I'm making good progress on my first Captain-difficulty Stellaris game. I'd initially planned to wait until finishing the game to write it up, but a ton has happened so far that seems noteworthy, and my brother recently encouraged an update, so I thought I'd chime in with my progress so far. I recently returned to the game after a detour with BG3 Early Access, and after a brief period of "Whoa, where am I and what am I doing?!" I've found my feet again.
This was my first game rolling a custom civ, after always playing as the United Nations of Earth on previous outings; now that I have a better feel for the game mechanics and my preferred playstyle, I felt more comfortable customizing a new approach. After downloading the free species portrait pack from Steam, I picked a really pretty peacock-ish portrait and dubbed my species the Phasianidae. I initially planned to do a pacifist run, and so chose a Pacifist ethic, which decreases Sprawl (allowing for bigger empires) and increases Stability (leading to higher production, trade, and immigration); you can't start wars on demand, but can declare an ideological war on any civ that doesn't share your ethics, which in practice is almost all of them. I also opted to be a Fanatic Xenophile, which gives you more Envoys to help keep enemies off your back, and increases Trade Value to supercharge your economy.
I'd always stuck with a Democracy in my Earth games and wanted to try something else. I eventually settled on an Oligarchy, mostly so I could run both the Meritocracy and Shadow Council civics for +10% output of Specialist and Ruler production. It's been pretty good, but I did end up kind of regretting not trying a Dictatorship or Imperial government for the extra Edict slot; I'd forgotten just how limiting it feels to only have a single edict for most of the game.
For species traits, I chose Rapid Breeders for +10% growth speed; at least in the games I've played so far, from the midgame on the single most important factor in power seems to be the number of pops you have, so I've started juicing everything I can to get more pops. I toyed with picking up a negative trait too but decided against it; I was a little tempted by Weak since armies aren't very important, especially in a Pacifist game, but it also hurts Worker Output so I passed.
As I recently noted to my brother, one challenging thing about Stellaris compared to Fall from Heaven 2 or other 4X games is just how long it takes to figure out how strong your start is. In other games, you can quickly explore your immediate surroundings and decide early on whether it's worth continuing the game or if you're better off re-rolling. In Stellaris, though, it takes many decades (in-game!) to figure out the hyperlane patterns, find nearby habitable planets, and determine who your neighbors are, how they feel and how close to you they are.
For the origin, I selected Galactic Doorstep, which sounded interesting: you spawn with a disabled Gateway in your home system, and there's a longish quest chain related to it: things coming out of it, investigating it, and gradually learning how to reactivate it. I'm glad that I did it and it was a fun change of pace, but I think I'll likely go back to Prosperous Unification in the future, or maybe switch to a new one if and when I pick up DLC for the game.
That Galactic Doorstep almost cut my run short. It's really helpful early on: you receive a nice chunk of Alloys relatively early on, which is huge in the early-early game before your industrial base gets off the ground. Eventually, though, some hostile aliens come through, and my pacifist self was not ready for them. They wiped out the minor defenses I had in the system, then started bombarding my starbase. I frantically upgraded another Outpost into a Starbase, built a shipyard, and started churning out new corvettes to counterattack. In the meantime, though, my Fleet Power had declined to 0, so all my neighbors started throwing their weight around, making demands and offering me "protection". I eventually managed to fight off those intruders, but oof, it was pretty hairy!
After the early-game benefit of free alloys and such, the really nice thing about the Galactic Doorstep is that you can permanently unlock the ordinarily-rare tech to reactivate Gateways (similar to how you unlock tech after scavenging alien debris), and after that the tech to build new Gateways. These are still very expensive techs, so I didn't research them as soon as they became available, but I still ended up with Gateways a lot quicker in this game than the previous one. One of the best things about this was that piracy has been a lot more manageable. There was another deactivated Gateway in my territory at the end of my empire, and after reactivating that a lot of my piracy went away; by the time the rest started to become a problem, I could start building new custom Gateways in other systems.
I feel like I definitely know the game a lot better this time around, and besides the importance of Gateways, another thing I think I'm doing much better this time around is starbase placement. In my previous game, I focused mostly on strategic location, building up starbases at borders and at internal chokepoints. Those seem to be almost useless, though; by the time of a late-game war, fleets are a lot more powerful than starbases; and because borders can shift so much, a starbase could become irrelevant. I also now realize how important Stability is (for keeping up production, which is what ultimately wins wars), so the Deep Space Black Site, which I initially thought was an almost useless building, is now usually the first thing I build.
My new general system is: First, only ever build (upgrade) Starbases in systems with colonies. This gives the Stability bonus, allows directly collecting Trade from the planet, lets you eventually link up with your gateway network, and provides extra defense if the colony system is ever invaded. Next, try to specialize each starbase. My first priority is typically Trade: I check to see what nearby colonies aren't yet covered by a starbase, and what claimed systems have trade value, and figure out the best place to put a Starbase and how many Trade Hubs I'll need to cover everything. (Ideally planning long-term with the 6 slots I expect to eventually have, though I'm now also much more happy to do an initial buildout and retrofit later, like starting with 2 starbases of 2 Trade Hubs each and later moving all 4 hubs to the same Starbase).
Other than Trade, I build some starbases that focus on Shipyards, then others with Anchorages. Honestly, I learned this from the AI in my last game, realizing that all the Starbases I conquered followed similar loadouts. Each Starbase then builds buildings that synergize with its primary function: Fleet Academies for Shipyards, Naval Logistics Offices for Anchorages, and Offworld Trading Company for Trade ones. Any extra buildings get filled with Resource Silos.
In this game I'm not building any combat-oriented things in my starbases like missile or gun batteries, communciation jammers, etc. Partly that's because of my pacifist leaning, but I also was pretty underwhelmed by these in my previous game: again, by the time you're fielding battleships, fleets will outperform starbases, and the enemy AI seems to be smart enough to not invade a system with a significantly stronger defense. I do think that, if piracy is a problem, it would make sense to fill out slots with Hangar Bays, and then retrofit those to Anchorages or Shipyards after turning on your
mass effect relays gateways.
Like I noted above, it's hard to judge how good a starting position in Solaris is, and I lucked out in this game. I turned off the "clusters" option for Empire Placement and ended up with some more breathing room around me. In this game, I took a sort of "wave" approach to early exploration: my first Science Ship would just explore and not survey. Then a second ship would follow later and survey systems with habitable planets. This seems to work out pretty well: you can still find good planets to settle by the time you're ready to build colony ships, and you have a much better shot at figuring out the galaxy's topology.
As in all my earlier games, my first priority was to race for claiming chokepoints: trying to claim systems that would block off neighbors' expansion in my direction, letting me claim other systems behind it at my leisure. This typically follows a "snake" route, where I'll claim the shortest path between my homeworld and that chokepoint, instead of steadily expanding out in all directions. Of course, rival empires are expanding too, so it's good to have backup plans: if I realize I won't be able to reach a desired chokepoint in time, hopefully there's another one behind it that I can use.
In my particular case, I had a pretty clear priority order for expansion. First was towards Glebsig to my east, my nearest neighbor (albeit still relatively far away). I could see that he was also getting bottled up by the Elaamid Blessed Mandate to his east, so if I could contain him, he would be hobbled for the rest of the game. I poured my Influence into that push, and managed to lock him up. And then, I was reminded of a very unpleasant fact: your enemies will totally try to build outposts behind your borders! Even though it would result in non-contiguous territory for him, he sent some constructions ships through my chokepoint. Fortunately, closing borders ended that adventure pretty quickly.
UNfortunately, though, there was a way around this. As noted before, I'd completely neglected my military, dumping all my alloys into new Science Ships and Construction Ships. And so, when my Gateway invaders destroyed my fleet, I became Pathetic even to the Glebsig weaklings. They magnanimously guaranteed my independence. Then, a few years later, they canceled that guarantee. No big deal, except canceling a guarantee automatically creates a Truce between two empires... and a Truce allows both parties to ignore Closed Borders! Suddenly I had Glebsig ships sailing back into my territory again, making a beeline for an unclaimed system with habitable planets.
Fortunately I still had a construction ship in the area; because they're so slow and I was expanding in three directions, I made a total of three and would just park the ones I wasn't currently using. But it was quite a race between my ship and Glebsig's. I would charge in ahead of him and start building an Outpost just before he started. Fortunately, he would also start right after me and spend months building it, only to lose it when I finished first. There were a few times when I wasn't sure where he was going, and it was pretty intense to open up the star map, try to anticipate which hyperlane he was steering towards, and try to get there in front of him. After some time, though, I eventually claimed the necessary systems near our border and kept him bottled up inside; from what I can see, the AI will claim within a few hops of a border (including a navigable wormhole or gateway), but won't claim further than that.
My expansion southwest was the next-most-urgent. Out here was the Democratic K'Taknor Commisariat, a Fanatic Militarist Democracy. I prioritized sending an Envoy there for peaceful relations. Here, my goal for a chokepoint wasn't just to block expansion, but to keep our border as narrow as possible: Militaristic empires have much higher Border Friction than other empires, and I wasn't at all prepared for a war. They had more options for expansion than Glebsig did so they made a more leisurely march in my direction and I made more rapid progress down towards them. I ended up not pushing as far in as I could have: claiming one more system would have still given me a choke point, and a rump tail of two more systems to claim, but also would have meant 5 shared hyperlanes between us (from that chokepoint out to their other systems), unlike the 1 we ended up with.
The longest expansion, both physically and chronologically, was to the Cirrulan Nation to my southeast. The Cirrulans had a ton of space to expand, and even now are technically larger than me. Because this was such a long drive, I identified a good three or four potential chokepoints between us, but I was able to get all the way down to the closest one. This also meant securing a disabled Gateway, another nice bonus for me.
One thing I hadn't really appreciated in my earlier games was that Fallen Empires are also de-facto chokepoints: not only a natural border to keep you from expanding, but they also block rival empires from expanding through them, too. I ended with two on my borders: the Thek Olak Archivists were in my southeast, above Cirrulan but not sharing a border with them, and forming a buffer between me and Elaamid. More intriguingly, the Ishni Shard, a Fanatic Militarist fallen empire, was far to my west. This was a positively luxurious expansion opportunity, with the shortest path taking over a dozen systems between my borders and their, with more spur trails off to the side, and absolutely no other rival empires in a position to compete for it.
My expansion was helped by my Traditions. In my earlier games I'd always chosen a tree, maxed it out, taken the Ascension Perk, and then chosen a new tree. But, a lot of really great early-game bonuses are scattered between multiple trees, so in this game I mixed-and-matched between Discovery and Expansion. I think my overall order was something like this:
- Discovery tree unlocked (faster Anomaly research and Map the Stars edict for faster survey speed and anomaly discovery chance).
- Discovery: To Boldly Go for faster survey speed.
- Expansion tree unlocked (faster Colony development).
- Expansion: Reach For The Stars for cheaper Outposts.
- Expansion: Colonization Fever for more pops on new colonies.
- Expansion: A New Life for faster pop growth.
After this I return to fully completing each Tradition before moving on to the next. Like my game as a whole, I initially focus on research, then on economy/infrastructure, and finally on military. There's useful stuff in every tree, and in practice there's usually a pretty clear priority for what to take next. Diplomacy becomes useful after you've met lots of other civs, Prosperity is good once your cities are large, Harmony is never essential but always useful, Domination is good once you have rulers near the level cap, and Supremacy is great if you're planning war.
So far I haven't encountered the awesome "Someone Loves Us" quest chain, but did get a really cool early-game quest chain about a secret cult of traitors. I'm not sure if it's tied to the Galactic Doorstep origin; I don't think the text ever references it, but I haven't seen it in any of my Prosperous Unification games. Anyways, it's a really well-designed quest that pushes you to explore certain systems and take on some early-game combat, and eventually rewards you with a Battleship, which can be really game-changing in the early game.
On the downside, this was my first game where the Precursors did not give me Fen Habbanis III; I wound up with a ton of Unity and a bunch of extra resources in the system, but no planet at all. It was still worth doing, but man, the loss of a Ecumenopolis stings. But, unlike my previous game where I was stuck in a small space for a long time, here I've been able to directly colonize well over a dozen planets, and so far (~2350) I have plenty of space left to peacefully expand before worrying about overpopulation.
Speaking of expansion: I did too much, too quickly in this game. Again, I'm making a concerted effort to grow my pops as large and quickly as possible, so I've been trying to get colonies off the ground ASAP. But, in my second wave of expansion, I had three colonies all going at the same time, which really tanked my Food and Consumer Goods. I've never had trouble with Food before and it was a little jarring to have too little of it instead of way way too much. I had to deviate from my carefully planned economy, throwing random Agricultural Districts and Civilian Industries on whatever planets happened to have free building slots at the moment. It took many decades to get my economy back under control. Fortunately, the Galactic Market was available to plug the gaps: I was running a huge surplus of Minerals throughout the game and frequently hitting the storage gap, so I would sell a ton of those, buy food and supplies, and do it again in a few months. My new rule of thumb is to only build a new colony if I have less than two current colonies, and am running surpluses on both food and consumer goods.
But, I do wonder now if maybe it was good after all that I expanded so quickly. Once I had that chunk of colonies fully developed, I catapulted into first place in Population in the galaxy, and soon after steadily rose towards the top of the Relative Power ranking. That might have happened regardless, but maybe the earlier pop growth makes up for the economic pinch of that transition period.
Since then, my colonization has been more consistent and less worrisome; I'm more limited now by the Influence to add undeveloped planets to my borders, and by the time I'm ready to colonize a new planet, previous ones are nearly developed.
One thing I'm doing a little differently this time around is beelining for Gaia Worlds. In my successful Earth game, I followed a pretty normal Terraforming trajectory: terraforming uninhabited planets into Continental planets, then later retrofitting previously-settled non-Continental planets to be Continental, then restoring Mars to be Continental, and, much later, picking the World Shaper ascension perk to turn everything into Gaia. The thing is, Gaia planets are so insanely good that you really want to get them ASAP. The 100% Habitability doesn't sound like much, but they also bring an unadvertised 10% boost to Happiness (leading to higher Stability, leading to higher production), and 10% to Resource production, overall making an amazing boost to your empire. Because of this, I didn't bother terraforming any early worlds or messing with habitability modifications or buffs. World Shaper is locked behind a rare tech, so I kept an eye open for that research path in Society. Once you have it, it just costs Energy and Time, both of which I have in spades. For new planets, I've been Gaiaizing them prior to colonizing, though I don't think there would be any downside to terraforming them after.
In this game I've also been thinking a little more carefully about planet specializations. I try to decide relatively early on whether a planet will focus on industry, in which case it will build Civilian Industries, Alloy Foundries and eventually the Ministry of Production; focus on science, which will build Research Labs and eventually a Research Institute; bureaucracy, which will build Administrative offices; or, occasionally, culture, which builds Autochthon Monuments, and eventually an Auto-curating Vault. Likewise, a planet will typically focus on a single resource type, like Minerals, and eventually build a boosting building, like a Mineral Purification Plant. I tend to stick one-off buildings like Gas Refineries and Synthetic Crystal Plants onto Bureaucratic worlds since I'm not giving up a multiplicative slot when doing so; I'm now finding, though, that this makes employment on those planets more challenging at higher populations, so I'm still working on the right balance.
But, I'm also feeling better now about breaking out of those specializations and retrofitting later on. Early in the game I had earmarked my capital Emariss as a research world; but I needed to build some Alloy Forges there early on to kickstart my expansion plans, and Civilian Industries to move on to my next world. I kept those buildings around as the planet grew, but once I'd maxed out my 20 building slots, I gradually went back and changed those into Research Labs. There's a short-term unemployment hit from this, but there's plenty of time to retrain workers before proceeding. Likewise, during my colonization crunch I had an all-hands-on-deck phase of all planets building Agriculture districts willy-nilly; now that there's more than enough food again, those one-off districts are being repurposed for more productive uses, while my few agriculture specializing worlds focus on their job.
One of the interesting mechanical aspects of Stellaris is how many things in the game have fixed costs, while others have scaling. This is probably most obvious early on with Leader hiring: early in the game, getting 200 Energy seems like an almost insurmountable problem, and you have to choose very carefully who you recruit, because you'll be stuck with them for a long time. By the end game, though, leaders still cost 200 Energy (possibly modified by Policies, but still around that), which is nothing when you're storing 100k energy. So you think nothing at all about firing a leader who acquires an undesirable trait, or cycling through your pool to get a quality you want. Similarly, building stuff feels kind of expensive and time-consuming in the early game, but spending 300 Minerals to replace a district is nothing.
I'm now past an inflection point in my game, where I've researched all non-repeating Physics and Engineering technologies and most Society ones, running high surpluses, have plenty of Admin Cap and room to expand, and well over 350 Naval Capacity. I'm pretty dominant in the Galactic Community, thanks in large part to the 5 Envoys I have there, further augmenting my already-significant Diplomatic Weight. Those envoys served me well in the early game, and I avoided any unwanted wars; the Pious Anathurian Theocracy tried to start something about 50 years ago with claiming my systems, but I buttered them back up, and now I could crush them if I wanted to. Of course, as a Pacifist empire I don't really want to.
I'm not sure exactly what my next steps will be. My mid-term goal is to conquer the Ishni Shard and take their awesome planets and adjacent systems, but their fleet power is still Overwhelming at the moment and it will take some time to get there. For quite a while I've wanted to form a Federation with the Neborite Authority, the second-strongest non-AI civ in the galaxy and fellow Fanatic Xenophiles, but they've been standoffish due to my restrictive War Policy. I do want to get in a Federation and level it up before the Crisis. Funnily enough the Pious Theocracy and Commonality of Mekon did invite me to their Federation, which is the one I was vaguely planning to fight against. I'm now wondering whether to start a Federation with some weaker Pacifist empires, which would be much less advantageous to me but a lot easier to get going and probably still beneficial in the long run.
This game will keep me busy for quite a while longer as it's only around 2370, but I'm already mulling over possible changes to make in future games. One thing I'm contemplating is specializing my species as I specialize planets. As a Xenophile empire with a lot of Migration Treaties, I have a ton of options for which species to put on new planets. Before I had Gaia worlds I would choose whichever one had the highest Habitability; now I just put my birds everywhere. But, it would be better to pick species based on their traits, like Intelligent species for research planets, Agrarian species for farming planets, and so on.
And, speaking of Habitability, one thing that I'm wondering now for my current game is whether to take on the Nonadaptive malus in order to add more beneficial traits to my main species. I believe that Nonadaptive species will still get 100% habitability on Gaia worlds, making it a basically free perk. With my Society tree basically all researched, now might be a good time to try that out.
I think that's it for now! We'll see how much longer this Pacifist ethic of mine lasts; I think I can easily bait Ishni into a war when I'm ready for it, and of course the Crisis won't care what my policy is, but time will tell whether there's any conflict with the mundane empires sharing my galaxy.