite not having the proper Planetology tech researched yet. Guess that only affects the colonization itself, nothing thereafter.

Above is an example of what one of these extreme planets looks like. There was almost no infrastructure here at all, the AI struggling mightily to build anything between its two different owners. And no wonder: extreme planets have a penalty of -50% production when they're first colonized. This is GC3's way of making these planets difficult to utilize, just as Master of Orion gave the hostile planets -50% population growth. Extreme planets tend to have a high planet class and a lot of tiles to build upon, which helps to overcome this penalty. (I'm not sure it makes logical sense for the extreme worlds to have some of the highest planet classes! Works from a gameplay perspective though.) This production penalty can be removed through researching additional techs, which will normalize the environment and turn extreme worlds into standard ones. Anyway, the extreme planets are pretty neat. The default settings make them relatively rare, certainly a lot less common than Master of Orion where the hostile worlds were roughly 50% of the total. However, these settings can be changed to make them more common if desired, or even to make all of the planets that appear come up as extreme. I'm glad that a modern game took this inspiration from Master of Orion; without the extreme planets, everything on the map would be colonized within the first two dozen turns.

The Krynn systems continued to fall like dominoes. I used a constructor for a starbase once to extend the range of my warships in the far southwest reaches of the map, but even that proved to be unnecessary. The AI didn't have any ships defending their planets themselves, and my transports could have slipped in without needing warship escort. (Yeah, the AI really needs some more help defending its planets. Different AI programming, or some new mechanic to give the planets some way of protecting themselves. Something.) In an interesting twist, the Krynn made their final stand on the planet of Stehlen IV, the location where they beat out my colony ship earlier in the game. It's not your world any longer! It's never been rightfully yours! Gimme gimme gimme!

This elimination screen was... underwhelming. Is that really the best that Stardock can do? I'm not much of a graphics guy, but even I was disappointed by this barebones presentation. We just killed billions of the Krynn, and their elimination has all of the weight and dignity of a text message? Something else to improve on, methinks. To the AI's credit, the Krynn had recognized that they were getting pasted in this war, and they had asked for peace multiple times, willing to pay a substantial amount of credits in the process. I knew that I had them on the run, and turned them down every time. Of course they started the whole thing in the first place by declaring war - might have been a bit of a mistake there, eh?

With 15 planets in hand now, more than double any of the other races, I could begin to explore some of the mid and lategame techs in more detail, and eventually begin thinking about how I wanted to win this one.