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If you want to succeed, you must go all the way. You are forced to go without much sleep the first week if you hope to be able to compete with others. You must be a cutthroat to survive. If you are not, you will not be succesful.
Also, on upgrade- In order to compete you are forced to get 1-2 months upgrades to get the extra bases and buildings. But the three month upgrade is cheap and all you truly need. Free will only get you so far.
anyone interested in learning to play this game, and are willing to be very active, can contact me. The new server opened up and this is a prime time for someone to learn to play.
PS: The majority of top guilds also have a fifth board for 'boobz' or 'pronz' or even just plain old 'lulz'. They are not joking, don't go to that forum if you don't want to see it. It's commonly denoted as NSFW (not safe for work).