While ship design, weapon selection and racial advantages get most of the spotlight in strategy discussions, there are two factors that play a major role in the outcome of any encounter that do not seem to garner proportionate attention: positioning and movement.
No doubt it has happened to you: changing the range you tell your ships to engage at or even simply dragging your whole fleet to a new position on the screen turns a losing engagement into a winning one. Sometimes small changes in positioning and movement can turn a marginal victory or loss into an 80%+ steamroll. Or get your ships slaughtered in seconds.
The goals when designing fleet positioning and assigning the various orders that determine ship movement are simple:
• Maximize your weapons’ time on target at effective ranges
• Concentrate your firepower in order to score kills
• Minimize your opponent’s weapon’s time on target at effective ranges
• Spread your opponent’s firepower in order to deny him kills
The variety of ship types, weapons, ship designs and orders makes attaining these goals incredibly complex (and major fun).
[size=150]Challenge and retaliation[/size]
While in the context of the single player game the opponent’s deployment is static, when posting and responding to challenges an essential dynamic surfaces: whoever is responding to any particular fleet always has a huge tactical advantage: the challenging fleet’s deployment is set and visible (especially after one attempt), and you can deploy your fleet specifically to counter it.
I had an otherwise thoroughly uninteresting exchange of challenges against a pure cruiser laser fleet where placed close together (on the same edge of the map) the cruiser lasers charged and chewed trough my pure missile fleet, but placed far apart (corner to corner) the missile ships barely let any cruiser laser ships get within range.
In this instance, due to the specific fleet and map size particulars, two fleets were each capable of mauling the other badly – the winner determined only by who was responding to the challenge and thus placing his ships last.
I will look at movement and positioning from the point of view of attempting to beat a challenge (or single player) and then from the point of view of posting your own challenges.
There are several tools to use in planning and executing your positioning and movement strategy. Here are some of them:
The most obvious tool, where you place your ships on the map, has both evident and somewhat more subtle effects on how the battle plays out:
• Relative position – your ships’ positioning relative to each other
• Distance to engagement – how far each of your ships has to travel to the engagement
• Engagement fronts – whether your ships will make contact along one or multiple fronts
• Your ship’s driving targets – which target each of your ships will pick at the start
• Enemy ship’s driving targets – which target each of the enemy ships will pick at the start
Your ships’ speed plays a major role in how they engage the enemy formations:
• Which ships engage first
• Where on the map engagement occurs
• At what range the engagement is fought
Orders are the most direct way to influence your fleet’s positioning and movement. Among the various orders these are the ones most useful to that end:
• “Priority x%” – along with distance, determines which target the ship will select to drive toward
• “Move to engage at x” – determines the distance the ship will try to maintain from its driving target
• “Escort” – ship will attempt to remain within a set distance from the selected friendly ship
• “Formation” – ship will attempt to maintain the same relative position to the selected friendly ship as set on the initial map deployment
• “Cautious x%” – ship will attempt to retreat when it takes x% damage to its hull
• “Keep moving” – the ship will not stop moving when it reaches the selected range
[size=150]Beating the challenge (and single player)[/size]
When attempting to defeat a challenge or single player map you have a dominating tactical advantage: you get to control the engagement. Here are some ways to exploit it:
[size=150]Concentrate your forces[/size]
One of your main goals is to focus your firepower in order to kill ships instead of damaging a lot of them without actually taking any out. To do this you need to keep your forces together. This can be achieved by:
Identical ship speeds and targets: If all your ships have the same speed and all select the same (or nearby) driving target they will move together, maintaining a layout similar to the deployment layout. Even minor speed differences will cause your ships to spread out over long distances and if your initial layout is tightly packed the ships will spread out some when they move. They will also tend to bunch up as they get near the enemy.
Finally, to ensure the ships choose the same driving target they need similar targeting priorities (if some of them have cruisers at 80% and frigates at 20% and others have the opposite, they will only stay together if the enemy’s cruisers and frigates stick together) and need to start out close together (targeting also depends on distance).
Escort: By using this order the ship will try to stay within a set range of the selected friendly ship. Ship speed still matters a lot though – if the escort ship is slower than the escort target it will be left behind. Conversely if the escort ship is faster than the escort target it will forge ahead of the escort target (but will stay within the set range).
Escort is a much stronger tool to keep your fleet together than trying to tinker with ship speed only. It will not, however, guarantee the relative positions between your ships – such as making sure tougher ships stay in front.
Formation: This is the ultimate order for concentrating your firepower. Ships with the formation order will try to stay in the exact position they start at relative to the selected formation target. If the ship cannot keep up with the formation target it will be left behind, but as long as the formation target is the slowest among the formation ships they will stay in near perfect position.
It is essential to understand a quirk of the formation order to use it effectively: ships maneuver in proportion to the “error” in their positioning towards their formation target. What this means is that there is a delay between the formation target moving and the formation ships moving to reestablish formation, and if the position error is small they will adjust slowly.
If you set up a line of ships where O is the formation target and X are ships with the formation order targeted at O:
X X O X
What you will see at the start of the battle is O starting to move and, after a slight delay, the X ships start to move. This happens no matter how fast X are. Instead of a perfect line you get:
...X ...X ......O ...X
After the initial offset, the X ships will keep that position from O (as long as they are fast enough to keep up). If you want a perfect formation, you have to take this into account. To do this:
- Don’t “chain” formation orders – set the same formation target for all your ships (I call this ship the “driver”). If you set ship A to formation B and ship B to formation C and C to D, what you end up with as they start to move is:
..A ....B ......C ........D
- Make sure your “driver” is the slowest ship in the formation. Otherwise ships will fall behind.
- Put your “driver” in the back of the formation. If you put your “driver” up front it will move ahead of the rest of the formation (as shown above) and probably get killed first – at which point the formation falls apart and all the ships revert to their own driving orders (of course you may want to do this in some cases… see further below).
- Give your “driver” room to move. If you start with your “driver” right behind another ship it will not be able to move forward and (since the formation responds in proportion to how far off they are from where they should be) the whole formation will barely move at all.
A packed formation which will barely move:
X X OX X
A formation that will move at top speed:
X X O X X
When this second formation moves, due to the delay, the O ship will actually be right behind the X ships.
Formations, though very powerful, are not without their drawbacks. First, your “driver” ship’s movement orders will be the only orders that matter (until it dies). This means if its orders make it stop (it has gotten to the range you determined from its target) the whole formation stops – even if this means your main ships’ weapons are just out of range and you are eating missiles. Conversely, if you have your “driver” ship set to “keep moving”, it can plow the whole formation into the enemy – even if that means your ships get inside their minimum range and can’t fire.
These are a couple of reasons why in some cases you might actually want to set your “driver” up front to die – after getting your fleet into position in good order.
Ship trapping: If a faster ship is right behind a packed line of slower ships it will not maneuver around them, it will plod along with them. You can use this to make formations that are more responsive than the rigid ones created with the formation order. For instance, if T are your slow “tank” ships and M are your flimsy ships packed with long range missiles:
T MT MT MT T
This arrangement will advance as a formation – even with no formation orders – as long as all the tanks have the same speed, the missile ships are faster than the tanks and all the ships select the same (or nearby) driving targets. If the missile ships are slower, they will be left behind. If you don’t “pad” the edges there is a chance the edge missile ship will actually slip by and get ahead of the formation. If you leave gaps between tanks, missile ships will get through.
The advantage to this method is that the missile ships will stop moving as soon as they are in range (as long as you set their “Move to engage at X” orders properly!) and you can use “keep moving” for the tanks without plowing the whole fleet into the enemy. The downside is that your ships have to have the right speeds and have to target the same enemies – or risk being split up.
Mix it up: Of course you can use all of these elements to arrange your fleet. Set up a rigid core with a “driver” and some ships, use the escort orders or trapping to arrange other ships around the core ships and so on.
[size=150]String them out[/size]
Everything you were trying to achieve with your own fleet – do the opposite to the enemy. You want your fleet to engage as a unit, and you want to take on a portion of the enemy fleet at a time. In military lingo this is known as “defeat in detail”.
Placement: In the single player maps the enemy ships are always spread out along the enemy line. This makes defeat in detail a simple matter of placement. If you put your ships in the center of your deployment zone or make a big line across it, the enemy will converge on your forces or engage them all in a full line of battle at the same time:
X X OO X OO X X X X O X O X O X O X X
On the other hand, if you concentrate your ships in one corner the closest ships will be engaged first, and the ones on the opposite corner of the map will only show up after a while:
OO X OO X X X X X (are we there yet)
In challenges, however, you can be sure the opponent will have used some or all of the tools in the previous section to make sure his fleet sticks together and hits you like a brick. But there is still a lot you can do!
Decoy: Almost always the main elements of fleets will be set to target cruisers as their highest priority. You can take advantage of this if you understand how targeting works.
Each ship selects a “driving target” when the encounter begins. The ship will then try to move to the range selected in its orders (“Move to engage at X”). The driving target selection pretty much only changes when that target dies. The initial selection depends on the priority (to choose whether to target a cruiser, frigate or fighter) and on the distance from your ships. For the initial target selection you can consider each enemy ship will choose the nearest ship of the class it has at highest priority. It actually looks at some function of distance and priority (possibly the product of the two), but at initial engagement ranges this does not matter unless the priorities are very close.
Knowing this you can proceed to abuse it with decoy ships. Here are a couple ways to do so:
- You are running a close range fleet against a long range missile/plasma fleet. The enemy ships stop as soon as they are in missile range and pound your ships as they close the distance. You can decoy the enemy fleet into moving into your range:
S L S L D L S L S L
S are your short range ships, L are the enemy long range ships and D is your decoy ship. Since D is closer the enemy ships will select it as a driving target. If you make D a very slow ship (or put no engines on it – but JUST SAY NO TO ZERO ENGINE SHIPS) the enemy will drive towards it as the engagement progresses instead of stopping when in range of your S ships. They will still shoot S ships – but since they are moving towards D you will close the distance faster:
............S L.......... ............S L.......... .D L.......... ............S L.......... ............S L..........
- You are facing a tight formation with well defended ships in front and massive weapons carriers behind them. If you can decoy the formation away from your fleet, you can attack it from the flank, exposing undefended gunships:
D TGG TGG SS SS
S are your combat ships, D is your decoy, T are the enemy tanks and G are the enemy gunships. If you make D a very slow ship and make your combat fleet relatively slow, this is what happens:
D TGG.............. TGG.............. SS .SS .. .. ..
Of course that is horribly out of proportion but you get the idea. Since D is closest, the enemy formation targets it and heads to it – allowing your ships to shoot a bit at the gunships instead of wasting all their fire on the tanks.
When you engage, you want all your ships to target only a few ships at a time. Part of this is positioning: you want to force the enemy to present you a wedge or a file of ships one at a time, and not a broad front. Against a broad front your ships will be firing at many enemies, spreading the damage around. Against a wedge or file all your ships will be firing on one or two enemies at a time, taking them out. You will have to use the previously mentioned tools to arrange this.
Another part of it is your formation itself. If you are using different kinds of ships (which you should be!) you need to arrange your formation so that they all bring their weapons to bear on the same targets. Ships with shorter range weapons have to be up front, beams and midrange weapons next, long range missiles backing up the parade. Try to set it up so all the ships come in range of the enemy together – to deliver maximum focused damage.
Deny the enemy focus and range
As before, everything you try to achieve with your fleet you should deny your enemy. Present a broad front of ships so his damage is spread among them. Try to outrange his ships if he is using only short or midrange weapons, or charge in if he is using long range weapons exclusively.
The escort and formation orders allow some pretty complex dynamics, since when the escort or formation target dies the ships revert to their basic orders. By using escort or formation to hold back or drive forward parts of your fleet you can control how they participate in the engagement.
One example: suppose you have a significant force of laser fighters. They are good against big cruisers, but if you leave them loose at the start they charge the enemy and get killed – because every enemy ship has nothing else but those fighters to shoot at until your fleets engage. Instead, you can set all those fighters to escort a specific ship. They will only charge when that ship dies – you can make sure that they will only be let loose when the fleets are fully engaged!
You can pull off much fancier moves. You can have a slow formation with tanks in front that breaks up into a fast short range ship charge and missile ships at range when the tanks die. You can hold ships off to the side and have them charge in from the flank when the fleets engage and a specific ship is killed. You can have the whole fleet charge in and then retreat by setting formation to a charging ship and setting the individual orders, which will take over when the lead ship dies, to fight at long range. While it takes a lot of potentially frustrating tinkering to get your fleet to dance exactly as you want it to, you can set up some really interesting behavior.
[size=150]Wrapping it up[/size]
With these simple (and not so simple) techniques you can make the single player maps completely trivial (at all difficulty levels) with only a few solid ship designs. I currently use at most half of the allotted points when benchmarking ships on a standard map (using more than that is usually a steamroll, whether the designs are good or bad). You should also be able to down any player created challenge within a few attempts – again given you have a few good ship designs to work with.
[size=150]Creating a monster[/size]
When crafting a challenge we are on the wrong side of the challenge-response tactical asymmetry. Our opponents will be able to place their ships, tune their orders (and adjust their designs) to counter our fleet – which will stay the same every time.
To create a difficult challenge we have to keep that in mind all the time. Creating difficult challenges is not really about doing things with your fleet as much as it is about denying the opponent ways to control the engagement.
This is the reason why some of the most difficult challenges are thoroughly boring blobs of a single fleet type that either charge at you at high speed or don’t move at all. Creating a melee quickly (plus the inherent overpoweredness of cruiser lasers) and not moving at all (and using the resources saved from having no engines to make proportionately more or better ships) are both ways to assure that the engagement will play out the way the challenger wants it to. A single type of ship means that there is no way to split up the forces, come from the “wrong” side or otherwise create a weak spot to exploit.
While these types of challenges can be hard to beat with your usual fleet, they are thoroughly uninteresting and – fortunately – there is always some equally boring counter fleet that pulverizes them.
Crafting a fun and difficult challenge, on the other hand, consists in making a flexible fleet that uses movement and positioning to deny the enemy alternatives – while not resorting to spamming the overpowered design du-jour.
[size=150]Movement and positioning in challenges[/size]
In most cases we want our forces concentrated in order to concentrate firepower. One exception would be an aggressive fleet that attacks from the two corners – to force the enemy to deal with more than one threat axis. To achieve concentration, the same tools already discussed are available.
Starting position: You basically can deploy in a corner or in the center of your deployment area.
Corner deployments are good in that they limit the angles from which enemies can come (straight ahead or 45 degrees up or down depending on corner), making it easier to make sure your “tank” ships take the brunt of the damage. The downside is that you allow the enemy to dictate the initial range of the encounter (he can start close, on the corner next to you, or far, diagonally opposite). On very large maps this downside is irrelevant (it will be far regardless).
Middle deployments minimize the control the enemy has over the initial engagement range, but allow him to come at you from a wider angle (45 degrees up or down, for a total 90 degrees possible attack vectors). This gives him less control over range but makes encircling your fleet easier.
As a general rule for small maps and fast fleets we want a middle deployment, for large maps and slow fleets a corner deployment works best.
Fleet layout: You can make a deep formation with a smaller front (blob) or a long battle line (wall). Blobs work better when you have very tough “tank” ships up front and long range damage dealers. Blobs concentrate firepower like no one’s business and are hard to split up. A battle line works better when all your ships are moderately tough defensively, and when you are using medium range weapons. This spreads the incoming damage among many ships and allows all your ships to be in range at the same time (where in a blob the rear ships would not be in range if packing midrange weapons).
As a general rule, if you are using full immune armor tanks or massive shield tanks plus long range weaponry in back go with a blob. If you are using moderate shield tanking, less than full immune armor tanking or medium range weapons a broader battle line will work better.
Note that your battle line should not be a single line across the map – we are still talking two to four ranks deep. Comparatively a blob might be a 5x5 to 8x8 pack of ships (depending on the size of the engagement).
Note also that short range ships don’t depend so much on their initial position. You want them to get in and create a mess inside the enemy formation as soon as possible. A fairly broad deployment works best though, since they will tend to envelop the enemy instead of making a big traffic jam just out of range.
Decoying: Your fleet can (and will) be decoyed. If your ships are spread out across a large area, the enemy can easily set up decoys to split your fleet unless it is all tied to one “driver”. If you have some ships prioritizing cruisers and others frigates, the enemy can tear your lines apart unless you are using escort or formation orders to keep them together.
Another thing to keep in mind when using formation is that the enemy can dictate range by having your “driver” ship target his decoy. He can then force your fleet to engage in unfavorable conditions (out of range of most your weapons while in full range of his – for instance).
Managing a good balance between cohesion (to focus fire) and looseness (to minimize how much the enemy can manipulate your fleet’s movement and positioning) is difficult. One way to do it is the previously mentioned trick of tying most or all of the fleet to a “driver” but making sure it dies as soon as the engagement begins in earnest – freeing the ships to move on their own orders.
Trying to decoy yourself, when making a challenge, is doable – but anything too fancy will probably only work the first time each player attempts your challenge.
Sequencing: All the previously mentioned tricks work, but unless your “triggers” are ships that can only be destroyed when you want them to, the enemy can manipulate your sequence. One example would be if you use a cheap frigate as a trigger to release your fighters (and have no other frigates in the fleet – just to make the example extreme). A single squad of rocket fighters set to attack frigates and left loose could one shot your trigger and cause your fighters to be released much earlier than you intended, getting them slaughtered.
You should never leave loose fighters when crafting a challenge. They will die.
Control his targeting: You want to deny the enemy control over which of your ships his fleet initially targets. This is fairly easy to accomplish with a blob and somewhat more difficult with a battle line.
With a blob, all you need is to offer a closer target to any point in the enemy starting area. This ship will always be targeted:
BBB E BBB E BBB T E E E E
No matter where the enemy places his ships, T is always closer. With a broad battle line you can place a couple targets (one on each end) or simply accept the fact that the enemy will be able to pick which of your ships he targets by choosing his starting location.
Note: Aside from how squishy frigates are in the first place, one reason why not using them at all is effective when making a challenge is that it denies the opponent one variable he can control. With no frigates on the map he cannot gain anything by using “prioritize frigates x%” and “move to engage (frigates) at x”.
Custom map gimmicks: You can use the map settings to limit the ways the encounter can play out. One example is making a tiny map and then spamming fast cruisers with cruiser lasers, another is restricting the modules that best counter your fleet. This, in my opinion, is cheap and no fun.
[size=150]Wrapping it up[/size]
Creating fun challenges that are also difficult means building a balanced fleet, placing it and setting up orders in such a way that it effectively deals damage while denying the player means to control the engagement as much as possible. Extra points for “interesting” behavior!
While the tactical asymmetry guarantees that any challenge is beatable and while there are “spam” fleets that are very difficult to counter with anything other than their specific “counter spam”, making a hard interesting challenge is as much fun as this game can offer.
[size=150]Conclusion and looking forward[/size]
Movement and positioning are a huge part of what makes this game interesting. The fact that ships are not under direct control is essential to GSB. The more minute control that is put into the game the harder it is to make a decent challenge – since user control only widens the tactical gap between the creator of the challenge and the person trying to beat it.
The tools that are in the game already allow a great variety of positioning and movement tactics, but there is one area that could use improvement. There is currently no effective way to keep range. Ships are very slow to react when they are closer to the target than their orders specify, and the “cautious” order is nearly useless since most ships (including every ship defended primarily by shields) is basically dead by the time the order is triggered.
Allowing a slightly more effective means to keep range would greatly increase tactical variety.
Now go blow something up.