Fighters seem like the easiest craft to construct a general design manifesto for, as they are the simplest to design. Here’s my take on things as they stand now:
General role of fighters- Fighters are first and foremost a threat to other fighters, a significant danger to frigates, and mostly a distracting annoyance to cruisers. Certain races are most susceptible to the threat of fighters for various reasons. Empire cruisers have enormous shield bubbles that make them significantly more vulnerable to strafing runs, Tribe ships have less resistant armor that more readily lets fighter-scale weaponry through, and the generally slow Order fighters are more vulnerable to interception.
Fighter weapons- Weapon choice is the single most important factor in fighter design. The weight and power consumption of the weapons will drive the entire cost, survivability and role of the fighter.
Rocket launcher: A good choice, not because it’s particularly lethal against anything, but because it’s so light and has minimal power requirements. Speed is the most important factor in fighter survivability, and no fighters are faster than rocket fighters. Rockets can’t really injure healthy cruisers; they can’t penetrate the shields and the minimum range is too short for them to be fired from underneath the shield bubble. They’re a a little too inaccurate to attrit enemy fighters with satisfactory alacrity as well. In large numbers they can be dangerous to frigates, but I’ve honestly never bothered. Cheap rocket fighters have a higher and better use; zooming around and generally being unhittable, much to the annoyance and distraction of your foes. They’ll occasionally kill something, but mostly they’ll tie up enemy ships while your expensive cruisers can calibrate their targeting equipment.
Laser: Another good choice; lasers are good for two things. Those are shooting down enemy fighters and strafing Imperial cruisers. Laser fighter designs will take a hit in survivability and usefulness against frigates when compared to rocket fighters, but they can actually hit enemy fighters and kill them off in a few passes, instead of engaging in protracted furballs that merely distract the enemy. Because of their higher installed power Rebel designs take a smaller speed hit from using these weapons, and so make the best laser fighter platforms.
Pulse laser: Not a good choice. The pulse laser is the regular laser, only more. Pulse laser fighters will hit and kill enemy fighters more ably than the regular laser will, but at an even greater survivability penalty. It has been my experience that this survivability penalty is so great that using pulse lasers instead of regular lasers will actually reduce kill ratios despite their greater lethality. Additionally, the poor armor and shield penetration of the pulse laser restricts them entirely to anti-fighter duty, as only the most mortally crippled frigates and cruisers could possibly take damage from the anemic tickling. In fact, it’s even possible to design fighters with enough armor to shrug these things off.
Fighter torpedoes: I really want to like these. I really want to like these. Fighter torpedoes have exceptional shield and armor penetration, and no power requirements. They’re also totally incapable of hitting fighters and so heavy that they automatically suck any design burdened with them down into that black hole of survivability inhabited by eggshells with targets painted on them. Additionally, torpedo fighters will waste their volleys on passing enemy fightercraft even in the absence of orders to engage fighters, and wander merrily through enemy AAA bands like they were the rose garden. Fighter AI simply isn’t good enough to use these low-survivability, high lethality giantkillers effectively. If the enemy fleet consists exclusively of stationary cruisers with no anti-fighter weaponry, then these can work. In actual battles they’re the first to die and they’ll have accounted for maybe a frigate or two.
Target painter: Not a bad choice, and a favorite of the deviously minded. Target painters are good for two things; improving the accuracy of your rocket fighters against other fighters so they can actually kill them this decade and keeping a nearly constant beam of laser designator goodness on enemy capital assets so your missile cruisers can reduce them to rapidly expanding clouds of vapor. Pairing a target painter and rocket launcher on the same chassis tends to result in an expensive uber-fighter that isn’t convincingly more cost effective than putting the modules on separate craft.
Engines: Use the fighter 1 and 2 engines. The fighter 3 engines have a lower thrust-to-weight ratio which is only magnified by their insane power requirements. Upgrading to fighter 3 engines only rarely makes the design faster after the new generator has been installed, and drives the cost up enormously.
Generators: Avoid using these if you can; the additional hitpoints they give you don’t even come close to compensating for how much easier they make it to hit the fighter. Aside from that, if you must, use the minimum necessary to get the performance you need, but don’t be afraid to go with the 3 if you have to, because these don’t have a diminishing power/weight ratio like the engines do.
Federation: Meh fighters; the best designs will be lost-cost rocket fighters.
Alliance: Similar to Federation. Best keep it low cost and simple. Tarantula is probably the best of the lot.
Tribe: Not as different as you might think. The only outlier is the Heaven, with more slots than you’ll know what to do with. Really. I have no idea what to do with them.
Empire: Easily the worst fighters in the game, but still usable. Go for extremely low-cost designs here. The Phalanx is probably your best bet.
Order: All rubbish except the Acolyte, which comes close but not quite to being a viable torpedo platform, and works well enough with lasers or rockets.
Rebels: Best fighters of all. While it’s fun to see how much you can pack into the Atlantis, the Icarus is probably a more practical and cost effective choice. Rebel fighters make especially good laser platforms.
Thoughts? Did I miss anything? Get it completely wrong?