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A Bird in the Hand Is Worth...
By Conrad Lesnewski

In this, the third installment of "The Races of VGAP," we'll examine those masters of cloaking, The Birdmen. If you're hoping to find playing tips that will turn the Birds into a powerhouse race capable of running roughshod over your opponents, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. The Birdmen, in my humble opinion, have a firm hold on the title, "Weakest Race in VGAP." That's not to say that you can't have fun with the Birds and perhaps even annihilate an opponent or two with them. However, in a contest of competent rulers for ultimate control of the Echo Cluster, the Birdman leader will usually find that he's playing at a disadvantage throughout the game.

The problem with the Birds, is that they have neither the military power of the fighter races nor the economic power of the other torpedo races. In addition, their primary native advantage, stealth through cloaking, is now easily defeated by a number of methods (e.g., Lokis, Glory Devices, Ion Storms, and Web Mines). Once their cloaking is negated, their other race specialty, Superspying, goes with it. This leaves the Birds as a torp race with no significant special advantages to offset the inherent weakness of their fleet as a whole.

While the Birds have a great number of cloakers, most are not very combat worthy. A Lizard Cruiser or Fed Nebula, for example, can handle the bulk of the Bird cloakers, up to and including the Resolute. The Swiftheart is an effective long-range scout but its tiny cargo capacity limits its effectiveness as a colonizer. The White Falcon is used mainly as a cloaking fuel carrier. The Fearless can be used to capture freighters and non-Borg planets as well as serve as a cloaking Medium Deep Space Freighter, but it will get toasted by most mid-level ships if it engages them. The Redwind is fairly useless to the Birds but may have some value as a trading ship to the Colonies and/or Feds. The Brightheart is also usually not worth building unless the RacePlus add-on is being used and even then, the Egg mission is among the weakest of the RacePlus abilities.

This leaves the Deth Specula and Resolute to serve as the mid-level combat ships of the Birds. The Deth Specula packs a nice punch against planets and mid-level ships but don't expect to recloak it after combat. Its light weight means it will usually take some significant damage in the battle. The Deth Specula also suffers from limited fuel and cargo capacities so it's usually only good for a couple of strikes before needing to be resupplied by a supporting cloaker (e.g., a White Falcon or Fearless). Given the choice (i.e., a base with tech level 7 hulls), the Resolute is a better choice than the Deth Specula.

The Resolute costs just slightly more than the Deth Specula in terms of cash and minerals, but gets rid of the Deth Specula's limitations. With the largest fuel capacity in the Bird's cloaking fleet, ample cargo room, and the ability to remained cloaked without burning fuel, the Resolute is a well-rounded ship that can handle a variety of roles in the Bird empire. It can fight planets and mid-level ships, resupply and refuel other ships, colonize, lay large mine fields in enemy territory, take a mine hit itself, stay cloaked in Ion Storms, and spy. The Resolute is also desired by every other race, so if you're willing to trade one, they usually command a premium price. About the only thing it can't do is handle large ships and/or bases. For that you need the ultimate cloaker, The Darkwing.

While the Darkwing is the ultimate in cloaking technology, it has one major flaw which keeps it from reaching its full potential. It, along with the Victorious, has the smallest fuel tank of any heavy warship. This seriously hampers the Darkwing's ability to launch surprise attacks deep in enemy territory. While the Darkwing no longer burns fuel to cloak (previously, cloaking a Darkwing was the equivalent to sitting one in a web field), it still burns enough fuel while moving to limit its range to 4-5 turns before needing to be refueled. Against an inexperienced opponent, this may be enough to strike at the heart of his territory, but a competent player will usually have the borders of his territory extending 5 or more turns from his homeworld. This means that either the Darkwings have to strike outlying planets in the hopes of refueling, thereby warning the prey of Bird presence, or a large support fleet (White Falcons or Resolutes) has to accompany the strike force to refuel the Darkwings in transit. If the strike force fails in its mission, the support fleet is often also sacrificed because it doesn't have enough fuel left (having fed the Darkwings) to successfully retreat from the area. Not only do fuel logistics hurt the Birds stealth potential, but often they find that their "stealthy" mission, Superspy, also works against them by revealing their presence to a potential target race.

The Superspy mission comes in two parts, one that gives detailed information about an enemy planet and one that attempts to change the planet's friendly code. The difficulty for the Birds lies with the second part, namely, that there is no way to turn it off. Each Superspying ship over a planet has a 20% chance of changing the planet's friendly code to match that of the ship. Unfortunately, if the change is successful, it generates a message to the enemy announcing the Bird's arrival in the area. To make matters worse, if the planet has 10 or more defense posts there is a subsequent 20% chance that an ion burst will occur and all ships orbiting the planet will decloak. This means that a ship set to Superspy has a 4% chance of decloaking every time it passes over an enemy planet with more than 10 defenses. This is in addition to the normal cloak fail rate set in the Hconfig (default = 1%). Since most experienced players will have at least 20 defenses on the bulk of their planets, to avoid sensor sweep/bioscanning as well as adding a point to their ground defense ratio, this gives the Birds an almost 5% cloak fail rate when planet hopping with a mission of Superspy. The result is that while a Lizard Cruiser sneaking in for a cloaked ground attack has a 1% chance of decloaking and alerting the enemy prematurely, a Superspying ship is twenty times more likely to alert the enemy and five times more likely to decloak. This is hardly conducive to a "stealthy" race. A special friendly code (e.g., nfc) that would prevent the ship from attempting to change the friendly code of the planet below would go a long way to restoring the Bird's sneakiness.

The other reason for a "No Friendly Change" code is that there really aren't that many situations in which the Birds actually want to change an enemy's friendly code. The most popular changes to make are "bum" -- to have the enemy planet beam up it's cash to the Birds as well as any other foreign ship in orbit and "dmp" -- to cause an enemy Starbase to recycle its stored components thereby wasting the enemy's money and a percentage of the minerals used to build the components. This is always good for laughs against new players, but against real competition it's usually a one-trick pony. After being burned once (if at all) the enemy will simply start storing his cash on ships (preferably his own cloakers or heavy warships) where "bum" can't reach it and stop building components in advance rather than simply waiting and building the entire ship at once. "bum" can work once or twice for some quick cash, but when compared to the Fed's taxing, Lizard's Hiss, or Fascist's Pillage it's way down on the list of economic advantages.

Some Birds use the code change ability in an attempt to control their enemy's mine fields and grant safe passage to their ships. This is easier said than done. To ensure that the ships will not hit a mine, the Birds have to dedicate 5 ships to each controlling planet. Once that is done and the Bird strike fleet starts navigating the field, an ion burst decloaking the Superspying ships (with subsequent attack by orbiting enemy ships) has the potential to strand the fleet in the field. It's usually far more efficient to simply sweep the fields (possible exception Robots and/or Crystals). The Birds could instead attempt to control all enemy fields through the use of the "mf*" code. For this to work, however, the Birds must find and change the codes on the enemy planet with the highest ID number. If they enemy later takes a planet with a higher ID, the Birds lose their control and must start the search for the new controlling planet.

Another use of friendly code changes is to steal minerals and/or supplies from an enemy planet. Five Superspying ships change the code while the 6th matches and set's its mission to beam up the desired item. Again, it sounds better than it works. No bird ship has a big enough cargo capacity to make this worth while as either a source of minerals for the Birds or as more than a mere annoyance to the enemy. If you bring more ships to do it with, it begs the question of, "Why not just shoot the planet and take it all, rather than tie up so many ships stealing small quantities?" If the answer is, "Because it's a fortified Starbase," the Birds are faced with a new problem. While a ship set to Superspy will not surrender to a base by matching friendly codes, a Bird ship with any other mission will. If you attempt to rob minerals from an enemy base and that base has its Primary Objective set to "Force Surrender," The Bird ships set to beam up minerals will be owned by the enemy on the following turn.

Finally, there is a Bird tactic that is still being bandied about in the newsgroups and on BBSes. This is offered as a devastating attack on a well-guarded and fortified enemy Starbase. The tactic is to have five Superspying ships set the Base's code to "NUK" while two Darkwings arrive without fuel (either through careful planning or being towed in by sacrifice ships). The Base will then attack the Darkwings and be destroyed while the enemy ships guarding the base ignore the Darkwings because they're out of fuel. The problem with this tactic is that it doesn't work. Any Bird capital ship that is out of fuel is immune to the "NUK" code and therefore will not be attacked by the planet/base. What will work, however, is giving the two Darkwings to an ally (other than Fascists or Rebels) and having them arrive empty. Note that the Darkwings, or any other heavy warships being used, have to arrive at the base empty the same turn that the five Superspying ships change the code to "NUK." If instead, the Darkwings arrive early and drop their fuel, and the enemy has the Base set to "Force Surrender," the enemy will take control of the empty ships before they can attack the base.

The difficulties faced by the Bird commander can either be lesser or greater than detailed here, depending on who the immediate enemy is. The Birds are in for a nightmare ride when faced with the Feds, Lizards, or Fascists. All three of those races have the ability to decloak Bird ships as well as economic advantages that will let them build fleets both more numerous and more powerful than the Birds. The Crystals and Empire are probably the next level of difficulty faced by the Birds. Crystal webs can shut down the birds as easily as they do any other race, so Bird cloaking is of no particular advantage when dealing with them. The Empire has a better fleet than the Birds and can use Darksense to locate the Birds territory and bring the fight to them. Robots, Rebels, and Colonies are fairly neutral, The Birds have no more significant advantages or disadvantages when confronting them than do any other torp race. Surprisingly, the two best targets for Bird aggression are the two races with the most fearsome reputation in the cluster: The Privateers and The Borg.

The first Hconfig setting to check when considering leading the Birds is "Cloaked Ships may be Robbed." If it's set to yes, don't play the Birds. Should you ignore this advice, don't be surprised when your ships enter orbit with a Lady Royal and never come back out. If, however, it's set to no (which is default), the Birds have the opportunity to reign destruction on the Privateers. The Birds are probably the race best suited to going on the offensive and taking the fight to the Privateers. While Lokis and Glory Devices are good defensive weapons against the Privateers, they're much harder to use on the offensive. The Privateers can use feints, mines, cloaked intercepts, etc. to destroy an invading Loki/Saber and then steal the Missouri/Nova/Victorious it was protecting. The Privateers should find it almost impossible to steal a Bird combat ship. If "Cloaked Ships can Attack" is set to yes, the Birds can take out most Privateer ships without decloaking. The Birds can decloak, hit a planet, and recloak before the Privateers have an opportunity to rob them. The Darkwing/Resolute team can strike and vanish and there's little the Privateers can do to stop them because cloaking now occurs before robbing.

The Borg are a slightly different story. The Birds, like most other races, have to wipe out a nearby Borg infestation quickly and ruthlessly. Once the Borg get a toehold in an area, the Birds are in trouble. One of the main advantages of the Birds is the ability to turn a Borg advantage against them. Since the Darkwing and Resolute no longer burn fuel to cloak, they can afford to sit quietly in orbit with a Firecloud and wait for it to chunnel home. When it does, the Birds will go for the ride and the Borg will have no knowledge of it until the Bird ships decloak and start destroying Borg holdings deep behind his front lines. Once the Cubes arrive on the scene, the Birds simply recloak and wait for them to go away.

By now, you're probably wondering "Why would I want to play the Birds?" Well, that's a good question. One suggestion is to use them as a handicap for a good player in a game with weaker or less-experienced players. The Birds have problems, but they are by no means an unplayable race. A good player who can manage his economy well would be on an even footing with a weaker player playing a stronger race. They can also be an asset in team games when their weaknesses can be overcome by other members of the team. Finally, there is one situation that changes everything for the Birds. If the game contains an add-on with the "GPn" code, the Birds become a fearsome threat! "GPn" stands for Give Planet to race n. It is the equivalent of the Host code "GSn" (Give Ship). With this code in the game, five Swiftheart Scouts can capture an enemy homeworld intact simply by showing up there and changing the code to GP3. This one code alone changes the Birds from one the weakest of the VGAP Races to a threat to be feared by all.

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