If you're at all like me, what you will be doing for your first several hours with FTL is dying. Dying to space pirates. Dying to solar flares. Dying to tragic rolls of the dice.
FTL is a pitiless rougelike that delights in serving up hard knocks to novice captains. Each randomly generated map and encounter presents you with a new and exciting way to be turned into orbital junk. It takes hard trial and error to understand the nuances of ship-to-ship combat and to get a personal feel for how to properly upgrade the many sub-systems and options for your ride. I played for about eight hours before I even saw the Rebel Flagship -- and it was several more after that before I got to watch it burn.
I want to spare you some of that pain. Think of this an a introduction for rookie captains. I won't be going over every detail in the game, but with these tips you should be well on your way to completing the game on easy. Normal? WE DON'T TALK ABOUT NORMAL.
It's All About The Moon Bucks
When you boil it all down, FTL is a race to collect and spend scrap (money) in the most efficient manner possible. The difficulty ramps up quickly and without significantly upgrading your systems you won't stand a chance. You'll want to collect every bit of scrap you can and spend as little of it as possible on boring maintenance stuff like repairs and fuel.
It is important to visit as many jump points as possible before the Rebel Fleet catches up. The more spots you hit, the more opportunities you have to find scrap and items. Of course, you also have that many more chances to take massive hull damage or lose one of your crew to carnivorous space monsters -- so try and be careful? It is a risky business, but nobody said it was easy to fly through space.
One way to milk the most out of area is to hop in a few nebulas. The energy from nebulas conceal your movements and slows down the Rebel pursuit, letting you sneak in a few extra jumps. The downside is that nebulas are often home to power-interfering ion storms, random pirate crews that can gut your crew and offer no reward in defeat, and, last but not least, nebulas always mess with your sensors, rendering you blind in a fight. With that kind of party waiting, it's natural to want to avoid them like the plague, but you need to buck up and check 'em out. From what I've experienced, nebula diving and the extra resources you can gain from taking the risk is all but necessary to making it to Sector 8.
Go For The Weak Spots
Prioritization is key in a fire-fight. The idea is to take as little damage as possible so it makes sense to cripple the most obvious threat the other ship has. Usually this means its weapon systems, but sometimes drones can be an even bigger problem.
In the first sector or two, while enemy shielding is light, this is easy. It is almost always best to just wail away at the weapon system and ignore everything else. In later fights though, things get tricky. Stacked shield systems can prove insurmountable without doing something to soften them up. An enemy that can cloak will dodge all kinds of damage while getting in cheap shots. Drones or boarding parties may require more attention than a ship's anemic laser cannon.
Don't approach every fight the same way. Pay attention to the kinds of weapons and defenses the enemy has and try and adjust to it. This won't always be possible, but it is always worth trying.
The best way to handle all these competing interests is to keep a diverse armory. Missiles can pass right through shields to soften up specific systems, often making a first great strike against shields or weapons. Bombs can sneak past shields too, and provide more diverse functions such as causing fires, breeches, or shorting out a system at the cost of smaller damage potential than missiles. Ion cannons are the least-sexy weapon in the game, puttering out slow moving balls of non-damaging energy, but they can collapse shields like a house of cards. A fleet of drones can harass a ship and even block return fire -- but you can't depend on any one system to do it all.
If you use missiles, drones, and bombs against every enemy you'll be out of ammo quick. Your resources are precious and you need to learn how to size up a fight and get the most out of them. Don't load up on too many ammo-dependent weapons at once. Try and have multiple avenues of attack as well. A powerful combination may be a missile launcher to take out an enemy's shields and a hard-hitting beam weapon to rake across multiple systems once the ship is exposed. That is a great combo, but if the enemy has an anti-missile drone and you have no other way to take out the shields, you might be in a helpless situation. From my experience, it isn't the most powerful weapon system that wins, it is the most diverse and capable. Several smaller weapons tend to trump large gambles on one particularly badass cannon.
Be the Bigger Man. Sometimes.
Occasionally when you have some pirate or Rebel scum on the ropes they'll try to cut a deal for their lives. Most of the time it's easy to ignore their sniveling pleas and turn them into space dust, but don't be too hasty. Sometimes those deals aren't half bad.
Normally you're going to want to junk them and take the scrap, but if they are offering a particularly large quantity of resources that you're low on, it might make sense to show a bit of mercy. Remember, fuel costs three scrap a pop at the store and it's even more for missiles and drones. You don't want to end up on the drift or spending your entire savings on munitions just because you were too vindictive to listen to reason.
Every Day Is Talk Like A Space Pirate Day
Of course, an even better option is to just kill 'em all without damaging the goods. This is where boarding parties come into play.
You can earn significantly more scrap and items by taking out an enemy crew while leaving the ship intact. This can be accomplished by causing a lot of fires or choking the crew out with hull breeches and damage to the life support system, but that's tricky and time-consuming. It takes a very light touch to cripple a ship to the point that the crew is dead, but not blowing it up. Not to mention the whole time you're delicately zapping their O2 pump, they'll be slugging away at your ship, pounding your hull with lasers and missiles. It's so much easier to invest in a teleporter system and pay them a personal visit.
A teleporter costs around 75 scrap in a store and is one of the best additions you can make to your ship. If you manage to take even a few ships alive it will more than pay you back in scrap, found weapons, and even new crewmates if you safely liberate a slave ship.
Boarding is dangerous business though. It's best to groom a few crew members special for the task. Bloodthirsty Mantis and tough-ass Rockmen make the best boarders, but even humans will do in a pinch. As long as you use the same guys again and again, they'll eventually get better at hand-to-hand combat and become efficient little pirate murder-machines.
Don't just dump your boys on the enemy ship and hope it works out, though. Give them a hand by softening the enemy crew up. Fire-starting weapons and breech bombs are great choices for this.
In particular, it is wise to cripple the enemy's med-bay. You CANNOT win a fight in an active med-bay that is healing your opponents, so don't send your boys in without taking care of it. (On the flip-side, always try to fight invaders in your own med-bay!) Wait until some of their crew retreats to the infirmary to patch up regular ship-to-ship damage and start a fire in it. Let them take a bunch of damage putting it out, and drop your guys right on top of them before they can fix it.
This is the uncomfortable moment when you realize you're kinda the war criminal here.
Always gauge the situation before teleporting some crew over. If the enemy ship jumps out or "accidentally" explodes while they're on-board, they're gone for good. Pillage often and vigorously, but never take unnecessary risks. No amount of scrap you could salvage from a ship is worth the lives of an experienced boarding crew.
Diversity is Beautiful
Humans are boring and uninteresting. Sure, they may not be bad at anything, but that just means they're not great at anything. If you want to survive in FTL you'll have to embrace the diversity and multiculturalism the Federation was founded upon.
Aliens are interesting and weird. The Rockmen may be sluggish, but they can't be beat when it comes to handling an emergency. Able to stomp out fires without feeling a thing and backed up by a ridiculously tough hide, they make an excellent defense against disasters and raiding parties. The synthetic Engi race make fantastic fix-it-men, but can't throw a punch if their lives depended on it (and they often do). Both species may have their downsides, but when it comes to keeping a ship in the air they make the humans look like clowns.
Then you have the more esoteric races. Enigmatic energy beings, the Zoltans can be used as portable batteries around your ship, running extra power into whatever system they're stationed at. A couple of Zoltan mates can take the pressure off your generator and let you keep every system fully powered. The Slugs might not seem like likely comrades, but their telepathy will let you keep track of hostile crew movements even in a sensor-deadening nebula. It might not be a situation that comes up all the time, but you'll be glad to have it when it does.
Even without taking unique traits into account, sometimes it's just great to have extra hands at work on your ship. When your hull is breached in the engine room, fires are spreading in the med-lab, and the asteroids outside are still pounding your shields, you'll need more than the default crew to deal with it all. Extra crewmen, no matter how slimy and weird, are always welcomed when the shit hits the fan.
Take the Third Option
Space can be a treacherous place filled with no-win scenarios, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situations, and painful compromises.
But that's loser talk. Properly prepared with the right talents and tools, a clever captain can cheat the reaper and turn an impossible conundrum into an unqualified win. Just like on TV, taking the third option is always the best choice.
Not only do alien crewmen provide unique abilities in the day-to-day operation of your ship, but having an eclectic crew can also help you out with random encounters. For example, jumping into a system riddled with galactic plague represents a tough choice for a human crew -- do they risk exposure to the disease and help the populace in return for resources, or leave them to their fate and get nothing? It can be heartbreaking to lose a man to an ill-advised good deed and it might not be worth the risk, but you NEED that scrap. To the mechanical Engi or hearty Rockman the situation is much simpler; disease is a non-issue. With one of them on-board you can safely rescue the colony at no-risk -- have your space cake and eat it too.
With a diverse enough crew you can blow past all kinds of potentially threatening random encounters and reap the rewards in the process. When you pull your cracked and sputtering ship into the Orbital Bazaar it may be tempting to spend all your scrap on flashy weapons and extra missiles. But take an extra second to consider that Mantis mercenary looking for a contract, or that telepathic Slug in need of a ride. The right crewman can be worth a lot more than a laser gun.
A well-rounded ship can have its own benefits. Upgrading to long-range sensors, installing a cloaking device, or keeping a drone bay can occasionally grant you additional options in random encounters as well. It is important to think about the fringe benefits to an upgrade when you allocate your budget. You don't want to hobble your shields or arsenal in favor of picking up every doo-dad and piece of bling for your space-whip, but it doesn't hurt to branch out either.
It is impossible to plan for specific random encounters in the harsh world of FTL, but by investing early in an expansive crew and maybe an extra system or two, you can tilt the odds in your favor.
It's More About the Journey Than The Destination
Look, all these tips are well and good but at the end of the day, FTL is a very random, often unfair, game. Even more so than similar rougelikes such as The Binding of Isaac or Spelunky, where you can compensate for unlucky situations and lame items with your reflexes and skill, sometimes you can boot up a game of FTL and just roll snake-eyes after snake-eyes. You may never find a store carrying worthy upgrades, you might be invaded by a four-"man" Mantis raiding party in Sector 1, or maybe one of your crew will be rapidly aged into dust by a cosmic demi-god you happen to run afoul of. With so many wonderful ways to die and fail, who knows what will happen!
Other times things can seem like they're going great one second, then spiral out of control the next. One bad-break can very quickly lead to another disaster and another until you left looking at a pile of space debris where your once mighty ship was. Half the fun of FTL is watching how things can go sideways. Embrace it; enjoy it.
You WILL fail in FTL - often spectacularly. That's why I keep coming back.