Out of all the grand strategy games I’ve tried I’ve found Stellaris to be the easiest to learn and play. Stellaris is a real-time grand strategy game that can be paused and is set in the vastness of outer space. A grand strategy game is simply a strategy game on steroids. In other words, where a typical strategy game ends a grand strategy tends to delve into an area more deeply, like economic management.
Stellaris showcases aspects like the origins of your empire, espionage, first contacts of alien races, a Galactic Community, detailed trade negotiations, Megastructures, Federations, Traditions, Ascension Perks and numerous DLCs and mods to make it a very enjoyable game that will be playable into the foreseeable future.
The game has a lot of depth, diversity, and the type of uncertainty that makes it interesting and fun, even without any of the DLCs. Research doesn’t follow any set pattern but is randomly generated, although the game won’t skip tiers of research. The interesting part is that you can influence what type of research is offered next. If you have a research scientist who specializes in Rocketry, then items in that field are more likely to be offered.
Many of the Stellaris features have evolved over time and are included in this review. While the basics for almost any system are included for free in the game with updates and patches, this review includes all the DLCs and expansions as well.
Setting up a game
I like to begin almost all reviews by starting with the game set up menu since this process, by itself, can add a lot of flexibility and playability to a game. There are only two screens to go through when start a game of Stellaris. At the first screen you select the empire you want to play and at the second screen you choose the game details. You can accept the defaults at both screens and start a game in a matter of seconds, but the game does remember any previous settings and uses those for a new game.
You can also edit your selected empire, some of those affect the gameplay itself while others are more for cosmetic and role-playing details. At the first screen you can edit your species appearance and name, government type and ethics, just to name a few.
At the game details screen you can set the game difficulty, galaxy size and shape, victory year and how many opponents you have in the game along with a lot of other options. When you like your settings just click start.
Before I get completely away from the game set up, I want to mention something new this game has and that’s Origins. If you have all the DLCs then there will be 27 to choose from. An origin adds a little background story to your empire plus it can give an empire some bonuses and potentially some drawbacks. Choosing Prosperous Unification at the start of the game gives an empire an additional 4 pops and 2 districts. You can also start the game as a vassal to a Fallen Empire or, if you have the Aquatics species pack, you can choose to have a Space Dragon in your home system, for better or for worse.
When Stellaris was first released you gained a lot of information about an empire after you established communications with it, like the empire’s boundaries. A fog of war has now been introduced and, unless you have some type of treaty with them, you’ll need to spy on them.
Espionage was a weak area in Stellaris when the game first launched. Now there is a User Interface tab for it plus a whole new espionage system. It provides another use for your envoys and that’s assigning them to become a spymaster in a chosen empire. A Spy can recruit assets from the empire they are spying on and, when the infiltration level is high enough, launch operations that can steal technology or activate a crisis beacon to attract an end game crisis to that empire, just in case you don’t want to be buddies with them anymore.
In the latest version of Stellaris you have a lot of options for making a deal with another empire so they will become your vassal, but you at least need to have neutral relations with them, or they won’t accept it. You can offer them voting rights or allow them to conduct their own diplomacy and offer to help out whenever they are involved in a war, either a defensive war, offensive war, or both. The better your relations with them the less you need to offer. If you have bad relations, maybe due to a recent war, assigning an Envoy to improve relations will help.
Three branches of technology can be researched at the same time, Physics, Society and Engineering. Each Scientist has a unique field of expertise and the more that matches what they are researching the more research bonuses an empire gets. Hovering the cursor over the research progress icon gives you a breakdown of where your bonuses are coming from, including any research bonus you scientist is adding.
There is no research tree in Stellaris. When a project is completed, you’ll typically be given three choices, sometimes more depending on what modifiers are in effect. The next time you’re presented with options they may not include any of the previous choices that were available, so don’t count on researching something next time just because it was available the last time.
There is a padlock icon on some of the research options indicating that it will open up future improvements for that item but other than that there is no option for planning out future research items.
As your empire explores, it will discover all kinds of resources, some that are common, like energy and minerals, and some that are rare and might not be unusable until you’ve done the right research, like exotic gases that are used for advanced weaponry on your ships. Food is the only thing you can’t harvest in space unless you install a hydroponic bay on a starbase. Food is mainly produced on planets, and like all things in Stellaris, some planets are better suited for food production than others.
The Galactic Community is essentially the UN in space. You can assign Envoys to improve your diplomatic stature, giving you more diplomatic influence when it comes to voting. You can see how much diplomatic strength you have in the Galactic Community in the member section of the Community screen.
The Senate Floor shows you what resolution is currently on the floor if it is in session and who supports it and who opposes it. You can also get a breakdown of what the effects are if the resolution passes. What’s good for others may not bode so well for you.
The Resolutions tab gives you a list of proposals to choose from. Clicking on one expands it, giving you an idea of how much support there is for the resolution if you propose it.
If the Galactic Council has been active for a while, you can see a list of proposals coming up for voting, who supports it and who opposes it and what the ramifications are if it passes. You can also click on the Galactic Modifiers icon to see a list of what resolutions are in effect and what affects they’re having on your empire.
Federations are alliances between empires. If you have the Federations DLC there are several types to choose from, Galactic Union, Trade League, Research Cooperative, Martial Alliance and Hegemony, each with its own special benefits and restrictions.
You select an empire that’s willing to join your federation, select the federation type and send the proposal to them. They will quickly acknowledge your invitation and will probably join if there was a green check mark on the invitation icon, which creates your new Federation. New empires can be invited to join as your Federation evolves.
Each Federation has five levels in can progress through concerning cohesion, the more cohesive a Federation is the more levels in can achieve. If things go badly and cohesiveness lowers, the Federation can actually drop down a level.
Assigning Envoys to improve cohesion is another job your Envoys can do.
One cool feature Stellaris has is Mega Structures and one of the best ones, in my opinion, is the Mega Shipyard. Mega Structures are unlocked by researching the rare technologies related to them but some of these technologies, like Matter Decompressors, are not available unless the Galactic Wonders Ascension perk is chosen.
When a Mega Shipyard is fully constructed it provides an amazing empire-wide 100% increase in ship building speed. It also has 20 shipyards, meaning 20 ships can be built at the same time, a fantastic resource for reinforcing deplenished fleets at a battlefront. Coupling a Mega Shipyard with a strategically placed Gateway network means reinforcements can be quickly built and sent to the battlefront in a matter of days. One of the best investments an empire can make in my opinion.
Becoming the Crisis
There are a ton of options and paths you can take in Stellaris and one of those is to become the End Game Crisis rather than fight it. Once the Become the Crisis Ascension Perk is chosen, you’ll be issued special projects in the Situation Log. Once the final special project is finished you will become the crisis and everyone in the Galactic Community will declare war on you and you’ll be kicked out of the Galactic Community, so be prepared.
That’s only one of a myriad of possible paths you can take in Stellaris, I’ve played the Become the Crisis scenario and I loved it.
Winning a Game of Stellaris
The only way you can really ever win a game is by totally eliminating the opposition, either through force or diplomatic means. During the game set up you can set the mid-game, end game and victory years which trigger certain events, but you can play past the victory year until you achieve total domination.
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There is a victory score that will declare which empire won when the victory years arrives. The victory score includes factors like economic strength, technology level, how many systems and colonies you own, the number of relics recovered, plus 10% of the score from everyone who is a member of your federation. Although military strength is not a direct factor it does affect how many colonies you can capture and maintain control over, so military strength and winning wars is still a big factor in winning.