Stellaris is a 4X space strategy. And while technically it’s not a turn-based game, it sure plays a lot like one. Especially in multiplayer where everyone can pause the game to analyze the situation and issue all needed commands. In fact, the only way to play this game with other people is to make an agreement when each one has own turn to press “Pause”.
However, let’s review things in order and start with what you do as a player in general.
Encounter new life and civilizations…
Exploration in Stellaris takes quite a chunk of your activities. In fact, more than the other 3 of 4 X-es in the earlier stages of the game. Not only your science vessels need to survey every star to find suitable planets for first colonies, but they also research anomalies. And deploy research teams at archaeological sites – a mini-game of its own, with collecting clues, achieving breakthroughs and gathering ancient artifacts as a reward.
Even upon the first contact, you have to start a research project. And only after it’s finished you’ll be able to understand alien language and communicate. Sure, later in the game others will make contact through already existing channels but for the first few Empires, you meet you’ll have to spend a few months on studies.
There is also, of course, the research of new technologies. Three projects at once – 1 in physics, social and engineering fields. But the list of technologies available for study is semi-random. That totally makes you feel like an explorer of the unknown. On the one hand. On another, you’re unable to plan your science progress in advance.
Another nuance is that each science team should have a leader. Without a leader stars and planets are surveyed slower and research speed diminishes too. Study of anomalies and archaeological excavations can’t progress without head scientist at all.
Like all leaders, scientists gain experience over time and improve their research speed. Plus they can gain some additional trait (positive or negative) after working on a particularly challenging project. There is a catch, however. Like all leaders, scientists also die. Both from accidents (try to improve science ship’s disengage chance if you have an opportunity) and old age – basically taking away all their advantages and forcing you to hire newbie who starts career from scratch.
Foundation of Empire
After you explore all the stars in one or two hyper-jumps from your homeworld and find a planet for your first colony, your expansion will start. Rather slowly at first. You need time to build a colony ship, fly it to destination and wait until it is rebuilt into an administrative center on a new planet. And habitable planets are rare. At least until you include other species into your population or increase the adaptability of your own.
Also, your Empire has limited “Administrative Capacity” that defines how much it can sprawl. Exceeding it over a small amount is not a big deal, but the further you go, science research becomes more expensive, trade and mining lose efficiency. At some point, you’ll just have to stop and wait until you find tech or artifact to raise your AC cap.
Or you can just sprawl without colonies. Build space stations that use far less AC than a colonized planet. Your base orbiting the star is enough to claim the whole system and additional mining and research stations don’t require administration at all. Just be mindful that there is an additional limit on the number of stations you can upgrade. So upgrades, that allows installing better defense and additional useful modules, should be made only for star systems that are key to trade or conquest.
On the strategical level warfare doesn’t differ much from other Paradox games. You make claims against your enemy, declare your war goals and go forward with your fleets and armies. When war exhaustion reaches a critical level, you can (or in the worst case have to) sign a peace treaty. And geopolitical landscape changes accordingly – you get all enemy star systems, occupied by your ships (or vice versa), receive contributions from the defeated side (or vice versa if it’s you who got blasted), and so on.
On tactical level aka battles in star systems, it’s little more nuanced. You can have various types of ships with various types of weapons. There can be several fleets, each under command of the separate leader. You can issue orbital bombardment before sending actual troops on the planet.
Just like in exploration, there are also army “Leaders”. Admirals command your fleets, Generals lead your armies. Their presence increases the damage rate according to their level. Plus they can have some individual bonuses for their forces.
Except there is not really much diversity in tactics. Your forces just blast through the enemies and win if they have superior firepower. Or lose if they don’t. There are no special maneuvers and fleets that are engaged in battle can’t be controlled anyway (except for emergency “retreat” button). That’s yet another reason why “real-time” in Stellaris doesn’t really matter.
As we are on the topic of star systems – note that all the planets don’t move. They just stay in their positions instead of rotating around the suns over time. If not for aesthetic purposes, changing celestial bodies’ positions could have made a different “tactical map” for battles over time. Yet because tactics don’t matter much, developers (probably) decided against that.
Bureaucrat Guide to the Galaxy
The economic system itself isn’t really complex too, it just has several types of resources. “Energy credits”, food and minerals that produced or mined directly from planets or space stations (yes, stations can have hydroponic farm module). Alloys (needed for ships and starbases), consumer goods (needed for many other things) and a few non-material stuff like research points and amenities (make population happy(er)) are produced from minerals.
If you lack some small quantity of certain resources, you can exchange another for it on the market. Just don’t do that too much or the price will go up. Also, after establishing intergalactic trade, you’ll be able to buy on your market rare and strategic resources if you haven’t found them yourself.
Probably the most problems you will have from exceeding your limits. Already mentioned Administrative Capacity, Starbase Capacity, also Navi Capacity, Cohesion (that will diminish if you build new bases too far from your borders) – each time you build a new base or ship or establish a colony on a new planet, check if gains are worth more than penalties. And actually they often are.
Though it’s always better if you can make upgrades or research technologies that raise your “capacity” in some way. Space stations have modules for defending trade routes against pirates, so you don’t need to disturb your fleet, for example.
And don’t forget Governors that can rule entire sectors of your star systems. And appointed/elected ruler of the nation. Well, technically ruler is you, but your “proxies” increase resource output and grant additional bonuses. Just keep an eye on when they die or have to step down.
Empire of Laws
But where things go really deep it’s the management of planets themselves. Your homeworld, as well as your colonies, each has a specific amount of areas that you can turn into districts. Districts can be four types – mining minerals, producing energy, growing food and city district that provides more housing than former three.
In addition to districts, you have special buildings. Slots for them are unlocked after there is enough population on the planet. Some buildings just produce resources in addition to production districts, others have some effects on the planet.
The population itself is presented as “pops”, pretty much like in Civilization games with one unit corresponding millions of individuals. Except each “pop” has A LOT of attributes and parameters. What species they are, what class of workers, where exactly they work, how happy they are, etc. And it all matters to some degree. An unhappy worker is less efficient, unemployed pops increase crime level and civil unrest, and let’s not start on interactions between pops of different species.
You can “adjust” all that in many ways. Starting from buildings and districts that provide for pops’ needs. And up to various edicts and policies for planets, sectors or entire Empire. Some species can be granted only partial citizenship. Or on the contrary, can receive government support. Migration, education, directives for trade, economy and even birth control.
There are several types of government with own advantages. That includes available military doctrines, diplomatic options, and ethical values. Will you choose the nation’s supreme ruler or allow people to elect someone from the pool? Will you allow the slave trade? Or wars on an ideological basis? Spiritual nations quicker develop traditions (civics from Civ5, basically), materialists have their upkeep costs cut out.
It’s full of… EVERYTHING
And that all was just a surface scratch. As I’ve already mentioned, when your Empire spreads far enough, you’ll get population units of different species and morals, some of them barely compatible with your core values. Leading to unrest and general problems with production.
Will you spend resources to placate those in several senses “alien” elements? Or try to pull closer to your beliefs? Or maybe just purge them? All that can be possible depending on your Empire’s outline. And if not, you can reform the entire government!
There are species that have special features due to their physiology. Like lithoids, who consume minerals instead of food. There are planets with ancient ruins and artifacts, that provide unique jobs instead of regular districts. Some planets have unusual ecosystems and lifeforms that affect your colonists in a series of “events”.
And there are other “events” that affect whole star systems and even entire galaxy – you’ll have at least one end-of-the-universe crisis towards the late game…When I reviewed Endless Space 2, I talked about its depth and ton of nuances. But it’s just a splinter in comparison with a supermassive black hole of Stellaris.
However, such vastness of content and multifaceted gameplay comes at a cost. For starters Stellaris lore looks kind of generic, if you put all events, archeology “quests” and anomalies together. Sure, it dwarfs ES2 in comparison, but ES2 lore feels a lot more cohesive and well thought.
There are also some balance problems. Certain things, such as strike ships are clearly not very useful. I think. For it’s quite hard to judge with all the interconnected features. Heck, I’m not sure that AI can calculate everything properly. This is why if you trust your planets and sectors to automation, their performance often is sub-optimal.
And don’t forget Paradox’s DLC policy. If you just buy the “vanilla” Stellaris game, you’ll hardly have half the content. Not to mentions some gameplay mechanics, like establishing interplanetary corporations, build megastructures, destroy planets (yes, separate DLC is needed for colossal machines that can do that), and many more things to come. Because unlike BattleTech, where you can at least buy all DLCs in a bundle, add-ons to Stellaris will not end in the near future.
Congratulations! You’re almost at the end of reading my review. Maybe it was a bit tiresome to read about all Stellaris’ features, but consider that a test. For you have to be patient and thorough, if are you going to delve into the depths of the game itself. Carefully read the game’s guides. You’ll have to manage freakin’ Galactic Empire! And automation having its flaws can only assist you for so much.
So, remember my claim that Stellaris can be considered a turn-based strategy game? I take it back. It’s not a game – it’s a life! Another life in another universe, where every galaxy is filled with various peculiar lifeforms, fascinating artifacts, and fantastic phenomena. And if you to take a rule over one of the empires you’ll spend weeks, months, maybe even years of your *ahem* real life to reach the goals on the other side of the screen.
It would be even better if you find someone to play with. The community has fans dedicated to the game in many different forms. And multiplayer even allows a game to progress while you’re away – that’s necessary, considering the amount of time each game will take.
Like with real life, not everything is perfect. Some things could be implemented better, though some of the better implementations can be found in the modifications. Some times managing everything feels tedious. But a commitment to the rewarded with a sense of accomplishment of galactic proportions.