It took little more than fifty years for me to establish galactic supremacy as the Igarian Galactic Assembly. A military republic of religious, long-living felines, it was my manifest destiny to hold political and military sway over the other space-faring peoples. True, I may have shared technology with underdeveloped civilizations with the sole intent of having them as march-states against other, growing empires; and my sprawling web of vassals was mostly the fruit of military intervention, rather than voluntary co-operation; but as a xenophile I never enslaved or exterminated an alien species, even when they were little more than over-sized, rebellious ants, and when the Gold Concordat threatened to expand into my circle of influence I, instead of crushing them, joined their alliance and, as its strongest member, pushed a vote to transform it into the Bright Concord, a pan-species federation where all those willing to work had a place.
To those acquainted with Paradox’s Grand Strategy games, the emergent gameplay described above is a common element, a trademark of their complex games – and, for the most part, a consequence of said complexity and depth. This element is also well present in Stellaris, a hybrid between 4X and Grand Strategy that eschews some of the depth of the latter’s genre by borrowing some of the former’s streamlined, simpler mechanics. While Stellaris is a step closer to Endless Legend and Civilization than it is to Distant Worlds, that doesn’t mean it’s not as much of a sandbox game as Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis: without the turn-based constrictions and with open-ended goals and objectives, your empire’s future is yours to shape.
Which brings us to the first feature of the game, and one of my favorites: empire creation. If you’re not content with the eight pre-made options the base game comes with, you can instead choose to create your own empire and species (or have one randomized for you). With a visual diversity that’s in line with the game’s strong characterization, you’ll be able to choose from six classes, such as arthropods and avians, each with several different animated portraits and appearances, and then pick the species’ traits, homeworld type, government form and ethics, among other things. The galaxy is a vast and varied place, and you’ll have situations where a scientific directory comprised of octopodes is vying for power side-by-side with a monarchy of militarily-inclined eagle-looking creatures.
Aside from the AI empires and you, the galaxy is home to societies of varying technological level: from planets where the dominant species are still ruled by kings and swords to others where nuclear fission and initial space exploration are already well known. In a way that reminded me of Star Trek’s Federation, you can opt to either observe these civilizations from afar, actively intervene in their society, aid them in the development of FTL space-travel or genetically modify members of your species to covertly invade and substitute the political class with your own, effectively becoming the planet’s ruler.
These scattered civilizations, along with the various roaming aliens – from gentle space cows to hostile crystalline entities – and the games’ events add a touch of flavor and flair that space games often lack. Discovering anomalies, surveying planets and exploring different systems can yield events and questlines where you’ll often have to make decisions or perform multiple tasks to earn certain rewards. On one of my playthroughs as the technocrat Gwesibor Foundation I happened upon a heavily-guarded Tree of Life, and once I’d harvested its sap I could either focus its regenerative power on my leaders, increasing their lifespan, or spread it among the population, diluting its effects but increasing their happiness. Whereas space games often feel bland and empty, Stellaris’ beautiful visual presentation and plethora of interactions keep it clear from the spreadsheet and user interface pit that many games in the genre fall into.
The game borrows frequently from common 4X features, and these mechanics are tactile and intuitive: planets are divided into tiles, upon which your populations grow and where you can create buildings to generate resources, further your research or attain other specific benefits. The research part of the game is equally intuitive, with three separate categories that you’re constantly researching in order to either improve your current options or make available new ones. A few of these research options can change the way you play entirely, introducing robot workers that you can build instead of grow or genetic splicing that you can use to uplift base animals into sentient-hood. An even smaller amount of them are labelled as dangerous, such as Artificial Intelligence, and if you’re not careful they can lead to disastrous end-game events…
The 4X elements and small start (you always begin with a single planet and a handful of ships) are accompanied by an exceptionally well-implemented tutorial that’s only as intrusive as it needs to be. I say exceptional because there aren’t many strategy games that you can pick up and play for the first time without failing horridly, and while there are plenty of details and advanced features that you’ll only uncover as you play, the tutorial does a perfect job of conveying what needs to be known to get things flowing. For those that want things on a grander scale, as the game progresses and your empire grows you’ll find that the smaller aspects of 4X management give way to the more indirect, delegating nature of grand strategy games.
There are a few mechanics that stood out as particularly interesting and novel, however. Your government type and traits dictate how certain policies are initially applied, such as migration, slavery, voting rights and war economy – and populations react differently to said policies. Your individualist, freedom-loving human of The Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire might think your prohibition of slavery is great, but that collectivist race of insectoids you integrated might think otherwise. Even your own species’ populations gain particular quirks as your empire grows, due to something called ethics divergence: that faraway sector might with time shun your empire’s pacifism and become jingoist warmongers, radically opposing your lack of military intervention in surrounding empires. Let a population become too unhappy, and it’ll start joining factions: it might want you to release or return a planet to its former owner; stage a coup to place a pretender or even create a separate empire from that sector that you foolishly let grow too big.
The sector system is also an effective way at minimizing micro-managing: you can designate systems and planets to a sector, which will then rule over that region in a semi-autonomous way, granting you taxes and research but with autonomy to construct buildings as it wishes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that well in practice: governors have a hard time prioritizing what you tell them to, often mis-managing their Energy or Mineral production, or failing to produce that which you tell them to.
Diplomacy is relatively straightforward and a bit lacking, though there are some interesting embellishments. There’s the regular rivalry-declaration, embassy establishment, treaties that open or close your borders, research agreements and whatnot, and there are the alliances and federations. Alliances are formed by two or more empires and have a snazzy name, and you can establish a Federation if four or more members of an alliance agree to it. A Federation is similar to an Alliance but has quirks of its own: the presidency is cyclical, and while president you have the option to overrule vetoes to any federation-wide actions, such as declaring a war. There’s also a special ‘Federation Fleet’, which each member can contribute to and which is controlled by the current federation’s president. There isn’t much aside from this, and espionage and more complex diplomatic options are absent.
That’s not to say the game is flawless. Combat is mostly reliant on fleet or army firepower – the stronger one wins – and there’s little to no control, as you’re limited to telling what to attack and then watching as things unfold. Surveying systems, along with building mining and research stations, can only be done manually, and the lack of an option to automate these tasks is sorely felt, specially when your empire has several sectors and dozens of planets. One other absence that sticks out like a sore thumb to a Paradox veteran is the lack of different map modes: you have the system view and galactic view, but you can’t paint your map in varying ways to display blobs of empires and their vassals as one entity, or represent federations and alliances in a contiguous manner.
There’s also the matter of mechanics that practically beckon for a certain feature or characteristic, such as Federations lacking a UN-like assembly where policies are voted for on a federation-wide basis, or sectors not having a rebellion likelihood outside of discontent populations. I imagine that a few years from now looking back on Stellaris will be the same as looking back on Crusader Kings 2: a game with a solid framework and interesting ideas, but ultimately with unrealized potential that only a few years of continued support and additional content will mend.
With a polished user interface, stellar soundtrack and enough artwork pieces depicting planets, creatures and events to open an art gallery, Stellaris strides into the space-strategy scene not as the most complex or deep game, but as a polished, relatively easy to grasp experience with a handful of innovative mechanics that make it unique and give it personality by the ton. I can’t recall a game that’s made exploring space as pretty as Stellaris has, and I’d be lying if I said I’m not eager to see where the game will be taken in the future.