Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Wallfacer

When I find an author whose work I enjoy, I'm tempted to read as little of their work as I can, as slowly as I can, to drag out a supply of fresh good novels as long as possible. So it's a little unusual that I would so quickly return to Liu Cixin so quickly, but here I am, just a month after finishing The Three Body Problem and wrapping up the sequel, The Dark Forest. Part of that might be because of COVID focusing my attention, part might be the sci-fi kick I've been on lately, but I think the most compelling thing is just that 3BP was a damn fine book, and I wanted to read another one.

MINI SPOILERS for The Dark Forest, MEGA SPOILERS for The Three Body Problem

I put this book on hold at the library the moment I finished the first one, but I also was a little skeptical about just how Liu would manage to follow the first book. 3BP had so many wonderful tricks that seemed impossible to repeat. Even though it was nominally a science-fiction book, it opens during the Cultural Revolution and feels like a historical fiction novel for a long time, and then like a mystery novel for quite a while. It isn't until near the end of the book that we finally learn what the Three Body Problem is and who is behind the events of the story. But now that we do know, how can the mystery be maintained? I was curious if the series would transition into a more typical sci-fi novel with space battles, or if he would try to repeat the historical and mystery aspects again.

As it turns out, he does neither, and instead segues into still another genre. Most of this book feels like a political thriller, on a global scale grander than anything this side of seveneves. Earth is nominally united against the Trisolaran threat, but old divisions still exist, and we see the tacit struggles occurring between West and East, global North and global South, between established industries and nascent ones, between various ideologies. Political capital is gathered and exploited and expended and lost as various leaders and strategies rise and fall.

There is a pretty solid break from the previous book, both in the structure and tone, and also just in the characters. Most of the major people from 3BP are missing in TDF or just have brief cameos, with Shi Qiang the one major recurring character. But it also adds to the sense of scope and scale of the story: this is an enormous crisis gripping all of humanity for centuries, so of course different people will be involved at different times.

There is a nice mystery aspect that continues in this book, though. The mystery in 3BP mostly revolved around the titular game, what was killing the scientists, and how it related to the Red Coast Base; it's a mystery about an adversary. In TDF, the mystery is about the allies. The single most creative and exciting idea in this novel is the "Wallfacers", four men who have been selected to create and carry out secret plans to thwart the Trisolaran invaders.

Doing a bit of recap for my own benefit: At the end of 3BP, we learned that the Trisolaran fleet is en route to the Solar System, with the stated goal of destroying all of humanity and settling on Earth. Their technology is vastly superior to ours, but they are concerned about mankind's fast progress: The Trisolarans have been more advanced than us for hundreds of thousands of years, but in the last 200 years we have progressed more rapidly than they had in thousands of years, and if that trend continues then by the time they arrive (around 2400 AD) humanity will have become vastly more powerful than them and easily able to crush the invasion.

It will take centuries for the Trisolarans to arrive, but thanks to their mastery of subatomic physics, they are able to manipulate events on Earth at the microscopic level. (Think quantum entanglement.) That isn't enough to take macroscopic action like assassinating a head of state, but through their sophons they are able to spy on humanity, seeing and hearing everything that takes place; and they can interfere with subatomic experiments, thwarting the efforts of particle accelerators and colliders to plumb the mysteries of neutrinos and other fundamental elements of the universe. Thanks to this, they effectively place a lock on humanity's progress: we can continue developing the existing technology we have, but entire fields of study are closed off, including quantum research (and its computational advantages), strong nuclear forces, and so on.

But, there's one thing the Trisolarans can't do: they can't peer inside our minds. They can observe what a human says and what he does, but the "why" remains a mystery to them. So, the Wallfacers exploit this weakness. They carry out their plans in plain sight, but everyone, human and trisolaran alike, is aware that there are other angles and wrinkles to those plans, and are constantly kept guessing what their true aim is.

This all ends up being incredibly fun, with wheels within wheels, as we try to guess what the various Wallfacers are up to.

MEGA SPOILERS

Hines is probably the most interesting Wallfacer to me. When reading the detail about how Keiko's eyes flashed open as soon as she was going to sleep, I guessed that she was his Wallbreaker, though I still wasn't sure what the implications of that were. One random idea I had was that, since Luo Ji was chosen because Trisolaris was scared of him, Hines might have been chosen if the PDC know that Keiko was a member of the ETO. In this scenario, part of Hines' deception could have been feeding misinformation through Keiko back to Trisolaris. Or, another thought was that maybe Hines was the Wallbreaker all along and Keiko was secretly the Wallfacer. Of course, neither of those scenarios is true, but it was fun to think about! So many of the plot twists in this story were wild, so it felt like no possibility was out of bounds.

Even at the end of the novel, I'm still not totally clear on exactly what Hines' plan was and what its status is. Where are the sleeper agents? At first I thought that they had fully permeated society and implanted the mental seal on everyone, but that doesn't seem to be the case, given how virulently everyone reacts against Escapism near the end. And I don't think it had a major impact on the actions of the ships escaping the teardrop assault, as the main actors there were all hibernators who had gone to sleep prior to the seal's invention. It feels like this might be something coming back in the third book.

Of course, Liu ends up being the most successful Wallfacer of the four. His "spell" seemed simultaneously obvious and opaque. I was certain that some greater power would respond to his message by wiping out the planet he indicated, and that is in fact what happened. But I wasn't expecting the cosmic sociological theory behind it, which turned out to be shocking and fascinating. I'd thought that it would be some sort of higher-dimensional entity, somewhat like when the Trisolarans summon the sophons in the previous book, or if, like, a colony of ants were to form an arrow pointing at a thing they didn't like, and some giant human then casually destroyed that thing. But it turns out to be a matter of numbers rather than a matter of scale, which is really interesting to think about. After reading Liu's afterword to 3BP, I thought he was probably too pessimistic about encountering alien life, but the explanation in this book is definitely sobering, and makes one reconsider the wisdom of our constant broadcasting.

This is, of course, the Dark Forest of the title. I spent most of the book wondering what that referred to. Late in the novel, after Liu reawakens in the future, we learn about the tree structure of the underground city, so for a while I thought the "Forest" referred to the city, and mused that "Dark" could refer to it being underground, or engaged in sinister activity, or some future event that would cut out the limitless power from the city and plunge it into eternal gloom. But, yeah, the title ends up referring to the entire universe, so that's pretty cool. It's another thing that reminded me of 3BP in how late we learn about something huge that causes us to rethink the entire galaxy.

Besides the epic distance and physical scale of the book, the span of time is also really epic and intriguing. I almost immediately thought of A Canticle for Leibowitz, which also had multiple-century jumps through time and radical changes in the social and technological order. TDF has a lot more interweaving between the eras, though, thanks to hybernation technology. Though, now that I think of it, the Lazarus/Benjamin character in ACfL could perhaps be playing a similar role, but without offering a point-of-view perspective. And the hybernation of humans could have some parallels with the Trisolaran cycle of dehydration and rehydration.

END SPOILERS

Liu kept the magic going for the second book, which is really impressive, given how moved I was by the first one. I'm really curious where they'll go from here in the third book! It would be a fairly satisfying ending on its own, with a vision for the future sketched out, some cool callbacks to the previous book and the major characters being in appropriate places. But there are definitely some loose threads out there (Garden of Eden, anyone?), as well as the bigger implications of sociology, so I can see the potential for the stakes to, incredibly, get even higher. I've already put the third book on hold and am very eager to find where it goes!

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Toupée's Door

I haven't done one of these in a while, but this is just a quick note that I'm in the Early Access of Baldur's Gate 3! I'm pretty impressed by the little I've seen so far.



As a general policy, I almost always eschew Early Access for games. I think the last EA I played was Sunless Sea six years ago. My usual philosophy is that I only get one chance to play a game for the first time, and I'd like that first time to be as smooth and polished and bug-free as possible.

So why am I in EA for this? Well, BG2 is possibly my favorite game of all time (with the possible exception of Fall from Heaven 2). BG3 isn't made by BioWare; but the old late-90s BioWare doesn't exist anymore anyways. Instead, it's made by Larian Studios, who have made some of my favorite recent RPGs, including the absolutely fantastic Divinity Original Sin 2. Those two factors give me a lot more confidence than a lot of EA games do. The final deciding factor for me was that playing early would hopefully help me avoid any potential story spoilers floating around the Internet and experience it first-hand myself.

I'm just a couple of hours of playtime into it so far, so this definitely isn't a review, but some initial first impressions:



It is definitely taxing my system. I last upgraded my PC for Dragon Age 3, which coincidentally was also about 6 years ago. The GTX 970 I got then has served me very well for years, smoothly running The Witcher 3 and other higher-end games, but it's chugging for this one. I may manually adjust my settings down to try and get a smoother experience here. But I've been thinking for a while that I'll probably need an upgrade for Cyberpunk 2077 anyways, so I might start researching a new build sooner rather than later.

The impression I've gotten so far from the few previews I've seen is that this game looks like Dragon Age: Origins, and that's been borne out so far. Particularly the conversations and cinematics fit that mold: your protagonist is voiceless in dialogue (but has reactions outside it), and there's a nice level of zoomed-in detail that I associate with that game. Actual gameplay feels a lot like the DOS games, particularly movement, item interaction and looting. It's missing telekinesis, which I think helps this game feel much more grounded than the DOS games. And it still has the environmental effects as DOS, but at least so far they're less of a focus. On the other hand, it doesn't really remind me much of BG1/BG2, at least so far. Which is honestly OK. It would probably be worse for someone trying and failing to replicate it than to focus on making their own new thing good.



Character creation is awesome. One sign of a good RPG is that I burn most of my first night just on making my character. It's funny to me that I can make a better Qunari in BG3 than I could in DA3. Chargen uses slots instead of sliders, which I personally find a lot nicer and easier to use: you don't, like, adjust your brow width, you just pick what kind of head you want.



One of my perennial hobbyhorses is the presentation of gender in RPGs. RPGs are in a kind of awkward state now where you're forced to make a binary gender choice at the start of the game and play a cisgendered PC, but modern RPG worlds are increasingly filled with transgendered, nonbinary, or otherwise queer characters that your PC can meet and gawk at. The only studio that really does something cool with player gender is Failbetter Games, and they don't need to worry about 3D models or animation. At first blush, the BG3 creator is like all the others, starting with the fateful Venus-or-Mars toggle. But it's cool to see that this choice doesn't lock you out of anything! You can create a biological female with a masculine voice and a big bushy beard, or a hulking brute with lovely eyeshadow and long flowing hair.



Oh, and that hair! I would have murdered a room full of people to have this many long-hair options in DA3.



Anyways, I'm rolling with a normal (for me) cis character, but it's really cool to see this space opening up and developers allowing players a wider canvas to choose from in crafting their characters.



They are still in progress on adding classes. I think I want to play a Bard for my first full playthrough, but so far in EA I'm playing a Rogue and having a blast. I really love how many sub-classes and sub-races there are.

And... that will do it for now! I'll be very mindful of spoilers going forward, just wanted to share that I'm checking it out and having fun so far.

Monday, October 05, 2020

How To Vote

California obviously has a lot of challenges right now, but I still love this state and am glad and proud to be a Californian. One of the many virtues of this state is its robust vote-by-mail system. Like many states west of the Rocky Mountains, VBM is normalized and heavily practiced here, which is always good for democracy in general (higher participation, easier access to information) and is particularly good in a pandemic year.

This is "the big election", the Presidential year when turnout numbers will be highest and interest the strongest; but this ballot is actually quite a bit shorter than in previous years. Statewide California offices are filled in midterm elections, and while we do have a lot of propositions there aren't as many as from other years. Still, there's a lot of important stuff in there. And, without further ado, here is how I will vote!

PRESIDENT AND VICE PRESIDENT

Joseph R. Biden and Kamala D. Harris. Biden was not my first choice in the primary, but the choice here is really clear. A man with clear empathy and compassion in the office will be a balm after the last four years. I've been a decades-long admirer of Harris, and it's been great seeing her grow in stature on the national stage. I think she'll be up for the job she has to do.

U. S. REPRESENTATIVE

Jackie Speier

STATE SENATOR

Josh Becker

STATE ASSEMBLY

Kevin Mullen

SAN MATEO BOARD OF EDUCATION

Rod Hsiao

SAN MATEO COMMUNITY COLLEGE

Maurice Goodman. It's a shame that Goodman and Mandelkern were forced into the same district, I would have happily supported either, but Goodman gets my nod.

SAN MATEO HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT

Greg Land and Ligia Andrade Zuniga

CITY COUNCIL OF MILLBRAE

Ann Schneider, Anders Fung, You You Xue

PROP 14: STEM CELL BONDS.

No. One of my general rules of thumb is to vote "Yes" on taxes and "No" on bonds. Taxes take money from everyone, often particularly the wealthy, to fund services for everyone. Bonds use the tax code to transfer money from the working class to the investing class. If this research is truly a priority for the state, we should budget it through the General Fund.

 

 

PROP 15: MAKE BUSINESSES PAY FAIRER PROPERTY TAX

Yes. I would honestly prefer a clean repeal of Prop 13, and worry a little that this measure will make future reforms to the property tax harder. Still, it's a massive improvement on the status quo, and I'd rather succeed in passing Prop 15 than fail in repealing Prop 13. 

PROP 16: ALLOW DIVERSITY HIRES IN PUBLIC JOBS

Yes. My other general rule of thumb on ballot initiatives is, when in doubt, I tend to vote in favor of initiatives that were placed on the ballot by the legislature, and against initiatives that were placed by voter signatures. One thing that I really like about this year's official voter information guide is that it also lists how many people voted "Aye" and "Nay" in the Assembly and Senate; when there's an overwhelming majority in favor of something, it increases my confidence that it's a good idea. (Because of our reckless over-use of constitutional amendments in the past, tons of basic things can't be done by the legislature, so they often need to kick things back to the voters to approve.) Anyways: This proposition makes sense, will align the public sector more with how the private sector has been working, and should help make things better!

PROP 17: RESTORE VOTING RIGHTS AFTER LEAVING PRISON

Yes.

PROP 18: ALLOW NEARLY-18-YEAR-OLDS TO VOTE IN PRIMARIES

Yes.

PROP 19: PROPERTY TAX CHANGES

Yes. This seems to be two mostly unrelated changes smooshed together into one measure. Letting seniors move to another house and keep their old property tax bill should be a good change all around: it lets seniors afford to make sensible changes like downsizing, should create some more liquidity in the infamously sluggish California real estate market, and generally promote the kind of turnover we see in the rest of the country. (But again: Just repeal Prop 13!) The more important thing is the back half, though, which closes a gross loophole that lets the wealthy pass massive assets along tax-free for all future generations. Particularly after reading Piketty, I'm all on board for breaking up permanent wealth.

PROP 20: RESTRICT PAROLE FOR SOME NON-VIOLENT OFFENSES

No.

PROP 21: ALLOW RENT CONTROL

Yes. See my vote for Prop 10 two years ago. I'm more unambiguously in favor now, partly because it seems likely we will see more natural decreases in rent prices in CA over the coming years (due to environmental and other factors), and also because I'm more radicalized now on the social utility of limiting profits.

PROP 22: EXEMPT UBER AND LYFT FROM PAYING EMPLOYEE BENEFITS

Strong no. Crap like this has made me start to think that, when private companies pay hundreds of millions of dollars to pass constitutional amendments to benefit their bottom line (see also: every insurance-related initiative you've ever voted on), they should have to match that amount dollar-for-dollar into funding our schools or another worthy endeavors. Let's make that an initiative! Uber and all of its ilk who built their entire business models on evading taxation should get bent.

PROP 23: INCREASE DIALYSIS CLINIC REQUIREMENTS

Yes. Though, to be fair, this is kind of like Prop 22 but funded by unions instead of private companies. Still, it's for a better cause.

PROP 24: CHANGE CONSUMER PRIVACY LAWS

No.

PROP 25: REPLACE MONEY BAIL WITH RISK-BASED BAIL

Yes.

MEASURE RR: SAVE CALTRAIN

Yes. I have a bad feeling about this one, though. It's been in the works for a while, and the timing turned out terrible, asking voters to approve it when transit ridership is at a (pandemic-induced) decades-long low. But I've been pleasantly surprised in the past at locals stepping up to support public transit, and hope to be surprised again!

 

Oh, and I almost forget: Let's grade my performance from the primary!

Honestly, not much there to react to. I still think Warren would be a better nominee and President, but I also am getting increasingly excited by the prospect of her writing legislation in a trifecta federal government. Imagining her as the chairwoman of the Senate Banking Committee, crafting bank regulations, makes me giddy. She'd also be a fantastic Attorney General to revive the agency's moribund antitrust enforcement wing.

I don't pay as much attention as I should to my state representatives, but it was really cool to see that Kevin Mullen is responsible for two propositions on the ballot: 19, which should restore more sanity to our housing tax system, and 18, which extends the franchise to younger voters.


That's it for this election! I am so exhausted by politics of the last four years. A big part of me is looking forward to, hopefully, things being calmer going forward. But, of course, that isn't how politics works. We'll still need to deal with the root causes of all the problems we're facing. The endless fires are a result of global climate change. Massive inequalities are a result of our unfair tax system. The pandemic is definitely not helped by our terrible private health care system. The ongoing and consequence-free state murder of black citizens is a result of institutionalized racism. All these, and many more, problems will require big, ambitious, hard changes with lots of money and influence supporting the status quo. No matter who or what wins at every level, we'll need to keep on pressure and keep pushing to ensure that necessary changes happen. The good news is, the new crop of people should be vastly more receptive to such pressure than the previous set.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Fiat Lux

Continuing in a science-fictiony vein, I just finished reading A Canticle for Leibowitz. I've seen the book on various lists for most of my life, and was vaguely aware that it was science fiction but knew nothing about it. It turned out to be a really good read: engaging and thoughtful, with some real concerns that speak to the darkness of our times without wallowing in it.


MINI SPOILERS

The book starts off roughly 600 years in the future, after a global thermonuclear war has destroyed virtually all of civilization. It's focused on one tiny pocket of society left, a monastery in the desert of former American Southwest. While Rome was destroyed in the war, the Catholic Church was not, and, much like during the Dark Ages, the monks have helped preserve the knowledge of a former era.

The dated technology of this book is unintentionally fascinating. The monks pore over the secrets of carbon copies and blueprints. For Walter Miller, these are "modern" and top-of-the-line tech. From our perspective in 2020, though, they are incredibly ephemeral: they just existed for a couple of decades between older and newer technology. While that does date the novel, I think it actually serves to underline some of its big themes: the relationship between the medium and the message, the fragility of recorded knowledge, how strange our cultural assumptions seem outside of our current context.

The overall concept of monks + science is really cool and compelling; the book most recently came back on my radar after reading a comparison of this book to Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which envisions a  secular monastery with a somewhat similar focus. The novel strikes a really nice balance of the personal and the political, with detailed looks into the lived experiences of individual characters, then telescoping out from that to show the broader landscape in which they live. You really viscerally feel Francis's ordeals in the desert, the heat and the thirst and the cracked lips and desperate hunger. And you gradually realize that this desert is about as good as it gets in the 2500s: at least he isn't being chased by mutants or completely starving to death.

MEGA SPOILERS

But it gets even cooler when it telescopes out again, not just in space but also in time. We've been progressing day by day and year by year through Francis's life, seeing him grow up and start feeling the aches of middle age. And then we abruptly jump another 600 years into the future: a new world, but one that grew directly out of the old one. I found this incredibly powerful; the laser-like focus on Francis makes us keenly feel his passing, and also abruptly shifts perspective, simultaneously showing how important and how unimportant he was in the grand scheme. You can see the huge arc of history, which is created by humans and which they don't see in their own lifetimes.

I've only encountered similar time-skips a few other times. Neal Stephenson is a great example; not in Anathem, but Seveneves did something very similar. Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut gets a similar awe-inspiring sense of scale, though his actual narrative is mostly rooted in the present.

The jump in time does a lot of things, but one is highlighting what is important and what isn't. In the first section of the book, Brother Jeris gains status and influence by making the abbey's scriptorum more efficient, cutting back on the time for art projects and instead directing the monks to craft lamp shades that can be sold to benefit the monastery. In contrast, Brother Fingo "wastes" his time with a woodcarving of the (not-yet-sainted) Leibowitz, which all the other brothers find odd and a little unsettling. But, 600 years in the future, we see all the generations of faithful who have loved Fingo's icon, drawing solace and meaning and inspiration from it. Brother Jeris's lampshades are completely forgotten. It's nice to get another perspective on what lasts, what matters: Nobody remembers the name of either brother, but one of their works lives on in the lives of others.

The second section of the book sees civilization starting to rebuild, and it's not a pretty sight: cruel and ruthless warlords create security and order, spreading civilization and terror at the same time. The monks have long labored to protect the "Memorabilia", the collection of all written records from the 20th century that they were able to rescue from the Simplification. Now, their dream is at last close to fruition as a university is started and natural scientists are re-discovering principles of math and science; but those scientists are openly hostile towards not only their faith, but even concepts of humility and peace and mercy. A well-reasoned fear begins to seep in, that mankind has learned nothing from its mistakes and is missing an opportunity to rebuild itself on more humane lines.

I absolutely loved the first two sections of the book. The third section was fine. It's set another 600 years in the future, in the 3100s, as humanity has finally built itself back up to where it was in Miller's lifetime: Radio communication, nation-states, press conferences, highways and automobiles. It's even gone a little further, with self-driving cars, colony space ships. Oh, and it also has nuclear power. Again.

Throughout the book, I was mildly curious if Walter Miller was a Catholic or not. He's definitely knowledgeable about the church and generally portrays the monks and hierachy sympathetically, though fortunately not universally so. But lots of other authors, like Stephenson and Cather, are knowledgeable and sympathetic when writing about religion without personally being believers. By the end of the third section, I became pretty convinced that he is Catholic, mostly due to what felt like an interminably long sub-plot where Abbot Zerchi debates with Doctor Cors over euthanasia for people dying of terminal radiation poisoning. I strongly favor Cors' perspective and found these exchanges grating, but I did like how the Green Star doctor was presented: he isn't just a straw man for us to hate or who puts forward flawed arguments, but a thoughtful, likeable and very well-intentioned secular humanist who's just coming at this from a completely different angle.

Looking back over the twelve centuries of history in the book, it's interesting to see how the focus of the monastery has shifted over time. It starts out primarily worried about preserving knowledge; interestingly, though, it isn't a pure-minded mission, and the Abbot is already very political, more worried about how revelations will play out with New Rome than what they mean in themselves. Later, that focus on preserving knowledge shifts towards propagating knowledge. And in the end, the knowledge no longer seems relevant: their original mission fulfilled, the Abbot is mostly focused on what feel like more spiritual concerns. (Though spiritual concerns that are very rooted in the acts of flesh!) This progression makes me think of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. A world with more comfort and stability has the capacity to focus on more abstract and emotional systems.

But, the irony is that the civilized world actually has less stability, because its capacity for destruction is so much greater. Earlier generations of monks worried about barbaric tribes of mutants wiping out civilization; now they need to worry about civilization wiping out all life on planet Earth.

And so, they have to go beyond Earth. It's a somber and evocative thought. They are sending people into space, to avoid the physical destruction on earth, but that really isn't the point. They are sending along the Memorabilia, which may help provide a future lifeline for restarting civilization if the worst happens. And they are seeding a new Church: This is the part that struck me (a non-Catholic) as particularly stunning and ambitious, but the intent seems to be to establish a new Patriarchate. Three bishops, with the authority to name a new Cardinal, who can continue the lineage of the Catholic Church in outer space if all the hierarchy on Earth die in armageddon.

For me as a Protestant, it seems overly complex and convoluted: "Just read your bibles and pray! God's out in space, too." But it is impressive to think of this single organization lasting for four thousand years and continuing within the stars.

END SPOILERS

Like a lot of people, I've been wondering what value post-apocalyptic fiction has in our world today. We're living in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, here in California I've been breathing in smoke from endless wildfires for the last two months, a reality TV show host is the President, the Antarctic ice shelf is collapsing, the bees are dying... with all the disasters we're facing in the real world, do these nightmarish scenarios offer an escape, or a call to action?

A Canticle for Leibowitz is particularly interesting in that regard because its post-apocalyptic scenario is one that's mostly receded from our concern: written in the 50s, it saw doomsday coming from ICBMs, not climate change or plague. Personally, that makes it a little easier for me to stomach, since at least it's a different disaster than the ones in my newsfeed.

Each apocalypse is different, but they're all bad, and we'll face many of the same challenges when we come out the other side, if we do come out the other side. What to hold on to from our past that's worth keeping. How to rebuild. And, if we're very lucky, how to avoid the mistakes that brought us to ruin.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Ah, Yes, "Reapers"

This is how the galaxy ends.

 


(This whole post probably counts as Minor Spoilers, but this isn't really a plot-heavy game, so don't worry about it much.)

I'd been vaguely aware that I could expect something called a "Crisis" before the end of the game. This seems like a nice mechanic to add some urgency and challenge to the endgame, much in the same way that the Armageddon Counter creates a global threat in Fall from Heaven 2. Like FfH2, your actions during the game will impact the crisis; FfH2 is more of a sliding scale, with events getting worse as the number ticks higher, while Stellaris is more like roulette, with the particular Crisis that you receive depending on what (if any) dangerous technologies you have researched.

In my case, I'd avoided the Robot research line for pretty much the entire game, so I didn't need to worry about that particular Crisis. But, I had eagerly researched Jump Drives, an awesome upgrade that lets you teleport to any other system within a radius rather than travel through hyperlanes. That was especially useful when dealing with Fallen Empires and the Gorf Serene Foundation and other empires that would refuse to open borders to me.

The Jump Drives, and later the Psionic Jump Drive, were super-useful. But, they did draw the attention of the Unbidden, extradimensional beings of pure energy who followed the signal of the drives into our universe. Once arriving, they determined that we were delicious snacks and announced that they would be eating us all.



In my game, they arrived over a primitive world named Trimus, a system I had previously claimed but not colonized. It lay immediately south of Ofeogliea. I had previously intended to use this system as a launching point for a hypothetical future war against the Yaanari Forerunners, and so I had heavily fortified this system, much like I'd done with Jillis before the First Gorf War. Ofeogliea now sported a Citadel, 23 fully-upgraded Defensive Platforms, five Gun Batteries and a variety of Buildings designed to debilitate enemy fleets.

The Unbidden arrived with a massive military force, and almost immediately moved north. I rushed my entire fleet into Ofeogliea. Fortunately I had mostly completed my Gateway network by now; my four primary Fleets were scattered across different Shipyards, but those all had Gateways and so did Ofeogliea, so we could get there in days rather than weeks or months. The Unbidden destroyed the citadel before all of my fleets arrived. We took heavy casualties, but managed to beat them off before they could attack the populated planet in the system.




That battle was a minor victory, but a very worrying one: I'd taken losses, and I could see that fresh Unbidden were continuing to pour in through the portal in Trimus. I'd need to take it down.




I sent my fleets back through the gateway for some quick repairs. While we were repairing, though, I saw that the Unbidden were on the move. This time they were headed south of Trimus, into undefended space. They were sailing with... I forget, maybe something like 300k military power, along with three Construction Ships. It seemed likely that the Construction Ships were for creating new Unbidden outposts... or even Starbases... or even (gulp) another Portal. That seemed like a huge risk.

Trimus, meanwhile, was defended by a fleet of about 70k and massive stationary defense of... maybe another 80k or so. My remaining fleets had a combined power of around 160k, slightly outnumbering the raw numbers in Trimus; but we were also wounded, with mostly-regenerated Shields but very low Armor and less Hull than I would like. It was a risk, but I saw the chance of smashing the portal and ending the invasion early before they could cause more damage.

I canceled the repairs, rushed my fleets back to Ofeogliea, and moved them all south, this time timing their travel through the hyperlane so they would arrive together. We engaged. As soon as the portal came under fire, their main fleet turned around and raced back towards Trimus, joining the fight again a few days later. Now, instead of a roughly 160k-135k advantage, I was at more like a 140k-450k disadvantage. And on enemy territory, with a tired and wounded fleet.




It was a massacre. I knew as soon as I saw the ships turning around that the battle was lost, but for some reason I just couldn't make myself retreat. Now that I think about it, it's probably because I'd never had to retreat before: I'd always carefully chosen my wars and battles so have the advantage, and so hadn't faced the prospect of certain defeat before. I stared grimly as my brave ships pressed on, firing everything they had into the maw of the implaccable extradimensional invaders. I felt like Grant at Cold Harbor. I failed to give the order to reatreat, and my entire navy was wiped out, with all four of my fleets now completely missing in action.

Adding further insult to mortal injury, in the middle of the battle I received a notification that I was in breach of galactic law. What?! I'm saving the galaxy from extradimensional invaders, and you're sending the bureaucracy after me?! I realized that it was because my losses were so severe that I was violating the Military Readiness doctrine to maintain a certain percentage of my naval capacity. I'd gone from full to 40% in a single engagement, ouch! (As a side note, this seems like a really odd policy at the galactic level. I tend to think of the Galactic Community as being like the United Nations, and the Federation as being more like NATO or the EU. It makes a ton of sense for NATO to require member states to maintain a certain size military, but it would be bizarre if the UN required, like, New Zealand or Angola to beef up their militaries. But, this is sci-fi fiction, and I guess I can imagine an alternate universe where the UN would do exactly that. Especially if there's a threat of extradimensional invaders!)

I did damage their ships somewhat, though. A fleet that had previously been lost during the defense of Ofeogliea, it had gone MIA but reappeared badly damaged at Xamarton. I repaired it and then rushed through the Gateway back to Ofeogliea to keep some presence there, while reinforcing the position. My numbers were small, but the Unbidden, and their Construction Ships, stayed put in Triumus, probably unwilling to leave the system.




The previous battles had left behind some Debris to be analyzed. This is a super-cool mechanic in Stellaris: after you fight an exotic enemy, they may leave behind debris. You can send a science ship to analyze it, which unlocks a new tech to research, and the more debris you find the more of a head start you have in researching it. I'd previously discovered stuff like Drilling Lasers from Mining Droids, which for the early game are a pretty potent weapon; and biological aliens like Space Amoeba can leave behind flagella you research to increase your sublight speed or regenerative tissue to create self-repairing hulls. In this case, I was able to learn about Antimatter Disintrigrators, a new best-in-class weapon.

But, something interesting: in reading the after-battle reports in Ofeogliea and Trimus, I noticed that my weapons was 0% effective against the Unbidden Armor. After some more investigation, realized that they didn't have any armor, just super-powerful shields and lots of hull. I had thought that the unlocked tech would be the secret to defeating them, which would be really cool; but instead, it's actually very IN-effective against them, since they don't have any armor to destroy.




I went into the Ship Designer and created some new ship designs, which I termed Unbidden Corvette, Unbidden Destroyer, Unbidden Cruiser and Unbidden Battleship. I loaded them down with anti-shield and anti-hull weaponry like the Stormfire Autocannon and Kinetic Artillery. I hadn't opened the Ship Designer since the tutorial in my very first, aborted game. I don't think I'll use it much in the future; as with non-marathon Civ, tech advances so fast relative to wars that it just doesn't seem the effort and tedium to plan and redesign ships every time you discover a new component. But in this particular case for the endgame it was amazing; and it might also be feasible when playing against other humans or with game settings to slow tech progress.



I canceled all my pending reinforcements and issued an order to retrofit all existing ships to the new designs. This took forever. I kept a careful eye on Trimus. A couple of times the Unbidden sent fleets north to pound Ofeogliea. Rebuilding a Citadel can take decades, so I no longer had real permanent defenses in the system, but I would throw whatever fleets I had in there. In each battle I'd take heavy losses but beat them back. But, my Admirals were gaining more experience, and the Unbidden reinforcements seemed to be slowing down while mine were accelerating.

I wasn't getting much help from the Federation; I hadn't yet asked for a Federation fleet, mostly because I wasn't assured of command over them as the President. Iztran and Glebsig did eventually send a few fleets that parked in Ofeogliea; their numbers weren't huge, but I was grateful to have more bodies holding the line.

The longest, slowest pull was getting all my battleships for the 4th fleet. Commanded by Ira Poojary, an Admiral who had first cut her teeth and made rank in the decisive engagement of the First Gorf War, by now she was a Level IX Admiral and a terror leading over 100k military strength in a flotilla of 24 battleships. Together with my massive 1st Fleet and supporting 3rd Fleet, we had a little above 250k strength. And, I hoped, my bespoke tech would let us punch even higher above our weight.



The Unbidden had a big ~70k fleet that seems to defend their portal, multiple ~30k fleets that can defend or attack, and the portal itself has ~80k strength. I was worried they'd get even more reinforcements, but so had not seen any new arrivals for many months. I headed into Trimus with a small numerical advantage, leaving Ofeogliea solely to my Federation allies to defend if things went south again.



This time, I was the one leading the massacre, and I cut through their lines like butter. It was a huge battle, and even after destroying their fleets it took some time to fully destroy the portal. I eventually did, was rewarded with a series of "A Winner Is You!" screens.



I also received several nice buffs, including a boost to my relations with all other empires, and a Relic, which gives a permanent buff to Sublight Speed, and can be activated at a moderate Influence cost to double your Jump Drive range. With a doubled psionic Jump Drive, I can teleport across half the galaxy!



Once the war was over, I finally pulled the switch on setting up a Federation military. Everyone was pretty eager to do it. We were still at a 10-year rotation of the Presidency, and I wouldn't be able to control it yet. From hovering over the options, I could see that switching to High centralization was OK, but changing the Presidency selection to Strongest was not. I'd worry about that later. In the meantime, this was almost a bonus, as it moved maintenance of 20% of my capacity off of my books.

My economy had been chugging along mostly on autopilot while I focused on the war. As I emerged and shifted my attention back, I saw another problem approaching: overpopulation. For much of the game, Fen Habbanis III had been my dumping ground for excess population. It had finally maxed out just below 400 pops. The former Gorf planets were in varying stages of development; Great Gorf had been maxed out since I got it, but most others had some room to grow, and could take population once my Ecumenopolis filled up. By now, though, I was rapidly running out of lebensraum. This isn't a hard cap: you don't lose the game once you start having unemployed people or unhoused people. But it's INEFFICIENT, and I cannot have that!



I do really like how Stellaris (and Paradox games generally) have great, realistic motivations for drawing you in to war: I never (though you could) start a war because "I WANT TO CONQUER THE WORLD / GALAXY!". My First Gorf War started because of surplus production: I had saturated my domestic markets and needed to spend my Alloys on something useful, in this case ships, which would go to waste if I didn't use them for something. The Second Gorf War was fought for territorial integrity, uniting my detached colonies with my home systems. The Unbidden War was a defensive war against an existential threat. And now, I was going to war in order to claim land that I could make more "efficient", i.e. fully utilize by transferring my excess population, in order to continue growing.

In retrospect, I probably should have picked a fight with a mundane empire: the last remnant of Gorf or the rising Majj. But I'd had my heart set for a while on taking on the Yaanari Forerunners, a Fallen Empire that I now shared a border with. Once I'd refitted all of my ships, I brought up the diplomacy window, declared war, and then... nothing happened. What?!

Well, now that I'm a member of the Galactic Federation, I'm now constrained to the decisions of the Federation, and that includes going to war. If a member is attacked, the entire Federation will go to war in defense; but if one member wants to attack, the others must approve. And, at least with our federation's laws, that must be a unanimous vote. And, uh, the other people in my Federation weren't too stoked on taking on a millennia-old starfaring civilization who had conquered the secrets of the universe back when our ancestors were crawling onto land. Nertz. (Unfortunately, unlike pretty much every other Federation vote, you can't call in Favors to convince allies to vote in your direction. Which is an extra bummer, since it means you can use Favors in majority votes, but can't use Favors in unanimous votes.)

Well, maybe I could cajole them into war. I brought back up the Diplomacy screen. I tried to Rival them, but their overall power was now Pathetic compared to mine, making them ineligible. Nertz. I insulted them. I tried to declare war again. No dice. My push was hurting our Cohesion, so it was time for another tack.

There were two other Fallen Empires on the map. Celimy Vestige were in the east; they were Militant Isolationists, but too far from me to consider taking. The Norillgan Guardians (who I always wanted to call the Nobunaga Guardians) were up in the northwest, not exactly contiguous with me but only a few hops across my vassalized Gorf Alliance of Planets. Better yet, they were merely Inferior to me and thus eligible for Rivalry. I claimed a bunch of their systems, rivaled them and insulted them. They gave me an ultimatum to renounce my claims, I refused. They didn't attack, so I asked for a declaration of war. This time, everyone said "Yes" or abstained. The Galactic Federation was going to war!



I moved my fleets up. I had a roughly 50% advantage over them. Their own fleets were based in the northeast and I was coming up from the south, so I was able to seize a previously-claimed system before they engaged. I had a Transport Fleet waiting slightly further south, but I was reluctant to start the ground invasion until I had neutralized their airborne threat. I watched them move further south and braced for them to hit me; after the massacre at Trimus, I was reluctant to fight in the same system as one of their Citadels. And then... they disappeared!

I stared at the map. They were just gone. About 200k fleet power vanished. All of their systems were left open and undefended. It must be a trap. What was happening?

A few (in-game) days later, I figured it out. One of their systems contained a natural Wormhole. They had traveled through it, into Celimy Vestige space, and were pressing on, about to attack my much weaker allies Glebsig and Iztran.



This was bad. Now, I wasn't too heartbroken about the prospect of my allies getting hit. But the whole Federation was involved in this war, and this meant that any Weariness inflicted on my allies would be attributed to me as well. With such a massive military force in their space, it might not take much time until the Guardians could force me to accept a status quo peace, or even convince my allies to surrender early. (I'm unclear on whether ending a war is also a unanimous vote or merely majority.)

So, I was in a quandary now. I couldn't just follow them through the wormhole: the territory on the other side belonged to Celimy Vestige, who had Closed Borders with me (and all other non-Fallen empires). There weren't any nearby Gateways on either side of the Wormholes. Fortunately, I did have my Jump Drives; I couldn't Jump into the Celimy system, but I could enter the Glebsig space that they were headed towards, and intercept the Guardian fleet before it did too much damage.



Around this point in the game, I started really appreciating how Stellaris was turning into an N-dimensional space strategy game. It isn't just "Europa Universalis: In Space", even though I had been thinking of it like that: we're accustomed to seeing the map as a 2-dimensional board, but the existence of Gateways and Wormholes means that two spots on opposite sides of the galaxy can be considered adjacent to each other. It's a tesseract, it's a folding. Your brain needs to start operating in a different way once you consider these phenomena, and concepts like "near" and "far" start to take on different meanings: what matters is the time between two systems, not the physical distance between them.

I decided to Jump, splitting out my 3rd Fleet to continue taking some less-defended Guardian systems while the massive 1st and 4th fleets jumped over into Glebsig space. I moved into position, but kept a cautious distance: your fleets have lowered Sublight Speed and Weapon Damage for 200 days after a jump, so I wanted to ideally slow down his advance, but not fully engage until that time had passed. I kept an eye on him, and then: the Guardians turned back, re-entering Celimy space!

I was gobsmacked. It felt like a gut-punch. The Guardians had baited me, and I'd acted the fool. Fully 75% of my awesome fleet was now stranded on the opposite side of the galaxy from the war. Their engines wouldn't be able to Jump back for another 170 days. I couldn't chase the Guardians back through the wormhole since I didn't have access to Celimy territory. And traveling back to the theater over hyperlanes would take months and months.

My whole strategy for the war shifted. I'd planned to smash the Guardian fleet and then take my time invading their planets. Now, it was a frantic race against the clock. At the end of the first Gorf war, I was scrambling to maximize my gains before our maxed-out War Weariness forced an end to hostilities. Now, I wanted to put the war away before they could travel back through the Wormhole, crush my small remaining Third Fleet, then pound my Federation allies into submission.



I raced my Transport Fleet up, and then paused. Up until now I've always used the same General (a Substance Abuser but otherwise a good guy) to lead with overwhelming force. Checking the two claimed planets' defenses, though, I had more than enough: about 1.5k troop strength on my side against roughly 500 defenders on each. So, for the first time in the game, I split my armies as well, recruiting a new (Gorf!) General to lead one assault while my veteran Robert Morin landed the other.



I watched nervously as the ground invasion continued and the Guardian fleet approached the Wormhole. And then... it kept going! Traveling all the way through Celimy space, now towards Iztran territory. I had mis-read its earlier movements, or maybe they had changed their own plans, but they seemed determined to fight on in the eastern part of the galaxy rather than return home and defend their lands. (Or, now that I think about it, maybe they couldn't travel back through the wormhole since I'd taken control of the system after they left?)

That lifted a little bit of pressure, since I didn't need to worry as much about losing control of the Guardian systems I had claimed. But I still had my original problem of them attacking my allies and driving up the war score. The hyperlanes in that part of the galaxy were really convoluted, and even though the distance between my flight and theirs was minimal, not having access to Celimy meant an extremely long time to travel around, so Iztran would likely lose many systems before I could reach them. Best to end the war before that.

The ground invasion succeeded, pushing up my war score enough to satisfy the Status Quo condition, and I managed to stop the war before any Iztran systems could be lost. Phew!



Before the war started, I had dispatched some colony ships to colonize a few Holy Worlds near the Guardians, and those colonies were established just as the war was winding down. I believe that attempting to settle these world usually triggers the Guardians to declare war, so that had been a background casus belli for me; as it was, I was curious if they would immediately declare war again, but the standard ten-year truce held. Excellent.



It was time for some political consolidation. For years I'd been trading any excess Alloys to my fellow Federation members in exchange for Favors, and now it was time to collect the bill. Enough time had elapsed to raise our Centralization to High, which was an easy vote. Next I wanted to change the Succession Type to Strongest, which was universally opposed. I gently reminded them of all those shiny metals I'd given them (and, presumably, how I had, uh, single-handedly saved everyone in the galaxy from being devoured alive by ravenous extradimensional monsters), and after a brief huddle they agreed. By sheerest coincidence, the Strongest member of the Federation was: Me! The United Nations of Earth!



Once I was in charge, I bumped the Fleet Contribution requirements up another 10%, which everyone easily agreed to. The previous Presidents had actually done a good job at managing the fleet, thoughtfully using the Antimatter Disintigrators that I had discovered and building the fleet up to maximum power. I also had gained some nice extra perks from being the President, including a bonus Envoy, who I promptly re-deployed to the Federation: the changes in laws were having a minor negative effect on Cohesion, but one more Envoy was plenty to put us back into positive territory again.

I'd just had time to recall my fleets and armies back to our homeworlds when the next major development happened: Celimy Vestige declared war on us! I hadn't been trying to aggravate them, but was happy for another fight: I had only gotten two settled planets out of the Guardians, plus another two Holy Worlds, so I could use some more population centers. I'm not totally clear on why Celimy declared war, but most likely Glebsig or Iztran were encroaching on their territory, which they decidedly Do Not Like.



This time, I was able to go through a Gateway in an unoccupied system to the southeast of Celimy; that hadn't been an option in the Guardian war since there wasn't a route between there and the westerly section of Glebsig that had been threatened through the wormhole, but this one provided a perfectly good route into the system.

This war was a little awkward to maneuver. I'd been bracing for a potential war against the Guardians over the Holy Worlds, so I'd kept my First Fleet up there, and it would take some time for it to return to space with a Gateway. My Fourth and Third fleets could deploy much more quickly, but without the First's numbers we were barely a match for Celimy. But, the Federation fleets added another 100k or so power, which was plenty; but that Fleet was trapped southwest of Celimy.

I brought my mobile Third Fleet into Celimy and took control of some lightly-defended systems, while my slower Fourth Fleet hung back near the Gateway. As Celimy moved to reclaim the systems, I retreated the Third back towards the gateway as well, while the Federation fleet moved in to the west. This system didn't have any fleets but did have a highly developed Citadel; the Federation took heavy damages but managed to claim it.

The Federation fleet dropped back south into Glebsig space for repairs, leaving the system undefended. Celimy then started moving back towards that system. I saw my chance: I swung the Third and Fourth fleets north and then chased the Celimy fleet from the east while the Federation fleet charged towards it from the west. We engaged in the wormhole system that had caused me such grief during the Guardian wars, and I attempted to crush Celimy between the hammer of the Federation and the anvil of Earth.



Celimy fought viciously, punching above their weight and showing no sign of retreat. My Third Fleet was almost totally destroyed, and the Fourth started taking heavy damages. And then, my savior arrived: the First Fleet had finally completed its voyage and charged into action in the hour of need, throwing another 150k of military power into the battle. Celimy eventually sounded the retreat and managed to escape, but not before taking enormous losses. Their fleet had gone MIA, and all that was left was the mopping up.



But, there was a lot to mop up! I brought in my two transport fleets to land on the planets, and claimed a couple of more systems. When I looked towards Celimy's core, though, I gulped. While their colonies had a respectable 600-ish military strength defending it, their home system planets ("The Boundary" and "The Core") had about 4k each! I'd need to ramp up.



I set all of my fleets in orbit above The Boundary and started orbital bombardment while I drew on all the planets across my empire to muster fresh troops. The overall mix was approximately 50% Xenomorph, 25% Gene Warrior and 25% Psionics. I have no idea if that's a good strategy or not.

As I pacified the colony worlds, my allies were actually being pretty active, destroying outposts in outlying Celimy systems and conquering more land. Which is cool, it all adds to our war score and can be relatively tedious work. Thanks to that southeast Gateway, and me previously building Gateways in all of my core systems, I could relatively quickly throw together my grande armee.

Orbital bombardment wasn't as big of a factor as I'd hoped it would be; after maybe a couple of months of bombarding, planetary devastation had climbed to about 75%, while their troop strength had dwindled from maybe 3900 to about 3800. I didn't want to spend decades pounding holes into these planets, which after all I intended to rehabilitate for my own uses, so I called off the bombardment (or, rather, redirected it to The Core). My ground force capacity had now climbed from about 1.5k up to about 5k; I wasn't sure if that would be a big enough advantage or not, but I was bored of waiting and decided to go for it.



I felt nervous watching this. Typically I'm attacking with a 3x or more advantage, with me holding massive reserves and them not having any reserves. This time, we both had enormous reserves. The invasion lasted for months. I seemed to be losing, with more of my units moving into "Withdrawn" than his. I still had a numerical advantage, but we seemed to be ticking down in equal absolute numbers, and not accelerating in my favor as I had hoped.

After a few months, I felt better about how things were progressing. It was probably actually better that my units were withdrawing earlier, as I could rotate in fresh troops at full health and morale, while his fought until they were nearly or completely dead. We both had plenty of reserves, but his withdrawn units were in worse shape than mine. Finally, we turned the corner as his reserves began to run low. What had felt like an even match turned into more of a rout. It took still more time to finish mopping up, but I emerged with the entirety of my 5k army intact, and The Boundary in my control.

The ground invasion had gone on for so long that The Core was now also 75%+ devastated. I steeled myself for another long but ultimately successful fight and parachuted my troops in. Oh, and around this time I finally learned that you can pan the camera around in all directions, and it looks freakin' awesome! I'd done this once or twice on the galaxy map, but for some reason had never thought to do it within a system. It's so gorgeous.




My troops' boots hit the ground, and then... we won! I was shocked, and still don't know exactly how that happened. They still had around 3.5k of defenders after my bombardment, and it didn't seem possible that the invasion could have gone that quickly. I hadn't checked the War Score in a while so maybe they were hurting so bad that they pre-emptively surrendered, or maybe I triggered some sort of scripted event. In any case, Celimy Vestige was defeated. I hadn't claimed all of their systems, but I had claimed and conquered all of their planets, and as a result their empire was no more. A few of their unclaimed systems turned over to me, others reverted to unowned, and were gratefully snapped up by Iztran and Glebsig.




The aftermath of this war was particularly tricky to deal with. I'd eagerly pursued the war in order to get fresh planets for my overpopulating homeland, but now I had achieved exactly the opposite: both The Boundary and The Core had massive unemployment and housing shortages, along with the expected instability and crime. I belatedly realized that the massive bombardment had annihilated their housing supply; it would eventually recover, but would take nearly a decade to get back to normal. But the job shortage was a chronic issue. I belatedly discovered that Celimy Vestige had been a slave society; the Celimy were the upper class, and the Sejethari the lower. There were 33 of each pop on The Boundary and 66 of each on The Core. I think that the Sejethari had been doing the (few) menial jobs, while the Celimy had been living extravagant lives of luxury and excess, unemployed but happy. Now, in the meritocratic Earth system, the Celimy were expected to work, and were not happy with that.



I attempted to resolve this by my tried-and-true method of "ship the bums out", but (a) I didn't have a lot of places to move them to, because, see again why I was warring in the first place; and (b) If you lower the population too far, you need to abandon buildings, which will then be destroyed. That's always bad, but especially bad here, because the Fallen Empires have some amazing buildings that you can't get anywhere else in the game. Like, there's a building that just generates 250 Energy a month, full stop. It doesn't offer any jobs or require any resources, it's just free real estate. Autoforges create tons of alloys, again without requiring jobs or resources. And, possibly my favorite, buildings that give free rare materials, once again, you guessed it, without requiring any minerals.

The game honestly got pretty tedious at this point. It doesn't have to be tedious, I'd still be winning if I didn't do anything, but by this point I was so devoted to running an optimal economy that I got completely bogged down in micromanagement. Basically, each month I would pause the game, look through my 40 systems to see which ones were overpopulated, open one, click "Resettle", find a candidate with available housing and jobs, and click "Transfer", then repeat that over and over again. Pops will eventually resettle themselves through immigration, but that can take years or decades, and they'll generate instability in the meantime; there's also a tempting Edict you can pass where they will resettle themselves, but (1) only from unemployment, not overpopulation; (2) only 1 pop in your entire empire will resettle at a time; (3) that 1 pop will resettle once every two months; and (3) it requires a precious Edict slot, displacing materially advantageous ones. I like the idea, but it didn't seem like nearly enough bandwidth to solve the problem I was having with dozens of planets at capacity, with people who wouldn't stop having sex and robots who wouldn't stop making more robots.



But, even that tedium felt oddly comforting. I realized that the arc of this game ended up feeling a ton like my beloved Civilization II games. I would stay at peace with all my neighbors, dump everything into my technology, invest everything in more research while they wasted their resources fighting each other; then, once I had achieved technological superiority, I would switch everything over to military production and bulldoze all of their pikemen and knights with my tanks and bombers. But, while the early game would breeze by with me often just pressing "End Turn" until the next lightbulb popped, the endgame would require up to an hour per turn as I flipped through every single city in my civ to make sure that everyone was exactly happy enough to not start a revolt. Stellaris doesn't require you to do that -- maybe you'll just be 94% efficient instead of 98% efficient -- but it has activated that impulse of mine.

Do you know what isn't tedious? War! The thought of conquering the galaxy wasn't super compelling; there are hundreds of star systems, and all the other empires had Pathetic strength compared to mine, so it would be a long and boring slog. But, as I had about 20 years left in the game at this point, I thought it might be fun to follow on my success against the Celimy with a new goal, to defeat all of the Fallen Empires. They were much closer of a match for me, particularly in their military and technology, and had some unique mechanics to keep things interesting.

I'd already hit the Guardians, so they were an easy choice. I'd been hoping they would pre-emptively declare war on me to retake their Holy Worlds; but either I had scared them off with my military might, or I'd hit a loophole by colonizing them during our peace treaty, and either way they weren't taking the bait. I asked the Federation for a declaration of war, and every member abstained except for me voting Yes. I'll take it!



While my allies hadn't voted for the war, they eagerly participated in it, which was cool to see. Glebsig and Iztran in particular sent their own sovereign fleets to shadow mine while I was preparing to invade, and after the declaration they crossed the border with me. There doesn't seem to be any UI to guide your allies, but they acted smartly: defeating outlying starbases and seizing boundary territories with their modest fleets while my mega-fleet steamed ahead to confront the main Guardian force.

Without access to their Wormhole, this time the Guardians didn't have much room to maneuver. I hit them in their home system and quickly triumphed. As with the Majj/Gorf fight, though, there wasn't much teeth in it: They fled combat before I could inflict too many losses. My own ships were banged up, so I sent them back to starbase to repair; but the Guardians would re-materialize after a brief delay and resume the attack. Even though their empire was rather small now, with fewer than a dozen systems, I still needed to scramble and chase after them, and/or leave defensive fleets behind so my transport ships would get clear access to the planets.



Speaking of which: Once again I found a home system with multiple planets inside, each with several thousand defensive strength. While the militant Celimy Vestige's planets were named "Boundary" and "Core", the spiritualist Guardians' were more illustratively named "Sky Temple" and "Celestial Throne". Sky Temple took a long time to whittle down. I landed my troops on Celestial Throne, and almost immediately the Guardians surrendered, just like what happened with Celimy. I now wonder if this is maybe a scripted event, to cut down on the monotony of a final conquest once the outcome is certain.



Defeating Fallen Empires is fun and cool: they have unique diplomacy dialogue when you conquer them, a custom popup describing the impact on the galaxy, and, more interestingly, some lingering quests may pop up later. For Celimy Vestige, when surveying conquered systems I later discovered two shielded planets. Each required a longish research project to lift the shield, but provided a huge reward: a new, habitable planet, and fresh dialogue with an inhabitant on that planet, who turns out to be a Level X Admiral you can recruit to your empire. By now I had one home-grown human Level X Admiral as well, and a half-dozen admirals from levels V-VIII, all in all a great team to lead us forward.



If only my allies were so great! Once I had pacified the Guardian planets I was ready to move against my next and final target, the Yaanari. Several years before I received notice that the Yaanari had stirred from their decadent aloofness, become alarmed by the grave threat facing the galaxy, and taken it upon themselves to rally all civilizations to unite under their banner to face the foes. And I was like... who the hell are you talking about?! Do you mean me? Or are you talking about those Unbidden extradimensional invaders, who I friggin' defeated all by myself while you were off being useless?! They demanded that I surrender my sovereignty to them, I said "Hell no," they got a casus belli on me and a big reputation malus. (Checking the diplomacy window, I could see that every other nation in the galaxy had turned them down as well, which made me feel slightly better.)



I hoped that we were headed towards war, but, despite their low approval and my constant insulting of them, they didn't take the bait. All right then, let's get the Federation on board! Except, they didn't. I brought up the vote again and again. Most of the members were on board, including those like the Rax'Thalac Conclave that stood the most to lose from Yaanari aggression; but the Iztran Harmonious Consensus would veto me.



I would wait for the Cohesion to climb up to 90, try a vote, fail, and repeat. After a few times, I decided to see if I could figure out what was going on. For starters, Iztran are Pacifist, so it makes sense that they would oppose war. But, they had abstained from voting against the Guardian war, so clearly it wasn't an insurmountable obstacle. Checking opinion scores in the main Diplomacy window, I noticed that they had the coolest attitude of any Federation members to me: granted, it was still 170-ish, but that's much lower than the 300s or 400s of other members.

Maybe that was a factor? It does make sense that empires would cast votes based on how much they liked the nation proposing it. I drilled down into the source of the negative opinion, and realized that it was being adjusted by a -200 for "Voted against our proposals". Ah! I now remembered: Iztran had for years incessantly proposed adding Majj to the Galactic Federation, and I had always voted them down. Not that I dislike Majj as such, but, as I was seeing even more now, getting business done with unanimous votes is a big pain in the butt, and I didn't want one more voice in the room.

Fortunately, there are other ways to improve opinion. I dispatched an Envoy to Iztran, and donated them tons and tons of resources (alloys, food, minerals, energy). I was chagrined to learn that positive opinion for favorable trade deals is capped at +100; whoops! Fortunately, by this point in the game I was constantly bumping up against resource caps, so it wasn't a big deal.

I waited patiently for over a year, watching the numbers tick up, getting closer and closer to 200. Then past 200. Rubbing my hands together, I brought up the diplomacy channel with the Yaanari and issued a declaration of war. (Unlike war against the other Fallen Empires, this one didn't have the standard Casus Belli options like Conquer or Humiliate, and only lets you choose End Threat.) I clicked that, the vote went out... and Iztran voted against it again!

I fumed silently, then fumed loudly. It was now 2490. I wasn't sure how long this war would take, but definitely longer than the Guardians war, and I did not want the game to end before I'd finished this one thing. If Iztran wouldn't vote for the war now, they probably never would. And where would I be then, not fighting a war?! That sounds terrible!

I chatted with Iztran and saw an option to "Remove from Federation". "That's it!" I thought and selected it. But, as with declaring war, there are no opportunities to call in Favors for this type of vote. Oddly, Iztran abstained in it; but most other members of the Federation opposed it.

"Well," I muttered, "Screw all-y'all! If you won't let me go to war, then I don't need you!" I double-checked my reasoning: I'd joined the Feds in the first place for that sweet bonus against Crisis ships, but the Crisis was over. I'd lose control of the joint Federation fleet, but would get back most of its strength in Naval Capacity under my sovereign control. Numerically I might be at a slight disadvantage, but... eff it! It's a game, let's have fun!

I quit the Federation. Everyone got mad at me and canceled our centuries-long migration and trade treaties. I didn't care. I was so far beyond them that their contributions meant nothing.

My capacity now jumped from 900-something to 1300-something. Which was cool and all, but I'd need to actually use it. I fleshed out my 3rd fleet to the command limit, and transformed the 2nd fleet into an actual proper fleet rather than just an interdiction team. And, now that my 4th fleet was at its command limit as well, I ordered construction of a new all-battleship 5th fleet.

The downside is, Battleships take forever to build. All of the Shipyards in my empire were working hard, popping out Corvettes left and right, but those Battleships only slooooowly completed.

Now that the Yaanari had Awakened, they were getting more worrisome. They were building Gateways in all of their own systems. They had built a... I think a Colossus, maybe? It showed as 0 military power so I think it was under construction, but still seemed concerning. And their fleets were massive, 6 fleets in their home system with 100k-140k each, and some smaller fleets guarding the border.



As for me, I massed everything into Ofeogliea, where we had defended the galaxy against the Unbidden decades before. All of my Admirals from that war were still with me and ready to serve again. Numbers-wise, I was at a slight disadvantage against the Yaanari. There were a few ways I could possibly get an advantage: tricking them into attacking me in my own Citadel would be the best, otherwise I could try to divide-and-conquer their fleets as I had done with Gorf. It seemed risky, and I probably wouldn't have picked this fight in normal circumstances; but, it was much better than boredom, and, I reasoned, even if things went south the game would probably end before they could fully conquer my empire. 



Once I had re-filled my fleet capacity and dispatched all my vessels into Ofeogliea, I talked with the Yaanari once more and declared war. This time there was no debate, no vote, no cowardly Iztran to ruin everything. The Yaanari seemed eager as well, saying they would have preferred me to submit voluntarily, but showing no qualms at making me submit by force.



As before, I paid close attention to the movement of their fleets within their systems before moving my own. I had hoped that the ~30k fleet in the adjacent Yaanari system would charge into Ofeogliea and kamikaze against my ~550k fleets; but no, it was just staying put. Disappointing but unsurprising. I went in, hard, taking out that fleet and its citadel. I then Gatewayed my transport ships in to Ofeogliea and ordered them to land.



While I had carefully planned the naval aspect of this war, I had completely overlooked my marines. I'd remembered them being a 3k force during the earlier Guardian war, but, of course, they had taken casualties during the invasion, and they hadn't been replenished since way back in the Celimy war. Now they were a mere 1.5k, plenty to take on the 800 border planet but far short of the 3.5k homeland. While the invasion was underway I whipped around all the planets in my empire to raise more troops. This time around, I just pumped out 2 xenomorph armies from each planet; they're faster to build than Gene Warriors, do more damage, and cost less upkeep. I think the only downside is that xenomorphs cause more collateral damage, but, with just a few years left in the game I didn't really care at all about that.



The big question was what their 650-700k fleets were going to do. I hoped that they would move northwest towards Ofeogliea, but instead they tacked west-south-west. That gave an opening for my existing army to land on the planet, but I was unsure about what to do with the fleet. Basically, were they circling around me to strike from behind, or pressing onward into the heart of my empire, possibly even driving towards Sol?

I drilled down into the system map and watched their mighty armada steam by... and keep going. I lurked until I was sure that they had committed to the westardly course, then charged my own mega-fleets in towards the heart of their empire.

We were now battling on parallel grounds, with them gobbling up my undefended heartland while I smashed apart their fortified defenses. It felt good, exhilarating and also a little nervewracking. It made me feel like Russia in the Napoleonic wars: I had tons and tons of land to give up, which kept the Yaanari occupied, burning their resources and time and manpower as I simply vacated that field. In the meantime, I was fighting their smaller-but-not-insignificant home fleets and their well-fortified citadels. The upshot, though, was that I was destroying their war-making capabilities: destroying ships and shipyards, whittling down their military might and removing their ability to reinforce. And meanwhile, they were taking, like, a couple of points of Energy and Minerals out of my +2k monthly surpluses.

One thing that made me nervous was that the Yaanari fleet was fast, maybe even faster than my end-game souped-up rigs, and they were blazing through systems more quickly than I expected. The good news was that Ofeogliea was right next to them and had a Gateway, so if they started to threaten something seriously important - my shipyards in Xamarton or Great Gorf, or my capital on Earth - then I could scramble through the portal to meet them. Depending on how much advance warning I had, I probably couldn't beat them there, but all of my home bases had fully developed Citadels and could hold out (hopefully!) for long enough for the reinforcements.

I noticed, though, that this war was moving differently than the others. Typically, the map will show who has "control" of a system once it has been conquered, but the "ownership" will stay the same until the end of the war. Now, though, the systems were flipping instantly, turning orange as soon as the Yaanari sailed through it. I think this is a side-effect of the End Threat War Goal I had set, different from the normal Conquer. The upshot was that they really were eating up my systems; but it worked both ways, and it was very satisfying to see their home systems turn blue after I conquered each planet. What was especially cool about this, though, was that I was also gaining ownership of the Gateways that they had built over the past decade. That meant that I wouldn't need to move all my fleets back to Ofeogliea, and instead they would just be a hop or two away from any other place in my empire.

This turned out to be extra-convenient since I had to spread my occupation wider than I had thought. As with previous wars, the Yaanari fleets would disengage before I could completely smash them, and then they would reappear some unknown time later. This isn't a huge threat, but could be a mild annoyance if they made it back to a friendly Starbase and were able to repair their damage. But my own casualties were low enough that I could split out each fleet to squat in its own separate system. Then, whenever a Yaanari coward dared show his face, I would blast that face off, melting down their remaining 20% Armor or whatever and this time finishing the job.

The war in space was going well, but the war on land would still take some time. My initial landing force hopped around, from one planet to the next, while the fresh recruits mustered into the much larger force to eventually take on the home planets: Mother had 1.5k, Daughter had another 1.5k, and Cradle was the big target with 3.5k.

I zoomed back out to the galaxy view and tracked the Yaanari fleet. They reached a crossroad: South lay my industrial heartland, the Gorf homelands, then a long and snaky road through Xamarton to Sirius and Sol. To the north was more empty space, with just my resort world. They headed north.



I cheered. Even more so once I realized that the Yaanari hadn't brought any transport ships with them; they'd left all of those back home, and I'd blown them all up. In the worst case, they would blow up my resort world's citadel, but they couldn't possibly conquer the planet without any ground troops. Well, maybe the worst case was them stationing above it for orbital bombardment; but in that case their navy would be tied up for months, while I completed my own invasion, and their bombardment couldn't possibly end with a successful landing. Unlike mine. A smile crept over my face. "Im in ur base, killin ur d00dz."



Then... they kept going, not taking the off-ramp to the resort world and instead pushing even further north, claiming more empty space. I was, and remain, somewhat baffled. My best guess is that they were trying to link up their territory: after they had Awakened, their had actually claimed a few previously vacant systems in the northwest of the galaxy, surrounded by Majj, Gorf Serene, Gorf United, and me. Perhaps this whole voyage had just been an attempt to establish territorial integrity, not unlike my own motivation for the Second Gorf War.

Be that as it may: There was no point to any of it. They didn't have any populated planets up there. They couldn't reach any of my planets to the north without cutting through neutral empires. (My adoption of gateways had removed my own need for territorial integrity, or, rather, caused me to project such integrity through N-dimensional space.) Now their fleet was way the hell over there, while I was preparing the final blow against their civilization here.

My all-Xenomorph army of 4k was now open for business. I actually split it into two 2k armies, hiring a fresh general to lead the other one, and I landed one each one Mother and Daughter; it was a smaller numerical advantage than normal, but based on my earlier experiences with planetary battle I was pretty confident it would work, as well as be quicker. I hoped to finish those landings around the same time my veterans had finished their mop-up work, then we could all tackle The Cradle together.

I guess the Yaanari finally got the memo about something bad happening back home, or maybe they had a "Mission Accomplished" moment after completing their pointless drive to the north, because they turned around with a quickness and sped back the way they came. Again I was surprised by the speed of their fleets. I started recalling my dispersed forces: I had seemed to have squashed the last of the fleeing fleets. I had repaired all of my own fleets, which I was very glad of; that's a detail I had neglected in earlier wars, much to my loss. And my reinforcements were under way, unlikely to be complete by the time of the great epic final confrontation, but with most of my original strength restored. In contrast, the Yaanari's grand armada had suffered mild dinks and blips along the way, not taking any major fire but still being nibbled upon by hundreds of rabbits during their pointless, pointless journey.



They sailed back within sight of their homeworld just as I had finished conquering Mother. My freshly recruited General had perished during the fighting on Daughter and that invasion was progressing more slowly. But, my other General had finally returned after putting boots on the ground of the last outlying planet. He only had about 500 strength to his name at this point, but was also now a decorated Level IX leader (whose substance abuse problem had not yet caught up to him). I merged the armies together to let the veteran take command, and they landed on Cradle, hoping that the Daughter fighters could reinforce them soon.

For a moment I thought that the Yaanari would fight me in Ofeogliea after all, but they swerved and headed straight towards the Cradle instead. And so, we were joined together, in the biggest battle in the history of the galaxy: battleships pounding away from the outer rim, corvettes weaving in and out through the lines, destroyers leading phalanxes of cruisers to deliver broadsides against the enemy. All under the baleful eye of the great sun, our energy weapons crackling through the inky blackness of space, and all along, millions of Yaanari soldiers were fighting desperately to save their planet against the onslaught of vicious xenomorphs from the United Nations of Earth, rending all who stood in their path.



The simultaneous air and ground combat was genuinely thrilling, and felt like the climactic battle in Return of the Jedi. I switched back and forth between the two to monitor the progress. I could not directly intervene in the conflict - it was all up to the admirals and general now - but it was the culmination of all I had done: all the people born, all of the minerals mined, all of the alloys forged, all of the weaponry researched, all of the soldiers trained, all of the shipyards raised, all of the reinforcements thrown together and hurled into this battle at the last minute, adding strength to strength, the might of Humanity and all of her tools brought to bear against this one last foe.



While the Yaanari's numbers were worrying, and they were led by a Level X Admiral, they were tired, and weakened, while all of my ships were fresh off the block or from the repair shop. We also had the support of the Citadel, with its previously-built buffs now acting in my favor. (I'm now unclear on when conquered citadels are destroyed and when they are turned over to the victor; I had lost my own Citadel during the Unbidden war, but was not about to complain about retaining ownership of a perfectly functional one here.) They broke, and fled. We had won the battle in space.



The battle down below took some more time, but soon resolved as well. Unlike the earlier wars against Celimy and the Guardians, I didn't get a scripted surrender near the start of my ground invasion, and instead the Yaanari fought on to the last man. But that last man eventually fell, and my victory was complete.

It was now 2492, a mere one thousand years since Christopher Columbus had "discovered" the New World. Now, mankind had not merely discovered, but had fully occupied, three score New Worlds, spread across the galaxy, joining in friendship with aliens and preaching their doctrine of radical egalitarianism. Not too bad!

I had just a little bit of business left to attend. First, some minor border cleanup: possibly as a side-effect of the unusual handling of ownership during the war, once the Yaanari was defeated all of the systems they had previously conquered did not revert to me, but instead reverted to being not only unknown, but unsurveyed. So, I broke out the Science Ships once again to (re-)chart them and bring them back in to my empire. Not because I needed the resources or shipping lanes; just because it looked pretty.

I also wanted to decide what to do about the Federation. My former confederates had come crawling back to me, fawning over me and my mighty fleet, begging me to accept Associate Status again. I sneered. Who needed them and their non-war-mongering ways? But, I mused, it would be fun to create a counterweight to the Galactic Federation. And so I went to my ancient frenemy Majj, the partner in my very first diplomatic pacts and the nation I had relentlessly blocked from joining the Federation, and asked them to join me in my new, very serious venture. Musing over our collective will and purpose, I solemnly declared the foundation of the No Homers Club.



We didn't actually do anything, of course: with only a few years to go there was no time to earn XP or anything. And that's a good thing: I had once again forgotten about Majj's association with the Gorf Serene Foundation. As their Vassal, Gorf also became a founding member of the No Homer's Club. That was funny off the bat, since, even after several hundred years, they still hate me, with a -800 or so opinion... and just because I stole all their planets and stars from them! More seriously, their Divergent Ethics were murder on our Cohesion. I was a Fanatic Egalitarian and Xenophile, Majj were Fanatic Xenophiles and Materialists... and Gorf were Authoritarian Xenophobic Spiritualists. Ouch!



But, again, it didn't matter. For the first time in the game I turned the Game Speed up to High. I stopped worrying about exceeding my resource capacity, or unemployment, or housing shortages, and just watched that calendar tick higher and higher. There was one last election, which my Alien Friendship Party won easily as usual. And then, at long last: It was over, and I'd won!



Having played Civ for many years and across many editions, I was prepared for an abrupt and fairly minimal ending: No cool cinematics or story or anything, just a nice little ranked chart. Also as in Civ, the game doesn't have to end, and in fact just automatically keeps chugging along. If I did have a mind to, say, conquer the entire galaxy and rule it with an iron fist, it might be fun to keep going towards that goal. But I'm happier with definitive endings than open-ended ones, and coming out on top is a pretty darn good ending.



I referenced Civ above, and of course that 4X game has a lot of similarities to this one. Oddly I tended to think of Civ more than either Alpha Centauri game, perhaps because Stellaris is less personality-driven and has more mutable, flexible empires. But I was really surprised to realize that the game series it reminded me most of was Mass Effect. Obviously the game play and even genre are wildly different, from a third-person shooter to a grand strategy game. But the feel of the game was surprisingly similar, particularly like Mass Effect 1: The thrill of exploring the galaxy, finding new things, collecting resources, and meeting a variety of bizarrely different creatures. It probably helped that my game included aliens that reminded me of the Hanar and of Turians. The Galactic Community bears a strong resemblance to the Council, all the way down to the delegates bickering over trade sanctions and refusing to take up my motion to address the existential threat to all intelligent life. The United Nations of Earth is basically the Paragon path that leads to the Council, while the Brotherhood of Man is the Lone Survivor Renegade leading to an ascendant Systems Alliance. The Fallen Empires remind me of the Proteans, while the Unbidden are not unlike the Reapers, at least regarding the scale of the threat. Uplifting is the same in both games, though my upliftees were not as... rambunctious as the Krogan. Psionics is a strong analogue for Biotics. And Gateways, of course, are totally Mass Effect Relays. And... well, you get the picture. I suspect that some of the resemblances are conscious homages, and more are probably due to the shared DNA of both franchises borrowing from the same corpus of previous science fiction.

The big question is: Will I play again? I'm not sure! A big part of me wants to dive back in immediately. After playing an entire game from start to finish, I feel like I finally get how it works. It would be fun to roll a new, custom empire from scratch, with my own Ethics and Civics and stuff. But, do I really want to spend another [checks calendar] three months on a single game? I dunno. Maybe! After reading up on the various expansions and stuff, I'm especially interested in playing a game with the latest DLC, Federations. This adds a ton of cool options for alliance-based gameplay, including different types of associations (Trade cartels, hegemonies, research cooperatives, etc.); new types of voting (based on diplomatic weight or military strength or fleets or technology, as well as one vote per member state); and even new succession types for the Presidency, including determining the leader by trials of mortal combat. It sounds great! (There is a Stellaris sale on Steam right now, but unfortunately Federation is the one DLC not on sale, probably due to it being the most recent one.)

The more realistic outcome is that I'll stare longingly at Baldur's Gate 3 and wrestle with my soul over whether to join the Early Access phase or not. But if I feel the urge for a more scientific form of fiction, there might be more stars in my future.