The detailed descriptions of each faction refer to three playing styles: Builder, Hybrid, and Momentum. These will be defined here. But first, it must be recognized that there are as many different approaches to the game as there are players who love the game, but these (often wildly varying) approaches can, in at least a general sense, be grouped into the three basic styles of play. They are basic archetypes rather than full styles. Recognizing them is vitally important in effective planning.
Builders don't care much for fighting, preferring to cloister themselves off on some small to mid-sized continent, terraform, build infrastructure, and research new technologies. The hallmarks of Builder style play are:
- Long delays in prototyping new weapons and defensive systems, in favor of constructing infrastructure
- The preservation of as close to 100% of industrial capacity as possible in order to speed the completion of the aforementioned infrastructure by minimizing support costs
- Very aesthetically-pleasing empires (let's face it, Builder Empires just look cool!)
- Strict adherence to industrial caps with regards to ecological damages, that is, Builders spend a lot of time terraforming, and they don't like to see their efforts undone by sudden fungal blooms, so you will seldom find any, and certainly no significant eco-damage in a Builder Empire). For the reason of preservation of Industrial Capacity alone, "Bioengineering" is probably a Builder player's most treasured tech, and many a Builder player will micromanage his or her bases down to the unit level, upgrading any unit which is tying up support costs.
To maximize the strengths of this play style, you must head straight to Industrial Automation for the acquisition of Supply Crawlers and the Planetary Transit System, and from there move right on into the lifting of your resource restrictions.
You live and die by the following five techs: Centauri Ecology, Industrial Automation, Gene Splicing, Ecological Engineering, and Environmental Economics. The goal of the early Builder game is to reach Environmental Economics as quickly as possible and create such a vast economy in terms of total outputs, relative to the opposition, that when the combat techs arrive (and wise Builders will begin pursuing them the moment they get Environmental Economics), their superior economic sub-structure will enable them to out-produce and out-tech everyone else in the game.
A very powerful development strategy is to get Centauri Ecology as your first ever tech. Start planting forests and Sensor Arrays on Flat or Arid tiles, Solar Collectors on Rainy/Rolling tiles, and Solar Collector and Farm on Moist/Rolling tiles. Create lots of tiny bases ("infinite city sprawl") of 1 or 2 population points each, spaced 2 to 3 tiles apart, and build roads between them --- early Forests + Sensor Arrays are higher priority than roads, but roads is higher priority than farms or Solar Collectors especially if an aggressive military faction (Believers, Hive, Spartans, Gaians sometimes) is nearby. IF you are attacked, a road between the base being attacked and a nearby base will let you move a garrison to support the vulnerable base, and you can send over other garrisons from further bases in a sort of "wave" where each garrison moves from one base to the next each turn. This helps tremendously to deter being taken over. Having lots of little bases means with your early support can get you at least a 1-1-1 Scout at each base, which can add up to enough to keep a small attack force from an aggressive neighbor at bay. A Sensor Array lets you make up the difference between your likely low military morale compared to the more aggressive factions.
Your next beeline would be towards Industrial Automation. If you are not Deirdre (Gaians) you can afford a few turns in Free Market (which is available in Industrial Economics, a prerequisite of Industrial Automation) for a major boost in research and money, though you have to drop out of it at some point (usually when your neighbors start having worse moods and start scouting your territory, or when Planet starts getting more aggressive and you want to switch to Green). Get Planetary Transit System as much as you can --- even Zakharov can afford to miss the Virtual World in exchange for the Planetary Transit System (but with skillful use of Supply Crawlers you can get both even at Transcend difficulty). With lots of tiny bases the Planetary Transit System will be a sudden 2x to 3x boost in your population, which will translate to faster production and research, letting you build larger groups of better-teched units to defend against aggressors with better military morale.
If you have neighbors that are near particularly valuable Planet features, such as Monsoon Jungle or Freshwater Sea, grab their territory --- build a base at the edge of your borders, send some Formers to build roads, and get as much of Monsoon Jungle and/or Freshwater Sea as you can.
The Hybrid's main watch-word is flexibility. He's the guy who wants to be ready for anything that might come up, and while he greatly admires the Builder's stunning efficiency and sterling industry, he also knows that somewhere out there on the map, and maybe closer than he thinks, are people who would like nothing better than to take it all away from him. To that end, the Hybrid player makes some "strategic sacrifices," developing a stout standing army as early as techs permit it, and upgrading and honing them constantly. Often, the Hybrid Player has half (or more) of his army on the prowl, looking for pods, and looking for potential enemies of the state. Yes, he's interested in developing an economy to rival his Builder counterparts, but not at the risk of being blind-sided by some fast-moving attacker.
For Hybrids, the key technologies in the early game are: Centauri Ecology, Industrial Automation, Doctrine: Flexibility, Gene Splicing, and Ecological Engineering. This gives you several of the key advantages of the Builder player, but also gives you more options in terms of exploration and response to incoming threats.
Fast and loose! The Momentum player's main goal is to expand with lightning speed, get a horde of small bases (production centers) up and running, and then use them to build a war machine that is second to none, and while he's getting his production centers geared up, his scouts are on the prowl, a sharp eye open for signs of anybody else. The moment he finds someone else, the real show begins, and the Momentum player is banking on the fact that, because he's so active, even if you have a technology edge, he'll be able to probe his way to technological parity and smash you with his relatively large standing force. Bases are seen as little more than barracks, and not much attention is given to infrastructural builds, beyond the absolutely essential (i.e., network nodes, to cash in artifacts found or stolen).
Momentum players will want the biggest bang for their buck, and they'll want it as quickly as possible. For them, the key technologies are: Centauri Ecology, Industrial Automation, Doctrine: Flexibility, Non-Linear Mathematics, and Ecological Engineering. They're willing to work around the mineral restrictions to get a decent army in the field, and many of the factions this group favors come with support bonuses, giving them a relatively large number of "free" troops anyway. A perfect example of this would be Miriam Godwinson's Believers. With their +2 Support rating, each of their bases gets four free units. Figure one former and one garrison, that still leaves her two attackers per base that can go out hunting. Multiplied out over ten or twelve bases, and it's no wonder she's so feared by the Builder crowd!
Putting it together
As you can see, while there are key differences between the various styles of play, there are also some similarities between the three styles. Two techs in particular popped up all three times: Ecological Engineering and Industrial Automation. These may be the most critical techs in the entire game: if you have them and your opponent does not, you are in a vastly superior position.
One final stylistic note to point out is this: Do not make the mistake of believing that Builders never fight and Momentum players never build infrastructure! All players of note will shift and change their strategies based on prevailing game conditions, and because of that, these "styles" mentioned are more archetypes than anything. They point to the tendencies and pre-dispositions of players toward one end of the spectrum or the other. The implication is not that Builders can only build, and Momentum players can only crank out an endless supply of troops. I don't know of anyone who plays that way, and even against an average player, such a strategy would come apart rather quickly. Essentially then, the stylistic approaches speak more to the timing than anything else.
For Builders, the key to the game is the rapid development of infrastructure. They figure that the faster they can develop vast efficiencies, the better off they will be, and those greater efficiencies will enable them to quickly catch up militarily in the mid-game.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Momentum gamers recognize how much damage a few early game attackers can do, and seek to maximize that damage against their opponents, forcing their rivals to divert resources to deal with threats to hearth and home, while the Momentum player is free to build infrastructure without such threats.
In the center are the Hybrids, who will strike opportunistically – and divert some portion of their early game resources to be ready to do that – but are unwilling to go full bore in that direction, lest they fall behind in infrastructural development.
Phases of the game
The Early Game is the game up until the time all those annoying restrictions are lifted, and before you get the chance to start playing with the more interesting unit types. Specifically then, the techs that provide the boundary to the early game are: Resource-Wise: Gene Splicing, Ecological Engineering, and Environmental Economics. Weapon wise: Lasers (Applied Physics) and Impact (Non-linear Mathematics) will be most prevalent (with Missiles falling at the outer edge of the early game, much as Environmental Economics, developmentally). Defensively, you've got Synthmetal (Industrial Base), and Plasma (High Energy Chemistry) with some interesting variance provided by 3-res and 3-pulse armor, and of course, all units will be powered with the old-style Fission generators (weakest, and most expensive).
Implications of the early game:
- Stuff is expensive to build. The old generators are not cheap, to put it mildly, and that's bad news for you, because your mineral production is wretched, and while there are ways to improve that, none of them will happen quickly, or without a fair amount of planning on your part.
- Terrain squares are not very productive. Pre-restriction lifting, you're faced with a limit of 2r (r being whatever resource you're harvesting) in each category, for an absolute maximum of six resources per square (i.e. - Monolith, 2r for each of the three resource-types).
Taken together, that's a pretty punishing two-edged sword. Not only are you having to pay more for your early game units in terms of time to build, but you're also faced with terrain squares that have limited value.
There is some good news though, in the form of special resource squares. These squares are not limited by the early game restrictions, and as such, they should receive your immediate attention. If you find one that's located in an unattractive base-building spot, that's no problem....the moment you get industrial automation, send a supply crawler out that direction and start taking advantage of the resource! (and more about this in particular on the section on Terraforming!)
The Middle Game is bounded on one side by the lifting of energy restrictions, the acquisition of Missile techs (with Air Power coming soon thereafter), and the discovery of Fusion Power and runs all the way to the acquisition of Habitation Domes and is where the bulk of your game will be played out. Terrain squares get more productive as more terraforming options become available, your formers get a ton of new things to do, and your units (both offensively and defensively) become vastly more dangerous.
The late game is marked roughly by the introduction of the Habitation Dome. Generally, single player games don't last very long once you get here, and few multi-player games ever make it this far, so don't expect to see much of the late game, unless you really enjoy playing single-player mode, and really like to take your time.