Stellaris: Narratives from a Space Extravaganza

I recently took advantage of some time in airports and hotels to return to Stellaris, Paradox’s interstellar grand strategy game. I had played a few games a couple of years ago and felt it had enormous potential but was let down by a few flaws – and then life took over so I’d not played more. The decision to return was prompted by seeing that a large number of updates appeared to have largely eliminated those issues, allowing it to fulfill its potential.

Like most of Paradox’s grand strategy titles, Stellaris is not just a highly complex narrative of epic scope, but a vehicle for narrative development. This is a game in which, starting from a single homeworld, your science ships nose out into space, surveying planets, discovering strange anomalies and making contact with friendly and hostile aliens. In which you encounter strange and dangerous space creatures, piratical fleets and the mysterious and awe-inspiring relics of ancient, long-dead space-faring races. Where you can search through the ruins of an abandoned ringworld and one day dream of building your own. Where you can unite the galaxy in a utopian federation, upload your population’s consciousness into cyborgs and purge the galaxy or organic life, or play a ravenous devouring swarm that literally eats any species it conquers. Where you can build a death star. Where you will encounter fallen empires who ruled the galaxy aeons ago, ancient races with idiosyncratic whims – and, where, if two such empires should awaken to war, you can choose to align with one side or the other, or to try to unite the younger races of the galaxy in an alliance against both (and yes, the achievement for this is called ‘Last, Best Hope’). Where you can abduct pre-space-flight species ‘for science’ – or uplift them to sentience. Where your story is as big as your imagination.

Inspired by cartesiandaemon’s blogging, I thought I’d give an account of my story so far.

Early Game

Feeling in a benevolent mood, I chose to play as a species of egalitarian, fanatically spiritualist humanoids, who enjoy lives of utopian abundance in a democratic society, whilst building temples to worship the stars. My early science vessels soon discovered a lost alien language in a ruined city in a neighbouring star system which, sharing with my population, dramatically increased their outlook towards aliens causing many of them to become alien. Soon afterwards I discovered a mysterious gateway in orbit around a neighbouring star system, a broken remnant left by a long-dead and far more advanced civilisation, presumably part of a network, that I may one day be able to use.

My people were happy, though technological progress was slow, so I decided to initially pursue the Discovery, Expansion and Harmony tradition trees, in keeping with my ethos and position. My science ships continued to explore outwards, discovering more interesting finds as well as useful minerals and energy and a new planet to colonise. Before too long I’d met my first neighbours. Clockwise were the reptilian Kedeshi, like me a egalitarian democracy, whose only downside was being overly materialistic. Despite this, our shared values soon allowed us to establish good trading relationships and a research agreement, whilst establishing a relatively tension free border. Anticlockwise the news was less good, for I encountered the T’Jell, a military dictatorship of Hegemonic Imperialists who look like space wolverines. Surprisingly, they didn’t attack me, despite having a superior fleet, perhaps because we were still quite far apart and perhaps because they were more concerned with their neighbours on the other side, yet another military dictatorship, though this time spiritual ones, making them Honorbound Warriors. They look like goats, so I think of them as Goat Klingons.

Finally, rimwards there’s a fallen empire – one of those ancient, mysterious and incredibly powerful elder races – who refer to themselves as Enigmatic Observers. They asked me to give them some of my population so they could be preserved in a luxurious reservation in case my species wiped itself out. It made my people unhappy, but I accepted, not least because the fallen empire could squash me like a bug – and they did appear to at least have good intentions.

Establishing my Domain

My ships continue to fan out, charting more and more systems. I colonise four more worlds, bringing my total briefly to six – though more of that later – and start investing heavily in space infrastucture, such as mining stations and orbital research stations. My fleet is still small compared to others, particularly the militaristic nations, but no-one seems too hostile, so I hope I can afford it. Meanwhile I steadily upgrade my relationship with the Kedeshi, first to a non-aggression treaty and then to a fully-fledged defensive pact, which I hope will come in handy if the Space Wolverines decide to attack.

Some of the more interesting things that happen during this period include:

– I track down a number of artefacts from an ancient machine civilisation, the Cybrex, which eventually allows me to locate their home system. When I get there, the system is empty of life – all that is left is a shattered ringworld, and a bonanza of energy and minerals.

– I foolishly decide to try to switch on some abandoned terraforming equipment on one of my colonies instead of scrapping it for minerals. Unfortunately, it works too well, rapidly converting the atmosphere to ammonia, killing everyone on the planet and leaving me with a useless toxic world. Given I only had six worlds, with none others seemingly nearby, this is a big blow.

– I manage to improve my ship’s evasive abilities by studying the flagellae of giant space amoebae.

– I discover a strange, kilometres-long tree floating in space and attracting strange life forms. After beating off the life forms and studying it, its sap has strange life-extending properties. True to my egalitarian roots, I share it with the population to make them happier, rather than keeping it for my leaders.

– Two major factions form, basically aligned to the egalitarian and spiritual factions in my society. Both of them seem pretty happy.

– I agree migration treaties with the Kedeshi and the Goat Klingons and, thanks to my utopian living standards, start welcoming immigrants.

By this time I’ve made contact with much of the galaxy through communication links and realise with relief that most of the truly unpleasant races are a long way away. I might have dictatorships near me, but good old-fashioned militarists are pleasant compared to the Devouring Swarm and the Fanatical Purifiers on the other side of the galaxy. I wonder how long the pacifist space-snails are going to last, next to them.

Closer to home, I discover peaceful enclaves of artists and of an ancient curator species; I manage to do constructive business with both of them. Less positively, I encounter an alarmingly close civilisation of Marauders, a space-based association of incredibly violent humanoids who seem to care about nothing other than raiding and destroying people. Rashly I decline to pay them off, only to see an enormous raiding fleet plunge towards me, spearheaded by a cruiser flagship with more firepower than my entire fleet. My massively outgunner squadron of corvettes valiantly fights a suicide battle on the periphery of my home system, whilst I desperately try to trade around the galaxy to get enough energy to pay their (now doubled) tribute demand. I succeed just in time to stop my homeworld getting pillaged.

After this there’s a period of steady building and consolidation – with the occasional tribute paid to the Marauders – as I build up infrastructure, rebuild my fleet and claim further systems. Unfortunately the good times can’t last. My borders start to run up against those of the K’Jell, the militaristic space wolverines, and we get into a race for a couple of key wormhole junctions. We manage to mutually block each other, but they promptly claim the systems I took and our relationship plummets. War seems highly likely.

My first war

Despite significantly increasing it in size since the incident with the Marauders, my fleet is still showing as inferior to the K’Jell, and I suspect they have all kinds of combat bonuses as well. I have my defensive pact with the Kedeshi, but I worry they’re too far away. Fortunately, my drawing on our shared spiritual nature (and some judicious gifts) I manage to also achieve a defensive pact with the Goat Klingons. The K’Jell are now bracketed on both sides and concern about the size of our joint fleet keeps them from declaring war – for now.

However, I still want to make progress. Remembering the Marauders, I pay them a king’s ransom in energy (over ten year’s income – I’ve been playing for less than 50) if they go and raid the K’Jell (which they probably want to do anyway). It’s worth it though. One of those raiding fleets goes sailing into K’Jell territory and, once it’s a couple of systems in, I declare war and send my fleet after it. Even better, the Goat Klingons agree to join me and pile in on the other side. Between all this, I capture seven systems, including a planet, without having to fight anything more than a couple of defence platforms. With their fleets massively diminished, the J’Jell make peace. As the Goat Klingons also managed to take two systems from them, in a stroke I’ve significantly increased my power whilst ensuring the K’Jell are no longer a major threat.


We’ll see what happens next. I’m still barely out of the early game – I can’t even build cruisers, let alone battleships or death stars – so there’s a lot to still explore, but I suspect I’ll have a lot less time for the next few weeks, so I may have to be patient to find out.