Boarding is the act of maneuvering your ship into a position next to a disabled ship and attempting to enter it. While the act of boarding is, strictly speaking, not illegal in itself, it is generally followed by the attempted theft of credits or property stored on the ship, or even the entire ship. Therefore, military vessels who witness a boarding attempt may be inclined to view such an action in a hostile fashion and act accordingly. Another consideration for potential boarders include the possibility that the target vessel may be a decoy, set up by pirates deliberately as a trap; since your own vessel is nearly motionless during the operation, it makes you a much easier target for any attacker.
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Once you have boarded successfully, you can attempt to plunder cargo, cash, ammunition, or energy, or capture the vessel outright. Note that each operation that you attempt increases the chance that the boarded vessel will self-destruct. Therefore, you should prioritize your operations, taking into account the sales price of the commodities, so you will end up with the most profit even if the ship is destroyed. Bear in mind that a captured ship can be sold off, usually for more than the value of any contents. (Pirate Manticores are occasional exceptions to this, as they often carry large sums of cash.)
The capture option is only available to registered players. If you are successful in an attempt to capture a ship via boarding, you have the choice of using the captured ship as your own, or to make it an escort. Your chances of a successful capture depend on the size of your crew vs that of the target; you can enhance your chances by acquiring Marine platoons. Be aware, however, when piloting a ship with zero crew, you will not have the option of making captured ships your own. This is most frequently encountered with Vell-os ships, because you are the only person who can fly your ship (you created it and must telepathically sustain it).
A simple but effective strategy is to take the ship as your own, making your ship an escort. Then go to a shipyard and buy a new example of your previous ship. You now have two copies of your ship, one as your primary, one as an escort. This is an effective way to take advantage of a disabled fighter, if you have the money. However, your old ship now only has its stock outfits- this won't let you get a fleet with seven copies of Iuso's Raven or that Thunderforge with seven Ion Cannons you have.
The crews of some drifting derelict ships may still be alive. If they are, they will want help getting off their ship, which will prevent you from seeing the normal boarding screen and being able to capture or plunder the ship. However, the crew will pay you a handsome 75,000 credits for saving them.
Aligning yourself in parallel to the vessel you're boarding will help you board it faster. This helps if your target vessel is under fire. NPCs, with the exception of pirates, tend to destroy vessels rather then disable.
A ship that has already been boarded, successfully or unsuccessfully, by either you or an NPC cannot be boarded a second time; attempting to do so will only display the message "You can't board this ship."
In addition to the above, three other cases can arise where a ship cannot be boarded. First, unless the mission calls for it, mission-related ships cannot be boarded. Second, escorts that you release and immediately disable cannot be boarded. Finally, ships with zero crew — namely Cargo Drones, Vell-os ships, Wraith, Hyperioids, and Krypt Pods — cannot be boarded.