Stars!-R-Us Article

Basic Game Play
by: Jason Cawley

Marc Audsley wrote:
> Everytime I play Stars! by 2450 I only manage to get 2K
> resources. I'd like some general help and maybe some average resources
> for 2450.

Hi.  I haven't posted here in a while since I am "retired" from stars as a hobby, but do check things out from time to time.  I saw your post and figured I might be able to help out you and lots of others with the same sort of question (a common enough one), so what the heck :-)

First some general things - there are lots of strategy articles out on the web at the various stars sites, and you might enjoy reading them.  Can be a bit hard to find or figure out just what you want, as there is a lot of arcana, but might be helpful.  Similarly, you can try dejanews (via yahoo search - not hard to find) and read old posts with strategy advice if you like (might, shameless plug, look for my articles there :-) But to the issue at hand...

2k by 2450 isn't so hot.  People usually refer to these things in terms of what they can get by 2450 in an Acc BBS start (a game start option, giving a higher population at the begining, meant to speed things up).  A standard start (where you start off with 25,000 colonists) is usually about 7 years or so behind what will happen in an Acc BBS start; 2450 economies can be up to twice as large for an Acc BBS start as for standard, since many races will be growing at around 10% rates around those years (10% -> ~7 years to double).  Useful benchmarks are - 10k or better by 2450 in Acc BBS is "medium" or shows your race as played has some potential.  25k by the same year is strong, and that is the target most people shoot for when designing a race (not that they always get it, understand - some races can and some races can't; not a requirement, but if the race can of course it is gonna be pretty strong in a real game).  Getting the 25k requires special races designed to the good at it; really good designs can do appreciable better even than that under good conditions.  Just so you have a sense of what is possible.

A word about testing things - people will often run tests to practice, or to learn about the potential of a particular race.  That just means starting a stars game, "advanced game" option, with only the one race you will be playing in the game, and no AIs.  Typically in a small galaxy, with dense or packed star density (to make things easier :-), and with the Acc BBS start option.  This lets them run a quick game and just see what the race can do under ideal conditions (playing just 50-70 years, say, with just moving research fields around and generating new turns after year 30 or 40, to see how the race keeps developing on its own).  Alternately, you can just practice in a small game vs. a couple of the AIs.  I do both, testing first alone then "under pressure".  Try it; it can be a good way to learn how to do things.  After a few times, you can decide if it is worth it for you.

Ok, now to the more particular and hopefully more useful advice :-) First, I am going to do this in two passes as it were - first "how to play" stuff, them another go-round about race design advice.  You might try out the first bunch of ideas with a default Humanoid race to see what the playing stuff can add to your performance, them after you've got more out of that try again with some of the race design stuff to see what that adds.  Your goals :-) are the following - try to get to 10k or so with the Humanoid; then try for 25k using the race given below.  Might not make it in either case but ought to be in the ballpark.  After that you can experiment with the race design suggestions, etc.

First thing to understand is that the most important growing thing in stars is population.  Everything else depends on it, since it determines how many factories can be operated, mines likewise, generates a lot of your resources directly, grows "for free" (without added investment, 'cept colonizers and shipping and such), and also - the biggie - because every colony world starts out with just population on it, and the resources from that population have to buy everything else.  So the main idea is to increase population - sheer numbers of people.  There are other bells and whistles that can be added later, but the people are the main thing. 

People grow on planets.  How much they grow depends on three things - the race maximum growth rate (set in the race wizard - 15% for the Humanoid), the planetary habitat percentage (100% for HW, varying and lower for other places), and *crowding*.  How the first two work is simple - when crowding doesn't come in, the people grown each year are the growth percentage times the hab percentage times the people doing the growing.  100,000 pop at 15% on a 100% planet grow 15,000 people - simple.  On 50% hab, 7,500, etc.  Crowding is more complicated - but is the key.  The point is that you can reduce the amount of crowding your whole population undergoes by careful play, and this lets you get (close to) the full amount of growth the race can achieve (with its available habitat). 

(Aside on abbreviations - HW = homeworld, JOAT = jack of all trades, AIs = artificial intelligences = the computer players)

Crowding works like this - up to 25% of the maximum population (300,000 pop for a standard JOAT race, 250,000 for non-JOATs; the lesser racial trait "only basic remote mining" will raise these figures to 330,000 and 275,000 respectively) of a planet, there is no crowding.  After 25%, crowding kicks in and the grow rate starts to get worse for each bit of pop.  But a lower rate on more people can still give a higher total (in the same way that 5% interest on a bigger bank account can give more dollars than 6% interest on a smaller account).  Up until 33% of maximum population, this is what is going on - the "interest rate" you are getting falls, but the "dollars" (pop grown each year) keeps going up.  After 33% of capacity (that's 400,000 for a JOAT like the Humanoid, 330,000 or so for others, etc), the population grown each year will fall.  It will keep falling pretty steadily, starting to get pretty slow after 50% of capacity and real slow after around 80% of capacity. 

This is what I mean by "crowding".  The idea is, if I move my people around to keep the overall crowding problems throughout my whole empire down, then I'll keep growing lots of population every year, getting my "sheer numbers of people" and more quickly, and those people will then buy everything else I need and get me my big economy.  So the management job is to move people to the best places - to the planets with the best habitat, and with the least crowding. "Pop balancing" it is called. 

A word or two about what people ought to be buying.  Factories (at the default settings) cost 10 resources each (plus some Germanium, hereafter "G") and produce 1 resource per year.  So (if I have the G) anything I can spend on factories will give me a 10% return, and these returns can compound (as factory income is used to buy more factories).  Of course, I have to spend something on mines to get the G I need to build factories, so I won't get the full 10% on resources I spend on my economy.  With the default settings it comes out to around 7% in practice with the cost of the mines to get the G included.  That is still good enough to double every 10 years.  With 50 years to do this, that doubling adds up to a lot :-)

The way you do this is to set up an "autobuild" order.  I recommend using the following -

Autobuild 500 factories
Autobuild 500 mines
Autobuild max terraforming 5%
And check the box "contribute only leftover resources" to research.  (BTW, little trick - to add 100 items to an autobuild, just hold "Ctrl" while clicking "add" - for 10 items, use shift instead of ctrl).

Set up this "queue" on your homeworld.  Then in the lower left, right-click and choose "customize".  A window comes up; click "import" (this takes the queue you have for the current planet and brings those settings into this dialogue box).  It should be on "default" anyway; if not, pick that; them close the dialogue ("ok" or some such).  Now your default "q" will be this order, and every new planet you settle will use the same orders (and you can add these orders to any planet, e.g. one you settled before or changed, by just right-clicking in the lower left in the production window for that planet and picking "default").

I'll explain why to use this order.  Auto 500 factories tells the planet to build up to that many factories every year - basically "build all the factories you can".  But if there isn't enough G to build a factory, it'll skip down to the next item in the q since it is an autobuild order.  So if there is G, resources will be spent on factories.  If there isn't, the resources will be used to build mines instead, which will get the G income to build more factories in following years.  Also, if all the factories and mines that can be operated by your population on that planet are done, then it will skip down to the "terraforming" order, and buy that, which will raise the planet's habitat %, making the planet bigger and raising the population growth rate (which is what you want in that case, since there it is population that is holding you up).  Anything left over the terraforming will go to research. 

BTW, the "max terraforming" line will be grey (and read "skipped") for the homeworld, because you can't improve that one; it's already as good as it gets; don't worry 'bout that.  That part of the order will do it's job on the colonies, without effecting the HW at all. 

All your planets will have this order.  That means that until you tell 'em different, they will all spend everything investing in your economy.  As explained above, everything you spend that way will "compound" at 7-10%, helping your overall economy grow as fast as possible.  With this order, the only thing left to worry about is moving people around, and of course building the ships you need (and the odd base or three :-).  When you need to buy something, just put it in at the top of your q, and it will be done first with everything else going to your "savings plan". 

OK.  So with all that automated, the only thing you have to do is worry about crowding.  So your mission should you choose to accept it :-) is to find places for everyone to live and send them to the right places. 

To find the places, you have to explore the galaxy and find out which worlds are high habitat value "greens" (you can set the universe display to habitat value - upper left - and the map will display the worlds - the big green places mean "colonize me").  To explore, use your starting ships at first.  Since (as Humanoid or using the race below) you are JOAT, your scouts, destroyers, and (when/if you build any) frigates all have a built-in penetrating scanner, which can "scan" planets from 30 LY away (farther with higher electronics tech).  Other races have to build scouts with scanners on them and send them to each planet; you just need any scout, DD, or frigate and can go between two or three worlds to scan them all at once. 

To scout, you want to go fast to scan as many planets as you can.  Fuel is speed in stars - you can go faster if you burn more fuel.  The lighter a ship is the faster it can go using the same fuel, so cheap (to have lots), light, lots of fuel - that's what you want on a scout.

Design a new long-ranged scout.  Use the starting ship of that name, copy it, and take off the scanner (since you don't need that, being JOAT).  Best engine, fuel pod, nothing else, on a scout hull - light cheap and fast.  I call mine "Booster" since they can also help freighters go faster when in the same fleet by providing the fleet more fuel :-)

You don't have to build more on these to start - just use the starting ships.  But later, you can build more to scout areas the starting ships haven't. For the starting destroyer and armed probe, go slow - the speed of the engine rating - since they are low fuel or high weight. But the long-range scouts can afford to go faster when you want to; just burn the fuel (so set the speed for those yourself).

So, get those ships looking for new homes and let the HW just invest for the time being.  When the HW gets bigger (say 100 resources in a standard start, or 200-250 for Acc BBS starts) build some new boosters and send them to scout new places.  You want to scout everything (starting with places nearby, of course - but I do mean everything - not hard with enough scouts working if you go fast). 

One other early thing - at some point you are going to run out of your starting minerals (G, because the factories are using it).  If you wait, the autobuild will build enough mines soon enough.  But it can help to just build mines for a year or two (putting them in the top of the q) when the starting G runs out, because you will want some for ships, sometimes before the autobuild has built enough of them to get the G income for the ships you want every year.  One or two years just building mines will tide you over and let you build ships pretty much as needed.  Put these mines if you need them in at the top of the q.

OK.  So you've got the investment going, and a scouting program to find all the worlds you'll ever need :-) The next task is to get people to their new homes, and at the right time, fast.  Here's how to do that.

Redesign your freighter.  All you want is your best engine and a fuel pod (don't need any extra weight and want the range and speed).  For close-by places, this will be enough.  Send a colony ship (with it's dinky load of people) to the nearby greens, starting with the highest value ones you see.  Then the idea is the newly grown pop on your homeworld loads into the freighters (which you build each year for the purpose until you have enough coming back from earlier runs every year) and goes out to the new colonies and unloads.

You don't want to move pop off the HW too soon.  It is the best possible habitat, and the idea is to grow people.  So the only reason for anyone to leave at all is crowding.  Well, that means until you have crowding problems, don't leave.  Let the homeworld grow to 300,000 people (25% of capacity, where everyone will grow at the best rates).  Then send only the newly growing pop to the colonies each year.  You can see how many will grow over on the right - point at the pop figure and left-click, and a pop-up will tell you how many people will grow the following year (at 300,000, should be 45,000 pop per year with the 15% growth rate for the Humanoid).  So you can see you'll need 2 freighters a year at that point (the remainder can fill a colonizer say).  Each year you build two freighters (each holds 21,000 pop); put the new pop in them; send them to a new world (together in one fleet).  When some come back, just means you don't have to build new freighters that year. 

This means each new world will get 2,500 pop from the colonizer and 42,000 pop from a freighter-fleet run.  And then those people grow, until there is a crowding problem there too :-) When that looks likely you can put up a base there too (one year building just mines can get you the minerals needed for the base if necessary), and do the same thing for that place as you did for the homeworld (though the amount grown each year won't be so high when the habitat % is lower, so you may need only one freighter per year or so, depending).  Keep that up from everybody with a crowding problem until you run out of green places to go to.

See the idea? Whenever a place might start getting crowded, you move the people someplace less crowded, until you run out of room everywhere.  Then, and only then, you just leave everyone where they are and let the places get crowded (since you can't do anything about it by moving at that point, really).  There are still some things you can do then, though - send people from your high-value planets to completely fill the low value worlds (idea there is relieving the crowding on the good worlds will make more of a difference than losing the piddling pop growth on the bad places). 

With all the pop leaving the HW, and your other good worlds later, at some point those places will finish all the factories and mines they can operate at their "held" pop level.  When that happens, you will see the autobuild line in the production window turn green (which means the computer estimates that order will be finished in the coming year).  OK.  When you see that happen, let the world grow for a few years without moving the pop off of it.  Let it get to half it's full size that way (600,000 for the HW for example - you can see the % of capacity in the planets report window, next to the habitat % number; you can also see the max planet size when you click on the lower right window in the main screen, pointing at the hab % number - like "can hold up to 1,200,000 colonists" for the HW).  Once the planet is up to 50% of cap, let it finish the factories and mines it can operate at that pop and any terraforming left to do, (recheck the 50% level if you do more terraformign of course - it'll be higher), then after all that "clear" the Q (so you are "building nothing") and keep offloading people as they grow.  Only go back to building factories on those places (using the "default" autobuild option in the lower left of the production window) after you have run out of places to send pop to from that world. 

These planets at 1/2 size that aren't doing anything ('cept moving people, and building ships for that) are your "production centers".  If you don't give them any new orders, they will just do research by default (since the Q is clear).  When you research some ship design you want, you can turn the production centers over to making those ships (e.g. a bunch of warships to go kill AIs in a real game, or minelayers for defense, or remote mining ships if you need the minerals or something).  When you've run out of places to send new people to, these production centers will go back to building factories and mines - but because they are big and crowded, the growth will be slow enough that they should be able to do all the new factories and mines every year with a lot left over for ships and research. 

One other thing you use the production centers for is G exports.  Since they will generally have all their factories done, they don't need G right away.  Since they have their mines done, they will be getting lots of G income, which will start to pile up.  Well, send it to worlds that don't have enough, like worlds with low G concentrations, or new worlds to help them build their factories faster.  Just like the excess pop, export the excess G until places more or less have enough (later, don't have to send all of it - can leave some for ship orders.  But earlier, ships just get built with G mined the year the ship is built, and the "surface G" can be sent elsewhere where it is needed more urgently). 

Whew! Lots to do.

A few words about research.  You start with what you need to get going, because you are a JOAT (they get 3 in each field at the begining; that varies from race to race).  Generally you want to be spending on your economy at first, not on tech - because econ spending grows and compounds, which tech doesn't do.  But there are things you will need, or that can help get going faster.  Well, later your production centers will get you what you need, but earlier on you won't have any yet ;-) So what you can do then is the following -

Around year 20 or so, unclick the "contribute only leftover resources" box for the homewold only.  Go to the research screen and dial the % to research up to 25% or 33% or so (shift moves that in 10% increments by the way). 

That's it - your whole research budget.  Not much is it? That's ok, you will get more as other places get big. 

Things to research soon are - better engines (propulsion tech) to be able to settle places farther away (before you have better engines, you can get more fuel for a fleet by adding extra "booster" scouts to it, to extend the range).  And better shipping to use those engines - construction tech.  One key ship is the privateer at con 4 - when you have a better engine and that, build a privateer with *3 fuel pods* on it, best engine, nothing else (or shields optional).  That will get you long range for freighter runs, and higher speed on shorter runs.  You should also make a copy of this and replace one fuel pod with a colony pod - this gives you a big, long ranged colony ship which will take 25,000 pop to a new world - enough to get the farther out places going without more ado.  Nice thing about these two ship types is that they also cost very little G, so you save that for your factories.  I call the colonizer version "Mother", for mothership.  The other one I naturally call "Father" :-)

A bit later, you will also get large freighters and fuelxports, and much better engines.  By pairing those up, you can move all the pop and G you might want to move, as far as you might want to move it, and fast.  Most of your settlement will probably be done by then, but they will let you finish off any remaining work efficiently. 

Now, in a real game of course you will also be buying weapons :-) But the economic stuff is higher priority - races can grow to big size before they can do too much damage to each other, really (some limited exceptions to be sure).  But along the way, some light, cheap warships (like shielded frigates with phaser bazookas, or destroyers with one organic armor and phasers, and a manuever jet, say) can keep off the AIs, raid shipping, and get you air-control (these, and population invasions to steal their planets, are all you will need vs. AIs for a fairly long time).  Some frigate minelayers can get a defense perimeter going, etc.  Also, in a real game your base planets will put up a decent base (meaning armed and armored/shielded), with a stargate on each, and also build some defenses (like autobuild 10 defenses in a Q - that'll get the place fully defended in 10 years).  With the gates, all the production centers can make the lighter warships all-out for a year or two when you need a fleet, then all gate to one location, and form up into a big "horde", to fight.  Those, and minelayers, will be about all you need until you get cruisers or battleships with more advanced weapons (like jihad missles, or blasters, or even better weapons for the latter battleships).  For the bigger warships, you'll want some "round-out" tech, like energy 10 for decent shields, and elec 11 for superbattlecomputers (and jammer 20's along the way), etc.  But you don't need a lot of those other fields, nor soon.  (To recap, in a real game, a new "production center" would first put up a decent starbase/upgrade to one, with a stargate, then build say 3 frigate minelayers which lay mines indefinately right there; and add an "autobuild 10 defenses" line.  Warships only as needed, gathered by gate).  When you have all the tech you need for good, big ships, and lots of production centers and no places to settle (except enemy territory of course), then the production centers make big fleets of advanced warships, and bombers, and go kill the enemy to gain territory and win. 

OK.  That is the program for getting the Humanoids to work.  Try it a time or two to get the hang of it (I recommend doing in without any AI opposition once or twice to see what the race can do - helps you see what to shoot for and try to get with other races interfering - then beat the AIs with them in another game :-)

Second pass/lesson, race design and what it is about/can do -

You will probably notice the hang-ups along the way in the course of doing the above.  Race design, the next step in getting lots of resources by year 50, is all about removing hang-ups that get in the way of the program outlined above, or slow it down. 

For instance, a higher pop growth rate means less waiting for people to grow, so the green planets can get their people more like "as soon as found" (or not so long after, anyway).  Taking the lesser race trait "improved fuel efficiency" gets you an engine, the fuel mizer, which will enough fuel (like all the fuel pods on the ships mentioned above) can move your pop to the places they need to be at warp 8 or 9; that saves times and means less pop growth and income is "lost in space" :-) Only Basic Remote Mining gives you larger planets, so crowding happens later and more pop is grown every year at the "held" levels.  For JOAT races, No Advanced Scanners doesn't hurt (since you still get the built-in penetrating scanners) and gives points to pay for things like higher pop growth in a new design.  Similar for No Ramscoop Engines, if you have the fuel mizer from Improved Fuel Efficiency anyway.  If you notice (when you notice - it always happens ;-) that not having enough G is holding up your factory building, you can improve your G supply by taking cheap mines (like cost 3) so they build faster, letting your pop operate more of them, and/or clicking the "factories cost one less G each" box.  Similarly, you can make your factories go up faster by lowering their cost ("cost 9" is cheap; "cost 8" a bit more expensive but can be worth it sometimes), maybe raising their efficiency a bit (up to 1.2 isn't too expensive per click), and get more from each planet developed by raising the number of factories 10000 pop can operate (which stays pretty cheap up to 16 operated).  For fighting, cheap weapons tech can help, since lots of people take that to get the really nasty weapons in the air before other people.  Also, expensive tech fields can be used to gain points to spend on other things, with the option (for some points, true) to start those fields at higher tech levels (3 for most races, 4 for JOATS) - people will use that to get things like decent starting engines if they don't get 'em already, or starting medium freighter, etc.  JOATs can start with fuel mizer equipped privateers to colonize real far, real fast if they have improved fuel efficiency, expensive construction tech, and check the "start at 4" tech screen box (also with 40 LY penetrating scanners if the electronics is expensive too, to scout even faster, etc). 

A huge list.  Of course, it is mix and match, with people taking what they can afford, and trying to be inventive in paying for the things that make them "get rich quick" with livable penalties in other areas.

One other thing I should mention in this connection - high pop growth is the single biggest thing you can do when designing a race to improve its early economic growth.  How expensive high pop growth is depends on how many planets you choose to be able to live on (on the habitat screen when designing a new race).  So, by narrowing the habitat somewhat, you can afford higher pop growth - that means you may have less places to go to but you have more people to send to them, filling them more quickly.  Of course that is a trade off, but you can do a lot better than the Humanoid with it, with a mix like 19% pop growth and 1/4 hab, rather than 15% and 1/2. 

So, a sample race design to try after you get used to the Humanoid stuff mentioned above (and I really do urge you to play the Humanoid first, and get used to things - otherwise you won't see how much the design adds to things ;-)

Federation (aka "the Feds")

Jack of all Trades
Improved fuel efficiency, only basic remote mining, no advanced scanners
19% population growth rate
1/3-1/4 hab or so, pretty well centered (adjust it last and buy what you can)
1/1000 pop efficiency (standard)
10/9/13 factories - better if you want, toward 12/8/16 with G box is ok, but even the listed ones will help a lot and are more affordable
10/3/13 mines (15 operated helps some o' course, but not urgent)
cheap weapons tech, rest of tech expensive and start at level 4.

That gives starting fuel-mizer privateers, 40 LY penscan, oodles of population growth, over 3000 resources per year max planet size, a fair number of decent green worlds (which are pretty easy to find with the good scanning, if less numerous than the Humanoid's), nice big guns soon, and overall a big economy to throw around pretty darn fast. 

Of course, more can be done with more extreme designs, but even "the Feds" will get a lot better econ performance than the Humanoids in the right hands.  If you have gotten used to both of them (Humanoids and Feds), and beaten the AIs with the Feds, say (or just more experienced in that regard), then I think you will find you can get competitive econ performance by 2450 in Acc BBS start games, and you will be able to read the strategy articles out there and follow newsgroup discussions of race design discoveries with profit, etc.  That, and some experience playing vs. humans in play-by-email games, and you will be on your way to becoming a stars expert :-)

I hope this is helpful.

Good luck, and have fun with stars!

- Jason Cawley

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