Builder's Primer: Early Game

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Originally from the The SMAC Academy, by Ogie Oglethorpe.


So you’ve bought, acquired, borrowed or stolen (well hopefully not stolen) Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, welcome to the best Civ-style game made to date bar none (IMHO).

Before launching into a discussion of game mechanics/strategies and tactics, if you are interested in a builder's type of routine, then I highly recommend either of the two builder's factions (Morgan or University) but if I were to make a single recommendation for a faction to learn with I would say try the University first. Although there are concerns about drone issues with UoP, you'll need to learn drone management sooner or later and you might as well learn ASAP. UoP (again IMHO) is the strongest faction available as it is flexible, has tremendous built in builder strengths vis-à-vis free facilities and research bonus and can pop boom easily.

This being said I'll lay out beginning expansion game strats for UoP.

UOP Tips

In this, I'll cover 4 distinct topics:

  1. Base placement and early game t-forming.
  2. SESocial Engineering choices.
  3. Tech Beelines.
  4. Setting yourself up for the big Pop Boom.

Finally, I would recommend the following game set-ups for builder style game:

Large world.
Average everything else.
Difficulty (up to you but as you get comfortable Transcend will become a breeze).
Faction - UoP.
Directed Research - This is the MOST critical game variable you'll set and is the key for builders as you have critical tech beelines.
I prefer look first as well, but that's a matter of preference.
The rest of the game settings are up to you.

Ok now for some serious game play discussion using UoP.

First, don't be concerned about the whole drone thing as it is easily manageable. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be ahead of the game once you play other factions. UoP is so insanely powerful the whole extra drone issue and susceptibility to probe actions are minor nuisances that can be overcome.

Topic 1: Base Placement

The most important thing in base placement and subsequent t-forming is having yourself a +2 nutrient square. Nothing else is as important as this initially, reason being is you are looking to increase your population to size 2 ASAP in order to allow colony pod productions. In the early game it’s all about pumping out pods ASAP.

So good spots to settle are: Anywhere that a monolith is within base radii, anywhere you can have a rainy rolling or worst case a rainy plain square. Also don't forget about nut specials. You can't go wrong placing a base either on or near a nut special. (Little hint: Specials and base squares are the only spots where Factors of Production limits are removed, meaning a +2 nut special can allow 3 or more nuts prior to gene splicing tech. A base square can have energies of 8 or more, etc. Also the special only removes restrictions for that particular resource type. Later on you'll be drooling once you see a rocky mineral site. Just meant to be mined, roaded and crawled for big min output. But I digress.)

Secondly look for other goodies such as rivers. Placing a base on a river is never a bad situation. It allows a natural road for pod movements. It contributes extra energy (kind of like in CIV2 with extra trade and movement). This can seriously help your early game tech builds.

Of the above features through, I highly recommend monoliths.

Once you've got your first former you'll be looking to make a farm (in the event you have none of the above squares) on a rolling moist square. After that you probably will be roading out to the next base sites and foresting the tiles around there. I prefer base spacings of 3 squares on the diagonal when terrain permits. It allows a colony pod on a road to move in one turn and set down in the next. Any closer than that and I find myself too jammed up. Farther than that I feel is too wasteful in terms of land usage. (More on that if you’re interested.)

Topic 2: SE Choices

SE management is one of the most critical parts of the game.

You look at times to achieve some certain critical values namely:
+2 economy (or greater) - allows +1 energy per square.
+6 growth - pop boom allows one pop point per turn growth like We Love The Presidents Day running Democracy in CIV2.
+4 efficiency - paradigm efficiency allows free allocations of energy to labs/econ without penalty.

These to my mind are the big one for builders; others are important as well but these are kind of the basics for builders.

SE management is kind of tied to tech beelines so let me firstly say you are going to beeline to important techs that allow certain SE choices. Think of it like beelining to Monarchy in Civ2. In this case your beeline is to Industrial Automation (allowing wealth and other goodies).

I tend not to spend any EC's in the early game in order to allow myself the opportunity to change to an advantageous SE choice ASAP.

Normally conventional wisdom for all other factions except UoP the SE changes occur something like this:

First SE change is to planned.
2nd is to planned/wealth.
3rd is to FM/wealth or (optionally Demo/Planned/wealth).
Others as the game situation dictates.

For UoP though the research is so fast you should have discovered planned way before you have the EC's to make the change. Right around the time you discover Ind Auto (IA) you should just be getting enough EC's to make your first change (at least that's how it is at transcend level).

Make the change ASAP TO WEALTH FIRST. After the change to wealth, this is also where I also depart from conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom normally is to go planned next. I however make the next switch as Free Market. At this point energy credits are flying in and I am rush buying recreation tanks and recreation commons. Once the population is drone stabilized, I am building crawlers like no tomorrow. Every base is set to crawler production and set to harvesting minerals back to base. Once all bases have 15ish mins each, it’s time to build any and all SPSecret Project's.

At this point when I switch to FM, I normally have 6 bases established (no more as other will now cause bureaucracy drones). When a base hits size 2 I am required to make one citizen a doctor. No sweat with the aforementioned +2 nut squares you have no issue. After you have a Recycle tank at the base you'll likely set the one worker on a forest so that the base has a 4-min production value before crawlers. (Note: the above assumes Transcend level gaming.) Alternatively a rushed Recreational Commons facility will stabilize the drones as well.

You're probably asking why the switch to FM. It’s all about capitalizing on energy production and fueling the early game research. +2 econ means practically nothing at this phase of the game as the energy restrictions have yet to be lifted. But +3 or greater means massive energy at the base square.

If you choose to follow conventional wisdom through, planned is not bad as it gives you growth; a garrison in the base eliminates a drone so size 2 bases are drone free but require a doctor before size 3 (again at transcend). You lose a little through in terms of research speed but make up for it big time in terms of industry bonus. I find through that the extra EC's from FM allow builds every bit as fast as planned as I rush build and have faster research as well.

Topic 3: Tech Beeline

Industrial Auto is your Holy Grail. It gives you wealth as previously mentioned. It gives crawlers, which are probably the most important unit in the game with the possible exception of formers and colony pods. My tech beeline normally follows this route:

If I have +2 nutrient squares at the landing site it goes like this:
Free Tech - Industrial Base
Industrial Economy
Planetary Networks
Centauri Ecology - formers (Normally I can't get IA after Plan Nets)
Industrial Auto.

If you have any energy specials, a monolith, or bases on rivers you can get IA by 2114-ish. By that time you should have 40 EC's bankrolled to make the first SE change to wealth. If not hopefully you've trolled some fungus and have killed a worm or two. Failing to have a +2 nutrient square makes Centauri Ecology move to the head of the list. Then it normally looks like:

Free Tech - Cent Ecology
Ind Base
Ind Econ
Plan Nets
Social Psych - (IA doesn't normally show)
Ind Auto

This normally means you haven't gotten to IA until 2119-ish. Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV) depending on if you pop a nice pod, cash in any alien artifacts etc. (warning though, early cash-ins can derail your tech beeline slowing you down if it's not in the beeline path.)

After the IA beeline conventional wisdom says go for restriction lifting techs.

Topic 4: Setting yourself up for the big pop boom

This normally occurs after Planetary Economics is discovered.

This is another reason why I run FM/wealth. I switch to Demo/FM/wealth and then rush buy as I need to around the various bases the following facilities:

Children’s Creche
Recreation Commons
Tree Farms

Once these facilities are in place you switch to Demo/planned/wealth and viola, you have an instant pop boom.

Allow growth up to hab complex limits, and begin next phase of growth/expansions. If you have only SMACSid Meier's Alpha Centauri and not SMAXSid Meier's Alien Crossfire (Cross = X) the darn golden age feature never worked as it was supposed to so a Demo/FM/Wealth w/ GA doesn't give the pop boom even if you have all the above facilities.

Side Note:
Before this through, you'll likely be going after Special Projects. So here’s a tidbit. Crawlers are like caravans in CIV2; they cash in for full mineral value. What is more, you can upgrade them to best armor and some other bells and whistles like trance in order to bump up their equivalent min value. In essence doing this allows you to buy SP's with the scads of energy you have rolling in using FM/wealth.

Any of the beginning SP's are winners, there is not a clinker in the bunch. But of all of them you as UoP want desperately is the Virtual World. This little SP turns your one huge negative into a non-issue and makes you instantly more powerful than any other faction when it comes to raw expansion power.

By the time I start SP builds others have started. But since I have bases that are crawler powered and still pumping out crawlers for cash in, I can easily out muscle others for SP's. As a consequence I often forego going after the more expensive Virtual World so I can make sure I get some of the cheaper ones first. So normally look to get Weather Paradigm, Human Genome, then Virtual World, then Merchant Exchange, and then Planetary Transit. Again YMMV. However, this is a bit of a gamble and one that you may not feel comfortable with. Suffice it to say you don’t want to pass or lose out on VWVirtual World. Once you have the SP's you want then look to build the above mentioned facilities in order to set up your pop boom.

Peacekeeper Tips

Peacekeepers are a faction that can play many different styles. When I play the PK’s as a builder I usually follow something like this:

Play the peacekeepers to their strengths and be cognizant of the weaknesses.

Faction strengths:
Extra Council votes
Extra Talent every 4 pop points
Pop limit of 9 before hab complexes required
Pop limit of 16 before hab domes required

-1 efficiency
No Police SE choice (not really a weakness at all)

What is more is that there is really no big downside to this faction so it allows Lal to morph into any play style you wish.

I'll cover the initial builder style game:

Points of Discussion:

1) Initial base layout and t-forming.
2) SE choices.
3) tech beeline strategies & Special Projects.
4) Pop booming.

Topic 1: Base Layout/t-forming

Not much difference with regard to initial t-forming then with say UoP. The big thing is that you find and/or make a +2 nutrient square. UoP is blessed with Biogenetics as a starting tech allowing builds of recycling tanks. If and when you can get enough energy credits a rush build of recycle tanks is a great way to make a base self-sufficient and a colony pod producer.

There are some significant base population numbers (at least that's the way I look at it), 3 and 5 being the ones I look most strongly at. If you achieve Planetary Transit SP then every base you establish will start with a population of 3. It is important that the base be able to support a population of 3. This only occurs if the base and worked squares have 6 nut contributions. Since in the early game the most productive squares (excluding specials) are firstly a monolith and then a forest. You want to have as many workers as possible on these types of squares. Monoliths are a hit or miss proposition but forests are easy to t-form. BUT.... If you work all three squares as a forest then you don't have enough nuts to support 3 pop points (5 vs. 6 required) thus again the reason to have a +2 nutrient square or a recycling tank.

A small size 3 base then has a min contribution of 5-8 (5 being worst case where you had a rainy flat and 8 being best case where you had 3 forest worked squares and a recycling tank). Size three is a stable situation that gives a good platform to build from in terms of crawled mins to bring yourself to a total min contribution of 15 or higher to force a fungal pop.

As far as size 5 goes, it marks the beginning of my second phase of the game, namely specialization. This is kind of an advanced topic that I can go into later but suffice it to say it is the first time you get to use specialists other than drone reducing specialists such as doctors, empaths etc.

Topic 2: SE choices

Again SE choices are one of the reasons why SMAC is so different from any other CIV game and is one of the most important tools to run a good game. Look at the faction benefits and then the weaknesses. Lal benefits strongly from inherent drone quelling and large base population. He has some efficiency issues though.

In the beginning game stay as far away from planned as possible. The benefits of growth and industry are nice but at -3 efficiency you'll kill almost all of your energy input thus stagnating your tech advance rate.

Planned is both Lal’s biggest boon and bane. In the beginning as indicated stay away from planned until you decide to pop boom, but when he does pop boom, he booms like no other faction and so planned becomes his savior.

So normal SE choices (for me at least) go something like this:

First SE change - Free Market.
Second SE change - wealth.
3rd SE change - Demo (occurs at point where I am no longer plopping down colony pods).

Upon you first SE choice, Free Market, you are attempting to increase energy and fuel your early game research. Because Lal has a talent as his first population point he can run Free market very easily without drone issues. At transcend levels only at a size 3 does he need concern himself with drone reducing means (psych allocation, recreation commons or doctoring a citizen). But he has the ability to have size 2 bases churning out pods w/o drone issues. This is key as in the early game your bases normally waffle between size 1 and 2 as you pump out colony pods.

Addition of wealth upon discovery of Industrial Automation puts your economy into overdrive.

If you had SMAX and the patch that allowed golden ages to yield +2 growth thus allowing a pop boom, then you could run demo/fm/? and a GA to pop boom.

NOTE: One downside to FM; It makes you turtle. Unless you have found a bunch of independent units your ability to explore the world is very much hampered by the drones generated by having units outside your territory limits.

Topic 3: Tech Beeline Strategies & SP's

Pretty much the same story here. You’re looking to get to IA ASAP. Normally through the time frame is a good 10-20 turns longer than UoP. As before you want Centauri Ecology as one of the beginning techs so that you can get formers ASAP. After that beeline to IA for wealth, crawlers, and Planetary Transit SP's.

Again with regard to SP's there isn't a bad one in the bunch. For Lal there really isn't a strong favorite but if I had to pick, I'd pick two nice ones. First of all, the Weather Paradigm. Build the WPWeather Paradigm first and it allows you to get the advanced t-forming features. (Of these advanced features I build a LOT of condenser/farms yielding 4 nuts and later condenser/farm/soil enrichers yielding 6 nuts but that leads to specialization topics). Second, Human Genome technology, as this allows base sizes of 4 w/o any drone quelling enhancements when running FM.

I almost forgot there is one SP for Lal that almost immediately seals the game up for him. That is Empath Guild. I normally consider a mid game SP but it really could be considered an early game SP. Empath guild imparts comm links to all factions, infiltrates all factions, and more importantly for Lal gives him even more bonus votes at Planetary Council Votes for Planetary Governor and Diplomatic Victory votes.

Topic 4: Pop Booming

What can I say that I haven't before. Pop booming makes Lal absolutely fearsome. Once he completes his boom he has larger populations per base than anyone else and with double the council votes this makes him very fearsome indeed.

The recipe for the boom is the same:

Recreation Commons.
Tree Farm (or a bunch of condenser farms).
Children's Creches.

As you start to run into drone issues the following are required:

Hologram Theatre (or Net Node if you've built Virtual World).
Research Hospital (only helps through if you've got some psych allocated or a doctor or two).

Your second boom will be targeted to propel you from size 9 to size 16 and will likely require a hybrid forest facility for both drone quelling and extra nutrients from forests (which can be gotten around if you build a bunch of condenser/farms but again I digress).

Of course the boom is all kicked off by the switch from Demo/FM/wealth to Demo/Planned/Wealth. I normally allocate a little (say 20% psych at this point) in order to hopefully get a golden age at the larger bases thus a +2 econ and also to fend off drone issues during the growth spurt.

Morgan tips

A Couple of Morgan pointers

Faction Strengths:

starts with 100 EC's.
+1 economy.
Extra trade income from treaties/pacts.


-1 support.
pop 4 limit before hab complexes.
pop 11 limit before hab domes.
can't run planned (Pre SMAX Golden Age patch no ability to pop boom w/o Cloning Vats SP).

Morgan is considered the ultimate builder faction of SMAC. The reason is simple he is the energy King. But in order to play him right, it definitely takes some getting used to. He is weak militarily in the early game due to his poor support. So if he's not building military he is best suited building facility and infrastructure.

Points of discussion:

1) Tech Tree and Beelines SE choices.
2) base layout and t-forming.
3) SP's.

Topic 1: Tech Tree Beelines

The initial opening gambit that I heard of and found extremely helpful goes something like this. As soon as you found your first base change research priorities to Biogenetics. Set production of your first base immediately to Merchant Exchange SP. When you place your second base do the same.

As soon as you discover Biogenetics switch production to recycling tanks and use the 100+ credits you've got to rush buy recycling tanks at both initial base sites. Voila! You've now got two great starting bases primed to pump out colony pods.

Techs beelines then become as follows:

Biogenetics - 1st tech.
Industrial Econ - 2nd tech - Switch to FM ASAP.
Info Networks.
Centauri Ecology - Formers.
Planetary Networks - Probe teams.
Industrial Automation - Switch to Wealth, crawlers, and Planetary Transit System.

Then normally:

Social Psych.
Secrets of Human Brain.
Gene Splice.
Eco Engineering.
Planetary Economy.

After that beeline to tech that allow clean reactors (having a brain cramp right now and can't remember it). Once clean reactors are in play Morgan can build as many military units as he wants and now he is ready to play any style he wants.

Regarding SE's: FM and wealth is a great combination for Morgan. Deal with the drone issues as needed by converting a citizen to a doctor. Every new base you place the first thing you build will most likely be a recycling tank that is rush bought (use the 10 free mins and buy the rest). This allows pop growth to size 2 quickly and supports size 2 base size with one citizen on a forest and one as a doctor as needed. Try to stay away from Demo if at all possible until you've decided to rein in your colony expansion, reason being you want the free 10 mins and you'll kill yourself support-wise.

Topic 2: Base layout & T-forming

Nothing really special other than you don't necessarily need the +2 nut squares as you'll be relying on the recycling tanks. What this means is the first worker can go straight to a forest for decent min/energy production.

Generally speaking because of the pop limits the amount of squares actually worked will be small. So, tight base spacing is preferable as this means that new base placement will be quick, resulting turn advantage. I alternate between 2 and 3 square spacings (vs. any other faction standard as a 3 square spacing arrangement).

Most of the power of Morgan comes in the early game because of his high energy base square. Remember that the energy restriction doesn't hold for the base square. As a consequence of running FM/Wealth, the +4 econ makes base squares yield obscene amounts of energy thus powering research and funding the recycling tank rush buys. So you want to ICSInfinite City Sprawl (Infinite City Sprawl) with Morgan as a result.

Topic 3: SP's

All the early ones are good. Generally speaking through I recommend going for the Human Genome SP first to aid the ICS process. Planetary Transit System (PTSPlanetary Transit System) for Morgan is really the jewel through, IMHO. Because he can't pop boom, any additional pop points are very important. The only problem is if you get PTS then you have to remember to have a +2 nut square else you have a turn of starvation (i.e. no production even if you rush buy the recycling tank).

SP acquisition is IMHO where Morgan really shines. After Ind Auto, Morgan should have all bases making crawlers for mins (just like any other faction), but Morgan has synth metal already prototyped. What's more he has scads of energy so go into the unit workshop create a synth armored crawler (add trance ability after SotHB) and build standard crawlers. Upgrade them to synth/(trance) and cash them in. Instantly the scads of energy Morgan has becomes industrial might towards SP's.

With luck you can get all of the early ones if not at least the majority of them. Concentrate through on the ones I mentioned and after that I'd recommend the Weather Paradigm.

Final Notes

As you probably have deduced much of the builder style revolves around getting to Industrial Auto ASAP and then having enough industrial and energy might to acquire SP’s, build facilities and respond militarily when required. For this reason I favor use of Free Market and Wealth. However, I fully recognize that it is not the only way to achieve these goals. If you find a means to run a positive planet rating (a green faction with inherent + planet, run green, or find/settle the manifold nexus) then worm hunting is a wonderful means to get free units (which may be cashed in if you so choose) or to get plenty of energy from worm hunting, find lots of alien artifacts, all resulting in ability to grow/build. Point is there is no absolute best method of being a builder.

Matter of fact the whole Free Market approach may just be the exact wrong way for you as you may need to contact others ASAP, and since the biggest penalty of Free Market IMHO is that in the early game it requires you to be a homebody and not an explorer.