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    Real Strategy Requires Cunning

daniel060

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There's been a lot of talk about adding an espionage system to the game. I also agree that it feels wrong for technologically advanced, spacefaring civilizations to have no way to influence each other covertly. There are many mechanical ways to implement espionage, but instead of argue about which one's better, I'd like to come up with the actions that any good espionage system would allow a player to take. In no particular order, I want to:

  • Steal map data (because it makes zero sense that belligerent empires would just share that with you)
  • Steal resources and/or ships
  • Tap into an active sensor link
  • Steal technology (or progress toward a tech)
  • Sabotage planetary buildings and/or spaceports
  • Sow discontent (reduce happiness among pops)
  • Agitate for liberty among conquered/enslaved pops
  • Agitate for ethics shifts (probably using the faction system)
  • Influence elections
  • Plant false information about my empire's fleet positions/strength and/or outpost strength
  • Introduce computer viruses that disable or damage enemy ships/outposts
  • Assassinate/kidnap enemy leaders
  • Recruit/plant a spy loyal to my empire among another empire's leader pool
  • Support crime on a planet/empire
  • Incite wars between two neighboring empires
  • Perform counterespionage against all this
I think that being able to conduct asymmetrical warfare against a superior foe would help ameliorate the doomstack problem. And some of these would even be useful against allies. I've been in situations where I knew this one empire would join our federation if only they weren't such fanatical egalitarians . . . a little covert ethics nudge, and problem solved! And think of the possibilities of planting a spy in a rival's leader pool, then getting that leader elected to rule that empire. :)

Not all of these things should be easy; in fact, some of them should be really, really hard to pull off--even achievement-worthy. Long-term aspirations can be fun.

What cool, nefarious, devious tricks have I missed here? What would YOU like to be able to do with an espionage system?
 
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Foefaller

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Espionage in general should:

-Have most actions support your military/diplomacy efforts, or require multiple smaller successes to build on each other. The paradox (no pun intended) of espionage is that successful espionage can come off as something unexpected which couldn't have been reasonably countered or prepared for, yet one of greatest truisms of video game design is, "Players despise nothing more than having to deal with something unexpected that they feel they could not have countered or prepared for." That's why most non-info gathering espionage in many games are so weak, because to feel "fair" the devs made them something you had to already be suffering greatly for them to be more than annoying. However, I think you could also have it where powerful espionage actions do exist, but require specific-yet-creatable circumstances (like propaganda being used to ease the conquest and integration of a colony) or be at the end of a chain of actions; to steal tech, you have to first get agents planted in their empire, then find a scientist (leader?) you can flip, then get them the resources they need to steal the info, then the actual act and getting it back home intact, with the target having an opportunity to catch wind and/or do something at every step. Which leads to my next point.

-Counterespionage also needs to be fun and engaging. With too many games the reward is "nothing bad happens," and that's unfortunately not usually motivating enough to take it seriously, which leads to not doing enough, which leads with getting hit with Spy actions that... wait for it... seem completely unexpected and impossible to reasonably counter or prepare for. To take the theoretical tech stealing chain, perhaps the scientist tips off intelligence that someone's tried to recruit them, or you've discovered that said scientist has turned coat. Instead of simply stopping it, you could instead have the option of sabotaging the saboteur. Have the scientist play double agent and feed them enemy false Intel about your research progress and the techs you have acquired, or maybe tamper the tech data they are trying to steal, and instead have it result in a nasty surprise that will be visible from orbit when they try to use it. Of course, they could find out the whole thing is compromised, and decide to cut and run... or pull a Kansas City Shuffle and trick you into giving a different, perhaps bigger payout.

-Finally, you should get updates on the effects of successful actions, especially ones related to sabatoge that might not he easy to spot the effects off. When you corrupt officials in EUIV, you never get to know how it hampered the nation targeted, or even if it bothered the nation at all, unless you are constantly refreshing the ledger, which makes weak actions seem even weaker and also feel like they exist solely for the AI to use to annoy and frustrate the player. If you incite unrest in a sector, you should get updates on how that has gone, whether it had hampered production, is drawing resources from other parts of the empire, or simply whimpered out without doing anything. If you have an inside person sending fleet movements, instead of LoS, might instead be regular updates on their size and the system they are in... not the least of which because presenting the info that way makes it easier to have a double agent trick you ;)

Anyway, that's sort of the overarching goals that I would like to see Paradox follow in their design. If there is one point I think is most important, it's counterespionage being rewarding for more than stopping bad things from happening. I mean, most people speak fondly of CKII intrigue, and IMO part of that is how you can use discovered plots as an excuse to imprison dangerous vassals, rather than limited to just asking them to stop.
 
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daniel060

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If there is one point I think is most important, it's counterespionage being rewarding for more than stopping bad things from happening.
I would personally LOVE to be following an event chain like the double-agent scientist you proposed, investing resources and winning small victories, all the while not sure if it's enough and trying to figure out which empire could possibly be behind it all. I would love for the ultimate payoff to be, "It was really THEM the whole time?? I didn't see THAT twist coming!"

Counterespionage could also give you opportunities to engage in your own shenanigans, or possibly information about what the target is doing to a third empire . . . which you could then decide to pass on (or not), with fun diplomatic consequences ensuing.
 

OnyxAbussos

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AVOID:
The temptation to turn it into a "random building or mining station blew up" mechanic.

DO:
Make it as much about political subterfuge and Intel gathering as possible. Example: The ST: New Horizons mod has a righteous mechanic for the Dominion. Do that, but add OP's non-sabotage suggestions.
 
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Geoarrge

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The combination of espionage and the sci-fi smorgasbord setting suggests strongly that there should be multiple ways to gain control over enemy leaders.

Long but low-tech method: Acquire your own population of the other empire's species, either by immigration, abduction, or cloning. Train infiltrators, have them work their way up the ranks.
Higher-tech options: Cybernetic mind control implants that could be hard to detect as long as you delay activation. Assassination and replacement with a clone or robotic replicant.
Shapeshifters: Could be a species trait (+% chance for spies to change identity and partially reset mission progress instead of being captured). Advanced and synth-compatible versions of the trait might require nanotech-related research. Could have the option to assassinate and replace, or infiltrate under a random identity.

A good question would be just how much benefit you should expect to get from having control of an empire's leaders. Just because you manage to compromise the head of state doesn't necessarily mean you should be able to force them to act against their interests to an unlimited extent.

---

While this isn't for going deep into mechanics, one good mechanic occurs to me which would prevent many of the things we've said we don't like. That is, to treat low-level infiltration as a kind of infrastructure or currency, that has to be built up to support any of the more interesting spy missions. This would limit spam tactics while also allowing the player to recover some assets from a failed mission.
 

Tamwin5

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Getting access to techs or boosts to techs would actually probably be mid level espionage operations (exceptions for advanced techs, like Mega Engineering or FE stuff). Something like compromising a scientist would be high level. Leaders in Stellaris are something that take a long time getting skilled, and the player often gets attached to. Being able to kill or convert them should be a long and hard process, with ample warnings and ability to push back.
 

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eaders in Stellaris are something that take a long time getting skilled, and the player often gets attached to.
... we do?
 

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If there is one point I think is most important, it's counterespionage being rewarding for more than stopping bad things from happening. I mean, most people speak fondly of CKII intrigue, and IMO part of that is how you can use discovered plots as an excuse to imprison dangerous vassals, rather than limited to just asking them to stop.
This is a good point in a post full of good points. The way I see espionage eventually working is as part of a system in which Factions are much less passive, actively attempting to force policy and diplomatic changes and the like on their host empires. Espionage would then largely involve funding Factions, getting them to push specific measures, and so forth. As a result, discovering a Faction was colluding with a foreign power could let the defending player use that information against them, much like imprisoning plotting vassals in CKII.
 

Tamwin5

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... we do?
...fair, for some people no. But if anything that's an argument for an expansion focused around leaders, so that they have more nuance and things to love. Leaders (at least your experienced/good trait ones) shouldn't be throw-away things you don't really care about loosing.
 

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What would YOU like to be able to do with an espionage system?
I would make it similar to Corruption in Empire at War: Forces of Corruption

- spies build a spy network on a planet
- once established you can build a spy building on the planet for influence and energy (like criminal heritage, but hidden)
- once the building is built you can chose the focus: Black Market (steal techs), Intel (show systems around the planet system), Free way (you can travel the system even with closed borders.)

Something like this.
 

Tamwin5

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I would make it similar to Corruption in Empire at War: Forces of Corruption

- spies build a spy network on a planet
- once established you can build a spy building on the planet for influence and energy (like criminal heritage, but hidden)
- once the building is built you can chose the focus: Black Market (steal techs), Intel (show systems around the planet system), Free way (you can travel the system even with closed borders.)

Something like this.
Hmm, I think there should both be localized espionage, requiring buildings on planets, and also empire-level espionage.

Local espionage would allow things like:
  • Vision in system (default)
  • A listening post to give vision to all systems within sensor range.
  • Create unrest to drop stability.
  • Support rebellion, for very unhappy or low stability planets.
  • Resource syphons, to drain a small amount of a planet's production.
  • Ethics shifting.
Empire Espionage would allow things like:
  • Knowledge of empire's borders. (this would be removed from being given away for free)
  • Relative Fleet, Economic, and Tech levels. (Again, removed from being automatic information)
  • Positions and/or strengths of Fleets. (ie. 1st Strike Fleet: 56k power OR 1st Strike Fleet is located in the Sol system)
  • Active trade deals (both with other empires and the Market)
  • Theft of technologies (would only be like 25% progress, NOT stackable with other thefts.)
  • Diplomatic incidents (lowering opinions of or from other empires.)
  • Influencing leaders (Making less effective, killing, or stealing.)
  • Messing with factions and institutions(when those are added).
  • Masking your fleets from their sensors.
  • Allowing open borders to your ships.
----
Local espionage would be primarily based on crime, in terms of effectiveness and countering. There would have to be a new system for empire level counter-espionage, which would both work against Empire level espionage, but also assist with the locating of local espionage, and perhaps a global crime reduction at high levels.
This would also pair very well with my Crime and Deviancy Expansion.
 

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As I've said before, espionage needs to actually be enjoyable, and it needs to fit the rest of the game. The shallow old "train spy, send spy to enemy, roll die, poof, enemy battlecruiser gone" approach, I wouldn't touch it with a 10 foot hydro spanner, and to be honest I do not see how people find it enjoyable.

CK2 nailed subterfuge because it fit so well with the overall theme of the game, heck, you can say it's one of the things the game is built around, and because it is so well woven into gameplay. It's not "lol I flipped coin and your castle fell down!", it's actual interaction with the other characters in the game, and as others said, it can be reacted to by for jailing the offending party or declaring wars. It's also not something you do in addition to the core CK2 gameplay, it is core gameplay, as much as marrying someone, declaring wars, tutoring your children, or raiding monasteries with your longships.

So: whatever "espionage" (a ridiculously broad term when used for 4X espionage, that seems to cover everything from spying on someone to sending a leet ninja specop agent to blow up a warship, but I digress) the devs model, it needs to fit the gameplay model and theme of Stellaris, in other words, it needs to feel as natural as sending a science ship out to study a solar system, negotiating open borders with aliens, or building new districts on a colony.

As for intel, this should be a continuous, passive thing like in HoI4, to be honest. Have it be determined by a number of factors, such as whether or not the empire has open borders, their civics and government type, their proximity to your trade lanes and planets, and so on. Come to think of it, HoI4 also has resistance fighters work like this, which also feels good gameplay-wise. You don't have "omg 007 snuck into our factory and blew it up!", it's "resistance activity in this state is pretty high and we have an inadquate garrison, so they're doing x amount of damage to our infrastructure and factories each month".

Edit: for example, Stellaris already has tech stealing -- in the form of sending science ships to scavenge technology from enemy wrecks. This utilises the existing system in that it's a science ship research project, it fits the theme of the game as reverse-engineering alien technology is works as a sci-fi trope, and at least in my opinion, it's fun and exciting. Also has a bit of a strategy and risk aspect to it, in that you need to have a science ship close to the frontline, and have it forego exploration or research assistance for a while to attempt to scan the enemy wrecks.
 
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Tamwin5

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As I've said before, espionage needs to actually be enjoyable, and it needs to fit the rest of the game. The shallow old "train spy, send spy to enemy, roll die, poof, enemy battlecruiser gone" approach, I wouldn't touch it with a 10 foot hydro spanner, and to be honest I do not see how people find it enjoyable.

CK2 nailed subterfuge because it fit so well with the overall theme of the game, heck, you can say it's one of the things the game is built around, and because it is so well woven into gameplay. It's not "lol I flipped coin and your castle fell down!", it's actual interaction with the other characters in the game, and as others said, it can be reacted to by for jailing the offending party or declaring wars. It's also not something you do in addition to the core CK2 gameplay, it is core gameplay, as much as marrying someone, declaring wars, tutoring your children, or raiding monasteries with your longships.

So: whatever "espionage" (a ridiculously broad term when used for 4X espionage, that seems to cover everything from spying on someone to sending a leet ninja specop agent to blow up a warship, but I digress) the devs model, it needs to fit the gameplay model and theme of Stellaris, in other words, it needs to feel as natural as sending a science ship out to study a solar system, negotiating open borders with aliens, or building new districts on a colony.

As for intel, this should be a continuous, passive thing like in HoI4, to be honest. Have it be determined by a number of factors, such as whether or not the empire has open borders, their civics and government type, their proximity to your trade lanes and planets, and so on. Come to think of it, HoI4 also has resistance fighters work like this, which also feels good gameplay-wise. You don't have "omg 007 snuck into our factory and blew it up!", it's "resistance activity in this state is pretty high and we have an inadquate garrison, so they're doing x amount of damage to our infrastructure and factories each month".
While I completely agree with your basic premise, I think that in the case of stellaris, making Spying fit the rest of the game would be having it be some events or modifiers with rolls and coin flips. Which, as you said, is what a lot of 4Xs do, and tends to be a horrible implementation.

Imo, the only way to achieve your premise, as well as your goal of making espionage part of core gameplay, is to completely overhaul the existing diplomatic system. Build it from the ground up, with espionage being woven in. This makes discussion harder, as you really need to know how the new core mechanics of diplomacy would work before trying to brainstorm how Espionage would work in that system.
 

Narva

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While I completely agree with your basic premise, I think that in the case of stellaris, making Spying fit the rest of the game would be having it be some events or modifiers with rolls and coin flips. Which, as you said, is what a lot of 4Xs do, and tends to be a horrible implementation.

Imo, the only way to achieve your premise, as well as your goal of making espionage part of core gameplay, is to completely overhaul the existing diplomatic system. Build it from the ground up, with espionage being woven in. This makes discussion harder, as you really need to know how the new core mechanics of diplomacy would work before trying to brainstorm how Espionage would work in that system.
If we're talking about reworking diplomacy, @Alblaka produced the best system concept I've ever seen.
 

Tamwin5

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If we're talking about reworking diplomacy, @Alblaka produced the best system concept I've ever seen.
Oh 100%, incredibly good proposal. Saw it before, will likely see it again. REALLY tempted to necro that thread, but I'll leave it.

So assuming that is how diplomacy works, Espionage would probably work in a similar way. Let's say you have a diplomat slot for counter espionage, and then can assign diplomats to be spies. Due to the fact that diplomats have a limit of one per empire, I think that espionage should be a separate slot, so that you can both diplomacy and spy at the same time. Unlike Diplomats, spying does not default to the ruler: if no spy is assigned, you can't do anything espionage related. Diplomat can still hold several positions, across both diplomat and spy positions. A spy would contest their level and skill against that of the Diplomat in the Counter-Espionage position of the other empire. While assigned spies wouldn't directly have defensive abilities, I think that there might be an offesive espionage action that gives you defense against that empire. This way trying to go "full defense" carries risk, and you can be caught.

There would be certain things that gives bonuses to the progression of espionage actions
  • If the spy is of a species who has citizen rights in the other empire(an actual pop of that species must be present).
  • If the spy is the current diplomat to that empire (bonus doubled if ongoing treaty is being worked on)
  • Open Borders/migration treaty
  • Active Trade deal/Commercial pact.
  • Are allies (defensive pact, subject or overlord, federation)
And certain things that would give reduce progression.
  • At war
  • Empire has default rights be purging and you don't have any species that aren't being purged in your empire (might be hard to code though?)
  • Far away/no route to borders.
  • Empire was recently a victim of espionage.
  • Empire has completed espionage action to gain insight on your operations.
  • Empire has Enigmatic Engineering.
Similarly to the diplomatic tension that can cause a diplomatic action to fail, Espionage actions would have a "cover" bar, that would decrease. If your cover is fully blown, then your operation fails, the other empire will know you did it, and they can choose to announce it to the galaxy. For Espionage, I don't think you should be able to just stop and leave with no penalties if you are close to being blown though. So in order to stop an ongoing Espionage Operation, you can choose to either cut it loose, which immediately stops the operation, but gives a significant malus to future covert operations in that empire for the next ~10 years, or you can try to withdraw, which reduces the progression down to 0(at a accelerated rate, as you are no longer being countered by spy defense), while your cover is still decreasing. Once progress is at 0, you have successfully withdrawn.

I imagine there would be an edict, that for 100? influence would tell you/gives hints as to hostile espionage actions active in your empire (we have discovered an automated program copying research data), but not who is doing them. It would also give a significant 1 time decease of cover for all espionage operations currently underway.

The big problem I'm spotting with this is that it only works for a one-time operation. Something that would be ongoing (like an information net, or ethics shifting) wouldn't really work as stated, and would need a new system, or have to be renewed every x years.
 

Narva

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Oh 100%, incredibly good proposal. Saw it before, will likely see it again. REALLY tempted to necro that thread, but I'll leave it.

So assuming that is how diplomacy works, Espionage would probably work in a similar way. Let's say you have a diplomat slot for counter espionage, and then can assign diplomats to be spies. Due to the fact that diplomats have a limit of one per empire, I think that espionage should be a separate slot, so that you can both diplomacy and spy at the same time. Unlike Diplomats, spying does not default to the ruler: if no spy is assigned, you can't do anything espionage related. Diplomat can still hold several positions, across both diplomat and spy positions. A spy would contest their level and skill against that of the Diplomat in the Counter-Espionage position of the other empire. While assigned spies wouldn't directly have defensive abilities, I think that there might be an offesive espionage action that gives you defense against that empire. This way trying to go "full defense" carries risk, and you can be caught.

There would be certain things that gives bonuses to the progression of espionage actions
  • If the spy is of a species who has citizen rights in the other empire(an actual pop of that species must be present).
  • If the spy is the current diplomat to that empire (bonus doubled if ongoing treaty is being worked on)
  • Open Borders/migration treaty
  • Active Trade deal/Commercial pact.
  • Are allies (defensive pact, subject or overlord, federation)
And certain things that would give reduce progression.
  • At war
  • Empire has default rights be purging and you don't have any species that aren't being purged in your empire (might be hard to code though?)
  • Far away/no route to borders.
  • Empire was recently a victim of espionage.
  • Empire has completed espionage action to gain insight on your operations.
  • Empire has Enigmatic Engineering.
Similarly to the diplomatic tension that can cause a diplomatic action to fail, Espionage actions would have a "cover" bar, that would decrease. If your cover is fully blown, then your operation fails, the other empire will know you did it, and they can choose to announce it to the galaxy. For Espionage, I don't think you should be able to just stop and leave with no penalties if you are close to being blown though. So in order to stop an ongoing Espionage Operation, you can choose to either cut it loose, which immediately stops the operation, but gives a significant malus to future covert operations in that empire for the next ~10 years, or you can try to withdraw, which reduces the progression down to 0(at a accelerated rate, as you are no longer being countered by spy defense), while your cover is still decreasing. Once progress is at 0, you have successfully withdrawn.

I imagine there would be an edict, that for 100? influence would tell you/gives hints as to hostile espionage actions active in your empire (we have discovered an automated program copying research data), but not who is doing them. It would also give a significant 1 time decease of cover for all espionage operations currently underway.

The big problem I'm spotting with this is that it only works for a one-time operation. Something that would be ongoing (like an information net, or ethics shifting) wouldn't really work as stated, and would need a new system, or have to be renewed every x years.
This makes sense to me - I think the key would be to allow the target empire to find out that the operation is happening (though not necessarily what it is or who it's by) well before its cover is blown. This would provide space for options to actively counter the espionage 'attack', which would in turn allow espionage to do more powerful things without it being frustrating. (Blowing-my-own-trumpet time: I actually wrote an article for RockPaperShotgun about a system like this a couple of years ago, although the details of that idea aren't all that Stellaris-y.)

For long-term things like information nets or ethics-shifting efforts, it might make more sense to have them like secret buildings based on planets, as @Tamwin5 suggested. The counterespionage character could then be dispatched to planets to try and root out enemy spy networks there, at a penalty to overall espionage defence, to create an interesting tradeoff for the defending character. Between these systems, the sort of more ambitious espionage actions suggested here might work:

Hmm, I think there should both be localized espionage, requiring buildings on planets, and also empire-level espionage.

Local espionage would allow things like:
  • Vision in system (default)
  • A listening post to give vision to all systems within sensor range.
  • Create unrest to drop stability.
  • Support rebellion, for very unhappy or low stability planets.
  • Resource syphons, to drain a small amount of a planet's production.
  • Ethics shifting.
Empire Espionage would allow things like:
  • Knowledge of empire's borders. (this would be removed from being given away for free)
  • Relative Fleet, Economic, and Tech levels. (Again, removed from being automatic information)
  • Positions and/or strengths of Fleets. (ie. 1st Strike Fleet: 56k power OR 1st Strike Fleet is located in the Sol system)
  • Active trade deals (both with other empires and the Market)
  • Theft of technologies (would only be like 25% progress, NOT stackable with other thefts.)
  • Diplomatic incidents (lowering opinions of or from other empires.)
  • Influencing leaders (Making less effective, killing, or stealing.)
  • Messing with factions and institutions(when those are added).
  • Masking your fleets from their sensors.
  • Allowing open borders to your ships.
----
Local espionage would be primarily based on crime, in terms of effectiveness and countering. There would have to be a new system for empire level counter-espionage, which would both work against Empire level espionage, but also assist with the locating of local espionage, and perhaps a global crime reduction at high levels.
This would also pair very well with my Crime and Deviancy Expansion.
The idea of keeping more information about other empires from the player would also fit well with Stellaris' exploration theme, and dovetail nicely with, oh, I don't know, an improved first contact system.
 

daniel060

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Imo, the only way to achieve your premise, as well as your goal of making espionage part of core gameplay, is to completely overhaul the existing diplomatic system. Build it from the ground up, with espionage being woven in. This makes discussion harder, as you really need to know how the new core mechanics of diplomacy would work before trying to brainstorm how Espionage would work in that system.
I agree with this point, and I agree that diplomacy SHOULD be reworked, and soon. I'm not sure that I'm completely on board with the other thread's suggestion, but even diplomacy a bit more like EUIV would be nice at this point.
 

Tamwin5

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This makes sense to me - I think the key would be to allow the target empire to find out that the operation is happening (though not necessarily what it is or who it's by) well before its cover is blown. This would provide space for options to actively counter the espionage 'attack', which would in turn allow espionage to do more powerful things without it being frustrating. (Blowing-my-own-trumpet time: I actually wrote an article for RockPaperShotgun about a system like this a couple of years ago, although the details of that idea aren't all that Stellaris-y.)

For long-term things like information nets or ethics-shifting efforts, it might make more sense to have them like secret buildings based on planets, as @Tamwin5 suggested. The counterespionage character could then be dispatched to planets to try and root out enemy spy networks there, at a penalty to overall espionage defence, to create an interesting tradeoff for the defending character. Between these systems, the sort of more ambitious espionage actions suggested here might work:


The idea of keeping more information about other empires from the player would also fit well with Stellaris' exploration theme, and dovetail nicely with, oh, I don't know, an improved first contact system.
I'm glad you like both of my suggestions for espionage :p (not sure if you realized I was the author of both posts you quoted) I also really like both your improved first contact system, and the article your wrote.

Thinking about this, I'm tempted to make defense be sector based. That way you might have a top agent defending your core worlds, but some outer rim only gets the partial attention of a low level diplomat. The question then becomes how does empire level stuff work? Is there a separate empire level counter-espionage position? Do all empire level actions count as happening in the core sector? I'm leaning towards the second. That way an empire's core sector naturally has the highest defense against planet-side actions.

I think a system where you have to build up a contact network would be good. That way, if you have to cut an operation, it's a significant cost. In some cases, it might be worth it to let your spy get caught and be revealed, but be able to keep your high-level network in place. You can only build a network in a sector that you have vision on(and have translated the language of the empire), or have a network in an adjacent sector. A level 1 spy network would give you the map for that sector (but not active vision), so it would be the main way to try and determine the extent of another empire that isn't openly sharing. A spy network can be used to do local actions, likely at a system or planet level.

For empire actions, they would either be doable from any sector (using that sector's network level), only from the core sector, doable from any sector but bonuses from the core(or penalties if not core), or based on all networks with a weighted average of them or something like that. I'd personally go for the third option, as it's the easiest to understand and makes sense. It also gives you extra incentive for trying to build up a spy network against the best counter-espionage agent in the other empire, as otherwise you'd always use the lowest security sector to build up your network.

Building up a network should probably have increasing time and resource cost, with the time increase scaling more than the bonus from setting up a network gives (or network doesn't apply a bonus to itself). That way your maximum network is determined by the difference in skill level of your agent and the counter-espionage agent against them. Maybe have a system where other networks in the empire assist with getting to the next level? So having 1 other level 1 to get to 2, 2 other level 2s to get to three, 3 levels 3s, etc. I want to encourage having multiple networks, but that might be too much though. Maybe instead a discount if you already have another network at that level or above? The cost of a spy network would probably influence and energy.

Next, the "cover" bar that ticks down:
  • 20% the targeted empire gets a notification that there is suspicious activity in X sector. There would also be a chance of this notification happening randomly, so you aren't sure if it's a false alarm or not. You could then shift your diplomats around to put a high level one or one with good traits to defend that sector, or pay influence for an edict to take a chance of cover off.
  • 50% cover loss the target empire gets an event confirming the espionage activity and telling what the target is... but not exactly what is being done (ie messing with population could be ethics shift, lowering stability, raising crime, or encouraging rebellion). Here the targetted player can take actions to lower the effciency of the targeted thing to make espionage progress harder: Giving a leader 24/7 bodyguards and oversight, monitoring all transmissions to scientific databases, etc. Note that this is based solely on cover, not how much progress has been made: an interesting meta might be to use level 1 spies to try and bait responses, getting an empire to gimp themselves in paranoia.
  • 80% cover loss the target empire knows roughly how far along the espionage actions has progressed. Is it a bait, with no hope of succeeding? Almost completed with non hope of stopping it? Is it worth it to try and burn influence to counter this?
  • 90% The target empire knows exactly what is being attempted. If the espionage action is completed while above 90% cover loss, then their involvement is revealed to the host empire, as well as the leader heading the operation, even as the goal is achieved.
  • 95% cover loss, if the goal is achieved the spy is still captured.
  • 100% The action fails. The empire behind it is revealed, the spy is captured, and the Spy network the operation was launched form looses 1 level.
If an empire is trying to withdraw, the target empire gets a notification/event when they are 1/3 third withdrawn. The defending empire can choose to either attempt to catch them before they leave, or let them go and get a small amount of influence (like 25). If an empire cuts loose an operation, they can choose to save either the spy network or the leader.

So what happens if the spy is captured? There would be a number of options:
  • Execute and announce: The spy is killed, and a negative opinion modifier is given to the red-handed empire.
  • Execute silently: The spy is killed, you gain a small amount of influence.
  • Return and announce: The spy is returned, and a negative option modifier is given. This would also give you a positive opinion with some empires.
  • Return silently: The spy is returned, and the empire gains a positive opinion modifier towards you.
  • Return and humiliate: The spy is returned, and the other empire is humiliated. There would be a couple of different events/options for this one that may give the leader negative traits or other things.
  • Imprison and announce: The spy is kept in prison, and a negative opinion modifier is given to the red-handed empire.
  • Imprison silently: The spy is kept in prison, you gain a small amount of influence.
  • Interrogate: The spy is kept in prison and "convinced" to "cooperate". You gain a bonus in espionage against the empire(possibly only lasting X years?)
  • Prisoner exchange: trade the spy for one of your spies imprisoned by another empire (they must agree).
This might be a few too many options, but it could be condensed by making the first option be "Imprison, Execute, or Release" and then a sub-option from there. My main goal with this was to allow spies to be executed, but give strong incentives to releasing spies. The opinion loss for spying would likely depend on how much an empire likes/hates the target empire: Nobody is going to blame you for trying to infiltrate those fanatic purifiers.

(this response was written over several days, so apologies for any repetition or confusion)
 

Narva

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(not sure if you realized I was the author of both posts you quoted)
You're quite right, I didn't. Derp.
Thinking about this, I'm tempted to make defense be sector based. That way you might have a top agent defending your core worlds, but some outer rim only gets the partial attention of a low level diplomat. The question then becomes how does empire level stuff work? Is there a separate empire level counter-espionage position? Do all empire level actions count as happening in the core sector? I'm leaning towards the second. That way an empire's core sector naturally has the highest defense against planet-side actions.

I think a system where you have to build up a contact network would be good. That way, if you have to cut an operation, it's a significant cost. In some cases, it might be worth it to let your spy get caught and be revealed, but be able to keep your high-level network in place. You can only build a network in a sector that you have vision on(and have translated the language of the empire), or have a network in an adjacent sector. A level 1 spy network would give you the map for that sector (but not active vision), so it would be the main way to try and determine the extent of another empire that isn't openly sharing. A spy network can be used to do local actions, likely at a system or planet level.

For empire actions, they would either be doable from any sector (using that sector's network level), only from the core sector, doable from any sector but bonuses from the core(or penalties if not core), or based on all networks with a weighted average of them or something like that. I'd personally go for the third option, as it's the easiest to understand and makes sense. It also gives you extra incentive for trying to build up a spy network against the best counter-espionage agent in the other empire, as otherwise you'd always use the lowest security sector to build up your network.

Building up a network should probably have increasing time and resource cost, with the time increase scaling more than the bonus from setting up a network gives (or network doesn't apply a bonus to itself). That way your maximum network is determined by the difference in skill level of your agent and the counter-espionage agent against them. Maybe have a system where other networks in the empire assist with getting to the next level? So having 1 other level 1 to get to 2, 2 other level 2s to get to three, 3 levels 3s, etc. I want to encourage having multiple networks, but that might be too much though. Maybe instead a discount if you already have another network at that level or above? The cost of a spy network would probably influence and energy.
Sector-based defence is a good idea. It allows a gradient of complexity over the early game - you start with one head of counterintelligence, who deals with core sector and empire-level threats, and then once you start having other sectors you have to assign counterintelligence agents to handle those. With the limit on the number of characters you can have in your employ, it could become an interesting resource-allocation decision.

Do you see the network level as being an expendable resource that you build up and then burn to carry out operations, or something that lasts unless you get unlucky? I prefer the first option - it prevents you from spamming higher-level operations once you've got a high network level. Higher-level networks could also have higher risk of detection or infiltration by counterespionage agents, so building up for something big would have a greater element of risk to it than going for little wins.

Substituting assets of various kinds (say, military, economic, cultural, and scientific) for the more abstract network level stat, with different operations needing to burn different kinds of asset, as in the RPS article, would also allow the defender some options - they could order their counterespionage officer to focus on detecting assets of one category or another. Then there could be various kinds of counterespionage assets, which they could positively use to expose elements of hostile operations. They might cultivate a mole in an enemy network, for example, which lets them know everything that enemy's up to in that sector until the mole is exposed, giving the defending player an interesting choice - do they let an operation through, so as not to lose their mole, or use it and lose it?

The risk of this sort of system is that it could spiral in complexity indefinitely - the trick, I guess, is making it simple enough that it fits into the rest of the game, without sacrificing the back-and-forth aspect of it. I think encouraging having multiple networks isn't a great idea for this reason - it'd be more easily manageable for players to have just 1-4 galaxy-wide at any given time, depending how much of their character allowance they dedicate to espionage, with each network only operative if you have a spy character assigned to it.

It's also important that players can't just win at spying by throwing resources at the problem - the system should act as an anti-snowballing measure, as larger empires become more vulnerable without gaining a significant offensive advantage from their size and wealth. So, for example, additional network levels or assets might be produced automatically by the spy characters over time, according to their level, skills, and any helpful civics/techs/traditions/perks you might have, rather than being purchaseable for resources.