If you are unfamiliar with the new Intelligence and Espionage mechanics in the Nemesis DLC consider reading up on it in my article here.
The new layered fog of war introduced by the Nemesis DLC makes this build possible. Now that information on rivals is not automatically doled out on contact there now emerges the potential to create an empire which is quite opaque to scrutiny and yet also quite able to uncover the secrets of others.
An empire which sees, yet remains unseen, is able to strike when it is to advantage and conceal weaknesses. It can break up united fronts by sowing discord amongst allies.
The espionage build is the dark opposite to the diplomat build. Where the diplomat shares information; we steal it and conceal our own. Where the diplomat builds partnerships; we stay apart and disrupt the partnerships of others. Where the diplomat pools research efforts; we steal it. Where the diplomat opens borders to migration; we slip in to snatch slaves when defences are down.
The Skaven Supremacy is my humble attempt to create such pure espionage focused empire for the regular organic empires. Mega corps and Gestalt Consciousnesses would have to be built and function differently. I will attempt alternative espionage builds for them another time.
The Skaven Supremacy is inspired by the Skaven from the legendary tabletop wargame called Warhammer Fantasy Battles. Those familiar with that game will see how this build is very reminiscent of the Warhammer Skaven’s ratty flavour.
Civics: Cutthroat Politics, Shadow Council
The key civics for a pure espionage build are Cutthroat Politics which gives us +1 to Codebreaking. Codebreaking helps us with gaining Intel from Infiltration as well as carrying out espionage Operations. This civic also reduces the cost of edicts and there are a few edicts which we can get later that have espionage benefits.
The other civic we start with is Shadow Council. We mainly want this for the +10 to maximum Infiltration. The main way to increase Infiltration cap is through Acquiring Assets, each one adds +5 to our Infiltration cap. Assets cost though so this bonus allows us to passively get deeper Intel and Infiltration at less cost.
The other benefits of Shadow Council are a hefty reduction in the influence cost of stealing elections and a bonus to Ruler Pop’s resource output. We can make use of both but only the election discount is particularly relevant to the espionage focus in that it saves us some influence.
Ethics: Fanatic Xenophobe, Authoritarian
Fanatic Xenophobe is suggested because in order to go dark to rival empires we need to avoid taking any diplomatic pacts with anyone. We want to make infiltration the only way for our information to get out and then we want to make that hard. Diplomatic pacts have their advantages though so the benefits of Xenophobe to birthrate and influence can help us to mitigate that loss. It also unlocks the use of slavery and purging which can help us gain diverse pops for working planets with low habitability without migration pacts. We will also need it for our first Ascension Perk which will be Nihilistic Acquisition.
Authoritarian gives us more influence and a bonus to worker output. It is not strictly necessary to an espionage build. We can use the influence for edicts and expansion. Egalitarian can also do this for us but it synergies less well with slavery. Authoritarian gives us access to stratified society and that helps let us ignore the unhappiness of the slaves.
Alternative ethics to consider would be Militarist and Materialist but at that point the build would be less of a pure espionage build and more of a hybrid build.
You might think Xenophile is fair choice for the extra envoys but when we are doing no diplomacy at all then we really only need a few envoys anyway, just for espionage. Moreover Xenophile prevents us taking Xenophobe. Certain edicts can get us extra envoys when we need them. We might also take Diplomatic Corps as our third civic for more envoys. And we can use sleeper cells to redeploy our envoys without losing Infiltration for a time.
We should be focusing our espionage on our immediate targets for slave raiding or conquest. Thus while envoys are critical to our game we do not need so many as our diplomatic counterpart.
Government: Dictatorship or Oligarchy
For government type I would go with Dictatorship but Oligarchy can also work. In Nemesis Dictatorship now reduces the sprawl penalty for pops. This is useful for us because we do need big population growth by virtue of standing alone. This helps us stand against more gregarious associations. However the sprawl penalty is also a benefit to those seeking to infiltrate us so the smaller we can keep that the better we can keep our secrets. Dictatorships have very few elections since they do not happen until the ruler dies, which makes the election discount from Shadow Council a bit less valuable.
As an alternative Oligarchy gives us more frequent elections and more influence from factions. This is fine although I consider the sprawl discount from Dictatorship to be superior for a pure espionage build.
Imperial is even less ideal since although the extra sprawl free edict is nice to have it disallows Shadow Council. Democracy requires us to give up on using the Authoritarian ethic and although the frequent elections makes Shadow Council more strong the bonus to automatic migration is of less benefit to a society with substantial slavery.
Species Traits: Rapid Breeders, Natural Physicists, Communal, Fleeting and Decadent
Natural Physicists can help us get the few espionage related techs which are in the Physics tree under the Computing specialism. Communal helps us reduce our housing needs with our swelling population and this indirectly helps us keep our sprawl penalty down since housing mainly comes from districts which cost sprawl. Rapid Breeders stacking with Fanatic Xenophobe will give us an epic population growth rate which of course helps us with the economic penalties associated with avoiding diplomatic pacts and practising economic Autarky.
Fleeting lowers our leader’s life expectancy but that matters not so much for us because our envoys are our most important leaders and they as yet have no skills to lose. Perhaps in later versions of the game where envoys may behave more like other leaders then Fleeting may make less sense. Fleeting also has the quiet benefit for us of allowing us get ruler elections a little more often.
Decadent lowers the happiness of our species when they are slaves and workers but the happiness of slaves and workers hardly matters under Authoritarianism and Stratified Society. And as we acquire slaves from rival empires less and less of our own species will even be in those positions.
As it turns out these traits make a great approximation of the Skaven from Warhammer Fantasy Battles too.
I chose Remnants because with our ferocious birthrate we want a high capacity homeworld for our species. The Remnant home world can be converted into an Ecumenopolis quite early. Of course a Ring World could also do this for us but that has the hidden penalty of locking our natural habitat to Ring Worlds. Whereas with the Remnant home world we can retain a normal preferred planetary habitat for more opportunities to expand to new worlds. I see us using the low habitability planets in our domain by working our slaves there, keeping just a few of our species in the ruler jobs.
It so happens that for our skaven like species to originate in a gigantic scrap pile that it makes a fair proxy for Skavenblight, the capital of the Warhammer Skaven.
Clearing all the tile blockers on remnant worlds is a lot cheaper with the adoption perk from the Domination Tree which is a tree we are going to take early anyway.
Being a specialist in espionage we must be by default mediocre or poor at everything else: diplomacy, economy, technology and military. We must effectively leverage our strength to cover our weaknesses.
Being mediocre at warring and being anti-social suggests Rapid Early Expansion (REX) as the key thrust for our opening moves. Everything that is not us is an enemy so we will make us as big as possible while expansion is easy.
The first point in Traditions will go into Discovery for the Map the Stars edict but all the rest will be poured into the Expansion Tree until it is complete.
We will build a good number of science ships to survey as much as possible along the main routes away skipping over dead ends and loops for back filling later. Following behind our construction ship will claim all the stars along the main routes away. We might even build a second construction ship.
We should have plenty of Influence for claims from our Authoritarian ethic, cheap edicts from Cutthroat Politics and the Expansionist policy. The other crucial resource will be alloys for starbases. We may hold off on colonising nearby worlds keeping the alloys for grabbing territory instead.
The first Ascension Perk from completing the Expansion tree will be Nihilistic Acquisition. After Expansion we will go down Domination. The adoption perk will make clearing the blockages on our Remnant homeworld cheaper. Domination will also get us another edict Enhanced Surveillance which will increase our Encryption and give us another envoy.
Once we have largely done with the REX phase we can change out of the Expansionist policy into the Isolationist policy. This will give us a boost to Administrative Capacity and Unity production.
When Domination is done our second Ascension Perk will be Enigmatic Engineering for another +2 to Encryption.
Sooner or later our restless expansion is bound to bump up against a rival and we will get our first contact. We will take the hostile approach for the increase in infiltration speed. After first-contact our envoy will go straight into establishing a Spy Network assuming the contact is a regular empire. Our first contact is likely to be our nearest neighbour and our first enemy.
We will not rush into burning Infiltration on Operations but instead patiently allow Infiltration to accumulate to the Infiltration Cap. Then we will start Acquiring Assets to push up the cap and acquire special skills for later Operations.
Neither will we be rushing into building up a fleet. That expense can wait until we have run out of easy expansion. Our increasing Encryption should hide our weakness for a good long time.
We should hope for neighbours who are not Gestalt Consciousnesses. They are naturally resilient to our main weapons. If we do get one as a neighbour then if it is not our only way to expand we should take a defensive stance against them and focus our aggression elsewhere.
Once we have filled out to our borders and accumulated deep Intel on our neighbours it is time to start wearing them down one at a time.
Against neighbours in Federations or with Defensive Pacts we will begin Operations like Smear Campaign and Diplomatic Incident to begin splitting them up from their allies.
Against Neighbours with a tech advantage we will narrow the gap with some Steal Technology Operations.
Now we build up a fast substantial fleet for raiding pops. With the benefit of our deep Intel over their domain we can find the path of least resistance to the juiciest colonies and avoid their stronger fleets and heaviest defences.
Alongside our raids we can use the Sabotage Starbase Operation to help bypass Starbases in the way. It may help knock out some base defences. Also we can use the Privateer Operation to distract their fleets away from our raiders and further hit their economy.
The culmination of this harrying will be a neighbour bereft of allies and weakened from loss of population. After repeated harrying they shall become vulnerable to conquest by us even with our modest fighting power.
As so we shall grow like a rot…