CrowBar, when I was first playing thru the maps, I also recall having difficulty with that map (and never completed it)! So after reading your post, I went back and tried playing it again, against 2 unlocked random hards. And I won, first try. But maybe I got a little lucky (as well as, being alot more experienced now). My map had lots of neutral extractors. And, I managed to ally with both AI's, as well as, got them to bid against each other for pirates, and fight each other. All while I built up my army and economy.
While the Hard AI does cheat by getting 1.5 times our income (taxes, crystal & metal), it can be exploited in a few areas, and with time you can get ahead:
1. The AI rarely fights for neutral extractors. They are free income, and they produce more!
2. The AI is chicken; its especially 'scared/afraid' of Cap ships, and will run/retreat letting you take worlds easily.
3. At chokepoints, build defensive structures (2 repair bays & turret/s, maybe hangers) for two/three reasons: pirate attacks, AI seige frigates counter attacks, and finally potentially scare the AI into not attacking.
4. The AI will bid on the highest pirate bounty. So, if you bid first on both (say 250 on each, and 0 on yourself), they will start a bidding war against each other and ignor you.
5. The AI doesn't do trade well.
6. The AI doesn't research well.
7. If you start slow, or the AI perceives you as weak (maybe a 'smaller' fleet), it will offer easy diplomatic missions at the start.
Specific instructions, or what I did differently:
1>Buy 200 Crystal.
2>Build Cap Ship Factory. (queue Marza Cap Ship)
4>Build All Available Resource Extractors.
5>Send Cap ship to capture nearest Asteroid. (don't scuttle Cap Ship Factory)
a. Build colonizer frigate, colonize nearest asteroid when clear.
b. Build another colonizer frigate if neutral extractors are nearby. Send there.
6>Repeat 3 & 4.
7>Build Two Civil Labs. (not Mil.) Research Modular Architecture so extractors & factories cost 40% less.
8>Send Cap ship to capture next Asteroid. (Keep grabbing neutrals.)
9>Repeat 3 & 4. Secure this 'choke point' with defenses (and a factory) eventually.
As soon as they offer diplomatic missions, if they involve giving money or resources - comply! Once you reach 50% Happiness, ask for cease fires. Also get them into a bidding war against each other for pirates.
Send ships, including a few Cobalts now, down to the next planet, a terran planet (ice on your map) ajoining a new ally. Colonize. Repeat 3 & 4.
10>Research Trade Ports, both Tier 1 Fleet techs and Tier 2 fleet for 3 cap ships .
11>Spam Cap ships first! Take the desert adjoining your homeworld, and fortify this chokepoint. Build tradeports, making as long of a chain as possible. Now you can start to research better ships, etc..
Eventually chose one ally to declare war on, and go on the offensive. If you get the Marza to level 6, watch Missle Barrage reek havok for 25 seconds! (Before you actuate it, turn off all of its auto attacks, and stop it, so it won't get interrupted. For fun, go try it on the Pirate Base).