Thank merciful God, our Neptune’s Pride death-struggle has finally reached its end. I logged out for the last time yesterday afternoon, conceding my inevitable defeat to the powerhouse duo of Nick Breckon and Chris Remo. I finished a solid third in the game, and maintained my territorial integrity far longer than anyone initially thought possible.
There is so much potential in a game like this. But it goes unrealized. Problems bedevil this design, not least of which is the fact that it becomes increasingly burdensome to play. The technology progression only serves to make the game happen faster, as ships travel through space more quickly thanks to upgrades. Battles also become deadlier, because the ships are better armed. So the stakes get higher and the game moves faster, which means you have to spend even more time watching it, despite the fact that it is not appreciably more interesting.
The other problem comes from how players interact with the game. With most boardgames or email strategy games, everyone is on roughly equal footing. But with a persistent, synchronous strategy game, the game is skewed by the fact that people are trying to fit this game into everyday life. We had relatively strong players vanish from the game just because they took the weekend off. Neptune’s Pride, so dependent on shifting alliances and power-balancing, can get thrown into chaos because someone visited some friends out of town.
So here’s how my game went:
I started strong, and diplomatically isolated two of my neighbors. However, in honoring my agreements with an ally, I ended up doing the lion’s share of the fighting in a two-front war. I saw that the game rewarded being a vulture. There is no way to fight a war without getting torn to shreds, especially since the game heavily favors the defender. But a third-party joining a war late will clean up. At the end of a grueling two-front war, I had expanded my holdings only very modestly.
Here, and for the only time in the game, I made a significant mistake. I took a weekend to watch how the game developed, and did not attack my weaker neighbors.
However, the game was already being lost across the map. For some reason, nobody else seemed to realize that Remo and Breckon were collaborating. Their neighbors sat paralyzed while they were picked off one by one. Bryan Mark saw the trouble early, but none of his neighbors intervened against Remo or Breckon when he was under attack. By the time they started to realize that Remo and Breckon were a major problem, they were too weak to do anything. They waited, even though time was against them.
Then Megill seemed to lose interest in the game. As Wasteland and I formed an alliance to head off Breckon’s expansion in the north, Megill stripped his empire of ships and hurled them at Breckon. Unfortunately, this eliminated him as a balancing force. At that point, the game was over. It would go on for another week and a half, but it was over at that moment. If Megill, Wasteland, and I had held a line against Remo and Breckon, we might have stood them off. But with Megill’s collapse, Remo doubled in power. The rest of the game was a slow delaying action as I fell back to my core star systems.
So what went wrong? I say two things, neither of which could be foreseen. First, Megill giving up on the game. At the time he cashed out, he was running a solid third in the game. He was in deep trouble, sharing a border with Breckon and Remo, but he might have held out with alliances. With his departure, the entire balance of the game (which had existed from Day 1) was destroyed.
Second, Remo was never really playing to win, and I’m not sure Neptune’s Pride really works if people are not aiming for victory. Breckon and Remo were able to win because they could trust one another and collaborate on their strategy. On my half of the map, nobody could trust anybody that far. The whole game is founded on reciprocal paranoia. I think I could have trusted Justin Keverne far more than I ever did, but our border made that impossible. He was only ever a 12-hour jump away from my most crucial systems, so I had to watch him. Megill was surrounded by potential betrayers, but was also powerful enough to crush some of his neighbors. Paralysis set in.
Remo and Breckon were freed from that system, which meant they were basically free from the game’s constraints. That gave them a huge advantage that nobody else really enjoyed, and that was ultimately what decided the game.
However, I’m not sure when they decided that Breckon would win and Remo would settle for second. Remo mentioned that he thought he could have confronted Breckon, but he was going on vacation and also did not want to deal with having to backstab a personal friend. Real-life concerns, once again, played a huge role in the game’s outcome.
Remo also argued that the game rewards second and so that is a viable goal, but I’m not really sure about that. I think the rewards for finishing second or third are consolation prizes for people who go the distance, but I suppose that is up to the player. But games like this depend on everyone sharing an understanding of what the object of the game is.
Or do they? Neptune’s Pride is an odd game. It is designed so that real-life can easily interfere with it, so perhaps Remo is correct. The “magic circle” is porous from the start, and that contributes to the game’s unpredictability. On the other hand, that does not seem like a recipe for good strategy gaming, which is about making plans and choices within a well-defined system.