Aurora is a unique game. It's the hobby of one man, Steve Walmsley, who shares it with the world for free. It's a game where you handle everything from the highest levels of strategy to the finest details of the design of your spacecraft. It has depth unmatched by just about anything else I've ever played, although the learning curve is steep, and there's no official tutorial. Also, no graphics, and no win condition. It's not for everyone, but for the right kind of person, it's about the best game ever.
Let me start by emphasizing that your first game on your own will almost certainly not end well. Either you'll build a fleet that mysteriously becomes floating debris in the face of a much smaller enemy force, all of your ships will run out of fuel and you won't be able to retrieve them, or you'll accidentally bombard your homeworld with high-speed minerals. Or you'll find some new way to have problems.1 To get started, download the game from the Aurora forums. Start with the stickied Full Installation, and then any sticked patches. Instructions should be in those posts.2 Once you've done that, start up the game. It comes with one pre-loaded, but you'll want to make a new game, using the settings icon in the top bar. Leave all of the options for the new game screen at their defaults. On the create new race screen, be sure to check Auto-Assign Tech Points (doing this manually without running out early is very tricky)3 and set the Themes, images and race titles to whatever you want.4
We can broadly separate Aurora into three parts: there's the economics/colonization game, the shipbuilding game and the naval tactics/operations game. All three are obviously interlinked, but it's probably easiest to start with economics, leaving colonization for a bit later. Open the economics window with the button on the left end of the top row.5 This is where you monitor and control your populations, including construction, mining, shipbuilding, terraforming and research. The first screen is just an overview of what's on the planet, which is not particularly helpful until you understand what all of those things do. So let's go onto the next tab, industry.
This is the screen where you build everything which isn't a ship. Planet-based facilities and space stations are built by construction factories, while missiles and fighters (small ships with special rules) have their own dedicated factories, and their own capacity, selected from the dropdown at the top of the window. But let's focus on planetary facilities for now. First, research. If we are to truly become the interstellar power we are destined to be, we're going to need better technology, and a lot of it. So select Research Facility, put 20 in Number of Items and 30 in the percentage field, then hit Create. Now, 30% of our construction capacity is going to research labs, and it will stop after 20 of them.
Now, as our first step into the cosmos, we should probably colonize Luna and Mars. This will give us vital experience, as well as jump-starting the civilian shipping lines that will handle most of the grunt work. We're going to need infrastructure, which allows humans (or whatever species) to survive on a planet that isn't perfectly habitable, and terraforming installations, which will change the composition of the atmosphere. Let's add 1000 infrastructure at 10% and 20 terraforming installations at 20%.
Earth's minerals (which we need to build all of this stuff) won't last forever, and we'll need to establish mining colonies, probably using automated mines. We have plenty of those for right now, but we should add some Mass Drivers, which automatically fire packets of minerals between planets, greatly reducing shipping micromanagement. Say 10 at 10%. They'll finish quickly. Now, we're going to need commanders of various types to run our new colonies, labs and ships. So let's add 5 military academies, also at 10%. Good commanders can be a tremendous multiplier if used correctly, and the best way to get them is just to train a lot. For the last 20%, let's start 1 spaceport (to help move goods on and off Mars more quickly) and a commercial shipyard (builds commercial ships, more on that later). That's a decent start, and as tasks complete, we'll replace them with whatever we need at the time.6
The next tab over is mining, and we need only glance at it. There are 11 Trans-newtonian Minerals,7 which are one of the major limiting factors in Aurora expansion. Each has a specific role, but to start out, you really only need this screen to know what you're short on and what's being used up quickly. If your stockpile is falling, go look for a body with that mineral and mine it. I'll explain how later. Some of the rows may be orange, which means the game is worried about you running out. This is not unusual if you queue up a big order, like our research labs, which will take decades to complete.
The next tab is shipyards. Each shipyard has a specific number of berths of a given size, and is tooled for a specific ship class. It can only build ships of that class, or of similar classes (determined via an arcane set of rules that I won't go into). Ships and shipyards are broken up into naval/military and civilian vessels. Basically, civilian ships can't carry weapons, military sensors, or a bunch of other systems, and their engines must meet specific rules, but they don't suffer maintenance failures and can be built at civilian shipyards, which are much cheaper for a given size. Naval yards can build civilian ships, but almost never do. This screen lets you start ships, expand yards in either capacity or berths, or retool yards. We don't have any ships, and none under construction, so we'll skip Shipyard Tasks, and move right on to Research.
Research in Aurora is divided into 9 categories, and each scientist (trained at military academies) specializes in one of them. This specialization comes with a research bonus and a number of labs the scientist can control. For a project in a field the scientists specializes in, the research bonus is quadrupled. As a result, you rarely want to use a scientist outside their field long-term, although it can be effective if you have a small project and no appropriate scientist. Note that the highest-bonus scientist isn't always the best for urgent projects if they can only handle a few labs.
What technologies to pick is kind of an art form. The best options depend on your playstyle, the game situation, and what scientists you have available. That said, there are some technologies which tend to be definite "force multipliers". Most things under Construction and Production falls into this category, as do improved ship engines and jump drives (Power and Propulsion, engine technology splits from reactors) and to a lesser extent better armor (Defensive Systems, better armor means that you need less of it on a given ship, freeing up more space for other things). Systems (engines, sensors, weapons, etc) you design also get researched by your scientists, but we'll come back to that in our next installment.
The last tab we'll cover this time is Wealth/Trade. (Ground Unit Training is a matter for another time.) This tells you how much money you're getting from various sources, how much you're spending, and how much you have in reserve. If you run out of money, it hurts productivity, so don't. If you need more money, you can either research a tech (under Construction & Production), build Financial Centers, or appoint a governor who has a better wealth creation modifier. The bottom of the screen shows trade goods produced and demanded by the planet. Civilian shipping lines move these around, generating more tax money for you. But that requires another planet to supply or demand the goods, and we'll have to get some ships before we can work on that. Make sure to save the game (the Save button is in the upper right of the main screen) for next time.
1 Yes, all of the ones I listed happened to me. ⇑
2 This series was written based on C# versions 1.9-1.11, and should be valid for all of those versions. The concepts have been largely the same since I started playing VB6 Aurora in 2010, although the interface has changed some. ⇑
3 This (and most other problems) can be solved with Spacemaster Mode, activated by the lightbulb on the upper right of the main screen. Want to have a lot of tech and run around beating people up? SM mode will let you do that. Don't like the struggle to keep your factories and shipyards fed with minerals? SM mode can set you up with enough minerals on your homeworld for decades, and replace them when they're gone. Personally, I use it whenever fixing a problem "correctly" is going to create a lot more irritation than enjoyment. Half the time this just means "ship ran out of fuel two days from the fuel depot, and I don't want to muck about setting up tankers to go rescue it". ⇑
4 Do note that the window sizes are basically fixed, and the top cuts off on most laptops. I'd suggest moving the task bar to the side, but even that is still rather awkward, as you have to check the bottom buttons by dragging it slightly upward. Unfortunately, there's not really any way around the problem. ⇑
5 The first five buttons open different tabs in this window, which I will call economics, even though they don't say that. The window itself does. ⇑
6 If you get any of these wrong, the modify functionality is slightly counterintuitive. The sequence is to click on the thing you want edit, change the numbers at the bottom, and then hit Modify. ⇑