AI War:Scouting Best Practices
What's The Best Way To Handle Scouting?
Q: When I send out scouts, they don't make it very far -- a planet or two away, at most. How am I supposed to figure out where stuff is? This is especially noticeable when I play on higher difficulty levels.
A: This is a very important topic, since good scouting is so crucial to your success. You can't decide where to send your offensive forces if you don't have intel on where your goals are (your earliest goal: finding as many Advanced Research Stations as possible).
Tactic 1: Unlock Higher Level Scouts
In a multiplayer game, the best approach is to have one player specialize in scouts. They can unlock Mark II and Mark III scouts relatively quickly, and then if they gain control of an Advanced Factory, they can build the incredibly-effective Mark IV scout.
Tactic 2: Group Any Level Scouts
Scouts give cloaking boosts to other nearby scouts, which means that scouts survive better when in groups. If you need to scout to a long-range target with lower-level scouts, try sending ALL of your scouts along the same path together. Even with just Mark I or Mark I and II scouts, you can make it pretty far when they work together. The enemy will pick many of them off, but some will get through. In general, if your scouts aren't getting as far as far as you'd like, send more along that path -- and try to avoid paths that cross higher-level planets, too. For more information, see Cloaking Booster.
(Optional) Tactic 3: Micromanage Low-Level Scouts
In single-player games, or in multiplayer games where the players are barely holding back the enemy waves, spending valuable knowledge on scouts may not be an option. In those cases, you may have to scout smarter, which means that a lot of manual effort is involved on your part. You'll have to guide the scouts through each planet, skirting enemy command posts, astro trains, etc. This works best with a Mark III scout, since it can spend most of its time cloaked. The easiest way to do this is by setting waypoints for your ships (hold Shift while right-clicking).
(Optional) Tactic 4: Slingshot Via Transports
This tactic works particularly well with version 2.001 of the game or higher, since transports work a bit differently there. The general idea here is to load a bunch of scouts into a transport, and then send the transport to the planet you want to scout. If your transport is having trouble surviving, you can even send a goodly number of empty transports as decoys. Then simply send your scouts on a new path once the transport reaches its destination, or if it explodes along the way and lets the scouts out (prior to version 2.001, the scouts will die in the explosion if the transport dies; after 2.001, the scouts will survive unscathed). This lets you get a large number of scouts way out into the galaxy where they can start fresh and explore large swaths of territory that they otherwise would not have access to.
In 3.164ish and later, transports have a maximum range of 3 systems (and will explode upon exiting another wormhole) due to out-of-supply attrition. So if you use this method, be prepared to micro your scouts as soon as it happens to avoid losing them all to a tachyon emitter on the warp point.
(Optional) Tactic 5: Create Diversions
When there is a nearby high-level planet that is killing a lot of your scouts before they can get past it, there's generally a simple solution: when you send your scouts through that planet, first send a smallish wave of your ships to that enemy planet. Generally ships will prefer to first target enemy ships that can do damage to themselves (in the interest of self-preservation), so this can create an opening for your scouts to slip through largely unnoticed, since they are non-combat vessels. Do note that if the scouts are moving beyond the range of the diversionary ships, AI ships that don't have range to the main battle will still fire on the scouts since there is nothing else for them to fire at.
It's generally not possible to scout the entire map without either taking a significant subset of the planets (say, 20% to 30%) or having a Mark IV scout. At some point you'll have all the Intel you can gather for the time being, and you'll need to make the best decision you can with the information you have. You might even decide to take a planet simply because it's ideally placed for launching successful scouting runs. After you've taken another planet or two, you can try scouting again, and see if you're able to get better results.