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Less Than Stellar

Paradox Interactive's best effort was probably Crusader Kings 2, a game in which you can choose to become the guiding hand behind an entire lineage of ruling class in the European theater, plucked right out of the history books to create your own alternate timeline.  It is a unique kind of game where advancing your dynasty is as much about marrying off your children to the right people and general skullduggery as it is standing armies and invasions.   Crusader Kings 2 is an unprecedented medieval politics simulator.
Paradox Interactive would seem to understand that 4X games are basically engines for elaborate storytelling (just as I have noticed years ago).  So their latest release, Stellaris, would seem to have the potential to take that same narrative-rich 4X games talent and frame it to encompass an entire galaxy.  Crusader Kings 2, in space?!  Sign me right up!

Well, having just put 28 hours into my first game of Stellaris, I find that this is mostly a remarkably lackluster entry into the 4X space game genre with only a dash of interesting new mechanics borrowed from Crusader Kings 2.  The entire concept of there being families has been removed, as has most of the skullduggery.  What we're left with feels lacking, and I sorely miss the more advanced features to be found in the better-received entries in the saturated 4X space game genre.
Stellaris can be pretty when zoomed in close to your ships like this... but there's no practical gameplay reason to do so.
What I miss the most are better combat mechanics.  In Stellaris, your involvement largely ends in the preliminary phase, building your ships to have a rock, paper, scissor advantage and then sending them to battle at the right time and right place.  After combat has begun, all you can do is order them to retreat.  In this way, combat has none of the satisfaction from Sins of a Solar Empire, Space Empires, or Sword of the StarsWhere many 4X space games are about the ship design and the combat, Stellaris simply isn't, and I feel spoiled for the choice of better alternatives.  Maybe I'm just a combat kind of guy?

The strength of Stellaris is in its interstellar political simulation.  Contrary to what you might be thinking, this is not because of the diplomacy between different space empires, which actually pretty bare bones in Stellaris (there's not even in espionage).  Instead, this strength is evident due to mechanics somewhat unique to Paradox Interactive games also being in Stellaris:
  • There's such a thing as empires becoming "vassals" for other empires, meaning they maintain their autonomy but must cooperate during their "overlord" empire's wars.  After a significant amount of time passes, these vassal empires can be integrated into their overlord's empire.
  • Wars must be declared to accomplish specific goals (liberating planets, ceding planets, or making vassals of the other empire) and this is not only more realistic, but also makes conquest more interesting by introducing an essential political element. 
  • As your empire grows larger, it stops being a battle against other empires and more of a battle against your own.  Unhappiness and deviations of ethical ideology can cause your population to rise up and your empire to schism!
  • There's a great deal of support for ideologies (6 kinds) and political systems (15 government types which can be further expanded with research).  Will you run a materialistic democratic utopia or a collectivist autocractic star empire?  The choice is yours.
In these ways and others, the unique political features of Stellaris breathe new life into a stale genre.
The most interesting part of Stellaris is the politics.  However, they do not look all that interesting, neither in game nor on paper.
Unfortunately, these new features are undermined by balancing issues, the sector mechanic, and befuddled opponent AI.
  • I had no problem preventing schisms in my empire as long as I made sure my population's happiness score was reasonably high.  This is easily accomplished by avoiding colonizing hostile environments and producing a few happiness-enhancing structures.
  • You are only able to run a few of the planets you own directly, turning the rest over to the sector mechanic: you designate a number of planets as part of a sector and now that part of your empire runs itself.  However, in Crusader Kings 2, there is no sector mechanic.  Instead, you accomplish this by putting vassals in charge, and so keeping your vassals pleased and loyal is part of the game.  Stellaris would have been a lot more interesting without the sector mechanic.
  • What is going on with the NPC empire AI?  In my first game, most of them just sat around and did nothing, not even expand.  The ones that ended up being a threat seemed to have no problem with ordering defenseless ships into the line of fire; the AI seems to have no concept of the consequences of moving its own fleet and does a poor job defending its assets, usually not even bothering to build defensive stations.  The AI could steamroll you in pure numbers of ships if they have them, but so could any idiot.  In wartime, your vassals basically just follow your fleets around to make a doomstack, very practical for the initial invasion and confrontation of the enemy doomstack, but counterproductive when it comes time to occupy multiple planets to force a victory.
Towards the end of my 28-hours of play on my first empire, I found myself really annoyed at the building mechanic for the colonies.
Get used to looking at your planets' tiles, as here where most of the busywork is.
I would like to just build all the buildings on all the planets' tiles, but I can't because there's insufficient population at first.  Sometimes immigration brings extra population at unexpected times, so I am now behind on building.  Sometimes emmigration sends population to other planets at unexpected times, so I am now ahead on buildings and short on population.  I could just turn over all my new colonies to the sector mechanic, keeping the best and already developed planets to my own control, but I have little reason to trust the AI to get a colony off the ground.
With the Xaplo Empire as allies, the Diminutive Equini Collective has little reason to worry about dominating this galaxy, but even less reason to consider doing so an accomplishment.
In the end, Stellaris is a functional game framework with an interesting politics system, but it needs a lot of enhancements and expansions to really bring in line with what a space 4X game should be.  Considering that many Paradox Interactive games have been released in worse shape than this, perhaps that's simply to be expected.  It may well be Crusader Kings 2 in space, but we'll have to wait a year for that to happen.  Until then, if 4X space exploration/diplomacy without the combat emphasis is your goal, might as well play Galactic Civilizations II or Endless Space.


Vetarnias said…
4,096 characters at most? Okay, I'll have to split this.

Given Paradox's treatment of Crusader Kings II, I'd expect a string of expansions that are going to significantly alter the game. And if turns out like CKII, you'd end up paying close to $200 (if not more) for a game more interested in adding new stuff for its own sake than integrating it into a cohesive whole.

Don't get me started on CKII. As of writing, the last expansion I bought was Charlemagne, three or four expansions ago, which brought the earliest starting date to 769, when in the vanilla game it was 1066.

Then they added the necessity to reform pagan religions to do anything interesting with them, when the AI is usually too dumb to expand with a desire to acquire holy sites. More often than not, what I've seen happen is for a country to expand large enough to include maybe three, sometimes even four holy sites. But either the ruler doesn't have enough piety to reform the religion, or the religion isn't at 50 strength, but meanwhile the ruler decides to create, just for prestige, all the kingdom titles he can. Then he dies, and poof, gavelkind kicks in and the two brothers end up with their own kingdom. (This was the situation in my last game, where Lithuania invaded Pomerania and appeared to be in a good position to reform the Romuva religion, but then the Lithuanian ruler died and the two kingdoms split. Only one further Lithuanian ruler managed, briefly, to reunite them again.)

I've given up trying to figure out how the AI splits territories among itself. For instance, in the same game as above, the Germanic religion was reformed by AI Sweden, which is something I was glad for, because I don't like to influence the game too much. I was an independent Norwegian count and had successfully invaded Scotland to get away from Scandinavia. Sweden managed to hold the Swedish and Norwegian holy sites, plus captured Brunswick I'm not sure how, while Denmark had conquered the fifth site in Frisia. Anyway, after reforming the religion, the Swedish king died, and his lands were split between kings of Sweden, Norway and Finland. For some reason, the Fylkirate ended up with the king of Finland, who only held three counties: one in Estonia, one in Bjarmia, and one half of Iceland. The Estonian one was lost to Lithuania, the Bjarmian one to Sweden, and the king of Norway finished it off by going after its de jure county in Iceland, in effect killing off the Fylkirate itself. Then Saxony retrieved Brunswick; France invaded Frisia, Denmark converted to Catholicism, and three-quarters of Norway and Sweden, including the two remaining holy sites, fell to an Old Germanic revolt. There's bad luck, and then there's AI incompetence.
Vetarnias said…
Then Paradox added India without nobody even asking for it, and now a common complaint is that India is completely off the main European dynamic (the whole, you know, Crusades stuff) and condemned to do its own thing, with no possibility of expanding eastward. (Ideally, the map should be extended to include China and Japan, but it's already running at a crawling pace.)

See the Pope call for a crusade for Jerusalem that turns out to be successful, only for the Kingdom of Jerusalem to fall ten years later, to the complete indifference of that same Christendom. Repeat every thirty years or so.

It's also that it gets boring after a while. Build a county into an invincible blob. Or begin as a count in an existing blob and take over. My modest king of Scotland later became emperor of Britannia, in addition to (thanks to over-zealous vassals) Frisia, Saxony and Pomerania, while France completely fell to the Umayyads. Now the Umayyads declared war on me. It's their 40,000 troops against my 40,000 troops. Sounds epic, right?

Yet I've stopped there. I don't know who'll win, but either way, it's just going to get boring. It's not fun. The fun is in the struggle; when things become like this, should I win or lose this particular war, the game is reduced to just crushing the usual rebellion whenever a new ruler ascends the throne, to which you'll respond in the same way: strip a few titles to give to your kids, whose descendants will revolt so that your grandson can strip them of their titles to give them to his own kids, rinse and repeat until you reach The End, having wasted a few dozen hours in the process.

I think I prefer Victoria II, a game with numerous flaws of its own (I don't quite see the fun of playing as, say, France or Britain, starting as a Great Power just to finish as Great Power unless I really screwed up), but which at least limited the expansion for expansion's sake to mostly colonial expansion. It's still possible to play a mostly peaceful game, which isn't quite the case with CKII, unless you want to stab everyone ahead of you in the line of succession (which isn't my idea of peaceful anyway).
geldonyetich said…
Interesting stuff, I'd say you've been dealing more with Paradox's oddness with CK2 than I have. And I agree that what Paradox calls combat get monotonous with its overall lack of control or involvement. It's just death stacks on death stacks, whosoever lands their death stack in the right place at the right time wins. Maybe, for some, that would suffice.
Vetarnias said…
It's not so much oddities than the fact I tend to go back to certain games after breaks of 6 months or a year. In the case of CKII, whenever I return, I find they made changes for no other reason than to make changes. For example, I'd swear that Gotland didn't have a land link to mainland Sweden until recently. Before that, you just laughed on the island as the de jure duke tried to invade you without actually having any ships. Now, you're dealt with within a year.

Or how they added mechanics to found merchant republics, then modified them for no real reason. For example. I liked to make a merchant republic out of the Canarias. To do that, you just had to build all the stages of towns, convert to some reformed religion (or wait for Mali to bother reforming the West African religion, which would never happen anyway), then click on the option to found a republic. Now, it requires you to have a duke-level title, meaning the duchy of Marrakech, which is harder to defend (especially if you don't go for Sunni Islam, exposing you to holy wars all the time).

At this point, I don't even bother with merchant republics, after an incident where I played one out of Bjarmia. I like merchant republics, because it offers opportunities to step back from power on occasion, when it gets tiresome. Plus the vassals could do their own thing anyway. But what happened here was that the other great families/Grand Mayors decided to grab some territory inland, then annexed Karelia. Finally, another Grand Mayor decided to form the Kingdom of Perm. The capital moved inland; then a family with no coastal holdings took power. The entire merchant republic was instantly disbanded; I was still a mayor, but all the trading posts and such were gone.

At any rate, I found the trading post system underwhelming anyway, because for some reason Paradox has this tendency to unlearn in some games what it learned in others. Victoria II and Europa Universalis have trade goods; CKII hasn't. (Something else: lack of ship combat.) Outside of the recent addition of the silk road, which I haven't tried (it probably requires an expansion I don't have), all provinces -- except those directly connected to the capital -- are worth similar trade values. Why build a trading post at the other end of the map when the same price can build five of similar value the next zone over?

Perhaps I get this game all wrong: I see it more as a management game than as a military game, which is why the foibles of the merchant republic system annoy me. One of my favorite games is still the old Patrician III, in which you play a merchant in the German Hansa. (I know there's a Patrician IV, but it's inferior.) You could always look it up: I know Steam has it, and it's cheap especially when on sale, but it absolutely requires a 4:3 monitor to play.) Once you become mayor of your hometown, you can be invited to found new settlements. Once you've become leader of the Hansa, though, there's no real endgame, but it's a fun game if you want to build a commercial empire.
geldonyetich said…
It's too bad they dropped the ball on Patrician IV, as I don't really have a 4:3 monitor anymore. Maybe I can find a good Let's Play on it to learn what I need about its sandbox appeal.
Vetarnias said…
On the Patrician franchise: the original came out in the 1990s, if I remember. Patrician II came out in 2000. The original German game never had a Patrician III - they came out with an expansion to the second game, which was then packaged in English as Patrician III. A few years later -- and it's getting to be a familiar story in games development -- the original studio, Ascaron, went out of business due to the costs associated with their last game ("Sacred 2", which I never heard of). Kalypso Media then bought the rights to some of Ascaron's franchises, including Patrician and Port Royale, and set up a studio with a few old Ascaron employees to develop sequels -- Patrician IV, Port Royale III, Rise of Venice.

The differences between Patrician III and IV are subtle, but in some ways it's a regression. One of the more idiotic reviews of Patrician IV (and there weren't that many) was the one at PC Gamer complaining that it was "more yawn than yarr, sadly" -- as if you played this hoping for some kind of pirate adventure. (While there is some ship combat, it's really one of the least important and most superficial aspects of the game.) This is a management game. And sadly, the new studio set up by Kalypso streamlined a lot of the in-game micromanagement, instead of realizing that its core audience played for the management aspect.

(For that matter, many Steam users say the game won't run under Windows 8.1 or Windows 10. It runs fine on Windows 7, which I'm still using in spite of all Microsoft's annoying reminders to upgrade.)

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