Monday Modness – Pandora: Eclipse of the Nashira

Alexander “Ail” – Pandora: Complete


Pandora: First Contact came out in November of 2013, almost a full year ahead of its terrestrial sci-fi cousin, Civilization: Beyond Earth. As a successor to the the classic 1999 hit Alpha Centauri, Pandora was not all that far off. The problem was the game had issues; most notably a weak A.I. In came Alexander Stumpp (a.k.a. Ail) – a very active community member and lover of what Pandora was trying to do. After the release of its expansion, Eclipse of the Nashira, the developers had mostly moved on, but Ail took over. Since then, he has made many changes that improved the game’s A.I. to the point where the developers QC his work and make them official patches. So, let’s get to know him a little better and find out what he did.

Question: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Answer: My name is Alexander Stumpp, and I’m occupied as a software developer in a company that, unfortunately, makes something far less fun and interesting than games.

Question: What was your role in creating the mod?

Answer: 99% programmer and a tiny bit of an artist for creating some icons. The game developers were kind enough to grant me access to the source code, so I theoretically have unlimited modding powers!

Question: Why did you chose to mod this particular game?

Answer: I really like how certain aspects of the game work from a design perspective. Having gotten access to the source code allowed me to mod far beyond what usually can be done. In all the other games I modded for before, I eventually reached limits in what I could do. In Pandora, there are no limits! That’s what keeps me motivated to mod this particular game.


“Why is it so dark outside? The new A.I must be coming.”

Question: How does your mod improve on the base game?

Answer: Next to some minor balance changes and bug and exploit fixes, it is almost exclusively the A.I. There’s not a single aspect that I left untouched.

As for the balance changes: Tech progression has been slowed down. All Eras of the game now have a length similar to the first Era because Eras 2 and 3 felt pretty rushed and you barely got the chance to even build all the stuff you had researched.

The yield of trade and research pacts now scales with the number of players in the game and is quite a bit lower than before. Having the majority of your research and credits come from pacts felt wrong.

All difficulty levels have been nerfed because the A.I. had simply gotten too strong on the higher ones and become mostly unbeatable.

Many changes to the A.I.:

  • How the A.I. manages citizens
  • How the A.I. explores its surroundings
  • How the A.I. uses units in offense and defense
  • How the A.I. picks technologies
  • How the A.I. designs units
  • How the A.I. decides what to build in its cities
  • How the A.I. decides what tile improvements to build
  • How the A.I. uses operations
  • How the A.I. acts in diplomacy

Also the A.I. can now do some things it wasn’t able to before:

  • Give a new order to units that have moved but have movement points left
  • Use artillery units
  • Manage their tax rate
  • Slow down their population growth when they run out of space
  • Handle the promotion operation

I might have forgotten some things, but I think you get the picture. Overall, the playing strength of the A.I. has been increased dramatically. A lot of new players struggle with the fair difficulty level. The “Very Hard” setting, which I could previously beat despite it having much higher bonuses than now, has become unbeatable for me, as well [Editor’s Note: You can find the latest test builds here].


“I brought friends this time.”

Question: Where do you feel you could have done more?

Answer: While I think that almost everything could be further improved, A.I. diplomacy is the one area where I feel it’s hardest to be satisfied. For most of the game, when putting enough thought in it, you can eventually translate your own decision-making into algorithms that a machine can understand. But when it comes to decision making on a global scale, it becomes really tough. Also this is where the feeling of the player comes into it.

Most players tend to enjoy in-game wars that are evenly matched. Too easy and it’s boring, too hard and it feels unfair. However, to the A.I., a war where both sides are balanced does not seem efficient or strategically beneficial. Further, players don’t want the other factions to gang up on them – even though this would be an extremely efficient and risk-free way for the A.I. to potentially capture cities.

The ideal behavior for the A.I. would be to only ever declare war when the odds are so far in their favor that they cannot possibly lose. So as long as everyone is about even in strength, the A.I. would never declare war… unless the human player declares war on an A.I. But then the other A.I. would join the war on the side of whoever they think is winning. So the player who wanted a fair fight either ends up in a trivial war against a weak opponent, or gets dogpiled by the other A.I.’s. Another possibility is that due to physical distance, one half of the A.I.’s goes after the player and the other half goes after the other A.I. and both get taken out.

You also have to choose how to position yourself diplomatically. The player can prey on the weak to compete with the strong, or work together with other weak factions to take down stronger enemies. Both are valid strategies and it’s not easy to get the A.I. to choose the ideal one for the situation at hand. Also this part is the hardest to test as the outcome is not immediately visible. It’s quite different from: “They should have built this building instead of that.”

I’m still struggling with finding the best compromise here. It would be ideal if I found a way that feels satisfying for the player but didn’t reduce the overall playing-strength of the A.I. Any ideas?


Question: How did the community receive your mod?

Answer: Unfortunately, the community for Pandora is very small. But then again, it’s also very passionate. One of them even told me just recently he thinks Pandora is the pinnacle of 4X and that my changes play a huge role in that. I’ve also received a lot of positive feedback like: “Your ongoing AI improvements were the reason I got the game in the first place.”

However, when you look at the user reviews on Steam for the game you’ll also find other opinions. There are people claiming the A.I. would cheat on even the lowest levels. So it kinda depends on what a player is looking for in a game. My intention is to challenge players as much as I possibly can with my A.I. So the game is not for people who don’t want to be challenged.

Question: Did your mod achieve the goals you set out to achieve?

Answer: Well, no. But my goal was set in a way that I think is unreachable. The goal was to make the A.I. so good that I would have at best an even shot of winning any given game. But as the A.I. became better, so did I. Medium difficulty is not that challenging for me and I can only lose to it with a very bad starting location. I have to play on “Hard” for the A.I. to be on somewhat even footing with me.

At the beginning, each hour of work I put into the game lead to measurable improvements as there was so much to easily improve. Later on it became much harder to get milestone improvements. Progress came down to small improvements or even changes where it wasn’t clear whether they lead to an improvement at all. Sometimes my changes even made things worse.

It’s really hard to tell what exactly still needs to be improved. When I just watch rival factions play, everything looks fine. It must be small nuances that add up over many turns that eventually get them into a situation where I have a big enough advantage.


Gandhi, is that you?

Question: Is there another mod that you like to use when you play Pandora? Why?

Answer: Yes, absolutely, I can wholeheartedly recommend using BlackArchon’s SMAX Factions Mod – which adds the factions from Alpha Centauri to go along with the changes I’ve made to the game. BlackArchon and I even worked together to integrate the mod better with the game. For example the faction “Nautilus Pirates” gets a bonus for food and production on water tiles. The AI did not consider bonuses like that before and would not improve their water tiles accordingly. Now it does consider them. I also had an idea of how to make mechs more cool and useful by giving them Pacific Rim-style waterwalking but I was a little afraid of integrating balance changes like that into the base game, so I asked BlackArchon to integrate it in his mod. It looks gorgeous!



Questions: Is there some other modding project you hope to take on some day?

Answer: I have negotiated a contract with the creators of Dominus Galaxia that’s similar to my contract on Pandora. The game is still in the making, and there are some things unclear about it, but I think it is quite likely that I will try to do something similar to what I’ve done for Pandora for that game.

Question: Is your role with Dominus Galaxia going to be exclusive to A.I. behavior?

Answer: Maybe not exclusively, but for the most part, yes. I will try to influence some parts about the user interface, as I’ve seen some potential for improvement there. However, the game design is pretty much fleshed out and is much to my liking, as it is. I’ll also do what’s normal to do as a beta tester and point out everything I think could be improved or doesn’t do what I think was intended.

Question: How is the Dominus Galaxia A.I. going to be different from the Pandora A.I.?

Answer: Well, it’s a completely different game with completely different requirements for the A.I. So I’d answer that almost everything is going to be different. The similar aspect is likely to be the diplomatic behavior.

Colony Management

Let’s manage some colonies.

Question: Do you have any ideas for the general gameplay that you can share from your experiences with Pandora?

Answer: Well, Pandora suffers from a problem that many 4X games suffer from: The bigger your empire is, the more micro-management you have to do. This, in my experience, can lead to less enjoyable mid- and late-game sections. Dominus Galaxia, by design, tries to limit these issues by giving you fewer but more important decisions to make and by putting things at a more abstract level.

Space Battle

Space combat is gorgeous.

Question: Is there anything you wanted to add that I might have skipped over?

Answer: The most important source of inspiration for me, and most likely any of the other modders, as well, is player feedback. That’s more-or-less what drives me to go further and not stop. People playing the game and just talking about their experience is already a great thing. The more in-depth the coverage is, the better.

spider Science

I hope you like Arachnids… Space is full of them!

I’d like to thank Ail for participating in this Q&A. This further shows what a determined and talented gamer can do with the right mindset and some hard work. Game developers have limited amounts of time and resources to devote to their titles. They can’t always hammer away at their design until it’s right in the eyes of their fans. Ail has shown that all it takes is an ordinary community member with a some talent and a lot of heart. See you next week for part three of the series.

24 replies »

  1. Interesting article Alex and Nate – I’ve owned Pandora and the DLC since Sept, 2014 but have never got around to playing. It’s novel you have an AI that can win. With most games I find the AI can stop you from winning but has no clue how to go about winning itself – will have to give it a try.

    I’m Spartacus


  2. The problem with strategic level diplomacy AI in these style games isn’t poor programming. It’s the fact that the underlying game incentivizes kingmaker and bandwagon effects. You’d get the same problem with skilled humans that you have with the AI. The only way to solve it is to change the game’s win conditions.

    This is a well known game design issue in the physical board game community.


      • Let’s say we have a game where one of the primary win conditions is being the last one standing. We have ways to build our capacity to achieve things up, which can snowball as we build things that let us build more things, and we have conflict in which we expend that capacity to tear down each other’s capacity to achieve things. Only the winner wins, there is no second place anyone cares about.

        That’s all you need for problems to arise.

        If A and B fight, they’ll be weaker afterwards and C can exploit the interval in which A and B are weakened post battle. This means one on one wars are a bad idea. Instead the game focuses on brinksmanship in which the goal is to be so strong that no one attacks for fear of being annihilated by someone else afterward.

        If A and B and C are balanced, then A + B beats C. This means that if coordination is possible, the real game is convincing people not to coordinate against you. But there’s no means by which you can do so via skill because in a balanced state all pairings are equally viable.

        If A is behind B and C, A’s only way to win is to hope B or C cripple each other in combat. A can’t snowball faster than a larger player without this, by definition, unless there’s a random factor that feels in satisfying anyway. But B and C are incentivized not to do this for the reasons discussed above.

        But A, while behind and incapable of winning, can tip the balance between B and C by joining one of them. A won’t win, but A can choose who wins. This is generally called a Kingmaker issue.

        There are more issues but I’m typing at work and can’t remember them all, so that’s enough for now.

        There are entire games built around the above issues, and they’re well beloved, but usually hobbyist board gamers find them a little shallow after a while. Prominent examples include Munchkin, but there are so many games with these issues that it’s unbelievable. Even truly great games, like Agricola, have this issue. In Agricola you have limited actions. Your actions improve your score and your future capacity to take higher scoring actions. You have the choice of taking actions which are sub par for you, but prevent your opponent from taking their optimal actions. And that alone is enough to cause even a lauded, award winning, classic game for the ages to have these dynamics.

        A lot of games try to work around the problem by disallowing certain acts by which the players can most easily pursue these incentives. But that’s a hack solution.

        Settlers of Catan partially solves the problem. In Catan, the real action is in the last few rounds of the game, when everyone is on the brink of winning. The best way to achieve ANYTHING in Catan is via cooperation. And importantly, who’s ahead isn’t always easily apparent because “ahead” includes not only your points but also your capacity to get more points. The “game,” properly understood, is to conceal your lead so that weak players will cooperate with you, while declining to cooperate with your true competitors unless you can swindle them into a one sided deal. Even better, convince everyone that your toughest competitor is in the lead, and that they shouldn’t cooperate with him. Then once it’s too late for anyone to take back the help they’ve given you, you reveal your hidden strength and take the win.

        So there are ways around these issues- but they involve building the game around them.

        Hopefully that all makes sense. I’m writing this on my phone, etc, excuse, excuse.

        PS- this site should do an Exursion on Terra Mystica. It’s a hardcore boardgame 4X. Or 2X, kind of. Exploring is replaced with terraforming, and you don’t exterminate. But if you like the expand and exploit aspects of a 4X, it’s exactly that in an excellent board game.

        Hell, I’ll write one if you’re interested.

        Liked by 1 person

      • There are several victory conditions out there like that already. Every “Spell of Mastery” variant or technology victory is an example of the Settlers of Catan situation. Everyone almost wins. The thing is, those wins can seem kinda anti-climactic.


      • Troy- those feel anticlimactic because you have to sit and watch a counter tick down to a predictable finale, round after round. Worse, there’s often only one player viably in the running by the point they happen. So everyone just groans and throws everything they have at the guy who’s winning, knowing it won’t work because if there was a chance they could stop him he would have delayed and built up his military further, first. The real gameplay in those scenarios is usually

        1. Survey your opponents and build military until you’re sure no one can possibly stop you no matter what.
        2. Build your wonder or whatever.
        3. Win a battle you know you can’t lose.

        Catan has mechanisms to fix that. Cooperation is important to progress in a way that it is not in most 4x games. And a lot of info is public. If you’re in the lead and others know it, everyone will work together without you, accelerating their progress and making a tense, neck and neck finish more likely.

        Further, there’s very little going backward in Catan. You almost never lose points, and everything you do creates points. This creates a certain inevitability to the final conflict that you don’t have if two players can cripple each other in a fight. Players are thrust into the climactic final race whether they like it or not.

        This is tangential, but… A lot of games have mechanisms like this that adjust difficulty on the fly. Like… the best rogue likes usually have a push your luck element that incentivizes the player to create tension even where they don’t have to. This is what makes Dungeon of the Endless so brilliant. The best move is to stay on a floor as long as possible so your production can keep running, while building as little static defense as possible because those resources are left behind when you leave the floor. Even easy rounds become tense because the player will MAKE them tense by stockpiling production instead of building the turrets that would easily ensure victory.

        This is what, in my opinion, diplomacy should do. Provide ways for weaker players to catch up, ensuring a climactic finish.


      • I don’t know, Cadfan, it seems like the same thing to me. The counter to winning via Victory Points in Settlers is little different from Tech or Magic. Your distinction is that Settlers make the points more overt than 4X is only partially accurate. Most games give you a heads up if a player is starting to cast/research the Spell of Master or enter the last Tech phase.

        As for not going backwards in points in Settlers, it’s not much different from 4X games. You rarely lose tech or spells you’ve researched in a 4X. And in Settlers all the players can gang up on lead player to take his cards away via the robber any time they roll a 7. This isn’t much different from taking away cities or colonies from the lead player in a 4X game.

        As for Diplomacy being robust enough to create the kind of alliances you talk about to attack a lead player, you’re dead on there. A few games make it so when you begin casting the Spell of Mastery or whatever you’re instantly at war with everyone, but that’s not universal in my experience. Perhaps that’s a place where devs can concentrate further efforts.


      • I can see the problem Cadfan, but I’m unsure what could be a solution. All strategy games share these characteristics to some extent. And you yourself acknowledge that so far we have only been capable of coming with half-measures.

        And maybe this is because this is just an inevitable aspect to multiplayer strategy and a parallel to real-life diplomatic relationships. It’s just something you cannot avoid towards the endgame. The “game of power” ends up being played like this, because this is the way it has to be played.

        The problem however is that MP is too narrow minded in terms of scope. The MP experience usually starts and ends with every game. One thing you pointed out is exactly the lack of any significance to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc places. I would add the also almost complete lack of support for cooperative MP strategy.

        Back when we used to play board games, we used to create elaborate house rules for scoring mechanisms that would allow us to play these games in a tournament fashion. The real winner was not found until after 5 or 10 games, with each game simply accumulating points. Certainly there were point bonuses for the relative positions of the players at the end of each game. But you would only win by an accumulation of points given for every action in the game, across several games.

        We could extend this to team-based tournaments. And when we had country-wide tournaments, we would even extend it across different games for several weeks in an effort to determine the best board gamers in the country. Large scoring tables where created and affixed to the wall of the gaming clubs at the time.

        What I am saying is that an MP strategy computer game does not need to limit or try to circumvent kingmaking and bandwagon. Within reason, of course. A long series of games being played by the same people in a tournament fashion is how you end up actually removing this problem in the most natural way, without affecting the game mechanics or its victory conditions. What strategy MP games need to offer (which they don’t) is well thought out scoring mechanisms with plenty of depth and that allow players to determine their relative abilities.

        A player may win a game because of one or two kingmakers. That is fine. Or may win a game because he got the lucky draw on a bandwagon situation. That is fine too. He came out first, score wise and all. But if he scored 12,362 points and the second place scored 11,943 and the third place 9,211, we have here very interesting data. Much more interesting than ending an MP game with 1st place, 2nd place and 3rd place. Data that can be accumulated with further games and eventually eliminate any of the negative side effects of diplomatic power struggle.


    • That’s very insightful!
      Makes me feel a little better about not finding a good way to solve an unsolvable problem! :D

      But won’t that mean, that about any 4x is doomed to run into that very issue? Or do you have any idea about how to prevent it?


      • I’ve thought a lot about this. And I don’t have any perfect solutions that leave the traditional 4X concept wholly intact.

        A society system that periodically forces war would resolve some issues. At least, it would force the breakdown of deterrence based standoffs. Social systems in general can do a lot.

        Unbreakable alliances, team victory, and restrictions on who can ally with who would do some work. For example, Imagine a Cold War based game, in which the two strongest nations are permanently at war, with team victory, where alliances can only be proposed by players in third place or below, and only with the alliance that is currently behind. And where that player can break alliances at will, and go neutral. This would reward a player who performs effectively as a client state so that his alliance wins, while declining to provoke the opposing superpower. But this dilutes the world conquest fantasy.

        A strong espionage system could help. I mean strong REAL espionage system. Not tech stealing. Build the entire game around nuclear deterrence with enemies who might not even have nuclear weapons. Create things you can do that signal strength, but which can be bluffed. There’s a simple game that I’m thinking of right now, but I can’t remember the name… You have cards that let you do special actions. Each time it’s your turn you play one face down, and say what it is. Maybe you’re lying. Maybe not. If no one challenges you, it doesn’t matter- the card works. If someone does challenge you, you go off alone and show them the card. And maybe they decide to call you out as a liar in public, which costs you greatly. Or maybe you bribe them to tell everyone you were telling the truth all along. Imagine that, but with nukes that may or may not be in North Korea. “I demand new world colonies, or I unleash the mind control bees!” “Shut up, Ghandi!” “You challenge me, Ramses?? Feel the wrath of my bees!” The challenger expends a spying resource and either does, or does not, feel said wrath. And is under no obligation to tell everyone else what did or did not happen. “Oh God, The bees! The bees! I vote we concede to Ghandi’s demands! Now pardon me while I quietly count this briefcase of money I found… in a… bin.” Unfortunately, this probably works best with humans, but I’m not an AI programmer so what so I know.

        I’ve also put some thought into a way to use “eras” to fix some of these issues. Imagine that in a real world history 4x, the game strongly rewards you with points for anything you conquer in the 1940s. But in the 1950s it strongly rewards you for signing peace treaties, and massively dials back the points you get for conquest. And in the 80s everyone’s colonies revolt, so you want to earn points by divesting yourself of them to the weakest players, the weaker the better. But you need to be careful, because you might just be strengthening them for when war rolls around. Cycling objectives prevents stasis and disrupts otherwise stable strategies by adding in an element of concern for very different future needs.

        Or, if equal wars are the most enjoyable, have a new threat enter and attack everyone in proportion to their strength. This doesn’t wholly solve the issue but it does create a welcome diversion. Or even have the strongest players get hit the hardest, and let them obtain aid in exchange for resource per turn trades with weaker players, creating a catch up mechanism. Note that this also incentivizes differential military investment between large and small empires. You can tailor the new threat or non competitor threat to deal damage to whatever you think most needs kept in line.

        One final option that may be anathema to some but fits my euro gaming background- just disallow total war. Make the primary struggle about resource scarcity and reputation. This would take some finesse because you can still have these issues in a non combat game, but it’s doable.


  3. I have foresight powers. It’s official. I just knew I was going to love this new modders series here at eXplorminate.

    I’m eager to see what Ail will do with Dominus Galaxia. The game includes a full hex based tactical ship combat system that, along with a promised complex ship design system, makes it definitely one of the most promising turn-based space combat games awaiting release.

    There’s a gameplay demonstration video planned to be released very soon, btw,


  4. Great guy. Good programmer;)
    But I couldn’t playing for much long as Pandora – the game itself – couldn’t entertain me enough.
    But very few games can do that and it’s for sure better than CiV BE.


  5. Longtime Pandora player, really enjoying Ail’s work.

    As a bonus, now that I know he’ll be working on Dominus Galactica it’s now firmly on my radar too.


      • Just noticed I may be misleading you. What I mean is that the changes to the game started as a mod, but were eventually incorporated into the Eclipse of Nashira DLC, after Ail was allowed access to the source code by the developers.


    • If you have the base game it will come with the latest patch. I think for the base game it’s 1.4.4 and I think it came out in June last year. I believe Ail worked on that too. The Eclipse of Nashira patch is the newest at 1.6.4, so you have to have the expansion to get the latest patch he just put out, I believe at least.


  6. Great piece Nasarog!

    Thanks again Ail for the hard work you put into this game. I was already happy with the changes when it was a work in progress, Now that 1.6.4 has been released I look forward to trying it out again.

    @Drexy It’s currently on sale for the complete edition. It’s a solid 4x game if you ask me. Slitherine doesn’t have many sales, so this could be an excuse to get it, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The vassal system and AI in Crusaders King 2 made delegation a real thing in that game, one which I think Stellaris and 4x in general would benefit from. Of course Stellaris has been confirmed to use CK2 development philosophy on that, but the long and mid game micromanagement in 4x would still benefit from an AI that plays like the human, but without the human having to directly manage the real estate. Your vassals and their AI manages their real estate and you manage the vassals.

    This way, running small provinces early game is still a thing, but later on you have a simulation of layers. You are running things on the abstract strategy layer top up, but you can still see the AI running your provinces and building stuff there, now that you are above those provinces in rank and power.



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