Netrek is a graphical real-time battle game originally developed on Unix systems running X, though clients have been developed for both the Macintosh and Windows personal computers. Games require a minimum of 4 players on each side and can go up to 8 players on each side.

The goal of netrek is to capture all of the opponents planets. This is done by beaming armies from a unit carrying them down to an enemy planet. To carry an army, you must have a kill. Kills are awarded for destroying enemy armies (rate varies, but about 1/10th of a point for each army killed) or destroying an enemy ship (1 point + 10% of the kills of the opponent). This will allow the player beam up two armies for each kill. The kills you have are reset when your ship is destroyed.

All ships are capable of cloaking (hiding from your team and the other), raising and lowering shields. firing phasers (beam weapons) and torpedoes (projectiles), destroying torpedoes (for some damage yourself), pushing and pulling others with tractor beams (the larger the ship, the more you get to push or pull), and bombing planets. Some ships are better at some things than others. As the hull of a ship gets damaged, the max speed of the ship slows down until it is repaired.

Repairing can be done whenever the ship has its shields down, though is much faster at a friendly planet with a repair yard or while docked to a starbase.

When a ship explodes, it does damage to all ships around it - the larger the ship, the more damage. This can often trigger chain reactions of explosions with massive battles (frequently around starbases). This makes the tactic of 'ogging' useful when the ships can get in close enough to do large amounts of damage before the (most often) starbase can repair it.

The architecture of the game is that of a client to server. While this does require a dedicated server, it means that a single player on a slow link does not slow down the game for everyone else. Furthermore, it allows for verification of actions by the server to make certain that no one is cheating. Clients are cryptographically signed and expire after a period of time so that only authorized versions of a client may connect to a server.

There are two major branches of the netrek universe - bronco (classic) and paradise (new). While paradise clients may play in bronco games, a bronco client cannot play in a paradise game.

Bronco dates back to 1988 with the first sources posted in the fall of 1989. Within standard Bronco games there are 5 types of ships:

Scout (SC)
Fast and light with very little firepower. Wonderful for harassing other ships and scouting enemy planets. While it has a small fuel tank it doesn't use much in movement.
  • Speed: 12
  • Max armies: 2
  • Max damage: 75 (75)
  • Torp damage: 25
  • phaser damage: 75
Destroyer (DD)
Larger than the scout with less armies per kill than others. While difficult in the hands of a beginner, it can prove a very effective ship for getting in, taking a planet and getting out in the hands of an expert.
  • Speed: 10
  • Max armies: 5
  • Max damage: 85 (85)
  • Torp damage: 30
  • Phaser damage: 85
Cruiser (CA)
The general purpose ship. Heavy enough to withstand some damage, fast enough to make pursuit debatable, and nasty enough to do some damage. Your general jack of all trades.
  • Speed: 9
  • Max armies: 9
  • Max damage: 100 (100)
  • Torp damage: 40
  • Phaser damage: 100
Battleship (BB)
A large and slow ship with big weapons. Eats fuel like there is no tomorrow, but has a large tank.
  • Speed: 8
  • Max armies: 6
  • Max damage: 130 (130)
  • Torp damage: 40
  • Phaser damage: 105
Assault (AS)
The master of planetary conquest. Bombs much harder than other ships, large hull, but small shields and not as spectacular ship to ship weapons. It can carry 3 armies per kill and has large max carry capacity, but a small fuel tank.
  • Speed: 8
  • Max armies: 20
  • Max damage: 200 (80)
  • Torp damage: 30
  • Phaser damage: 80
Starbase (SB)
A floating weapons platform that allows teammates to refit, refuel and store (or retrieve) armies (they're safer there than on a planet). It can only be commanded by a person with high enough rank. Tractor/pressor beams that stretch forever allowing it to push other ships around either keeping them at bay or moving a friendly ship into the line of fire to protect itself (a good thing).
  • Speed: 2
  • Max armies: 25
  • Max damage: 600 (500)
  • Torp damage: 30
  • Phaser damage: 120

Paradise was first announced in 1993 and is seen as some as an update to netrek, to others an unnecessary complication to the game.

Paradise changes the classic map to a much larger one with separate solar systems and large voids. To cross these voids the concept of 'warp' was added. Furthermore, several new ship types were added in several places that fit between the classic ships. Missiles were also added, and in some cases carriers that turn armies into fighters.

Warp allows a ship to travel at speeds in excess of 30. It requires a warm-up time where the ship sits just barely moving, then suddenly the screen flashes and the ship is cruising at very fast speeds. While in warp, a ship cannot fire weapons.

Frigate (FR)
Kin to the battleship, but slightly lighter and faster and a tad bit less powerful.
Warbase (WB)
The younger brother of the starbase. A bit more maneuverable (it can move at speed 3 rather than 2!), the same weapons, but not as much armor. Can't carry armies, but very useful at the start of the game in defending planets from the initial wave of attackers or bombing an opponent planet at the end of the game. Furthermore, it serves as a starting point for patrol boats.
Light Cruiser (CL)
While the Destroyer is a nice taker, the Light Cruiser serves as an escort - able to match speeds with most other ships and a bit tougher than than the lighter ships. However, it can't carry as many armies as other similar sized ships and thus is poor at taking other planets.
Carrier (CV)
While not found on all servers it often serves as a planetary defense or base attack ship. It is the only ship that is able to convert armies into an attacker. It is rarely used, even on servers that have it except for the novelty of it - armies are just too valuable.
Utility (UT)
Like the Carrier, this ship is not found on all servers, but is much more useful (at least in my opinion). Its primary use is that it is able to serve as a launching platform for patrol boats, bringing them much closer to the offensive action. In a coordinated attack, it can be deadly without firing a single shot.
Patrol (PT)
A small (smaller than the scout) missile boat. While it does carry phasers and torps they do very little damage. The key to this ship is its maneuverability and missiles. These provide for a very annoying gnat that can bite. Patrol ships can be launched from starbases, warbases or utility ships.
Jumpship (JS)
A flying engine. This base has 'natural' speeds in the 20s and warp speeds in the 40s. It moves, it moves fast. While a sneeze would knock it over and its weapons can be shrugged off by any ship - this does provide a way for slower ships (such as the assault ship) to get to distant points quickly, or rescue a ship with armies on it in a hurry. It has spots to carry four ships around and with teamwork and an some experience, a JS / AS team can devastate the opposition.

(My story: once upon a time, while playing paradise I was a reasonably respected (up a few levels) player in an assault ship doing some planet taking. Two destroyers came in, crippled me, but I beat them off. At that time I had 5 more armies and several kills. A distress call went out. A fast thinking, experienced player switched to a jumpship and was there before the two DDs came back to finish me off. He was able to pull me out of harms way while my other teammates came in to fend off the DDs that were returning. Following that, as a team we were able to take the vast majority of the planets and eventually victory.)

Starbase (SB)
In addition to the things mentioned up top - the paradise starbase has the ability to build resources on a planet. This allows it to enhance the army production or build forward bases to get closer to the enemy.

There exist other variants of these games. Hockey, Chaos... however Bronco and Paradise are the two major branches of the game and often the best for beginners to play. Your choice is completely up to you as to which to prefer. The debate as to which one is better rages on.

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