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Covert Ops in Beyond Earth: Flawed Execution of a Strong System

Discussion in 'CivBE - General Discussions' started by Amrunril, Feb 22, 2015.

  1. Amrunril

    Amrunril Emperor

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    In playing Civ BE, I have, somewhat surprisingly, found that covert ops is one of the game elements that differs most dramatically from its Civ V counterpart. Instead of passively attempting to steal technologies, spies in other players' cities can choose from a wide array of missions to gain resources or attack opponents. The philosophy behind the attack options is, in my opinion, one of the system’s great strengths. The attacks are dramatic and powerful. Dropping siege worms on a city or razing every one of its improvements hold far more visceral appeal than, for instance, inflicting a health penalty by poisoning a city’s water supply. At the same time, such an attack requires investment, and the target player has plenty of warning that such an attack may be coming and a variety of options to defend against it, from counteragents to buildings to satellites. But, while the core mechanic of unlocking missions by building up intrigue is a strong framework, flaws in the system’s execution hold it back from achieving its full potential.

    Transparency
    The first of these issues is a lack of transparency in the game mechanics underlying the system. In Civ V, the espionage screen shows the number of turns a spy will take to steal a tech, and while the tooltips do not show the exact calculations, they explain that this number is based on a city’s science output, the spy’s rank and the presence of defensive buildings in the city. In Beyond Earth, however, scrolling over the “Steal Energy” mission may reveal, for instance, that the spy will steal 307 energy, but there is no indication of how the game arrives at that number. The “Steal Science” mission does not reveal even the amount to be stolen, nor does the game, as far as I am aware, provide any explanation of what pool "random" technologies or units are drawn from. This dearth of information prevents players from making informed decisions about their use of covert ops, and the addition of more detailed tooltips to the covert ops menu or of a detailed mechanics section to the civilopedia would therefore be a dramatic and relatively straightforward improvement.

    Target City Choice
    In addition to being problematic in its own right, the lack of transparency covers up what is, in my mind, the largest flaw in Beyond Earth’s Covert Ops system, the insignificance of the target city. When I began playing Beyond Earth, I expected, based on my experience in Civ V and what seemed to me a commonsense understanding of the "real world" process being represented, that I could steal the most science from a city with a high science output and that I could siphon energy most effectively from a city producing lots of energy. However, while energy theft seems to scale with game time and agent rank, 2 agents of equal rank siphoning energy on the same turn will always steal identical amounts, regardless of the target cities' sizes or outputs. Similarly, while I do not know how stolen science is calculated, I have seen no sign that the target city’s science output is a factor. Finally, the steal technology mission provides a random technology chosen not from among those known by the target player but from among all those available to research, including those not yet discovered by any faction.

    That this makes absolutely no sense from a simulation perspective seems self-evident. From a gameplay perspective, it is similarly problematic, removing a great deal of potential for strategic decision making. Assignment of agents to rival factions’ cities should be an important decision. Instead, every city on the map is interchangeable to a player assigning agents without the intent of undertaking offensive missions. The only factor in determining which cities are most suitable as targets is the presence of other agents either generating intrigue or performing counterespionage. The importance of interactions with other agents is by no means inherently problematic- indeed it would function very effectively as a second layer of strategy on top of choosing the best city to target with covert operations. Unfortunately, this first layer, linking covert operations to the actual characteristics of the target city, is entirely absent from the low and mid level missions that make up the overwhelming majority of covert operations.

    This connection could, however, be added with a relatively straightforward change- making “Steal Science” and “ Siphon Energy” yields scale with city output instead of turn number (I would also alter “Steal Technology” to steal a tech known by the target player, both for immersion's sake and to avoid the potential imbalance of stealing an expensive and unknown tech). Virtually all of the game’s missions could be tweaked to increase the significance of the target city and/or player: “Recruit Defectors” could scale with city production or happiness health, and an expansion or future Civ title might make a mechanic like BNW’s tourism or Civ IV’s clashing culture borders influence coups d’etat. However simply refining the outputs of the most common missions would dramatically improve both the immersiveness and the strategic depth of the covert ops system.

    Balance Issues
    In addition to these broader design issues, some particular buildings, missions and quests seem problematic from a gameplay or balance perspective.
    Affinity Missions: Though the affinity missions are the most dramatic missions in the game, from a strategic perspective they are thoroughly outclassed by the “Coup D’Etat” option, which requires the same intrigue level and has no other prerequisites. I am excited to see that the upcoming patch is reducing the intrigue requirement for these missions, which will hopefully make them a strong choice in some circumstances.
    Surveillance Web: Having a building for defense against covert ops is an important aspect of providing counterplay options against aggressive missions. However, the mechanism by which the surveillance web operates removes gameplay options rather than adding them, allowing low level missions to proceed unhindered but completely blocking high level ones and removing much of the incentive to invest in other defenses such as counter agents and holomatricies. A defense building which slowed intrigue growth, reduced the chances of mission success and/or agent survival, or slowed the progress of missions (like the constabulary in Civ V) would be a valuable part of a defense against covert ops without negating the need for complimentary defense measures [Though the Human Hive and all-seer satellites likewise negate the need for other defensive measures, these options seem less problematic because of the limited nature of the former (as a world wonder) and the massive investment required in the latter (enabled by an expensive tech which provides no other benefits)] .
    Quests: Upon completing the Spy Agency, a player receives one of two quests, each of which grants an additional agent upon completion (players may later receive the second quest or a quest asking them to complete a level 4 mission, but I do not know how the timing of these quests is determined). One of these quests requires only establishing a network and can therefore be completed almost immediately, while the other requires completing the “Steal Science” mission, a mission that requires building intrigue to level one as well as taking longer in and of itself. I would either standardize the distribution of these quests (for the sake of balance in high level play) or add additional quest options (for the sake of variety in more casual play).

    This may seem like a long list of complaints. But in spite of its flaws, I think that at its core, Beyond Earth’s Covert Ops system is compelling, intriguing and full of potential. With a few tweaks to tooltips, mission yields and buildings, covert ops could become a great strength of this game and a valuable source of inspiration for espionage systems in future Civ games.
     
  2. Halbbruder

    Halbbruder Prince

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    You make some pretty good points on the flaws in covert Ops. The most critical points that I share are:
    - affinity spy missions, which are too late to be useful
    - stealing missions are rather ordinary in loot
    - Steal technology is way too unpredictable. You could get a really good tech that you probably need, but it has to be directly attainable, or you could get a dud tech like planetary survey on a map that has no water.

    Although, here are some issues you haven't touched on:
    - Success and survival rate. In SMAC, you received both these percentages when choosing an operation. In BE, you don't have that and you just assume that the spy projects that boost survivability and success will noticeably improve your chances. There should also be a higher chance of avoiding detection for the lower intrigue missions, but even then, an astute player would see it growing and would do something about it.
    - Surveillance webs are too strong a counter. There should be an opportunity to hack them at level 3.
    - Hack satellites should be level 3 operation, not level 2.
    - affinity spy operations should be level 4, not level 5.

    Features that I'd like to see added:
    - being able to promote your spies like in combat not just a plain level 1-2-3 and that's it.
    - More missions of course, especially hacking surveillance webs. One particular mission I have in mind is the ability to convert enemy spies on defence duty into double agents and they will function like an additional spy until the other player moves them. The player would not be able to tell whether it is a double agent or an enemy spy. However, the converted spy has small risk of being killed in action, which means that your opponent would lose that spy.
    - More spy quests, but instead of giving an additional spy as reward, they give other kinds of rewards so that way they don't cause a snowball effect where you could sustain your economy entirely on stealing energy or something.
     
  3. Gorbles

    Gorbles Load Balanced

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    Affinity ops are receiving a buff in the upcoming patch, just for the record. They're making them easier to get to.
     
  4. 4N4C0ND4

    4N4C0ND4 King

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    It's also worth mentioning that the current system of stealing science is way too easy to abuse at the moment: the science stolen seems to be % linked to the current tech researched, so you just have to switch to the most expensive tech 1turn before the spy complete his mission and voilà!
     
  5. Velasti

    Velasti Warlord

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    I rarely get to Covert Ops of level 4 or above, unless I get extremely lucky, and by turn 130(standard) it seems like I've missed a narrow window to pull off such missions.

    It seems like the best cities to be spying on are the ones where all other spies have been dogpiled, which makes it fairly annoying that you can't coordinate with your cooperation-agreements and allies to dogpile on the one city.
     
  6. Ryika

    Ryika Lazy Wannabe Artista

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    From an Efficiency-point of view they will still be useless though, as the player who uses it doesn't get anything in return. It will still be better to just continue leeching science.
     
  7. Acken

    Acken Deity

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    It's quite disappointing I feel I have more things to do with spies in Civ5's barebone version of it. I'll try to level them, switch them around, risk a coup. In BE I... park them and hit steal gold/science every 15turns.

    The first thing is that spies shouldn't give you science/gold relative to your own input. If I could steal technologies all game long in civ5 I would also just park them and steal my way to future tech.

    Then the next issue is that other actions do not synergize with how the game is played: getting max science. So you just ignore it.
     

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