Warship designs vary by the phase of the game, and depend on the production capacity and technology available. One of the most important decisions is to decide which size class(es) to use. Early on, Titans and Doom stars are not available until their relevant Construction techs are researched, which happens usually mid to late game. It is entirely possible to build a powerful fleet without using Titans or Doom stars at all.
Generally, as the ship size increases, the price per space unit and the price per structure point increases. Also the size of the special systems is scaled upwards with the ship class. From this point of view, it would make sense to build a fleet of many small ships. The problem for non-Warlord races is the limited number of command points, of which many small ships will quickly consume. One solution is to build a fleet of solely Battleships, since those are available right from the beginning. One factor deciding size class is also the attack strength of the enemy: if you know the larger ships are capable of soaking up any damage until the enemy is destroyed, and the smaller ones are not, build the larger ships. On the other hand, if you are fighting a powerful space monster which would surely destroy some ships, build a fleet of many small craft, so that the monster can't destroy all of them in one turn.
Design advice for all warships
There is some equipment which is useful for all combat ships. It goes without saying every ship should have Battle Pods, because more space is good, unless of course it makes the ship too expensive to build. For extra survivability you could choose either Reinforced Hull or Heavy Armor. Heavy Armor does negate armor piercing effects, but it is worth noting that Graviton Beams are capable of doing damage directly to structure and Ion Pulse Cannons to systems. Also, it is bypassed by the Achilles Targeting Unit. The fact that having the structure points reach zero always destroys the ship, and any armor left at that point doesn't help at all, would make it more sensible to choose Reinforced Hull when facing those weapons.
Beam ships are specialized for attacking enemy ships, star bases and planet defenses. The heavy mount modifications make them effective from the first turn of combat because of the long range. Battle Scanner and a good targeting computer are necessary to ensure high ship initiative and beam hit rates. Closer to the end-game, beam ships equipped with all the damage-enhancing systems can quickly overrun any opponent, even if his fleet is numerically much superior.
Early in the game, when you still have ineffective targeting computers and the enemy doesn't yet have decent shield technology or drives, you can still make an effective beam ship using the Point Defense modification. Pd-weapons have an inherent +25% accuracy bonus, and most can be further modified with Continuous fire thereby raising their accuracy another 25%. They do 50% less damage, but take up 50% less space, so you simply need to add twice as many to your hull design to get the same damage output as you otherwise would have using "normal" beams. Both Mass Drivers (inherent) and Lasers (modified) add the further advantage of zero range dissipation and armor piercing, meaning they don't actually have to fire point-blank to do full damage while bypassing a substantial part of the enemy's defense. This type of ship usually needs Augmented Engines and a decent drive to be effective, both to increase its own defensive beam rating and for closing range to the target. The down-sides are that Pd-weapons can't harm planetary defenses, and Class-III shields generally make this type of design obsolete. But for early-game rushing it can be a viable strategy. It also combines well with Troop Ships and Planetary Assault ships (see below).
- For offense: beam weapons with the best modifications available, with the Heavy mount recommended, or Pd-weapons only (early game).
- For defense: Point defense beams with the best modifications to stop incoming missiles or to finish off weak targets. Note that the Pd modification isn't strictly necessary in shooting down missiles, in fact, in the later game it usually sensible to drop the Pd modification altogether, because it lowers the damage too much against high tech shields, and go for Auto-Fire Phasors/Disprupters only.
- Miniaturization + Auto-fire + No Range Dissipation (when applicable) can turn lasers/mass-drivers/graviton-beams/ion-cannons into fearsome weapons well into the mid-game. When in doubt, miniaturize.
- +25/+50 Attack and/or Warlord racial picks make a real difference for non-creatives/uncreatives using beams early on.
- Battle Scanner OR Tractor Beams OR (late-game) Mauler Device: To have any reasonable chance of beams hitting the target, you'll need one of these two systems. If you can immobilize an enemy with Tractor Beams they become much easier to hit, even with an early-game targeting computer. Battle Scanner raises the ship initiative (if enabled), which most of the time allows you to fire first, and destroy the enemy before they even get one shot off. Mauler Device inflicts high damage and never misses, making targeting computers obsolete.
- Structural Analyzer, Achilles Targeting Unit, High Energy Focus, Hyper-X Capacitors: These all increase the beam damage potential. Install all of them in the ship, if possible.
- Some optional, good defensive systems: Inertial Stabilizer/Nullifier, Hard Shields, Multi-Phased Shields, Lightning Field, Damper Field, Automated Repair Unit, Cloaking devices etc. It depends on the situation which of these are the most useful, so use your judgment.
Efficient Missile ships can be built from the earliest stages of the game. Missiles usually provide excellent damage and accuracy early on. Missile battleships with even the basic missiles can be used to take out monsters and destroy enemy Missile Bases/Star Bases in repeated hit-and-run attacks. The 2xAmmo modification helps launch the payload faster: 5 launchers with 2 rounds each will get your missiles out a lot faster (and thus damage at a higher rate) than 2 launchers with 5 rounds each. The armor and structure upgrades ensure the ship's survival.
Missile payloads can be broken down into 3 categories and generally fulfil one or more of the following tactical functions:
- Decoys are meant to trigger ship, starbase and ground battery anti-missile and pd-systems and get shot at, likely being destroyed in the process. As such, they work best with the ARM and FST modifications, since both make them harder to shoot down. Also, it might be more cost/space effective to deploy more decoys of a lower tech level: Merculites have twice as many "hitpoints" as Nukes, but if the modified Nukes take up less than 1/2 the space of similarly modified Merculites, then you are better off using them instead. Decoys can also be used to protect other missiles "stacked" underneath if they all travel to the same target at the same speed.
- Whammys are meant to overcome any shielding and deal as much damage to ships, starbases and planets as possible through raw force. MIRV and ECCM modifications are ideally used for these, since they inflict quadruple damage and have the best chance of overcoming enemy jamming. FST can also be added since you want your Whammys to close to target and impact before the enemy gets a chance to react.
- Wazoos are meant to bypass a ship's protective armor and structure and instead directly destroy the engines, possibly causing a core-overload explosion. The EMG tech modification is obligatory, with MIRV and ECCM modifications added to help overcome jamming and ensure enough damage is done to achieve success. Following up a successful Wazoo strike with a boarding party to capture the immobilized ship can bring further benefits. Wazoo salvos can allow small ships to successfully engage and destroy much larger craft, but they act as a normal MIRVed missile vs starbases and planets.
Missile ships should have slightly different builds, depending on what tactics are being employed:
- Hit and Run The idea is to fire your entire missile payload at a target from long distance and then be able to retreat from battle before taking any heavy damage yourself. You rely on a lack of defensive enemy systems and overwhelming numbers of FST ARM missiles to ensure enough get through to destroy their targets. These types of ships generally have Fast Missile Racks but otherwise forego fancy defensive systems to save as much space as possible for more missiles.
- Surgical Strike The idea is to absorb any enemy fire long enough to move up directly adjacent to a target and fire missiles "pointblank" into enemy hulls. This restricts enemy defensive anti-missile fire to only those systems equipped on target itself, and ensures maximum survivability and number of missiles that will successfully hit. Decoy missiles to overcome enemy shields and trigger enemy Pd systems followed by ECM missiles are the prefered ammo of choice, so as to go for a core-overload explosion. These types of ships need to be heavily protected by defensive systems and armor, as well as have a decent engine, so they survive long enough to quickly make it to the target and deliver their payload before escaping.
When firing missiles point-blank, do so directly from the side or rear of the enemy, as this way the missile attack is resolved immediately rather than waiting for the enemy's turn. For some reason attacks initiated from the front of an enemy ship aren't resolved immediately.
- Missiles with the best modifications, 2xAmmo setting recommended (although 5x or 10x ammo setting can be considered for surgical strike designs, if you think the ship is likely to survive multiple rounds of close combat). The order in which you place the missiles is important. The missiles placed in the top rows are targeted by Point defense first and also strike the enemy first. It makes sense to place the weaker missiles first for the enemy Pd to shoot at, and then have the fully modified (Mirv, EMG) missiles last. Also, when designing your missile ships, split your missiles into multiple weapon slots. This allows you to split targets for each group of missile independently. Consider what happens when a 2xAmmo ship meets with 3 ships that are much smaller than it - splitting up your weapons into multiple groups lets you target more efficiently.
- Fast Missile Racks: These can be used in hit-and-run tactics to overwhelm the enemy with masses of missiles.
- Useful techs to have: Dauntless Guidance System and any Sensor/Scanner techs to reduce enemy missile evasion.
- Inertial Stabilizer and Augmented Engines: Improves survivability vs. first-turn enemy beam attacks, and enables better possibilities for firing salvos of missiles "point-blank" directly into enemy ships.
- Emissions Guidance System AND anything that improves survivability (Heavy Armor, Reinforced Hull, Zortrium Armor or better, Automated Repair Unit, Damper Field, Class V-X Shield, etc): for surgical strike tactics.
Torpedo Ships can usually be introduced around mid-game once targeting computers and Pd-defenses have developed sufficiently to render missiles less effective. The advantages of Torpedoes over Missiles are that they have an endless supply and cannot be shot down. The disadvantages are taking up more space and firing every other round, so they cannot be deployed in the same concentrations. In addition, all torpedoes can be modified to Enveloping (4x rated damage), which is deadly against most anything, including the Antareans. The ECM-Jammer (plus Wide-Area and Multi-Wave variants) and Lightning Field combined with Shields are the two main defensive systems that counter torpedoes. Alien races without those technologies will be hard-pressed to defend themselves.
- Anti-Matter Torpedo, Proton Torpedo or Plasma Torpedo, with all modifications.
- Tachyon Scanner, Neutron Scanner or Sensors to reduce enemy torpedo evasion.
- Enough defensive systems to outlast the enemy in any exchange of attrition fire: you need to survive till your torpedo volleys grind them to space dust.
Troop Ships serve specifically to take out enemy Star Bases and capture enemy ships (especially Antaran). Their main elements are a small battery of beams or missiles (just enough to clear the enemy shields) and Troop Pods (for doubling marines on board) and/or Assault Shuttles (for zerging the enemy ship with marines). Both ship-to-ship and shuttle-to-ship boarding attacks ignore enemy shields (exception: when using Transporters). Normally a Battleship makes a boarding attack using 10 marines while a Titan uses 15 (double that when outfitted with Troop Pods). A dedicated Titan filled with miniaturized Assault Shuttles instead of weapons can easily launch a boarding attack of 80 or more marines in addition to its "normal" boarding contingent. Assault Shuttles have a further advantage that they don't require the enemy to be immobile. Otherwise you will need Tractor Beams or Transporters or another way to immobilize the enemy if you want to capture fighting ships.
A Troop Ship with a decent drive and Augmented Engines can reach the enemy star base in two combat turns and capture it. This can be used as a hit-and-run tactic, weakening the enemy fleet by destroying all of its star bases, or as a component of the overall battle plan. Later on Battlestations and Star Fortresses have so much armor that capturing instead of destroying them might be much easier. Raiding an enemy space station with a powerful enough force can also reliably take out key weapon-systems, such as shields or targeting computers. Marine-killing weapons (Neutron Blaster/Death Ray) are a bonus, as are any techs that improve your ground-combat rating. Some Leaders also give a "Commando" bonus to boarding parties.
For maximum effect, Assault Shuttles should be launched "point-blank" on an enemy target adjacent to the side (not the front) of the launching ship, so as to immediately resolve the boarding attack before the enemy gets a chance to shoot down any shuttles. Also note that Assault Shuttles are not susceptible before launch to the marine-killing effects of Neutron Blaster/Death Ray, making them an excellent choice vs aliens that use such tech.
- Neutron Blaster/Death Ray (ineffective vs Antarans), to kill enemy crew if they have a much higher ground combat rating, or any beams or MIRV ECCM missiles to clear out shields before boarding with Transporters.
- (vs Antarans or when no Neutron Blaster tech available) Troop Pods w/ Personal Shields, Anti-Grav Harness, Powered Armor and best Rifle/Armor available.
- 4x Tractor Beam or Assault Shuttles/Transporters, if capturing mobile ships.
- Troop Pods, Transporters.
- Assault Shuttles.
- Augmented Engines (early) or Sub-Space Teleporter (very late).
The weapon of choice for early "Blitzers", this class of ship relies on launching sorties of fighters or bombers to inflict damage on the enemy. Fighters effectively engage the enemy with beams at a range of "0" (no range dissipation, maximum accuracy) while allowing their Carrier Ship the tactical freedom to take evasive maneuvers. This can be deadly in the early-game, when pd-weapons are still very inaccurate and lack of miniaturization means Pd defenses will be sparse. That said, as the game develops fighters become more and more vulnerable to being shot down. By mid-game sometimes the most effective way to deploy fighters is for the Carrier Ship to launch them "point-blank" so they can resolve their attack run before the target gets a chance to fire back.
Fighters/Bombers can also sometimes bring "space-efficiency", meaning they can pack more weapons into less ship space than a Beam Ship could. There are only 5 types of beam weapons that can be armed on fighters, and each individual fighter will be armed with a "normal" version of the best one available + 1 damage (as well as the +30 targeting advantage of the pd-versions):
- Particle Beam (needs to be captured from Orion or the Antarans) - dmg 31 x 4
- Phasors - dmg 21 x 4
- Mass Driver - dmg 6 x 4
- Fusion Beam - dmg 7 x 4
- Laser Beam - dmg 5 x 4
Bombers use the best bomb tech available, while Heavy Fighters are armed with both beams and bombs. Read more about Fighters/Bombers here. Although fighter bays don't miniaturize, fighters automatically upgrade their weapons as better tech become available. They have the same armor, drive and targeting computer as their Carrier Ship.
Fighter tactics offer flexibility as they can also be used to target missiles. A good tactical application for storming star bases is to sortie 1 slot of fighters each round to attack incoming enemy missiles as your fleet closes the distance to the base. Once adjacent, capture the base by boarding (see Troop Ship section above). Nicely done with a cruiser Carrier and a couple of frigates outfitted with troop pods or a battleship equipped solely with fighters.
For non-creatives using fighters implies painful research choices in the tech tree. Researching Fighter Bays means you will have to forego Reinforced Hull, which diminishes your mid-game ship survivability dramatically. Taking Heavy Fighters instead of Advanced City Planning can be quite debilitating economically.
One of the further problems with using fighters is that they remain terribly vulnerable to ship explosions. Thus often a "successful" sortie results in a large group of attacking fighters being destroyed along with their target.
- Fighter Bays, Bomber Bays, Heavy Fighters.
- Fighters auto-upgrade to best beam weapon and drive they can use if Carrier Ship is at a friendly base/outpost.
- Battlepods enables 1 extra Fighter Bay per destroyer, 2 extra/cruiser or 4 extra/battleship.
- Extended Fuel Tanks for early blitzing.
- Better Armor and Drives improves fighter hp and speed AND survivablity of the carrier ship.
- Better Targeting Computer improves fighter to-hit chance.
- Cloaking Device, Phasing Cloak
- Any other defensive systems
Auxiliary Ships are made to draw enemy fire or otherwise be extremely hard to kill, rather than to inflict damage. Thus they generally have no weapons and are employed for two main purposes:
Single Player: This type of ship is meant to play on the AI's tendency to target what it perceives as the smallest or weakest ships first. Filling it with defensive systems forces the enemy to waste precious ammo/shots while your main battle line closes in for the kill. You can sometimes successfully draw swarms of enemy missiles and torpedoes away from your expensive Battleships this way.
Single- and Multi-player: This type is meant to allow your main attack ships to fire and flee. Thus it will be the last friendly ship to warp out of the battle, only retreating once all missiles and torpedoes have hit their targets. Since it will become the sole target of enemy forces for a turn or two, it must be extremely fast/hard to kill. For this reason, a decoy Cruiser or Battleship is not unheard of.
Electronic Warfare Drone (EWD)
The EWD is a small very specialized design, which only comes available mid to late game. The only essential systems are Warp Dissipator and Wide Area Jammer, because of their fleet-wide effects. If fighting against space monsters/Guardian/Antarans, the Scout Lab tech is also useful. Later on, it should be equipped with a Phasing Cloak (if possible) or any other defensive systems to get quickly out of the harm's way in combat.
Planetary Assault (PA) Ship
This ship class represents specialized designs meant to destroy stubborn stationary planetary defenses. Sometimes for one reason or another (often when first encountering enemy planetary shielding) your otherwise quite effective ship designs just don't seem to get the job done when they attack an enemy planet, and refitting the entire fleet is unpractical (and unnecessary). Thus a PA Ship supplements your normal attack fleet and is used specifically against the particular alien defenses it was designed to thwart.
Note that if your race is Telepathic, you can capture an enemy starbase and then use it as an impromptu PA-Ship to destroy planetary defenses.
PA Ships are the only class of ship where it makes sense to consider using bombs, as they do full damage vs. planets, whereas all other weapon classes do 1/2 damage. However beams, missiles, torpedoes and bombers/heavy-fighters can all also be effective alternatives, with the following limitations:
- The weapon must be effective against planets (ie. excludes most Special Weapons or Pd-weapons)
- Be strong enough to overcome any planetary shielding (ie. 50% damage reduction applies BEFORE shield strength).
- Be of sufficient quantity to destroy whatever planetary installations are likely to be present.
Planetary defenses (as well as the defending Starbase) generally have terrible beam defense ratings. Thus you can usually forego a Battle Scanner on a PA Ship and use the space to pack in more weapons. Similarly you can forego ECCM modifications on missiles meant to bombard a planet.
Since the PA Ship will often become the (sole) target of the planetary defense it is trying to destroy, it will need to be equipped with sufficient Armor/Structure to last enough turns to get the job done. This usually entails:
- Shields or Automated Repair Units and Inertial Stabilizer or Augmented Engines vs Ground Battery
- ECM-Jammer and Pd-weaponry or Lightning Field vs Missile Base
- Pd-weaponry or Lightning Field vs Fighter Garrison
- Class-X Shields, Reinforced Hull, Heavy armor and Adamantium/Xentronium, Automated Repair Unit and/or Damper Field vs Stellar Converter