Stellaris Cherryh Review
I love it.
All of the changes work together incredibly well, for the most part. There has been a lot of thought put into how the various departures from pre-2.0 war will work with each other and reinforce the goal of making war in Stellaris more fun and more engaging. One can actually think about strategy in war, now, which makes preparation worthwhile and surprise attacks more agonising.
Death of the Doomstack
Having played a few games through now, I definitely find myself fielding multiple fleets. Sometimes I choose to move all these fleets together, emulating the doomstack. I’m glad I’m still able to do this – which the devs might have avoided by, say, placing a limit on the number of ships that can be placed in a single system – because it is occasionally useful, but it’s no longer the only tactic.
I find myself moving my fleets together to bulldoze a particularly well-defended choke-point or engage a particularly large enemy fleet. But this is no way to continue the war. If you choose to keep your fleets together like this, you’ll soon find yourself on the losing side of a war as the enemy’s multiple fleets start capturing Outposts, thereby crippling your economy and driving your War Exhaustion up. You won’t be able to keep up.
Favouring the Little Man
Some of the new mechanics – like Status Quo, beefy Starbases, Force Combat Disparity Bonus, and Command Limit – mean that it’s harder than it used to be to “snowball”. Snowballing refers to the phenomenon whereby an already-powerful empire is able to grow more-and-more rapidly using an exponentially-increasing power gap between themselves and their neighbours.
I explored a scenario above where an ostensibly weaker, more peaceful empire was able to rebuff a superior aggressor through intelligent use of the game mechanics. I love that this is now possible.
One feature that wasn’t mentioned in the feature exposition above was Casus Belli. This brings Stellaris into line with the other Paradox titles – such as Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV – where you can only declare war if you have a good reason.
There are still empire builds that can indiscriminately declare war on their neighbours, but most will find some restriction on this, introducing a hard barrier on snowballing. A small, peaceful, well-behaved empire may find that no neighbouring empires find a good reason to attack them, and may quietly widen their research advantage into the late game.
There have been quite a lot of changes to which resources are used to pay for which things, and whether or not there is maintenance associated with it. As a reminder, there are five “stockpileable” resources:
In addition, you generate Physics, Society, and Engineering Research, but if there’s no ongoing research projects, these go to waste.
Stellaris Cherryh sees resources swapped. For example, leaders now cost energy to hire instead of Influence. Outposts have a fixed Mineral and Influence cost instead of an Influence upkeep. Campaigns are empire-wide Edicts that have a flat Energy cost. The normal empire-wide Edicts have a flat Influence cost instead of a monthly upkeep.
All of the changes have done an excellent job of making the various resources more useful. Minerals are still king, but not quite to the extent that they used to be. Energy is far more important than it used to be, and an Energy-focussed economy might be feasible in some interesting play styles.
An empire with a high rate of Influence generation will find they’re able to expand quickly because they can afford more Outposts. Unity is no longer wasted after filling out the Tradition trees because it can be used on powerful Ambitions (in Apocalypse only).
This all results in a bit more of a balancing act and makes different empire builds more viable. I’ve found that my economy is slower to wind-up in the early game, but this could just be because I’m not used to the differences yet. I’ve got some learning and optimisation to do.
Quality of Life
Keeping your empire in check is now much easier with a number of quality of life changes. Not least of these is the Fleet Manager, which allows you to define an ideal, full-strength fleet composition, and order additional ships to be built with one click of a button. The built ships will then automatically travel to the fleet and merge.
The Fleet Manager ostensibly makes it easy to make sure your fleet is at maximum strength before, during, and after a war. I’ve found it most useful during a war to make sure my fleet strength wasn’t continuously dwindling due to minor engagements.
It’s not perfect, though. There are a number of values – which may be displayed in different colours – that don’t have an obvious meaning to me (and there’s no mouse-over hint). The manager also distinguishes between ships of different levels of experience (a new concept in Stellaris), so you might have, for example, five battleships of a particular model in your fleet that are experienced. You might have defined the fleet to have five battleships at max strength, but the Fleet Manager would believe you have zero because it’s looking for inexperienced ships. When you click the button to reinforce your fleet, it would order five more battleships unnecessarily.
This issue unfortunately makes the Fleet Manager useless when it’s most needed – in the late game, when you’re fielding multiple fleets that have made it through several wars.
There are other improvements dotted about the UI, such as icons in the outliner which indicate whether a planet has a building that can be upgraded, whether there is an unoccupied building, whether population growth is limited by tile blockers etc. This makes it much easier to jump between planets and optimise your management time.
Unity and Tech Scaling, and Pirates
Tech and Unity costs now scale according to the number of owned planets and systems and totally disregards pops. The scaling formula is such that it’s beneficial to either own many planets and few systems, or many systems and few planets.
Following the reasoning through, you end up in odd situations where you may actively wish to donate “bad” systems to allies and/or vassals in order to improve your rate of technological progress or reduce the cost of new Traditions.
Pirates now behave differently in that they are a nuisance throughout the game. They spawn in unowned systems on the border of your empire and are more likely to spawn the more owned systems are adjacent to the unowned one.
This means that leaving empty systems dotted around your empire because they’re resource poor (and thus not worth the increased tech and Unity cost) will bite you later as you must dedicate fleets to clearing out the pirate menace.
I’m not sure I enjoy the interaction of these two systems. They feel too much like unnecessary work and force the player into a pattern of behaviour that isn’t fun. Perhaps the scaling formula still needs adjustment, or perhaps pirates should stop appearing after a certain point in the game?