Das Guardian. How to kill it? When? What techs make it easy? Lots of tiny little one shot missile boats? Enormous firepower ships? Ships strong enough to take what it can dish out?
Lot-o-Ships brand fleet (TM). Glass jaw need not apply.
The AI will not tackle the Guardian. What then is the point of doing so for you? Three possibilities. The techs. The planet. The reputation boost. Smaller the map, the greater the impact for all of these. Conversely, the smaller the map, the more painful the investment.
Is Orion ever worthwhile on Impossible? Yes, but not often. The planet is worth grabbing if the location is secure (your back lines). Otherwise forget it. The tech... you'll get three techs plus the Death Ray. If vital techs are not in play at ALL, for any race, this could be your ticket to open em up. Otherwise, you'll pay a high cost for these few techs. The rep boost? Looks like variant material to me.
A class 15 shield (max shield tech) will NEGATE the guardian's Scatter Pack X missiles. Its death ray can only kill a couple ships per combat turn. These two facts clash. You want big ships to carry shields, small ships to outnumber the death ray. There really is no easy answer. It doesn't matter what you bring to the fight, you'll lose lots of ships. The question then becomes less of "what" to bring as one of "how much" to bring. The only thing that IS clear is to bring guns, not missiles. Forget the missile boats for this job.
Warp Dissipators can help. That's about the only early tech item that can make any major difference. You still have to overcome its autorepair though. No way around that part.
Fortunately for the game balance, the rewards of mastering Orion are underwhelming. Worth doing? Not really, not in most cases. Thus, the game does NOT become one-dimensional, beelining to the fastest best way to take out the guardian. Too bad would-be successors failed to observe this lesson.
As far as I've seen, it's pretty much unkillable on hard until you're already prepared to take over the universe
Bingo. Except... Except when you can pull it off and are STILL way behind a runaway AI. Then you might be glad there's one more opportunity to obtain key techs the hard way, and you may need those Death Rays to compete against killer AI designs that can burn down your planets before your missile bases even get to fire the first volley.
OK, on to this requested Ship Primer.
There is one area where I'm really weak, and your knowledge is requested: ship design. I know, I know, it's all very dependent on the tech situation of both you and your rivals. But just some basics, maybe?
Rule Number One: if you can take on the biggest best AI SoD fleet in the game and prevail toe to toe with your own fleet, you've already reached a winning position.
Ship design is dependent upon the intended mission of the ship. My rule of thumb is, if I can't accomplish a specific intent, don't bother to build ships at all. Ships go obsolete over time. Their technology is not upgradable. Every ship design has limited shelf life. Never deploy ships "just to be doing something." If you don't know what to be doing, or you don't have a specific move to execute, specific threat to counter, or specific mission to pursue, conserve your resources and chase techs to put yourself into a better position.
Some missions I pursue with ship designs:
* Colony defense against probing enemies
* Colony defense against cold war attacks
* Attack fleets for destroying vulnerable enemy colonies
* Missile boats for all-purpose hit-n-run harassment
* Bombers for destroying missile bases
* Gunships for destroying enemy fleets
* Desperation ships to supplement inadequate missile bases (when my bases cannot defend my planets against superior AI SoDs).
* Specials for countering specific enemy fleet designs
* Bioterror ships for burning down colonies with germs
* Dreadnoughts for all-purpose missions against non-SoD forces.
Often the options are limited by your available tech. Why pour your resources into missile boats when you don't have state of the art missile techs to use? That's not wise. Likewise, forget those gunships when you're still sporting lasers or ion cannons at tech level 30.
Small ships are cheaper. Cheaper means you put more total firepower into the field. Large ships can pack more goodies and suffer less attrition. You have to figure out when you can reduce attrition enough to make the larger hulls a wise investment. After all, in any protracted action, it's not the firepower you bring to the first fight that counts, but the total firepower you bring to all the fights. Ships that don't die, or don't die much, may be a better bargain. Goodies... you have to measure those in too many ways for there to be a canned gameplan.
Shields can lower attrition. Depends on the enemy, though. You have to learn to weigh when the cost (in added BC and reduced weapon payload) of a shield is worth the benefit (of more ships surviving). A Class III shield is a staggering difference over no shields, in the early game, when weapons do a max or 4 or 6 or maybe 8 points of damage. Vs weapons doing 20 damage, maybe you'd do better to forget that shield and pack on an extra weapon. There's just no way to simplify it.
Missile boats are one of my most-used designs. Why? Because they let me do SOMEthing to even a dominant opponent without taking losses. I can fire off one volley of missiles, then retreat, inflict a little harm, and escape. That works even when way behind, but stops working if TOO far behind, as really high tech ships can move twice before your bare bones boats move once, and then you're toast.
What is a missile boat? A medium ship with my best missile on it, my fastest warp engine, and maybe a low tech computer or whatever else will fit. Build hundreds of em, you can achieve wins against small fleets, and even do damage to enemy planets UNTIL their shielding outgrows your missile strength.
Of course, those don't work so well in the very early game. I don't bother to build Nuke Boats. Forget that. Popgun laser fighters are better.
Think cost effectiveness. Look at your goals for the ships. What do you need them for? What are they going to be going up against? How can you deliver the most damage at the least cost? AND how much strength will you lose in the fight? Better to focus on firepower or defense? What options COMING UP in your tech tree could you pursue? There are more choices and options than you can shake a stick at.
Let's take some examples.
Say you've got an opponent with a particular weakness. He's behind on missile tech. Maybe you can load up your best shields and reduce attrition to such a low rate, you could swoop in at systems without major fleets guarding and burn them down. So you load up shields, and if that's not enough, add other missile defenses like ECM and higher maneuverability, maybe devices like Anti-Missile Rockets or Cloaking. Then in the space left, you load up bombs. (Got to have good bombs, though. If you don't, scratch this plan off your option list).
Say your opponent has a shield tech weakness. No planetary shielding techs at all. But is missile tech is killer. You load up a small hull design with weak bombs and your best engines, to get TO the planet as fast as you can, taking the least number of losses, and you build simply massive SoDs of these gnat-like ships. You swoop in and burn him down by overwhelming his bases with raw numbers. Each missile can only kill one ship. A ship may have 3HPs and get hit by a missile doing 25 or 30 damage. Too bad for them. You only lose the one ship. Won't work if you don't have enough speed to close with the planet quickly, though. If you are crawling in, they'll get eight shots at you and wipe out even massive stacks. Of course, if the target suddenly jumps from no planetary shielding to Class Twenty, you're out in the cold. Scrap that design and all the ones you've built so far and try again.
Say your opponent has poured everything into small ships. You can use the devices that do damage to all ships in a stack. If your opponent is behind on speed tech, the warp dissipator can freeze a whole stack in one or two shots. If your opponent has one stack so deadly you cannot combat it at all, go in with TWO designs that have the Stasis Field tech (late game) and freeze out that stack (you need two designs because you can expect one to be wiped out by the unbeatable enemy design), deal with the rest of his fleet, then retreat.
The options go on and on and on and on.
I do pretty well loading up enormous self-repairing war behemoths with more shielding than the average planet. But that strategy requires tech supremacy.
No it doesn't. It only requires that your mission for the ship requires emphasis on defense and reducing attrition, or on employing bulky goodies. If you need firepower without heed to losses, use small ships. If you need initiative, to move first, AND firepower, medium or even large ships may be the ticket.
If the enemy has so much firepower that your losses will be comparable no matter what size you use, then use smaller hulls, because they are cheaper. Larger hulls do better in smaller engagements.
Battle Computers are, pound for pound, the most important item on a ship. Initiative and damage are directly affected. The only time NOT to load up the best computers (in my view) is the early game when they drive up the cost too much for the benefit, or for small designs where there just isn't room and still fit other critical items. But nothing in this game is all or nothing. A Mark 2 or 3 sure beats nothing, even if state of the art for you is Mark 7. Miniaturization helps with this, too.
Shields are a no-brainer for any large hull. So is armor. You almost never want to chince on armor. Sometimes even the buly "Type II" armors are worth using.
Speed is cheaper on smaller ships. For huge and large ships, combat speed comes at a huge price. You have to decide how much you NEED, and use only that much, leaving the rest to load up on weaponry. Small ships almost always want the max speed.
ECM is for missile bases or enemies who load up on missile boat SoDs. It's as costly as regular defense that works vs all types, so you should only use it IN ADDITION TO max maneuverability, for specific missions, especially for bombers, when you need to hang in a fight against massive missile fire.
Speed is vital. Speed is initiative, movement rate, and defense. Speed plus Battle Computers = moves first. Moves first plus massive firepower = wipes out enemy before enemy gets to shoot at all. Get the picture?
I'm sure most of this is confusing and largely unhelpful, but you asked.
I get the impression that invincible ships that can take systems by themselves are hard to come by on Impossible, especially as the weaker races.
Not really. Tech and production are somewhat interchangeable. You can make up for with tech what you lack in production. And vice versa. When you are behind in both, you must make up for it with strategy. Choose the right research options, the right targets, the right battlegrounds, the right allies, etc. Not one option, but many. Get enough things right, you win. Boatloads of fun for all ages. Batteries not included.