Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri - Spartan Federation

This is a writeup of a playthrough of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, with the Spartan Federation faction. This comes after several other games, in the order shown on the home menu here.

I've now done every faction except Sparta, so of course I wanted to complete covering all of them here. But Sparta just doesn't have any distinct identity mechanically. Sparta can do anything any other faction can, just 10 or 20 percent slower, with the industry penalty and the prohibition against Wealth. They have no handicap against Free Market or pop-booming or anything, but no real positive point of SE leverage either. Sparta's advantage is supposed to be morale, but that just doesn't make any real difference in this game; unit stats and tactical first strike matter far more; anybody can conquer AIs with rookie impact rovers.

Sparta also has the least distinct identity in terms of ideological conflict too. Each of the other factions finds themselves a target of opposition and hate: the University and Believers are mortal enemies trying to eradicate each other's agenda, as are the Hive and Peacekeepers and also Morgan and Gaia. But nobody is really disagreeing with Sparta, nobody is saying the humans shouldn't be prepared, there's no clash there.

Well, there actually is one thing Sparta is best at: popping Unity pods. Sparta starts with a rover instead of a slow scout, plus Doctrine Mobility tech to build more, which is also the prerequisite to Doctrine Flexibility to go get pods at sea. And the morale can occasionally make a difference for a unit surviving or taking less damage in order to keep collecting more pods. If there's any unique direction to take Sparta, that's it.

I haven't played with pod scattering on in this series of games. They can give some major and drastically skewy results, all sorts of free energy and minerals and units in the first few turns. And it's so sorely tempting to give in to reloading for luck abuse to get even better stuff every time. But pod scattering actually is a standard rule, so it's worth taking one tour through that to see how it goes.

And while I'm at it, I'll also do the one other major standard setting I've avoided: Blind Research. Sparta fits for this too, both ideologically and mechanically. Sparta preaches preparedness for everything, and one aspect of that is to be ready for whatever combinations of technological discoveries might arise. And mechanically, Sparta incurs the least downside from blind research, because they have the least need to beeline to Industrial Automation, being barred from Wealth SE.

Furthermore, I'll take that to the more extreme version, "double-blind" research, where you set no priorities out of the four research areas. I need to go all the way for this idea to work right. Otherwise I'm going to be looking up the weightings and micromanaging the priorities at each step anyway, and get disappointed whenever the research result isn't what I want. Double-blind is the only way I'm going to do what you're supposed to and just take each tech as it comes. So dealing with double-blind research will be the way to keep this game interesting later on, once the pod popping is done.

Finally, both the pods and blind research are very prone to luck abuse; save beforehand and you can very quickly reload any number of times to ditch bad results and get good ones. I don't have any good way to avoid this; the Ironman setting doesn't work for me, I'd just endure letting the program quit and restart every time. The best I can do is pledge to save right after each such result, and just eat the mistake if I find myself wanting to go back further to rethink or redo something. It would turn out that I did adhere to that throughout the game, I never did reload to change one of those results.

Here we begin, and things got interesting from the very first turn. First I used one of the colony pods to pop the unity pod to the west, since the slower unit could reach that while the faster rover could go all the way around that river bend to the southernmost visible pod.

That pod yielded a Unity Rover, exactly what you want to get moving on more pods (and yes I did restart a few times until one of the first few pods yielded that.) Before moving the new rover, I moved the original one to go along that bendy river to get that southernmost pod -- but it bumped into a mind worm along the way! I then used the new rover to kill that worm, so the first rover could continue along the river. (When a unit bumps into a mind worm like this, it bounces off the tile it tried to enter, without consuming any movement. I wanted to use the non-river movement to kill the worm so the rover on the river could keep going.)

Then the river rover bumped into a second worm! The two worm kills yielded 20 credits total...

... enough to immediately rush a rover at Sparta Command. This opening didn't really have anything to do with pod scattering yet (you still get a small number with scattering off), but that does show Sparta using their starting tech to dispatch a new rover as fast as possible.

Turn 2, the river rover kept going to both of those pods. The first one turned up a monolith, which gives 2-2-2 resource yield. I alertly declined to investigate the monolith, which would upgrade the unit by one morale level, but that would end its movement for the turn. The next pod gave a minerals resource, nothing spectacular but certainly helpful, now Sparta Command has two excellent tiles to work.

I'll refrain from showing every single pod pictorially, but here's a list of the goodies. I found three more monoliths, 25 credits which rushed a rover at my second base when it was founded, Miriam's comm frequency but that didn't help anything since trading for her starting tech wouldn't do anything for me, and technologies Industrial Base and Information Networks. (Those are almost always the first and second techs to come from pods. Pods can yield only first-level techs directly; higher ones come from alien artifacts instead.)

And I'd forgotten this could happen: got a naval Unity Foil unit from a pod on the coastline! Although it wouldn't turn out to be much good. Transport units get a -1 movement penalty to their chassis, and the Unity Foil is specially designed with another -1 penalty on top of that, so this ship only had 2 movement each turn. It popped that sea pod next to it, which yielded some map visibility, but then shortly got eaten by an Isle of the Deep before it got much of anything else.

But here's the big news:

One rover came up next to the Hive headquarters. Which did have a unit in it... an alien artifact! I wasn't exactly sure how the rules work for capturing an artifact, but it worked out fine in my favor: the rover's first move captured the artifact and the second move conquered and destroyed the base. The first rule of military preparedness, my dear Chairman, is to have a military.

It's early for such a wide overview, but worth showing to see how much ground all those starting and popped and rushed rovers covered so fast, in just 12 turns. This actually felt like playing an Expansionist leader in Civ 3, which is meant to start the game by getting more (by starting with a fast scout) and better goody huts.

The Hive had one more base, visible as the outline west of mine; I'll get to clear that out when I can. My other neighbors were Morgan to the south and the University to the southeast. University traded me his map and Applied Physics for two techs of mine. Morgan predictably handed me a big pile of cash for a pittance of interest. I also got a big score of 75 energy from a pod, which added up to that massive 218 on hand there. That money went to rush both of the current build orders shown there.

And here's the biggest thing that can come from a pod. You can get a boost of materials that will fully complete the current build order at the nearest base. This result is disallowed if that build order is a secret project, but other than that, you can get anything of any size. Full disclosure: I got that materials result, then reloaded to set the base's build order to that network node (the biggest item available) and reloaded until I got materials again from the pod. I'm doing it that way for the sake of saving sanity: the alternative is that every time you pop a pod, you should change the nearest base's build item for the possibility of this result.

The network node enabled cashing in my artifact stolen from the Hive. That yields a free tech, although here it turned out to be probably the most useless choice at the moment, Polymorphic Software. I got another materials-pod result shortly later, which instabuilt Recycling Tanks at Sparta Command; despite the cost difference I actually felt the tanks' 1-1-1 yield would be more useful in the near future than just 1 or 2 labs from a network node.

That brings me to tech, the topic I haven't talked about yet, and specifically the blind research aspect of it. I had forgotten how this works: the bar on the F2 research screen changes color in accordance with one of the four research priority areas, indicating which category of tech you will get next. At the start of this game, it was yellow as shown here, indicating a Build tech to come. I hoped for Industrial Base, but got Social Psych (that's why Miriam's comm frequency didn't help me.) Then it turned white and next yielded the Discover tech of Biogenetics, which is why my bases were building recycling tanks early, that was the best available build item when I didn't need more scouting units and couldn't build formers yet.

Next it turned green; the good news being that would probably indicate Centauri Ecology. But after having popped and traded for several other techs, the bad news was that the research time already soared to 16 turns! But then the further good news was that I caught a great break when Centauri Ecology popped from a pod shortly later. I now put that 200 cash to work rushing formers as fast as I could. When that green tech finally finished, I knew it would be Doctrine Flexibility as the only available Explore choice, which I did put to use in rushing a skimship unit at my coastal base to start collecting pods at sea.

The University then traded me Secrets of the Human Brain and later Ethical Calculus. Meanwhile I was researching a white Discover tech, which also had only one remaining possibility, Planetary Networks, which the University also possessed but as usual refused to trade because of the Virtual World. I got Planetary Networks in 2134, allowing Planned economics, but first this:

I had turned up another artifact near home, and presently my skimship found a materials pod to give me another network node to cash it in. The prize turned out to be... Doctrine Loyalty. I had hoped to get that by beating the Hive into a submissive pact, but didn't yet have anything to crack his perimeter defenses. But getting Doctrine Loyalty this way is a big swing that I can make use of.

I adopted Police State. This is actually Sparta's one point of leverage on the SE table. Sparta is known for the morale, but also quietly gets +1 Police rating as well, which is actually the bigger boon. That allows particular leverage from Police State that nobody else gets, not even the Hive. The modifiers stack to +3 Police, which gives a special effect, it's not just more police units, but actually doubles their capability. This is superb in the early game: a single police unit can pacify any base regardless of bureaucracy drones at size 2, which is the critical size to put out colony pods. And then the one police unit plus the Planetary Transit System's own drone effect also provides perfect drone control at size 3. Any faction can do all of this once they reach Intellectual Integrity for the double-police special ability, but who knows how far off that will be with blind research, and even with directed research that's a significant diversion from other targets.

The downside of Police State is that it's unworkably incompatible with any of the economic choices. Free Market wastes the police effect entirely. Planned goes to -4 paralytic inefficiency. Green is usable but not worth the growth penalty hampering the rate at which you can build colony pods. I would have to stay in Simple economics for a while, but Police State did so much good that that was tolerable. The Support rating easily outweighed Planned's industry bonus to make up for Sparta's industry penalty, and the -2 Efficiency was tolerable for now, with my outermost bases losing most but not quite all of their energy.

The next surprise: the planet achieved worldwide contact amazingly early, on just turn 30. All seven factions were on the same world-spanning continent (not uncommon on a map with low ocean level), and the Believers traded me my last missing comm frequency with the Peacekeepers. But even though I bought as many votes as I could, I lost the governor election! Stupid United Nations double-votes ability. So I'd have to wait until I could accumulate more population and votes of my own.

We'll wrap up the last of the fun stuff with pods here. I now had two skimships exploring which were enough to cover most of the oceans on the planet; SMAC standard-size maps aren't all that big. They continued to turn up a steady stream of energy like this, plus sometimes energy indirectly by spawning an Isle of the Deep (aquatic mindworm) and then killing it. But some units weren't so lucky, like that poor rover on the right there. A bit later on I started to send out transport units carrying rovers to grab pods on islands; got 10 or so pods that way here and there, but no major results besides some more energy.

And here's a cool sequence. I popped another materials pod at sea. The targeted base already had its network node, and no other available facility that was worth building (the energy bank wasn't.) I decided this was the best use of it. Order up the most expensive unit I could possibly design, to complete for free... and then disband it for half its value towards a secret project! Of course doing that with a supply crawler instead for full value would be even better, but I still didn't have Industrial Automation yet. Crawlers might still be a ways off, so I had Sparta Command simply straight-building the must-have Weather Paradigm.

Speaking of secret projects, the Peacekeepers finished one already extremely early, the Human Genome Project in just year 2146. Well, I could live without that.

Overall, I really liked the feel of this game and opening. It felt very orderly and disciplined. As I mentioned, every base kept order with one police unit. The Police State support bonus let me field lots of formers, to prepare new base sites with roads and sensors before the colony pods got there. To deal with Police State's downside, the right way to build was clustered around my HQ in all directions, to fit as many bases as possible within the limited area that can produce energy under the -2 Efficiency penalty. And so this really felt like what Sparta should be doing, not rushing into development but keeping it carefully within a prepared perimeter. It was for economic reasons rather than battle against mind worms, but the effect still had much of the same feel.

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