31: Lessons from a Failed Invasion

2009-11-01

Invasions are one of the more common events in nullsec, yet they are always the focus of intense interest, captivating the attention of the playerbase. The vast majority of invasions fail, with the aggressing alliance falling afoul of the defender’s forces, running out of momentum, or suffering a grievous self-inflicted error in judgement. In short, odds are good that an invasion in nullsec is going to be an utter trainwreck, and on the off chance that things go smoothly, the carnage on the defending side (and the ensuing drama and cascade) is just as entertaining.

Yet despite the commonality of invasions in nullsec and their repeated public failures, the actual mechanics of why invasions fail is rarely discussed. Usually, the aggressing party retreats to lick its wounds while loudly trumpeting obscurantist propaganda to cover the shame of failure. Lies and deception are a critical aspect of war, and in EVE as in real life the old chestnut of ‘attacking in the other direction’ isn’t just a terrible cliche, it’s common practice.

Recently, my alliance invaded Esoteria to assault the residents there, Systematic Chaos (SysK). Like most invasions, things went terribly wrong and we ran into the spaceship-game equivalent of a brick wall. But rather than trumpet the old bromides to mask a failure (“We’re better than you” or “We still control your game”), let’s have a sober look at an assault gone awry.

Like most invasions, failures began adding up in the planning stage. Three occurred before a shot was fired.

EVE is a spaceship game, and sometimes people get bored. Actually, an awful lot of the time. Some wars are started out of a need for an alliance to grow to deal with an expanding membership; some are motivated by personal, long-standing grudges. Goonswarm invaded SysK because the directorate were bored and had nothing better to do. Initially we went to Esoteria to help a few dissident corporations in SysK overthrow their leader, who had allegedly been treating them like pets. But once we arrived, that situation had changed and the corporations we hoped to help had backed out of their plan. We then concocted a reason to excuse our boredom, something about “removing SysK to change the balance of power between GS and Stainwagon,” the power bloc SysK is a member of, but that rationale doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny – defensive war brings blocs closer together, rather than breaking them apart. If you’re going to throw an invasion, do it for a hard, obvious reason. If it takes longer than 15 seconds to explain, you need a better cassus belli. Invasions require a clear objective.

Having decided to go to war with SysK ‘because’, the Goonswarm directorate announced this Grand New Plan to the membership in an offhand way. There was no propaganda campaign to get pilots fired up, engaged and interested in the adventure. Wars, like all mass movements, need to be sold. When the invasion began to falter due to a crushing lack of interest on the part of our pilots, the directorate backed up and attempted to explain why we were in Esoteria – only to run afoul of the ’15 second rule’ mentioned above. But regardless of twisted rationales, all invasions need to begin with a drumming up of support and interest. If you begin the process after the first shots have been fired, you seem like you’re trying to dig yourself out of a hole, rather than rallying around the flag.

A proper invasion can’t be delegated to a small group of people. Directors tend to have critical positions in an alliance, and those positions have necessary functions. When we ran into Esoteria, the whole show was being managed on a day-to-day basis by a bare handful of directors; the rest of the ‘leadership’ was blissfully ignoring the war and going about their usual business (stealing moon goo, no doubt). When things began going hellishly wrong, the directors ‘in the know’ were overwhelmed with work, and those who hadn’t been paying attention to the war couldn’t help shoulder the burden. Director disengagement at the outset of the war was a killer.

Once battle was joined and Goonswarm was knee deep into Esoteria, things began to fly apart at the seams at the strategic level. Strategy in EVE is a hard concept to grasp, given the many nuances and irrationalities of sov warfare. However, with an engaged directorate and a clear goal for a war, a consensus can develop which protects an invasion from the more obvious blunders. Having neither of these, Goonswarm wallowed about making newbie alliance mistakes. For example, the hardest target for an alliance to attack is an enemy outpost (as opposed to a R64 moon, a bridge tower or a CSAA tower). Goonswarm attacked SysK with their allies Zenith Affinity, a younger and less numerous alliance. However, rather than sending the main force against the hardest target, Goonswarm deployed against a bridge system and Zenith Affinity attacked an outpost. Not wise! Then we deployed the wrong sort of tower to try to seize the bridge system – ‘deathstars’ rather than ‘dickstars’, in nullsec parlance. Our previous errors in planning blossomed into errors in practice.

In addition, we had screwed up the diplomatic side of war. When you think about invading a target and you run the idea past your allies and friends and they respond with crushing disinterest, that needs to be carefully weighted. The reaction of our war-buddies and allies to the Esoteria adventure was a resounding ‘meh’. We went through with it anyway, and found ourselves fighting nearly alone, save for Zenith Affinity. By contrast, SysK had friends close at hand geographically and motivated emotionally. Goonswarm’s allies had nothing to gain from attacking SysK (just like Goonswarm had nothing to gain) while SysK and their allies were fighting to protect a near and dear friend. This little miscalculation saw the normally blobtastic Swarm outnumbered 700:100 at one point. Yikes. If you’re going to invade somewhere, make sure you consider the diplomatic situation more carefully than we did.

Of particular embarrassment to me, the espionage angle of the invasion was completely neglected. Because SysK was no real strategic threat to Goonswarm, we had practically no intelligence on them, and no GIA agents deployed to their alliance. We went to war blind anyway, and my network hadn’t done any real preparation – again, the fault of director disengagement, but a special black mark for me.

That is quite a laundry list. Within about five days, the invasion of Esoteria was faltering, SysK’s allies were energized and engaged, and we were the butt of even more jokes than usual. Even though Goonswarm is not an ‘Elite’ alliance – we readily admit we’re terrible at the game – this was bad, even for us. However, amidst all of the idiocy, we did manage to do one thing right – we acknowledged that the situation was unsalvageable and severed.

When faced with trying to belatedly sell the war in Esoteria, we half-ironically settled on a Vietnam gimmick. The problem with so many mishandled invasions is that they end up quagmiring, like a real-life Vietnam or Afghanistan. Having made an obvious series of blunders, invading forces will most of the time double down, throwing more pilots and towers into a war which, viewed clearly, has already failed. Alliance leaders are politicians, even in a spaceship game; losing a war is hard, but admitting defeat is even worse.

The second most common alternative to doubling down is lying furiously while trying to escape with dignity, but this tends to result in a public relations disaster. So many invasions have failed in EVE over the years that all but the most sycophantic of observers can see when an attacker has embarrassed themselves. In 2008, BoB loudly proclaimed that their failed MAX campaign against the Northern Coalition wasn’t actually a disaster. After suffering a series of losses, they abruptly moved to the other side of the galaxy and began attacking Goonswarm. ‘Attacking elsewhere’ fooled no one; they were mocked unceasingly for months.

The hardest choice is to cut one’s losses, opting for a quick and unsubtle severance of the attack. This is, to our credit, what Goonswarm did in Esoteria. By not dragging out the war and admitting defeat, an item of daily news and drama dropped off the playerbase’s radar in record time; one of the big problems with doubling down on a failing invasion is that it drags out the ‘news cycle’ for the chattering classes to giggle over. From messy invasion to abrupt withdrawal, the SysK/GS war was in the spotlight for less than a week, and quickly overwhelmed by more interesting stories, such as CVA’s disbanding due to a hacker and IT Alliance’s formation and well-publicized assault on Pandemic Legion (which is going about as well as these things typically do).

The essence of wisdom is learning from the mistakes of others; perhaps you can profit from our errors. Good luck with your next invasion, and try not to repeat these common mistakes – or let your leaders get away with lying to you about them.

Commentary

Whoops! This is why making war just when your alliance is bored is a bad idea. Our enemies who remember this escapade will still periodically throw it in our faces, because – besides the Delve sov welp – it’s one of our few total strategic failures. That said, we learned a lot from the experience.

This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by The Mittani.

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