One of my favorite computer games over the last few years has been X4: Foundations, a spaceflight-sandbox-economy-eurojank-sim 4X game made by the fine folks at Egosoft. Starting a new game in X4 can be an overwhelming experience, as you have no real objective, no starting cash, no purpose, and are generally unable to effect the world the game builds around you. (All this will flip around, with persistence...)
So, how then to get started? And how to turn that into an empire? There are many options, but for this post I will be discussing one of them. It is not the fastest nor easiest way to make space bucks from the start, and it can be a little tricky to get running, but if you stick with it, you can build a consistent passive income for your empire that runs in the background while you play.
So how does it work? That's easy! We corner the market for silicon. As the most popular of the four solids in the game, silicon can experience extremely high demand in certain sections of the game map -- namely, Terran space. And, unlike Ore, a full shipment of silicon sells for a decent amount of cash.
Terrans (and the Segaris Pioneers) are fantastic for this strategy because their economy and build requirements are very streamlined compared to the other species in X4 -- they have just three manufacturing goods: Silicon Carbide, Metallic Microlattice, and Computronic Substrate. As silicon is needed for two of those three, and because of the reduced bill of materials for pretty much everything in their economy, they need to build a ton more of these seemingly basic goods. Which means a near-insatiable demand for silicon can be found in Terran space, which the stock gameworld underserves to a near criminal degree!
If Terran space isn't to your liking, another place with a high demand for silicon is Grand Exchange, which is even better if you don't have the Terran expansion pack. However, this area has a strong pirate presence and a high chance of Kha'ak harassment, so it needs a bit more babysitting and investment to get running to the point of being entirely hands-off.
Another reason I like the Terrans is that their mining ships are cheap and expendable, and the S-class ships have comparatively high cargo space compared to the other species. One Kopis (the Terran S miner) has two-thirds the cargo space of the Bolo (the Terran M miner), but costs less than half of one! Terran space is also relatively safe -- the only thing you need to worry about are occasionally Kha'ak stations spawning nearby and harassing your miners. (Which you will need to deal with at some point, but can be worked around.)
The foundation (heh...) of this strategy is what I call the Solids Distribution Hub, which is a simple station serving as headquarters for your silicon miners and traders. You will need a manager (the more stars the better!), and a roughly equal number of identical ships mining and trading for the station. (Or, if you want to use S-class miners like Kopises (Kopii?) and Bolos, roughly a 3:2 ratio of S-class miners to M-class traders.)
This strategy will require a fair amount of credits to get started, as you will need to buy the schematics for a dock and solids storage. You will also need to curry faction favor enough to be able to buy the necessary blueprints. (All this can be skipped if you start with cash and/or blueprints already unlocked....)
From a new game starting with 0 credits, here are some ideas for getting your seed capital:
Hunt for crystals, which is slow as crystal payouts were nerfed several patches ago, or
Search for lockboxes, claim their contents, and sell off any high-value items within, or
Shoot stuff and collect bounties
That should get you enough money to start buying cheap miners, which you can set to Sector Automine. I like to do this in Segaris or Gaian Prophecy. Let these guys do their thing until your Segaris Pioneers reputation is +10, then they will let you buy station-building blueprints. Once you have the blueprints for a dock and solids storage, you can build your first Solids Distribution Hub.
How To Do It
1. Build the Solids Distribution Hub
As I mentioned just above, the cornerstone of this strategy requires building one or more Solids Distribution Hubs. These are spacestations with nothing more than a dock, and one or more solids storage modules. (I like M size for this, but S or L will work too.)
You want to choose a location that is close to ample raw silicon (use resource probes in purple hex tiles to find out), and no more than a couple of jumps away from customers with a healthy demand for silicon. For Terrans, you want to be near to Silicon Carbide and Computronic Substrate factories, and you will want to focus on silicon. In other sectors you will want to be near Silicon and/or Ore Refineries, or Teladianium Foundries (if in Teladi space), and you will want to trade in both ore and silicon.
In Terran space, Brennan's Triumph is my favorite spot, but Gaian Prophecy and Segaris work too: they all have large silicon deposits nearby and plenty of consumers to sell to. Brennan's Triumph is the best, in my opinion, as a five-star manager will let you reach all of the outer Terran planets between Asteroid Belt to Oort Cloud. Once you have gained access to the inner Terran planets, Mars is also a good spot, as there are a number of consumers in that sector, Asteroid Belt is only a single jump away, and a five-star manager can reach all the remaining Terran planets. I also like to build one in Grand Exchange, though the subsector you choose doesn't really matter. (In previous games, I'd use the free HQ as one such hub, but with the Boron expansion its starting location has moved.)
Note that you may need to raise your reputation with the Terrans to -9 or higher in order to trade with them. You can do so by shooting criminal traffic at any TER station.
Once the space station is complete...
2. Assign a manager
Be sure to assign the most qualified manager you have, as this will greatly affect the hub's efficacy and range of sales (unless you use mods that provide better trading commands). Jump range for both miners and traders is roughly 1 jump per the higher value: manager or pilot star-rating. I find that you can oftentimes find some decent managers hiding in your organization as service crew members, and it is easy to transfer them to the role.
3. Make a new trading rule called "Mine Only" and set it as default for your hub
To do this, go to the "Global Orders" tab of your "Player Information" screen, and make a new trade rule that permits trading only with your faction. Do not set it as default for anyone. It should look like this:
4. Set your Solids Distribution Hub to buy only from you
Unfortunately station manager's AI does not know how to handle a distribution hub such as this, so you need to do some manual setup on the station, otherwise your traders will stand around aimlessly with nothing to do. We basically need to override its automatic buy/sell behavior to always buy and sell as much as possible, and to only buy from us.
To do this, we need to manually choose our trade goods, and manually set the target buy and sell amounts to be the absolute maximum and minimum inventory levels. You can set trade goods in the Logistics view for your station, by selecting the "Silicon" (and "Ore", if you want to trade that) entries in the dropdown towards the middle-bottom of the screen.
Once your trade goods are set, open up the details panel for the good and set it to buy up to the max and sell down to the minimum. Make sure the trade rule on the buy side is set to your "Mine Only" rule. You can leave the automatic pricing or set it yourself; buying from your own miners is always free. Note that you must click "Add Sell Offer" and "Add Buy Offer" to get to these detail screens, and then uncheck the "Automatic" buy/sell box. I have highlighted the relevant sections you need to change:
5. Deploy the miners!
Once your station is configured, you are ready to start mining and trading! You can use any size miner you want; to start I prefer using the Terran S-class miners (Kopis) as they are cheap (about 250k each for a minimum spec) and Terran M-class miners (Bolo) for trading. For these guys, buy them in a 3:2 ratio of S to M. Otherwise, use M-class miners and traders and buy them in a ratio of 1:1. No matter what, you will always be buying solids miners, but you can save a bit of cash by skipping the purchase of mining hardware for the trade ships.
Also note that we are mixing S- and M-class ships for a reason: this dramatically increases your total throughput as you are making full use of available parking, which means less ships standing around waiting to dock. It would be cheaper to use only S-class ships, but they would spend more time waiting around when all available parking is full.
In my personal experience, for stations with a 5-jump radius, the local TER/PIO market seems to get saturated at around 40 S-class miners. This number is likely smaller if your station's jump range is smaller, and it will grow larger as the economy around your stations comes fully online.
You will want to balance inflows and outflows of raw materials, and ideally your station's storage is never full nor empty. If it's full and miners are complaining, add more traders; if it's empty and traders are complaining, add more miners. When the asking price for silicon begins to drop from it's max of 151, you are beginning to saturate the market. Once it has dropped to its minimum, all of your customers are at max capacity and you have fully saturated your market. At this point traders will start complaining about a lack of trades, even if your storage is full, and you will notice that profitssss from your trades have fallen greatly.
6. Watch the $$$ roll in
If the station is configured correctly, your miners will now go out and mine for the station manager when they are assigned to "Mine for this commander". Similarly, your traders need to be set to trade for the station. Pay special attention to the station's logistics configuration as this needs to be exactly right; if it is not set correctly then the miners will do nothing.
The station manager will send you cash on a regular basis, usually several times a minute as trades roll in.
Now you can sit back, do your things, and watch your in-game credit account slowly shoot upwards!
Dealing with the Kha'ak
Inevitably, the game will eventually spawn a Kha'ak station somewhere along the outer edges of your sector, and start harassing your miners. You can tell this is happening because you will start to receive notifications that miners are being attacked and/or destroyed by KHK ships.
Left unchecked, these infestations will eventually kill all of your miners. It is important to address this situation early, as you can't really rely on your allies to solve the problem for you. Luckily, they only seem to attack miners engaged in mining, and not miners simply transiting through the sector, so the easiest solution is to blacklist "sector activities" for the affected sector and cause your miners to go elsewhere. This will affect your mining throughput, however, as miners now need to travel further to search for mining spots.
Therefore, you will want to gather a team of scouts to track down the Kha'ak. (I call them... the Kha'ak Hunters!) You can do this by purchasing six fast scouts with good travel engines, such as TER Rapiers, and ordering each one of them to explore one corner of the sector's hex map borders. After a few minutes they will likely stumble upon the station, and you will have to gather up your forces to take it out!
If you are close allies with the faction that owns the sector in question, sometimes they will dispatch a force to take it out for you. In this case I'm not really sure about whether you have to scout the station out or not, so I will do the scouting run anyway.
But take note that, per this forum post from a moderator at Egosoft, the Kha'ak will stay gone much longer if you take them out (24 in-game hours!). If one of the other factions does instead, they are only locked out of spawning for an hour.
Silicon mining provides a solid foundation for the budding galactic emperor, and should give you enough money to purchase a defensive force and any infrastructure you need for the next stage of empire-building. It is almost completely passive, and requires very little ongoing maintenance or attention. Mining ships are cheap and expendable, and their cargoes aren't worth enough for pirates to bother with. It is a great way to build a solid income for playing the rest of the game!