Thursday, July 23, 2020

Reach For The Stars

I just lost my first game of Stellaris!

It was pretty fun, and I expect I will lose more games in the future.

Stellaris has been on my radar for a while. I've been longing for a big, meaty strategy game to dig into, but have been underwhelmed by the last few incarnations of Civilization, which has historically been my go-to. Even after picking up Civ VI for free on the Epic Games Store recently, I think I only played for like thirty minutes before getting bored and annoyed and haven't picked it back up again. Stellaris has a really great reputation, and I'd thoroughly enjoyed my previous experiences with Europa Universalis 3, so I was delighted to receive it as a gift from my ever-reliable brother and dig into it.

The learning curve for these games is brutal. The Stellaris tutorial is significantly better than the EU3 one, which was absolutely broken, but even so it's pretty overwhelming at first. There are dozens and dozens of menus and windows and orders to familiarize yourself with, and all systems are interconnected. I think I have it more or less all in my head now, but I'm also pretty sure that I had to shove out some childhood memories to make room for it.

Learning the game is also challenging because it has changed so much. That is one of the things Paradox has a great reputation for: like many midsized publishers, they are fantastic about continually updating their games for years and years, adding new features and improving the balance and fixing bugs. But that also means that existing information can become outdated. The details on the official wiki seem to be accurate, but in general Googling for questions I had wasn't very fruitful: many of the guides and stuff written for Stellaris came out soon after the game's launch, and the version of the game I'm playing now is quite different from that one. To pick one example at random, it seems like the entire way you expand your borders is different from before. It sounds like in earlier versions of the game, your borders would automatically push out over time based on your Pops and other factors. In the current version, though, you expand your territory by building an Outpost. How do you build an Output? By issuing the "Build Starbase" order. This will build an Outpost, which is NOT a Starbase. If you want a Starbase, you have to build a Starbase, then open your Starbase, then click the "Upgrade to Starbase" option to change your Starbase into a Starbase. A Starbase that isn't a Starbase doesn't count against your Starbase limit, while a Starbase that is a Starbase does count towards it. Obviously.

Stellaris, like the other Paradox games, is termed a Grand Strategy game. It has a lot of similarities to the Civ (or, in this case, Alpha Centauri) franchise as it goes beyond individual battles or even military conflict in general: you must juggle political, social, technological, and economic concerns. Often times you can "win" by, say, having a large military that you never need to deploy, successfully deterring potential rivals; or by carefully forging alliances to exert a sphere of soft-power influence. This does scratch a pretty powerful itch of mine, as I love games that you can win without needing to fight, or at least not have that be the sole focus.

One major difference between Civ games and Paradox games, though, is that the whole concept of "winning" is significantly more ephemeral in the latter. Civ has always had very well-defined victory conditions: conquer the entire world, or be the first civ to land on Alpha Centauri, or merge with the global consciousness, or whatever: you get a nice victory screen and a tidy end to your story. Paradox, though, arguably is creating simulations more than games. There isn't a dynamic where there's one winner and six losers; instead, there are, like, fifty different nation-states that are each trying to do their best. It ends up falling to the player to define for themself what they want to do. Simply surviving is a very worthy and challenging goal. (One that I've failed!) I'm very, very far from the endgame in Stellaris, but from what I can tell, it looks like the kind of default position is to have the highest score in the year that the game ends (2500, I believe?), which is very similar to how EU3 wound up.

In keeping with the simulation theme, Paradox games don't have immortal beings with absolute dictatorial sway over their nations from 4000 BC until 2100 AD. Instead, a wide variety of leaders will come, make an impact, age and then pass. In my particular game, I was playing as Earth, which starts the game with a Democratic government. My President had won office with a mandate to increase production of Alloys. She succeeded, but was voted out of office nonetheless. It's an interesting dynamic to have imperfect tools to work with; one of my Governors became Corrupt, and I needed to decide whether to keep him in place and accept the increase in Crime or whether to replace him with a less-experienced but more trustworthy replacement.

Much like Civ, I do really dig the early, exploration-heavy phase of the game. The way this plays out in Stellaris is really interesting. Your map is the galaxy, and you move between star systems, which are the nodes of the map. But not every node is directly connected to every other node. Instead, you basically end up with connected constellations, and can only move between particular systems. This raises all sorts of interesting strategic implications: certain systems may act as hubs, and be important because they link together many other systems; while some systems are chokepoints with only two connecting systems, and could be crucial to block enemies' movements.

The exploration phase reminded me a lot of my mega-game of EU3, where I gradually mapped the world from Mecklenburg. But in Stellaris I had a lot more explorers active. I think in EU3 I only had like two armies who traveled through the entirety of Africa, the Middle-East and Asia, while in my short game of Stellaris I built something like 12-15 Science vessels and they were all active. In both games exploration is really important to discover where potential rivals and allies live and what resources you might exploit. In EU3 I was very motivated by trying to discover new Centers of Trade so I could dominate them economically; in Stellaris I was hunting for Anomalies to research and candidates for new planets to settle.

I think I may switch up my exploration strategy in my next game. Unlike EU3, Stellaris differentiates between merely entering a territory and surveying it. A ship may go from A to B to C, which will reveal what planets are in each system and how they are connected. Or it may actually survey each system, which takes much more time but reveals how many resources the system holds, where they are located, and the location of any anomalies.

In my game, I surveyed every system as I came across it, which is pretty cool, but may not have been all that useful: I was sometimes surveying stars that were like 25 hops away from Earth, which I couldn't possibly have claimed no matter how cool they were. Anyways, I'm wondering now if it might be a better strategy to explore in two waves: send out some early ships that just go as fast and as deep as they can, so you can quickly discover your neighbors and the geometry of the galaxy; and then send a second, bigger wave to properly survey the previously-discovered systems. That way you could focus on strategically-important areas, too.

Anomalies turned out to be a really great way to inject some storytelling into the game. Big strategy games are usually very light on the in-game narrative, which does leave a lot of space for players to tell their own stories ("Gandhi is such a warmongering jerk!!"), but can also make the game feel sterile. One of the (many, many) things I love about Fall from Heaven 2 is how its Events and unique encounters provide color, texture, and narrative thrust to the world. In Stellaris, the overall 4X experience is typically abstract, but when you explore an anomaly it gets really specific and wonderful. They are short but vivid descriptions, enticing fragments of past civilizations, their follies or their triumphs or the blank mysteries they left behind. Or hints of science beyond our comprehension, or dimensions beyond our own. They're always surprising. The mechanical effects are usually rather simple but welcome: permanently adding resources to a nearby planet, say, or giving a sizable chunk of Society research. Every once in a while, you actually get to choose from a multi-choice dialog prompt: for example, upon discovering that the object you've been researching is the deceased remains of an extinct species, you can let the coffin continue on its journey, or take it for further studies. I'm always a big fan of choice in games, and it's a delight to have one here.

I think my growth pattern was basically fine in this game. I discovered Alpha Centauri early during the tutorial and established a colony there, which grew large enough to be independent after a couple of decades. Much later I belatedly surveyed Sirius and found another promising planet and had planted a colony there. Those two planets and Earth were the only highly-compatible worlds I came across, with everything else Desert planets or similar with only around 30% habitability. But even if I had found another planet I think I was near the limits of my Administrative Capacity (?) to manage them.

It took me a while to figure out how building works on planets: there's a nice big obvious button by available Building slots to bring up a window of all the new things you can construct, but I didn't realize until pretty late that you can also build Districts by clicking the much smaller grids off to the left. I think that in most cases the Districts are more cost-effective, so they're better options if you just need to make some more Jobs or Housing available for your Pops. I suspect that in longer-running games planets will tend to specialize, which would make Buildings more important to get multiplicative bonuses to your production.

Diplomatically, my game started out pretty fine. It took a while for me to make first contact, and the first aliens I met were pretty friendly xenophiles. We signed a lot of treaties and agreements. I didn't realize until later that these agreements inhibit your ability to expand into unclaimed territory, so I might be more cautious in the future about signing those.

I also encountered a couple of Fallen Empires. This is a cool mechanic that I don't think I've seen in other games. You, and most of the AI factions, are young up-and-comers at the start of the tech tree and just starting to expand from a single planet. The Fallen Empires, though, are ancient Prothean-style civilizations who have existed for millennia. They have large territories and advanced technology and sizable fleets; but they are stagnant and decadent, and do not grow or advance like the other AI factions do. So, early in the game they are overwhelmingly powerful and not to be trifled with, but beyond a certain point you (or other up-and-coming galactic civilizations) can take them on, conquer and loot their empires. I think that will be a really interesting dynamic.

I found a few other empires, finally encountering one that would be my doom. They were Spiritualist Xenophobes, religious bigots who wanted to wipe all heathen aliens out of existence. I had a bad feeling about them.

Looking at the map, I saw a way to potentially block their expansion. I began to to prioritize my Output construction in that direction: if I could reach the chokepoint before them, then I would have dozens and dozens of star systems on my side of the divide, which I could then explore, claim and settle at my leisure. But if they broke through, then it would be almost impossible to contain them, and I would need to maintain a border that would span a half-dozen systems.

I threw all of my Influence towards building a series of Outposts reaching towards that chokepoint. After some foolish early expansions, I'd come to realize that the best way to expand territory is system-by-system. Building an Outpost three systems away costs exactly as much Influence as building an Outpost in each of those three systems. At least in my game, Influence was the gating factor as I was swimming in Alloys and drowning in Minerals.

My prospective foes were expanding, but less single-mindedly than me, branching in some other directions besides the one I was worried about. I moved my Fleet down into the sector I intended to claim to keep a close eye on them, as my Construction Ships laid track all the way down.

And then, when I was just one hop away from the chokepoint, I saw something terrible: a foreign Construction Ship entering "my" system! The only conceivable reason to be here was to build. I was too late.

Or... was I?

I mulled things over. I didn't want a war, and wasn't really prepared for a war. But declaring a war would keep them from taking that system. And it would buy me some time. Maybe, if I could reinforce my position, and build that Output, then turn my Starbase into a Starbase and get some defenses into it, I could actually defend this position. Using EU3 as a baseline, I hoped that I could survive for a respectable length of time, then sue for a white peace, keeping my border intact.

On the other hand, my prospective opponents already hated me, with a -1000 attitude modifier. I didn't have any allies or mutual-defense treaties. I had never built a new combat ship during the entire game. I had never fought a war in Stellaris before and didn't know what it would entail.

But... it's just a game, eh? Why not go for it! So I did.

And, well, yeah. It was a fun game, and I lost.

But I had a blast! Overall, Stellaris feels like a blend of Europa Universalis 3 and Mass Effect 1, which is exactly what I wanted. There's the same joy of discovery, beautiful galaxy, fascinating aliens and inspiring technology that ME1 had, with the strategic depth and enormous timeline of EU3.

I feel like I know all the basics now. I'm sure there are more mechanics to come;  I had just unlocked Sectors right before the game's end, never learned how to use wormholes, never unlocked any of the unique resources. I think I'll probably play at least more pacifistic Earth-focused game and hopefully get a bit further before branching out into some other governments and playstyles. I have a lot more to look forward to!

1 comment:

  1. This is my favourite thing about Paradox games, and what keeps me interested in them as other Strategy games against AI opponents have long grown dull. The roleplaying aspect means you can actually enjoy losing, or going for your own very modest victory conditions. That's why these games never become repetitive.