I’m occasionally surprised to hear people who play sci-fi strategy games complain that they don’t want to build their own ships. Since Master of Orion, this has been a fundamental part of the genre. It was the cornerstone of warfare in Brian Reynold’s Alpha Centauri. But it’s especially important in a strategy game that emphasizes tactical combat. And being an Age of Wonders game, Planetfall emphasizes tactical combat. In fact, I’d argue it’s a shell for tactical combat. If you just want to scooch armies around a map and plop buildings into your cities, there are other games better suited to your preferences. Planetfall, like developer Triumph Studios’ previous games, is for people who want to play detailed tactical battles set in the larger context of a 4X. Some designers rightly understand that tactical combat can interfere with the flow of a grand strategy game. But those designers didn’t make Planetfall. People who love tactical combat made Planetfall.
And part of the tactical combat is building your own units. Which in this case is far simpler than building a ship in Master of Orion. All you have to do is pick three mods. Because every unit in Planetfall comes with three holes where mods belong. Three shortcomings to its potential. Three slots of raw potential, waiting to be filled. Three more steps to make it complete. Three things missing. Three decisions for you to make.
All you have to do is look at the tech tree in Planetfall to understand that mods are a crucial part of the game. If you don’t care about building your own units, and therefore you don’t care about mods, why are you playing a game with so many mods? Why are you playing a game in which every unit you recruit has holes in it? Actual literal holes where mods are supposed to go? Why are you playing a game with an entire resource used for mods? Because if you’re not gonna use your cosmite, can I have it?
You can brute force your way through the mod system. Just spend all your cosmite to slot whatever you have available. No mods are useless, because they all add to a unit’s defense or damage. But in a game about tactical combat, where the mods tweak the tactical combat in a variety of ways, these tweaks can make all the difference. And here’s where Planetfall’s Galactic Empire mode can really come into its own. Consider my mission here on Virginia. I’m here to kill the mutated fauna, and especially the hopperhounds. I have the luxury of knowing exactly what I’m going to be doing with my units.
So let’s consider hopperhounds. There are four types. The hatchlings are the babies, the manhunters are the adults, the blademaws are the badasses, and the eviscerators are the elites. Hatchlings and manhunters have armor. Blademaws have more armor. The eviscerator has even more armor than that. The blademaws cause bleeding. The eviscerators buff other hopperhounds, making them move faster and hit harder.
All hopperhounds are melee attackers, which means they ignore shielding. That’s not an issue for the Dvar. Being space dwarfs, the Dvar prefer armor over shielding. But what distinguishes hopperhounds from other things that want to run up to bite us is the hopping. The hopperhound’s jump attack is a range-3 pounce that displaces the target. This is especially annoying to Dvar, who like to stand in their comfy trenches. A hopperhound will knock the Dvar out of the trench and, oh look, now the hopperhound is enjoying the trench’s defensive bonus. Not cool. Ideally, we want to kill them before they get within pouncing range.
So let’s consider what we’re going to use to do that. Trenchers are the core Dvar units. They’re stout little space dwarves with spike guns that fire a single shot. You might think it’s nothing fancy. It’s not repeating automatic fire like the Vanguard’s rifles. It doesn’t arc over cover like the Amazon’s arrows. It’s not going to apply any butt-zapping like a Syndicate runner’s pulse pistol flank fire. But check out that damage value. 15.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking a Vanguard assault rifle is going to fire three shots that each do nine points of damage, and nine times three is 27, and that’s way higher than 15. You would have a great point…if you were fighting nudists. But stuff in Planetfall has armor and shields. Really, anything worth killing is going to have at least three points of defense. And defense doesn’t work the way you probably assume it works. You could look up the formula — it’s right there in the in-game references — but if you’re like me you’re going to spend too much time racking your brain to remember what that ^ symbol means in math language, and then you’re going to Google it, and you’re going to be confronted with the horror of everything you’ve forgotten about math, and you’re just going to end up watching videos of otters instead.
So I’ll just tell you that armor and shields matter a lot. The shorthand way to think about it is that each point of defense intercepts ten percent of damage. That’s right, ten percent. If you’re like me, your brain assumed one point of armor intercepted one point of damage. Boy, is your brain dumb!
The effectiveness of defense decreases as the points pile up, so it’s not strictly 10%. But the takeaway is that those first several points of shield and armor matter a lot. And anything worth killing is going to have at least three points of defense. So whatever you’re shooting at that’s worth killing and therefore has at least three points of defense is only going to take…let me check the cheat sheet I downloaded while I was watching otter videos…73% of each shot’s damage. Which means each of those 9-point shots from the Vanguard assault rifle is now a 7-point shot. And, sure, three times 7 is 21, which is still higher than 15. But today, we’re on Virginia, where all the fauna are mutated with an extra point of armor. So all those creatures that would have three points of defense now have four points of defense. And according to the formula, they only take 66% damage from each shot. Which means each of those 9-point shots from the Vanguard assault rifle is now a 6-point shot. Okay, sure, 18 is still higher than 15. And besides, the spike gun’s 15 is only 10 after firing through four points of defense. So it’s not looking good for the spike gun.
Of course, there are other factors at work here. The Vanguard assault rifle needs an action point each time it fires, so a Vanguard trooper has to stand still to get the most out of his gun. Meanwhile, a Dvar trencher can mosey around and still fire just as effectively. Furthermore, the spike gun has a unique relationship with the Dvar trenches. Its 15-damage attack is boosted by 20% when fired from a trench. Now the spike gun is doing 19 points of damage, which scales down to 13 points of damage against something with four points of armor, which is still less than the assault rifle’s 18 points of damage. And now my Dvar trencher has to stand in one place to take advantage of his trench’s bonus, just like a Vanguard trooper. So I guess I have mathematically proven that the Vanguard get the best weapons and therefore need to be nerfed. Hopefully someone at Triumph Studios is reading this.
But then there are mods. The very first Dvar technology is called perimeter security. One of the things it unlocks is the Ironbreaker, a melee mod that bypasses the first three points of your target’s armor. That is, for all intents and purposes, a 30% damage boost. It’s a no-brainer against anything with armor. On Virginia, where all the mutant fauna have an extra point of armor, and where hopperhounds are liable to push you out of your trench and then laugh at you while you protest, “Hey, that’s my trench!”, having Ironbreakers is like having an umbrella in the rain. You don’t technically need it, but you’re probably going to wish you’d brought it.
Since we’re looking to mop up five hopperhound nests and call it a day, we want to mod our initial hunting party quickly. So after researching perimeter security, the first two technologies in the firearms line give us flechette ammunition and rail accelerators. The flechette ammunition adds a bleed effect to our shots. The rail accelerators give us an extra point of range. The range seven spike guns are now range eight. Which gives us that much more time to fire from our trenches before hopperhounds close to pouncing range. And, of course, that much more time for the hopperhounds to bleed out from flechette rounds. Furthermore, each mod gives the spike gun a 10% damage boost. We’re now doing 24 points of damage when firing from a trench, we’re firing at a range of 8 instead of 7, we’re causing bleeding, and if a hopperhound pushes us out of our trench, our shield bash melee attack has an Ironbreaker mod that ignores three points of armor.
Planetfall makes it easy to track your modded units by giving them unique names and icons. Of course, you can pick the name and icon yourself.
By turn 30, I’ve cleared out two hopperhound nests and my prospectors have scouted the exact location of three more relatively nearby. I’m situated alone on the north end of a continent, with a friendly Shakarn faction on the south end (the Shakarn are lizards with a predisposition for espionage). One of the hopperhound nests is adjacent to a Shakarn colony, so I’m worried they’ll take it out before I can get down there. Fortunately, they’re in last place in the military ranking, so they might not be ready to deal with a nest of mutated hopperhounds. Juwal Gruvich and his fully leveled Houndkillers are on the way. The other two hopperhound nests are on the continent to my west, across a narrow strait. Thanks largely to mods, we could have the troops home by the Dvar equivalent of Christmas.