Serenity and wonder fill my ears when I first open Stellaris. Pulling from the same lived-in future aesthetic of games like Mass Effect, Stellaris opens with an invitation. It wants you to explore, it wants you learn, to unearth secrets your galaxy has held for millennia. As I do, astral outlines and nebulae dot my galactic map. Carved out into large chunks are the cosmos’ remaining empires. The Kalaxenen Order. The Sibulan Core Worlds. The Bruggan Consciousness. And my own nascent superpower–the Reaper Commonwealth.
We’d coexisted with our neighbors peacefully for centuries, but we were out of space and desperate for some breathing room. Our scientists yearned to comb through the rest of the galaxy’s hyperspace lanes and long-forgotten ruins. And our priests were compelled to spread the will of the divine. So the galaxy erupted in war.
War always seemed to follow me in Stellaris. That’s partly because it’s hard to expand indefinitely without frustrating someone, but also because there’s a few hitches hiding within the layers of Paradox Interactive’s latest grand strategy game.
If you’ve ever played Civilization or any of its 4X descendants, you’ll be familiar with Stellaris’ basics. You helm a new civilization at the start of its journey. You can choose how they’ll govern, what their guiding principles are, and how they’ll develop technologically. If you choose to play alone, each of your opponents will have a randomly generated set of traits all their own- ranging from despotic fantastical pacifists to xenophobic materialists. Human players are just as likely to come up with creative personality combinations too. When you start a match, you’re dipping your toes into an ocean of possibilities, eager to yield as your people explore and grow.
That principle is reflected in Stellaris’ pacing. Before locking down your starting solar system and working to build out its infrastructure, you’ll scour neighboring stars for potential colony sites and resources. Then move in with settlers and engineers to start exploiting virgin territory.
Along the way, you’ll find all manner of long-lost technology, pre-industrial civilizations and other space-faring races. Each often comes with a “quest” line of sorts that develops into its own narrative thread. On one of my first planets, I discovered an advanced subterranean people. I had to decide upon a diplomatic strategy for them, whether I wanted to give them access to technology, and if I’d be willing to bail them out if they ran into trouble.
It was a small piece of Stellaris, but my relationship with these people became one of my most valued. In time, they paid me back for all the favors I’d done, and supported the empire at large. But even if they hadn’t, I felt connected to them. I caught myself roleplaying my interactions with them, trying to live up to my empire’s own benevolent spiritual collectivist beliefs. It’s this kind of ongoing, deterministic narrative scaffolding that forms Stellaris’ backbone. Where most other strategy titles are content to focus on conquest and victory, Stellaris wants its relationships and the story you weave as your people grow to be the focus.
That runs straight to the core of Stellaris, too. As you encounter new species, you’ll be able to integrate them as citizens in your civilization. And you’ll have to balance their prejudices and ideologies against those of your own citizens, decide whether they can vote, and even help them settle new planets that might be tough or inhospitable for your own race. These dynamics can have massive effects on intergalactic politics as well. If you enslave or purge (read: genocide) another race, other civilizations will remember your sins and hold centuries-long grudges.
These dynamics start coming into play when you hit the mid-game. After you’ve got your basic group established, as your borders and those of your neighbors start grinding against one another, you’ll have to find more creative ways to keep up the early game’s strong momentum. If you’re not careful, you can be boxed in by ancient and powerful civilizations. Grand strategy games often devolve into war at some point, but conflict with these giants is a quick path to eradication. Instead, it helps to build a multi-racial empire with several disconnected settlements. When one front stalls, you can push another and keep your populace moving so that there’s always something to do and someone to manage. It also helps to play on a map with few other empires so you can grow a quite a bit before you start running into problems.
It’s not easy, and it’s a bit strange that you have to finagle the game into maintaining a solid pace, but those problems also stem from some of Stellaris’ best decisions, even though they don’t always work out the way they should. For example, research in Stellaris works quite a bit different than in most 4X games. There’s no static tree you climb, moving from agriculture to calendars and then to crop rotation. Instead you’ll receive several “cards” from a deck of possibilities. Some, like sapient artificial intelligence, are rarer than others and represent major leaps forward in tech that can also help you break away from the pack.
Others are weighted to show up more often to give everyone the same basic tools to start with. In theory, this keeps any one game from feeling too similar to any other. That works to a point, but it also means that you can pass up some critical piece of infrastructure tech and you might not see it for a while, or if you’re unlucky, never again. It forces some tough decisions that, while engaging, don’t always make sense. There doesn’t seem to be any real reason that I have to lose out on colony ships for a better research facility. On balance, though it’s a welcome change, and I got more out of it than I lost.
Technology plays into galactic diplomacy as well. Some hyper-advanced civilization may find your development pathetic and offer to bring you under their wing as a protectorate, giving you major bonuses to research and a benevolent overseer that can keep you safe from the big bullies on the block–or at least try. The catch here, is that if you develop past a certain point, you become your overlord’s vassal. With that, they can, in time absorb your civilization completely. Or, you can request–and likely fight–for your independence, often at a time when their resources are spread thin with another war or even a recession.
It’s here–with warfare and diplomacy–where Stellaris takes the most risks, and their payoffs can vary from match to match. Those with pacifistic civilizations might try to form strong bonds with others and form powerful peacemaking coalitions. Others will, no doubt, flex their muscles and conquer all the can. Bringing everything from psychic warriors and specially designed war ships to bear down on their foes. And while these two outlets for Stellaris’ systems each work well on their own, their dependent upon so many of the game’s other novelties that they don’t fit together all the time.
Stellaris is strange in that it wants you to play on its terms, but within that you have amazing latitude.
The semi-random nature of research means that you won’t always be able to guide your people to what they need. Plus, negotiating federations can be difficult when meeting new races depends upon you breaking out of your starting area–something that can sometimes be impossible if you’re surrounded by super-hostile enemies. When it works, though, an alliance can help you leap ahead and match your elder rivals. Trade with someone who pities you can provide a massive influx of cash to fuel your economy, and, within short order you might have a diverse enough population to colonize a dozen or more extra planets. That, in turn, gives you more people to crew ships, drive research, and more complex internal politics to manage. But that’s just it, it’s based on chance. You can tilt things in your favor and increase the likelihood of a more exciting game, but that’s never a solid guarantee.
Stellaris is strange in that it wants you to play on its terms, but within that you have amazing latitude. Its emphasis on exploration is exhilarating. It makes each run feel inviting and special. But that doesn’t always hold. Some games run through to the end and hit all the right notes at all the right times. Others are best left running in the background as you crunch for better technology so you can break free of your narrow corner in the galaxy. This could be helped if you could sneak, or stealth ships through enemy territory to colonize far-flung worlds. Or, if you could have finer control of research. Or, if you could overwhelm enemy fleets with superior tactics, despite a massive technological disadvantage. Instead, you’re at Stellaris’ mercy. It is fortunate then, that more often than not Stellaris doesn’t just work, it excels, but that makes its breaking points feel that much more agonizing because it wouldn’t have taken much tweaking to smooth them out.