I played the Alien Empires solitaire scenario from the core Space Empires: 4X set for the second time this weekend. My main goal with these was to get comfortable with all of the advanced rules in the game. So far, I’d really only had one game with them- and my opponent had crushed me with a Merchant Ship pipeline that funneled unstoppable Raider squadrons into my colony areas. (I tried to counter him with my scanner equipped Destroyers, but the were no match for the Raiders!) I bumped the difficulty setting up to the “Harder” level this time– that’s 3 alien players with 10 CP’s per roll.
I really wanted to see carriers and fighters in action this time, so I bought Fighter Tech on my third turn. I skipped completely over getting any levels in ship size, exploration, or terraforming like I normally would. I bought an extra miner and this gave me a noticeable boost in income for turns 3 to 5, but the second miner is maybe not as valuable if you’re not planning on doing a lot of exploring. I experimented this time with leaning on my scouts instead of springing for exploration cruisers because I wanted to make my attack as quickly as possible.
I bought my first fully loaded carrier on turn four. The only tech on it was Attack-1. You don’t need to worry about getting extra Tactics because fighters shoot before everything except bases and point-defense equipped scouts– that’s one more thing facilitating the fighter blitz strategy. The red empire launched a fleet at me at this point and I had a dilemma. Should I reveal my carriers to him and wipe out his harassing fleet for “free?” Or should I risk losing my scouts to him and keep it s secret? I decided that he’d be dead before he could really counter my fighters… and that I needed to hold onto my scouts so I could explore the deep spaces between him and me. I wiped out his pitiful fleet at the cost of tipping my hand!
On turn five I created another fully loaded carrier and an extra scout just in case there was a lot of trouble in the hidden terrain. These emerged from the shipyards with Attack-1 and Defense-1. Very shiny! I rolled over this detachment and then ran into Danger! and Black Holes with my scout ships. Exploring deep space without an exploration cruiser is expensive! Every single one of my four scouts were destroyed. This was especially agonizing because I was hoping to use them to take out any mines that were protecting the alien home world….
Within the next couple of turns or so I finally had the two fully loaded carriers two hexes away from the red alien’s home world. Lucky for me, he did not invest in extra Defense during the econ phase or else the invasion would have been postponed. He actually sent out another attack “fleet”, but due to the logic of the ship construction routines, he ended up building a destroyer instead of the much more useful scout. (He only had ten CP’s to spend… and the rules say he always builds the biggest thing possible first!)
There was still room for things to go very badly for this crazy blitz. I moved onto his home world hex and I ended up facing a base and another destroyer. I attacked with my first set of fighters and only needed 5 or less on D10 to hit the base. (He had defense of 2, but I had Attack-1 tech and the fleet bonus to cancel that out.) I missed with everything… and maybe got only one hit on that first round. The aliens took out two of my fighters– I was starting to panic! But the dice started falling my way again the next turn and I managed to wipe everything out for the cost of one more fighter.
The naval battle was not the end of it, though. If I didn’t score four hits on it before the end of the next round, the alien could conceivably get a “defense” result and build enough mines to wipe me out. I needed 6 or less with each of the three fighters and 4 or less with the two carriers in order to score a damage the colony. The first round of bombardment, I think I only got one measly hit. My fighters got a single hit on the next round… and then miraculously, my carriers scored the final two hits.
That was too close for comfort! The remaining enemy players began sending more dinky fleets to harass me. I built bases as a front-stop so that I could focus more on killing. The second alien empire ended up having three minesweepers, three carriers, six fighters, four scouts and four destroyers blundering into him several turns later. His 20 points in defense and forty points of fleet were no match for that, so I called the game.
This was some pretty good fun even though the last couple of turns were a bit tedious. For the first eight turns or so, I was “on the horns of a dilemma” almost every turn. It is very difficult not to try to fix this game while playing it. And yet, cranking the difficulty level up all the way would again help make the aliens send out slightly more interesting fleets. And I see that other stuff that I’m tempted to fiddle with has already been addressed in the expansion. But the aliens strike me as being somewhat vulnerable to carrier blitzes as they currently stand in the “strictly as written” core game scenario. I think they should all build mines the moment they know a carrier group is anywhere near striking distance. That would buy them a turn or two of protection for very little investment.
The rules are certainly set up to respond to this strategy, however. The artificial intelligence that runs the alien player makes Point Defense tech the top priority once fighters are revealed. Also, tech is spent and applied only when a fleet enters combat, so if you reveal your fighter tech at the wrong time, the aliens will be able to react far faster than a human could. (Cheaters!) The “largest ship first” rule for their ship construction works against them when they only have enough money for one ship, but if the alien has seen fighters and has Point Defense tech, the chance of him going for the “largest fleet” strategy goes up from 30% to 50%. If he still fails to get the result that will help counter fighters, then there is actually an exception to the usual procedure here: he will spend the first 12 CP of his fleet budget on scouts before doing anything else!
So you see… it was careless to reveal my fighter tech so early. To be on the safe side, I also needed more than the five scouts that I sent for exploration. And I should have made a point to protect my home system with something other than carrier units. Carriers loaded with a full set of fighters and augmented with Attack-1 and Defense-1 can be devastating, sure– they can easily wipe out a cruiser group of the same value at no cost. But a more patient player would have colonized two barren worlds in deep space right up against the alien empires. These would have become a magnet for the alien fleets coming out from the respective alien home worlds, making it much simpler to coordinate colony defense. When a sufficiently large fleet could be mustered on each side… they could both wait to build their carrier and fighter units until just before the invasion!