Eve Online is a famously tedious game set in a science fiction universe called New Eden. Detractors — and even some of those who love it — deride the game as "spreadsheets in space" and "the most thrilling boring game in the universe." But Eve is also home to rich and amazing stories. It's the stuff of great space operas. It's the stuff of history.
The following is an excerpt from the new book by journalist and author Andrew Groen, titled Empires of Eve: A History of the Great Wars of Eve Online. It is the true history of how political ideas first began to take hold in Eve, how that led to the creation of its first governments and political icons and how those governments eventually collapsed into a state of total war from 2007-2009.
This story takes place chronologically near the middle of the book during the climactic last stand of the Russians of Eve Online.
On May 25, 2006, 70 Russian pilots sat tired and bleary-eyed in their battleships near the first moon of the fourth planet in a star system so remote it was known only by the obscure designation "C-J6MT." They had dug in their heels, huddled around their last stronghold — a defensive starbase — and were preparing for the fight of their lives. Their fleet commander, a Russian-born New Yorker known to his compatriots as "Death" spoke to his friends and fellow pilots, rallying the troops for one last stand.
"You have to be able to show people that there is a hope," he later said. "Even a fucking tiny one. Just show the people that there is a little tiny hope that exists."
A fleet of over 400 "Coalition of the South" ships — the enemies of the Russians — warped in on the position of the 70 defenders. Among the massive fleet were 15 state-of-the-art, siege-capable dreadnoughts designed to rip the entrenched Russian position to shreds. As the Coalition dreadnoughts aimed their huge guns at the starbase and fired the opening volley, the Russian fleet commander gave the order to retaliate. They were outnumbered almost six to one, but they were prepared.
"When you're going up against those kind of odds you'd better have some great fucking idea about how you're going to beat their asses," Death told me in a thick Russian accent. "We managed."
The siege of C-J6MT began. It would prove to be one of the most memorable battlefield moments in Eve Online’s history, and a turning point that would shape the political landscape for years to come.
The Russian pilots were all that remained of the former powerhouse Red Alliance, a group whose holdings had once spanned five regions and over 450 star systems, making them the dominant power in the southeast of New Eden.
The Coalition of the South was comprised of several smaller alliances which each had an "ancestral claim" to the territory Red Alliance conquered (Some very old groups in Eve occasionally claim ancestral rights to certain territories if they were among the first to settle there when the game launched in 2003).
Before they joined forces and became the Coalition of the South, the smaller groups each individually asked Red Alliance for their territory back, but each request was denied by Red Alliance at the height of its power and its hubris. Real world relationships can heavily influence politics in Eve, and in this case the path to a peaceful resolution was being obstructed because some Coalition of the South pilots thought it was funny to mock the Russians for their nationality.
"You have to be able to show people that there is a hope." - Death
"They really bore grudges, the Russians," said Lallante, a former fleet commander in the Coalition of the South. "We tried diplomacy initially to say, 'We're happy leaving you in the East, you can keep your old regions. Let's just be friends.' And they said, 'No. We remember all those vodka jokes. This is gonna go down.'"
Not content to take no for an answer, those alliances came together to remove Red Alliance from the southeast. Individually, the alliances that made up the Coalition of the South were no match for the Russians, but as a combined unit they were the dominant force in the southeast of New Eden. And so the fingers (Lotka Volterra, Knights of the Southern Cross, Chimaera Pact, and Veritas Immortalis) formed a fist: the Coalition of the South. Its ranks numbered in the thousands. It was wealthy. And it was capable of fielding fleets bigger and better equipped than any in the region. The ranks of Red Alliance had swelled too. The Russian alliance now recruited American and French wings among other nationalities.
As Red Alliance accepted more and more partner groups into its alliance, the Coalition of the South prepared for a massive invasion of Red Alliance territory.
The stage was set for an epic war between the two giants of the southeast, but it didn't pan out that way. The initial invasion of Red Alliance territory went unopposed. From the region Tenerifis, Coalition fleets invaded Detorid and found no resistance. Immensea — west of Detorid — fell next and Red Alliance defense fleets were nowhere to be found.
Two whole regions, 180 star systems, were lost for the most mundane of reasons: Red Alliance's leadership couldn't convince its pilots to make the long trip out for the battle from their headquarters in Insmother. The newfound girth of Red Alliance was working against it. In the words of a former leader, "Mactep," (a Russian word both pronounced and meaning "Master") they had too many language barriers and were weakly organized.
These are two terrible qualities for an organization trying to field an army in Eve Online. Loyalty takes time to develop, and Red Alliance's constituent corporations were like newly absorbed independent states, still more loyal to themselves than to the alliance as a whole. Beyond that, it's difficult to form camaraderie between soldiers who speak different languages, and it's also difficult to ask new alliance members to spend their time and risk their ships to defend territory they played no role in conquering. Not to mention the difficulty of leading a fleet under the guiding voice of a single commander when many of your pilots don't speak that commander's language.
In Wicked Creek, Red Alliance finally stood its ground and mounted a defense on March 8, 2006. They fielded their largest capital ships, dreadnoughts, and made a stand.
Dreadnoughts are extremely powerful — yet vulnerable — warships. They have the ability to go into "siege mode," which gives them huge bonuses to firepower and survivability, but in 2006 this also rendered them immobile for 10 long minutes (later reduced to five minutes). They can output enormous amounts of damage in siege mode, but if the battle goes south then these expensive ships have no way to extract or receive incoming healing from repair ships.
The battle for Wicked Creek began. Red Alliance's losses were catastrophic.
Nine of Red Alliance's prized Dreadnoughts — the most expensive ships in existence at the time — were destroyed and its morale was broken. After this crushing defeat, the alliance fell to pieces. Because Red Alliance was composed of loosely-joined corporations, its pilots and fleet commanders were only experienced in small fleet combat. No one was yet capable of leading the hundreds of ships necessary to mount an effective defense with expensive capital ships, and so Red Alliance was tossed aside again and again.
The writing was on the wall: the Coalition of the South's time was rising and the sun had set on Red Alliance. One by one the corporations which once happily joined Red Alliance began making excuses and leaving the front. The alliance's last few dozen members were left to fend for themselves. Every non-Russian corporation in Red Alliance gave up the fight, leaving only a small gaggle of pilots to carry on the Red name.
Coalition of the South's time was rising and the sun had set on Red Alliance.
What was left was a ragged group of just under 100 players, many of whom weren't actually even fighters. Some of them were what Red Alliance called its "citizens," non-combatant civilians who depend on the military for protection. But the miners of Red Alliance weren't merely vulnerable civilians. They had been under constant attack for months, fending off Coalition of the South raids into their territory. As a result they had no choice but to figure out how to protect themselves. This meant becoming schooled in the dark art of player-versus-player combat. They became a mobilized civilian militia.
The rest of Red Alliance's pilots were among the best fighters in the game at that point. Pushed out of their territory, they opted to stay behind enemy lines rather than flee. Many of them stayed inside enemy systems for weeks, hiding in safe spots where the enemy had trouble finding them. They'd become the meanest, most ruthless pilots in New Eden. They stayed hidden until the enemy let their guard down, then swooped down like hawks to pick off vulnerable lone enemies.
But all of this leaves the question: "why?" Why were these Russian pilots sticking it out to the bitter end against terrible odds? What could they possibly hope to accomplish?
The answer has much to do with the international, multilingual structure of Eve Online. There are groups in Eve from dozens of countries, and people generally prefer to play with others who understand their culture and their language. In 2006, there was only one major Russian player group — Red Alliance. So for Red Alliance pilots to abandon their comrades would be tantamount to abandoning any sort of social structure in Eve, and likely abandoning Eve itself (games like Eve aren't much fun when you're flying solo).
Another factor: they wanted revenge. They were utterly fixated on sticking it to the Coalition of the South who had conquered their hard-won territory.
"When you're at the point where you're losing your real-life job because you're trying to achieve something… you have to keep going," said Mikhail Romanchenko, better known today as Death. "Because otherwise all of those losses were for nothing. When you set a goal for yourself… you have to achieve it. No matter what."
But it was also about more than just stubbornness. Many members of the Coalition of the South were not exactly gracious in victory. Some members of their coalition could be found spouting nationalist, even racist epithets and hate speech about the Russians.
"They're selling ISK to feed their families."
"Their ships were bought with Russian brides."
The intent was to disparage the Russian players and make them lose all joy for the game until they quit. It had the opposite effect. It gave the Russian players a rallying cry and a reason to fight. Victory in Eve is very often accomplished when one side simply gives up and moves on or falls apart from internal strife. In this case, the opposite was happening, and the Russian players weren't going to be booted out of nullsec until they lost every ship they had.
Red Alliance waged a guerilla war against the new lords of the land. Under the leadership of fleet commanders Studik, Death, and Mactep, small groups of 20-30 Red Alliance pilots would venture out into enemy territory to hunt.
Bizarrely, they were ignored for days, even weeks as they stalked and destroyed their enemies. The Coalition of the South had been banging the propaganda drum, announcing the demise of Red Alliance, and this led most people to believe that any Red Alliance members they saw were stragglers and nothing to be feared. They were wrong.
It was time to go on the offensive.
These Red Alliance raiding gangs quickly racked up a kill tally of over 500 ships on their hunts, and only lost a tenth as many in return. But they weren't going to defeat a coalition of thousands with hit-and-run tactics. They needed to win battles. They'd put the hurt on their enemies, and been a nuisance, but it was time to go on the offensive.
Red Alliance selected one system as the key to its traditional home region of Insmother: C-J6MT. It was centrally located in Insmother, contained valuable space stations, and was the gateway to eight other star systems. On May 24, 2006, Red Alliance attacked and took C-J6MT away from the Coalition. It quickly built defenses, preparing to defend the system at any cost. The Coalition could never have stopped the surprise attack, but it certainly planned to take the system back.
On May 25, those 70 tired Russian pilots were grouped up around their defensive starbase, waiting for the battle they knew was coming.
A fleet of over 400 Coalition of the South ships warped into the system and began organizing for battle. For the Coalition of the South this was a chance to snuff out a pest. It defeated Red Alliance weeks ago and believed vanquishing them here was key to stopping future attacks. They wanted to swoop in and smother the flame of Red Alliance.
When the Coalition fleet arrived they were full of bluster. Many of them were still spouting the same old Russian epithets in the local chat channel. Every major battle had gone their way, and they believed victory was a foregone conclusion.
The Coalition of the South fleet was massive but weakly organized. It showed up with hundreds of ships of all makes and models with very little in the way of true strategy. The Russians, on the other hand, were extremely well organized and knew exactly what they planned to do. After months of guerrilla warfare they were a finely tuned fighting force. Every pilot in Red Alliance was outfitted with the exact same ship — called a Tempest — with the exact same components, the intent being that every pilot would be on the same page as every other pilot at all times. They flew in packs of 10.
The Coalition of the South dreadnoughts unpacked their heavy artillery and unloaded on the defensive starbase while Red Alliance pilots charged the enemy lines. In their small packs they swarmed the Coalition dreadnoughts like a pack of bees: difficult to hit, and packing a punch. The damage they were doing to the dreadnoughts forced the rest of the Coalition to try to defend them. Rather than destroying Red Alliance's defensive starbase, the Coalition was now on their back foot just trying to keep their own valuable ships from being destroyed.
While the Red Alliance Tempest formations swarmed the enemy dreadnoughts, the defensive starbase was annihilating the Coalition's smaller battleships. One by one they were popping like fireworks as the starbase's kill tally notched ever higher.
The packs of Red Alliance Tempests weaved through the enemy fleet almost with impunity, with each group of 10 ships coordinating attacks on one specific enemy. The damage that the seven groups of battleships were inflicting began to rise, higher and higher. The Coalition fleet was simply outmatched. Not in numbers or in firepower, but in strategy.
When the smoke cleared, the Coalition found itself down hundreds of ships, and the Red Alliance defensive base was still standing and fully repaired. Red Alliance decided to give the starbase a name in honor of its stunning performance in the battle: "The Meatgrinder."
One day later, the Coalition returned, but was again turned back. Red Alliance took bigger losses this time, but again made the Coalition hurt much more badly than they did. In an important twist, Red Alliance managed to take down the flagship dreadnought of the Coalition of the South fleet commander, who was named "Chowdown." With its commander taken off the battlefield its lines of communication were disrupted — a symbolic blow that knocked the wind out of the Coalition's sails and embarrassed its leader.
When the smoke cleared, the Coalition found itself down hundreds of ships.
The next day — the third of the siege — the Coalition pilots arrived in low spirits. At this point, what hope could they have had in removing the Russian fleet if they'd already failed twice? But Coalition commanders hoped they could win by grinding down the Russians. Even if it lost these battles, the Coalition had four regions full of hundreds of miners and workers to replace its ships. Red Alliance didn't have that luxury. Every ship was priceless.
"And so again we fought," said one of the Coalition's fleet commanders, Lallante. "We brought the full weight of [four] alliances to bear on this one system where they were holed up. But they kept staying up all night to defend, and coming up with brilliant strategies to kill our dreadnoughts."
Predictably, the third day was a disaster for the Coalition of the South. Red Alliance destroyed four more Coalition dreadnoughts, and once again pushed back its enemies.
Morale had hit rock bottom in the Coalition of the South, but Red Alliance hadn't beaten it yet; it had merely stood its ground. The Reds were sturdy enough to hold against a foe trying to push them out, but they were a long way from taking back the hundreds of systems lost in the initial assault.
In the following days there were no big engagements, but the Coalition still maintained a presence inside C-J6MT. At all times it outnumbered Red Alliance two to one inside Red Alliance's own system. The Russians were patient. The Coalition was blockading Red Alliance in the system, but it was getting tired. Day after day, Coalition forces inside C-J6MT weakened until finally its numbers were equal to Red Alliance.
The Russians saw their advantage. They attacked and wiped out the Coalition blockade, removing any dispute as to the true owners of C-J6MT. After months of fighting and a weeks-long siege, Red Alliance had forced a stalemate and stopped the retreat.
C-J6MT had been conquered by an alliance with more grit and determination than has been seen before or after. But to take the rest of Insmother — and regain the Southeast — Red Alliance would need allies.
Fortunately for it, within days it would find the most powerful ally it could possibly imagine.
The conflict between Russians and the Coalition of the South is just one story in the vast interstellar drama that is Eve Online. Nearly 13 years after the game's release, the Eve community continues to be one of the most dynamic and fascinating cultures in gaming. Just last week another, massive war broke out. Sources tell Polygon that it's being funded almost entirely by a third-party, online casino and Groen himself says it could upset the balance of power in the game for years to come.
But in order to understand the future of Eve Online we must understand its history. The Siege of C-J6MT is just a small part of that history, plucked out of context from the much grander story of the game's early years. Studik, Death and Mactep are all recurring characters, and to know them you must go back to their origin at the dawn of the game in 2003.
For more about Empires of Eve: A History of the Great Wars of Eve Online, head to the official site.
To hear more stories from journalist and author Andrew Groen, check out Polygon's Backstory podcast where he talks about the birth of Eve's first titan-class starship.