Stellaris: Every Conquest Begins With A Single Step
After my usual (well, trying to make it a usual) post work-day routine, I was excited to sit down with Stellaris. Although I’m a huge fan of the idea of sprawling, deep, and involved strategy games, in practice my track record is spotty: I don’t have the necessary time nor the attention span to devote to memorizing the numbers, or the wherewithal to plan ahead far enough to avoid becoming my own worst enemy. My empires are usually carved up pretty quickly as my neighbors overwhelm me with their lightning-quick production and research progress.
After watching a few videos on Stellaris to learn the ropes, I started a new game with the maximum number of systems — 1000 — and about 28 different AI players, eight of which were set to be “more advanced”. Like a lot of these space faring 4X games, you’re starting off at Star Trek: First Contact level where you’ve barely managed to get yourself off your home world and out into the universe, but some civilizations have been putting themselves out there for centuries at the time you leave your first snarky comment on the Internet. I started with the warp drive which allows me to move from system to system, although I have a spin-up and cool-down penalty before and after each jump which makes immediate travel somewhat of a pain. Like all civilizations, I started with one military fleet of four corvettes, a construction ship, a science ship, a shipyard, and my home world. I chose the Scyldari (?), the least ugly, non-human race. We’re pacifists, or at least non-violent, and I’ve chosen to play that way in my research and construction, knowing full well that it’s going to blow up in my face at some point.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about a grand strategy/4x game in a few words. It’s even more difficult to describe how someone like me, who likes the idea and the promise of these games, but who usually sucks at them, feels more comfortable with Stellaris than with any other game of it’s kind. It’s not a simple game, but it’s not overly complex; it has a whole lot of numbers and interwoven systems, but the interconnected nature doesn’t make things obtuse. There’s a whole lot of moving parts to keep track of, but at no point did I ever feel like my ships, their crews and captains, were just little pawns to be moved around to complete tasks. I guess the best way to explain all of this is to present some vignettes from my first game last night.
If you’ve played Paradox strategy games then you’ve probably sat through their tutorials. Europa Universalis IV‘s tutorials were accessed from the main menu and operated apart from the main game. They were dry as a stick of jerky in the Sahara. Stellaris‘ tutorials are inline with the game itself, although a lot more scattershot. You’ll start off with some decent guidance from your sentient AI tutorial-bot (your “only friend”, it suspects), but the learning curve is not linear. In fact, you can subvert it by clicking on anything other than what the tutorial tells you to click on, at which point the AI will switch topics and start telling you about what you clicked on. If it had given you an objective, it’ll only pick up the narrative once you complete that objective.
In fact, I found a procedural bug in the tutorial. I was asked to survey three systems to learn about surveying. I completed one, another was squatted by hostiles, and I didn’t get to the third before I received a random mission to go and retrieve four probes our early civilization had sent out (we realized the identifying data could be used against us). One of those probes was in the third system I had to survey, but finding the probe automatically surveyed the system for me. Unfortunately, that did not count as surveying for the purpose of the tutorial, but I couldn’t actively survey the system because…it was already surveyed.
Thankfully, the tutorial quickly covers the Stellaris-specific mechanics, and most everything else can be understood with some tinkering and a generous application of traditional 4x knowledge.
I like Clauswitz Engine games (Paradox’s grand strategy engine) because they are designed to put butts in seats, and by that I mean you don’t just assign citizens to posts by name. Early on I was told to hire different citizens for a few posts: I needed a scientist for my new science ship, I needed an admiral for my fleet, and I needed a governor for my new colony. You recruit these folks, choosing the best candidate from a pool of three random candidates, based on their skills and specialties and what you want to accomplish, and then slot them where they need to be.
Each hireling gains experience as you go, which means the longer they’re out there, the better they are at their jobs. For citizens on starships, this gets to be a hair-raising experience. My premiere scientist was in a system I needed to survey for the tutorial, but the system was occupied by a hostile NPC who was camping the last planet. I switched the ship from “evade” to “passive” so it wouldn’t automatically flee the system, and tried to sneak in to scan the planet. I was gripping my mouse so tightly that I thought I’d break it as I watched the tiny ship approach the massive crystalline creatures, because I knew if there was a fight that I couldn’t escape, my best scientist would be space-amoeba food, and I did not want that. Thankfully, the ship was able to bolt once the creatures went aggro. Although the system was unsurveyed, my scientist is still alive, and to me, that is what matters because I feel that it does matter.
Later on in the game, I was notified that some of my citizens had gotten fed up with our pacifist lifestyle and had commandeered some civilian spacecraft, outfitting them with weapons and declaring themselves “pirates”. This put me on the alert, scanning the systems where I had a presence (i.e. an active ship). Fortunately, they popped up in a system adjacent to my home system, and in a system where I had installed a remote research station which, thankfully, was armed. The platform managed to hold off the pirate ships until I could jump my corvettes in to assist, and together we removed the outlaws from this reality. Sadly, only one ship out of the four made it, but it limped back home for repairs and was back up to fighting strength in a matter of months.
In previous Paradox games, we’re dealing with history; there’s little ambiguity when it comes to the places you occupy and the neighbors you’ll meet. The same goes for Civilization games. In Stellaris, nothing is taken for granted.
When I ran into my first roaming NPC, the system didn’t tell me anything about them. It labeled them something like “alpha alien”, and told me that I needed to devote one of my researchers to studying these Alphas before we could figure out what to do about them. This took time, and time away from other research that the citizen was assigned, but when it completed I learned about the “space whales”, passive NPCs who roamed the galaxy like intergalactic jellyfish. Beta aliens were a different story: they were assholes, and I had to stay away from them.
On one survey mission to a nearby system, my science ship warped in and went straight to red alert. There were several unidentified NPCs hanging around there, forcing me to spend research time trying to understand them. In the end, it turned out to be a true First Contact situation: this was another empire, only a few systems away from the current boundaries of my own. Normally in 4x games meeting another empire only feels like a downer: you realize you can’t expand in that direction any further without really laying into them militarily. In Stellaris, finding your first spacefaring empire feels like an actual, monumental discovery, like “Holy crap! Aliens!” I even felt this way when I encountered my second empire. We’re all peaceful races, pretty much similarly aligned in philosophy, so I’m thinking we’ll get along fine. Until we don’t. Because this is a 4x game, and that’s how they tend to roll.
And if you look at the galaxy map to see where our little triumvirate is located, you’ll notice — we’re still very small fish in an extremely massive pond. There’s 24 other empires out there, eight of which are more technologically advanced than we are, and not all of them will be peaceful. This is emergent gameplay.
The Slow Boil
4x games are not, by their nature, fast moving. You can pause and make decisions; you’re expected to pause and make decisions, partly because decisions have consequences, but also because you have a lot of plates a-spinnin’ and you need to at least know what’s out there even if you don’t have a focused plan for each and every element at all times.
In most 4x games, this stresses me out because I know I could run into hostile NPCs or aggressive empires at any time. I always feel that I should be spending all of my resources on offense and defense, turning my home base into a veritable fortress before I even start thinking about moving outside my home range.
Not so with Stellaris. I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the most accessible grand strategy/4x games I’ve tried whose name doesn’t start with Civilization. In that, I think that people who like the idea of trying a 4x/grand strategy game, but who are intimidated by the small fonts needed to convey so much information or the idea that one needs to keep track of each and every unit on the board at all times, would find Stellaris to be both a great and immersive experience in a true 4x/grand strategy game vein.