Technology: Environmental Economics

“We sit together,
the mountain and I,
until only the mountain remains”

— Li Po, From the Yang Collection

Environmental Economics is a fifth-tier economic technology that relies on Industrial Economics and Ecological Engineering. It’s the last in the trinity of technologies that lift the per-tile resource caps. Where Gene Splicing allowed unlimited nutrient yields and Ecological Engineering allowed unlimited mineral yields, Environmental Economics allows unlimited energy yields per tile. This is a very big deal. When a faction gets this technology, the slower pace of the early economic game is unambiguously over.

In addition to all of that, it also allows terraformer units to raise and lower terrain by spending former turns along with some energy credits. This allows the player to fully engage with the surprisingly deep terraforming system. See, most other games of this type allow worker units to perform an action to improve the economic yield of the terrain. But the terrain itself is invariably static. A grassland tile will always be a grassland tile. An ocean tile will always be an ocean tile. And so on.

But that’s not true in SMAC. Instead of having a fixed character, every tile in SMAC has a few properties associated with it. There’s elevation, moisture, rockiness, and then any improvements that happen to be on the tile. It’s worth going into each of these in detail for a moment to get an idea of how simple, elegant, and powerful the system Reynolds put together actually is.

First off, elevation is the primary property. It’s displayed and calculated in the game in meters, but when it comes time to use the values for the game rules, it is usually treated in 1K blocks. It determines whether a tile is a water tile or a land tile by referencing it with the global sea level value, which means that it is possible to either reclaim or submerge land by raising or lowering land. When a tile is less than 1K under water, it is treated as shallows. When deeper, it is the deep ocean. Above water, high terrain gives high-ground bonuses for artillery firing on lower terrain. Additionally, it also grants a +1 energy bonus to all solar collectors for every 1K above sea level. This bonus rarely matters much until Environmental Economics, as the 2-energy cap is hit very early. But after that it can quickly become a pretty big deal.

Next comes moisture, which is intended to be a measure of average annual rainfall. A land tile can have three moisture states: rainy; moist; or dry. This establishes the base nutrient yield for the tile. Rainy tiles yield two nutrients, moist tiles only one, and dry tiles none at all. This is obviously very important given that the game rules require two nutrients for a citizen working a tile to break even. Terrain near rivers usually also gets a moisture bonus, so a river in the desert can support moist tiles even if there’s little presumed rainfall.

But the really cool thing about the moisture system is that it feeds off the elevation system by modeling rain shadows! For simplicity, the prevailing winds on Planet are always assumed to go from west to east, so the west side of a slope will get a big moisture bonus and the east side will get a penalty. And this updates dynamically. If the player creates a ridge by raising up terrain, it can change which tiles are considered rainy. And like all terraforming shenanigans, there’s nothing stopping a player from using it to help himself and harm his enemies. So, for instance, you can build a ridge on the east side of your domain to deny your neighbor the sweet life-giving rains.

The next tile property is rockiness. Like nutrients, it comes in three flavors. There’s rocky, rolling, and flat. And they sort of work like the moisture ratings for minerals. As before, flat yields no mineral output and rolling yields one. But rocky terrain is treated differently. It’s not an unambiguously better deal to have rockier terrain like it is to have moister tiles. That’s because rocky terrain slows unit movement, only yields one base mineral, and forces the nutrient yield to zero regardless of moisture. But in exchange, mines that are built on rocky terrain yield a bonus mineral, meaning that mines with roads on rocky terrain put out four minerals each. This is a very good deal when paired with supply crawlers.

Interestingly, formers can make terrain less rocky but cannot ever increase the rockiness of terrain. This means flat terrain will always be flat. But the player has the option to break down a rocky tile to get a more balanced tile yield, or to keep it and focus the tile on mineral production.

Finally, there’s improvements. The first ones are the biome improvements. Any tile, whether land or sea, can have native fungus on it. And all non-rocky land tiles can have Earth forests. Either of these is incompatible with any more man-made tile yield improvement and they set the yield to a fixed value that does not depend on the underlying terrain. At first, native fungus yields no yield at all (except for the Gaians, who get a single nutrient) and Earth forests yield one nutrient, two minerals, and an energy. But technology and base facilities like the Tree Farm – that Environmental Economics unlocks, incidentally – can improve these yields further.

The man-made improvements generally improve a particular yield. Farms give more nutrients and solar collectors give more energy. Some of the later, more extensive ones effect neighboring tiles as well. For instance, the condenser improves the nutrient yield of the central tile and, additionally, makes the tiles around it more rainy. Or how the echelon mirror not only serves as a solar collector but also enhances the yield of all adjacent solar collectors by one. In general, man-made improvements are better for tile specialization, which enables the player to get vast amounts of resources in a way that synergizes very nicely with supply crawlers, at the cost of increased ecological damage. This contrasts with the more “natural” approach, which relies more on citizens working the forest or fungus for balanced yields.

All of this loops back quite nicely into Yang’s treasured Li Po quote. The original meaning was almost certainly a reminder of the smallness of man and his concerns against the permanence of the mountain. One can see how Yang would love this. Li Po seeks to break the reader out of his natural, small-minded focus on his own concerns and get him to identify in some small way with the eternal mountain. Now, the mountain and I sit together. It is like me, in this moment. But soon there will only be the mountain. Yang would likely argue that the spark of enlightenment here is that, if I am to persist as the mountain persists, I must learn to identify with something outside of myself. Something that will abide when the individual will not.

But all of that could have fit in anywhere. Reynolds’s true genius is displayed by his choice to put this quote here. On Environmental Economics. Which, remember, is the technology that lets the player raise and lower the mountains themselves! By the fifth-tier of the technology tree, it would seem that the eternal verities themselves are no longer quite true.

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