Written by Howard Bampton
This article is intended for the beginning to semi-experienced Galaxy player. Experienced Galaxy players have no doubt already thought about all the details that this article mentions, and have made their decisions on the subject. Since in many cases there are no "correct" answers, I have generally refrained from doing anything besides pointing out the pros and cons of both sides of the issues.
There are 4 general duties that a ship is typically expected to perform: Cargo runs, picket duty, commerce raiding, and offensive duty. Although a single ship design can be used for several of these duties, a multi-duty flexible single design does a worse job at each task than a ship specialized for just one job.
There are several schools of though on cargo ships: "single cargo space and drive", "large cargo space and drive", and "armed freighters".
Single cargo space and drive cargo ships are typically (1 0 0 0 1), or sometimes (x 0 0 0 1) (with x=2, 3, or 4). The general concept is: we want something fast and cheap. With all drive and cargo, we aren't wasting production building shields or weapons that we don't want them to use in the first place, and we aren't slowing our ship down by carrying them around. An additional advantages is that they are inexpensive, and so we tend to have hundreds of them. Furthermore, we can afford to send them unescorted (or lightly escorted) to systems that we'd like to claim, but where they could run into resistance. In a last ditch defense, they make OK cannon-fodder, albeit expensive to lose. Since there are lots of them, we have great flexibility in moving cargo around: if we have 5 CAP here, 3 COL there, and some MAT somewhere else, we can move it all.
The downside to this kind of cargo ship is that if we are attacked, a large part of out merchant marine can be knocked out by a single small enemy warship. These ships also don't have the bulk carrying capacity that larger cargo ships do.
Large cargo ships (say mass 20+, with 10+ spaces for cargo) also have their pluses and minuses. On the plus side, they can carry a lot of cargo, and do it cheaper than a horde of smaller ships. On the minus side, it is often difficult to keep them full. When loaded, they tend to be very slow, unless we have high drive tech, invest in cargo tech, or have sizable engines on them. They are large enough that putting a weapon on them isn't a total waste of time, but shielding them is not easy, especially when loaded. Remember that shield strength is a function of the ship's mass, which includes cargo. Losing a large freighter is very expensive, so they tend to be sent only to well-defended systems.
In order to keep their cargo ship losses down, many players build armed freighters. They typically have minimal cargo space (1 or 2), light weapons (1 or 2 as well), reasonable drives (4+) and some shielding. Some players will further tweak the shields so that the cargo ship is immune to strength 1 attacks (i.e. the effective shield strength when loaded is at least 4).
Picket duty consists of guarding an empire's borders. Designing picketing forces is one of the most difficult tasks in Galaxy. Too weak a force, and we are asking for invasion. If we have too much of our economy invested in picketing forces, we cannot field an effective offensive fleet, which will cause us to lose.
There are 3 or 4 types of picketing forces: orbital forces; slow, heavily armed and shielded warships; obsolete warships that have not or will not be upgraded; and normal warships.
Orbital forces (all shields and weapons) have the best bang for the buck (no drive or cargo mass to lower shield strength), but can't move. Furthermore, they allow the enemy to make some educated guesses about the size of the system: a 100 mass orbital fort is a dead giveaway that it is a homeworld. We can do some things to confuse the issue, such as building some forts with mat stockpiles handy, or upgrading some ships at the system at the same time.
To overcome the problems of orbital forts, a few players build slow-moving warships (typically <25% drive). They have drives, so we can move them from system to system as needed, but they still pack a sizable punch.
It is common to use old, obsolete warships as pickets. These ships could be awaiting upgrades, or could be too expensive to upgrade. The most common picket forces, however, are warships that we have not yet deployed for offensive duty.
A commerce raider's goal is to get cheap kills of the enemy's cargo ships and systems. We want to bomb unguarded systems, and prevent (re)colonization of others. Depending on our enemy's tactics, commerce raiders doing the later job can end up being attacked by his bigger commerce raiders engaging in the same activity.
There are 3 varieties of commerce raiders that are typically found in Galaxy games. The most common is a small, normal warship, which is often called a fighter. The second variety is a fast, lightly armed, unshielded warship. Typically, we want to catch systems that the enemy has lightly defended (single fighter, or no armed warships), or prevent him from sending unarmed freighters to a system. The third and most devious variety is a medium-sized (or larger) fast, lightly armed, and heavily shielded ship. This raider is less concerned with taking out the opposition's ships, and more concerned with bombing systems. This third design philosophy exploits two of Galaxy's documented quirks, namely that combat ends when neither side can damage the other (so the enemy raider could destroy all our unarmed cargo ships, leaving our picketing force largely untouched), and that bombing occurs if a hostile force has a ship in orbit after combat, even if we also have ships left. Don't be surprised by these quirks.
Given that Galaxy is a wargame, we might think that offensive ship design would have been worked out to the last detail and everyone would be running around with the same ships as everyone else. Well, we are out of luck: it is still an art. Some general conclusions have been reached concerning what we should and should not do:
Our offensive ships should move roughly the same speed. Fleets remove the dangers of having half our forces arrive this turn and half next turn, but it is better to have all our ships moving about the same speed so we aren't wasting production making extra drive when we could be making heavier shields or weapons.
What speed should our fleet move? Alternately, we could ask what percentage of the ship's mass should be drive? This question is something that has not been decided, either. It is safe to say that going below 30% drive, or above 50% drive, will have a major effect on our tech research: going for low drive mass tends to encourage high drive techs, whereas high drive mass tends to encourage shield and weapons development. This isn't to say that going outside those extremes is never done: I was one of the co-winners in a Galaxy game where my fleet design was 25% drive, roughly 25% weapons, and 50% shields. Good luck with diplomacy, and, in the later game, some very nasty flack that the opposition had a hard time killing, probably are why I got away with it.
Before I go further, I should mention a few definitions of ship types. A "drone" is the smallest & fastest possible scout, (1 0 0 0 0). A "gun" is the smallest warship, (1 1 1 0 0). "Flack" is a ship designed to soak up enemy firepower and make his large weapons waste their time destroying small ships, while our large weapons destroy his large ships
Mixed forces are good. A mixed force is a fleet (not necessarily in the game sense) of groups of different types of ships. A fleet with all large ships is vulnerable to a fleet of equal mass which has heavy flack cover and a few large ships. Similarly, a force with no large weapons can be defeated by a single ship with heavy shields. This leads players to build fleets with a few large ships (which can have big weapons, or can have lots of small ones, sometimes called "shotguns"), lots of small (mass less than 10) cannon fodder (or flack), and a smattering of ships of sizes in between.
There has been considerable debate in some circles about what constitutes a good flack design. The obvious (1 1 1 1 0) "fighter" suffers because it has a poor chance of hitting unarmed enemy flack, and it has a good chance of dying when shot at by enemy guns. Similarly, drones (1 0 0 0 0) die a horrible death against an opposing fleet that has many small guns. Using unarmed flack (say, 1 0 0 2 0) means that we need to either have lots of medium sized ships with guns, or build shotguns in order to have enough guns to take out enemy flack.
Should we build any medium sized ships, bigger than flack, but smaller than 50? Unsurprisingly, there are two sides to this debate. On the plus side, these ships are cheap enough we can have more than a handful in a fleet. The down side is that these ships are vulnerable to a lucky hit from the enemy's anti-flack guns (or even their flack's guns), and they almost certainly will die when hit by the big guns.
Are very large ships (mass 150+) worth it? Again, there is no consensus. If we consider the relatively small number of players that use them, we can say "probably not." Large ships are very good for spooking other players and can sometimes attack an enemy fleet on their own and win. On the down side, upgrading them is horribly expensive, and not upgrading them means that 15 turns later, after everyone has developed better technology, they can be knocked out by an embarrassingly small ship. Then there is the spoiler factor: some players have been attacked simply because someone else saw them building a 3+ turn-to-complete ship. This factor has something to do with a temptation of making the enemy waste several thousand industry for nothing.
If all our systems were the same size, ship designs would be easy: we'd be able to interchange production quite easily from world to world. In Galaxy, and even more so in Blind Galaxy, we seldom have this chance after the first few turns.
So what are we to do? Should we have hundreds of designs tweaked for the production abilities of each world, or have a smaller number of ships types and not worry about production lost due to round off? Certainly both sides have merit. Production capacity varies considerably, depending on the resources of a system and MAT availability. For the beginning player, I would recommend settling on roughly 10 warship designs. Have 2 or 3 large ships customized for being built at your homeworld. Have your non-flack designs tweaked for other worlds where you intend to produce them, and don't worry too much about production round off error for your flack (which you produce at the other systems). Once you have become comfortable with this strategy, you may experiment with having dozens of warship classes.
For reference, in the game I mentioned above with the 25% drive design scheme, I had a total of 33 ship designs. Of them, 8 of them were orbital forts (6 mass 99/100, 2 flack-types), 3 were cargo ships, the obligatory drone type, and 21 warship designs. In the warship designs, I had 1 "Miscalculated its mass, oops!" type, 1 prototype commerce raider, 4 designs that were intended for picket duty, 2 types of flack (1 of which I stopped making after turn 40 or so, and reassigned to picket duty), and 14 heavy warship designs (7 which were actively being produced at the end of the game, including 1 mass 300 ship, and two mass 198 designs).
I hope that this article has pointed out most of the issues that come up regarding ship construction, at least as far as the ship's mission(s) are concerned. I welcome comments, either directly, through rec.games.pbm, or one of the Galaxy mailing lists.