Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri - The Free Drones

Here we are as I reach Biomachinery at the end of year 2169. Only eight turns slower than the University game. I didn't really expect the Free Drones to keep up with the most overpowered faction, but it's gone pretty well. Because of this:

I expanded all the way out to one hundred eighty bases. Double my University and Morgan games. I wanted to take expansion to the absolute max with the Free Drones' industry and those rover formers, and holy crap did that happen. 180 bases means over five per turn continuously for over thirty turns since the Planetary Transit System. This is the game I kept trying to get the University to play, and this will serve as a worthy finale to my SMAC chronicles here.

Besides the base count, this game also has a higher ceiling in terraforming and infrastructure. I've got more formers, forests rather than farms, and a lot more boreholes. Tree farms mean enough food from the forests, and the minerals will build more science multipliers than in the University game which barely finished fusion labs, plus the tree farms also multiply economy. Also I'm one tech ahead compared to Biomachinery itself, after diverting to Environmental Economics for tree farms and uncapped borehole yield.

The run-up to this point went like this. First I'd saved upwards of 2500 energy credits, now making about 400 per turn and not even able to spend most of it. I was rushing pods and formers and recycling tanks in new bases, but that didn't even consume all my money, since it always took several turns for each base to get back up past 10 minerals in the box. Established bases were all building tree farms, but those wouldn't be rushed since the food didn't matter until we'd start pop-booming.

What's notable in there was bouncing into Knowledge and then back to Wealth for just one turn each, but both were a net positive. With my huge empire, the Efficiency of Knowledge made a big difference, saving over 200 energy of inefficiency losses, more than the 135 credits it took to switch in and out of it for that turn. Then the big point was to have Wealth again for that maximum combined industry discount (+4 Industry!), on the one turn I needed to go to Planned for nerve stapling, so I could spend all that 2500 credits to rush every possible tree farm and recycling tank on that turn. (Knowledge could have been usable sooner for more than one turn before that big point, but I only got Cyberethics tech just now; Morgan had researched it a few turns earlier, but if I traded for it sooner, then Biomachinery would have hit a missing-tech hole when I needed to set my research to it.)

The Cloning Vats meant the population boom would now start, powered by tree farm food. Although here's one slightly disappointing aspect: bases like this can only work forest, not the boreholes, or it won't have the +2 food surplus required to boom. Note that the recycling tank actually can't help, that +1 food isn't enough to support a borehole and still boom; really the problem is the recycling tank creates an odd number of food which doesn't help, since consumption and each forest and booming all deal with even numbers. Actually what became surprisingly helpful now was kelp: 3 food from that plus 3 food from the base center square could support a borehole and still boom.

But that situation only lasted three turns, since then we reached Orbital Spaceflight for satellite food to kick in and include the boreholes while smoothly booming everything. From Biomachinery to Spaceflight went faster here than in the University game, both because my labs production was significantly higher with double the bases and more boreholes, and also I got two of the prerequisites (Intellectual Integrity and Cyberethics) in trade from rivals. As usual I rushed satellites in the first several bases each turn, first food then energy satellites, six at a time with the money from all the fusion engineers even at 100% labs slider. And so the population boom proceeded smoothly, never stalling for lack of any food, as always I scrolled through every base every turn to set it to exactly +2 surplus food for booming.

For each base, the build order went from the beginning: colony pod, two formers up to the pre-Democratic support limit, recycling tanks, some clean formers, one more regular former (after that clean-former upgrade exploit, to fill the single free support slot allowed with Democratic), tree farm, network node and then the rest of the science multipliers. Bases built however many clean formers (mostly two or three) until it was time to start the tree farm for its completion to match when Biomachinery arrived. I overshot on the tree farms and undershot on the formers slightly; some of the tree farms ended up completing two or three turns earlier than necessary, but no big deal. I alleviated that as much as possible by switching around many borehole assignments, from bases with almost-complete tree farms to bases that needed more minerals, so that as many tree farms as possible (about 80) would complete on the single turn of the max industry discount at the end of year 2169.

I didn't build genejack factories, although maybe should have designed the mineral-heavy game plan around them. The extra drone wouldn't be a problem when nerve-stapled, of course. Neither would eco-damage after a hundred tree farms to raise the clean mineral threshold. And Bio-Engineering for clean reactors is a prerequisite that leads right into Retroviral Engineering which I could have had early. But ultimately I ended up getting to Retroviral significantly later. First I waited for a rival to research the other line of prerequisites up to Adv Military Algorithms for me. Then when I did get both prerequisites, Retroviral fell into a missing-tech hole at that moment, so I picked Ecological Engineering instead. Then I had to continue to Environmental Economics next or else that too would have been missing on the following step. Then when I finally did get to Retroviral, the bases were already in the middle of building tree farms, in order to complete them in time for the population boom at Biomachinery. Then after tree farms, it seemed the payback horizon for genejacks would be just a little bit too long, including the opportunity cost that it would delay the network node and other science multipliers before the mineral payback fully caught up. Really genejacks want to come first, before tree farms, with enough time remaining to fully pay back the minerals. And my original Hive game that started this series already did that development plan, so I decided I didn't need to force it here and could simply live without genejacks this game.

I also mostly didn't build hab complexes. There wasn't enough food to go higher, with the terraforming as forests rather than the University game's farms. It takes four tree-farmed forests (with orbital food) to reach the size 9 cap (with Ascetic Virtues), and that's just about what most bases had like this one here. A few bases could have had one or two more forests, but a hab complex is a waste if you're only gaining one or two sizes rather than using all the headroom. A Hybrid Forest plus more satellites could get such a base to or near full size, but building those is massively expensive and would delay the science multipliers past the end of the game. Also, stopping at size 9 means I only have to build half the satellites of the University game. I did do a small handful of hab complexes in a few coastal bases that had a pile of self-grown kelp to reach the full size cap.

I continued through the late-midgame techs of Orbital Spaceflight, Fusion Power, and Advanced Spaceflight. This explosion in productivity still always amazes me, when the population boom, satellite food and energy, and fusion engineers all come together. I keep trying to figure out how to do this sooner, but you really can't, this requires all of the Cloning Vats or creches, satellites, and enough terraforming, all of which basically come together at the same time no matter how you try to sequence it. Anyway, every base blows up from three population making 10 labs to size 9 making 60, including the labs slider going to 100% because the engineer specialists do all the economy. Science multiplier facilities then continue to increase that, although actually they felt pretty marginal for the mineral investment, even for the Free Drones; anything in this game that's fairly costed isn't all that great compared to the drastically undercosted areas of pods and satellites and booming.

Then came the breakpoint that I'd anticipated would be new for this game:

With Adv Ecological Engineering, I upgraded those same "zero" (really 256) former units for free. This time they got the Super Former ability plus also threw on plasma armor. But now I wouldn't exactly use all the formers for forming. Many of them were in areas where really all the possible terraforming had been completed, every tile was a forest or borehole. So I started to simply disband them for the mineral value, towards science multiplier facilities. Each such former was worth 40 minerals this way. (100 sticker price for each 0-3-1 Super Clean former, discounted to 80 by the faction industry rating, halved for disbanding. Sadly I had no way of flipping to a worse industry rating for more mineral value, since the Cloning Vats cancels the negative of Power SE.)

In fact, then pretty soon every such former became worth less than its scrap mineral value. A super former could complete about one more borehole before the end, for a differential of 4 minerals and 5 energy over a forest. Disbanding two such formers to complete a fusion lab would yield more than twice that, roughly 6 energy and 15 labs now, and more when transcend specialists arrived. So I continued to scrap these illicitly-upgraded formers, to now complete the last few network nodes, most fusion labs, and many research hospitals.

Adv Ecological Engineering is the last important midgame tech, and then begins the late-game run to the last important breakpoints of Cybernetic Future Society and Transcend specialists. This came out very neatly: I reached Transcend specialists exactly 10 turns after I had first nerve stapled. Transcends yield 2 psych among their massive output, so it's very possible to manage drones with just that, so I didn't even need to do a second round of nerve stapling, neatly avoiding having to switch out of Free Market for a turn again (and click through 180 bases to do it!) Also, the University had built the Virtual World, which also is pretty much needed for the transcend psych to be enough, so I grabbed the project with a mind-control probe.

A fun detail: Cybernetic SE plus the Manifold Nexus entirely canceled out the Planet rating penalty of Free Market. So I actually got full productivity from fungus tiles, ramping up to a usable 2-1-2 after the Centauri Genetics and Centauri Psi techs, and a bit more on the last couple turns later.

As I like to chronicle, here's the explosion of productivity throughout the last third of the game, in tabular form. It's worth noting there's often a delay of one turn from a tech to its effects. This happens when an important tech finishes near the end of upkeep processing (because I tweak the labs slider to get it on that turn), so then the following turn's upkeep is when we can build items using that tech. Some effects, notably specialist types and SE models, come available immediately (even mid-upkeep) rather than after another production step. Orbital Spaceflight here had one unusual note: the timing was going to come midway through that production step no matter how I tweaked the labs slider, so I set up one base mid-order with an aerospace complex to scroll-ahead and rush the first food satellite immediately upon getting the tech mid-upkeep, for the downstream bases to use on that same turn.

2167Democratic + Free Market + Wealth, 90% labs74956
2168Retroviral EngineeringKnowledge, 70% labs3681040
2169Planned + Wealth, 50% labs387421
2170BiomachineryBig rush of tree farms
Free Market + Knowledge, 70% labs
2171Cloning Vats and population boom, 80% labs1341361
2172Pre-Sentient Algorithms70% labs4191405
2173Orbital SpaceflightOne food satellite, 80% labs2062017
2174Planetary Economics, Fusion Power (trade)More food satellites, engineer specialists, 70% labs10022363
2175Organic Superlubricant, Centauri Meditation (trade),
Advanced Spaceflight
100% labs7013471
2176Adv Ecological EngineeringFirst energy satellites10424567
2177Superstring Theory, Adv Subatomic Theory,
Silksteel Alloys
More energy satellites, most bases max size15015708
2178Doctrine Initiative, Monopole MagnetsMax energy satellites16276830
2179Nanominiaturization, Homo Superior,
Industrial Nanorobotics (free), Digital Sentience (free),
Centauri Genetics, Centauri Psi
Many fusion labs, Cybernetic SE17979604
2180Sentient Econometrics, Secrets of Alpha Centauri,
Applied Relativity (free), Unified Field Theory,
The Will To Power
Transcend specialists, more fusion labs230017089
2181Probability Mechanics, Nanometallurgy,
Matter Compression, Secrets of Creation,
Super Tensile Solids (free), Self-Aware Machines
Labs quadrupler projects, more research hospitals278519450
2182Matter Editation, Eudaimonia,
Matter Transmission, Singularity Mechanics,
Temporal Mechanics, Threshold of Transcendence

The numbers are what the game showed just before ending each turn, but the real production is higher, since newly added population and science multipliers kick in on that same turn. And there were some more stark breakpoints as well, very notably after both 2178 and 2179. Cybernetic SE came in halfway through production upkeep after 2178. Same went for Secrets of Alpha Centauri one turn later. During 2179, I switched the engineer specialists to empaths in all bases downstream from when Secrets of AC would be discovered, so the labs number reflects only those low-yield specialists, even though then they would auto-convert to transcends before producing the labs. I could have previewed a more accurate labs number by setting thinkers instead of empaths (both types auto-convert to transcends); but assigning thinkers requires clicking on each specialist individually, while the empaths could be had by just clicking each base center tile to auto-recalculate citizen assignments, which always defaults to the psych types of specialists.

And as always with transcends, I converted almost every possible citizen to them, swapping off forest tiles to an absolute minimum of food production, to burn down the accumulated storage just before the game would end.

I diligently kept rushing science facilities in the last few turns, with hundreds of disbanded formers and all available cash. That took my final labs productivity up into that stratosphere of over 20,000 including the science facilities on the last turn. That's labs of half again greater than in the University game, even with the Free Drones' research penalty and not building hab complexes, thanks to double the number of bases with more boreholes and multiplier facilities, from both the Free Drones' industry bonus and those disbanded exploitatively-upgraded formers. I estimate that scrapping those formers for science multipliers gained about two turns overall. And on the last turn, all that work paid off, as I made it to all the remaining techs with a razor-thin margin of about 200 labs to spare.

Here's one last crazy-go-large overview, click to expand to full size.

As always, I set up to pre-fill the last two bases in production order with 600 and 2000 minerals worth of upgraded supply crawlers, so on the last production phase I could scroll-ahead after discovering Threshold of Transcendence to complete both projects on the same turn. This time I even built colony pods to found two extra bases just for that purpose, so they could be nearby my core with the easiest access to the supply crawlers.

And the final date for transcendence came to a shocking 2182, exactly the same date as that University game! I compressed the duration from Biomachinery to transcendence from 20 turns to just 12, cutting that by eight! The Free Drones came out in a tie with the University, I definitely didn't expect that. (Although the University could probably pull ahead by using rover formers like this game did.)

I am satisfied here. I'm not playing out any more games to a hundred and eighty bases, so I think this will serve as the conclusion to this series of games. Thanks once again for reading. Comments can be directed to the Realms Beyond thread here, and we'll see what more adventures come in the future.