Economy Throughout the Ages
Originally from the The SMAC Academy, by Maniac.
Once a man has changed the relationship between himself and his environment, he cannot return to the blissful ignorance he left. Motion, of necessity, involves a change in perspective.
-- Commissioner Pravin Lal, "A Social History of Planet"
A lot of people swear either by a total forest strategy, or by a advanced terraforming strategy, where only condensers and boreholes are used. I’d say it’s not possible to claim that one strategy is always better than the other. It depends on a whole range of factors. A lot depends obviously on what faction you play. The gameplay of the Hive or Morganites is different due to their difficulty to popboom. And the faction who gets certain secret projects such as the Planetary Transit System should also play a different game. But for most factions the main determinant seems to me to be your level of technology. Basically I think the game can be divided into four periods economically speaking, wherein the use of forests and condensers sometimes rises, sometimes lowers.
1) The colonizing age
You have little options yet. The best way of economic expansion is ICSing with colony pods, and placing crawlers all over the place if you have Industrial Automation.
2) The popbooming age
After having Ethical Calculus (creches + demo) and Ecological Engineering (condensers) or Environmental Economics (tree farms) the only limit to population growth and the biggest bottleneck for growth becomes how you can produce the most nutrients the cheapest way. As mentioned above, condensers and tree farms are the best nutrient producers at this phase. You can't clearly say which one is better. It depends.
Condensers are neat, but they require lots of terraformer capacity. So the question if it's good for you to build them partly depends on how many formers you have available when you acquire the necessary popbooming technology, and thus how quickly you can get some condensers running.
Tree farms are very useful when you have lots of forest around (which is usually the case as it's a useful terraformation in the early game as well). The biggest problem though is their high cost. You'll only win back the investment if the bases with tree farms are popboomed as much as possible. So generally speaking I'd say tree farms are good when you can boom the base to size 14 or higher (with Ascetic Virtues), but one or two condensers per base are better if you only want to boom them to the hab complex limit. Note that even with a tree farm approach some condensers sprinkled around the countryside are recommended. As you boom to size 14, some doctors will be necessary to keep the drones happy, so you'll need to work some tiles that are producing more than two nutrients to feed the doctors.
3) The specialist age
It all changes upon the research of three technologies: Orbital Spaceflight, Fusion Power and Advanced Ecological Engineering. Sky hydroponics labs, soil enrichers and super formers make it very easy to produce nutrients. So that bottleneck is removed and you can get bases to size 14 in no time. The question then becomes how you can make a size 14 base the cheapest way, using the least resources and still have it produce the most.
The answer is [b]most definitely[/b] soil enriched condenser farms coupled with sky hydroponics labs. You can support a size 14 base with only two crawlers on two of those superfarms. All the citizens in the base can be engineer specialists or borehole workers.
Compare that to bases depending on a forest economy. Not only do they require a heavy investment in facilities, but they use much more tiles, as the base is worker-oriented instead of specialist-oriented. You can of course increase the # of engineers and reduce the # of tiles a forest base needs to work to feed itself by building a tree farm and a hybrid forest. But the less tiles you work, the less useful the investment in those forest facilities becomes…
4) The sky is the limit
The next breakthrough comes with habitation domes. After those are built, a base can popboom indefinitely (or at least to size 128 or so…) While building lots of bases supported by enriched condensers farms stays a good strategy, forests become good again. A base can in theory work all 20 squares in its base radius, making a tree farm and hybrid forest a good investment once again. This is of course assuming you have plenty of land. Twenty extra forests means twenty less tiles for condenser farms.
I hope this shows that to have maximal success in your game, you cannot stick to one economic paradigm. As Lal suggests, as technology increases, you constantly need to switch your perspective.