Thoughts on Stellaris and game design

It’s been out now for about two weeks, but this is the first chance I’ve had to write about Stellaris, the space 4X/grand strategy developed by Paradox Development Studios. If you haven’t played a PDS game yet, Stellaris is very accessible, more so than almost any other game PDS has ever done (Crusader Kings II is the possible exception). It’s, overall, an excellent compromise between complex systems and presenting those systems in a logical way. The basic premise is that you control a race of your choosing (which includes species and all manner of personality traits) and explore the galaxy, sometimes fighting, sometimes sciencing, sometimes discussing trade.

It’s extremely polished and relatively bug-free. I had one persistent error that had an easy workaround (play the game in windowed mode) and has since been hotfixed. The next two Stellaris patches, codenamed Clarke and Asimov, are going to address some balancing issues, add meat to the mid-game, and generally improve the UI.

The mid-game is currently Stellaris’s greatest weakness. There’s tons to do in the early game and the end game, but not in the middle. I was glad to hear about end game work, which is persistently a weakness of PDS games (depending on your play style), but the mid game just doesn’t have a lot to do. I’m at a point where I’m waiting to develop new technology so I can keep expanding my interstellar empire, but my management is mostly negligible. I’m thriving and have hit my colonization limit. The only power in the game that could threaten me is my ally (and the Fallen Empires, which are very scary but thankfully very far away). There’s tons of space to expand to (pun definitely intended) but said expansion has slowed to a crawl because I can’t directly colonize and accumulating influence enough to build frontier stations is a matter of watching the clock tick.

Influence is the game mechanic that I find most frustrating. It’s almost always in short supply, yet there’s little a player can do to increase the amount (and a lot you can do to decrease it). You just get your drip of four or five points a month (a frontier station is 200 points, so that’s over four years to get a new one, roughly 20 minutes to a half hour real time). Other PDS games have mechanics like this, such as EUIV, but there’s still tons to do in those games. There are three such “buckets” (if you will) in EUIV, but they’re staggered, and there’s more you can do to increase the drip. Not so in Stellaris.

I understand the desire to reduce blobbing (where one empire or another gets too big), and hopefully future patches will flesh out the mid game, but for now, while I do like Stellaris, it’s currently partially shelved. For those curious, I’m on an adventure game kick, currently playing through Broken Age on PS4, after getting a platinum trophy in GTA 3 and dabbling in Vice City.

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