"SLDS 3: The Agreed Border Treaty" by Scott Phelps 1997 Any

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SLDS 3 : The Agreed Border Alliance

by: Scott Phelps

The Agreed Borders Alliance or treaty is one of the most common in Stars! and other multiplayer strategy games. In its simplest form this treaty is an agreement by the players involved that "I won't cross this line if you don't". Pretty simple and straightforward, but fertile ground for abuse.

The most extreme case of abuse of this treaty that I have ever heard of comes from Jeff McBride concerning the beta tests of the first version of Stars!. There was a feature in the race wizard (done away with in 2.5) called "jump start". This disadvantage gave a number of small advantages, including several starting ships--at least one of which was another starting scout that started in orbit of the planet NEAREST your homeworld. So you started with a free scan of a second planet and a full fuel tank some distance from home. The 'catch' was that the location of your Homeworld was known to all players from 2400 on. Remember, there was no homeworld mineral concentration floor back in those days. Still knowing the location, from the beginning of the game, of your opponents can be a considerable advantage, as this story will illustrate. During the beta test an experienced player found himself in a game with a bunch of new players. All of the new players had chosen the 'jump start' disadvantage. The experienced player did not. When 2400 was received, the experienced player was stunned by the number of homeworlds he saw--all of them! With map at hand he proceeded to send ingame mail to one of the other players. He politely introduced himself, pointed out that his homeworld was reasonably close to that player's homeworld and proposed a border treaty between himself and the fellow he was addressing, so as to avoid an expensive early war. He repeated this same basic msg, with a different location for his supposed homeworld and so different border, to EACH other player in the game. Within a few years he had negotiated borders with all of the other players, essentially hemming them into small areas bordered by the agreed to lines and proximity to the other players. By the time the other players realized they had been duped, the experienced player had established colonies throughout half the galaxy!

Such cases are amusing for the very extremeness that makes them unlikely in normal play (not to mention impossible if using 2.5 or better). But it does illustrate some of the care that should be taken with this sort of treaty. For example, the quality of your scans of the area between your homeworld and your proposed ally's homeworld is very important. If you and your ally have even slightly different habitability ranges, then it is frequently desirable wiggle the boundary drawing to accommodate, so that planets that are very good for one player and not so good for the other wind up on the correct side of the boundary. Not only do you want to get the good stuff for yourself, you DON'T want your ally sitting there looking at a beautiful paradise of a planet just sitting a few ly on the wrong side of the border. That is a natural and constant temptation to him to break the treaty, not good! To even discuss this intelligently, you must have good scans of both the proposed border and the planets that lie close to it. What if the planet you really want is far from the border--worse is right next to your ally's homeworld? Forget about it! If its near the border, but your ally really does not want to give it to you for whatever reason, then try to negotiate for several lesser planets instead, or offer him several lesser planets on your side of the border for the one good planet. A planet whose habitability % is only about half as good as another planets, the poorer planet will only grow at about one fourth the rate of the better planet (assuming the same size small initial colony is deployed, no supplements made, relatively even mineral distributions, etc). Bearing that in mind, two half as good planets are not as good as one planet. But since the two poorer planets will eventually have the same number of mines, colonists and factories as the poorer planet, 4 half as good planets would probaby be asking too much in exchange for one good planet. Again, all other things being equal, I would generally swap three half as good planets for one good planet. And I would do either side of that deal. Similarly, if he wants a planet that you just can't let him have, try to offer him something else. At least make it look like you're trying to be accommodating.

Remember that the heart of creating successful negotiations is to provide the other guy a win-win situation without compromising your own gains. The best alliances, of any type, are those based on mutual gain. Be wary of the temptation to pull a fast one on your ally. He will likely uncover the deception eventually, and is likely to be your enemy rather than your ally thereafter. Similarly, keep in mind your own goals that led you to propose the alliance in the first place. Don't give away so much that you wind up resenting the alliance. It would just be best to call it off if you can't get a good enough deal.

Try to make certain that your proposed ally is not running a wormhole operation on you. That is, that he is not streaming into the area under discussion by way of a wormhole and his real forces are a long way off. This is a useful delaying tactic for exploiting a wormhole and you must be vigilant to avoid falling for it. The point is that once the wormhole goes away, the wormhole exploiter must rely on his forces in the area and cannot build new ones until one or more planets get developed enough to build at least a space dock and some ships. This is a sham because the agreed borders treaty is usually predicated upon the fact that it is easy to defend places that are closer to your own homeworld than to your opponent's. But if there are no developed planets in the area, then the planets on the other side of the proposed border are really much more vulnerable than they might otherwise appear. Of course, if you are the one exploiting the wormhole, it is a great tactic to use yourself. Just pop out, find a good colony or two. Try to set one up as a fake major planet (the sooner you can make this a real major planet, the better) and then negotiate borders as you find neighbors while you try to fill in the unsettled areas you want. Sure, they'll be pissed when they find out your homeworld is nowhere near, but hopefully you will be well developed enough by then to be able to hold most of your territory. In fact, you will frequently find yourself 'sandwiching' one opponent with forces on two sides of his empire. In such situations, I would usually not try to negotiate with the fellow so bounded. Just eliminate him! Of course you may need help. But then if you aren't allying with this guy, there should be someone else you are allied with. Remember, you can't go it alone. You may be able to win solo, but you will always need some form of help to do that.

Wormhole abuse is pretty rare, I think. I did have an interesting experience in a game (ironically) named Wormhole, where I started near the middle of the western map edge. There was a sort of natural boundary with a big gap of stars running north to south for almost half the length of the map, that separated me from the central and eastern parts of the map. I encountered a race to my north in the first 10 years and made peace with him. Then around 2414 as I was nearing the southern edge of the map, I started scanning ships coming from the the SW corner. Some of the ships seemed to be coming from a place where there were no planets. I concluded that this was a case of wormhole exploitation. That opponent did nothing for about the next 20 turns to convince me that no, that was where he actually started. I set out to remove him from the area, and it worked out well for me, since he had submitted the wrong race file and was doing VERY poorly. Since I had plenty of room, I would probably have negotiated borders with him if he had just asked and shown me that the SW corner was his real start location. As it was I came very close to a solo win in this 7 or 8 player game with public player scores, and did wipe out the guy in the SW corner and until I forced a draw on the remaining players, I had had no more than one very light treaty with one other player. I don't think I would have done that well if the guy in the SW corner had not essentially encouraged me to attack him early.

To me the most interesting pitfall in agreed borders alliances is boxing in a player. Having a player get boxed in does not usually happen in the first negotiated borders or two, but frequently winds up as a result of a series of agreements which have the overall affect of boxing in one or more players.

First a simple illustration: Imagine 3 players in a largish galaxy with many other players. For the moment we will only consider these three: A, B and C.

A              B


With A in the NW corner and much more galaxy and many other players to the the South and East, beyond players B and C.

Suppose you are player A. Then it would behoove you to arrange an alliance with either B or C, possibly even including agreed borders. But do not make an agreement with both of them. If you do, you have just boxed yourself in. You have nowhere to grow to. Unless you can somehow meet the victory conditions before anyone else, w/o expanding beyond your current boundaries, you are doomed.

So you want to ally with B or C and try to take the other one out. Presumably B will help you kill C or C will help you kill B. Let's suppose that it is C you are allied with against B. While prosecuting that war, both you and C will be racing to grab planets (assuming you are winning). You need to be careful here that C does not extend his border all the way to the northern map edge--cutting you off. In most cases, if such an entrapment is imminent, just pointing out the potential problem is enough to get your ally to let you maintain a route for expansion. For most game settings, you must expand to win. Since both you and your ally realize this, he would generally prefer you to try to expand through someone else rather than him. Even if it means giving up some planets he would rather have.

If you should find yourself trapped behind a B C alliance, then seek allies among their neighbors. The unfortunate part about this, is that even if successful, you are likely to find yourself trapped behind your new allies' borders. But then you will have a lot more territory, warships, etc at hand, so you will be better equipped to handle the problem by force, if necesssary.

The flip side of this is the one I see missed most often. If you are B and have agreed to borders with C (or vice versa) and then discover someone in the A position, make no lasting agreements with A, unless you intend to break one of those two agreements. You may wish to stall A for awhile, while you and your ally build up, but sooner or later A will realize that to grow, he must go through you or your ally. If he is lucky enough to find another neighbor of yours (or two!) who wants some of your holdings (or just doesn't like you), then you will be in serious trouble. Hit him first and hit him hard! And get your ally to help, it is every bit as much his problem as yours.

Remember what I said earlier about negotiating working well only when both sides gain. Be careful when drawing borders, especially late in the game when dividing up territory gained from an enemy with your allies, don't let yourself be hemmed in and don't allow your greed to blind you into hemming in an ally you need to keep. Once you hem him in, it is only a matter of time before he becomes your enemy. If that is what you want and are planning for, fine--go for it. Just don't accidentally convert an ally into an enemy in this way.

You might think I've beaten this particular alliance type to death. Unfortunately, not even close. I have worn out my wrists from typing though and so will stop here. Besides, I have covered most of what *I* consider to be the main considerations in these alliances. There is still much to say about monitoring, maintaining, extending and breaking these alliances, but I will leave that for someone else and/or another time.

Scott Phelps