The Story So Far: Nine are engaged in a game of Neptune's Pride. After only four days, paranoia and anxiety is rife. I am The Aspiration. After winning an accidental skirmish with northern neighbour Facewizard (Laura Michet) at a star called Procyon, relations are now strained between us. The galaxy holds its breath waiting for a shoe to drop, for someone to get their war on.
Sunday, June 27. Day Five.
Switchbreak on Twitter: "Neptune's Pride: Stars are shining, war is waging. Shit has got real."
Switchbreak had pounced on Seance, and three stars had fallen to him already. This was our first out-and-out war, an event of grim significance as I'd started to feel invested in The Aspiration. At what point it progressed from colourful dots on a browser map to my identity, I don't know. But it had. Time, energy and creativity was being poured into this game; I didn't want all of that to be destroyed.
Starspackle (Kent Sutherland) continued to be supportive, whispering friendly words into my text ears. Offering sweeties from his car window. But I knew little about my other neighbours, Baron Copernicus and weapons-meth junkie Crossheart.
Beyond your scan range is the fog of war, making each opponent a black box. The only way to find out what's going on inside is to stab them with a sharp, serrated knife. I made a rash decision to move a fleet onto one of Baron's undefended stars, a star that was awesomely undesirable, a star that only Caligula would think was worth going to war over. This was a move which had a dual purpose: to try to extend my scan range to see what Crossheart was up to and also observe how Baron would react.
Baron Copernicus sent 48 ships hurtling towards my ass. I apologised and withdrew, explaining I just wanted to see what was going on (and in fact I learnt nothing). I told Baron I had 70 ships lined up against Crossheart's border, disinformation in case Baron and Crossheart were working together. In reality all my ships were stuck up north. Always play the angle. You never know. You never know.
I think we were all like this – trusting no one, determined to be the one who wouldn't be fooled, yet simultaneously seeing the other players as doormats to be walked on when the time was convenient. I already felt pangs of regret about this behaviour.
Facewizard continued to bolster forces on her side of the border at Dnoces. She couldn't take Procyon with her current military configuration so she was offering deterrent rather than threat. But in reality this situation had become a trap. Whoever lowered their weapons first could find a captive bolt pistol fired into their skull. Moving forces off Procyon would leave me vulnerable if Facewizard declined to retreat from Dnoces.
I concocted plan B, to sneak down below Facewizard's scan range and come up through Tabit and Algieba.
Facewizard demanded I 'fess up and tell her what I was up to. Yes, that's precisely what I am going to do in a game of bluff and deceit. I'm going to tell you my master plan. I'm going to tell you:
+77000+ The Aspiration responds to your dark communication.
Information came to light that Facewizard was considering moving against the Spiritual Domain of The Aspiration. Our decision to move in more forces was confirmed just when we saw a fleet leave Etamin.
We are shoring up the noble colonies of Procyon against your impending attack.
Trust in Virtue before all is lost.
This wasn't a total lie. I was genuinely worried that Facewizard could be teaming up with Crossheart or Baron, and became increasingly stressed about the sluggish speed of my ships.
Despite this, I still felt like the game was a slice of uncommon fun. But it was at the expense of Facewizard. Neptune's Pride is like a zero-sum game of fun; if you're on the ascendant, someone else is on the decline.
Monday, June 28. Day Six.
-49762- Virtue is Bond, Seance.
It is known you are not long for this galaxy, for the twin warmongers have set upon you like the wolves of Mimosa. The Aspiration wants nothing of your species. The Spiritual Domain of the Aspiration wishes to help your return to the Virtuous Rapture.
Celebrate your ascension. Sing to the end, sing with ascendant power. The galaxy will mourn and remember this coda of defiance.
Seance was Kerry Turner as suspected. And she was also pretty much doomed, everything save the death certificate had been finalised. Switchbreak and Abacus Master were squeezing her like a pimple on the face of the galaxy, but the enemy of my potential enemies in the far future was my friend, if Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was anything to go by. So I threw Seance a free weapon upgrade to keep her fight going just a little longer.
Let's take a moment to talk about combat in Neptune's Pride. While fleets take hours to reach their targets, combat is resolved instantly with a wham-bam-thank-you-mAARGHH. But there's no luck here, just cold numbers, so I spent some time on an exact formula for calculating who wins, so I could optimise the ships I sent into battle.
The trouble is if you plan on using the exact number of ships the formula requires to win – as I had been doing – you are running a great deal of risk. A small perturbation before your assault fleet reaches the target, such as an unexpected extra ship or two being generated by the target's industry or the enemy getting a weapons upgrade, means you lose. Many times I lost pointless battles purely because I never built in any slack. I was too efficient for my own good and this problem dogged me all the way through the game. Don't let it happen to you.
It was Monday, of course, back to work. And this was the first day I checked the game before heading off for the commute because the Americans could have done anything to me during the night. The game was now tinkering with my daily routine, deciding how my schedule would best fit its needs. This was not a good sign.
Paranoia was working overtime. Consider: if Facewizard were working with Crossheart, she might have told Crossheart to go NOW because most of my forces were pinned to Procyon. But Crossheart couldn't see a damn thing – maybe he wouldn't jump into the unknown? What if Crossheart's scanners were to suddenly get an upgrade? Then I'd be in trouble.
I was getting a little jittery, wishing my ships would just travel that little bit faster as I'd had no speed upgrade since the game had started - I was slower than every other player. Also, the 48 ships that Baron had summoned across to scare me off just sat there. Watching. Looming. Was he was now thinking about an assault? Or was he just flaunting a deterrent as powerful as Kitchen Gun?
Fortunately, I was feeling a little safer, as my fleets were finally moving into a defensive posture, eradicating obvious chinks in The Aspiration's border. But I needed speed. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Abacus Master, someone Starspackle was always talking about in excited, nervous tones, was kind enough to offer a speed upgrade. But would Starspackle have dealt with one of my enemies at my expense? I didn't know. But the upgrade was just too important pass up – I just hoped the decision wouldn't come back to haunt me.
Facewizard: "we were shoring up against your attack, if you have ever heard that we were attempting invasion, you were lied to"
Shortly after this curt communique from Facewizard, there was a moment of Keanu Reeves Whoa. Ships scattered from Dnoces like a fragmentation grenade had gone off, blasting out in all directions away from me. What was going on?
Starspackle answered the question before I could ask, and threw in a few other details for my terrified pleasure.
Item one. Veret had initiated an assault against Facewizard from above. Item two. Abacus Master was amassing forces along Starspackle's border. Item three, Starspackle needed to take one of Baron Copernicus' stars to defend against this Abacus Master threat and he might not take kindly to this so... could The Aspiration kill off that 48-ship fleet of his sitting just there, next to you? Tx, bye. Kisses!
My head did that twist that Linda Blair did in the Exorcist. Veret's incubation was over, having grown into a kraken horror from the deep sea of fuck. And I was line of sight for him, not Starspackle, so would be next on his hit list. And attack Baron? That would put me at war with someone I had no need to war with. Was this what it appeared? Was I being played? Now my plan to break into Facewizard's territory felt like the last thing in the world to worry about. The galaxy was leaking in, upsetting my small pocket of finely managed chaos.
I stalled for time and sent this to Baron:
Encrypted Priority Transmission
+52983+ Virtue is Bond, Baron Copernicus.
Our species has revelled in a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Starspackle of the North. However, a recent transmission has caused consternation amongst the normally wise leaders of The Aspiration. People are protesting on the streets outside the central Codex parliament building. They protest that this is not what our species is about. The Aspiration is virtuous, above all.
We put this simple question to your autocracy, Baron. What is the history of diplomatic relations between your own collective and Starspackle of the North?
Please treat this communication as confidential. The careful balance of power rests on this.
Together we Aspire. Trust in Virtue; it is all we have before we ascend.
Tuesday, June 29. Day Seven.
I logged in before work again. 6.20am. Now Neptune's Pride was affecting not just my life. Mrs. HM asked how the game was going every day. A colleague at work checked in, too. My parents also received status reports by e-mail. Everyone was completely aware that the game was feeding on the marrow of my life, but yet still wanted to know what was happening. That is one of the main hooks of Neptune's Pride: it tells a great story.
Baron responded to the previous day's urgent query, saying everything seemed good with Starspackle: why? Had I heard different? It turned out that Starspackle had convinced the Baron to join his plan against Abacus Master. Hmm. That left me with a quandry about how to proceed with Baron's conversation.
I decide to warn Baron about the attack I was meant to initiate against him if he hadn't been compliant and finish with: "Proceed with caution and keep in contact. Our mutual expansionist neighbour smiles with one face and drools with another." I'm not sure if Baron got my warning; it's the problem with enigmatic role-play, your messages might be, well, enigmatic.
But my eyes were dragged ever northwards. Veret was seeping through Facewizard's defences and I started to panic. Started to make mistakes.
But I broke through the back door of Facewizard's territory at last, launching as many ships as I could. I couldn't have Veret taking everything for himself.
But the bulk of my forces were still pinned down at Procyon by that fat fleet Facewizard had left docked at Dnoces. I couldn't move. I couldn't fight at full strength against Veret's advance, which I'd been concerned about since day one. So this was the tragedy – all the groundwork I'd laid, stolen by this thief from the north.
And I was mad. My mistake of course. I couldn't actually see what had happened but it seemed probable that my aggressive posturing at Procyon had resulted in Facewizard concentrating forces against me and opening her northern side to attack. In other words, it's almost like Veret and I had teamed up, except that we didn't, and he got to grab all the peanuts and rewards. Damn, damn, damn.
Wednesday, June 30. Day Eight.
Your ghetto empire falls. Your species is routed. Your ascension draws close.
The Aspiration have plunged into your territory seeking its original Spawnsground, as demanded by its devotion to the Virtuous Rapture. So far, our efforts to locate the Spawnsground described in our religious membranes have come to nothing.
We offer you an opportunity, to remain a viable power.
In exchange, we will end our advance and return Etamin to your stewardship; we vacate as an initial sign of good faith, taking the fight to Taygeta. Againt the Horror of the Rim, Veret.
If you choose to reclaim Taygeta we will respect that. However, we will annex Chort, Algeiba and Dnoces.
To give your species a fighting chance against the darkness from the north, we will supply you with an advanced weapon upgrades, giving you the ability to fight with long distance spearbeams.
Make your choice. Leave Dnoces. Your species can survive longer. Our only other alternative is to destroy your fleet and leave your drifting hulks as a warning to any of the others who cross us.
Choose to postpone your ascension.
The borders of my empire were no longer the strong battlements I'd grown accustomed to over the last couple of days. My neighbours' scan ranges and jump distances had extended and speed had progressed yet again. Blink and someone could be in your space. Just like in the real world, invulnerability one day turns to vulnerability the next. Military technology advances and the war game changes. Stones. Swords. Guns. Tanks. Air power. Nuclear weapons. The suicide bomber.
This was fast moving against me. Veret was no doubt stronger with his gigantic empire to the north. If I were to lose Facewizard space to Veret, that'd mean I'd lose my first chance of expansion since game start – a signficant loss. If you can't keep the pace of expansion with other players, you are on the fast track to losing. So I gambled with two bold moves.
Not only did I offer Facewizard a truce, but I made an incursion against Crossheart space who The Aspiration referred to as "the weapons hoarder". I knew you shouldn't fight a war on two fronts, but I needed a backup plan. This was the turning point where either The Aspiration became a first class superpower or began its perilous decline to mediocrity and enslavement.
And, seriously, Crossheart was too dangerous to be left alone down there, quiet and growing, a star cancer. I could have done without another Veret on my hands. I asked if Switchbreak wanted to help out; he was too busy eating chunks of Seance.
So I sat and waited, waited for Laura, the face behind the Facewizard empire. I stared at the screen, willing her empire to respond.
But Laura was never coming back. Having had enough with aggressive communications from most players in the game and stressed out by something as life-inconsequential as a game of make-believe empires in the sky, she logged off forever.
With 66 ships still sitting on my doorstep, she left me with the paralysing possibility that she could log on again at any time and throw her Dnoces ships at my homespace. So my Procyon fleet was trapped defending against a phantom threat while Veret raided Facewizard with impunity. This was the moment when my chances at being a contender for the top spot were buried alive, screaming for sweet mercy. My momentum - my game - was destroyed by this.
So, Laura, this was how you fucked me back. And we're not just talking a gentle screwing over, we're talking strap-on without lubrication. And nine painful inches.
Well played, Laura. Well played.