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Re-Balancing SMAX Factions

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  • Re-Balancing SMAX Factions

    Hello fellow Talents; I recently had the good fortune to aquire Alien Crossfire in a used game shop a fortnight ago and have been familarizing myself with its accessories and new factions thoroughly. I love the majority of the additions and can't fathom going back to vanilla SMAC now (expect perhaps for correctly functioning ambient music ). However, outside of the Progenitors whom I know are supposed to be formidable AI opponents, three of the new human factions seem out of whack with the system of checks and balances of the original 7. Namely, the Consciousness (Overpowered), the Data Angels (Slightly Overpowered), and the Cult of Planet (Underpowered). So I've recently altered the text files for these factions to re-balance their pros and cons a bit more, and I'd like your thoughts on the matter.

    I first started with the Consciousness, whom strike me as the University on steroids. Just a SE comparison shows that the Consciousness can run, say, Planned and suffer the inefficiency loss in stride and overcome her lone growth set-back whereas the University would get "appalling" inefficiency (hurting their research) and be none the better for handling their problem drones. I thought about giving the Consciousness a -1 support penalty, but thought that'd probably stagnate their early game beyond the call of balance; -1 support coupled with -1 growth would probably tie up their mineral production too much, especially in the hands of the AI. So instead I opted for a -1 Morale penalty {Cyborgs would rather peacefully build towards perfection than wage war}, taming that Spoils of War ability of their's a bit (they must *take* the base with their moral-impaired troops first) and rendering them as a Gaian/University Hybrid.

    Next I fiddled with the Data Angels, whom struck me as a bit overpowered. Their lone drawback is -1 to police, which only difference to a 0 police rating is the inability to use nerve stapling, which most players of this faction aren't planning to use anyway. In compensation, they can wage a probe war without peer, got their own personal HSA going with the discovery of Pre-Sentient Algorithims {scaled back probe rating to +1 to overcome that hideous +4 bug}, *as well* as a personal Planetary Datalinks with widespread infiltration, being in the best position for a game of catch-up if they are falling behind in tech. Players will probably be drawn to use Demo/FM with the Angels to finance all their probe activities, making their police rating even more insignifigant. So, what I did was increase their police rating from -1 to -2 {anarchistic followers will not be subjugated by military}, making use of police impossible while still not prohibiting military outside of bases. I also prohibited them from using Police State instead of Power, and changed their SE agenda to the "Wealth" values (remaining true to their Morganic roots, plus no other faction strives for this agenda). Now, to avoid stumping their unruly base growth without the benefit of police, and that revered non-lethal methods ability, I awarded them the Peacekeeper Talent ability. Except, instead of a Talent every four citizens, I made it every six so it's not quite the drone eliminator the PKs have, so its primary use will be in the early stages of the game, where on Transcend you can have a base sized three before requiring a Rec Commonds (just like most other factions).

    Lastly, there is the Cult of Planet, which just from a glance struck me as almost hopeless and in serious need of beefing up to compete on Chiron--psi harmony be damned. Sure, their psi attack bonus is great, *if* you can get an army of native life up and running first. Centauri Genetics and brood pits is a long way off. Their personal economy is bad and won't get much better for those future techs, ditto the industry needed for lifecycle-inducing instructure *and* an army, mind worms or otherwise. So, what I did was give them a +1 support bonus {Cultists lead life of asceticisim}, and Impunity to the negative effect of the Fundamentalist SE choice {Zeal for the Will of Planet doesn't contravert scientific research}, turning them into a more momentum-worthy, sort of mind worm-based Believer-esque faction.

    So, what do you think of my alterations? An acceptable compromise? I got the feeling that the SMAX factions weren't as playtested as thoroughly as SMAC's ones so were in need of a little tinkering. Has anyone else done any other alterations to faction text files?
    "I wake. I work. I sleep. I die. The dark of space my only sky. My life is passed, and all I've been will never touch the earth again." --The Ballad of Sky Farm 3, Anonymous, Datalinks

  • #2
    Some (very) short comments.
    Cult is not underpowered, by any means. Industry and Economy hurts, but it's very easy to achieve conquest in 100 years. My first game I played with the Cult, not really knowing what to do, I only built 2 colony pods, and achieved global conquest in less than 100 years, with IoDs and Worms.
    Cybers are good, yes, but they are tough at pop-boom.
    And, the Angels are only good at probing. Snag the Hunter-Seeker, plus create
    Solver, WePlayCiv Co-Administrator
    Contact: solver-at-weplayciv-dot-com
    I can kill you whenever I please... but not today. - The Cigarette Smoking Man


    • #3 create lots of defensive probes, better on Infantry chasis with ECM, those are cheaper and will have a bonus vs. Roze's Speeder Probe Teams. Polymorphic encrypt the troops, and send in an army.
      Solver, WePlayCiv Co-Administrator
      Contact: solver-at-weplayciv-dot-com
      I can kill you whenever I please... but not today. - The Cigarette Smoking Man


      • #4
        Your fixes seem reasonable based on the assumptions you have made, and many players have come to similar views BUT you will find a whole bunch of diference of opinion on this. There have been many many suggested fixes to the Smax factions but they are often at cross purposes to one another.

        For example there are players that believe the Pirates to be overpowered or the Drones. I have seen arguments for both. The most popular argument you make is that the Cult is underpowered but even on that you will find a fair bit of stiff opposition. I acknowledge the builder difficulties of the cult but find that a mindworm army is a given. Even if not used for conquest the early exploration means more pod pops with good results. The early worm is the best explorer in the game and can pop pods with immunity.

        The only test is MP and you will find that there are advocates of the Cult out there. I am playing one game as them and am the world leader in some categories, including overall standing (around 2170) despite not fighting anyone. The worms

        1. found other factions early so I could play tech broker between unmet factions (great to obtain 3 techs for 1 of mine)
        2. Found the best base locations including some landmarks and ZOC others away from them
        3. Popped a lot of pods-- I really lucked out by getting a couple of just-started facilities done but casgh and worms are good too
        4. Provided cash galore-- I love it when a pod spawns 4-5 worms--attack at leisure and bring the worms morale up

        I will say that the AI plays the Cult quite stupidly in most cases (they go to war with everyone). While I would never say the Cult is a powerhouse, I find them quite playable as they are, given even average fungus/native life. Played as a "pure builder" they do have significant handicaps but there are compensating though very different advantages.

        As the cult I very rarely lose a former or colony pod to a "suprise worm" out of the fungus. To achieve this type of security with other factions would require sensors or escorts. With the cult you simply troll the fungus, invariably seem to capture the first worm you encounter, and then send one worm off exploring while the local worm defends against its wild bretheren. The exploring worm using fungus and rivers can often get very far afield in very short order and this early map information is oh so valuable.

        Your opinions are shared by many. The Smax factions seem less "vanilla", their advantages and disadvantages more extreme. some of them require different playstyles to be effective
        Last edited by cbn; May 31, 2001, 07:53.


        • #5
          I have found that the Cult's high planet rating more than offsets its penalties when played by a human. Early capture of an IoD (usually the first one your gun foil encounters) reaps huge dividends for controlling the seas (cbn's list for worms goes equally well for finding factions separated by water).

          What they need in the hands of the AI is reduced aggression. A more patient cult that actually took time to build, explore, and develop would be a more formidable opponent than one which comes after you with hordes of empty transports or larval mass mindworms.

          I find the Angels to be significantly underpowered when played by the AI. Not nearly devious enough. I usually find her hunkered down on some sizable island, enjoying the sun and not engaging in any of the hacking for which her faction was designed. If she does share your landmass, find a chokepoint along the border with her and stack two units there - threat eliminated. If it comes to vendetta, use the buddy system when counterattacking (which is an effective military strategy in any case). I've never seen her reach pre-sentient algorithms.

          I'm a big builder, so for me her strengths are tough to exploit except in momentum style. There's only so many times you can frame other factions for your misdeeds before someone catches on, or sooner or later you'll wind up in vendetta with the world. That's not so fun. Offsetting that is the fact that her weaknesses don't hinder a builder style, so I do enjoy playing as Angels (but for their dumb-looking bases).


          • #6
            Marid Audran, in my admittedly brief experience with SMAX, I have perceived no need to "re-balance" the SMAX human factions. I had considerable trouble with the overwhelming power of the alien factions in my first Thinker level game, even to the point of thinking the imbalance to be silly, but after further experience realize this is more a function of altering playstyle from SMAC. The power of the Alien Factions can be accepted as simply a feature of the game, a challenge to be overcome. I've played both Drones and the Consciousness, and find they can readily prevail.

            If you like to tinker with the factions, good for you, that's part of the game too. But one must wonder whether this is derived from a desire to tinker, and doubt that there is any necessity to do so for others not so inclined.


            • #7
              Thanks for your input thus far folks, though I've been lurking here for several months and played SMAC off and on since it was released, that was my first post.

              Morganstein, I don't dispute the *intentional* power of the Aliens, so left them alone. The Caretakers gave me quite a scare my first game. With the other factions, I just (IMHO) felt they needed a little tweaking to balance them from a human standpoint. You have to admit that one has on average an easier game with the Cyborgs because of their bonuses than with most other factions (as Vel has also pointed out, any Faction can also pop-boom through psych-allocation if Demo-Planned-Creches aren't enough).

              Cbn and Earwicker, those are some deft observations you made on the Cult. Admittedly they aren't a weak faction per se, but nor is any in the hands of a competent adaptive player. Their strengths aren't as readily apparent to me; or maybe after that magic first worm I just had trouble capturing anymore in spite of my Planet rating (sounds like a hell of a start you got in that MP game Cbn). I don't think I messed with their faction chemistry that much, as Fundy morale benefits don't apply to native lifecycles. On an average I'm still more comfortable starting a momentum game as the Believers rather than the Cult.

              I found it surprising that it's suggested that the Angels have less than ideal Builder prospects. I found they were great Builders with a home-probe defence system both for counter-espionage and bribing, where others have to augment it with a home-rover defence as well. In the hands of a human those -25% probes are murderous; it's just the AI who parks them square outside your base at the end of its turn.

              I don't find the Pirates under or overpowered, but a lot of fun, a fairly different game from the landlubbers. Though its the faction I've found the AI plays the worst, even more than Morgan.
              "I wake. I work. I sleep. I die. The dark of space my only sky. My life is passed, and all I've been will never touch the earth again." --The Ballad of Sky Farm 3, Anonymous, Datalinks


              • #8
                Madrid, Rather than argue about whether factions are over or under-powered, you can actually run tests to see which is consistently better. This is what the game designers actually did to balance the factions.

                What you do is set up a game, then turn it to full automatic and see who wins. The game would have 3 of one faction and 4 of another. This way, accidents of location minimized.

                I have run several tests, faction to faction. Just to test your thinking on this, which faction is more powerful

                Lal vs. Zakarov?

                Domai vs. Morgan?

                BTW, the Cult is one of my favorite factions primarily due to its ability to explore the fungus and pop pods. However, take away pods, and minimize fungus, and playing the Cult is a lot harder.


                • #9
                  I actually have run total AI sims Ned; it's something I've recently took up on before retiring for the night. Insofar I've found that the Cult fairs slightly better than it did before in the hands of the AI; still no Hive by a stretch of the imagination but it can hold it's own and even become a real threat if it has decent starting terrain. Part of my adjustments where made with the AI in mind: AI Cult seems to have a love affair with Fundy though I think it's the SE choice that benefits them the least, since morale doesn't apply to native lifecycles, and their research, usually subpar anyway, suffers. So I gave them the immunity so it doesn't hurt them as much. The support is there to alleviate their poor industry so it takes a little bit longer for the AI to run out of minerals with all the units it cranks out. One thing AI Cult really needs to warm up to is running Green; it seems to avoid it like plague (AI Gaians is guilty of the same) even though many circumstances would greatly benefit from it, least of all giving them a monster planet rating for psi assault. I think the AI algorithm takes one look at the growth penalty and steers clear (since focus on Growth is one of the Cult's priorities in their text file).

                  My strategy with the Cult is probably different from most; I don't opt for an early mind worm rush but play an altered Builder strategy until mid-game, focusing on lifecycle-boosting facilities in my bases: Biology Labs, Centauri Preserves, Bioenchancement Centers, and so forth, until I get Centauri Genetics, build up a native army and let it loose. It's true they're best at pod popping, and I like nothing better than sending an Isle of the Deep into New Saragossa and coming back with two or three alien artifacts in its hold, though there are still hazards, and I make a point to never pop pods on my last two movement points.

                  Anyhow, your AI vs. AI queries:
                  1) Lal vs. Zakarov: In my experience Lal will win out. With their additional Talents they experience the least amount of drone problems, less AI citizens wasted by becoming doctors. AI Lal seems to run Demo/Planned most often, and is big on building a fair amount of facilities in their bases, including Creches, so he unintentially pop booms the most. It also benefits Lal the most because of their loosened Hab limits. His AI choices are probably the most flexible, and Demo is an almost universal good choice so it's doesn't hurt that its AI's Lal's only political choice.

                  Zakarov on the other hand, in the AI's hands, typically has a good start and then stagnates. He leaps forward in research early on, until his "problem drones" catch up to him and start to cripple his productivity. He doesn't put those drones in a colony pod enough to alleviate this, and seems to often become a mid-game target for a momentum faction.

                  2) Domai vs. Morgan: In my experience Domai will do better, not great, but better than AI Morgan. More by AI playing Morgan about as worst as possible than anything else though. You have to work to overcome his support problems in the early game but AI Morgan just aggravates it by building three Synthimetal Garrisons in his bases, essentially eating up all his minerals. He also does the least terraforming I've seen of nearly any AI faction, when he needs those mines and forests the most. He tends to meet a swift end when next to any AI faction in the early game; at best I've seen him be isolated and become a middling presence mid-game. Sadly, never a leader in the power charts though.

                  Domai does better than Morgan simply because his Industry bonus supports the AI's unit and facility habits better. Though he's often short on SP's I've seen AI Domai's bases with a fair amount of facilities in them.

                  What have been your findings in your sims?
                  "I wake. I work. I sleep. I die. The dark of space my only sky. My life is passed, and all I've been will never touch the earth again." --The Ballad of Sky Farm 3, Anonymous, Datalinks


                  • #10
                    Marid, You got it right. Lal beats Zakarov and Domai beat Morgan.

                    I am now running a Diedre vs. Aki sim. I stopped the sim to write this. But when I left it, there were two Diedre's and two Aki's left. Both Diedre's were ahead on the power meter. One was double either AKI. However, both Aki's were right there in research and one had the majority of SPs.

                    It is quite clear that the game designers balanced three of the "research" factions, Morgan, Aki and Zakarov, with growth restrictions. The AI has difficulty overcome these, otherwise these factions would clearly dominate. Humans, however, find ways to grow, so in the end, these three factions are probably the best for a human player.

                    In my experience, Diedre always gives me a good Single Player challenge. Ditto Aki. However, Morgan and Dr. Z are rarely a factor. You identified why Morgan and Dr. Z don't grow their base sizes. What I have also seen is that they also stop expanding. In contrast, Aki does expand, even though each base's growth is slower.

                    Until my current game, I have never known Domai to be anything but pathetic. However, in this game, where I am playing the Pirates, Domai is a real problem.

                    BTW, I really have a hard time playing the Pirates - even in SP. No game is easy. Always a real challege. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would say the Pirates are overpowered.

                    Since you are experimenting with changing the factions profiles, is there any way of forcing the AI to preferentially build Tree Farms and Centauri Preserves. These facilities have significant positive effects on reducing eco-damage. The lack these facilities forces the AI to limit mineral production. This seems to be a major limiting factor on mid to late AI performance.


                    • #11
                      One of the main strengths human players have over AI's is the tendency to build tree farms as soon as practical. Because tree farms are arguably the best facility in the game this has a huge impact on the AI's game. Therfore if you wanted to make an improved "cheating" AI the thing to do would be to give them free tree farms (with tech, or without for extra challenge, as often AI's don't even get enviromental eco).

                      Another huge improvement to AI playstyle is given them a free former at the start of the game, several factions, but particuallary Believers, Spartans, Uni often completely fail to build even one former early in the game. One former is a lot better than no formers, especially on worlds with adverse conditions.

                      The final factor which makes human players so much stronger than AI's is Clean Reactors.

                      I would estimate the AI would give a stronger fight if all factions got a free former, free tree farms and free clean reactors. Because these are things which human players make a real effort to get, it can be assumed that any decent human player will have tree farms in most of his bases within ten years of getting Env.Eco. And almost all of his units will have clean reactors within 10 years of getting Bio-engineering. Because AI's will likely NEVER build tree farms or equip Clean Reactors this gives the human a huge advantage, and this advantage would be lessened if all factions got these advantages automatically with tech.

                      There is also some alphax.txt modifications you can make to improve the AI's play. One is to push all terraforming options but forest further back in the tech tree, so they are forced to plant some forest early in the game, and forest spreads... another great choice if making free market police penalty -3 or -2, human players can completey nullify the "outside terrority" penalty by clever use of probes and specialist / punishment sphere bases. AI's actually cope better with reduced FM penalty because they have the -3 drones per base AI bonus.
                      (So many times I have seen AI Lal or Zak or Morgan crippled by running FM and having a huge airforce)

                      And you can also gear maps towards rapid AI expansion. How you ask? Open a map, any map in scenerio editor and dot the map with little mini-forests, just pretend that the unity pods WORKED and actually planted forest automatically. The forest spreads and the AI doesn't have to worry about being killed by thier own terraforming choices. This is by far the simplest and most effective "fair" way I have found to make the AI play better (watch out for AI's which like running FM).
                      (also the thick forest covering creates interesting strategic challenges, with no rover rushes and greatly boosted defense for infantry when attacking bases...)

                      So the simplest fixes to AI incompentence is playing on pre-forested maps, and reducing the FM police penalty to -2. While both of these also benefit the human player the AI gets a lot more benefit.


                      • #12
                        Good thinking Blake. No, if we could only get those AI factions to actually BUILD the TFs, rather than just get them, now we would have an equal game.

                        Also, your idea about formers and forests is right on.

                        On the FM front, I have tried taking over an AI faction that was killing itself running FM, setting the SE to something really attractive, and then returning control. The AI just goes back to FM.

                        I'm beginning to think that removing FM as an SE option might be what is needed.



                        • #13
                          Yes, Blake is spot on with all his suggestions and observations.

                          The problem is that there is no way to make the AI preferentially build tree farms, hybrid forests, or preserves, (and I would add genejack factories); the most tinkering you can do to faction AI strategy, outside inherient factional benefits and gifting them free units, techs, and facilities, is to alter these vague priorities for War, Tech, Wealth, Power, and Growth (measured in "Yea" and "Nay" terms pretty much), and their SE preference in the text files. I have seen factions ahead in power charts eventually get around to building tree farms and even hybrid forests, but will build them haphazardly and without perspective on the benefits; they won't re-terraform their base squares into forest for example.

                          This whole terraforming issue is one in which I thought made AI strength and resources worse from Civ II. In Civ II the Settler handled all base-founding and square-improving responsibilities and was readily available from the start of the game; in SMAC the two are seperated and a tech is required for a former. In Civ II the AI could improve as expand as it went along, in SMAC you may have a faction wait 50 years into planetfall before getting Centauri Ecology. Additionally, there are so many more terraforming options in SMAC than in Civ II that the AI doesn't know how to exploit them and mix-terraforms badly, where in Civ II it was more straightforward and easy to get right.

                          I wish there was a way to directly control the AI's guildlines for terraforming, square-by-square. Additionally, it seems to participate in tech beelining, now it just needs to understand facility beelining (getting tree farms up and running). Third, unit workshop exploitation to keep their army in the field up-to-date.

                          Another good way to get a challenge out of the AI is to play the "Switch Sides Challenge," controlling a faction for 50 years or so then switching to some runt in the power charts, spend another 50 years beefing them up, then changing again, etc. Your worst enemy here happens to be yourself.

                          I think what we're all itching for is the discovery of Pre-Sentient Algorithms in computer gaming.
                          "I wake. I work. I sleep. I die. The dark of space my only sky. My life is passed, and all I've been will never touch the earth again." --The Ballad of Sky Farm 3, Anonymous, Datalinks


                          • #14
                            Ned, the clean mineral benefit for TF's is moot for AI's - they are too incompetent to actually get decent #minerals per base. However, if they get a decent mineral count the clean threshold will be increased by pops - and hopefully the AI can handle the worms, after all they usually have heaps of units sitting around taking up support.

                            Also having TF's in bases would put them in a better position to build HF', CP's.

                            It's annoying how easy it would be to improve the AI terraforming/build choices with access to the code. After all there is fairly rigorous criteria for good terraforming, the simplist being "plant forest (no other optionn)". It's a pity that improving AI is such a low priority in many games. The AI should have been improved much in SMAX over SMAC.. prehaps in a different universe...

                            Back to FM - the main penalty a human player gets from running FM is the inability to use police. With FM police penality reduced to -2 human players still wouldn't be able to use police, but AI's wouldn't be able to kill there game by running FM. Removing FM completey is another option, but FM is the only way that AI's seem to be able to make decent amounts of energy. (as AI's don't understand specialists either)

                            While trying to improve the AI may look hopeless minmising it's ability to hurt itself is suprisingly effective. Playing on a forest-seeded map with a reduced FM penalty and all factions have "build" priority added could almost give a challenge (atleast make for a more interesting builder game).


                            • #15
                              Re: the human SMAC-X factions. I've always thought they started with too many techs. The Pirates and the Cult are the only two for which I like both the concept and the technical implementation. I like the concept of the Drones, but the implementation is a bit extreme: Adam Smith used to say they were unbeatable played properly, and I believe him. I'd lean towards reducing both their industry bonus and their research penalty. I will also mention that I find the Aliens badly designed: they almost always run Fundy/Planned in the mid-game, which just kills them, and that the faction technicalities don't seem to match the faction stories (if Marr is trying to achieve Godhood through technology he knows about but needs to rediscover, why is his emphasis conquest? shouldn't it be research?). But that's a whole 'nother thread.

                              Re: giving the Angels Avoidance: Police State. Marid, I've never seen an AI faction except Yang run Police State, and he has it as both an agenda and something he has special bonuses with. So I don't think giving the AI an avoidance of Police State will change the way it plays, except that it won't diplomatically like factions running Police State. I don't know if that's what you wanted (in your proposed changes to the Angels) or not.

                              Interesting simulation results .

                              I agree about the AI-Market problem. I've seen AI's societies crash under the strain of maintaining needlejets while running Market too . But I don't like assigning only -2 Police to Market: not only does it make the game considerably easier, and make a SE choice I already like too much yet more powerful, but if you (the player) get the Ascetic Virtues that would take you down to -1 Police, and now the player can use military units for police under Market!

                              One solution I thought of was altering the Power SE choice to give it a +1 Police modifier. It makes sense considering what Power values are about, and, since I think Power is undervalued, it makes for a more balanced game, especially since the AI seems to like Power a lot. (Of course, the AI will like Power even more with this mod! )

                              The other way I'd tweak this is to modify the faction files to give the AI factions (whoever they may be in this particular game) a +1 bonus to police. That would also benefit them when they're not using Market, of course, but I think that only helps balance for the fact that they don't know how to use police units.