Last Night I Played Stellaris

I told myself I wouldn’t. I wasn’t supposed to be spending much money this month (ha!) as I’m going to the London Comic Con at the end of it. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t.

I did.

About two hours before launch.

It’s been a rough month and I really like space.

So, initial impressions: the game is definitely grand strategy. If you don’t like watching numbers go up and down it’s possibly not for you. It’s a bit difficult to get to grips with, and that was with the tutorial helper on (which I recommend if you need it, it’s not too egregious). But it does actually do a decent job of easing you in to the concepts. Once you’ve done all the fun society/species designing stuff it starts out teaching you basics a step at a time and the majority of it ends up in your situation log (sort of a journal) so you can look at it repeatedly if you get lost. There is also an in-game link to the wiki for more help, though I would have appreciated a list of basic controls somewhere too.

And then Stellaris just sort of happens.

You have no objective except whatever you need to achieve for the survival of your colony, and then anything else you want them to do on the side. While you’re caught up in both these tasks the galaxy will continue without you and every now and then you’ll cross paths. Strange gas cloud creatures appear occasionally. They sort of just float on through, not trying to make contact, and then going again just as silently. I had some of my scientists research them for a bit and the conclusion was “we don’t know where they come from or what they want but they’re peaceful” so I decided to leave them to it.

Part of that decision came because I find them sort of soothing and partly because I already had enough people looking for a fight. The system next to mine has a problem with cultists turning up and attacking my ships, though they tend to not be very strong. I’ve defeated a few groups of them and tracked them enough to figure out they come from somewhere much further away, but I’ve not yet got the capability to get there. A more worrying problem are the pirates that have started invading too, they turn up on planets where I have mining facilities and slowly destroy them. I sent a military ship to try and stop them but they’re much stronger and my ship – and its captain – were lost. If I’m to survive, and continue mining the resources I need, I have to spend resources to build more ships. I’m back in a deficit.

Beyond all that on a planet not far from mine there’s another race, a primitive one still in the Feudal era, who I observe and study from a distance, waiting to see if or when they’ll catch up.

And that’s Stellaris.

It’s a game that starts out as numbers and turns into stories. It’s not necessarily a case of battling your way through space, it’s more trying to survive and weather whatever you find – or whatever finds you. It feels oddly real.

There’s another species living in the system next to mine and they don’t like me flying in their territory, limiting my ability to explore. They are wary of me, despite us both being pacifist and having a good introduction. To try and prove my intentions we have a small trade agreement, with a promise of non-aggression and a paltry amount of materials exchanged each month, and slowly they’re warming up. They don’t trust me just because I give them things and I like that. Diplomacy in games can be cheated a bit too often. Give enough presents, flatter them, give them meaningless titles and anyone will love or forgive you. I like being made to play the long haul, of having to prove myself over in-game years by being the kind of species they would want to ally with.

I was worried I would dislike Stellaris because it lacks the human element. I play Crusader Kings II campaigns for hours on end and I have far more fun with the match-making, child rearing and people-influencing side of it than open warfare. But despite having the characters be little more than a profile picture it still has that human touch, only the decisions you make are for an entire species rather than a single individual. I was given the choice to kill those space jellyfish and maybe one day I’ll be technologically advanced enough to understand what they want and maybe they want me dead (and have a weird way of showing it) but I like having them around and I want them to live.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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