The transition from CLASSIC STARFIRE to GALACTIC STARFIRE in 2000 brought about a number of major changes to the system, with most of the changes happening to the ISF/SM#2 rules. These changes generally involved issues that were causing imbalance problems that various members of the SDS team and the STARFIRE mailing list kept finding and highlighting. Those issues resulted in the changes listed here.
NOTE: ULTRA STARFIRE is a continuation of the changes made in GALACTIC STARFIRE, so these explanations hold true for ULTRA as well.
The issue with missiles had to do with the cost of upgrades and the performance value for the original price (for example, a TL1 W for 20 MC became very powerful with a simple -AM upgrade). The ultimate insult was when Wa-AM became considerably better than Fc at almost every range bracket since 2 Wa fit in the same space as 1 Fc. Further, while the maintenance cost of the missile was always reflected in the missile fund, the cost of the missile had to increase dramatically in order to make sure the maintenance cost was at an appropriate level. Smart players would, during times of peace, drastically reduce the missile fund and thereby gain inappropriately large savings in comparison with other weapon systems.
Fighters in CLASSIC STARFIRE were little more than expensive missiles. We tried to make them much more survivable and to make them effective in attacking a stack of ships and taking out one or two key ships. But making them more survivable made them too powerful, so we had to change how fighters and small craft worked altogether. Also, fighter hangars' vs. fighter costs were causing the same problems as missiles above - i.e.. a hangar could carry any advanced generation of fighter without additional cost or maintenance and players could save a huge amount of money by building the expensive fighters only when they were at war..
There is a notable lack of upgrades in many of the weapon branches, while other branches had lots of upgrades. In particular, missile technologies numbered in the dozens of upgrades while the laser techs had only a few.
At the same time there are certain technologies that were practically mandatory if you were to remain competitive. If you lacked those techs then you required overwhelming superiority in numbers. A player without these technologies would lose in battle unless they had a sufficiently larger economy to produce superior numbers of ships for every battle. The biggest mandatory technologies included missiles, fighters, ECM, and point defense.
It was fairly easy to create a permanently closed warp point until SBMHAWKS were developed, and then it was nearly impossible to block a warp point. We wanted to scale warp points so that assaults were easier to make without resorting to simultaneous transits or hordes of pods. Also, the hard limit of 100 HS warp points would sometimes forced some races to abandon higher level ships due to a few unlucky rolls generating these small warp points at key choke points in their empire. Changing the hard limit would prevent this problem, but making the limit slow down the transit of larger units still gave a tactical reason for not wanting to use large ships in small warp points in battle.
While ramming was made less useful in SM#2, certain parts - such as kamikaze shuttles - remained overly powerful.
Again SM#2 helped with this but the rules were overly complex and relatively burdensome. With different rules for buoys, and even for different types of buoys, they were often confusing. We felt that an integrated set of rules would be much better. Changes were made to make all drones, buoys, etc. all operate in a similar manner to reduce rules and confusion.
PDCs in particular had pretty much zero value in CLASSIC STARFIRE. Bases and SS were both subject to "dip and dive" attacks at extreme range that could destroy them with a fleet of less value then the base or SS. We felt that PDCs needed a whole new approach and tested ~5 major player suggestions before arriving at a mixture of several ideas. Bases and SS received extended ranges to prevent "dip and dive" attacks from being effective.
Point defense was taken to a ridiculous level with the introduction of Dx and Dxz. The abilities of those systems and the re-engaging ability from ISW-4 caused certain ship groups to become nearly invulnerable to missiles. SM#2 helped in this area, but it missed a critical point - point defense was required on nearly every ship in order to have any reasonable chance to survive any serious missile engagement. Since missiles were a must-have technology, it became a non-decision to include point defense on every ship. A review of missiles vs. beams in a non-point defense environment made it painfully obvious that beam ships could not win without point defense - missile power had been slowly increased to compensate for point defense to the point where it was the more powerful then every other weapon in the game.
We dropped the missile to-hit numbers until the battles between missiles and other weapons were nearly equal, to the point where a cruiser missile fleet fighting a corvette beam fleet had a roughly 50-50 chance each of winning. After setting the missile attacks we analyzed the point defense and determined how much point defense substitutes for passive defenses. By picking a level where the amount of passive defense HTK lost for mounting the point defense was roughly equal to the expected amount of HTK saved by the point defense we were able to balance point defense without affecting missile balance vs. other weapon systems.
A hard look at crew grades and the bonuses/penalties for to-hit made us realize the power of a mere +1 to hit. We decided, much like the hull table, that instead of the crew grade bonus improving every aspect at the same time, we should instead have some aspects improve at every other crew grade increase. This made crew grade a less potent factor and improved a player's chance of surviving GSF's much-improved NPRs and the ultra-bad guy elite-grade units. We also found that crew grade was too effective in activation rolls and thus we limited that bonus to only the first turn. This greatly strengthened the effectiveness of green grade units that are often built in a hurry to halt an enemy offensive, where before they were a severe disadvantage.
It took a long time for the SDS to recognize the problem with income bonuses. In a nutshell, TL bonuses stayed at the same percentage (x% of income) throughout the game but the value of those bonuses increased as income increased. Thus, an empire colonizing later in the game received free income bonuses based on "unpaid for" technology. The solutions were to increase colonization costs with each new EL gained (and making the calculation of the value of colonization investments highly detailed and complex) or to give a one-time population increase (as a reflection of improving technology) and be done with the matter. Although some view it as "unrealistic", we chose the method of increasing PU because it was simpler (to increase IU would allow them to also gain free increases and thus change the future costs of IU).
The spy rules in ISF were horribly imbalanced and awarded large empires (with huge incomes) a method of permanently crippling an enemy alliance by simply outspending them. Unfortunately, we were unable to come up with a balanced method of spying before printing GSF (and left espionage out of the rules), but we did clean up the rest of the intelligence rules.
NOTE: Espionage was later re-added with the ELITE STARFIRE upgrade with more balanced rules.
There were many problems that resulted in NPRs being no challenge to a player race. NPRs were boosted in GSF to provide a match against a single player race, and in some cases, more than a match against a single player. However, players generally have alliances they can activate to defend themselves. Whoa be to the player that tries to genocide every NPR - eventually you will meet an NPR the same size or maybe bigger than yourself and you will have a very interesting challenge on your hands.
Under CLASSIC STARFIRE and even SM#2, amalgamation actually reduced a player's income compared to partnerships. The new and accumulative trade variety bonuses plus the 10% increase in population of the smaller empire help compensate the new empire for the loss of income from the lost trade. The new empire will also have less development projects and units from either race can use technologies from both races instantly. With these and a few other changes to amalgamation, we hope it will be a valuable choice for the player.
There were a handful of things about how CLASSIC STARFIRE played that felt wrong to us. These included:
A> The gaining of new TL allowed a player to instantly develop all technologies available at that TL, assuming the empire had enough money available. By the time that a race was halfway through the research for the next TL, all of the development projects would already have been completed. This created a situation where technology advancements came in spurts. This felt unrealistic as research and development is generally a constant, continuous, and on-going effort.
B> Related to A, we also wanted to add technology trees to STARFIRE. Part of this had to do with the historical stories in STARFIRE where some races would have a technology but other races did not, even though it was equivalent to the TL of the race (such as Rigellians having fighters, or KON having forcebeams but nobody else did). We wanted a game reason why this might be the case. Adding tech trees resulted in the concept of breakthroughs and the need to open trees and branches to access new technology. We wanted breakthroughs to be common, but not so common that every player could instantly get everything they want. We wanted players to actively choose was technologies they wanted without merely choosing "everything."
C> Simultaneous transits - this is hard to fathom, but many times it was better to sacrifice 30% of your attacking force so that you could get more ships through and win - and the result would be less casualties over the entire battle. Due to either a single die roll preventing your race from ever using simultaneous transits, or due to the nature of the race (generally from a role-playing stand point), many races were unable to do simultaneous transits and were forever limited in attack capabilities when compared to races that could do simultaneous transits.
From a game design point-of-view, the idea that simultaneous transits were the only non-SBM HAWK WP breaking strategy didn't seem right. While there are precedents in history where throwing a ton of people at the enemy has resulted in victory, none of those precedents require 30% of the forces involved to automatically die before reaching the enemy. We wanted simultaneous transits to be a little useful in a smaller context, but not be the monstrosity of a strategy that it is in CLASSIC STARFIRE.
D> Warp points had an annoying quirk: having to check both ends of a WP link to determine the maximum size of ship that could transit through was a massive paperwork burden - so we made each link have only one size for both ends. We also thought that extra ships should be able to transit through a WP in the same pulse if the first ship was much smaller than the last ship, and there was extra capacity remaining in the WP. Last, we wanted to make WPs seem smaller in the beginning of the game and restrict even cruisers somewhat while still allowing the large SD and larger ships the ability to transit at later EL. This was accomplished by allowing engine improvements that reduce a unit's transit size.
Last, there were a lot of rules sections that were difficult to read or practically unplayable as written. While SM#2 fixed a lot of those problems, certain sections remained untouched or poorly written (for example, the rules about conquering and conquered political actions). Other things included SM#2's shipyard complex rules and buoy rules. Perhaps more important, many of the rules were a burden to the player - they didn't make the game unplayable, but they added extra paperwork that was unnecessary and even painful.
The SDS recognizes that many CLASSIC STARFIRE players do not agree with some of the "issues" listed above. CLASSIC STARFIRE closely follows the dominant-humanocentric history of David Weber, and has a rich story-based history to go with it. COSMIC STARFIRE will continue the traditions of CLASSIC STARFIRE. However, ULTRA STARFIRE is a continuation of the GALACTIC STARFIRE rules and caters more to players who want to play a game void of historical constraints and be able to compete equally with nearly every tactic and technology available in the game. Thus, these two versions play and feel different and cater to a different type of player.
The SDS has no problems with this. You play whichever version you prefer. Or both, if you haven't played either version we definitely recommend you try both!