The Spy class is a challenging one and this guide should help you become better at it.
Things to Consider Before You Begin
The first and most important question you need to ask yourself is this: Am I taking spy as my primary career or is it just something that I'm going to be doing on the side? This one factor will change everything that follows. Let's go over the pros and cons of the spy path so we can meditate on this more clearly.
1) Spies, alongside merchants, are one of the few classes that can gain faction rep and influence with contacts without automatically angering another faction. This is because intel trading gives faction & influence gain but does not incur any faction loss, though it can hurt the influence of other contacts (potentially your own, so think carefully before making those trades).
2) A spy can influence the outcomes of various faction wars without having to engage in direct combat, though oftentimes combat is unavoidable (at least at lower experience levels). Those that do engage in direct combat become even more effective than their vanilla military counterparts, because they can steal intel from enemy ships on top of their regular activities.
3) Intel trading is a heck of a lot faster & easier than running missions when you want to build or recover reputation with a faction. You can get just as much, if not more, reputation and influence points from just one chunk of intel that took you just one lucky spy roll (less than a week's worth of work) than you can be flying all over the cosmos running an errand mission for someone (which can take months).
4) It comes with the Pistol skill, which opens the door to having your Captain join your away teams as a potentially potent combat member. So long as you don't have captain permadeath turned on (what kind of lunatic does that, anyway?) then having him/her on the front line as certainly a better option than someone more squishy and all-too-mortal.
1) It doesn't pay diddly-squat. Pretty much any other career path you take is going to pull in more money than spying does. Intel maxes out as around $600 per unit, which if your lucky might actually keep your crew paid and water in your tank. You can make more money with a good permit hauling terraforming equipment from a industry world to a farm less than 12 AU away than you can with a month's worth of spying.
2) Because it pays so little you'll be pretty much forced to stick with a smaller crew for your entire career. Forget your dreams of flying a battleship because even if you could afford to buy it you sure as heck won't be able to afford the upkeep for very long. Smalls crews in themselves aren't bad, because an experienced crew can keep a half-staffed ship operating at 200% across the board once they're good enough. The real problem is...
3) You are just one spy, and that isn't going to cut it. A merchant, pirate, bounty hunter, et al, can all do fine with being their captain being the only person on that ship with that career slotted. Not so for the spy, however. Even at peak level you're only going to have one of each of the spy talents available to use in any given month, but what you're actually going to need is more along the lines of at least four of five of every talent. This is because whether you're spying from orbit or raiding enemy ships, just having one use of a talent per go just isn't going to cut it. For this reason you will need to fill some empty bunks with - you guessed it - more spies. Three minimum, in fact, and more if you think you can afford it. You'll also need E-Techs, even if you're already at 200% crew skill, because they compliment the spy's abilities so much that they simply cannot be ignored.
4) It requires a very specialized ship and that ship isn't going to be good at combat, unless you build an overpowered away team and tweak it out for boarding rushes (see my other guide for how to do that). You'll need high elecronics skill and a ship kitted to maximize that electronics potential. More on that later.
Now that we've considered the pros and cons you may be reconsidering taking spy as a primary career and frankly I don't blame you. In my experience it is often best to be like a real-life spy and take up some other career as your cover. Be a merchant, or a pirate, or an explorer. Whatever suits your fancy and can actually make decent money... with spying on the side as a little bonus. Later, once you've gotten good at it, you can slowly transition over to spying as your main career path.
Creating Your Captain
First off, do not use the stock template included in the game. It's terrible. Go straight to the custom template maker and make one that isn't terrible. Start fresh with this exact order of priorities:
- A: Attributes
- B: Skills
- C: Contacts
- D: Ship (Chose the Juror Class)
- E: Experience
A: Attributes can not be improved or increased through any in-game actions, therefore it is critical that you get as many as possible during character creation because whatever you have when you start is all you will ever have. Everything else in the game can be acquired over time and thus are not as important to a starting character.
B: Skills can be learned with Careers, and your Skills pick during character creation count as bonus free skill levels that stack on top of it. While those careers add skills in themselves, these bonus points again only exist during character creation. Thus this is our second pick. Good choices are obviously going to be stealth & pistols. Yes, you could take other stuff but honestly you're better off letting your crew do things like doctoring and negotiation for you. A high stealth helps in almost all spy related matters and improves the effectiveness of the stealth armor that you will end up buying, so 10 in there is good (to basically make you untouchable) and the other 5 can go into pistols to increase your offensive power on the ground.
C: Contacts are important and can be aquired in game, but contacts are also exhibit something of a snowball effect. Meaning that the more of them start with the easier it is to get them later via introductions. It also helps a great deal to have certain essential contacts availible right from the beginning. Let's face it, if none of your starting contacts buys intel then you're career as a spy is already off to a terrible start. Now for you initial contacts do the obvious thing and makes sure that at least two buy intel. You will want, in order of priority:
1) Intelligence Officer - Whom buys intel and sells military gear, which your will need later. E-Techs are easy enough to find but higher levels ones can be nice, too.
2) Weapons Dealer - Also buys intel and sells weapons, which you will also need later. Assassins, when promoted Officer and cross-trained as Pistoleer & Swordsman are powerful fighters (see other guide).
3) Military Commander - Doesn't buy intel but does offer Engineers for hire. Regardless of what career path you take, you need more engineers. The one lone engineer that you start with doesn't even begin to cut it. For your Juror you want four engineers on board. I know that seems excessive but if you've got four engineers with the Port Maintenance & Unrivaled Patch talents you will probably never have to pay for repairing anything other than straight hull damage ever again. So yes, they're worth their paychecks.
4) Politician - Doesn't buy intel either but does offer Diplomats for hire, and gives diplomacy missions. Again, regardless of your career or playstyle, you want a diplomat on board. If you've got the officer space to spare cross train them as a merchant as well, with maybe some smuggler for good luck (though a spy rarely, if ever, deals with the black market, oddly enough). Diplomats are critical for maintaing your neutral front with everyone, plus they've got perks that will really come in handy down the road, such as Hand that Feeds (free morale boost for the crew with every paycheck), which stacks with the merchant's Generosity (does the exact same thing). A cross trained officer with both of those talents means you'll probably never have to visit a spice hall again.
Also diplomacy missions are probably the best kind of mission for the spy, especially when they've got a diplomat crewmember on board, because if you wait until there is an alliance (trade or military) then there is a very good chance they will give you the rare and coveted diplomatic alliance mission which gains you reputation points with both of the factions involved.
Be sure to check first, though! Many so-called diplomacy missions, even between allies, can result in reputation loss with the other faction. The missions you are lookiing for, however, will clearly state at the top that they will help your reputation with both the involved factions. These are the ones you are looking for. Do these missions, it's easy money (they rarely involve any fighting) and helps your reputation with two factions at once. It doesn't get any better than that, folks.
D: Ships are expensive, but luckily money is all they cost, so your starting ship really only needs to be good enough to get the job done, and the Juror is can be configured to have plenty of enhancements while still being flown with a relatively small crew. Small crews are important because the spy career, sadly, doesn't pay much.
E: Now there is a downside to this, and that's starting off at level 1 with a crew of blithering idiots. For the first year or so of your career you can expect your ship to fail at pretty muchy every hazard check it comes across and you'll be hard-pressed to keep it functional, to say the least. It will take some time before this gaggle of monkeys level-up enough for you to actually fly from Point A to Point B without blowing up half the ship and themselves with it.
But it's worth it... seriously. Once you get over that initial frustrating hump of the first five or six experience levels for you & your crew then all that lays ahead is the rewards that your superior custom template has to offer.
Assembling Your Crew
1) Don't get too attached to your starting crew because in the end you are going to end up firing every last one of them. That's right, all of them. Here is why:
The Commander offers a talent called Discerning Glance and the Military Officer has Recruiter's Eye. Both of these do the same thing. Once every 3 weeks when you hire a new crew member, either through the basic starport or via a contact, either of these talents will reveal the first of their many traits for free. Far more importantly, however, is that these new crew will have increased attributes. How much of an increase, you ask? On average... about 20 points higher. Your typical random crewmember will start with around 80 to 90 attribute points on generation. A crewmember picked with Discerning Glance will start around 100 to 110 attribute points. This is important for any crew member, but most important of all for those that you're planning on using for your away team, because things like Quickness, Fortitute and Strength are critical for anyone engaging in direct combat. Even for non-combat crew such as pilots and mechanics, Wisdom effects maximum morale and Resiliance effects the rate of morale loss. Charisma often works with various crew talents, as well, when in the spice halls and when meeting new people. So yes, attributes matter and they matter for everyone and for this reason all of your starting crew are, sadly, inferior. None of them were selected with Discerning Glance, none of them got the attribute buff from it, and thus someday all of them will need to be replaced. All of them, even the Quartermaster themself (read: hire someone in as an officer and cross-train them to be a QM, then fire the original QM).
Personally, when I start a game I flag all new crew selected with Discerning Glance with a green star so I know how many I've got to go through before I'm done. Once all my crew have green stars I'm good.
2) Next, we want to be on the constant watch-out for negative traits appearing. I don't know about you, but the moment I find out a crewmember has picked up drunk, greedy, snob, indie game developer or spice addict then I show them the door. Spice-addict is particularly insideous because, against all logic, not only can they aquire it from spending too much time in the spice hall, they can also aquire it for no reason at all. I've had times where I haven't had my crew go to the spice hall for years on end, due to gaming the morale system with talents, and yet they still turned into spice addicts. Go figure. Greedy crew I ditch on general principle, because while that $2 to $4 doesn't seem like much at first, it increases with every level. On a level 40 crewmember that can mean an extra $160 per month on top of their regular pay. Screw that, just replace them, says I.
Now some negative traits you can live with. As anyone who's played Mass Effect already knows, the crippled trait doesn't hurt your pilots any (if anything, the buff it gives to their resiliance actually helps). Likewise combat nerves or rash doesn't effect anyone who is never going to actually go into direct combat. So some negatives can be lived with/ignored. Just watch out for the real problem causers such as hyperwarp sickness or gravity sickness. Unless you have a contact with trait conditioning and you're willing to throw a chunk of change at them, it may be better to just let them go rather than deal with their constant whining (and morale drops).
3) To build a powerful away team see my other guide on the subject.
4) You will need two E-Techs and you want to make sure they both get Listening Post and Clink of Credits.
5) Make sure that your pilots take Swift Sweep at some point, the sooner the better.
6) Like I said before, at least two Engineers and preferably four if you can fit them. Port Maintenance and Unrivaled Patch on all of them, first thing.
7) Hire more spies. At least two, at most four on a Juror Class. Don't bother promoting or cross-training them. Just let them do their thing. Start them off with Espionage Sweep, then take Scouring Search, Unauthorized Access, Data Haul and - most importantly - Secrets Unbound. Don't waste time on giving them any combat talents because that's not what they are there for. That's your job.
8) Grab a diplomat or merchant from a contact, then promote them to officer and cross-train them the other two skills. This will be the person who does all your talking for you. Very important, believe it or not.
9) You probably won't need anyone with smuggler (again, spies generally don't deal with the black market), but if you do feel the need then just make it your diplomat/merchant officer's third career. You can probably live without a commander or military officer unless you plan on getting into a lot of combat (read: you decided to be a solider first, spy second). You may want to grab an explorer later down the road, but if you've got an exo-scout in your away team then you can live without one for the most part. Finally, zealots are bloody useless and that's all I've got to say about them. Hiring a pirate might be handy if you plan on doing fighting, and with a high level pirate and few guns you won't even need actual gunners on board (seriously, try it sometime). Oh yeah, gunners... you can probably skip them outright unless, again, you plan on being the aggressive kind of spy. However, even the aggressive spy is better off boarding enemy ships than blowing them up, thus the boarding rush configuration for their ship would be the way to go. You can probably live with no gunners at all, in fact... or even ship guns themselves, for that matter. Yay, less overhead!
10) In the end your Juror should have around 2-3 navigators, along with 2-3 pilots (depending on their skill; higher level needs less crew). One mechanic will do in a pinch but two is better. Two engineers, minimum, four optimal. Three extra spies should be enough to keep your talent pool good enough to do a nice surveillance run on a target planet. Two e-techs to boost your electronics pool to 200% and lend their extra talents to your covert activiviies. A couple of crew dogs should keep your ship running fine once they've leveled-up a little. That's a total of about 20 crew out of the 36 bunks, plus your officers. Sounds about right and shouldn't run you over two grand a month in salary even at peak levels.
Assembling Your Ship
Whether you plan on being aggressive or not, you do not need to outfit your ship for raging gun battles. Plan on running away or boarding the enemy. Either way you will not be needing more than two light weapons and, once you get good enough, you won't even need those - which is handy because those spaces can be used for other, more useful, things.
What kinds of things? A Pilot Assist 4 Module is a good start, as it adds +7 pilot and +3 ship ops to your potential pools, emphasis being on pilot because you're going to need that if you plan on doing boarding rushes. If not then go with a Nav Assist 4 Module instead, which gives +7, +5 electronics and cheapens jumping by 3 fuel. Also a good choice is the Sensor Array 4. Although you won't be using the actual targeting bonus, adding the +4 navigation and +6 to electronics is very handy. Remember, it's all about maxing your electronics pool (and training up your crew skills to fill that pool).
Also in the small group you can throw in a Triple-Arc Signal Array that gives +25% to intel hauls, and yes they stack, though getting more than two might be excessive... but then excessive is a matter of personal taste, so knock yourself out.
As of the latest patch, you can free up some more small spaces by moving your offficer quarters to the double-bunk medium section. Just toss out those guns you won't be using to make the room. Now you can fill your entire bottom half of the ship layout with spy enhancing stuff if you want to, and trust me, you'll want to.
If you find yourself looking at anything that is pointless for this career path, such as armored bulkheads or battle prows, egads, throw them out! As a spy you'd do much better off replacing those with cargo holds or, better yet, fuel storage tanks. Why would fuel storage be better than cargo? Because you're not a merchant or a pirate. You don't need cargo space. Your commoditiy is intel, and intel takes up no space and can't be looted by pirates (handy!). So go ahead and let them search your ship every time. The things you have to hide will never be found by random nosy ship captains. However, those surveillance sweeps can take a while and burn up a good chunk of fuel, so having plenty of reserves is a good thing. And fuel tanks give a small buff to electronics, unlike cargo holds, and you can always use more of that.
Here's an example of what you can do with a humble Juror Class ship, and it isn't even maxed out:
So we're looking at 185 fuel with a burn of 1, which means stupidly long range. With a base jump cost of 11 (yay for Nav Assist Module), once the navigatos' talents kick in that basically means a jump cost of 1 as well. Even with six empty bunks it's got 200% on electronics, which is a pool of 41 to begin with... and I repeat, this still isn't completely maxed out. That's one pilot assist and one nav assist, because this ship does boarding rushes. If you're not into that then swap the pilot assist for something else, like a signal booster (which I skipped). Three sensor boosters are what helps give it that (relatively) amazingly high electronics pool. You'll note that I dumped the original cargo hold for a massive fuel boost, opting to go with the just the tiny cargo space at the bottom. So yes, it only holds 5 cargo but who cares? Intel takes no room. Between the 37 navigation and 21 pilot dice, along with that massive 41 big dice in electronics, nothing short of Xeno battleship is going to land a hit on this thing.
All that with the starter ship, if you're willing invest time & money into it. If you actually do want/manage to move into something bigger... well, you get the idea.
I've found, in my experience, that the largest ship you'll ever need is a Raptor. Anything larger becomes too expensive to maintain in the long run. The Raptor can let you get the perfect balance of range & cargo space (for your merchant cover) and has plenty of room for upgrading your spy gear. Note that you still won't need more than the basic crew barracks, as you won't even come close to filling even the smallest size.
That's right, no weapons. Why bother? 34 pilot, 47 navigation and 66 electronics = untouchable by enemy fire. Board them and use Unauthorized Access multiple times for bonus intel or just run away with impunity. The triple medical bays is just a personal choice to get my rating to 18 for Generous in Service - feel free to change that back into actual weapons if you're into shooting things.
Choosing a Side
What nonsense is this? Gentlemen, we are on our side, first and foremost. Remember, the spy is one of the few classses than can theoretically be friends with everyone, just like the merchant. Unlike the merchant, however, you can do this whilst simultenously stabbing everyone in the back.
1) Spy on your Enemies.
Obvious enough, right? Go over to their planets, do surveillance sweeps, dodge the bounty hunters, reap the intel, head back to your contact and collect your pay. If you're the aggressive type then you can board their ships, which can garner even more intel faster because if you've got three other spy crew on board then that's four Unauthorized Access talents you can throw into a single target, which will make your contacts very happy to see you. Naturally this can all effect the outcomes of various wars, which may or may not even matter to you.
Of course, you know what's even better than spying on your enemies...?
2) Spy on your Friends.
This is even easier, because if you've got enough positive reputation with a faction then those military ship and bounty hunter red cards stop being so bad after all. Just greet them, wave, say hi, and be on your merry way, with no actual combat. And yes, you can sell intel gathered from a friendly faction right back to the contacts of that same faction, who will happily buy it "just to see it removed from circulation" - and yes, you still gain reputation, influence and, of course, pay for that intel. Quite the scam, eh? The only downside is that, if your friend happens to be at war with someone you might accidentally draw a green "strike a blow in the conflict" card which, ironically, is now kind of a bad thing because hitting that card will cause you to lose reputation with your friend. So this is one of those things best done when they're not at war, savvy?
3) Be a schoolyard bully.
Ah, independents. The lowest caste of the Star Traders universe. Sure, they never go to war so their intel is always the least valuable, but it still has some value to it anyway. Plundering their ships can yield Unauthorized Access intel points just like any other, although it will always be considered generic. Still, it's easy money, it's easy points, and it won't offend anyone except the Hunna and who cares about those losers anyway, am I right?
4) Don't quit your day job.
As mentioned before, spying as often done as a secondary side-project, at least until you get good at it. By all means continue making a few bucks as a merchant, or plundering ships as a pirate, or catching smugglers as a bounty hunter. You're just adding in some supplemental income along the way. Take some time to loot intel or scoop it up for free when you land with high enough skills. Also, it's amazing how easy some missions become when you've got an electronics pool in the upper 70s. Just smile and hand them your business card from Universal Exports, because you're just a harmless merchant here to do perfectly legitimate trade, yep.
5) Don't worry about the details.
Look, we know that intel says it's about an trade war between Alta Mesa and House Thulun, but right now you've got a negative reputation with Clan Zenrin that needs fixing so go right ahead and sell it to your nearest Zenrin fixer. Yes, it's less money, yes it's less rep, but in the end you need to worry more about making sure that everyone likes you more than making any one group love you.
6) Approaching the Endgame: Become everybody's BFF.
Whenever two factions enter an Alliance with each other you can cash into this in a huge way. So long as you have decent positive reputation to begin with, you can spy on your friends with essentially no risk. By that I mean that "hostile military patrol" turns into "friendly military patrol" and the same goes for bounty hunters (provided they're also from friendly factions). Rack up all the intel you can and offload it to either party for easy influence.
7) Reaching the Endgame: Become the Flying Dutchman of Espionage.
Once you have five spies on your ship of decent level (your captain plus four crew), along with four e-techs, you will soon find that you can stay in orbit and spy until your fuel runs out. This is because the total number of intel card talents, credit skim card talents and even just mediocre remove risk card talents will be so high that you will never run out of them. By the time the your last crewmember uses their talent the cooldown from your first crewmember will have reset and the whole process begins again. At decent levels you'll be looking at five intel reward card talents along with four "clink of credits" credit skim cards from your e-techs. That's nine gravy cards to cycle through. Again, you'll be recovering them faster than you can spend them.
Also at high levels your five spies and four e-techs will have four doses of listening post (chance of discovering a free contact any time you land) as well as five talents worth of secrets unbound (chance of free intel on a faction just by landing there). With your cover story as a merchant in play you will soon find yourself racking up intel and it's buyers without even trying.