This is a writeup of a playthrough of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, with the University of Planet faction. This comes after several other games, in the order shown on the home menu here.
After a tour through most of the factions, now for one final game and tale. Unlike some of the other games that meandered into different directions and variant experiments, this one is a targeted speed run for transcendence.
This is the same goal as my original speed run, except this will use normal map settings, rather than that skewed tiny-map environment. The purpose is to show what you should be able to do under most any reasonable conditions and parameters. Notable settings for this game that are different from the tiny map: standard size, standard rainfall rather than wet, standard native life rather than rare, average erosion rather than high, no pod scattering. The rest of the regular parameters common to all my games: Base SMAC, not the expansion or any mods; Transcend (highest) difficulty, all victory conditions enabled, no random events, directed research, Do or Die; here's the same screenshot of the options as in each game here.
And my faction choice comes back to the University of Planet. We know this to be the most overpowered by far. Research is king over all else, no hindrance in SE choices, free network nodes are ridiculously good, the combination with the Virtual World obviates the faction's supposed disadvantage of extra drones, and the weakness in Probe rating hardly matters. Any talk of a speed run starts and ends with the University, and now it's time to do this.
I intended to revisit the University speed run all along through this series, starting about halfway through the Morgan game, when I could see how what Morgan was doing could actually be done even better by the University. This serves both purposes of superseding both that Morgan game and my original speed-transcend run with a more detailed and better writeup. And I had to leave this for last since I knew I wouldn't want to go back to any weaker faction after playing the University again. But now it's time for it, so here we go. That Morgan game completed transcendence in 105 turns; I'm totally sure I can get the University well under 100 and I'll bet most likely under 90.
I'll also address one more topic that I haven't yet here. SMAC is well known for being full of bugs and loopholes in the mechanics. There's a lot of argument over what's ethical to use or not. I see no question of ethics here, behavior is behavior, what you choose to take advantage of is up to you. Here are my own opinions, which I'll clarify to provide a basis of comparison to other such speed runs. I'll park this discussion behind a spoiler button so it doesn't clutter up the page.
Behaviors that I've used freely in all the games:
The common threads to these: not heavy on micromanagement, and behavior that at least arguably seems to be the program behaving as designed, even if the design is questionable. Each of these is an advantage to be gained with no significant reasons not to. ICS isn't even all that micromanagey to me; what consumes time is terraforming, but that's the same regardless of the number of bases that are covering the same amount of land. The passive behavior of Stockpile Energy most likely is an unintended bug, but it seems silly to demand micromanagement from the player (queue up another build item after every facility) to avoid gaining benefit from a bug.
Behaviors that I mostly avoided for the other games in this series but will use now (and did in the original speed transcend writeup):
The commonalities: mostly illogical and likely unintended program behavior, but also not heavy on micromanagement. You might avoid these behaviors if you're trying to construct in your head a version of SMAC that is more logical than actually implemented, but I am under no such delusions.
Behaviors I've avoided in every game including this:
These are illogical and unintended elements of behavior, that is heavy on micromanagement. Many players decide they want to avoid these behaviors, but tend to clutter the discussion by inventing all sorts of ethical rationalizations and justifications and shaming language, instead of simply admitting they don't want to take on the workload. Again I'm under no such delusions, so that's my stance, these behaviors I choose to skip just because I decide not to spend the effort.
Finally, I'm also avoiding luck abuse. I do reload for many reasons like to undo misclicks or to fix things I should have realized (a base growing into a drone riot), but I intend to let all random results stand on their first outcome. Playing with unlimited luck abuse is something you can certainly do (and gets really crazy with pod scattering on), but that's not the focus of this game.
Here is a starting position that is good but not exceptional, with a river and two nutrient bonuses, on modest moist tiles. One key feature is that the river lets me move and plant both colony pods right here on the first turn. We're all about speed here, so that's the fastest possible start with the two bases. And the University gets an extra free tech to start the game, which is basically always Centauri Ecology, so we can start building formers immediately on turn 1 also. But then here's the killer piece:
That Unity Pod popped a communications frequency with Morgan! Watch what magic I can work with this.
First we traded techs, my Centauri Ecology for his Industrial Base. Then he handed over half his faction's starting cash as a loan, as he almost always will, then also bought my other tech. Amazing, now I've got an extra 80 credits on the first turn, almost as if I was also playing Morgan Industries myself on top of the University. On top of that, he even gave me a Pact, and his map came along with that as well.
With the money, I fully rushed both formers right on turn 1 for 25 credits each, and here they are beginning to work on turn 2. This is a good chance to illustrate a trick I've mentioned but haven't shown in detail. Why is that former building a sensor array ("O") when it should be improving that nutrient bonus? The answer is that's a fake order. The former couldn't move all the way to that nutrient tile and still work in one turn. But it can put one turn of terraforming effort into that tile that it can reach. Then this:
Next turn, I activated that former from its home-base screen, as shown. This has the curious loophole that, once activated, the former remembers its invested terraforming turns and can carry that with it to a new tile! So now it did move to the nutrient bonus and start planting forest there, actually applying two turns of effort right away thanks to this trick. (I don't care about ethically justifying this trick, but if I did, here's the rationale: Civs 4 and later will remember partially-invested labor-turns on a given tile. SMAC doesn't, but this trick allows approximating that behavior, the partial-turns are just remembered by the unit instead of by the tile.)
After finishing that forest, that former found one more unity pod to pop. It yielded a rover, which went to help out exploring, although didn't result in anything of interest besides a worm or two for cash.
Tech is the next topic. Of course I beelined directly to Industrial Automation. And the University can get there much faster than anyone else. First, the Uni gets the extra free tech, which has the important property to not factor in to raising the cost for all subsequent techs. Second, the Uni can beeline directly to Ind Auto, where Morgan had incurred one missing-tech hole along his path (the missing-techs vary by faction slot.) Finally, of course the University directly gets massive research multipliers: 20% on the SE table and 50% from the network nodes, which are in turn multiplicative with each other to come to 180% of normal. And this time I had even traded for Industrial Base as well. So my own research resulted in Industrial Economics in 2103, Planetary Networks in 2105, and Industrial Automation itself in 2108, blazingly fast.
Morgan continued to pay me 25 credits for each of those techs. This is a bug: an AI will always be able and willing to pay 25 credits for a tech even if it doesn't have 25 credits. The AI's money will go negative and then get corrected back to zero on the next turn's processing. Ethically, it's possible to justify this by the fact that you don't actually know when you invoke the bug; you can't see how much money the AI has without infiltration; it is possible that Morgan popped a pod for more cash and paid me legitimately. But I don't care about the ethics here, I'm simply taking advantage of the program behavior. I mostly skipped this trick in the other games posted here, because I was aiming to show normal progress under normal conditions, and also because I wasn't the University with such a pile of techs to sell so quickly. But this is a focused speed run and the University can take major advantage of this, and it really pretty much is normal conditions as you only need to find one agreeable faction.
Anyway, Morgan's purchases provided me the money to adopt both Free Market and Wealth immediately. Those add up to a total of +4 extra energy production in each base. In year 2108, both of my bases were due to grow to size 2, so psych slider to 20% to sustain the happiness. Then next turn rush both colony pods and drop psych back to 0%, and the Wealth industry discount even kicked in for the colony pods.
Here's an overview at year 2111, when those next two bases were founded. I'm making an amazing 28 labs per turn already, with the economy of Free Market plus Wealth, the network nodes, and also some pact commerce with Morgan.
You can also see the one other faction in the area, Sparta. Morgan actually sold me that contact before I got an explorer that way myself. Santiago was belligerent for no reason. I paid one tech demand, sold her another for 25 credits and then she cut off comms, but that was enough money to rush formers at both of the new bases right now.
In domestic development, I proceeded as usual. I built and rushed colony pods as fast as possible out of every size-2 base, using the psych slider for happiness as necessary. My 7th base came in year 2120, one past the bureaucracy limit. But I was fortunate (not lucky, it's not random) that it caused no bureaucracy drones. With a 7th base against a bureaucracy limit of 6, b-drones occur at each base that is a multiple of 6 in the global base order. I didn't have the 6th base in global order, since that would have been among the starting two pods for each faction, but my two had been planted on the first turn before the world reached 6 total. Then the 12th base in global order would be among the other factions that settled after mine, and I happened not to have the 18th base in global order either, and no 24th existed yet.
My terraforming was a mix of farms, on rolling-moist tiles (that's the only useful case for a farm; a rainy tile is food-capped before Gene Splicing, and anything worse than rolling-moist is better with a forest), and forest on anything arid or flat. Around this time, in 2117, I got my first free forest spread. More forests occured on turns 20, 25, 26, 29, 31, 33, and 38. I think that was pretty close to normal luck in that department, and then I stopped keeping track.
After Industrial Automation, I continued research to Biogenetics and Social Psych. Morgan followed along as a perfect trading partner; he traded me Doctrine Mobility and Applied Physics for each of those techs; I think he popped both from pods.
I then set my own research to Secrets of the Human Brain. It is on the beeline I need to the Cloning Vats (through Neural Grafting), so may as well pick up the free tech along the way. But...
unfortunately Gaia beat me to it by two turns. Very unusually, I decided to change my research target at this point, to Doctrine Flexibility. It cost 50 labs to switch, 1.5 turns worth, but I decided this was worthwhile. I wanted to get boats going to find the other factions ASAP. My rover had explored out to the edges of my continent, so I knew this time we didn't have everybody on the same land mass. Switching research goals now would get to Doc Flex about four turns sooner than finishing SHB first and starting a new tech. So if that made me contact all the factions four turns sooner, I'd more than make up these lost labs by the energy from being planetary governor. I also wanted to sell everyone techs, and finally to make sure of all the contacts in time to repeal the charter for nerve stapling.
One more detail to deal with there, the pacifism drones caused by the gun foil units in Free Market. Usually I explore with transport boats, which don't cause pacifism drones. But a transport boat costs more minerals than the cheapest gun foil, and also the transport module inflicts a speed penalty, 3 movement instead of 4, and it looked like there was a lot of ocean to cover. I really wanted to find all the factions as fast as possible. So I resorted to this trick that is famous but I haven't yet used here: an all-specialist base to home the drone-causing units! Of course this base would suck for building formers and colony pods, but I decided one base could be sacrificial for that purpose out of the many that I would build.
But here's even one more refinement to that plan. Instead of always working the specialist, I would actually have the base work that forest and LET it intentionally riot, on every other turn. This was a net gain! This base could produce 0 food and 1 mineral every turn... or 1 food and 3 minerals every two turns by alternating on and off the forest tile and in and out of riots. (Bad stuff can happen if a base riots on consecutive turns, it can destroy a facility or even flip to another faction, but a single riot at a time is safe.)
One base had that fun toy of a rocky-mineral tile, that goes to 7 minerals even before restriction lifting. It built a crawler to work it. What is the payback value of such a supply crawler? The answer isn't 7 minerals per turn -- because the base would be working the big mineral tile anyway even without the crawler. The answer is that the crawler pays back an entire 1-2-1 forest tile, because that's what the laborer on the minerals tile becomes displaced to. A 30-mineral crawler for that 1-2-1 is a better yield than recycling tanks, of course, but importantly that's a better yield than crawling a forest for 0-2-0 which isn't quite good enough compared to more formers and colony pods.
But this case is unusual. I've come to rely on supply crawlers less and less as this series of games has progressed, and this illustrates why. The value of a crawler is not the tile it is working, it is the value of the job the crawler displaces that laborer into, which is the next marginally-less-valuable tile or specialist job. 30 minerals for your next-worse tile just isn't as good as building more colony pods with the PTS to add three tiles including the base center square. In fact that crawler would be used into the PTS and then the base would just work the minerals normally once at size 3.
More technology: I researched Doctrine Flexibility in 2123 and Ethical Calculus in 2129, and sold each to Morgan for 25 credits again. The interesting thing was that each of those had been Morgan's own research choice at the time (visible on the F2 research screen granted by pact status.) This meant each time his progress carried over to a new tech of his own, and then that progress resulted in Gene Splicing for him.
He charged me 100 credits for the tech. Annoying since he's only been paying me 25 each for mine. I couldn't come up with tech-for-tech trade bait, since my own research was also set to Gene Splicing. So I bit down my pride and paid the money, still cheaper than researching it with labs, or the loss to be incurred in switching my own research to something else to trade for it.
Presently my first exploring boat achieved its goal, finding the Hive, who also sold (and overcharged for) another contact. Hive bought one tech for 25 credits before cutting off comms, and sadly Miriam didn't want to buy any techs at all. This boat also went on to find the Peacekeepers nearby, who also bought one tech and traded me a very useful map.
And my other boat found Gaia, completing the roster of contacts. For a total of four techs, she gave me Secrets of the Human Brain, her map, and 25 credits twice. That's why I was so keen on finding the AIs, lots of goodies to be had by contact.
Here's an overview of the entire world. It turned out my boat had just missed Gaia on the south shore of her island at first, and ended up going around the west side before making contact. It's a little hard to see here, but you can get a general overview of where landmasses are by the wireframe elevation contours, so I knew approximately but not exactly where to send my boats. Anyway, now I disbanded those exploring boats to save the pacifism drones; really nothing else for them to do with no pod scattering. I contacted each talkative rival one more time to see if they would ask to buy any contacts (I think Morgan did one), then called the governor election of course...
... and easily won it, since I had just completed the Planetary Transit System for that big influx of population. We'll continue onto a new page for the details of that.