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Despite its age the developers still offer it for sale online.
Computer system environment
The game runs under Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME or Windows XP. There is no need for a CD-ROM or DVD drive as the game is sold online as shareware. However, upon registration, a CD is offered as well as a registration code.
Space Empires III provides a wide range of ways to win, and one game can use any combination of: total conquest; various ways of being the first player to reach a specified score; being the first to research a specified number of technologies; and keeping the galaxy at peace for a specified number of turns.
Systems, stars and planets
The galaxy consists of a number of "systems". Most systems contain a star, but a few are empty and a few contain only space storms, which hide the presence of any enemy ships. Each system has from 1 to about 4 "warp points", which function as wormholes allowing near-instantaneous travel between systems. Each star has a number of planets ranging from none to about 10.
Planets vary in the following ways:
- Type of atmosphere. Players have to do quite a lot of research in order to colonize planets with different atmospheres from that of their homeworld.
- Size. The smallest colonizable "planets" are asteroid belts.
- Conditions, which affect population growth rates. The worst conditions are described as "deadly" and are usually found on a few asteroid belts.
- Mineral wealth, which determines initial industrial productivity.
How empires' economies work
Each planet generates a certain number of construction points, research points and intelligence points which are shared by the whole empire - so if the empire as a whole has a surplus of construction points a planet can consume more construction points than it generates. How many points of each type a planet generates mostly depends on number and level of construction, research and intelligence buildings present (the manual calls them "facilities"). Each planet has a fixed maximum number of facilities which nothing can increase. If a planet has the maximum number of facilities or a player wants to change the mix of facilities, the player must scrap one and then add its replacement. In addition a player needs one facility per system in which it has colonies, and one per few system to keep ships in operation, and these count towards the planet's maximum.
The population of a planet does not directly affect the number of construction points, research points and intelligence points it produces but is important for two other reasons:
- Only planets with populations above 100M can build spaceships and orbital bases and repair spaceships. Hence players usually set the work rates of new colonies to the lowest level (60%) until their populations exceed 100M (the AI usually keeps planets at 60% work rate up to about 500M).
- The speed at which planets construct items on the ground. For every 2000M population, planetary construction speed doubles. Since higher populations do not in themselves generate construction points any faster but consume them faster, players have to manage their construction points budgets carefully.
- When enemy troops are landed on a planet, the population will rise up to defend it.
The full range of things planets can build on the ground includes:
Planets with populations above 100M can build spaceships and orbital bases and repair spaceships. These activities also consume construction points, and do not affect and are not affected by construction on the ground. Planets build and repair objects in space at the same rate irrespective of their population (above 100M) or construction points generated.
The technology tree
Space Empires III's technology tree has 36 subject areas at the start of the game, but reaching certain levels in some subjects or combinations of subjects can open up new areas for research.
With so many research areas, this article can only summarize the main types:
- Planetary buildings (see the list above), except that spaceports, resupply depots and the first-level construction, research and intelligence buildings are available at the start of the game.
- Ship types / sizes other than colony ships and escorts (the smallest combat ships), and all sizes of orbital base.
- The ability to colonize planets with "alien" atmospheres and to create colonies with larger initial populations.
- Ground troops, fighters and space mines.
- Ship components for transporting and deploying ground troops, fighters and space mines.
- Mine-sweeping components for ships.
- 3 types of "beam" weapon (one type is called "torpedoes", but cannot be shot down and hits its target instantly).
- 2 types of missile.
- Point defense weapons, which can only damage missiles or fighters but are more effective against these target than normal beam weapons.
- Shields, which reduce damage to spaceships, orbital bases and colonies in combat.
- Computer systems, which initially increase the number of enemy units a ship can target per combat round, and at the highest levels allow the player to produce robotic spaceships and orbital bases which have more space for "payload" components.
- Combat sensors and ECM components, which make it easier for your ships to hit enemies with "beam" weapons and harder for enemies to hit your units with "beam" weapons.
- Specialist anti-ship weapons which can only damage a ship's shields or engines or weapons.
- Repulser and tractor beams, which do not damage enemy ships but move them away from or towards the firing ship.
- Various types of bomb. Some are specialist weapons: some can only destroy spaceports or resupply depots; some can only kill populations; some can only degrade a planet's conditions (reduce population growth rate).
- Warp point manipulators. Closing warp points makes defense easier and opening them can give enemies a nasty surprise.
- Storm manipulators. Destroying storms makes it harder for ships to hide, creating them makes it easier.
- Planet and star manipulators, which can create / destroy planets and destroy suns (which destroys all planets in the system).
- Spaceyards, the best of which can build and repair ships faster than planets can. These can be installed in both ships and orbital bases.
- Ships' engines. There are 4 speed classes, and each speed class has 3 levels of decreasing construction and maintenance costs.
- "General science" subjects, some of which make new buildings or ship components available while others open up new fields of research.
You can split the available research points among as many research projects as you wish. If you allocate more points than are needed to complete a research project, the surplus is carried forward to the next level of the same subject.
Space Empires III also offers a wide range of diplomatic communications:
- "Warnings" (demands) that another empire should: stop espionage and sabotage; remove its presence (ships and colonies) from a specified system; stop attacking its ships; cancel a treaty with another empire.
- Declarations of war.
- Offers of various types of treaty. A higher-level treaty includes all lower-level treaties, with one exception:
- Non-intercourse treaties are agreements to avoid further contact. Higher-level treaties negate non-intercourse treaties instead of including them.
- Non-aggression treaties are agreements not to attack each other's fleets or colonies.
- Trade Alliances increase the construction points generated by both sides, and the effect takes a few turns to reach its peak.
- Trade & Research Alliances increase the construction and research points generated by both sides, and the effect takes a few turns to reach its peak.
- Military Alliances additionally allow both sides to defend each other and use each other's resupply depots (see below).
- Partnership treaties additionally allow both sides to trade intelligence points (gradually increasing the intelligence points generated by each side) and to share knowledge of the galaxy and of other empires' ship designs.
- Demand or offer tribute (construction or research or intelligence points).
- Request help against an enemy empire.
- And of course responses to all of the above.
Spying and sabotage
Spying attempts to steal information. You can try to steal technologies or information about a wide range of subjects: the enemy's relations with other empires, enemy ship designs that you have not met in battle and various aspects of the enemy's economy.
Sabotage attempts to do harm. You can try to: hinder research, possibly forcing some research projects to restart from the beginning; damage / destroy ships and bases, or ground-based buildings, or ground combat units; commit terrorist acts against their populations; incite riots and rebellions; and even reduce a planet's usable minerals, which would reduce its industrial production for a very long time.
The Intelligence screen allows you to manage your spying and sabotage operations against enemies and your counter-intelligence (defense against enemy agents). It guides you through a hierarchy of decisions:
- How much to spend on counter-intelligence. Then how much to allocate to protection against specific types of enemy action and how much to general counter-intelligence. If you spend more on defense than enemy empires spend on offensive intelligence operations against you, then, in general, no intelligence operations will succeed against you. If an operation does succeed, your defensive spending will determine if you can at least find out which enemy carried out the operation.
- How much of the rest to spend against each enemy.
- For each each enemy, how much to allocate to specific types of operation and how much to general offensive intelligence work.
Spaceship and orbital base design
Players use the same screen to design both spaceships and orbital bases, and the basic design principles are the same:
- Each "hull" provides a fixed amount of space, and each type of component require a fixed amount of space. Technology advances do not reduce the size and cost of components the way they do in the Master of Orion series.
- Every ship and base must have a bridge and (depending on its size) one or more crew quarters (areas for sleep, eating and recreation) and life support components; except that empires which have researched sufficiently high levels of computer systems can build robotic ships and bases, which omit the components needed by biological crews and use the extra space for "payload" components.
There are additional rules for spaceships:
- Every ship must have at least one engine, there is a limit on the number of engines for each hull size and the larger ships require more than one engine per movement point. As a result the two largest ship sizes are slower than smaller ships with the same drive technology.
- In troop ships, population transports, colony ships and carriers, at least 50% of the space must be payload components (troop quarters, population quarters, colony modules and fighter bays respectively).
The ship design menu has some useful options:
- Copy an existing design, usually in order to produce an upgraded version when more advanced technology is discovered.
- "Hide obsolete" designs - by the middle of a game there are many more obsolete designs than current ones. This also makes the screens in which you order construction of new ships and refitting of existing ships hide obsolete designs, so that you don't build one by accident. Many of the screens which give information for use in ship design and combat have "Hide obsolete" options, and so does the build menu for colonies.
Ships can be refitted to take advantage of technological advances or to use them for new purposes.
Space Empires III provides a Combat Simulator in which players can test fleets containing one or more of their designs against fleets containing one or more known enemy designs, using the tactical space combat system (see below).
Maintaining spaceships and orbital bases costs 15% of their construction cost every turn, starting with the turn in which their construction begins.
Spaceships also need to visit a resupply depot on a friendly planet (belonging to the same empire or one with which it has a Military Alliance or Partnership treaty) at least once in every 15 turns, otherwise their travel speed is halved and their combat performance becomes very poor (except that one racial advantage allows longer periods without resupplying). This limits how far fleets can travel from the empire's colonies and makes it slightly more difficult to turtle by stationing fleets at warp points.
Combat and invasion
All space travel is at less than the speed of light, and mostly within systems. Each system is divided into squares called "sectors". A ship's travel speed depends on its size, number of engines and engine technology, and is defined as "movement points", i.e. the number of sectors it can pass though in one turn. Passing through a warp point (wormhole) takes one movement point.
This movement system has important effects on gameplay and strategy:
- It is possible to intercept enemy ships before they can attack or defend colonies.
- Fleets start moving as soon as you give them orders and can even fight one or more battles before the end of the turn.
Space combat is turn-based in SpaceEmpires III (Space Empires V was the first of the series to use real-time combat) and occurs when a fleet moves into a sector occupied by an enemy fleet and / or colony. On the combat screen ships can move half the number of squares that they can move in interplanetary space, rounded up. If the player chooses hands-on control of combat (see below), a large battle can take an hour or more.
Space Empires III has a "double blind" combat system which aims to minimize the tactical advantage that either side may gain from moving and firing first or second. Each combat turn consists of 5 phases:
- Attacker's ships move and select targets. The "attacker" is the side that moved into the sector where combat takes place,even if it is trying to prevent an attack on one of its own colonies. Players must select a target for each weapon individually, but there are shortcut buttons to make this easier. If the target moves out of a weapon's range, that weapon does not fire.
- Attacker's "seekers" (missiles and fighters) move.
- Defender's ships move and select targets. The same targeting rules apply as for the attacker.
- Defender's "seekers" (missiles and fighters) move.
- Ships and fighters fire their weapons. First one defending unit fires, then one attacking unit, and so on.
This system has two consequences which can surprise beginners:
- Defender's fighters are launched and given their targeting instructions when they are launched, after the attacking side has finished targeting. Hence defending fighters often get one free shot before the attacking side can shoot at them.
- "Missile" weapons are launched in a firing phase but do their damage by colliding with their targets, i.e. in a movement phase. That means you must shoot down missiles while they are at least two combat turns away from their targets; if you wait until the next combat turn, they move and do damage before you actually shoot them.
Damage is absorbed by a target's shields until they are worn down, and then by its components - for example a weapon that does 2 units of damage will destroy 2 components if it hits an unshielded target. A target is destroyed when all its components are destroyed, and hits on critical components may immobilize or disarm it in an earlier combat turn - Space Empires III does not have the concept of hit points which most other games use.
Space combat ends when one of:
- All of one side's units have retreated or been destroyed - in combat "units" includes missiles and fighters as well as the ships or bases which launch them.
- 19 space combat turns have been completed. In this case either side can restart combat on the next main turn, but doing so costs one movement point.
The previous paragraphs describe hands-on tactical combat. There is also a "strategic" combat mode, in which the game software controls both sides' units and follows the same rules; the Combat Strategy screen enables the player to tell the software how to select targets. Unlike some other games, Space Empires III asks the player to choose between tactical and strategic combat before each battle.
As a compromise, a player can enter tactical combat but at some point click the "resolve combat" button to make the software finish the combat.
Players must use troop ships to invade enemy colonies. They cannot control ground combat: the result depends on the number and level of units on each side. But they see a display of the units used by each side and how many survive after each ground combat turn. A medium-sized troop ship with the highest level of troop quarters can carry several times more troops than a planet can use for its defense. Troops are re-usable and in fact leaving them on a newly conquered planet makes the population riot for longer, so it is usual for a troop ship to re-load its troops immediately and it can then invade another planet.
Troop ships can try to invade a planet before all its defenders (ships, orbital bases, planetary missile bases) have been eliminated, but this involves 2 risks: the troop transports may be destroyed before they drop their troops; and the defending ships or orbital bases may fire on a conquered planet, even if the attacking combat ships have not been eliminated (in this situation ground combat interrupts space combat, which resumes after ground combat has finished). On the other hand it enables unescorted troop ships to invade undefended colonies.
Users and AI players must design their races at the start of each game - there are no pre-defined races; however, users can save race designs for later use.
Race design consists of specifying how many advantages each race is allowed and then choosing advantages - there are no disadvantages and no system of assigning different costs to different advantages.
The Racial Advantages menu offers 19 options:
- Double the normal population growth rate.
- 20% more construction points per turn.
- 20% more research points per turn.
- 20% more intelligence points per turn.
- Planetary space yards build/repair twice as many components per turn as normal. In practice, this means that starships and bases are built and/or repaired twice as quickly as normal.
- Ship maintenance costs are halved.
- Ships can operate for 25% longer without resupply.
- Colonists are not affected by plagues (random events or biological weapons).
- Half the risk of bad random events.
- Do not need spaceports to order to contribute construction, research or intelligence points to the empire. This means the first colony in a new system is able to deliver points to the empire a few turns earlier and can have one more building of some other type. Without this advantage, the only way to mitigate the effect of spaceport construction is to bring more population to the new colony to increase build speed.
- Colonists become happy twice as fast.
- Ships get 1 additional movement point. This also has an effect on space combat mobility - "propulsion" experts get an additional square of combat movement at the 1st and 3rd levels of ship speed, but have no mobility advantage if both they and enemy ships are at the 2nd or 4th levels.
- Can see the entire galaxy at the start of the game.
- Can build 20% extra buildings on a colony.
- Colonies can build space ships and orbital bases at 50M population rather than 100M.
- 20% bonus in ground combat.
- 20% bonus for fighters in space combat.
- 20% bonus for ships in space combat.
- Can store 50% more surplus construction points than normal.
Starting a game
The normal process of starting a new game uses 10 "screens": general characteristics of the galaxy; frequency and severity of random events; research costs, forbidden techs and adjustments to ship sizes; various "game balance" factors including number of racial advantages per empire; initial placement and size of empires; definition of player's empire (e.g. its name); racial advantage selection; number of empires and difficulty level; victory conditions; management options for multi-player games. It is not possible to save any of these start-up options for use in later games and they do not default to the values used in the last game.
There is also a "quick start" option, which is only available when you start the program.
Many of the game's facilities can be accessed by several routes, and there is room to describe only a few of these routes here.
The main screen is a multiple document interface window which contains the following "child" windows:
- Map of the System which is currently selected. If the player has visited the system, this map shows the star, planets and warp points (wormholes) it contains; if any of the player's or allied empires' colonies or ships are present, it also shows details of all fleets and colonies in the systems. This is the only child window which cannot be maximized.
- Ships in the selected sector (square) of the selected system. If they are the player's ships or of designs which the payer has met in combat, the player can display their designs. The player can issue orders to his / her own ships, including refitting or scrapping them if they are at a colony which is large enough to build ships. This window can be maximized.
- Map of the galaxy, which is scrollable and zoomable. It shows all systems and warp point connections between them which the player or an ally has used. It can be used to search for and center on any system explored by the player or an ally, and clicking on a system selects it for display in the System window. This window can be maximized.
- Details of the selected sector in the System window - its main use is to display details of planets. This window can be maximized.
The main screen also provides buttons and menus which access most of the game facilities which are not provided directly from the child windows:
- Save game, load game, start new game, set autosave options.
- Ship design menu, list of known enemy designs (with option to show details of a selected design), Combat Simulator and screen to define tactics to be used in strategic (automated) combat.
- Various types of report:
- Ship components, including brief details of weapons; more detailed weapons report; the capabilities of buildings; the capabilities of fighters and ground units.
- Ships List and Planets List (player's colonies), which are described below.
- List of all known planets, from which the player can order a colony ship of the right type (atmosphere) to colonize vacant planets.
- Known minefields.
- Systems which the player's ships should avoid when finding their own routes for long journeys. This contains a facility for adding and removing restrictions.
- Empire-wide options and summary reports (e.g. number of ships of each size).
- "End turn" button.
- Management of child windows.
- The empire's construction points budget - surplus inherited from the last turn, points generated in this turn, amount being spent this turn on ships and planet-based construction, amount available to be spent on construction of new ships.
- Ordering the construction of new ships.
- Allocating research points to research projects.
- Allocating intelligence points to espionage, sabotage and defense against enemy agents.
- The diplomacy screen.
- The order in which ship's components should be constructed or repaired.
- The construction / repair queues every shipyard (both those installed an ships and bases and those which are available at no charge at planet that have large enough populations).
- Options to control the game's mechanics and what events are reported before the start of each turn.
- The Event Log (start of turn report; see below).
Most of the game's other facilities are modal pop-up windows created by selecting options from the menu or toolbar buttons; except that the Event Log is displayed automatically at the start to each turn.
The Planets List (player's colonies) has 4 display options, including what each colony is currently building (on the ground) and how many construction, research and intelligence points it is contributing to the empire. It can be sorted in various ways, depending on the display option selected, and can be used to access a colony's build menu.
The Ships List (not the Ships window) has 5 display options, including each ship's current orders and how soon it will need resupply. It can be sorted in various ways, depending on the display option selected, and can be used to access the sector in which a ship is located - this causes the fleet at that location to be shown in the Ships window, and the player can then give orders to any ship(s) in the fleet.
The contents of the Event Log (start of turn report) can vary depending on options selected by the player. Each event reported links to an appropriate control screen, for example an item reporting that a building has been completed links to the planet's build menu and a report that a ship has been built or repaired links to the fleet containing that ship.
Design and construction screens have "Hide obsolete" options, so that you don't accidentally construct an obsolete ship, ground unit or building.
Customizing the game
The game's developers supply an editor which can: add or change cosmetic items such as ship icons; edit the technology tree to add, remove or change ship components, buildings, ground troops, fighters, and space mines.