For many people, Paradox Development Studio’s games are that nut that refuses to crack. You can go to Twitch or YouTube and find endless videos of people streaming games like Victoria II or Hearts of Iron III and see people entrenched in these amazing stories of warfare and political intrigue, yet playing the games for yourself never seems to turn out that way. Paradox games are infamous for their deep and layered systems that scare new players who get intimidated by so many mechanics without a sufficient tutorial to guide the way. The studio has seen more success with its recent games, Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II, but the steep learning curve critique remained. That’s likely what led to many of the design decisions of their newest game Stellaris, a grand strategy game set in space. Stellaris ditches the overbearing historical baggage of Paradox’s past work and with it goes a lot of the depth of those games, but as a result the studio has succeeded in making their most approachable game yet.
In Stellaris you rule over an intergalactic space empire with ambitions to rule the universe. At the start of the game you select which race you want to play. This is a great way for Paradox to hit you with an immense amount of information that you don’t understand. Each race lists a tremendous amount of information about itself. There are different traits per race, as well as preferred planet types. Each government has different types of elections, in addition to ruling ethics that shape the way their society is formed. There’s also a variance on how each empire’s ships are designed, whether they use warp, hyperlane, or wormhole travel, and if they use kinetic, laser, or missile weapons. All of this is very overbearing so it’s best to just pick a random one and dive in.
As it turns out, which race your pick first doesn’t actually matter because failing at Stellaris is the most fun you’ll have with the game. Whereas games like Crusader Kings II suffered from frustrating questions like “How does trade work?” Stellaris exclusively deals in questions such as “What’s the best way to stop this robot uprising?” Stellaris’ user interface is easy to grasp, and whatever concepts you don’t understand are easily explained by an advisor who can quickly explain it to you (or you can turn them off). You’re always tackling the challenge of the game, as opposed to struggling to decipher the user interface. Tumbling down the rabbit hole of discovering what each system in Stellaris does is how you’ll spend most of your time with the game. Almost all of your playthroughs will end with you losing or choosing to start over because you know you can do better.
Once you get a handle on the systems, the real marvel of the game starts to shine. For example, when defeating an enemy empire in war, you take their planets. This will grant you a new planet, more resources, and more population… but that population is a completely different race than yours. This newly conquered race doesn’t necessarily want to be conquered by you, so what can you do? Well, lots of things. You can relocate all the new denizens to your current planets and integrate them slowly. Or you could pass an edict on your newly acquired planet and hail it as a “land of opportunity,” which would cause your own race to flock to it and speed up integration. Or you could open the “Factions” panel and bribe the Separatists faction and hope they stop spreading propaganda that seeds unhappiness. Or you could create a vassal state of this new planet and not worry about it. Or you could pass a Xeno Leaders resolution, elect a governor to the planet who’s the same race as those new denizens which would massively increase happiness. Or hey, you could also enslave all of them. Or better yet, why not just “purge,” them all, which is Stellaris’ nice way of saying “commit genocide.” Yes, in Stellaris you can totally be a Space Nazi.
There’s a huge amount of options available for each scenario and depending on how you want to rule your empire there’s different approaches to take. These playstyles are encouraged by the various systems in the game. For example, those ethics and governments? If you want to be a Space Nazi, you can select “Fanatic Militarist,” and “Xenophobe,” which will increase your army’s effectiveness, and your tolerance for slavery/purge. In addition to that, you can select the trait “Decadent,” which will reduce your race’s happiness unless they’re ruling over slaves. On the other end of the spectrum, you can also select the ethics “Pacifist,” and “Xenophile,” which will increase the number of embassies you can maintain with other empires, and lower the amount of food your race consumes per population. These ethics directly affect what type of government each empire has, which drastically affects the AI behavior of the various empires you encounter across the stars.
Although these playstyles seem to be encouraged through the mechanics, the victory conditions of the game send a clear message: domination or bust. The only two ways to “win” at Stellaris are by ruling over all the other empires, or by colonizing 40% of the planets in the universe. Both victory conditions are insurmountable, so it may be that “winning” the game isn’t exactly the point (previous Paradox games did not have “victory conditions”), but the game reaches a stand still after a few hours. Once you expand your borders to their limit, and research everything possible, you get to the point where you either have to start blowing people up or start over again. If you rolled as a Military Dictator this might sound awesome, but there are a variety of playstyles that are specifically punished for declaring war or for being in wars at all, even defensive ones.
Replaying the game will also lose its intrigue after game four or five once you really understand all the systems, and specifically what is more or less effective. Once it dawned on me that the game really prefers you play as a military role, I didn’t see the point in playing the more diplomatic or scientific governments. Stellaris doesn’t have the luxury of a “map” like Europe, but the absence of one leaves Paradox in an awkward position. In Europa Universalis IV, there are well-known challenges, such as playing as Ireland and taking over all of the United Kingdom, or spreading Christianity across the Middle East. These might be obscure for people who never played those games, but they offered reasons to keep going back, and multiple attempts would yield multiple results. Stellaris tries to replicate them through random encounters such as robot uprisings or inter-dimensional invasions, but they don’t occur consistently enough to make every playthrough unique.
Paradox’s reputation for supporting their games after launch may put these concerns to rest. In fact, I was going to add a paragraph about the bugs I experienced while playing the game, including one save game that was stuck since I couldn’t conclude a war, but when I loaded the game today after a patch the bug was fixed. In addition to that small fix, there were small user-interface changes, and this is only a few weeks after release. Paradox continues to support games like Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV multiple years after their release, with DLC and small patches every few months.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see Stellaris as the base of a game that hasn’t reached its potential yet. As on now, learning the mechanics of Stellaris is certainly enjoyable. It’s easy to summarize in a few paragraphs, but in reality I spent well over 40 hours with the game before I got a grasp on the mechanics. It takes a long time to understand the game and that process of discovery is worth having. If you’re an experienced Paradox veteran who’s looking for the next level, or if painting the map with your own brand of imperial Stormtroopers doesn’t sound appealing, I’d wait until an inevitable expansion is released. On the other hand, if you’re someone who’s wanted to get in on the Paradox bandwagon, but found the previous games too complicated, then Stellaris is a great entry point.