Stellaris Review: Part 2/2 – Gameplay (video in the pipeline)

Cassius Sonoda

by Cassius Sonoda

YouTuber, blogger, PC hardware seller, and PC gamer.

stellaris_review_part_2_of_2_gameplayFollowing my review 1/2 which looked at the art and sound of the game, I will be considering the gameplay, including aspects of race design, combat, the lack of sub-war/covert options, snowballing, and more.  This and more on the way!  Keep your eyes peeled and subscribe to our YouTube channel for updates!  (Update: I have released a partial transcript ahead of the video release – which will be updated in real time as I work on it – as follows.) 


Race design

Stellaris’ approach to race design is very open-ended and non-prescriptive.  Aside from a few quick-start premades for those in a hurry to get started, Stellaris encourages the player to custom-build their own race by mix-and-matching traits from a pool of traits available to all players.  There are no unique race-associated perks, abilities or units.  Uniqueness derives from the combination of traits chosen by the player.  But there is no sense in which any race holds an absolute monopoly on certain traits.

The fact that Stellaris’s alien races lack unique and fixed traits implications for the game.  This is best understood in contrast to essentialist game design approaches that emphasises races with different, fixed defining attributes, or essences, hence “essentialist”.

For an idea of successful essentialist franchises, one can look to a number of other 4X and RTS titles.  The StarCraft and Red Alert franchises are acclaimed examples of asymmetric balance with memorable races that cater to different playstyles and involve early-versus-late game and quality-versus-quantity trade-offs.  Elsewhere, Civilization of Sid Meier’s fame, has become particularly notable for different playstyles based on a shared civilizational base, but with leaders, units, buildings and abilities that are unique for each civilization.  Generically closer to Stellaris, SoaSE too has distinct asymmetrically balanced races.

Stellaris’ non-essentialist approach to races also hinders possibilities for deeper lore and a backstory which depend on race constants.  In essentialist franchises elsewhere, we see players develop affinities to essentialised races and strongly identify with them, which also helps promote a bit of healthy, competitive tribalism.  This is sorely missing from Stellaris; people simply don’t identify with the premade races of Stellaris to the same extent, as they are nothing more than permutations of traits from a common trait pool.  The lack of fixed race attributes also prevents the emergence of a familiar race-based meta.  With every game, one has to scrutinise and relearn dozens of variables for every player.

My observations about the non-essentialist character of Stellaris is exactly that – just an observation – and not a criticism, as there are plenty of essentialist games out there, so having a non-essentialist alternative mightn’t be a bad thing.  It might come down to personal taste.  I just miss some of the advantages of essentialist games when I’m playing Stellaris.


Core systems cap and sector management

In Stellaris, although there is no limit to the number of planetary systems you can add to your empire, there is a limit to the number that you can have under your direct control, at any given time.  This is referred to as the core systems cap.  The cap is 3 by default, but there are opportunities to increase your cap later in the game.  It is also a soft cap, in the sense that you can exceed it if you really want, but you will incur certain economic penalties if you do.  When you reach the cap, you may choose to avoid the penalties by handing over control of excess systems of your choosing to AI management.  For this purpose, regions of space may be designated as sectors.  They are part of your empire, pay a resource tax to you, and their military production facilities are yours to command.

A reminder here that any time I refer to “system”, I mean of course, planetary systems – as in our sun, surrounded by the 8 planets we’re so familiar with, and more generally, all such systems beyond ours.

So, with respect to Stellaris, why have a core systems cap and AI-managed sectors?  Well, sector management allows the player task load to be managed over the course of the game.  4X, with its heavy preoccupation with multi-tasking and micromanagement, exerts an increasing demand on your attention as your number of planetary holdings grows.  The delegation of systems to AI management is simply an acknowledgement of humanly player limitations.  Personally, I hate being bogged down in the business of micromanagement and I’m rather supportive of it, though a number of other mainstream reviewers expressed negative views about sector management.

For me, AI sector management kind of makes sense because otherwise you’d be overwhelmed and unduly diverted from other fun aspects of the game.  The game is designed so that you can focus on a manageable number of planets, and by the time these are fully matured, you can reclaim previously AI-entrusted planets through government techs and so-called ascension perks, on top of a free core system granted for every 4 planets acquired.

I can relate with the frustration of other reviewers with sector management, as there is no doubt in my mind that the AI manages sectorized planets quite poorly.  But assuming that this systems cap is equally applied to the all other players in the game, it really poses no disadvantage to you.

Also, I don’t believe the sector feature takes away the fun of developing planets entirely.  Note that you can also swap planets in and out of sector management – with an effective strategy being to swap in developed planets for undeveloped ones, and rotate your way through all your planetary holdings until they are all fully developed.

So unlike other reviewers, I tended to view the sector system as a positive.  Unfortunately, there is no quick-access panel for sectorized planets, which I find I need to access regularly for military and spaceport production.  A real nuisance!

However, a workaround I can offer is to set sectorized planets as rally points, and then they would appear in the quick-access panel under the rally points tab.  Granted, it’s not the perfect solution in situations where you don’t want particular sectorized planets to act as rally points.


Combat

As for the combat system, Stellaris limits the amount of player control – once the battle starts, the AI takes over, and ships behave according to their ship type.  The animation plays out in full glory with fireworks and nightclub lasers, but the battle essentially auto-resolves.  Thus, all of the player’s strategic input happens prior to the fight.  Once the battle is under way, the player has some say on whether to fight or take flight, and can trigger an emergency jump if things should go pear-shaped, but the outcome of the battle is very much decided before it even begins, with a lot of it being decided at the time of designing the fleet.

The lack of player engagement in automated battles has earnt Stellaris a reputation for being “bare bones” and “underdeveloped” in this aspect.

However in defence of Stellaris, a lack of depth in the combat system naturally follows from the game’s spread focus on economy and empire development.  Bear in mind, there’s no cutaway scene that puts the rest of the game in suspension while you slug it out with the opposing fleet.  So adding depth to combat could well stretch the player’s attentional resources to the point of breaking the game.

Thus, although some bemoan the lack of control, others fairly point out that Stellaris’ grand strategy designation means it can’t realistically be reworked to take on more layers of combat.

There’s arguably some scope for introducing formations, tactics, and target prioritisation – if not individual management of units.  But as it stands, in Stellaris, the behaviour of ships is fixed according to ship type: corvettes charge and swarm, destroyers intercept, cruisers take a balanced offensive/defensive approach, while battleships hang back and abuse their ranged firepower.  I have mixed feelings about whether the introduction of greater player control over combat would be a good thing.  Stellaris is after all, real-time grand strategy, not some kind of combat simulator.  When combat is running in parallel with your empire’s activities elsewhere, you don’t have the luxury of taking your eyes off the ball for too long.

Ultimately, anyone interested in orchestrating a space battle might be better advised to look to RTS games like SoaSE, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, or Homeworld.  Personally, I don’t mind a hands-off approach to battles for the kind of game that Stellaris is.

On a core combat issue, I wholeheartedly agree with a forum comment I read recently: “it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out why I lost a battle or not”, the comment reads.  I believe this is one of the biggest issues with the combat system in Stellaris.  This issue cannot be overstated because an entire game’s outcome not uncommonly hinges on a single all-in battle between two opposing doomstacks, with so many variables in play that the outcome is often difficult to predict.  Do note, that as a rough indication of fleet strength, absolute fleet power can be misleading because it doesn’t take into account counters and other variables.

What is Stellaris lacking then?  A probabilistic battle forecast could work but would take the military acumen and skill out of combat.  And a highly accurate forecast of the battle outcome makes the battle animation somewhat redundant.  This aspect of redundant battle animations was a real downer for me in the iterations post-Civilization 3.  In Civ 3 and prior, when you were hanging on every tick of the battle, it was exhilarating to watch.  So I’m ambivalent about the introduction of a battle forecast.

The game could use a practice combat simulator where you can pit any custom rig against another custom rig to see how they go toe to toe.  Otherwise, it’s very hard to get a sense of fighting odds and counters in this game.  After many hours of gameplay, I still often misjudge battle odds due to the diversity of variables involved.

This is not an argument against diversity and complexity, but rather the lack of a tool to account for what works best and what critically failed.  It’s difficult to extract lessons based on the myriad of highly varied battles fought throughout the course of a game, because without systematically holding constants, you can’t study the effects of variables.

Other than battle forecasts or simulations, the only other solution to the problem of battle odds is mathematical modelling and academic muscling of the problem.  This level of intellectual exertion lies beyond all but the most hard-core 4X fans.  Better to have a tool that would just allow players to test their fleets.

To be fair, in Stellaris, a real-time battle summary is provided, but it does little to actually help with the accounting of battles.  In my case, after many games, I noticed that I never even bother to look at the damage tracking at the bottom of the battle summary panel.  It all happens too fast, and large numbers in flux are not easy to read; to be honest, percentage-wise and visual expressions of damage stats would be far better than absolute damage and textual information.  Knowing damage alone isn’t helpful.  What would be more informative is the percentage of damage was mitigated by shields and armour, not the absolute damage mitigated by these defences.

I want to know which of my weapons and ships were punching above weight, and which were deadweight?  How was I being countered?  The statistics provided, need to clearly answer these questions with minimal effort on my part.

Onto other combat-related issues in the game.

Intelligence on the makeup of the enemy fleet isn’t always easy to obtain, meaning you can’t always anticipate or have enough time to adaptively upgrade your fleet.  The limited and unreliable options that exist for gathering intelligence on the enemy fleet is one of my personal gripes.

And then there’s the usual issue with doomstacking.  I’m not sure if enough is being done to dissuade it, and to encourage alternative split-fleet strategies.

Furballing is another complaint that’s being doing its rounds in the forums.  Near as I can tell, this refers to the swirling mass of ships that all battles devolve into, without any regard for tactical diversity and divergent manoeuvres.  More diverse and varied tactical behaviour wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Another ship behaviour in Stellaris that is universally questioned is the tendency for ships to autofocus on the mining stations.  Mining stations have negligible damage and divert ships from engaging the enemy fleet.

Fortresses and spaceports fall off hard in the late game, with their cap at ones of thousands of strength, going into 10 to hundred thousand strength fleets.  In other 4X games like Sid Meier’s Civilization, even an intimidating superpower would think twice about taking a well-fortified city of a weaker flag.  In Stellaris, the only time when the balance felt right was in early game, when spaceports and fortresses were most dominant and were enough of a static defence deterrent in their own right without the benefit of the entire empire’s navy present.

Fleet positioning should be something to consider, not just who has the biggest navy.  I loved that in Civilization a weaker unit could on favourable terrain, in a city or fort, hold out stalwartly against a stronger unit.  Stellaris too needs to have other variables that serve as battle modifiers; not just who has the strongest fleet, and static defences need to stay viable into the late game.  Also, maybe planets should be able to bombard hostile forces in orbit.

In Stellaris, the combat system is based on two systems of counter.  Firstly, there is the weapon counter, in which shields counter lasers, armour counters kinetics and point defence counters missiles.  Secondly, there is a basic scissor paper rock to the effect of corvettes beat battleships, destroyers beat corvettes, cruisers beat destroyers and battleships beat cruisers.  The reason why battleships lose to corvettes is not that corvettes are stronger on a one-to-one basis, but rather, on a cost-to-utility basis.  Corvettes are cheap and disposable, and excel at evading slow and cumbersome battleships, such that pound for pound, corvettes come out on top.

Whilst there is some diversity in ship classes, I, like some, do lament the lack of unique and complementary roles, in other words the lack of functionally distinct ships.  All ships can mount mostly the same guns types and there are few unique ship abilities.  I think this comes back a little to the essentialism issue that I spoke of in relation to the alien races of Stellaris.

It is to Stellaris’ credit that some sub-battleship classes have the capacity to carry torpedos while battleships themselves can’t, and that battleships in turn have the unique ability to mount X weapons on their spine and host hangers.  But these are entirely optional and not always available and thus the functional separation of the ships isn’t consistent.

To be fair, Stellaris has going for it a rich modular system for customising ships.  But the range of ship models is limited to 4 naval classes which are generally linear in strength, rather than having truly unique and mutually-exclusive roles.  Granted, roles might be considered based on the behaviours of the ships: with assault, picket, balanced and artillery corresponding to corvettes, destroyers, cruisers and battleships respectively.  However, the linearity still overrides any such behavioural differences because the material progression of HP, cost, strength and size is going to be more noticeable to the player than behavioural differences, especially when the weapon mounts and modules are all the same, and later ships simply have more and bigger slots as their main distinguishing feature.

I won’t say too much on army combat, because it represents probably the most barebones aspect of the game.  Everyone acknowledges that it is a bit of a sideshow really.

That said, the variable unit profiles based around morale and health stats are difficult to take advantage of.  Beyond seeing general losing and winning trends, you don’t really know how individual army stats affected the battle.  Especially with mixed armies, it just becomes an under-the-hood mathematical execution of all the variables.

There isn’t exactly widely circulated meta concerning land warfare in Stellaris, and I’ve only seen one insightful but unvalidated guide to date which I’ll provide as a link in the description.

https://guides.gamepressure.com/stellaris/guide.asp?ID=35415


Lack of sub-war/covert aggression

To cater more to different play styles, I do feel there needs to be alternative paths for aggression other than all-out war.  Usually, in comparable games, espionage fulfils this function.  If espionage poses too much of an attention sink in an already busy game, then privateering could fill in this void.  Privateering could be introduced as an option which enables anonymous sabotage and looting without instigating war.

Both espionage and privateering would provide the perfect remedy for boredom during peaceful lulls in the game.  Privateering also provides an outlet for more pacifistic players to express their naval assets without committing to war.  The introduction of player-controlled privateering would also give under-utilised defence platforms a new lease on life.


Snowballing and the lack of comeback potential

Lack of comeback potential.  The best games have great potential for comebacks; the imaginary leader board is constantly reshuffling and players are oscillating in and out of the lead.  You’d imagine that vassals could cast off their masters, and small civs could overtake large ones, given the time.  4X as a genre suffers from what I call the snowballers and stragglers problem, with large civs becoming unstoppable while stragglers may as well forfeit because they have zero chance of catching up.  Snowballing follows from the accruing of advantages, which then becomes a basis for a feedback loop that fuels runaway superpowers.

Not only does snowballing make the stragglers want to quit, but sometimes, it makes the snowballers want to quit too, because their victory is assured, taking the fun and purpose out of staying in the game.

Stellaris is quite prone to snowballing, and once you fall behind, it’s very hard, if not impossible, to catch up.  No forms of counter-pressure are available to trailing civs.  Consider the hypothetical possibility that snowballing super powers could incur a global distrust penalty as the price to pay for taking the leading position.  At the same time a slight positive diplomatic effect would be experienced among smaller nations which causes these them to band together against the greater threat.  But this doesn’t solve the problem in multiplayer mode where players’ attitudes are not defined by game code.

Perhaps the, incentives to band together against larger super powers could be provided.  Maybe someone could poke holes in that solution, but hey, I just thought that up off the cuff for the sake of illustration.  Whatever the case, a solution is needed.  A kind of power equilibrium and power checks are needed, for Stellaris and the genre, to break free of the snowball predicament.

To properly address some of the solutions to snowballing we’d have to get into game design theory, which lies considerably beyond the scope of this review, and could be the subject of a whole ‘nother video.  I’d simply point interested viewers to a couple of excellent game design articles that discuss several possible solutions to the anathema of snowballing; link in the description.

  1. http://www.big-game-theory.com/2015/02/the-snowball-and-steamroller.html
  2. https://gamedevelopment.tutsplus.com/articles/the-snowball-effect-and-how-to-avoid-it-in-game-design–cms-21892

The solution is not simple because game designers need to come up with a way to keep stragglers in the game without it feeling like cheating, or punishing leaders for playing well.  In summary, nobody should be wanting to quit the game prematurely on account of snowballers.  There needs to be more bounce-back potential, in Stellaris and in 4X gaming more generally.

As an afterthought, there there should still be a measured tendency to snowball to reward better players.  The best game I can think of that strikes the best balance between snowballing and comeback potential is one completely removed from 4X gaming, namely, League of Legends, which is a MOBA game.  While snowballing can no doubt be brutal in that game, the solution for the losing team is to stall out the game as there is an imminent power ceiling, a point at which the leader can no longer grow stronger but the trailing team can.  Further, the scaling of champions differs, with early versus late-game champions, which gives the player another basis to make a comeback with dormant powerful late-game champs.  The game also punishes the leader for making mistakes, and there is so much scope for picks-offs and strategic plays to turn the game around generally.

Some snowballing is actually not so bad as long as there are realistic and reasonable avenues to pull off a comeback.


Transcript in progress – stay tuned – more on the way…

Update: There was a bit of a problem – I was interrupted by other imperatives in life – and Stellaris has undergone fundamental re-patches since I wrote the transcript for the intended video and that has obsoleted a lot of the things I said or wanted to say. That being the case, there’s no point in progressing this to a video. So I have left the transcript up as an archival article but a lot has changed about Stellaris, for example the overhaul of the spaceports/ship building facilities when the original system was going to be one of my talking points. As annoying as it is to have your articles and videos obsoleted, it’s actually it’s great to have such an evolving and alive game. Truly value for money and not left for the dead by developers ce you’ve made your one-off payment for the game.

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