Units and combat always become a rock-paper-scissors conflict where each player looks for counter-measures to offset the advantages an opponent has. So if your opponent has aircraft, you will try to gain anti-air capabilities. If your opponent builds sea bases, you will want to develop amphibious assault capabilities. But where do these capabilities come from? As in all 4X games, Research (called Labs in Alpha Centauri) allows you to develop all of this. Now you may need to suspend disbelief just a little here since the back story involves interstellar flight from Earth to Alpha Centauri, which may make it odd that things like flight and amphibious operations have to be researched, but the way I approach this is to think of it as a group of survivors after a crash landing who have to rebuild capabilities in the new environment.
When you are researching, you have 4 broad categories of research, as we discussed in looking at the HQ Menu. They are Explore, Discover, Build, and Conquer, and if you are interested in a domination victory you might think you would just focus on Conquer, but that would probably be a mistake. You can do that for a short period as a tactic, but bear in mind that every unit has to be built in a base and supported from that base, so you need to have a strong industry, and that comes from Build. And if you want to keep advancing your technology you need to build up your Labs capability, and that requires investing in Discover. The basic message of all 4X games is balance. Only rarely and for a short time does it make sense to narrow your focus.
So, your Labs are cranking out research, and they will make discoveries, and some of those discoveries will enable better units. You can see a list of all the units at the Alpha Centauri Wiki, and you can see that for most of the units you have a prerequisite technology that has to be discovered. You do have a few units of low capability from the moment you land, but they won’t get you very far. When you land, for instance, you can build Colony Pods. And you can build some basic infantry units called Scout units that are equipped with hand weapons. These will let you do some exploring, which is very important. You want to be exploring as much as possible to reveal the map, and to find the Unity Pods. These are the analog to the “Goody Huts” of Civ games. Even if you don’t want to go on the warpath, you will always want to maintain a good defense, so research is necessary. Even something basic like building Farms and Mines requires some research as you have to get to Centauri Ecology before you can build the Former (i.e. Transformer) units needed to build these improvements. Fortunately, that is an early technology so it won’t take you long.
Unit Stats and Capabilities
Every unit has four basic stats, expressed as numbers. The first number represents the Weapons strength, the second represents the Armor strength, the third represents the Movement it can make, and the fourth represents the Reactor rating. So on a given unit you might see something like <4,1,2*2>, but note that if the Reactor rating is 1 it usually omitted, so you might in the early game see something like <1,2,1> for an early Sentinel unit (usually used to defend bases). Movement is not absolute, however, as it is affected by terrain, roads, etc. As you do more research new unit designs become available to you, and your scientists will throw up a screen showing the new units you can now build. As you click Done on each unit the next one will come up, until you have reviewed all of them. If you want to build one or more of these units, the first one you build will count as a prototype, and it will require a 50% increase in cost to build it. After that, the design will appear in your Design Workshop with a note that the prototype is complete, which means you can build more at just the normal cost. Of course, the Spartan Federation can build prototypes without this increased cost, though they in turn get other penalties.
Mindworms and Psionic Warfare
Armor is a defense measure, but it is important to realize that it does nothing to defend you from mind worm attacks. Only Morale matters there. Mind worms launch psionic attacks, and only a well-disciplined mind can resist, hence the importance of Morale. As the game goes on more is revealed about the mind worms, but there are basically two kinds, a land-based form and a sea-based “Isle of the Deep”. If you have units with high morale they stand a good chance of defeating the mind worms, but even better is capturing them and turning them into your own units. The Gaia faction has a chance of doing this from the very beginning, and will capture the first one they attack. Your chances go up with your Planet rating. Note that there is also an airborn native form, less frequently encountered, called the Locusts of Chiron. They can attack planes. The Alien Crossfire expansion added even more alien life forms. One thing to keep in mind is the attacker in Alpha Centauri always gets a 25% bonus, so you will usually want to attack first when you encounter mind worms. And just as your human units build up in stages, the alien life forms go through stages: Hatchling, Larval Mass, Pre-Boil, Boil, Mature Boil, Great Boil, Demon Boil. This can be thought of as analogous to the Morale levels of human units. And just like with human units, winning a battle will give them a chance to go up a level. Gaia can have an effective military when they capture some mind worms and level them up. Demon Boils can often capture some one else’s base by themselves. But if you keep researching, there are technologies to provide protection, such as Eudaimonic Armor, which adds anti-psi capability to your units.
Designing Your Own
The game gives you designs you can use as your technology improves, and you could simply accept those designs. And if your Governors are put into Conquer mode, they will start turning out units, and as your technology improves and your units get better, they will turn to the new units. As we said, the first unit of a new design is a prototype, and will cost 50% more (except for the Spartans), but whichever Governor builds the first one will pay the extra. This is only paid once, not once per base, so other bases can then build one as well at the normal cost. But sometimes you may want to design your own units instead of taking the ones they give you. To do this, go into the HQ menu, select Design Workshop, and start picking out the features you want. You can select from 4 equipment categories, plus up to 2 special abilities. You can get a very detailed look at the options available to you at the Alpha Centauri Wiki, but the two things to keep in mind when you are looking at the options are first, that you can only choose options that you have researched. For example, in the first category, Chassis, you have Infantry available to you right away without needing to do any research, but every other one requires research. Two that you will probably get pretty early on are the Speeder (prerequisite: Doctrine Mobility) and the Foil, a sea unit (prerequisite: Doctrine Flexibility). So as we said previously, you need to keep up your research if you want a strong military. The second thing to keep in mind is that everything has a cost. You will see a cost factor listed for each choice you can make, but that goes into a complicated formula to determine the final cost of the unit. You can find that formula at the Alpha Centauri Wiki page just mentioned, but for most of us that is overkill. The game developers had to worry about this for play balancing, but for playing the game you just need to know that each thing you add increases the cost and that you can see the running total of the cost on the Design screen as you make changes.
The first category is Chassis. This can be land, sea, or air. Land and sea units can bombard each other if they have that ability, but otherwise cannot attack each other. Air units can attack any land or sea unit, but to attack an air unit in flight you need to have air units with the Air Superiority special ability. Then there is the Weapon category. You start out with hand weapons for your infantry chassis, which is the lowest capability. Do a little research and you can get Lasers, and then a bit later Particle Impactors. This category also houses some Utility vehicles, such as Colony Pods, Formers, Probe Teams, and Transports. Category 3 is Armor, You don’t start with any Armor capability, but through research you can get some. When you discover Industrial Base, a fairly early technology, you get the ability to add Synthmetal Armor. As mentioned above, there is a technology called Eudaimonia that lets you build armor that defends against Psi attacks, and the Alien Crossfire expansion also added a couple more called Resonance 3 Armor and Resonance 8 Armor. Category 4 is for Reactors. These are not intuitive. What they really do is affect the hit points of your units. The more hit points, the harder it is to kill the unit. The way I think of it is to put it in terms I’m used to in space combat games where ships have both armor and shields, and in this case the Reactor is like the Shields. It is not a perfect analogy, but when I first saw Reactors I thought of the power plant for the weapons and the vehicle speed, and that led me astray.
Once you have finished with your Categories, you can also add up to 2 special abilities. Some of these are restricted to certain units or chassis types. But there are a lot of them. Of course, you have to research the technologies that unlock these options, but you can do things like add Anti-Aircraft capabilities, or add a Marine detachment to a naval unit, and so on.
Support And Obsolete Units
As you continue to research new technologies and build more advanced units, some of your older units will become obsolete. The game will mark them as obsolete for you, or you can decide to do it yourself. The significance of the Obsolete designation is that the design is removed from your Production screen, and you can never build Obsolete units. But the design still exists in the Design Workshop, and any existing units still exist. At this point, you have two options. You can do an Upgrade to a currently relevant design, which will be costly in terms of energy, so you want a healthy Treasury if you are upgrading more than a few units. The advantage to doing this is that the unit might have achieved a very high morale, and it keeps that in the upgrade. So it might be worthwhile to upgrade. The other option is to Retire the design, which will also disband any units of that type. Why would you do that? In general, Units require support, which you can see in the Base window on the right, where each unit will be pictured and the support (one of minerals per unit supported, charged to the Base) is displayed. If you run short of minerals, the Base will start disbanding military units to get back into balance, and they may not be the units you would choose. So retiring obsolete units does make sense to save on support. Now, depending on your Support rating, you may get a few units that don’t require support, but it is a good practice to weed out the old stuff from time to time. The other reason you should retire designs is that you can run out of design slots in the late game, so freeing up some slots through retirement is not a bad thing. And it can help to declutter your screen a little.
One last note: You don’t need to get into this to have a fun game. You could just let your Governors build whatever units they want, and lead them into battle as you wish. But there may come a time when you will want to know about this because none of your units is exactly what you need to solve a problem.