Monday, December 07, 2020

Bird Endgame

I've wrapped up my current Fanatic Xenophile Pacifist run in Stellaris! I'm happy with how the game went down. I think I have a really solid grasp now of the systems and what to expect and plan for throughout the game. At the same time, there's a good amount of variety and some small surprises in how things unfold. This game was fairly different from my previous United Nations of Earth games, but those games prepared me well for this one.

As a Pacifist empire, getting into wars was considerably more challenging. Previously, I would Claim adjacent systems, then use a Conquest Casus Belli to trigger a war. To get the maximum Influence from my Pacifist Faction, though, I had set my War Policy to Defensive Wars Only, which basically means that, in most cases, you cannot initiate a war. (There is a cool option to support Ideological wars, which I'll write more about later, but the Faction doesn't approve of that.)

As noted at the end of my previous post, I had managed to rush my expansion, claim choke points, and had a lot of space reserved to gradually, peacefully expand into. After getting over an initial hump with excessive colonization, my population dramatically increased, and with it I vaulted up the Relative Power rankings, particularly in Economy and Technology. I'd neglected military techs for basically the whole game, but once I started reaching the end of the tech tree I went back and grabbed all those too, finally increasing my Naval Capacity and building battleships. My immediate target was the Ishni Shard, Militant Xenophones to my southwest.

I couldn't just declare war on Ishni, or even claim their systems. Instead I started building Outposts in adjacent systems. Xenophobes really hate this, and they demanded that I stop. I refused, our relationship plummeted... but they didn't attack. Until, like, a decade later, when out of the blue they suddenly declared war on me. I have no idea why, as there didn't seem to be any change in our circumstances between my provocation and their declaration.

Once you are in a war, you can Claim enemy territory; I'd been stockpiling Influence in anticipation of the conflict, and had close to the 1000 max at the ready. I wanted to be able to finish the entire war in one go; in my previous games, I would typically defeat a Fallen Empire in two phases, taking advantage of their unique tech and buildings in between; but starting a war as a Pacifist was such a pain to start with, and I was pretty sure they wouldn't attack me again if I reduced them to Pathetic power, so I wanted to get them all in one war. 

As usual, their fleets acted bizarrely. After reclaiming one or two adjacent systems I'd settled, they didn't press further into my territory, or retreat to their citadels to defend. Instead, they headed south and east, disappearing from sensor range. I moved in with my full force of battleships and corvettes and just moved around, neutralizing their starbases and landing armies.

Near the end the Ishni finally popped back up, way on the eastern rim of the galaxy. I think they were trying to attack my allies in the Cirrulan Nation, fellow Federation members in The Nice Guys. I guess I can maybe sorta kinda see the strategy, since the Cirrulans were far weaker than me and the Ishni might have wanted to drive up our War Weariness that way; but the Ishni were just totally MIA for the entire war. I won without ever fighting a major naval engagement.

In previous games, FEs had surrendered once I had started but not finished my ground invasions of the home worlds. For whatever reason, this time the Ishni waited until after I had finished my conquest before surrendering. I'm not sure if this is due to them being the aggressors in the war, or the higher difficulty level, or something else.

The Pouz-Jak Progenitors Awakened shortly after this war; fortunately they were Fanatic Xenophiles and on the far end of the galaxy from me, so not a huge threat. I spent some time integrating the Ishni into my empire, which actually was a pretty smooth process this time. Crime had been a big problem in previous games, but here it wasn't bad at all. I resettled excess population off Boundary and Core, converted a few buildings into new ones with more Jobs, and put in a regular (not Crime-reducing) Governor.

Conquering Ishni also opened up a lot of new world to colonize, both in adjacent systems and in a rump cluster behind their borders. It took some time, but I terraformed all of them into Gaia planets and seeded them with various pops. This timing was great, since my original planets were just starting to hit their population caps around this time.

Like in my previous game, there were a lot of Shielded Worlds. In those games, lowering the shields gave me a Level X Admiral in each system; this time, it gave me some Escorts and Battlecruisers in each. It seems odd that there wasn't a mixture of outcomes between the games, but probably just another instance of RNG striking. I was initially disappointed at the "loss" of the Admirals, but over the course of the game I think the ships were probably better: even though they can't be upgraded, Battlecruisers are pretty awesome, and since I defeated the Ishni so early, the Admirals would probably have died of old age by the end of the game.

Next, I wanted to fight the Thek'Qlak Archivists. I'd been on good terms with both them and the Progenitors, agreeing to early requests for specimens and scientists, receiving gifts and open borders from both. Our relationship soured quickly once I declared Rivalries and insulted them. But unlike the Isolationists, there isn't a clear demand to reject from them or particular trigger for a war. I had catapulted up in the Power rankings after the Ishni war, but I was a bit concerned that, by getting too powerful, I'd make the FEs reluctant to start a war with me, so I held back from filling out my Naval Capacity, keeping them at merely Inferior rather than Pathetic in comparison to me.

At the same time that all of this was going on, I was gradually building up my Federation. I'd initially planned to sign up with the Neborites, who liked me a lot and were second in power; but our differing War Philosophies imposed a daunting -50 to Acceptance. I kept trying to build up our Trust and otherwise get within striking distance of "Yes", but eventually started worrying that, by waiting too long, I wouldn't be able to level up the Federation enough to get the Crisis damage bonus in time for the Crisis. Instead I hooked up with the Cirrulean Nation, a large but peaceful neighbor to my south. They were Xenophiles, Pacifists, and Spiritualist, being generally compatible with my outlook, and they quickly agreed to join up.

In my previous game, I joined a mature Federation started by some Federation Builders late in the game, by which point it was already Level 5 and it was just a matter of votes to form it to my wishes. In this new game, I came to see just how slow and tedious it is to level up a Federation from scratch; I felt like I started it relatively early, but still was just barely to Level 4 by the time the Crisis hit, even when trying to max out Cohesion. 

Soon after starting The Nice Guys federation, we were dragged into a war. I forget now exactly what sparked it, but I think the Elaamind Blessed Mandate may have invaded Cirrulan. Fortunately I had my navy all built up for my desired Archivist war, so I was able to move into Cirrulan space and help beat back the attackers. While I'd gone to lengths to avoid wars early in the game, by this phase they were actually a strong positive for me: I was getting late enough in the game that I had many of my final fleets and Admirals in place, so earning easy XP against mundane foes would put me in a much better position to take on the Crisis when it rolled around.

And there was a secondary benefit, too. After I was fully committed to fighting Elaamind, the Archivists surprised me with an abrupt war declaration! Like the Ishni, we had been at terrible relations for a long time before they declared war; but here, the reasoning seemed a little clearer, and I can definitely see why the AI would prefer to join the fray after I had already been bloodied.

I hadn't stockpiled as much Influence for this war, but still had just enough to claim all the Archivist systems. As with the Ishni, the Archivists seemed to focus most of their energies on the Cirrulans instead of me. This is the first time I've been involved in multiple wars simultaneously, and I had to keep an eye on the War Weariness for the Elaamind war while also seeing how things were progressing against the Archivists. Since Elaamind had attacked Cirrulans, I wasn't able to dictate the conclusion of that war, but wanted to make sure it wouldn't unduly harm my ally.

I left the Cirrulans to focus on Elaaminds while I tackled the Archivist fleets. Fortunately they weren't Awakened and didn't have too much resistance, especially thanks to the Dark Matter deflectors and reactors I had reverse-engineered from the Ishni. Despite the multi-front war, the Archivists fell pretty easily.

Oh! A quick note on ground invasions. In my previous game, I rarely maintained a standing army. Whenever a war started, I would recruit armies from every one of my planets. They would all pop out around the same time, then we would join together via the Gateway network and invade whatever needed invading. If another war wasn't imminent, I would mothball the armies after the end. Minerals have been plentiful in all of my games, so it's easy to re-raise them later.

In this game, though, I've been more cognizant of unit XP, something I didn't really even understand in my Earth game. When specializing Starbases, I make sure my Shipyards also include Fleet Academies, so all new ships start as Experienced with a 10% damage boost. I also designated a particular planet as my Army Planet and built a Military Academy to receive a similar bonus to my Armies. Then I just had that planet regularly churn out armies in peacetime until I had enough for the game. This does mean higher ongoing maintenance costs, but it isn't all that much, and it can be nice to start deploying ground forces at the very start of a war instead of waiting a month or two.

We triumphed over the Elaamind as well, which was great, but also set off a chain of annoying events. First, the Cirrulans fully embraced their Xenophile Ethic, and in the process lost their Pacifist leanings. From here, they started aggressively pushing for liberation wars against their neighboring systems. I voted them down - there wasn't a real benefit to me, and fighting mundane wars tends to be highly tedious and unrewarding. But they kept asking, over and over and over again. I think that, next to the "Ships upgraded!" message being read out every single time a Defensive Platform updates, Federation diplomacy AI is the most infuriating part of the game. To wit:

  • Disagreeing with federation members on votes incurs massive opinion penalties, on the order of -100 for voting against War and -50 for opposing other votes. A single disagreement can instantly wipe out more than a century of bonhomie.
  • These penalties decay absurdly slowly, too, at a mere +1 per year. I can't think of anything else in the game which is that punishing. Xenocide? Sure. Slavery? Whatever. Vote against my war? You are terrible and we will never forgive you.
  • And they won't take "No" for an answer! Expect tons of spam, as any failed vote will be put forward again, and again, and again, and again.
  • And each of these deal stacking penalties. It's crazy to me that, say, Insulting someone will just reset an opinion malus, while voting down the exact same dumb-ass resolution is a fresh wound every time.
  • So, if you want to keep your relationship alive, you have to vote for whatever idiotic thing your fellow federation members want. But, it isn't reciprocal! They'll just as happily vote against anything you want. If you spam them, you're back in the maelstrom of collapsing Opinions.
  • The most important votes are the votes to declare war, or to expand the Federation by inviting another member. But, these are the only votes that don't support spending Favors! It's extremely frustrating!
So, yeah. I started out the game going "Yeah, Federations rock, let's start a Federation, it will be fun!" and ended it muttering "Federations suck, only losers join Federations, let's all hate on Federations forever." Earlier I wanted the Federations DLC to unlock all the cool new things you can do with Federations; now, I still want it, but mostly because it seems like it fixes at least some of the gripes I have with federations. In particular, it will let you decide issues based on majority vote instead of unanimous vote, and lets you allocate votes based on your Weight (similar to Senate votes) rather than one-per-empire. I feel like we figured all this stuff out back with the Articles of Confederation.

I ultimately gave in to the Cirrulans because I was worried that my hard-built Federation (which had tied up half of my Envoys for, like, a century) would fall apart. We fought the war against Elaamind to impose ideology. It actually ended up being decently fun; not at all challenging, but again, it's more experience for my ships and troops. I think it's also the first time I've seen a fully successful ideological war; I'd seen previous wars started for that casus belli that concluded with a splinter faction arising to manage conquered territory, but thanks to my overwhelming firepower, we convinced the entire Elaamind Blessed Mandate to convert.

Of course, this didn't satisfy the Cirrulans. A year or so later their demands for war against the Elaaminds were replaced with demands for war against the Pious Anathurian Theocracy. Which was especially enraging because they refused to vote for my own war against the Pouz-Jak Arbiters. But I sighed and agreed to the war anyways. If nothing else, it put my ships within striking distance of the Pouz-Jak, where maybe they could trigger an international incident or something.

This war was successful too, again thanks almost entirely to my overwhelming fleet power and no thanks to the Cirrulans. The whole situation would be funny if it wasn't so enraging: the Cirrulans are that little snotnosed pipsqueak saying "You'd better watch it or I'll get my big brother to beat you up!", and I'm the big brother who sighs, throws a single punch, and lays out another little kid.

I'd hoped that, after defeating all of the Cirrulan neighbors, they'd be content, or even better, start pushing for war against the Arbiters. Nope: Since they were so buddy-buddy with the new leaders of Anathuria and Elaaminid, they started spamming The Nice Guys with requests to let their new friends (who we had just fought a war against) into our club. I guess I know how France felt when the US pushed to include Germany in NATO.

Agreeing to wars was tedious, but ultimately harmless. Expanding The Nice Guys was another story. By now it was around 2445, and I was nervously eying the clock advancing as our Federation XP bar increased. We were still at Level 3, in striking distance of Level 4; there was no way we could reach the whole 50% damage bonus from Level 5, but as long as we kept the maximum XP gain rate, we should be able to clinch Level 4 in time for the Crisis. But adding a new member to a Federation imposes a -100 Cohesion penalty, which would mean going from nearly +10xp per month to 0 or negative XP. It would take decades to build back up to full Cohesion, by which time the Crisis would be over.

So I voted down the expansion. But, of course, the Cirrulans kept spamming the same request over and over again, swiftly stacking up to hundreds of points of negative opinion. I just wanted to keep it together for one more year: once we rolled over to Level 4, we could take the hit and have more people join the party. The Cirrulans weren't buying it. Our long friendship unraveled, they started canceling our mutual agreements, and at last, when I said "No" one too many times, they left the Federation.

Which, of course, meant the Federation was dead: my vassal state was still in it, but that doesn't count as a separate member apparently. All that was incredibly frustrating: All the time and resources I'd poured into the Federation and all the bullcrap I'd put up with from my ally over the years, all taken away just when it would have been most useful.

The Cirrulans immediately turned around and started a new federation with both of the empires we had just defeated, which of course now all exactly mirrored the Cirrulan Ethics (and doubtless had a high opinion as Liberators). By this point the galaxy had seen a total of five federations, of which three were still active; this whole game has been very different from my previous ones, which had all seen only a single Federation that people either joined or didn't. I started eying another Federation that had eventually been started by the Neborites and Spuxlac, who had been my initial preference for partners; there was still the malus for our differing War Philosophies, but our Trust had built up a lot over the years, and I wanted to see if I could hop on board before the Crisis. (Another, smaller, Federation annoyance: Other than membership and name, you can't see any details about a Federation before joining. It would be really awesome to be able to know what level it is, any Fleet Contributions or other laws.)

I started building back up the envoys with Neborites and Spuxlac, but before I could get back into a Federation, the Crisis hit. I'd been hoping for the Dimensional Invaders one again, mostly because I'd been successful against them before and had a good grasp on how to handle them. I've only read some Wiki notes on the other Crises, it would be interesting to fight them but they sound harder. I'd intentionally made decisions steering me towards the Unbidden: I researched Jump Drives and Psi Jump Drives as soon as I could, and I'd long outlawed robots to appease my (small but annoying) Spiritualist Faction. In my previous game I'd never built robots but inherited some as existing pops on conquered planets; in this game, I saw them get purged from Archivist planets (which, incidentally, helped prevent my standard problems of unemployment, crime, and low stability. Hey, they're just robots! It's not like they're people!).

My plans worked, and once again the Unbidden visited our world. Unlike last time, they did not spawn inside my own territory, but instead on the border between Scyldari and Spuxlac. (The vindictive part of my brain had hoped that they would appear in the middle of Cirrulan Nation, and I pictured just hanging back while they devoured my ungrateful ex before I swooped in and took all their territory.) Combatting them was a little less of a time pressure this time because I wasn't directly being threatened, but I knew from experience that they would become more challenging the longer they continued, so I immediately directed all but two of my battleship and corvette fleets down to meet them. This was a fairly long voyage: I had a robust Gateway network, but only in my home territory. I did have a Wormhole that led into a not-terribly-far system, though, so some of my fleet routed through that while the rest manually made their way south.

I took a little time to mass my fleets, keeping a careful eye on the movement of the Unbidden. They were mostly focused on pushing west, which was just as well, since I could marshal my forces in the east.

The actual fight against the Crisis turned out to be insanely easy. I moved my fleet directly into the system that held the Unbidden portal, and almost immediately destroyed the portal, cutting off all reinforcements. I think that in my last game the engagements against the Unbidden were longer, and I'm pretty sure I had enough time to reinforce with other fleets mid-combat. Here, though, I just blew them away. It felt a little anticlimactic. I'd even congratulated myself on having the foresight of redesigning all of my ship designs, using my hard-won lessons from the last game to focus on anti-shield and eschew anti-armor weaponry. But it was all moot, since I defeated the Crisis before I even had to replace any ships from my fleets.

I am now wondering whether this means I should bump up the difficulty level in my next game. I might have had a good shot against them because I'd lucked out with such a strong start. Also, even though I didn't have optimized ship designs for the fights, I was overall in a much better position: I had high-ranking Admirals heading into this fight, and individual Ships were a lot more experienced. Plus, this time I'd defeated some Fallen Empires prior to the Crisis instead of afterwards, so I was going into the fight with Dark Matter components and an overall stronger industrial base.

In the last game closing the Portal was the last thing I did against the Unbidden, as they'd raced all their ships back to defend it. Here, though, their advance fleet had gone so far ahead, and my victory over the portal was so quick, that I only had to take out one or two fleets to close it. (There were two Military Powers listed when hovering over the system, but I never checked whether one of those was the Portal or if both were Fleets.) All that to say, I'd struck the fatal blow, but most of their fleets were still active, and there was a lot of war left to do. This ended up being surprisingly fun and tense. For one thing, I'd overlooked the second Wormhole, and so was caught off-guard when a bunch of their ships suddenly teleported into my home systems and started destroying Outposts. Fortunately I'd kept those two other fleets in reserve, and was able to stop them before they reached any inhabited planets. For the main theater down south, I had avaricious plans: As this is a Total War, defeating the Unbidden would not return systems to their original owners, but rather return them to an unclaimed, unsurveyed state. So I started prepping Science Ships and Construction Ships while the war was still winding down, positioning them to get a head start on the land rush after the war.

This wasn't strictly necessary or all that lucrative; there weren't any colonies at stake, just systems. My main goal was, after the surprise arrival of Unbidden fleets, to claim the systems on the other side of wormholes leading into my own territory. Anything beyond that was bragging rights. And, brag I did! Much like my early-game race to win choke points, here I managed to keep my science ships ahead of rivals (sometimes by double-teaming surveyors), and had a plentiful stock of Influence to immediately start construction of Outposts the moment a survey completed.

The last of the Unbidden fell, I was hailed as the galactic savior, and the game entered its long denouement. I'd initially planned to fight the Arbiters, but that became less compelling after the Crisis passed: We didn't share any borders, they weren't threatening to me (despite my constant Insults and Refusals), and while they had built some cool Megastructures and cities that I kind of wanted, I didn't really have anything to do with those cool goodies. I just had a little over 20 years left on the clock to run out.

I did eventually join the Neborite Federation, after the Crisis had passed, again probably mostly just to spite Cirrulan Nation. This one had its own challenges: most notably, Spuxlac kept wanting to declare Conquest Wars against weaker neighbors. I just said "Yeah" and rolled with it. For the first couple of wars I got very involved, micromanaging my fleet involvements and invading planets and really doing 95% of the work. During later wars I got more bored and just parked some fleets to defend my borders and let my allies do most of the work, just occasionally moving a spare fleet in to crush a three-star group of enemy ships.

From this point on I was mostly on Fastest game speed. By this point in the game I'd given up on efficient optimization of planets and mostly just wanted to make sure things stayed stable, which means staying on top of housing shortages and unemployment. So instead of waiting until a planet was within a few slots of full employment or housing before building, I just fully built out all my Districts, upgraded all Alloy Foundries, and used all empty slots on special resources or Commercial Zones.

I also took advantage of the Greater Than Ourselves Edict, which encourages unemployed pops to voluntarily relocate themselves instead of you needing to manually relocate them to better worlds. In my previous game I'd opted against this, partly because of the high Influence cost and limited Edict Capacity, but also because of some comments I'd read online indicating that it isn't very useful, just moving one pop a year or something like that. Well, based on my experiences, it's actually pretty great: it seemed to automatically handle everything for me, as long as I had good places to go. Running on fast-forward, I mostly was just scrolling my Sectors list up and down, looking for any spare spots; I would occasionally see a red unemployed pop appear, and then almost immediately disappear. It was pretty great! It's definitely an end-end-game Edict, which sacrifices utility for quality of life, but I'll definitely take it.

As I joked to my brother Andrew, I now feel like I know the secrets of Fallen Empires: I believe that they are human players who defeated the Crisis in their own time, set Sector Management to On, set the game to Fast Forward, and then just walked away from their keyboards. It would explain a lot!

The game wound down with a big war between my federation and the Cirrulan federation; it was sparked by Spuxlac attempting to conquer Anathuria, but most of the big movement in the War Score came from my battleship fleets smashing Cirrulan fleets. It finally wrapped up in 2499.

I ended up in first place, of course. Cirrulan Nation was still in second place, but a weaker second place due to the just-ended war.

This game was a blast. I'm taking a little break for now, tentatively thinking of diving back in after picking up some DLC. I think I have the core mechanics down well enough that I can take on some more features without getting overwhelmed. But, I am also tempted to try a radically different playstyle. So far I've been oriented around my standard "tech, then infrastructure, finally conquest" progression I use in Civilization, and it might be fun to try an early conquest rush with, like, Galactic Force Projection as an early Ascension Perk pick. I also haven't played with robots or slaves, which I'm less stoked about but would be interesting. And leaning into an aggressive Liberation War strategy could be a lot of fun, reshaping the universe to my designs without directly taking on the burden of Sprawl. It's a big universe out there, with lots more galaxies to explore!


  1. "Until, like, a decade later, when out of the blue they suddenly declared war on me. I have no idea why, as there didn't seem to be any change in our circumstances between my provocation and their declaration." - Did your Fleet or Economic power spike? I've been wondering this myself (although I have yet to hobble myself with Pacifist) as it seems like mid-game some FE's get more aggressive when you start approaching their level. I'm actually super looking forward to testing this theory in my current game as my local FE has for some reason parked one of their fleets in my own system and I plan on jumping them when the first warp storm arrives (build a better mousetrap).

    1. I don't THINK they spiked. I know that with the Archivists I was intentionally trying to keep my Fleet Power from getting too high to make sure they wouldn't become Pathetic. I don't remember now what my relative power level was with Ishni Shard, though. I don't think I ever had any economic spikes in the game, it was a pretty smooth growth curve.

      I'd be curious to see how your own game turns out! I don't think I've seen FEs move outside their own borders in peacetime before, even though they technically can.

  2. Yeah, have no idea what triggered their movement - I'm leaning towards maybe a pirate fleet popped that I didn't notice before the 100k FE fleet erased it? It was already an owned system, and I have neutral relations with them. They have been parked there for a decade, and I'm not gonna complain at the chance to pick them off outside their own system.