Stellaris is the Perfect Hybrid of Grand Strategy and 4X

As I’m sure a lot of you know, I’m a big fan of the 4X game Civilization V. Like, a BIG fan. I’m actually a bit of a Civ drug dealer to Guitarguy, and I’ve been asked on more than one occasion to stop talking about it so much. Despite being such a big fan though, I’ve had major difficulty getting into other popular strategy games, particularly those in the “grand strategy” genre like Europa Universalis IV. That’s why, when I recently learned about the game Stellaris, I was very intrigued.

Launched on May 9 by Paradox Interactive, Stellaris is a mix between the grand strategy of games like Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II and the 4X of Civilization V and Masters of Orion. Though heavier on the 4X side, and considered a 4X game, Stellaris does borrow elements from grand strategy games, including real-time play, large, simulated battles between fleets over individual unit combat, and long-term diplomatic relations between empires. It starts off in the year 2200, when your civilization has discovered FTL travel and moves to colonize the stars. Though there are a handful of civilizations made by the developers, players can create a new race and its beliefs right from the start of the game. This creates a strong role-playing element to the game, players can choose a race’s appearance, what kinds of worlds it can and cannot live on, its attitude toward other races, and how peaceful or militaristic the race is. Each choice has its own benefits and downsides, and will affect how that civilization plays throughout the game. Created races can then be saved to play again, or even played by the AI. Those interested in role-playing can go very far with this, creating a warlike Klingon insider race, or an expansive race based on the UNSC.

Stellaris chase

Throughout the game, players will meet with alien civilizations with whom they will trade, form alliances, and go to war. Considerations will be have to made by the player depending on what civilization they’re dealing with. Xenophobic civilizations for example, will dislike species unlike themselves. War is also more than just who has the bigger army. Ships are highly customizable, and combat often comes down to rock-paper-scissors. If a civilization relies on heavily armoured ships, going against them with energy weapons is a bad idea, and one might have to upgrade their fleet to ballistic weaponry. Another interesting feature of Stellaris is its “late game crises“. Often in 4X games, one player will start to snowball early, and become almost unbeatable by the end of the game. The late game crises feature hopes to change that by creating events that opposing civilizations will have to put aside their differences to stop. One example given is an AI uprising. Should too many free-thinking AI be created throughout the galaxy, they may rise up against their former, and weaker, organic masters. AI are smarter, faster, and deadlier than any being in the galaxy, and without a swift, collective resistance against them, they will win.

One issue with Stellaris is its victory conditions, or lack thereof. Though more will certainly be added down the line, either alone or through expansions, only two exist at launch. Furthermore, both victory conditions are kind of the same, or at least require very similar routes to achieve. The first is the standard military victory, one must either conquer or vassalize every other civilization in the game. The other, though not strictly a military victory, would be difficult to pull off by other means. To win, a civilization must have control over 40% of colonizable worlds in the galaxy. While this may sound a lot less militaristic, it would, in reality, be hard to pull off through means other than force. Every player in the game is trying to settle upon the good parts of the galaxy, and peacefully controlling 40% of it would mean pouring nearly all time and resource into the colonization effort from the very beginning of the game. This of course is extremely difficult; not only will other aspects of an empire suffer, but strategy games have ways of stopping players from settling with impunity. Stellaris is no exception. This of course leads to the need for players to take control of 40% of the galaxy militaristically, thus making both victory conditions very similar. Players are able to take enemies’ planets diplomatically, but it often boils down to “give me this star system or I’ll destroy you”.

Stellaris sentient AI

Stellaris launched on May 9, 2016 to highly positive reviews. It beat Paradox’s previous game, Cities: Skylines, for most simultaneous players on day one with a whopping 68,000. It also holds a 95% favourable rating on Steam. I’ve barely scratched the surface of how the game plays, and the number of features I’ve left out could keep this article going on much longer than anyone would want. Though I have yet to play it, from what I’ve seen Stellaris looks like an outstanding game. Two genres of strategy are blended just right; 4X players will feel right at home with the slower pace and micromanagement, while the large scale will feel familiar to grand strategy players. It does lean more to the 4X side, however both camps should be easily able to grasp the basics of the other side, and have fun doing so. Beyond that, it looks gorgeous. Not only is the galaxy itself beautiful, but the aliens–of which dozens can be chosen–are all detailed and unique. However, even if you meet one you’ve never encountered before, and you will with all the customization available, you can learn a lot about them without ever looking at their species’ belief system. For example, a humanoid species need not worry about a planet they want being settled by a reptilian species, the two are different biologically and can’t live in the same ecosystems. In the end, Stellaris is a brilliant strategy game, and a welcome addition to the genre. If you’re a fan of strategy games, whatever subset that might be, it’s definitely worth a good look.

Have you been playing Stellaris? What do you think of it so far?

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