The Case for Limiting Ship Designs

I’m going to go a little off-script tonight and talk about a particular space 4X Game mechanic rather than working on Remnants. As the title suggests, I am going to talk about the game limiting the number of ship designs allowed at any given time. The impetus for this is some criticism by followers of the new “Project: Space Sector” game, whose developers are implementing it in that game.

This feature seems to be a poorly understood (or perhaps appreciated) mechanic, but what is it, really? In MOO1 (=Remnants), it means that neither the player or AI races can have more than six active ship designs at any time. If you are at the limit, you have to scrap and existing design before creating a new one. And when you scrap a design, you lose ALL of the ships in your fleet with that design (although you are compensated for 25% of those ship’s value).

And therein lies the interesting decision. There’s a give and take that you don’t always see in this part of space 4x’s. Want to create a new, shiny ship with all of your best technological toys? Well, the cost is that you might impair the effectiveness of your existing fleet while you retool. Or you can wait. And wait.

This creates a tension that forces the interesting decision: when is a good time to upgrade my fleet. Consider the following, fairly common, scenario:

My scientists just researched ‘Super Lasers IV’ which is a clear improvement over the ‘Pretty Decent Lasers II’ that my fighters currently have. So scrap and upgrade, right? Well, maybe not.

After all, each of my existing 6 designs is playing a crucial role in my expansion plans (3 colony ships in transit to new worlds) and my war plans (a various array of fighter, bombers and gunships are keeping the hostile Mrrshan Empire at bay).

So… maybe I wait until those colony ships land, scrap the design, and THEN build the new fighter design. Then I can build up a fleet of those BEFORE scrapping my existing fighters. Yeah, that’s a good idea.

A few turns later, I’m ready to build the new fighters.. but wait! My scientists tell me that I am just a few turns away from getting faster ship engines. Ooooh! I should wait for those, right? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Onward!

Finally, about 12 turns later, I am ready to build my new fighters with ‘Super Lasers IV’, the faster engines, the better armor (woot!) and stronger deflector shields. Now,thanks to my amazing patience, my new fighters will be better than anything else in the galaxy!

Then suddenly the Mrrshan, who had upgraded to new fighter designs about 10 turns ago, crash through my outdated fleet and conquer two of my planets before I can get my new fighters assembled. ARRRGHH! The Ship Design limit is stupid!

This scenario has happened to me.  Only the technologies have been changed to protect the innocent. As with all things in life, I eventually had to learn when to fish or cut bait instead of sitting on my hands doing nothing. Sometimes you make the right decision and strike while the iron is hot. But sometimes a keen review of your enemy’s fleet or some tactful diplomatic maneuvering can allow you to successfully wait and build the high-tech ship of your dreams.

If you wait too long to upgrade, keeping an aging fleet around becomes risky. And if you constantly upgrade at every opportunity, you never give yourself time to assemble a formidable fleet and remain a pushover empire.

Let’s replay that same scenario in a game that allows you to instead upgrade your existing fleet with new technologies as soon as they are learned.

My scientists just researched ‘Super Lasers IV’ which is a clear improvement over the ‘Pretty Decent Lasers II’ that my fighters currently have. How much does it cost to upgrade? Oh, I can afford that. Click.

In order words, there is no tension and no strategic decision to be made. You always have the best weapons, armor and engines on your ships at all times. The entire simulated pipeline of ‘going from researching new weapon technology to deployment of those weapons across my fleet’ is obliterated completely from the game. It’s not just a dumbing down of a strategic element, but a complete removal of it. The cost of upgrading ships becomes a simple extension of the cost of researching the technology that initiated the upgrade.

There are other options, like increasing the ship design limit to some higher number, but they generally miss the point — that the primary value in the design limit is to create that tension about when to upgrade your ships. Raising the limit just waters down the impact of the upgrade, which can just as easily render the decision moot.

Now, with all of that said, I totally understand that some people simply do not like this particular game mechanic and so would rather not have a limit at all. That’s cool. There are lots of space 4X games that don’t have a limit and allow you to upgrade your ships whenever you want. But you should at least recognize that this is a valid mechanic, if underappreciated, and deserves a spot in line at the cafeteria of space 4X game mechanics.

That’s all I have to say. More props to Project: Space Sector deciding to retain this mechanic in their MOO2-inspired game.

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8 thoughts on “The Case for Limiting Ship Designs”

  1. 6 is more than enough for me. When it comes to combat designs (no scouts or colony) 4 is still enough.

    Another very important aspect of limiting ship designs is that it keeps the late game combat pace up (max 6 “ships” to move). We all know how painful MoO2 late game ship combat is. Limiting the numbers leads to faster / cleaner combat.

    I even wouldn’t mind making 5 the new base size and letting alkari have 6.

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  2. Hopefully we can keep the 6 ship limit like moo 1, but would not be opposed to an option that would let you increase this at beginning of game, a customization that would allow for 8, 10 or unlimited just for more options to try.

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  3. I always like this mechanic for reasons that I could not explain well but you did.
    Also it make perfect sense from logistical point.
    If you look at the 4x games they don’t have any of logistic mechanics or very simplistic ones.

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  4. I always felt this was an arbitrary game mechanism designed to fit the UI limitations of the time.
    However, i also understand that it does make an interesting decision. In fact, not having it leads to the feeling of obligation every time you get a small upgrade tech (GalCiv series).
    I suppose a hybrid option would be to allow unlimited design slots but make the COST of new designs go up for the first units of a new model (economy of scale). This simulates a real world scenario: I can design and build brand new F-35’s and pay through the nose or keep pumping out tried and true F-16’s for a fraction of the cost. Ideally, costs would slowly decrease as you build more of a new design.

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  5. I have had so many occasions, where the choices was hard. I took to limiting the number of ships in a given design, before making the new design. Anyway, it would not be Moo1 (Remnants), if it had other than 6.

    Go Ray.

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  6. Can you guys give me examples of when you run out of designs? I basically have 2 beam ships and 2 missile/bomb ships (mediums, occasionally a large) They are regularly phased out.

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