A Day with Stellaris
So you might not have heard of the new Paradox title Stellaris, the new 4X game launched earlier this month. And that wouldn’t be unexpected, really, as Paradox has previously been known for developing the inscrutably deep Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings series, both of which I bounced off of pretty thoroughly.
But Stellaris is new, and is possibly well-described as “Europa Universalis in Space”, but you should ask EU aficionados about the accuracy of that statement. It’s a 4X title, where you grow your empire from a single homeworld to an imperial juggernaut whose mere presence causes lesser states to tremble. You design your spaceships, you can play as a variety of Space Creatures (such as molluscs, and insects, and mammals), and even design your own species! I went with a race of Space Kitties named the Kilrathi, but we’ve drifted somewhat from the original ideal.
You may have seen me tweeting about this game already, because I’m having fun playing it. A lot of fun. A lot of deep, satisfying fun in all the ways that Civ: Beyond Earth disappointed me.
To give you an idea of the depth of this game in a day and a single game the following wonderful things have happened:
- I was a jerk to my neighbors, declared war on them and insisted that they let a planet become independent. They did, and now that newly forged empire loves me to bits. I inadvertently stumbled upon a separatist movement! And it worked out!
- Discovered space cows
- Founded a colony who want to become separatists
- Conquered a neighbouring world, who are now fielding candidates on the grounds of “Let us return to our empire, you oppressive jerks!”
- I have spaceships that have giant lightning cannons, and giant crystal shard cannons.
- The neighbour I was harassing has formed a federation with 5 other empires against me and the other big militaristic empire. And didn’t invite me. (I wonder why?)
- My long-range exploration science teams keep dying on me.
- I found a Fallen Empire that treats me with barely-concealed contempt… and I’m trying to steal border worlds from them. This will work out, right?
- Colonised a world with some natives who are at the stone age
- Working on uplifting an industrialised society
- Got invaded by Beholders From Beyond, and summarily eaten.
What you should draw from this is what Civ5 stopped giving me and BE never gave me, weird little stories of the way my game world is unfolding. I want to be able to tell people about the time that my angry space kitties found space cows, or sowed the seeds for an unhappy Federation on our border, or tried to negotiate trade with an isolationist Fallen Empire that threatens violence for “the wrong sort” of research.
But who knows what that research might be?!
I could tell those stories in Civ5, occasionally, like that time the Mongols invaded and I needed to beg the Huns to intervene, or that time Germany and I ended up in a long war of attrition, glaring at each other over a border bristling with guns, but over time the stories faded and the magic faded and it just became a battle with systems and optimisation.
Beyond Earth never gave me those stories, never helped me to care or helped me to succeed in growing to love the world.
Stellaris, by contrast, really does.
I really want to talk some more about the government, and how one of my oppressed planets is fielding a candidate on the “Let us go home!” platform. In Stellaris, there’s three different currencies, Credits, Minerals, and Influence. It’s easy to get the first two, but the third accrues achingly slowly and it’s quite hard to increase that acquisition. Expansion requires it, and founding frontier stations to ensure you have access to some desperately-needed resources has a permanent cost.
The two ways of getting more are to declare rivalries with other empires, which makes them dislike you (With good reason!), and doing quests for your current governmental ruler.
For most of my game, that’s been “Build mines” and “Build research outposts” - easy stuff. But if these Consuls get elected, then to expand I’ll need to work with a government that might want to release these planets and strengthen another empire, or might want me to institute Slavery, or other actions that run against the grain of my empire.
And that is so amazing. The tension of “if I grow my empire like this, this separatist faction will grow because I’ll have more people that vote that way” and “I can’t institute universal suffrage because these aliens might vote the wrong way” against the constraints of “but I can’t improve these colonies so I can’t make them happier and get better resources”.
That I need to balance these concerns is wonderful.
And then we come to Sectors, where you can only rule a small number of worlds from the Homeworld, and need to cede power to regional governments. Which can drift from the desires of the empire
And form their own empires! and then you have a civil war on your hands, which may trigger other systems to push for their own independence (and the game warns you on this).
And then your rivals can see you’re having a messy civil war and might decide it’s a good time to take you down a notch, or make you a vassal state.
Oh and you can be a vassal state of a larger empire, which has ethical concerns and can only be broken if they let you go OR you win a war of independence.
You can have wars of independence, wars that make sense and operate within the rules of the universe and the rules of your own society, and rules of other societies as well.
So, I’m just gushing about it, it’s true, but there are some bits that are really annoying, such as the interface being extremely opaque and difficult to find out where specific things are or what to do, and the tutorial quickly falling over and never really picking itself back up. Most of the game is spent at the Galactic view, but the game seems to insist or believe that the default view is the System level, which often ends dropping me out of being able to see my empire and figure out what I’m doing.
The diplomacy system is really, really shallow, which is a huge shame because it really feels like diplomacy is the real meat of this game, all the various and absurd ways that I’ll be able to negotiate and bargain and forge an empire on promises or threat or good negotiation skills. I can see the foundations but the systems just aren’t there or good enough or robust enough, and that’s a shame.
For instance, you can make another empire a Vassal. Great, they’re wholly subordinate to you, and this results in letting me drag them into wars and give them objectives. But, I can’t demand tribute from them, make them give me fleets to use as the cheap vanguard of my forces, feeding them to the meat grinder of my enemies.
When the Reapers come, you can’t even drag your federation or vassals into the fight, because they’re not an “empire” you can “be at war” with, which is fully broken.
The micromanagement required to get spaceports to produce ships for the fleet is immense, and the Sectors system doesn’t (I don’t think?) take this off you.
I can’t figure out how to make the AI declare war on me. I can’t exactly harass their ships or provoke them? Insults don’t seem to do much? Even at the maximum hate of -1400 they just ignored me for years, and they were a species all about fanatic cleansing.
If you like 4X games and were disappointed by Beyond Earth, you should try this game. It’s got a lot of great systems that put some really unique pressures on the player, and it’s a great way of telling stories about your strange space empire and the struggles it faced. It is that time that you stared flew around your home system and were terrified when alien life entered your system… only to discover they were harmless space cows.
Given Paradox’s long support of Crusader Kings and EU in terms of DLC I see a lot of DLC on the horizon for Stellaris, and this makes me exceptionally excited. I can’t wait to see where this game goes.
But should you buy it? Today, I’d say no. At the end of June? Well, that’ll be two major patches in, and things should be a lot more expanded and solidified, and I’ll be posting a followup to let you know my thoughts.
For now, the Kilrathi Empire has a bunch of planets to colonise, and some battleships to build.