Analysis: The Icy Grandeur of Neptune's Pride
Look alive! Tuck in that shirt! Polish your soul! It's the Battle Klaxon, and I have a COMPUTER GAME for you!
It's called Neptune's Pride, and it's a free web browser strategy game from some developers who used to work at Irrational Games. Neptune's Pride is a game of two things:
#1: Intergalactic War
#2: Being a jerk
Or diplomacy, as I believe #2 is referred to in polite society. The way play works is nice and neat. Each player controls one spacefaring species in a galaxy full of star systems, and the game ends when one of you wins by holding more than half the systems in the galaxy. It's a 4X game, stripped way down to its bones and taking place in real time. Fleets can take anything from 4 hours to an entire agonising day to complete a hyperspace jump, and games play out over the course of a few weeks.
But I mentioned being a jerk! Oh, what unforgiveable human beings you all become. It's why I like the game, really. The guys behind Neptune's Pride clearly understand that we're such a slimy, conniving, cunning collection of cu-- creatures that there's incredible mileage in a strategy game which simply presents the framework required to let us screw each other over.
Let me talk you through this war crime of a game they've made.
First things first, this is a very blunt game. It's blunt in order to foster harshness in its fledgling players. It nurtures logic, coaxes out cruel practicality. If I have 30 ships defending against your 45, I will lose the fight. If my empire of 20 star systems is invaded by your empire of 30 star systems, I will slowly but surely lose territory to you (unless you suck)(do you suck?). In short, this isn't Civilization or Galactic Civilizations and arguing with the numbers in this game is liable to get your nose broken.
Through this, each player in a game of Neptune's Pride is backed against the wall. The freedom you're offered as to how to develop your empire doesn't feel restrictive in any way (you can spend cash increasing the economy, industry or research capability of each star system), but intelligent decisions on the home front aren't anywhere near as powerful as those hard numbers you have at your disposal: how many ships you have, how many you produce every day, how fast your ships move and how hard they hit.
As such, skillful play in Neptune's Pride comes from not just manipulating your own hard numbers, but those of the other players. Your war isn't fought in a jungle of research trees, it's fought in the in-game messaging system, the chatbox and even outside the game in email and IM.
This might start with a simple research pact. You pick a player on the other side of the galaxy you don't feel threatened by, and get into the habit of swapping your scanning range tech for his weapon tech. Then maybe you'll move onto a non-aggression pact with one of your smaller neighbours, as the two of you know a war would deplete your ship reserves and render you both easy pickings. After that you might hazard an offer of alliance to that same player against a third, bigger empire who's looming over both of you.
You can give anything to anyone in Neptune's Pride. Handing over tech, cash, fleets or star systems happens at the push of a button. But here's the rub, and the reason the game works: There is no alliance button. There is no non-aggression pact button, or trade window. Everything you do, everything you agree on is a test of faith.
In the example above, let's say you actually are that third, bigger player which the two smaller players have clearly allied against. They shift their fleets to their border with you, and you realise if you don't strike now the two of them are going to become dug in and a nightmare to fight. So you quickly deploy all your available ships to target only one of them, leaving the other completely untouched, and you send a message to the player you haven't attacked yet saying if he doesn't get in your way you'll let him live.
Perhaps if you're smart you'll even sweeten the deal by saying if he helps right now you'll let him have half of his former friend's systems, and try and prove you won't screw him over in the future by laying out your plans for further expansion (that don't involve devouring his pathetic holdings). That's Neptune's Pride.
A better example: The game of Neptune's Pride I'm in now started with an anti-red-player alliance. Myself and two other players happened to encircle the red player, making him a natural, easy target for the three of us. But none of us yet had the scanning tech to see what the other two alliance members were doing in terms of actually sending ships at him.
So, while my alliance-mates wore themselves down taking red's systems, I quickly signed a non-aggression pact with red and busied myself with other territory and easier opponents. Hilarious! Right up until I found out one of my two alliance-mates was giving our alliance-shared technology to those "easier opponents" as a bribe to attack me first.
For several preposterous days our sham anti-red alliance was even cordially kept up, simply because while we all knew we were screwing one another over it still doubled as a profitable research pact.
I like Neptune's Pride because for all the talk of the "Grand Strategy" genre, here at last is some strategy that seems grand. It's slow enough to feel intelligent, simple enough to be elegant, and yet demands these far-seeing plans where you have to plot both the mathematical and emotional impact of your attacks and feints. And you can play it at the office, and it's free.
It's funny watching the RTS genre bending over backwards into horrible, Twister-like contortions in an effort to reinvent itself so frequently. Diplomacy's such a huge part of strategy and it's always studiously ignored.
Nevermind. You can drop into a game of Neptune's Pride right here, and if you have a gmail account you don't even have to register. Give it a shot! You'd probably be good at it. You're a jerk, right?
[Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Action Button. You can currently find him in the damp Irish city of Galway, as quinns108 on Twitter or at quintinsmithster at gmail dot com.]