May 14, 2012

UltraCorps - The Boardgame That Isn't

This review / strategy discussion of UltraCorps was published back in May 2012.  UltraCorps continues to maintained and hosted through Steve Jackson games.  It's interesting seeing other browser based 4X games come and go (Neptune's Pride 2 is a popular one at the moment).  I've played a number of them but UltraCorps is the one I keep going back to.  It is a great design and despite the old-school interface and UI design, remains a deep and interesting to play.  If you are up for a game, shoot me a tweet and we'll set one up! (June 11, 2014).

If you haven’t heard of UltraCorps, I’m not surprised. While it isn’t strictly speaking a boardgame, it IS a product of Steve Jackson Games, so that counts a little right?

UltraCorps is a free simultaneous turn-based, multiplayer browser/web game with a space conquest theme. I feel it is relevant to talk about here at BGG for a few reasons:

(1) The line between boardgame and video games is blurring rapidly, particularly with e-versions of boardgames becoming common place and online play for many boardgames a frequent occurrence.

(2) It’s quite an interesting game and one that I think would appeal to many people here based on the kind of gameplay and decisions that occur (mostly what this article is about).

(3) It demonstrates, rather nicely, how the depth and strategic of elements our many of our beloved boardgames can be augmented and implemented in interesting ways in a digital format.

What is UltraCorps?

Games of UltraCorp are setup in one of two formats. You can have a general public game where anyone (or those with a password) can join a game. This format is limited to a handful of players. The second format is the "mega-game," so called because 100’s of people participate in a single game. OMG!

Regardless of the game format, the universe is populated by a randomly generated tapestry of planets/systems, typically on the order of 10-15 planets per player in the game. These planets are scattered about space randomly. Sometimes there are little clusters, sometimes not. What is of course interesting is that the distances between planets are crucial to the game’s strategic thinking/planning, based on the speed of your various fleets (more on that in a bit).

Player’s start off on their homeworld and quickly expand outwards to claim neutral planets, collect resources (population and Ultranium currency) and build units (both space ships and ground attack units). There are over a dozen different races you can choose from to start with. The most obvious difference between the races is what units they begin the game with ability to build, but also each race has a special bonus of some type. Ultimately however, all players have access to build all types of units, and overall the races are pretty well balanced.

There are no development level mechanisms in the game (i.e. no tech’s, no social engineering stuff, etc.). The engine is really quite simple: take over planets, get more resources, build more stuff, and take over more planets until you kill everyone or have the highest score when the game turn limit is met (often 30-45 turns).

Basic Gameplay

Structurally, the game uses a simultaneous turn-based order system. Every player in the game logs in to the system and cues up the construction orders for their planets, assigns units to fleets, and give movement orders for their fleets. A turn “ticks” over depending on the game settings, either when everyone is done for their turn (no time limit) or when a pre-set turn time is reached (i.e. every day at 11:00pm). When the turn ticks, everyone’s orders take effect, first with units being constructed, and then fleet movement occurring. Battles occur automatically when opposing forces meet at a planet, and you can watch how the battles play out after the fact (more on battle dynamics below). This system is great for creating a lot of tension about what is going to happen, while also minimizing delays in what would otherwise be an impossibly drawn out experience.

The joy is in the details

So what makes UltraCorps a remarkable experience? I’ve identified six key elements at work that come together to create a very rich and diverse decision space and a high level of replay-ability. These are:

(1) Economic tradeoffs
(2) Fleet Structure + Composition
(3) Information + hidden movement
(4) Strength through position
(5) Neighborly Conduct – The Meta-Game
(6) The guessing game

In the sections below, I’ll describe these elements in a bit more detail and explain how they support the strategic depth of the game.

Economic Tradeoffs

Each planet in the game produces population (POP) and currency (ULT, short for Ultranium) at a fixed rate over the course of the game, regardless of who owns the planet. POP and ULT are used to build units, with ULT being consumed in the units construction and POP determining how much construction can occur in a single turn tick.

Other than the homeworlds, every planet in the game starts off as a neutral planet, providing POP + ULT each turn. Every planet in the game also has 1 or more licenses attached to it. Licenses dictate which type of units (there are over 40 unit types) can be built on that planet. You can spend ULT on a planet to purchase new licenses, allowing you to build whatever units types you want. Some licenses are pretty cheap for basic units, but capitol ship licenses can cost 1000’s of ULT to purchase.

The key to the economic side of the game is balancing the dispersion vs. concentration of your economic assets + resources. Your homeworld starts off with the most licenses, typically including at least one capitol ship license, and the highest starting population + ultranium. Obviously you are going to want to leverage the licenses you have on your homeworld to build strong fleets quickly. This means needing to ferry in population + ULT from surrounding planets to fuel your production center (i.e. homeworld) Once you’ve conquered nearby neutral planets, you can setup “auto” fleets that function as a trade loop between a nearby supply planet and a production center. But of course, you need to make transport ships. Some are quite slow (Cargo Boosters) and can only really be used to ferry goods between very close planets. Other’s can carry a lot and move fast, but are expensive to build and the licenses can be expensive.

So here is the first real numbers game. Do you setup up your auto-fleets on the cheap, bringing in a slow but consistent trickle of resources to a production center, or do you spend more money on fancier transports to carry goods from further out? Or leave the planet as a minor production center? If you splurge on the bigger transports, does their construction also support your offensive strategy, i.e. a bunch of ground units that need to be transported? In part, the decision hinges on how vulnerable you feel the supply planet might be to attack. Multiple cheap auto-fleets are nice and cheap, but with multi-turn transit times, if the planet is sacked the inbound fleets are going to deliver themselves into enemy hands.

The choices also hinge on where you choose to establish other production centers as your empire grows. Ultimately, you’ll want to capture neutral planets with higher power licenses, or pay the cost when the time is right to buy additional capitol ships or other expensive licenses on other planets with a good economic outlook (i.e. close to potential supply planets). Again, this decision hinges in large part on the expansion of your empire and on what your opponents are doing. As you plan out your economic system, you need to keep a close eye on what systems are likely to be vulnerable to attack, what systems are well positioned as forward strongholds or rally points for your fleets, and how you can minimize risk from raids or other disruptions to your economic flow.

A third consideration is the balance between how many resources you export off a supply planet versus what you leave behind to fund construction of garrison troops. A totally undefended planet is a sitting duck waiting to be captured by any number of the very fast moving units in the game. You will want to provide for the construction of some cheap garrison units to discourage that sort of attack. Plus, with a good supply chain, you can periodically ferry garrison units to production centers (or elsewhere) to support your fleets offensively.

Last, an optional game setting enables the “economy,” which implements a fluctuating supply/demand based price system for the ULT costs of units. As more players cue up construction of a particular type of unit, the ULT cost goes up on subsequent turns. As demand goes down, the price goes down. You can lock in lower prices by cueing up a higher volume of units, but of course you might be locked into a longer term construction cycle and face a tougher choice if you need to retool your construction sequences in response to threats or other needs. The “economy” adds a nice dynamic to the game, and if you are able to utilize lower cost units effectively, you can gain a serious leg up on the competition.

UltraCorps economic system is really not complex, but it offers and number of interesting choices and decisions in how you structure your empire and the balance between the need for high intensity production centers versus a dispersed production approach.

Fleet Composition

As you build units at your various planets, you can group these units together as a “fleet,” which can then be given a movement order. A few basics:

(1) Fleets move at the speed of the slowest unit in the fleet. The slower units move around 50 units per turn, with the fastest units around 120 to 160 per turn. A few units, like probes, move really fast, at about 300 units per turn. Fleet speed is crucial to planning a successful offensive campaign. You will want to make sure you’ve worked through your attack plan and checked the distances between planets so that your fleets can effectively bounce from planet to planet without losing crucial time in transit.

It’s worth mentioning that you can’t change the movement orders of fleets once they are in transit, so keeping your fleets “grounded” and at a planet as much as possible gives you the most flexibility in modifying your plans as circumstances change, either from a defensive or offensive standpoint. And it probably goes without saying that the faster a unit is the more flexibility you have. A faster and more nimble fleet can stay ahead of a much larger but slow moving fleet, and is often able to wreck an opponent’s empire and takeoff without ever directly engaging them in a high firepower fight.

(2) Every fleet is given a composite “firepower” score that can be used as a very rough comparison of fleet strength. There are crucial details however.

Each unit in the game has a few basic stats that factor into firepower: An offense rating (0-100), a defensive rating (0-100) and a number of attacks it makes in each round of a combat. When a battle occurs, each unit makes as many attacks as its attack number. These hit if a random number equal to or below their attack value is rolled. Hits are randomly assigned to enemy units. Hit units are then able to avoid/negate the hit by rolling equal to or under their defensive number. Pretty simple right?

Well, the key is to understand that not all firepower is created equal. You can have a high firepower fleet comprised of only a handful of capitol ships, which could easily (and often does) loose to a similarly high fire-power force consisting of many more but weaker units. So in addition to considering the damage output of a fleet, you also need to consider its “soak” capacity, i.e. the ability to soak up lots of fire and damage while maintaining a high level of damage output. This really means that the best fleets consist of a relatively few strong units with high offensive and attack scores and lots and lots of “fodder” units that can soak up damage and reduce the chances of your capitol ships taking an unlucky hit early in the fight.

(3) The balance between free moving units versus those that need to be transported is also crucial. Many ground units, 1-for-1, might have better firepower or soak capabilities than a free moving unit per their cost, but you need to consider their transportation requirements. On one hand, you can use really fast (but expensive) transports, and end up with a quick moving and pretty strong fleet. But if your transports are lost in a fight, you can find your armies stranded in uncompromising territory. A primarily free moving fleet can be cheaper (depending on what transport units you relied on), but may be a little weaker. The upshot is that your fleet again has more flexibility in responding. You can easily divide up a free moving fleet into multiple strike forces as needs require, whereas transport heavy fleets lose their efficiency in transportation when split up.

So, good fleet composition is a matter of, again, careful balancing. You need to build fleets (and acquire needed licenses + manage your production centers) around a desired minimum speed to satisfy your offensive planning. The fleet itself needs to hit that speed target while maintaining an effective amount of firepower and soak capacity. And again, you need to weigh the pro’s and con’s of a transport heavy versus free moving fleet in accomplishing your strategic goals.

Information Manipulation

UltraCorps has an intelligence war at work that adds a lot to the intrigue and depth found in the game.

Every player can see what total forces are stationed at a planet, regardless of who controls the planet. So at a basic level, there is not much “hidden” information. I can look at the map and see who has how much power where and what their force composition is.

Here’s the catch: Once a fleet is in transit, you can no longer “see” it, its movement, its force size, or its destination.

But not all is lost. What you can do is build sensor units (there are a few different types) which when stationed at a base give you a report of all incoming fleets within the sensors range. The sensors range from 80 units scan range out to 420 units. But, the sensor only tells you that there is a fleet inbound (or outbound) and what its origin was. It doesn’t tell you how many units are in the fleet, what the fire power is, what the speed is, etc. Although it does tell you the distance to the destination and distance from the origin, you can figure out the fleet’s speed. Of course, you can also see what planets do or don’t have sensors!

So, if one were to begin an attack on an opponent that was a bit remote, you have a number of important decisions to make. First, do you want the attack to be obvious or a surprise? You might want to send all of your power to a location with sensors, maybe an even a production center, knowing your opponent will see the incoming fleet and have to face a choice about whether to commit forces in defense. If the attacker has a huge firepower advantage, this can be a bad spot to be in, as you need to respond with a damage mitigation approach.

On the other hand, if you want to be sneaky, you have a few interesting choices. The first option is to play your fleets departure location and attack location to target a planet without a sensor, or such that their move speed avoids their sensor coverage. For example, if I stage a fleet on a world 175 units away from an enemy world that has an 80-range sensor, and the fleet moves at 90 units I can avoid the sensor coverage. It will take me two turns of movement, on the first bringing me within 85 units (outside of sensor range) and on the next turn I will be at the planet and attacking. Essentially, through careful positioning and target selection, one can avoid sensor coverage.

The second approach is to use a diversion/decoy method to launching an attack. Since sensors don’t say how many units are in a fleet, if I split my fleet into one big force and then a few smaller fleets of 1-2 units, I can send them all at different targets of an opponent and they won’t know which fleet is the “big” one versus which are essentially decoys. Such tactics can be used to force your opponent to defend critical worlds while your main fleets lands on a supply world within striking distance of more vital targets.

Thirdly, various saturation methods can be employed to effectively create an information overload for your opponent. Simply put, this entails timing lots of fleet attack movements from multiple planets to hit multiple enemy targets on the same turn. Such methods allow unforeseen combinations of firepower to come together at a target planet, creating a very difficult to defend situation. It can force your opponent to prioritize their defensive positions.

Overall, the information games plays central to strategic battle planning present in UltraCorps. The various methods above, ranging from obvious direct assaults meant to drawn out power to sneaky and confusing attacks all have a place and purpose in the game. Often times it might take several turns to position your fleets and forces in an arrangement to launch a specific series of attacks, and it can be nerve wracking doing that while knowing you could be attacked at nearly any time yourself.

Strength Through Position

The next key point follows from the information war. UltraCorps definitely has a cold-war feeling to it. Huge firepower fights, even if you win, can be disastrous for both you and your opponent, as it opens you up to attack from other players as you can be left vulnerable without a strong defensive fleet. As a consequence, much of the gameplay and strategic planning hinges around displays of force and maintaining superior positioning such that you “could” attack your neighbor in a moment’s notice, or you “could” easily jump back and defend your worlds from a raid.

Indeed, much of the conflict ends up being fairly subtle, with players jockeying for control of strategically significant boarder worlds between their empires. These boarder worlds are vital for maintaining an aggressive position and preventing yourself from being backed into a defensive corner. By maintaining a strike force within distance of your opponent will do nearly as much to contain them as will an outright attack, and provided you have an economic edge it can be hard for them to get an upper hand on your position.

This said, there are times when you do need to act and wage a strong campaign to eliminate a player. This is especially important in the larger mega games, where early and decisive leads have a compounding effect over the course of the game and can drive players to victory or defeat. So, if pressure is relived to defend one flank of your empire, that might allow you to bring overwhelming force to bear against another adjacent player, quickly eliminating their major fleets and taking over their planets. Maintaining a position of power is crucial to being able to capitalize on opportunities for attack.

Neighborly Conduct

As if there wasn’t enough going on already, the next layer of strategic planning is the direct player-to-player communication and politicking. A key game tool is the creation of “Non-Aggression Pacts”(called NAP’s) with your neighborhoods. Typically, a as players empires grow near each, you need to start planning where you are going to try and attack and be aggressive, versus where you are going to hold the line. The reality is that you can’t very easily attack and defend from multiple points easily in the beginning of the game, but everyone is in the same situation. This pushes people to make NAP’s with some of their neighbors, but not others.

NAP communications are handled through the in-game message system. The interesting part to NAP’s is that they usually have a time limit on them, so perhaps you’ll form a NAP with a neighbor for 10 turns. You might agree as part of the original NAP to evaluate a future NAP agreement 9 turns out. You need to be careful though with NAP’s, because its easy to ceasefire yourself into a corner where you don’t have any reasonable means of attacking and expanding your empire.

Furthermore, the term limits on NAP agreements generate a lot of strategic considerations. What happens when the NAP runs out? Should I be prepared for an attack or to attack myself? Is my neighbor massing forces near my border? Do I owe my neighbor anything?

Of course what makes the NAP’s genuine and interesting is that they are not enforced at all by the game. They are purely an emergent outgrowth of the gameplay. So, you are free to break a NAP (with or without warning) at any time. However, given the relatively small community playing the game, you will quickly gain a reputation for unscrupulous behavior if you break your NAP’s, and people will be pretty unlikely to agree to a NAP with you in the future. How’s that for meta-meta-gaming?

Often times you might decide to forge a stronger long-term alliance with another player, effectively agreeing to not attack each other unless you are the only two players left in the game. This can be an effective way to form a strong rearguard for yourself, allowing you push aggressively in another direction. The risk however is that if you ally yourself with a weak player, you might find that they are quickly consumed by someone else’s expansion and the back of your empire is suddenly at great risk.

There is really a wide range of political strategizing that goes on in the game, and I’m barely scratching the surface. One can be pretty creative with their politicking, for example encouraging others to attack one of your neighbors to draw them away, or ganging up on a player getting a sizeable firepower advantage. In the large mega-games, this political negotiating is just as important (some might argue more important) as your economy and fleet management. It is a harsh game, and if you don’t consider the political ramifications of your actions, you can quickly find yourself without allies and surrounded by people hungrily looking at your planets.

The Guessing Game

Looking at UltraCorps holistically, what makes it unique and such an engrossing game is how “personal” it all is. So much of the game hinges on reading your opponents' disposition of forces and trying to discern what their intentions are. If you talk to them in-game, are they being honest? Will they uphold their NAP? Is the NAP just a ploy to buy them time to get in position to strike you when your back is turned?

When you are directly engaged with an opponent in a war campaign, the psycho-analysis is no less significant. When choosing a mixture of attack strategies (direct assault, decoy, saturation, etc.) what are you trying to feint your opponent into believing about your intentions? Do you fake a decoy and really just send everything you have at their production center, hoping to call his bluff? What are your opponent’s defensive priorities?

Essentially, it is all about reading your opponents and attempting to rationalize their moves in way that you can make your own choices that minimize catastrophic mistakes. But despite all that, you also have to rely on your own intuition and gut instinct. There might be a perfectly rational thing for your opponent to do in response to your actions, but don’t expect to them to do that!

There have been games where I’ve watched two players read each other’s bluffs wrong and commit huge forces to a battle neither expected to happen, resulting in huge firepower losses to both their empires. A costly mistake for sure! In other games, I’ve made a huge offensive move, poised to takeover my opponent’s homeworld, only to watch them abandon their world on the eve of the attack, fly past my fleets, and attack my worlds instead! It can be shocking to see what others come up with in desperate times.

Is it right for you?

If you like multi-player conflict games, and don’t have a screaming aversion to sci-fi games, UltraCorps is worth looking into. Yes, it’s a (free) browser based game, but it captures the same kinds of strategic decisions and planning present in many boardgames. Graphically, it isn’t much to look at, but that’s not what the game is about. It’s about creating a sandbox for your own epic space opera to unfold, one horrifying and suspenseful tick at a time.

I’ve played many of the other turn based 4x games as well as real-time twists on the 4x genre (i.e. Sins of Solar Empire) as well as plenty of 4x style boardgames. UltraCorps does a REALLY good job of capturing the strategic depths most of them aspire to, while remaining intuitive and functional.

You can get a handle on the basic mechanics and gameplay by playing solo games as well, essentially just practicing your initial empire expansion by taking over a small galaxy of neutral planets. Give it a try!

This post was originally published on the Big Game Theory! blog on BoardGameGeek, here.

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