GC3 Tutorial: Surrounded on All Sides

This was the map of former Drengin space in the aftermath of their surrender to Iridium. There are three of their planets in this area; look for the little white and gold upside-down triangle symbol, that's the icon for the Iridium Corporation. Drengi, the former Drengin homeworld, was deep within my influence and seemed likely to flip over to my empire eventually. There were already rebels popping up there after just a few turns. The other two planets were off to the east near Altarian space, surrounded by formerly Drengin warships now flying orange Iridium banners. To make matters worse, all of the preparations that I had made to capture the remaining Drengin planets were now interpreted by Iridium as signs of hostility! Check this out:

These guys had been my allies for virtually the whole game up to this point. Prior to the Drengin surrender, we had been at Warm relations. Now our relationship was drowning in red minus symbols, and none of it was my fault! I dropped the starbase inside Drengin territory to extend the range of my warships, never guessing that two turns later the same starbase would be awash in Iridium influence. Yeah, like I was supposed to anticipate an empire literally on the other side of the galaxy - who was also at war with the Drengin at the time! - magically taking over that region of space and suddenly getting all huffy about the starbase placement. What an awesome gameplay mechanic. Iridium was also bugging me about having ships in "their" space, and next to "their" planets. No you idiots, I wasn't trying to culture flip *YOUR* planets, I was trying to squeeze the Drengin colonies! Argh!!!

All the diplomacy of the first 100 turns with these guys had been wiped out in that one dice roll. And it gets even better. Thanks to the gift of the entire Drengin navy (well, what was left of it!), Iridium now had higher military power than me. They saw me as weak and "Ripe for Conquest". Oh boy. I could see where this was heading. Time to research some more military tech before the next inevitable sneak attack...

While I was researching Beam Amplification and other improved laser technology, I paused to take another look at the weak empires on my northeast frontier. The Yor and the Thalans were still going at one another, and my improved sensor ship design allowed me to watch more of the fireworks. The border planet between the two races belonged to the Yor for the moment; it had changed hands several times between the two of them. I wondered just how much production these two races wasted throwing ships at one another endlessly. The Yor definitely seemed to be winning, with the Thalans restricted to little more than their homeworld. At one point the Altarians even joined the fray - on the side of the Yor. They managed to capture a Thalan planet already engulfed by my influence further to the south. Definitely a rough game for the bugs here. Poaching the Gambit system so early in the game had been a blow that they never really recovered from.

Speaking of research, after many long turns of building infrastructure, Heaven was finally ready to turn on its research. This dream planet was living up to its name, with over 700% in bonuses adding up to one massive beaker total. I probably should have put a Thulium Data Archive or two here as well, since that would have increased the base beaker amount as well as the percentage bonus. For that matter, this planet still had plenty of growing to do to reach the population cap. And remember, I'm only at the tier 3 research building right now, the research institute. That one provides +40% research, same as the tier 3 mega factory for production. There are 5 total tiers of buildings in this game, with the top one providing +100% research. Each. Not to mention all of the extra tiles that get added from lategame terraforming, plus the higher population cap from higher tech farming, and so on. Seriously, this is "early game" for many people. My games haven't lasted long enough to see a bunch of that stuff because I keep winning too quickly. (Not the worst problem to have!)

Well, I certainly saw this one coming:

Total elapsed time from the Drengin surrender to the Iridium war declaration: six turns. It truly was amazing how that one annoying mechanic had poisoned the diplomatic well between our empires. One positive thing that I will say about GC3 is that the AIs are very willing to declare war if they feel they have the military edge. In Civ4 it was a little too easy to maintain peace with everyone if you knew how to work the diplomatic system, and in Civ5 the AIs rarely seem to do much fighting (at least in Brave New World). Far too many games play out as pacifist lovefests. GC3 reminds me more of Civ3, where the AIs would fight nonstop against both the player and one another, even when it didn't make much sense to do so. I think that I like this system as a first impression. If there's a bunch of negative diplomatic modifiers and the AI think it's stronger, then they absolutely should be willing to declare war. Of course, this game's diplomatic system could be prone to heavy manipulation as well and I simply don't know all the tricks yet. My evaluation is a tentative thumbs up for the moment pending more information.

Note as well the text used by Iridium in their war declaration: "Though you are stronger, we must preemptively attack to save ourselves." That's right, these guys may have been higher in military power a few turns ago, but I had been running heavy military spending with a new warship design. It's not like the upcoming war was a secret, as Iridium had been moving all of their ships up to my border, including a bunch of transports. Gee, I wonder what's going to happen next? That gave me time to see their designs and create my own counter, using the new techs that I'd been pulling in:

Let's discuss my ship design first, which is highlighted in the bottom left corner of the screen. I had picked up two important military techs during the tail end of the Drengin war and the buildup to the Iridium invasion. The first of these was Large hull size, allowing my shipyards to construct bigger ships with more room for modules and more total health (250 HP up from 100 HP on the Medium hull). The other important discovery was the tier 3 laser tech, known as Disruptors in another shout-out to Maser of Orion. I didn't reach Disruptors that often in MOO, but when I did they would always dominate the battlefield. The GC3 version of Disruptors deal 5 damage per shot, up from 3 damage on the tier 2 Particle Beams. I could fit six of them onto one of those Large hulls, for 30 damage per volley in total. Remember, my previous Particle Beam warship only did 12 damage per volley. Almost triple the damage there, very nice. Then I also had room to include an armor module and a point defense module to stop incoming mass drivers/missiles, plus enough engines to reach 9 moves/turn. With a full fleet of five Disruptors, the most I could combine together at my current level of logistics, I reached an attack rating of 150. That was enough to one-shot pretty much anything on the Iridium side in the first volley. Not bad at all.

As for the Iridium military, they certainly had a lot of stacks moving around with five, six, or even seven ships grouped together. The sheer number of ships looked intimidating on the overview map; if you count them up in the above screenshot, there's about 50 of them revealed by my sensor ships. However, it turned out that the Iridium navy was a complete joke in practice. Look at the stats on that group of seven ships that I highlighted. They were relying on mass drivers again as their main weapon, with a total attack rating of 52. Now that would have been intimidating fifty turns ago against the Krynn, but here's the thing. It's not Turn 85 anymore. It's Turn 135. My fleet enormously outclassed them on damage by this point.

It's even worse than that, however. Not only do my ships do triple the damage, they have massively more health as well: 1437 HP against their 275 HP. For whatever reason, the Iridium were mostly fielding Small ships, and even some Tiny designs! Must have been tough recruiting pilots to fly those babies. Their little ships would die almost instantly against my Large cruisers, and once they died they would stop outputting damage in battle. In practice, therefore, engagements would quickly swing from 3:1 in damage to 5:1 damage, then 10:1 as the Iridium ships rapidly fell. Much of the time their ships did no damage at all, unable to pierce through my Disruptors' armor and point defense. Having lots of small ships was a legit strategy in Master of Orion, but it doesn't seem to work in GC3 due to the logistics cap on stacking. The contrast between my big warships and the tiny dots of the Iridium fighters was striking every time that we fought a battle. Since lasers outrange mass drivers, the green Disruptor bursts would typically kill one or two Iridium ships before they could even get a shot off. It wasn't pretty.

Furthermore, check out the movement rate of that Iridium stack from the previous picture: 2 moves per turn!!! My Disruptors had 9 moves apiece, and they were the slowpokes compared to the 18 moves on my transports and 21 moves on my constructors. Two movement at this stage of the game was risible. Stardock, please teach your AI to emphasize speed better, or it's not going to matter how much they cheat on their production bonuses.

And one more picture of the aftermath of combat. I told you they were barely scratching my ships. My design was another near-perfect counter, and I had not been caught unawares by this attack. Every turn, my main Disruptor stack was blowing up two or three of those little Iridium groups, which were just crawling along at that pitiful 2 movement rate. I had another stack of Disruptors assembling back at New Iconia, and more of them moving up from the Kryseth system in the south. Behind that, I was preparing my transports, loading them up with population for the invasion wave. I guess Iridium had similar ideas, as I shot down transport after transport of theirs, each one loaded with 2.5 population. Nasty way to go, millions perishing in space. I have no idea how the AI ever thought they would reach my planets at that snail's pace.

This wasn't a war. It was a massacre.

Just a few turns later, Iridium had already been humbled. Lower than Altaria now on the Civilization Power rankings? That wasn't good. My empire had also taken the lead in nearly every ranking, with the exception of morale and treasury. Having 20+ planets wasn't exactly doing great things to my happiness levels, heh. And of course I put my credits to use rather than stockpiling them needlessly. I'm always last or near last in the treasury rankings.

Here's a composite picture of the planetary invasion screen demonstrating the effect of one of the invasion tactics. "Information Warfare" costs 1000 credits to use, and in exchange it drops the planetary defense by -25% and the resistance percentage by -25%. Apparently it also reduces casualties and prevents the buildings on the planet from being damaged. Information Warfare was unnecessary as a tactic here, and I would never end up using it throughout the rest of this game. I genuinely do not like these tactics and would remove them from the game if I could. They're a mechanic that will never be balanced properly, even if the rest of the invasion gameplay gets cleaned up at a later date. If the tactics are weak, then there's almost never any point in spending on them. If they're strong, then they become a complete no-brainer every time. It's exceedingly difficult to find a sweet spot in the middle by the very nature of this mechanic. All throughout this game, I never had any trouble capturing planets - the Likelihood of Success was 100% every single time. Yep, I never failed a single invasion at any point in time. Information Warfare was therefore useless. However, if Stardock tinkers with the numbers and makes it harder to invade, the same tactic would suddenly become hugely overpowered, as 1000 credits is a trivial sum to spend in exchange for taking an entire planet. Again, the whole invasion setup has some serious holes at present. I hope that the developers will work to fix this, and not ignore existing problems in favor of adding shiny new things. (The knock on Stardock is that they love to keep adding more content rather than address the issues with the stuff they've already produced. Elemental and Fallen Enchantress, I'm looking at you. We shall see about GC3.)

After ten turns of warring, the space combat phase was essentially finished. I had destroyed almost every Iridium ship on the map, and with their slow movement plus my sensor vision, there was absolutely nowhere for them to run. Total ships lost on my end: zero. Not a single Disruptor was defeated, or even came particularly close. I think one of them fell down to about 120 HP out of the starting 287 HP. At least the Krynn and the Drengin had managed to blow up some of my ships! What an ass-kicking.

Here's how you work around that stupid AI surrender mechanic. I set things up to have four transports capture the four remaining Iridium planets on the same turn. They're circled in yellow, and there are Iconian ships prepared to hit the four planets and defeat the defending Iridium ships in each case. I had to use starbases to extend ship range in one or two places; it's useful to bring a couple of constructors along for exactly that purpose. (The return of the combat workers!) You can skip on adding extra range on warships if you're willing to do this, which may or may not be worth it.

In any case, I cleared out the defending ships (a single Tiny ship over each planet - how sad) and then sent in the transports. No mess, no fuss, and the worlds were mine:

With the exception of one remaining Iridium planet (Snyder II) where my Disruptor stack came up a single movement point short. Whoops. My transport had more than enough movement to hit the planet, but there's a little Iridium ship defending, and the marines can't land unless it gets cleaned up first. For future games, I think I'll create another design with additional range and speed just to clear out the weak planetary defending ships. The space equivalent of light cavalry, used for raiding and harassing weakly defended targets. With a couple of those, I could have skipped the starbase constructors and the need to wait for the main Disruptors stack to clear out the planetary defenses. The GC3 AI should be programmed to keep a strong fleet over each planet; the logistics cap is doubled on the same tile as a planet or starbase you control. If they do that, it would necessitate bringing the main fleet up to crack each world. Right now, however, they have one or two Tiny ships stationed for defense, or nothing at all, and it's laughably easy to get fast-moving transports through.

I expected that I would capture the final Iridium planet on the next turn. Instead, when I went to move my transport, I found that there was no available target. That last planet was somehow one of my worlds now! Whaaat?! It took me a minute to figure out what had happened, and then suddenly I figured it out: the Iridium Corporation had surrendered to me! There was no notification of this taking place, nothing popping up on the screen at all. Nor did I even get a chance to reject their surrender. Snyder II was just part of my empire at the start of the next turn. But the remaining Iridium ships didn't join my navy, and I was still mopping them up while the Iridium leader was relegated to that weird "dead but not dead" status for one turn that I'd seen with the Dregin earlier.

In other words, not only is the surrender mechanic a bad one from a gameplay perspective, it's not even coded very well. Heh. This whole thing is screwy.

Guess that settles that. Iridium was definitely defeated even though I never finished them off directly. What a strange ending to that war. I almost felt sorry for them - this was ultimately the fault of the Drengin. That first surrender was a poison pill!

Here's the victory condition screen in GC3. There are five different victory types, and each one can be turned on or off on the setup screen before starting. Conquest victory is the simplest one: kill all of the other races. I wasn't too far off from that one, although I wasn't especially keen to do even more invading of the remaining three empires. Influence victory is a combination of a cultural victory and a domination victory. You win by having control over 75% of the galactic map, which can be done through influence starbases or invading other empires. I had done a little bit of both here, and this was the victory I would be targeting. The Technology victory requires the player to research either everything on the tech tree or very close to it. And this game's tech tree is enormous; even at this point, I had researched only 20% of the thing. Let's just say that I don't expect to be going for the Technology victory very often. The Ascension victory is the most unique one, where you can win the game by spending enough turns mining these ascension crystals found on the map. It takes several thousand points to achieve the Ascension victory, and each crystal starts out by producing one point per turn. Not a fast victory. (You can increase the rate at which those crystals are mined with technology, although it's still a slow process.) Finally, the Alliance victory requires your empire to sign an alliance with all of the other remaining empires. If everyone still alive is part of the same alliance, you share a victory with them. It's the closest thing that this game has to the Galactic Council victory from Master of Orion, or a United Nations diplomacy victory from the Civilization games. Of course, even one holdout will prevent this victory from taking place.

There is one silly thing about the Influence victory: not only does the player have to reach the (very high) domination percentage, the player also has wait for ten additional turns after hitting that point. Maybe this would matter in a Multiplayer game - maybe - but it's a complete waste of time here. Why do we have to sit and wait for ten turns before the game is over? Let's be honest: anyone who can dominate this much of the galactic map has already won the game. This is no different than the ten turns of waiting after launching the spaceship in Civ4 Beyond the Sword. It's pointless.

I had enough ideology points to choose another policy, and I'd been sitting on them for a few turns at this point. GC3 doesn't force you to choose a policy immediately, another option that I do like. I was hoping to see the Thalan homeworld slip into my borders and then take this Enticing policy, which causes all planets and starbases within your territory to join your empire. (It's a one-time deal, not permanent thereafter as the borders continue to shift.) The Thalans had only their homeworld remaining - would that eliminate them from the game? It would be interesting to find out. But with the victory timer ticking down the final ten turns, I went ahead and grabbed this policy anyway. The AIs had a gazillion starbases in my territory that all went over to my control, and I picked up yet another planet as well from the Altarians. Check out the resource indicator in this next screenshot if you want to see just how many resources the AI went after with its starbases.

That's a lot of Durantium.

There was no point in doing further empire management at this point. I set all of my planets to 100% research and waited out the ten turns. By the way, there's another little annoyance here: see the "Idle Ship" button in the bottom right corner? That's where you end your turn too. Apparently it's not possible to end your turn ahead of time in this game. You must move every ship (or give a Guard command), you must select a tech to research, you must tell every planet and every shipyard to build something. The game simply will not let you move on to the next turn if there's anything unassigned. That was a bit of an irritation. On the positive side, my research soared up to 2500 beakers/turn with every planet doing nothing but research. Too bad I didn't need any more techs.

One final point about morale. What was my situation looking like with 32 planets in the Iconian empire? Honestly - not that bad! Despite a serious Large Empire Penalty of -6.2 happiness per planet, I was staying afloat relatively well here. Unless the player is on a very big map, morale can indeed be managed with good planetary management and smart research choices. I had +8 morale from Supportive Population tech and another one later in the tree that does the exact same thing. I had a tier 3 entertainment center on every planet, typically paired with a missionary center or something similar for additional building levels, and that was worth at least another +8 morale. My core worlds had economic starbases with morale modules, providing another +3 morale from Zero G Ballet. Then there was another +20% morale from the top of the Diplomatic tech tree under the Populist Party tech, plus more percentage bonuses from a morale resource that I was mining with a starbase. I never even reached the Benevolent policy at the end of the Affinity tree, which grants +50% morale to all planets, and I could have gotten that in about 30 more turns. Don't listen to those people who claim that it's impossible to manage morale. I definitely could have maintained 100% morale with as many as 50 planets in this galaxy. On anything other than the most enormous Insane maps, the tools are absolutely there to keep morale high.

Exactly ten turns after I finished my conquest of Iridium, the meaningless countdown timer ran out and I won an Influence victory on Turn 155. There's a brief cutscene of some kind of cultural festival in space, which is a nice touch. I also received a score of... 17? Umm, ok? I noticed in previous games that the scoring system hands out very low numbers. I don't particularly care, nor do I have any idea how these victory scores are calculated. I suspect they have something to do with the Metaverse, and I'm not interested in grinding out games for some kind of online ranking.

The summary screen has some more information about the game. I'm amused that I had no allies on the list there, heh. Unsurprisingly, my most built ship was a constructor. That's very common in these games. Apparently I also built at least 21 of my Disruptor designs over the course of the Iridium war. Probably half of them never saw combat. Oh and look under the interface. The Thalan homeworld slipped into my borders on the final turn of the game. Too bad I didn't hold off on that ideology choice for a few more turns! Might have been able to eliminate another race that way.

And the final ranking screen, where my empire was first in anything that mattered. I like the 157 ships killed against 15 ships lost, a nice 10:1 ratio. I could live with being last in categories like "Ships Lost" and "Battles Lost". Last in that Treasury category again too!

Alright, so what do we make of this game as a whole? GC3 at the moment is a highly entertaining, if flawed, experience. I enjoy most of the basic gameplay mechanics: the expansion phase, planetary management, the tech tree, ship design, combat, the ideologies, etc. Most of those things are fun to use and have a lot of potential for replay value. I also love the fast pace and the large scope of the game. GC3 is the antithesis of Civ5 in these regards, with the latter game seemingly doing everything it can to be as small-scale and slow as possible. GC3 has the fastest opening of any empire-building game I've played since Civ3, with decisions to make on every single turn. You can win or lose a game based on the decisions you make in the first dozen turns. The pace never really lets up from there; this game was absolutely packed with action, and it still concluded in 155 turns. That was after fighting three wars, colonizing a dozen planets myself, conquering two dozen more, building 35 starbases, researching almost 70 techs, and filling up 75% of the galaxy with my influence. Civ5's little empires of four cities and tiny armies of eight units are nowhere to be seen here. GC3 is all about grand size and a fast pace.

Unfortunately this makes the balance holes that do exist all the more frustrating. Things like sensor stacking, planetary invasions, the surrender mechanics, and so on are detracting from an otherwise excellent game. The AI is another major problem, as it clearly doesn't know how to play the game at all. The AI flat-out stinks at colony management, ship building, combat, and a half dozen other things. The bonuses it's getting right now at the highest difficulty level are truly absurd, which it needs to compensate for how poorly it plays the game. This is a major area of concern for the longterm health of GC3.

I've tried to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of this game as honestly as I can here. I want to give anyone on the fence a chance to decide for themselves whether this is worth a purchase. For me, this game was worth the money even if Stardock never manages to fix a lot of these problems. Why? Lack of competition. When GC2 came out in early 2006, it had the misfortune of releasing up against Civ4. While GC2 was a solid game, it was nowhere near as good as Civ4, and thus I had no desire to try the game. GC3 is releasing in a completely different sales environment. There are no other empire-building games of note out there on the market right now. Civ5 released five years ago, and even Brave New World's been out for years now. Civ: Beyond Earth is a complete joke. (Please, do not waste your money people.) The only other games in the genre are coming from indie studios with miniscule staff and budgets. Perhaps we'll get another gem like FTL out of one of them, but I haven't seen it yet. So yeah, GC3 is a flawed game, but what else is there to play right now in this genre? Civ4 came out TEN YEARS AGO! It's time to give something else a chance. Who knows, maybe GC3 will even live up to its potential if there are enough smart people playing it and providing feedback.

As always, thanks for reading. If you do try this game, I hope you have fun with it.