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The Classic Colony Rush
The so-called colony rush, like turn-based ship combat and research trees with more branches than a forest, is a staple of the 4X strategy game genre. Each game has its own unique quirks which allow you to get ahead of your enemies early on, and learning those quirks is the difference between spending hundreds of turns fighting an up-hill battle, or emerging as the dominate power from the start.
Galactic Civilizations II is no exception. In fact, Galactic Civilizations II makes little effort to curb the traditional colony rush. To create a new colony, you only need to find an inhabitable, unclaimed world and land a colony ship. As a result, the colony phase of Galactic Civilizations II is as critical as it was in classic games like Civilizations II or the MOO series. Fortunately, mastering the colony phase of Galactic Civilizations II is not that difficult.
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Learn To Love Government Spending
If you are playing the original Gal Civ II or the Dark Avatar expansion, you'll start a standard sandbox game with 5,000 Galactic Credits (GCs). If you own Twilight Of The Arnor, you'll start with 3,000. Either way, you'll be starting the game with a significant amount of cash reserves. And while it may seem sensible to save the cash in case you need it at a later date, you actually need to spend, spend, spend.
The first thing you should do in every game is turn you overall production slider up to 100%, and lower your tax rates until you have 100% approval. You'll never need to touch the production slider again, but as the game moves forward, you'll need to lower your taxes constantly in order to maintain 100% approval. By doing this, you'll gain a population growth bonus that will pay off massively. More people means more people to tax, and thus more revenue overall.
Low taxes however, combined with the strain of new colonies (which cost more money to maintain than they generate until the population becomes larger) will cause your fledgling empire to plunge into an arterial spray of red ink.
But don't worry. Instead, get your flagship into the stars and claim every anomaly possible. With a little luck, you'll run into several anomalies which grant you a cash bonus of between 250 and 1000BC. These will keep your empire running. If you're playing on one of the larger galaxy maps, you should invest into sensor tech early. This will allow you to build more ships with survey modules, increasing the rate at which you can claim anomalies.
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Ships Or Factories
Although you'll be depending on your savings to keep your cash-bleeding empire afloat in the early game, you'll still want to make some key investments in ships and factories. Namely, you'll want to buy either colony ships or factories. Before Twilight Of The Arnor, people usually squeezed out colony ships. 5,000 GC allowed you to buy three colony ships and have a good bit of cash left over.
The lower standard beginning cash in Twilight Of The Arnor changes the early game strategy, because you can only really afford to buy one colony ship. And that isn't going to get you very far. Instead, buying factories makes more sense. Buy the first few factories, and the rest can be built quickly. You'll probably have your homeworld filled with factories by turn ten or so. With that many factories, you can crank out a colony ship about every five turns. Faster, if your race is slanted towards production.
No matter what version of Gal Civ you're playing, you should forget anything that isn't a factory or a colony ship. Scouts aren't useful - sending colony ships out blindly is more effective, because they're just as fast and you can colonize the moment you find a suitable planet. Warships are a waste of money, because chasing down enemy colony ships is ineffective, and you can't invade yet. No one will be building constructors until turn 20 or so anyway.
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Make Love, Not War
As your early game moves forward, you should continue to focus both on population growth and on building colony ships. Some of the more aggressive races will begin to build warships within twenty to thirty turns, but ignore them. They may threaten you, but should they actually declare ware, the best they'll be able to do is chase around your ships. Invasion simply isn't available at that point in the game. In fact, you shouldn't stop building colony ships until all available colonies are filled.
Keeping morale high should be a focus, particularly on your home planet. Eventually your homeworld is going to reach a point where you have to lower taxes to single-digit levels to keep 100% approval. This is inefficient, because on your lower-population planets, people will tolerate a much higher tax rate. You'll need to balance things out by building morale-enhancing buildings on your homeworld. This will keep your population booming on all your planets, but minimize the monetary losses associated with the strategy.
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To Extreme For Me
As you begin to dig deeper into the research trees - some forty or fifty turns into the game - you'll begin to have the chance to research extreme colonization. Researching extreme colonization allows you to research the technologies that give you a chance to colonize planets with extreme conditions, such as extreme radioactivity or a toxic atmosphere.
At first glance, this idea seems like a good one. Having more planets is generally better than less planets. But researching extreme colonization and the techs it leads to is an incredibly expensive proposition. The amount of research required to gain access to a single form of "extreme" atmosphere would be better used researching better labs and economic buildings. In most cases, there simply aren't enough planets with a particular kind of atmosphere to make researching the technology worthwhile.
Instead, focus your research on production, population, and morale. Production research will make your empire more efficient overall. Population research will reduce the amount of time it takes for a new planet to become profitable. And morale research will increase your income by making your populace more happier, thus allowing you to raise taxes while keeping 100% approval.
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The flip, which is simply a matter of raising your taxes from the level of 100% approval to the highest level your empire will tolerate without revolution, is typically best accomplished when your cash looks ready to run out, or when all of your planets are at their maximum population - whichever comes first.
The point of the early game deficit spending is to set yourself up for a better late game. By reducing your taxes, you boost your population. This gives you more people to tax. You can consider this an investment. During the early game, you'll be losing money. But once you decide to "flip" from your early game to your mid-game strategy (what kind of mid-game strategy you pick is up to you), you'll find yourself with a much stronger economy than your enemies. Suddenly, your very high population will be a massive cash-generating machine.
The strategy is effective largely because of the lack of combat in the early game. Creating a strong military in the first fifty turns is irrelevant. You cannot take over planets because of the amount of research that is needed before planetary invasion is an option, and any ships built during that era will be useless by the time your invasion research is complete. Because of this, it makes sense to plunge all of your cash into building up your economic base.
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Go Forth, And Multiply
Overall, the colony rush is actually not a difficult stage of the game. Although it is very important, it is also very easy to do well. If you follow the strategy of population growth and social investment outlined here, you'll be set up very well once you switch to your mid-game strategy.