11
Dec
11

VGA Planets for DOS

Race main screen

Race main screen

In the early to late 90’s my older brother used to buy shareware magazines with disks attached. Because of where we lived and being kids didn’t really have the cash to buy commercial games, we used to rely on the shareware disks for having new games to play. One such game was VGA planets, a play by email game for DOS released in 1991. It is one of the first four X games to become successful and is even still played today despite it’s age. My brothers and I didn’t have access to BBS or the internet at the time so we had to play amongst ourselves, and like most of the shareware games we could not get the registered version (until we grew up at least anyway). We played for quite a while under a number of scenarios, but never really finished many games or had many battles because of the length of time required to play a full game in the shareware version.

The Game Play

Ship Screen

Ship Screen

The game is quite simple to play but very difficult to master. So much so that there are many websites and guides dedicated to various strategies and economics involved in running a successful empire. You control three different types of entities in the game, star ships, planets and starbases. Star ships are how you project power across the cluster, you can ship materials, fight other vessels, take over planets and perform many other types of missions. Planets are the economic power house of your empire, providing raw materials and money to build and supply star ships. The starbases are for building and maintaining star ships, they also add extra defense to a planet in the case of a star ship attacking. In the early stages of a game it is pretty easy to perform all the necessary tasks to build and expand you empire. As your empire grows it becomes more difficult to manage, and much more time consuming. This is mostly because of the effort it takes to manage a larger number of planets, the economy of each one needs to be managed closely to get the most out of them. Star ships are not as hard to manage in numbers, but like planets each one needs your attention to make sure they are supplied and carrying out appropriate missions. Star bases require the least management in my experience, the main decisions related to the bases involve how much technology you plan on investing in, how much you wish to invest in defense, and how much to invest in building and supplying ships.

Shareware V’s Registered

Starbase Screen

Starbase Screen

The shareware version of VGA planets has some limitations as compared to the registered version. The main one being that you cannot upgrade your technology to the highest level. This radically changes how the game is played. In the shareware edition you are very limited in what components can be put into star ships and what star ships can be built. The slower engines mean your empire cannot grow as large as fast, it is more difficult to hide, shipping takes a lot longer, and the dynamics of how combat is achieved is different. The lesser weapons mean that ships you can build are less effective in combat, and the limit on ship types you can build means it is much more difficult to take out enemy colonies. You can get around these limitations to a degree if you are lucky enough to have a starbase where natives will boost your technology to the maximum for you. This does mean there is a bit of a element of luck involved in what kinds of ships and weapons you can use, and the worlds with natives become even more valuable than otherwise. The registered version plays as a much faster game, your ships can move faster if you can afford the engines, and you can build your larger warships without having to go to as much effort. The elements it changes the most are the types of ships in your fleets, and the worlds that are considered valuable are different. Natives are still an important part of what makes a planet valuable, but materials are important as they are need to build larger ships. All the online games between human players are using the registered version as far as I know, so if you intend to play online you’ll want to get the registered version.

The Client

Torpedo Construction

Torpedo Construction

The DOS client is pleasing graphically, but lacks functions that allow you to automate common tasks such as building factories on planets. It can become tedious quite quickly as you have to perform every single task manually, this can be quite time consuming. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as often performing the tasks manually yields a better result. The downside of the DOS client is that it doesn’t provide as much information as other clients do. This means you either need to find a better client or additional tools to make the DOS client competitive. Fortunately there are other clients available that do a better job such as the windows version called winplan, and the fan written planets control centre.

Artificial Intelligence

Fighter Construction

Fighter Construction

This is something that is missing from the game, but has been written as an add-on by various people. The best registered AI player that I know of is Spacelord. There are a few others, very few of which support playing as the shareware player. This has prompted me to write my own AI called Romulus. My main aim is to make a player for shareware players to practise against until they are ready to play the registered version with human players. This is proving to be a difficult task. I’ve implemented many features so far, including rudimentary diplomacy which none of the other AI’s provide. Romulus is still very much in the experimental stages however, and can be beaten easily by a competent human player.

Links

Here are some useful websites that you may need if you intend to be a good planets player.

Donovan’s VGA Planets site is useful for strategy guides and find information to guide your strategy.

VGA Planets Calculator is useful for predicting whats going to happen using formula from the game.

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