Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri - The Free Drones

First I'll state what this is: a playthrough of Alpha Centauri, with the base game not the Alien Crossfire expansion, but using an edited file to play as the Free Drones faction from the expansion. This comes after several other games, as listed on the home menu here.

This idea came together as a coalescing of several lines of thought. The genesis was that there were two factions I never took through a fully-powered game using the Planetary Transit System for expansion. Those were the Hive which I played as a demonstration deliberately without using the most skewed mechanics, and the U.N. Peacekeepers as a five-city challenge. I thought about playing full PTS games with each of those, but neither seemed quite interesting enough to be worth doing all the way through.

Why the Peacekeepers? I talked about how only the University can do perfect drone control with the PTS... but actually it turns out that the Peacekeepers also can, for bases at size 2, thanks to the free-talent faction power. (I'll go over the details on page two of this report.) That's neat, but such a playthrough wouldn't really be any different than the University or Morgan. It would be the same terraforming and build order and tech and SE progression, just slower without those faction powers; and the Peacekeepers' only other bonus, the extra base size, comes too late to matter.

The other angle I kept thinking about was the Hive. They get +2 Industry over any other faction, inherently and by running Planned economics because Free Market is no use. I'd love to do the PTS colony pod rushing for 21 minerals per pod instead of 27. But that still doesn't really help; even all that industry doesn't actually work out better than a faction with normal economy running Free Market plus Wealth. A typical base working two forests will produce 5 minerals per turn. +2 Industry rating saves 2 minerals out of every 10. So the Hive's industry is essentially equivalent to one mineral per turn per base. That's just not better than a +3 Economy rating to add 5 energy per base which buys more minerals than that.

If only there were a faction with good industry and no economic penalty...

Hey, there is: the Free Drones faction from the expansion! They get +2 Industry and -2 Research, but that latter doesn't stop using the maximal economic arrangement of Free Market plus Wealth. And on top of that, the Drones faction even gets a drone solution too like the Peacekeepers, one fewer drone per base as a faction power. Perfect, I can cover both of the angles I wanted to do with just one game with the Free Drones. There's also one more line of play in mind that we'll get to shortly.

Playing an expansion faction should mean using the expansion, of course. But I really don't like Alien Crossfire at all. Alpha Centauri is all about the speculative-but-believable postulated future, and the Alien Crossfire stuff just totally kills that vibe for me. The alien factions terribly break the immersion about the progression of humanity. Most of the human factions aren't very interesting either, largely lame remixes of the first seven with weak ideological opinions. Even if you play with the original seven factions, the tech tree still has the hokey garbage like "resonance fields" that doesn't fit in at all with the hard speculative fiction. Some of the expansion secret projects are a little too one-right-path easy-mode (Planetary Energy Grid, Cloudbase Academy.) And I hate how the grandeur of Transcendence gets retconned into some kind of vague disaster about the aliens' home planet.

But there is a workaround: it's very possible to edit base SMAC to use the Free Drones faction. This wouldn't work right for all factions, particularly the Pirates and obviously the aliens, but does for this one. The one-less-drone ability doesn't exist in the base game, but can be virtually replicated with the Peacekeepers' talent ability instead, which will function identically through the parts that matter (more details later.) To include a new faction in alpha.txt requires replacing one of the original seven, for which the obvious target is the Hive as the most similar and also occupying the same faction slot in SMAC as the Free Drones do in SMAX (this matters for the missing-tech mechanic.) Finally, the Free Drones are the one expansion faction I actually like ideologically, with a strong conviction distinct from the first seven.

My aim for this game is speed transcendence, same as with my Morgan and University games, no restrictions apart from a few exploits as I listed at the start of the University report. Of course I don't expect the Drones to beat the University, but it'll be interesting to see how close they can come and perhaps even beat Morgan.

Here's a promising start, with lots of bonuses and rainy tiles. The westernmost mineral is rolling-rainy, the north one flat-rainy, the east one fungus, and the south nutrient is moist-flat. Only a small river for energy, but this could go good places, considering this:

The wireframe elevation contours show a huge amount of contiguous land in all directions. That's always what I want to see, both for expansion and to contact all the factions.

I built a total of three scouts (plus the original starting one) for exploring. That was timed for each base to then start its colony pod and complete it just after growing. Here's the look of the land from those scouts:

My first contact came in year 2110, with Morgan. Unlike my University game, this time I knew I couldn't sell Morgan any technology, since all I had was the Free Drones' starting tech of Industrial Base, which duplicates Morgan's own. Morgan also had Industrial Economics and would sell it for 100 credits, but I didn't have that. But same as in the University game, Morgan did loan me his chunk of cash, and also signed a Pact which gave me his map as well.

I now had to deal with the faction penalty of -2 Research. This inflicts on the Free Drones the same penalties as the Believers: early techs cost double, and no labs at all until year 2110. (Although now I realized that delay isn't really ten turns, it's actually only eight: the game starts in 2101, so the first research production step occurs in 2102, and the last missed one occurs in 2109, which is a total of only eight.) By 2110, I had contacted Morgan here but no one else, so I'd have to research Centauri Ecology for terraformers myself.

Centauri Ecology completed in year 2115, decently fast, thanks to having settled my next two bases by then for more energy income. All four bases immediately switched their build orders to terraformers. Some had accumulated past 10 minerals in the box and intentionally ate a small switching penalty of 2 or 3 minerals, but despite the waste, that really was the best approach, there was actually nothing else at all to build before formers came available.

The other interesting bit there is a toy I haven't had yet in this series of games: the Manifold Nexus special landmark, which grants +1 Planet rating to the faction that owns it. Funny that I get that with the faction that can't use Green, hah. It's no real big swing on gameplay, it'll just soften the Free Market planet penalty a bit.

And also presently, that notification up top appeared, telling me Morgan had contact with the University, which he sold me (for a surprising price of 5 credits; I always saw it as multiples of 10 before.) Anyway, that exchange shows the real prize, the University traded me Industrial Economics for my Centauri Ecology. Great, now Free Market was available nicely early...

... except for the problem of pacifism drones caused by the exploring scouts outside my territory.

I had three pacifism-inflicting scouts to worry about, two from my HQ and one from base 02. The psych slider was an option, but only at size 1, and each of those two bases was due to grow to size 2 again for a couple turns until putting out their next colony pods, but psych couldn't be enough to handle size 2. A doctor wasn't a viable option either; in that case each base couldn't be working the food to grow to size 2 and get out that pod. It pained me, but I had to hold off adopting Free Market just yet, there was no solution to the pacifism.

(Full disclosure: substituting the Free Drones' drone-reduction with the Peacekeepers' talent doesn't function identically regarding pacifism drones. A size-1 Free Drones base should riot, but a size-1 base with the PK talent ability merely gets the single talent safely downgraded to a regular worker. I resolved to approach this as if my faction actually had the Free Drones' ability and not allow myself any unwarranted advantage.)

Although I also realized that delaying Free Market really wasn't slowing my research. It impacted only cash energy production. With Simple economics, each base produced only 2 labs, which could go as high as 80% labs slider without losing any to the unbalancing penalty. With Free Market, the greater energy production could go only to 60% labs slider before losing some to unbalancing. 80% of Simple or 60% of Free Market was either way about the same labs production, the difference was only in cash, about 6 energy per turn.

Back to technology: I next ended up having to research all of Information Networks - Planetary Networks - Industrial Automation myself. It pained me to duplicate research with my neighbors, who had the first two of those but refused to trade or sell, but self-research was the only way to progress towards Industrial Automation. (Can't probe-steal the techs that are needed to get probes in the first place.) Each of these techs came at intervals of 5 turns, decent enough progress with the faction research penalty, after eventually adopting Free Market.

Here's a look in year 2125 as research on Planetary Networks finished and Industrial Automation began. Here is the other idea I planned from the start, one more line of thinking that converged together with the faction choice and made me want to play this game.

Rover formers! These can build roads twice as fast as regular formers, able to access a new square and build a road on it in the same turn. I mused in the University report about the possibility of some of these to speed up colony pod movement. What I couldn't find was any place in the build progression to build them, compared to the rush to Industrial Automation and supply crawlers for the Planetary Transit System. But this is a totally perfect plan for the Free Drones.

The rover chassis comes available at Planetary Networks, thanks to workshop-reverse-engineering it from the standard probe team unit. And I had a window of 5 turns from Planetary Networks until Industrial Automation, to build rover formers now before we could start on the crawlers for the PTS. In fact I had little else to build in this interval anyway. Couldn't put out more colony pods for lack of food (no nutrient bonuses) to grow fast enough; recycling tanks were an option (Lal traded me Biogenetics) but didn't seem all that hot since the food isn't all that useful before pop-booming; and more regular formers would start overrunning the support limit quickly. So we may as well concentrate more former value per support slot by making them rovers.

And the Free Drones' +2 industry bonus is exactly the ticket to blunt the expensive 50 mineral cost. In fact the timing worked out absolutely perfectly, that I would reach Industrial Automation to adopt Wealth and then immediately rush all six rover formers with that industry too, discounted all the way to 35 minerals each. So they started building roads outward, while the bases built supply crawlers to go into the PTS.

As always, I used every possible micromanagement trick to apply former turns optimally. This rover former first built that road to the north where it's standing, since the first colony pod from Domai Dome can reach and plant there all in a single turn. Next I wanted that former to road the rocky square south of Domai Dome... but notice there's actually a more efficient path than moving directly there! The former can spend a turn moving 5 squares along road and river to the other circled tile. Have it apply one turn of labor there. Next turn reactivate it from its home-base screen so as not to lose that invested turn. Then continue along the river to the rocky square, so commanding it to road again will apply two turns of labor right away including that invested turn. I did micromanagement tricks like this all over the place, so that the rovers would apply almost every possible former-turn into building roads, only very occasionally having to spend a turn moving into rocks or fungus.

Back to exploring, my next contact was the Peacekeepers to the east. Lal's doubled council votes in the jungle, that could be scary! But check that out - this base is undefended at size two - I greedily anticipated capturing a jungle base for free! - but then sadly next turn it built a colony pod down to size 1 so I moved on and left it alone.

Anyway, Lal sold me contact with Sparta, bought one tech for 25 credits, and also traded maps. Sparta then demanded one tech that I paid, bought another, then cut comms.

The next development: notice the Believer (orange) and Gaia (green) bases here. I didn't have contact with either yet. Those bases were planted in territory I had explored then moved past, but did show up on the map. Now I knew where to find and contact all seven factions... so now I could disband all three exploring scouts (north, south, jungle) to save the pacifism anger and finally switch to Free Market. I still had my original Independent scout, the westernmost red square in this shot; he would now track back towards Gaia to make contact about eight turns later in 2130. (Morgan and Gaia somehow had bases two squares apart for those eight turns without ever contacting each other for Morgan to trade to me.) Also Lal would eventually give me Miriam's contact even despite being at war with her.

However, despite the early contact, I intentionally held off on calling a governor election. In fact I wouldn't even be a candidate yet! - I had 7 votes to Morgan's 8 and Lal's 16. I decided I had to wait until the Planetary Transit System would give me the votes to make sure to win...

... except Morgan almost screwed that up by somehow getting all the contacts himself to do it, but fortunately I'd founded and grown just enough bases even before the PTS to make myself a candidate, and won with the votes from both my pactmates. Whew, that could have been a headache, but worked out nicely to my favor. Well, I did incur one loss, Morgan jumping the gun did mean I missed my last opportunity to sell contacts around before calling the election myself.

Back home, presently the major concern as always was building all the supply crawlers necessary to cash into and insta-complete the Planetary Transit System. We'll break onto a new page for that to mark where the ramp-up really begins.

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