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Initial Survey Fund

A generic Survey Fund fleet build for Solar Starfire
This article lays out my preferred generic starting survey fleet (EL2 / SL1, 5000 MCr, 60 ship limit) and the survey philosophy that informs it.

Survey Philosophy

This Survey Fund fleet is built around the idea of surveying a target in a flat number of months for easier tracking. In particular, initial disposition is done with an eye towards three identical survey flotillas to account for each of the unsurveyed systems available to a starting empire. It also builds inexpensive ships to allow for some unusual possibilities reaching the 60-hull allowance.

Ship Designs

Survey Fund

First up, a look at two cheap surveyor vessels, as "cheap" will need to be a watchword for much of the fleet in order to hit 60 ships in budget:

X-class FT0                                      (AC)                                         5 HS / 4 TS
[2] H Xa Qa (Ic)  [4/4]
Trg: 1                Def: 0                      Cost: 58.8 / 8.9                                     SL 1

The X-class is nearly the cheapest WP survey unit that can be turned out (technically, the H could be replaced with an empty hull space, saving 1 MCr – this is a recurring customization option). Minimum-size FT hull, no frills. A fleet that wants the maximum 60 ships out of the Survey Fund is going to need a lot of a design like this.

XY-class EX                                                                                      6 HS / 5 TS
[2] H Xa Ya Qa (Ic)  [4/4]
Trg: 1                Def: 0                      Cost: 88 / 13.2                                      SL 1

The XY-class adds a combat sensor so that it can actually see space around itself, and has a not-strictly-necessary hold tacked on. Of note, that gives the XY-class space for an upgrade to Xb without needing the optional "increase hull size on refit" rule.

Minor variations exist: the X-class could take an Xb upgrade if it were an EX hull (it would exceed the space limit for military systems on the current FT0 hull), but that's a 6 MCr / ship cost bump on the most numerous ship that cannot possibly pay off for some time. The XY-class could leave the H as an empty HS and save 3 MCr / ship (it could eliminate the HS entirely to save 6.5 MCr / ship), but would lose the option of operating long-term on internally-stored maintenance.

Next up is survey fleet size: an empire starts with 3 explorable systems, so this plan will generate three independent survey flotillas. That caps the number of ships per fleet at 20. A WP survey needs 200 SP, and Xa generates 3 SP / month, so a flotilla needs 67 ship-months per WP survey. Completing a survey in 3 months would therefore require 23 ships — too high. Completing a survey in 4 months requires 17 ships — workable. We could mess around with a target time of fractional months, but solo play suggests that the survey fleets are going to drift off of the exact month-ending StMP regardless. So: 51 ships, primarily if not exclusively of X-class and XY-class. What else?

Unconventional Survey Ships

I once saw on the SDS forums a shuttle-carrying planetary surveyor, designed to run non-WP surveys quickly and cheaply, and I shamelessly stole it. I've since lost where exactly I saw the original (and thus whose idea I’ve borrowed), but there have been enough revisions and edits to the platform that I'm content to claim this as my own remix of the idea. Note that discussion on the SDS forums indicates that this class may become obsolete, or at least less capable, in a future rules revision.

Bs-class CTf                                                                                     16 HS / 10 TS
[2] (Bsa)×8 Xa Ya Qa (ic) (Ic) (Ic)  [5/5]
Trg: 1                Def: 0                      Cost: 249.2 / 37.4                                SL 1
14 HTK

When loaded with shuttles, the Bs-class will complete a habitable world survey in one month (the shuttles generate 16 SP / StMP with an MSS of 3, plus another 1 SP / StMP @ MSS 3 from Xa). Note that the shuttles can't be funded out of the Survey Fund, though — they'll have to be paid for elsewhere (either the Battle or Other Funds can handle them, or they can be paid for after the game starts). They're also expensive — another 120 MCr / Bs-class. Again, some options for tradeoffs in the design exist. I'd like a couple of these, and so I'm up to 53 ships.

So, an interlude: why build a special-purpose craft? The Bs-class has the very same Xa sensor as the X-class and XY-class WP survey vessels; X-class and XY-class vessels could therefore conduct habitable world surveys. Which is technically true, for the most part. Consider the cost of the ships, though. A one-month habitable world survey (50 SP) needs 17 ship-months of Xa-equipped units – conveniently, the same size as the WP survey flotillas. 17 X-class vessels cost 1000 MCr up-front and 150 MCr / month in maintenance. One Bs-class plus shuttles costs just 370 MCr up-front and only 38 MCr / month in maintenance. Assuming that there’s always some sort of colonizable terrain to survey (and it’s not an unreasonable assumption when you throw in all of the survivable body surveys), I can get an extra flotilla for one-third the cost (cheaper over the long term with maintenance considered) and, critically for the initial builds, in only one hull provided I restrict it to non-WP surveys.

Sooner or later I'll want to survey a Maser nebula, but packing around (MNE) on everything gets expensive. On the other hand, grabbing a ship in the pre-game month is a nice way to skip new class fees.

MNE-class ES                                                                                   11 HS / 8 TS
[2] (MNE)×2 (1) H (1) Xa Qa (ic) (Ic)  [4/4]
Trg: 1                Def: 0                      Cost: 111.4 / 16.8                                SL 1

The MNE-class will handle most hazardous terrain. If a VPR Maser nebula is found, it can be refitted to (MNE)×3 Hs at the front end; it can also be refitted to Xb and still retain internal maintenance stores — particularly important for a surveyor operating in hazardous terrain. I start any of these that I purchase in mothballs, unless I happen to be adjacent to a Maser nebula at the start of the game (that seems like something reasonable to know, given that system probes of the new systems are conducted in the pre-game month). I'll take a few of these, playing budget games at the end to see what I've got to work with.

Now for an exploit: I've got a few hundred MCr to play around with, and I'd like a transit carrier design available, again in case of an early encounter with a Maser nebula.

@-class FGf                                                                                     22 HS / 13 TS
[2] Xp (MNE)×2 (iIc) @×3 Qa×2 (Ic) (Ic)  [5/5]
Trg: 1                Def: 0                      Cost: 308.1 / 46.3                                SL 1
12 HTK

This is the design I'm least happy with. There's this variant, with best speed and 3 racks, or another with a fourth rack but only 3 speed (it really drags down when loaded). The Xp system is immediately expendable, but gaining 1 HS for another system doesn't really improve either design. But hey, it's here if I need it, and again the new class fee is avoided. This will definitely start in mothballs. If your SM allows for building prototype hulls in the pre-game month, absolutely raise this design to a DDf hull. Here’s one suggestion:

@-Proto-class DDf                                                                                         30 HS / 18 TS
[2] (MNE)×2 Xp (1) (Ic) @×5 Qa×2 (Ic) (Ic) (Ic)  [4/4]
Trg: 1                Def: 0                      Cost: 640.0 / 65.0                                SL 1
15 HTK

Note that the cost shown here includes the doubled hull cost of the prototype. The Xp (1) block can be retrofitted to a fifth (Ic) once the game begins.

Other Sources

Survey SOP will call for a couple of other classes that are not eligible for Survey Fleet funds due to their lack of X systems:

Y-class FT0                                       (AC)                                         6 HS / 5 TS
[2] H (1) Ya Qa (Ic)  [4/4]
Trg: 1                Def: 0                      Cost: 51.5 / 3.9                                     SL 1

The Y-class is intended as a cheap-to-operate backstop that sits and maintains sensor watch at the entry WP. Since the ship in that role can't maneuver to participate in the WP survey, X is unnecessary; removing X also keeps the maintenance rate down (it's roughly a third the cost of keeping an XY-class ship in this role). An empty HS is provided for future fitting with a (Bsa) for CD launching capability; the Y-class is a good first-transit vessel once so equipped. Fitting the (Bsa) initially is an option; it ups the cost of the class to 61.5 / 4.7 for no immediate benefit.

ICN-class FT0                                   (AC)                                         5 HS / 4 TS
[2] H×2 Qa (Ic)  [4/4]
Trg: 1                Def: 0                      Cost: 29.8 / 2.3                                     SL 1

The ICN-class is the absolute cheapest WP transit going at the start of the game, and is intended to carry messages across the WP without pulling a Y-class off-station. It also provides a very cheap "rabbit" option for carrying a war warning back to the empire, provided it has enough of a head start to offset the tactical speed penalty. Costs could be shaved slightly (to 28.8 / 2.2) by replacing one H with an empty HS; my preference is for two holds so that surplus ICN-class hulls can be leased to the CFN and become effectively cost-neutral.

Note that the ICN-class can also form the backbone of a primitive lightspeed ICN — a group of three provides for a fixed receiver station on each side of a WP with the third regularly transiting to move messages along.

My working doctrine is to attach at least one of each of these, and preferably two of each, to each WP survey fleet (again noting that the ongoing maintenance cost of all four such ships is roughly that of just one XY-class survey ship — it's a cheap capability multiplier). Because Section K restricts immediately adjacent NPRs, it's not really necessary to have the full complement paid for out of starting funds, but I like buying at least one of each so that the classes are established and new class fees avoided.


Now for the actual purchasing:

Class Cost Qty Tot Cost
X 58.8 42 2469.6
XY 88.0 9 792.0
Bs 249.2 2 498.4
MNE 111.4 5 557.0
@ 308.1 2 616.2

Total: 60 4933.2

So the WP survey fleets end up being 3 XY-class and 14 X-class each. So why no heavy armed survey unit? Mostly, I figure that any WP survey or first-contact scenario that turns hostile is likely to be lethal to me regardless; I don't see a single armed FG being significantly more survivable in an ambush than the X-class. Rather, I think a single armed unit is more likely to provide intel to that enemy — what sort of engines, weapons, defenses, do I use? The ship designs above reveal none of these things; all are fitted only with the generic tech available to every empire. The interspersing of the XY-class into the survey fleet, though, should allow me to get off a positive war warning rather than just "loss of contact" (which is admittedly all I ever expect from an X-class that's attacked).

Of the other classes, only one Bs-class ship starts the game out of mothballs. That yields 530 MCr / month maintenance from this part of the budget (vs 750 MCr / month if none of the fleet starts in mothballs).

Class Maint Active Tot Maint
X 8.9 42 373.8
XY 13.2 9 118.8
Bs 37.4 1 37.4
MNE 16.8 0 0.0
@ 46.3 0 0.0

Total: 530.0

The Other Fund should include purchases of 8 shuttles to load out the first Bs-class, one Y-class, and one ICN-class.

Basic SOP

The suggested transit plan for a new WP is to transit a Y-class on the first movement pulse followed by an X-class on the next pulse. The Y-class requires 8 MP to transit and return (1 MP to transit, 2 MP ×3 to make 3 turns in place, 1 MP to re-transit), which can be completed in two turns.  The Y-class can also perform a sensor sweep on the second turn (after transit effects clear) as well as firing a drone back through the WP if so equipped. The X-class can collect more detailed information on the WP during its transit due to the X system on board.

Once the WP has been sanitized, a Y-class should remain on-station at the WP in the new system. An ICN-class should ferry messages across the WP and be prepared to carry emergency messages back to the empire.

Final Notes

First, a note about that possible future obsolescence on the Bs-class: so, it turns out that the SDS intends surveys to be more than a one SL1 ship-month speed bump (which, let’s be honest, is really more of a “stop here” stripe at an intersection than a speed bump). Shuttles that currently accumulate 6 SP / month are likely to see a downward revision. However, the general concept of a shuttle-carrying dedicated planetary survey craft is, I think, likely to remain viable. Supposing shuttles take a 50% cut in SP throughput (generating only 1 SP per StMP), two Bs-class vessels can still pull off a one-month survey, or a single Bs-class could do a two-month survey. Either possibility is attractive for opening up colonization purposes without diluting or diverting WP survey flotillas. My gut feeling is that one active Bs-class (operating on a two-month timetable) would probably still be sufficient – my last solo game, where I tested the design, was uncovering enough surveyable territory that I was running both Bs-class vessels after 15 turns or so, but the pace of effective colonization is substantially lower than that. I don’t think a slower shuttle carrier will be the bottleneck. Of course, there’s also the possibility of building a bigger Bs-class to handle the issue — a DDf can pack 16 shuttles into an equivalent design, compensating for the lost efficiency.