Currently all diplomacy in the game is very fluid, all you have is a player’s word that any given promise or piece of information is true and all you can do to mitigate the uncertainty is try to speak with many players and build up your own forces as a hedge against betrayal. It’s great. However formal alliances are a binary switch, one that usually seems to go under utilised even in games where it is an available option.
I think this is because although there are plenty of situations, where say, I might want to prop up a smaller empire with a gift of ships, I might not want to give them access to all my scan data, or give them 24 hours notice if I should decide to attack. Likewise I might want to agree not to attack a player without sharing scan data, or vice versa. Formal alliances are all or nothing and I think they suffer for it, to say nothing of what they cost.
I think making formal alliances more granular would make them more useful particularly to smaller empires who could use collective action to face bigger players together. Therefore I think the current formal alliance system should be replaced with several smaller systems that together add up to the same thing (plus research agreements).
The implementation of these ideas could certainly be improved and I’ve only really spent a little time to sketch them out, research agreements in particular are just off the cuff, but I think some way to make alliances more meaningful would really help to counter snowballing players and keep the game interesting for smaller empires:
Sale of fleets. This could work in a similar way to selling technology. You’d agree the deal with another player via the message system and have to trust their word. You could also gift ships as you can with technology.
(Sale of fleets could arguably be omitted if Non-aggression pacts were in the game as described, but I’ve included it as a separate item in favour of keeping all of these actions as granular as possible.)
Intelligence sharing. This would be the same as sharing scan data in current formal alliances, you’d just need to agree to do it, again then you’d also be able to sell it.
Non-aggression pact. You agree not to attack another player, if you wish to break it the other player gets 24 hours notice. Any ships sent to a star controlled by a player you have a non-aggression pact with would be treated as a gift just as in current formal alliances.
Research agreements. If two players agree to work on a tech together their combined science infrastructure counts towards research for both players allowing them to research technology quicker.Research agreements would overlap a lot with trading technology but I think would be interesting in a lot of ways:
You’re less likely to attack a player you have a history of research agreements with even if they’re smaller than you, more so than with trading alone as this speeds your research directly without the hassle of taking their stars. This happens at the cost of dramatically increasing the research speed of the smaller player freeing them form the need to spend in science and potentially giving them a path back into the game. If there were requirements about who you could have agreements with, requiring a major and minor partner, this kind of agreement would provide enough benefit to players in the lead to be appealing but prevent two very science focused players from racing ahead of everyone else.
Although co-ordinating research with a player and trading the resulting technology would amount to the same amount of research points gained the fact that this would give you the option of increasing the research speed of one technology is a huge difference, being able to co-ordinate an agreement for a trade in the future doesn’t help you if you need the next level in something right now.
The game that sparked this idea was a recent 64 player game. I was in a hard-won alliance with another player whom I had recently been warring. After a lot of discussion we agreed to lay down arms and work together against bigger threats. Those ‘bigger threats’ were really just one player who was roughly about as big as myself and my ally combined. We lost. The only resource we could easily share was money and the player who would have to donate large chunks of their income to someone who could then turn around and engulf them was naturally reluctant. We could trade tech but that did nothing to take the edge off of our enemies science lead in the short-term.
Together we had the same amount of resources as this enemy player but had no way to share them, no way to bring them to bare on the problem. No matter my diplomatic cunning in that situation, with an unlimited number of allies I would not be able to beat that bigger player.