YellowPsi's Challenge

Alkari, Hard, Small, 1 Opponent

The scenario description for this game, posted at the Realms Beyond forums by YellowPsi:

Early stages of expansion, 13 planets (14th radiated soon) vs 6 enemy.
Meklars are ahead in technology, while Alkaris were expanding and genociding 4 other races.

I cannot win it.
Tried: walling off with missile bases, harrassing Meklar with small bombers, making huge/medium beam ships, offering technology for peace. But he goes to war and takes all my planets one by one.

Please post a strategy of winning it.

OK, let's take a look at this save file. The situation is Final War, only one race remaining (Meklar). We control almost all of a Small galaxy:

My first thought is that this looks pretty doable. We've got 13 planets against 6 for the Meklar, and this is only on Hard difficulty. This is honestly a winning position right now. It will take some work to lose the game from this position. I go ahead and look at the Meklar's list of techs:

Hmmm, pretty far ahead in tech. In fact, they are about two full generations ahead in tech. That Omega-V Bomb is the one scary tech, since that means enough bombers can ignore our planetary defenses and destroy our colonies. If this were another human player, I would be worried. Fortunately, this is the AI. The AI does not have a killer instinct in Master of Orion. Even when it can kill your planets with an unbeatable fleet, it's not very good at doing so. Anyone who's spent a lot of time playing on Impossible has faced the Negative Fleet Bug and learned how to dance around invincible AI fleets. Honestly, even if the AI is bombing out my planets, I can refound them and stand them back up again. I've done it against Psilons who controlled over half the galaxy and were 20 tech leves ahead of me. I can probably manage things here.

Let's start solving the current situation. There's an immediate, obvious problem everywhere: our empire is running nowhere near top speed. All of our planets are missing vast amounts of factories and population. In 2508 no less! Here's one example:

Altair has 74 pop and 330 factories. Because we have Improved Robotics 3, our maximums here are 130 pop and 390 factories. We are not even remotely close to that. In Master of Orion, planets produce 1 BC each turn for every factory that's being worked, and 0.5 BC each turn for every population point. (It's a little more complicated than this because pop points produce more BC over time as you gain Planetology tech levels, but that's the base formula and it's close enough for our purposes.) When Altair is maxed out, it will produce 130 x 0.5 + 390 x 1 = 455 BC per turn. Right now, with only 74 pop we can only work 74 x 3 = 222 of those factories, and so Altair is producing 74 x 0.5 + 222 x 1 = 259 BC per turn. That's right, we're missing out on 200 BC every single turn by not having this planet maxed on pop and factories! Now you start to see why this setup is so dreadfully inefficient. We are literally making use of barely half of our economy. In Master of Orion, you pretty much want to max out your planets on pop and factories ASAP, and then keep them there permanently. There are reasons to make exceptions, of course, but that should be the general rule. If you transfer pop off your planets to invade, you need to remax the planet immediately with Ecology slider spending. If you get factories bombed out or sabotaged by spies, you need to replace them immediately as well. Doing anything other than maxing all planets ASAP and keeping them there wastes your economic potential.

As a result, I go through all of our planets and start fixing this situation. Max factory spending on all who aren't maxed on factories, max ecology spending for any who have factories but not population. Next, we're spending 5.6% of our economy spying on a race that has 15 more levels of Computer tech. That's a major waste, we aren't stealing much of anything from them. I drop down to 0.4% and swap to passive espionage just to keep track of what the Meklar have. When you're that far behind in Computer tech, I don't bother trying to steal tech from the AI. We are also running the incredibly inefficient reserve slider, taking 62 BC off every planet every turn (which is then halved due to the reserve penalty). I turn this off right away - we've got one Rich planet, and I'll feed the Reserve from that. We're spending another 10.4% of our economy on fleet maintenance:

Uhh, I'm not the biggest fan of these ship designs. Why is there a Huge ship with two Lasers and a Reserve Fuel Tank on board? Even if there was a reason to build this earlier, surely there's no point to having this around now when the whole map is colonized and we're in Final War. And we're paying maintenance on it every turn. Scrapped. In fact all of these ships with Gatling Lasers are hopelessly outdated. The Meklars have Class VI shields - those Lasers won't do a darn thing. Might as well scrap them all and stop paying fleet costs. And finally, Large ships make very poor bombers. You either want tons of Small ships maxed out on speed, or Huge ships with Autorepair special who carry lots of guns and can tank damage from missile bases. I don't like this ship design at all. The bombers are good enough to deal damage to the Meklar (who have no Planetary shield tech and only Hyper-V missiles) but they'll be useless if the cyborgs get any new techs. I'd rather scrap these ships and redesign something else later on. I need to play economy mode first anyway to build up these colonies.

So... that's every ship we owned gone to the scrap heap. We'll just defend with missile bases for now. Honestly, those Gatling Laser ships were useless anyway. Might as well free up the extra 10% of spending for our economy. The Meklars have one decent fleet, but nothing too terribly scary. If they take a planet or two while I'm in building mode, so be it.

On this first turn, I've managed to free up over 15% in sunk economic costs and we're about to make use of our huge size advantage once our planets start maxing out. We also have 5992 BC sitting in the Reserve, which I'll use to speed up our growth. We're starting at 2487 BC - let's see where that will be in a dozen turn when all the planets are maxed on pop and factories.

Argh, our Rich world was being used for Research?! That should never be happening, ever. I'm also very disappointed to see that Mentar and Kholdan had all of their factories bombed out in the invasion. I never bomb out the AI homeworlds unless it's absolutely avoidable. Well, that one will take a while to stand up and become productive again. Obaca, the second world colonized right next to Altair, has only 72 factories? In the year 2508? How is that even possible?! It's size 70 and has a maximum of 210 factories. This is going to take a few turns to fix...

Building factories:

Here are the overall economy numbers:

2508: 2487 BC (inherited)
2509: 2828 BC
2510: 3285 BC
2511: 3715 BC
2512: 4090 BC
2513: 4307 BC

At this point, nearly all of our planets have maxed out and we're starting to hit the point of diminishing returns. That huge planetary reserve is completely gone; I spent liberally and went from 6000BC to a mere 500BC. However, that's why you build up the reserve in the first place: speed up the development of new colonies and accelerate your overall growth curve. In the span of five turns, I nearly doubled the overall economy. Maintenance costs are way down, and bases now take up only 4% of the budget. Whereas before the empire was stagnating under huge fleet costs, missile base expenditure, heavy espionage, and that inefficient reserve tax, now we have a lean, sleek budget where resources can be shifted around quickly as needed. I've added Planetary Shields on most of my planets (even backline worlds want a shield and one missile base just for safety) and research has exploded. We're now up to 1350 RP/turn and that's still increasing as I finish growing pop and adding sufficient missile bases for safety. I will burn through another generation or two in tech and then go for the juggular against the Meklar.

The Meklars are doing... absolutely nothing. They are rallying ships to their point defense planet, then sitting there doing nothing. I'm particularly amused at how they continue to ignore the defenseless world of Escalon, right next to Ursa and with no ships in orbit. Told you that the AI doesn't have a killer instinct.

In 2518 I get my first tech discovery, finishing Battle Computer IV and starting on Improved Robotics IV. A whole bunch of other techs are nearly finished, and research is proceeding very quickly at 2500 RP/turn. (On the first turn, we were making only 521 RP/turn. Increased by a factor of five in just ten turns. Bit of an improvement there!) The tech costs on anything other than Impossible always look cheap to me, heh. Oooh, we have Atmospheric Terraforming available after discovering Controlled Radiated tech, very nice. This picture is from 2521, a baker's dozen turns after taking over:

That's more like it. Just a few more turns of this, then I can achieve tech parity with the Meklars and start burning down their worlds. They actually offered me peace, which I didn't even think was possible in Final War. I went ahead and accepted, since I've been running a pure econ/tech strategy. Just a matter of time before I come back and go for the kill.

After all those techs arrived, I designed some warships for the first time:

The Hard Beam is far from my favorite weapon. That's what I had though, so that's what I had to use for my frontline beam weapon. The Meklar ship-to-ship weapons were relatively weak, so I went with a fairly standard Huge design with heavy shields (Class V) designed to minimize attrition. If I had had the Autorepair special, then that would have been my only ship design, but nope, not in the tree here. With the Inertial Stabilizer, I was just able to fit a Fusion Bomb on a Small ship with combat speed 4. I went ahead and built them in the hundreds, with the intention of using my gunships to fight the Meklar fleets and then these bombers to blow up their worlds. This buildup then was interrupted as Robotics IV and Atmospheric Terraforming both popped around 2540, and while all of the planets were re-maxing at higher factory and population counts, I discovered Fusion Beam tech and resdesigned my Huge ship to get more guns into the battlefield. In all honesty, I could have sat back and teched into unbeatable weaponry, or I could have bombed out all of the Meklar worlds without invading them, taking advantage of the AI's poor movement of its fleets and striking whenever they weren't present. But I like to do things the proper way, with a full invasion to get all of those Meklar techs. Once I had all of their good stuff, I could always glass the last few worlds.

By 2545, I've taken the lead in Total Power and nearly caught the Meklar in Technology. I've also gone from no fleet whatsoever to approaching parity in the last ten turns. Time to send the fleet forward and conduct a military test. We'll choose Ursa, as it's close to a number of core worlds and off on the Meklar periphery. When I got to Ursa, there was quite the welcoming party there:

The missile bases with Hyper-Vs were laughable, but those Huge ships were another story. The Meklar were packing the Autorepair special on all of their designs, and I realized immediately that I didn't have enough firepower to get through them endless healing. I had to break off the attack and retreat.

This is where the AI's poor tactical handling of its ships came into play. I retreated from Ursa, and then immediately returned to attack again. Sure enough, the Meklars sent their unbeatable fleet off somewhere else, and I was able to bomb out the missile bases without issue. The AI is dumb like that. It has no real strategic understanding, instead moving its fleets around in mostly random fashion. The AI can detect weak points that lack missile bases, but that's about it. After bombing out the missile bases, I sent in the invasion force:

All five of these planets were sending a quarter of their population every turn to Ursa, then regrowing it on the interturn with Ecology spending. That's how you do planetary invasions, regrowing the population instantly so that your planets are remaxed again at the start of the next turn. The nebula to the west made accurate landing dates impossible to determine, so I just kept sending as much population as I could from each planet every turn. While doing this, that unbeatable Meklar fleet showed back up again. I retreated my own ships and kept right on sending more invasion forces, feeding them into the meat grinder for several turns in a row. Eventually the Meklar left again, my fleet returned, and the marines got through:

I picked up the full six techs, unfortunately failing to score anything of use. Argh, all of it junk! However, I did get 768 factories on Ursa, which would allow me to stand up the planet quickly as population flooded in from other worlds. In just a few turns, the base count was in the double digits. I was feeling pretty safe about my position.

Then this fleet showed up:

Yes, that is 13 Huge ships and another 109 Large ships, all heavily shielded and packing the Autorepair special again. Those Nexus ships were the real danger though, 100+ ships each carrying 3 Omega-V bombs. There was nothing that I could do here. Ursa was instantly bombed out and destroyed. My own fleet took out three or four of their Nexus designs before having to retreat. That, uh, that wasn't part of the plan.

Well - that settles things. They have an unbeatable fleet right now, one that could travel to any of my planets and wipe it out instantly. Building missile bases doesn't do much against Omega-V bombs, and I didn't have a missile tech better than Merculites. The Meklar, for their part, still were using those Hyper-Vs. We both had completely impotent planetary defenses! That meant I needed to go on the offensive, not to capture planets and stand them up, but merely to burn then down and deny them to the Meklars. I hate to do that, and I really wanted to invade and capture more tech. Not worth the effort right now though. This looked like a race to see who can burn down who's planets the fastest, and I meant to win that race.

This was the result:

All five of the Meklar core worlds went down like dominoes. I danced around their unbeatable fleet, retreating whenever it showed up, and blew up every colony where it wasn't located. The AI has no idea how to use its fleet for strategic defense, and those Hyper-V missile bases were completely laughable. I had a good chuckle when the bases at Meklon fired at my Huge Fusion Beam design and did all of 15 damage. Not too scary, that. I destroyed everything in sight in half a dozen turns, leading to this situation:

Yep, still can't beat that Meklar fleet. But the Meklar empire has been completely destroyed nonetheless, every planet bombed out. The bar graphs are displaying a few new colonies: zero factories, brand new, no industrial or technological power whatsoever. I actually realized at this point that the Meklar only had Range 5 tech, meaning that nearly all of my planets were completely safe from attack. Whoops, kind of a tech hole there, to go along with their crippling lack of missile technology.

That Meklar fleet was still making a nuisance of itself:

There went my Rich planet; the 25 bases there didn't even scratch their fleet. But again, I had plenty more worlds still on my hands. I immediately recolonized Galos and began building it up again. This is how you play against unbeatable fleets: dance around them, let them destroy your planets if they attack, replace and repair the damage. Strike wherever they are not on the map. This particular Meklar fleet was especially dangerous due to the combination of advanced bombs (which the AI often doesn't research) and high speed. That whole stack was moving at Warp 5, very unusual for the AI. It will often load one design down with maximum weapons and then not have room for the engines, and then the whole stack is crawling around the galactic map at Warp 1. But this stack was still bound by the limitation of the Stack of Doom: it can only be in one place at a time. It could not both attack me and defend the Meklar homeworlds. And that's all I needed to wrap this one up.

This was the situation in 2565:

The Meklar death fleet was hovering over their only remaining colony, the hot potato world of Ursa. If the Meklars stayed there, I couldn't take the planet from them. Of course, that meant giving up the rest of the map to me, letting me colonize all of the old Meklar worlds and resettle Galos. In this picture, I had two colony ships off to pick up the spoils, and more in production. The AI could not both attack and defend. It had to pick its poison.

As it turned out, the Meklars sat at Ursa for one turn, then returned to Galos to bomb it out again. Both planets died. Minor loss for me, game over for them.

Victory in 2567, Extermination win. I honestly could have won this much faster if I had simply gone for the kill immediately, rather than try to invade and stand up captured Meklar worlds. The strange tech situation in this game made that an unattractive solution. Neither one of us could defend our colonies, so I had no choice but to go out and destroy their worlds before they could do the same to me. I could have beaten the Meklar fleet eventually, by teching to higher levels and then building more advanced ships that outclassed their designs. Still, that was the wrong solution here. Faced with the conditions of this game, going on the offensive and eliminating the Meklar planets was clearly a better plan. There was always the chance that the Meklars would come up with a better missile tech, getting Pulsons or something, and then their bases would have ceased to be sitting ducks. Had to move before that happened.

Anyway, Master of Orion is a very rich strategic game. There are many different ways to win. In the event that the Meklars had possessed serious missle tech and no bombing techs, I would have played the ending a lot differently. Similarly, if we hadn't been in a Final War situation, I probably would have just teched to more advanced terraforming and grew my way into a council victory. It wasn't until the end of the game that I had enough Computer tech to make Espionage useful, so I never got anything out of that. Lots of different ways to strategize this game.

Thanks for the challenge. Although I've seen much harder setups, this was still entertaining.