Well rest assured that it takes me longer to write than it takes to read! My attempts to play-test the game have made me more aware what a mammoth task a proper playtest would be, I can't see how it is even possible to do a proper job. Compare it to Starcraft 2 where there is much less variation, and even then it is constantly cut down, and their custom maps all tend to an ideal configuration, whereas the maps of Sins differ wildly. Also there is no FFA aspect and therefore no AI diplomacy... I can try for another Vicious multistar test with selected rather than random types of AI, and maybe a couple of single star tests, but even then it would entail about a month's play. Four tests is almost an insignificant number .. Also, if I was forced to test on the official maps rather than my own custom maps a) the games would not work as tests or as games and its impossible to test the game has far too many official maps. I have always intended one day to produce a review of all the maps included with the game, but even this would take a long time, never mind playtesting them. Why have so many maps...?
Its no secret that I have never liked the Vicious or Cruel AIs, I have always considered them just cover for poor AI routines. The Vicious AI especially should be just unplayable, and until it is the AI is useless. However, for playtesting only having such extreme cheat levels might be useful to 'dial in' the AI as it were. It seems that my confidence that my first Vicious game was almost over was misplaced!
Having reunited my fleet I proceeded to the capture of the Provian home after it was overwhelmed my our mixture of pro-Advent cop and reality shows and Advent-coloured news broadcasts. However the annoying Provians raided the plasma storm and destroyed my newly reconstructed trade starbase. I celebrated the nearing end of the Provian war with another supply rise and built more envoys destined for Adjun Imperials, also another capital ship, a Rapture, and small fleet to protect my third starbase at the plasma storm. I also decided to snipe the ex-Luopica colonists roid next to my own roid beyond the plasma, hoping to profit by taking a roid defended by Luopica structures and Raseida culture. While clearing the Provian home I had time to check the diplomacy levels and noticed that curiously the military actions modifier had become very significant, at a level of 2.84- but also, it was at exactly the same level for each of my opponents no matter their nature or the stage of my relatiuons with them, except the Provians of course. Something extremely fishy there, its either working wrongly or needs more thought. There should be substanial difference between how Raseida, with whom I have started to get pacts, view my slaughter of the Provians, and say the opinion of Lexmada with whom I have a mere ceasefire and am murdering fellow TEC... no? Having the military actions have a more significant influence can only be a good thing though.
At this point the game lost its routine nature and seems to have become more of a challenge. This may have been due to my not being aware enough of the impact of the recent changes to the system which I had myself argued for but have not really had a chance to playtest before. It seems that I may have been in error or even wrong (gasp!) about the influence of the flat rate self-boost, possibly misguided by the collapse of the neighbouring TEC AIs due to lack of any culture centres. Anyway, it seems that I had lost my ceasefires with both Adjun Imperials and Luopica Colonists without realising it. This was not because I had done anything out of the ordinary to make them dislike me, but instead my own population's liking of them had dropped to such an extent that the ceasefires no longer held... I'm not sure why this slipped past me, either I was just overworked- though I was routinely checking my Forewarnings- or possibly because alert messages aren't going off if you lose ceasefires due to your own population 'revoking' them, which I suspect is distinctly possible as it is a new development in the diplomacy system?
Anyway, two events happened almost at the same time. Luopica Colonist defences opened up on my 'friendly' colony ship, which had to retreat (and in any case the neutrality of the planet was assured by the starbase, which I hadn't known could happen before,that starbases protected non-governed planets as well). Then the Adjun Imperials though they liked me, began attacking my envoys, because I wasn't friendly to them... perhaps they made some protocol error? Anyway, I had sent them deep into the other system and it was hard to extract them, and of course every one that was destroyed made my population dislike Adjun more, and their liking for me at about 6.5 was never a problem anyway- sigh. Had I had more experience with hthe new system I migh have realised that I needed to check their relation to me as well, and assign them missions to keep it up, which I began to institute for my remaining allies. Note that the UI is not optimised for this as it used to be for the previous them liking us only relations which was on one screen- to check us-them relations you have to check each individual one, and assigning them basic 200 metal missions takes time too.. Perhaps a new variant screen where with one click you could swiftly check us-them would help? Anyone understand what I mean here?
My relations with Luopica and Adjun seemed to have deteriorated so fast that even assigning missions might not have been enough though. I noticed that with the complete defeat of Korsul Armada the Adjuns had begun to raid Rasaeida's recently acquired ex-Luopica roid from the star. Also, Luopica had at last been actively fighting Luopica.. It might be that war with my closest ally had driven my own populations liking for them down in some manner? I had assumed that everyone else having the same factor for miltary actions towards me for attacking Provians was wrong, but does it reflect how much they hate Provians and not their opinion of me at all? This is where Ironclad secrecy about how mechanics are supposed to work begins to hamper testing- just consider how much JJ had to work out about the game by himself before he discovered the Illuminator bug. Sins is such an unnecessarily complex game!
I still can't consider this entirely right, it seems that there should be more variation in how other factions regard the destruction of a faction's ships than just 'not having a ceasefire yet,' the public opinion of TEC factions can't be that callous about the destruction of TEC ships by the hated Advent, but regardless of a lack of additional sophistication the modifier has somewhat rescued this game from dullness. Luopica are more or less dead, but Adjun are very strong, and also began to transit the wormhole near me to the dead roid occupied by the Provians- which took them through my plasma storm. The loss of the ceasefire meant that my second fleet, already struggling with the Provians to protect my third starbase, had to try to engage them without firing on the Adjuns who attacked them, if I ever hoped to retain their affection- and of course every ship lost made my population dislike Adjuns more. Then some Luopicans turned up and I just abandoned the plasma storm until I could bring more ships. I wasn't really losing much but it was a relations disaster. I split my fleet at the Provians home and sent the carriers, capital ships scouts and flak to mop up the roid I had first wanted to take, and the rest regrouped at my own home with the Rapture and its fleet. Then the Adjuns began to raid me in earnest- the ex-Provian home, my volcanic and my ice using the wormhole. The raids weren't difficult to deal with as starbases near planets are a much tougher prospect than trade-dedicated ones in plasma storms, but any prospect of peace with the Adjuns has expired, and the Provians have the desert in my system and are not finished either, so war with two Vicious at once, what I had tried to avoid. At the close of the session I had however built my fourth trade starbase at the plasma storm and also occupied the ex-Provian roid, so my own position is far stronger. I still have ceasefires with Lexmada and the two Advent. Adjun just seems to have gone empire-buildingly mad, though it makes some sense from their viewpoint, there are no other Vasari left and they have a large empire, they might as well try now while they are strong.
So with the Vicious game, relations are beginning to be a factor and I finally have to start using the diplomatic screens. This is good, but it should happen at lower levels as well. A big difference is time, the sheer scale of the Vicious attacks and defences has slowed me to a great extent compared to the Unfair and Cruel games despite the TEC AI flaw, I wonder how the game might have gone without the culture aspect? Even the beaten Provians can still destroy my starbases, though in the plasma storm their anti-structure cruisers have a huge advantage without a fleet being there.
I have been considering the AI problems with starbases. One aspect is that the AI does have some purpose to bringing a fleet near to a starbase, as the Provians proved. They lost many ships, but attrition is to their advantage. If we could just improve the AI routines slightly when dealing with attacks on starbases it might help greatly. Carrier cruisers are of no help at all when you bring them to a starbase and should always remain on the edge of a gravwell anyway- it would seem a simple enough AI rule that carrier cruisers do not move into a gravwell unless in transit? Also, the AI is notoriously bad at looking after its capitals- another simple rule, that they retreat once shields are down, might help? The same rule could apply to carrier cruisers? If you just save its expensive capital ships and carrier cruisers to fight again it will improve the AI. You might expect that with Titans the AI will improve as it finally deals better with starbases, but in fact as it is at the moment the more expensive the ship the more problems the AI has. I would hope that the AI will have special rules for Titans, and it would seem easy to extend them to special rules for carrier cruisers and capitals as well. If they begin to protect ships that are needlessly destroyed by this means and by prioritising phase inhibitors, then the AI will improve.
That brings me to another issue. Again it seems a pity that the TEC AIs have gone down to culture as the TEC AIs seem by far the best at dealing with starbases, using their Ogrovs. One reason is that the AI will not build starbases in enemy gravwells when attacking, to exploit its attrition advantage more. It is as well for me that the Provians have not starbased the plasma storm.. but even more so that they have not starbased any of my planets, far more effective for them than the credits they have squandered on mines. Vasari AI might be different, though the Adjun certainly have the credits to build with they have not accompanied any of their raids with starbases yet, we shall see. With Advent the situation is different again, as the Starfish is quite simply an ineffective ship. It is very expensive and takes too much supply. It is also too fragile for its role. To work, the Starfish needs to be in the middle of enemy defences so it has to be able to take fire, this requires support cruisers as well. The more of them you have the better they work, but they are too expensive to lose. Three of them cost nearly the price of a starbase. The ship badly needs rebalancing, and this hampers the Advent AI even more since it has not the skill required to use the ship even if it were useful. Add more shield, cut the supply and price please. Perhaps even move the Starfish to the heavy cruiser class? It also seems a drawback for the AI that the siege and anti-structure artillery were ever divided, it complicates matters perhaps needlessly. When Entrenchment was released the basic siege frigate was badly hampered in its role without ever gaining any upgrades or new roles. The big leap in the AI was when they stopped using siege frigate packs as a primary offensive technique, but siege is still a weak spot. For Rebellion, as well as introducing many new ships, it would be nice if there was an attempt to make siege frigates useful again. Specialist anti-mine upgrades- always assuming that corvettes aren't to take this possible role? Or how about having siege frigates as longer ranged specialist planet bombers, as a Vasari upgrade seemed to hint at. If they only had to go halfway into a well, or upgraded Vasari ones could hug the edge, that might allow them to be covered by special rules aimed at their presevation also. It would also help with the stupid planet colonising methods employed by 'skilled' players at the start.
You know, in all the playtests I've done, this last session is the first one where there has been the glimmerings of an improvement in the relations system, even if it was generated by the new us-them dynamic. It seems far easier to convince other factions to like me than to convince me to like them.. But I'm starting to believe that with only a few simple overhauls the AI could begin to produce a decent game, nowhere near as sophisticated as a human, but not bad. With some aspects like mines and Starfish and having all capitals useful, the AI will improve as the game improves. A few straightforward AI tactical rules to protect the bigger and more expensive ships that it wastes at the moment would help considerably. The AI needs to attack with starbases and prioritise phase inhibitors for destruction. Its structure placement needs some attention- even simple rules creating different types like all clumped/some spread might help, especially for testing. Advent profit most from clumped while Vasari might want some structures spread out? Also, and as a most basic AI improvement, their economies need work it should be possible to get big boosts with simple rules- the AI needs to learn the advantages of trade starbases for one thing. You might have simple rules to help the AI with trade routes, and also improve the AI use of refineries. This is another aspect where game improvements will help the AI, as Advent refineries are woeful at the moment.
Finally I'll point out that the AI might be working better because I made the map for this game, and I made it so that even though it is a multistar the AI shouldn't have too much trouble deploying fleets. I'm not sure how Ironclad expected Sins to develop. Many of the provided maps are far to small to be influenced by relations, and there is a distinct shortage of large FFA maps. I've always wondered whether Sins should be considered a Master of Orion type game or a Homeworld style game. Sins has advantages over both, all turn-based grand scale games get into enormous trouble with the amount of tasks to be done at the end but the turn-based combat in Master of Orion could become a nightmare and was awful for multiplay. Homeworld needed its campaign (not a feature of MoO) because otherwise in single player it had so little to offer in terms of depth, and the 3D movement could get very fiddly. Sins would have been a better game had it used the MoO system of phaselanes only between stars and used star gravwells for combat, with planets in them, I also have issues with the planet control mechanic set up by the unviable lore, the silly mitigation rules (for one thing mitigation grows so fast you must focus fire) and curious flak/strikecraft implementation, generally poor combat concepts (combat is a type of weapon against a type of defence, not one class of ship against another), the unsophisticated economies and infinite resources, the lack of variation in victory conditions and of all things the lack of variation in planet and gravwell types, a long list I'm sure I could add to. However even with these self-imposed limitations, many of which are difficult or impossible to alter, the game still has a great deal of unrealised potential, especially for multiplayer FFA- and if it were to succeed as a multiplayer FFA space grand strategy game it would be the only one of its kind.