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Geoff Hollis
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I bought Eminent Domain on a whim; I was out looking for A Few Acres of Snow (which was nowhere to be found). I saw this game. The cover caught my eye, as did the title (Having recently started watching The Riches on Netflix). I quickly popped onto BGG, saw the rank, and skimmed through a couple reviews. The big selling point for me was that it was suggested "best with 3 players"; I am getting my girlfriend into boardgames, and her roomate plays with us as well. We've recently tired out of Agricola, so I made an impulse buy and grabbed Eminent Domain.

I have been pleasantly surprised by this game. Although my girlfriend hasn't played with us yet, her roomate and I have logged about a dozen games in the past week. It strikes me that this game will play very differently as a 3-4 player game, so I am going to focus on the mechanical details that appear to be independent of player number.

This is Not a Dominion Clone

After reading the rulebook, the first thing I thought was "ohh, this is RftG meets Dominion". And although it did appear this way for the first couple games, I now think this was largely a newbie misperception.

The important difference is that, whereas in Dominion your deck gets more effective as you add cards to it, in EmDo it feels as if your deck gets less effective as you add cards to it. Whereas in Dominion you are choosing cards you want to be able to use later, in EmDo you are choosing cards you want to use now, and have to suffer with the fact that you will have to deal with them again later.

I have started refering to my deck as my beaurocracy, because I think the word nicely captures the concept of "the more you use it, the more stagnant it becomes". This is a very cool mechanic that adds a surprising amount of depth to the decisions of playing a card as an action, utilizing a card to boost a role, or hoping to save a card to follow someone else who leads a role.

I really hate Dominion, but I love this game. Although they superficially seem to share a similar mechanic, the deck mechanic in these two games serve completely different purposes.

RftG for People who Like Player Interaction

I like RftG and can usually be convinced to play it. However, it doesn't scratch my player-interaction itch. For me, this game fills the "space conquest" niche that attracts me to RftG, but it also additionally fills a player-interaction desire that RftG severely fails at. This game does everything for me that RftG does, but also fills the additional, very important, duty of satisfying my player-interaction desires. I do not forsee myself playing RftG ever again.

That said, the player interaction in this game is very very subtle. It took me a few playthroughs to begin to scratch the surface. There are constantly important decisions to make about whether to lead warfare, survey, and colonize roles or wait for your opponent to take these roles, and following them. Following, as opposed to leading, means not adding an extra card to your deck. Keeping your deck thin is crucial to doing well in this game.

This is very much an 'opponent-modelling' game. A non-trivial part of your performance in this game depends on how well you can anticipate your opponent's actions. If I had to put numbers to it, I'd say about 70% of this game is playing your cards, and 30% of the game is playing your opponent.

Quick and Clean

The rulebook is short and concise. I read it once in about 15 minutes and haven't even had to go back to it for reference. The symbology is excellent. Card function and requirements are very transparent. Setup time is short (about 2 minutes), and gameplay is quick (2-player, we are finishing a game in 20-30 minutes now). I think this would be an ideal iOS port that would shine as a syncronous multiplayer game -- much better than the multiplayer cruft that has appeared on the iOS over the past few months. It would have to be built for syncronous play though. Turns are too short and interdependent to work well as an asyncronous game.

Stagnates at the End (2 players)

We felt as if the 2-player version of the game goes on for about 10-15 turns too many. Often the last 25-30% of the game is simply playing out a foregone conclusion. This is very easy to remedy, thankfully. We have begun taking out 4 cards from each deck during setup. Our final scores have dropped from the 60-70's to the 30's, and games feel much closer and emotionally tense now. I would highly suggest this modification for anyone who plans on playing the game 2-player. I cannot speak for the 3-player or 4-player version of the game.

Planet Types Appear Meaningless

There are 5 planet types in this game. Three of them are tied to their own distinct research tracks and, thematically, *seem* to fall into the categories of 1) expansionist worlds, 2) research worlds, 3) production worlds, 4) VP worlds, and 5) utopia worlds (a little bit of everything).

I have had issues with this setup. First, the linkage between planet type and research options is not expressed very well. This is largely due to the fact that the tier-1 technologies share overlap with each other (6 techs, each of the planet types gives access to 4 of the 6). I constantly have to dig through the research techs to figure out what I can get access to with my tableau. This game would benefit (in terms of comprehesibility, if not in terms of mechanics) from research tracks with less overlap -- for instance, each of the 3 basic planet types have access to 2 of the 6 tier-1 techs. I do not know if this would mess with the game mechanics, but it would certainly make survey decisions feel much more meaningful.

Second, it is not clear if there are any long-term consequences for choosing one type of planet over another when surveying. It seems as if there should be, but even after a dozen or so plays, I still simply choose planets based on the conquer/colonize costs. I regularly pick up 4 planets, look them all over, and sigh because I never feel like there is a compelling reason to choose one over another, except that it will be more or less expensive to acquire. This feels like a major failing in the game. However, I also suspect it would be possible to remedy with a good expansion.

Starting World Appears Meaningless

Same as above. Getting dealt one starting planet over another does not seem to have any meaningful consequences. We have opted to modify the starting worlds as follows:

Metallic 1: 1 ore, + 1 warfare symbol added
Metallic 2: 1 ore, + 1 colonize symbol added
Fertile 1: 1 water, + 1 grain resource added
Fertile 2: 1 grain, + 1 hand size added
Advanced 1: 1 resource, + 1 trade added
Advanced 2: 1 resource, + 1 production added

First Few Turns Feel Arbitrary

Once your empire begins acquiring planet bonuses for boosts, and you've managed to pull off a few important follow actions, action/role decisions become difficult and very important. However, since starting worlds are relatively undifferentiated and there are multiple, viable paths to victory (so far each of us has won off tech, colony, warfare, production, and hybrid strategies), your first couple turns feel sort of arbitrary. Although I do not think this impacts the strategic value of the game, it does put me off a little bit.

Long but Gradual Learning Curve

One of the best and worst features of this game is its learning curve. It is long and gradual. I have a new insight each time I play this game, and am constantly uncovering neat little subtleties that get my brain juices flowing. At no point along the way have I felt like I have become qualitatively better at the game. Rather, it is a continual, gradual learning process.

Because of this, I think this game will end up having immense replay value. I suspect it also means this game would be a huge drag to play with people of varying skill gaps. This is just a suspicion, however. I intend to introduce it to a few friends this weekend. We'll see how it goes.

Expansion Ideas

EmDo is begging for a way to differentiate game starts. I think a new batch of start worlds with clearer biases is worth considering. However, what I think would really do this game well is something like a "political atmosphere" deck of 10-15 cards, where some number (2-3) are randomly flipped over at the start of the game, augmenting game rules.

Examples:

Red Alert Status: Planets take 1 extra ship to conquer.
Fierce Independants: Planets take 1 extra colony to settle.
Bulk Trader Emporium: Every 2 resources of the same type simultaneously traded provides an extra victory point.
Sanctioned Raiding: Planets take 1 fewer colony to settle, but ships may be sacrificed to prevent an opponent from placing a colony on a planet.
Blockades: All trade roles are boosted by 1, but ships may be sacrificed to reduce the number of victory points an opponent receives from a trade role.

Rating

BGG rating assigned: 8 / 10
Player interaction: 9 / 10
Quality of Mechanics: 10 / 10
Transparency of Mechanics: 4 / 10
Replay Value: 9 / 10
Symbology: 10 / 10

Overall I rate this game 8/10 with the footnote that, with some changes (well suited for an expansion), this game could easily be a 10/10 for me (which I have never assigned before). I would not be surprised if it made the top-20 with a good expansion that fleshed the game out.

Final Verdict

I have given games higher ratings than EmDo. However, I think EmDo has a ton of room for growth. For this reason, I will be keeping a close eye on it and hoping for the best.

If you like RftG but desire more player interaction, I feel as if this game is a must-own. If you like games with interesting and deep mechanics, I feel as if this game is a must-own. If you are passionate about deckbuilding games, I suspect you will be annoyingly disappointed.
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Kenny VenOsdel
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Nice review and I think you will be "pleasantly surprised" by some of the things in forthcoming expansions so keep your eyes open!

Quote:
I have started refering to my deck as my beaurocracy, because I think the word nicely captures the concept of "the more you use it, the more stagnant it becomes". This is a very cool mechanic that adds a surprising amount of depth to the decisions of playing a card as an action, utilizing a card to boost a role, or hoping to save a card to follow someone else who leads a role.


I call it "Specialization" because the more you do something the better you get at it doing it, but over specializing in one area causes you to drag as a whole. I also agree with the concept that the cards you gain every turn end up being something you need to work around.

Quote:
Stagnates at the End (2 players)


I agree here as well. Sometimes what I do is remove the starting hands of 2 other players (so 2 Warfare and 4 of the rest). WIth one of my buddies we just play casually anyway and we let the game go longer. The 2-player game is its own beast compared to 3 or 4, and you are playing 3 player extended right? (two stacks) In my mind that's as good as it gets.

As to the tier 1 techs if you look close you will see that the crossover is very specific and interesting. In general, Fertile tech relates to production and colonizing, but the level 1 tech for those kinds of actions is found in the metallic and advanced deck. The same is true of metallic's relationship to warfare and survey, and advanced's relationship to research and trade. All 3 planet types have 2 different symbols possible to find on that type, and level 2 tech that is in general related to those symbols, but their level 1 techs are related to symbols for other planet types. Very often what's more distinctive is the icon that accompanies a tech card as well.

The first few turns are definitely the least diverse as far as general actions go. You'll find that if you focus on coming out of the first several turns focusing on either having the most planets surveyed or being the first to research you will be ahead. This should be your focus, but as to how to go about it I'll leave it up to you. (one thing in general that I do sometimes is try to survey 3-4 times before even starting to Colonize/Attack, this gives you a sense of where the game will go for you. I've also heard of people stockpiling armies before they start surveying and then being able to attack 3 or 4 in a row).

Welcome to EmDo though and I'm glad you like it! I think more people need to join us since this game is so wonderful!
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Cole Busse
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hollis wrote:
RftG for People who Like Player Interaction
I enjoy the player interaction in EmDo a lot and it is very very subtle. It's a nice change from more direct conflict games, if your into those. But, other then the theme, for me I don't think EmDo is at all like race - and that's a good thing b/c I ever really got into race.
 
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Nice review. A couple of comments.....

1) From your description of how your games are going, are you sure you're using the right game-ending conditions? With 2 players, it's only 1 stack of roles or the VP chips depleted to end the game. That....should not take all that long, unless both players are going with a VERY general strategy and not focusing on taking the same role(s) frequently.

2) If you are not concentrating on planet types that much, I think you may not be getting deep enough into the tech cards, which can drastically alter your game.

3) The first few turns are far from arbitrary, they're where you start culling your deck of things you're not going for and where you start establishing your strategy for the game (and trying to pick up on what your opponent(s) are going for this game).

As for the house rules, whatever makes the game more fun for you, have fun. Just realize the shift in game balance which happens for each one of those rules. For example, making the starting planets stronger means that there's not much of a choice anymore of if you're going to actually flip that starting planet. It's now much stronger than most any other planet you'll get in the game.
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Geoff Hollis
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kvenosdel wrote:
The 2-player game is its own beast compared to 3 or 4, and you are playing 3 player extended right? (two stacks) In my mind that's as good as it gets.


So far my games have exclusively been 2 player. I will likely get some 3- and 4- player games in this weekend. Yes, we will be playing 3 player extended. I am very much looking forward to seeing how my play changes from 2 player.

kvenosdel wrote:
As to the tier 1 techs if you look close you will see that the crossover is very specific and interesting. In general, Fertile tech relates to production and colonizing, but the level 1 tech for those kinds of actions is found in the metallic and advanced deck. The same is true of metallic's relationship to warfare and survey, and advanced's relationship to research and trade.


This is what I suspected, though I haven't lined the cards up to compare yet. Mechanically I have no gripes with this, but the presentation is awkward. The fact that I still have to go back to the tech piles and look over the tier-1 techs every time I want to research one to make sure I have the correct planet for it makes me think this aspect of the game could have used more finessing.

Originally we had sorted the tier 1 techs by type (improved survey, research, etc...) like the back of the rulebook depicts them. Now we are sorting them by planet class (metallic, fertile, advanced). This helps, but it is still awkward.

Jared Greenberg wrote:
1) From your description of how your games are going, are you sure you're using the right game-ending conditions? With 2 players, it's only 1 stack of roles or the VP chips depleted to end the game. That....should not take all that long, unless both players are going with a VERY general strategy and not focusing on taking the same role(s) frequently.


Yes, we are using the correct game-end conditions. I think in our first few games, we were playing very generalist. Our strategies in the last 8 or so games have been much more focused.

Whether or not the game is quick when you are playing veteran/expert strategies, I cannot say. I would not consider us either of these things yet. However, it is certainly the case that the game allows for matches to go well beyond what they need to to decide a winner when using a specific subset of strategies that, by my experience, seem to be the most obvious ones to new players.

Perhaps as our skill level improves, we will find a need to put the last 4 cards back in each of the decks but, at the time we decided on trying the change, it overwhelmingly improved our experience with the game.

Jared Greenberg wrote:
2) If you are not concentrating on planet types that much, I think you may not be getting deep enough into the tech cards, which can drastically alter your game.


I suspect that you are right. My feeling is that the techs are not well-presented for new players, and this probably contributes to our tech-related decisions. Perhaps I will write a second review after I get a couple dozen more games under my belt, and my knowledge of the game's intricacies refines.

Jared Greenberg wrote:
3) The first few turns are far from arbitrary, they're where you start culling your deck of things you're not going for and where you start establishing your strategy for the game (and trying to pick up on what your opponent(s) are going for this game).


I don't mean arbitrary in the sense that my decisions have no impact on my later play. Far from it. They hugely determine my later play, and that is obvious, and very well handled.

What I mean is that there does not seem to be a strong reason to go one route (heavy survey early, stockpile military) vs. another (colonize, research + deck control). I always feel like I am rolling the dice as to what type of strategy I decide to use at the very beginning instead of making an informed choice.

Initial strategies seem largely independent of your starting world and opening hand. My feeling is that the game needs some stronger nudges present at the beginning of the game.

Jared Greenberg wrote:
As for the house rules, whatever makes the game more fun for you, have fun. Just realize the shift in game balance which happens for each one of those rules.


Indeed. We are aware. So far, these changes have been overwhelmingly positive to the playing experience. However, I suspect we will revisit the unaugmented game once we get some more experience to see how things change with more sophisticated strategies.

Jared Greenberg wrote:
For example, making the starting planets stronger means that there's not much of a choice anymore of if you're going to actually flip that starting planet. It's now much stronger than most any other planet you'll get in the game.


Could you give me an example of a situation where you wouldn't want to flip your starting planet during a game? Starting planets are the most efficient source of victory points, and I've yet to encounter a game where I haven't had 2 spare fighters laying around, or a dead colonize card in my hand at *some point* before game end.
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Kenny VenOsdel
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hollis wrote:

Could you give me an example of a situation where you wouldn't want to flip your starting planet during a game?


I've had this happen several times. Mostly it happens if I end up surveying a better planet in a different stack first and choose that route. I may not ever come back to my starting planet because my actions and roles are more effectively used elsewhere. I'll sometimes even dump as many colonies onto a start planet to quickly get them out of my deck and then never flip it so its like a large Research action.

Quote:
Starting planets are the most efficient source of victory points


This is only true if your only consideration is number of cards played or number of symbols used. Your efficiency with your deck is quite important and a starting planet only provides you with 2 points for a single action/role not to mention the time it took to put the colonies there (which can be minimal). Compare that to a Prestige planet that gives you 6 points for single action/role and possibly the same amount of time to load up as a starting planet and you have a much less efficient point production.

Think of your actions and roles as a resource in themselves, one that you aren't guaranteed a certain amount of. The efficiency with which you utilize these will have just as great an effect, if not greater, as the efficiency with which you use your cards. (though both are deeply connected to each other)
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hollis wrote:
Yes, we are using the correct game-end conditions. I think in our first few games, we were playing very generalist. Our strategies in the last 8 or so games have been much more focused.

Whether or not the game is quick when you are playing veteran/expert strategies, I cannot say. I would not consider us either of these things yet. However, it is certainly the case that the game allows for matches to go well beyond what they need to to decide a winner when using a specific subset of strategies that, by my experience, seem to be the most obvious ones to new players.


Very true. It took quite a few plays before it finally "clicked" for me and I started to really realize that by the types of planets I got early on, what strategy to go, when I was trying to run things out, when I was trying to extend them, when (and more importantly, HOW) to properly trade/produce quickly, etc.

hollis wrote:
My feeling is that the techs are not well-presented for new players, and this probably contributes to our tech-related decisions. Perhaps I will write a second review after I get a couple dozen more games under my belt, and my knowledge of the game's intricacies refines.


It's....tough. If you're new, the game invites AP when trying to figure out all the cards, and then not only what you're doing, but what everyone else is doing. Until you reach a point where you at least have a good idea of what you're looking to get tech-wise and the pace of the game, you're going to spend a LOT of time looking through the stacks of tech cards.

hollis wrote:
What I mean is that there does not seem to be a strong reason to go one route (heavy survey early, stockpile military) vs. another (colonize, research + deck control). I always feel like I am rolling the dice as to what type of strategy I decide to use at the very beginning instead of making an informed choice.

Initial strategies seem largely independent of your starting world and opening hand. My feeling is that the game needs some stronger nudges present at the beginning of the game.


If you Settle your first planet and then decide to go Warfare, that's not going to really slow you down long-term (or if you use your one Warfare card to follow Warfare a couple of times and then flip your start planet, while building up other stuff).

Starting planet, your first Survey, and what you do with your Politics card are really where you decide. If you can match your starting planet and first Surveyed planet (or Utopian for your first Survey), then you have a pretty clear path to tier 2 tech cards in that area and can aim accordingly. If you don't get a match.....then maybe the symbols on the planets push you in a direction.

Regardless, your first few turns are figuring out what strat the game wants you to play, realizing it as quickly as possible, and then heavily investing in that area.

hollis wrote:
Could you give me an example of a situation where you wouldn't want to flip your starting planet during a game? Starting planets are the most efficient source of victory points, and I've yet to encounter a game where I haven't had 2 spare fighters laying around, or a dead colonize card in my hand at *some point* before game end.


As mentioned, Actions/Roles are as much (if not more) of a resource as symbols. With a good engine going, you don't need more than 1 action to get enough fighters/colonies to flip a planet, so you're more concerned with using your action/role to do so.

An example would be if you start off with a Fertile planet, a couple of people call Survey (which you can follow), and you end up with a Metallic planet each time. At that point, you probably want to focus on flipping those Metallic ones and getting cards to go that route. Maybe later in the game, if you have nothing better to flip, you'll do so, but you'll want to flip those others first for the tech cards.
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Seth Jaffee
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Great write up - I'm really glad you're enjoying Eminent Domain!

hollis wrote:
We have opted to modify the starting worlds as follows:

Metallic 1: 1 ore, + 1 warfare symbol added
Metallic 2: 1 ore, + 1 colonize symbol added
Fertile 1: 1 water, + 1 grain resource added
Fertile 2: 1 grain, + 1 hand size added
Advanced 1: 1 resource, + 1 trade added
Advanced 2: 1 resource, + 1 production added


I strongly advise against this. At one point in development, the starting planets did have symbols on them. That was disappointing though, because it means the obvious best first move is to flip your Start planet - reducing the value of Surveying in the early game.

I much prefer the current rules where, at times, the first planet you flip is NOT your start planet - for the reason that the non-Start planets are better - they have a symbol on them.

Start planets (no symbol) allow you to do Research, regular planets give you abilities (AND help you do research).

And speaking of research...

Each planet type has a flavor - two roles that type is "good at." If you were to examine the tech stacks (and yes - they should be stacked by planet type!), or as you'll learn over time, there are Level 2 cards which define or support certain strategies. Knowing that they exist, and building a strategy to utilize them, is really the meat of the game.

Since Level 2 techs require 2 of the same type of planet, I think you'll find it does matter which planets you take - you must decide which bonuses you want, what type of research you want access to, and perhaps how many points the planet is worth, and what it costs (Warfare vs Colonize).

I can get behind removing cards from each stack for a slightly shorter 2p game, but I recommend against modifying the Start planets.

Hope that helps!
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Geoff Hollis
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Thanks for explaining the relevant issues surrounding whether to settle your first planet or not. I will keep these things in mind for future plays. I must say, I am very excited for my next session of EmDo. I am going to try and convince a friend to play tonight.

sedjtroll wrote:
Each planet type has a flavor - two roles that type is "good at." If you were to examine the tech stacks (and yes - they should be stacked by planet type!)


If the game goes through another printing, could I suggest the back page of the rulebook be reformatted to reflect this more clearly? I realize page space is an issue, but the layout of tier 1 techs on the back page has been a nontrivial hurdle to overcome when learning how techs work.
 
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hollis wrote:
Thanks for explaining the relevant issues surrounding whether to settle your first planet or not. I will keep these things in mind for future plays. I must say, I am very excited for my next session of EmDo. I am going to try and convince a friend to play tonight.

sedjtroll wrote:
Each planet type has a flavor - two roles that type is "good at." If you were to examine the tech stacks (and yes - they should be stacked by planet type!)


If the game goes through another printing, could I suggest the back page of the rulebook be reformatted to reflect this more clearly? I realize page space is an issue, but the layout of tier 1 techs on the back page has been a nontrivial hurdle to overcome when learning how techs work.

The reference on the back of the rules is to show you what exists - since there are 4 copies of, for example, Improved Survey, they are stacked so that you can see what they have on them... this is not intended to be a setup aid, just a 'what exists' aid.

If you stack the techs by type, then when you go to do research for the first time, you just grab the relevant stack (or just the relevant 8 cards) and thumb through them.

Not only is there not space to show more than 1 version of each card, I think it would actually be more confusing for people - or at least that's what we thought when we made the reference!

I hope this conversation has helped clear things up for you - I look forward to hearing about your next game (hopefully without Start planet variants)!
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sedjtroll wrote:
hollis wrote:
We have opted to modify the starting worlds as follows:

Metallic 1: 1 ore, + 1 warfare symbol added
Metallic 2: 1 ore, + 1 colonize symbol added
Fertile 1: 1 water, + 1 grain resource added
Fertile 2: 1 grain, + 1 hand size added
Advanced 1: 1 resource, + 1 trade added
Advanced 2: 1 resource, + 1 production added


I strongly advise against this.
For me, the reason to not do this is because you will create a situation that penalizes players for their random starting planet.

If you prefer to play a certain strategy, you will likely (err should) have specific technologies that you find best facilitate that strategy. Therefore, it is likely that you will need to get 2 (or 3) of a specific planet type to get those technologies that best help you. Now with this change, if your strategy does not work well with the planet type of your start planet because you cannot get access to the most beneficial technologies, you will not get the significant bonus all of your opponents get for running a strategy that follows their start planet.

All the randomness in the game has mechanisms built in to mitigate how much it can hurt you - you can save up surveys to have a better chance at the right planet, for example. The mechanism that balances the starting planet is that it each is not very powerful. Changing that will ruin one of the best aspects of the game (IMO), where you always have a choice and that choice always matters and is not always an obvious or a non-choice. Now your starting strategy is a non-choice. To me, that's a fail.

I almost never flip my starting planet until well over half way through the game. I almost always do it with those few odd left over warfare ships that I get following. But that is me.
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