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Sunday, 12 June 2016

On Stellar Warfare

Strategy games are my jam, and the recently-released Stellaris is the jammiest of jam.

For those not in the know, it is a grand strategy space-based game by Paradox, makers of several other strategy games (Cities Skylines, Hearts Of Iron, Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis and Victoria to name but five). It is a halfway house between the in-depth politics of Europa Universalis and the 4x empire-building of Master of Orion; it has so many layers that it is hard to describe without comparison to other games. There is a cost to everything, and everything requires a balance.

There's a cost to war in most games, but a lot of games - Endless Space for example - start you on a war footing, with the option of peace later. Stellaris assumes neutrality - but don't think that alliances are easy. Even if both your own nation and the enemy nation agree on everything else, you still have work to do before they will trust you.

What is there to agree on, you may ask? Well, each empire has a specific ethos, built on eight traits that oppose each other. Collectivist - Individualist, Xenophobe - Xenophile, Militarist - Pacifist, Materialist - Spiritualist. Each of them are good at different things, and every empire has a different set of these (three, though you can be a fanatic and that counts as two; Fanatic Collectivist and Militarist for example).

It dictates how other empires see you, how you respond to various different phenomena and events, how you wage war, how you conduct peace. If you're a materialist then you are better at the sciences, because you ask more questions, the kind of questions that being a spiritualist would answer for you - but being spiritualists makes your populace happier (and you WANT a happy populace). Being a xenophile makes diplomacy with alien races easier, but being a xenophobe allows the enslavement of aliens that become part of your empire - and slavery is, I hate to say it, a useful tool.

That's the thing about a game like this. It introduces you to different ways of doing things, and then you realise just how hard it is to do things in the decent way that we all expect. If your nation is one that will willingly purge citizens that don't believe the same thing (and the ethics of your population CAN deviate from that of your empire, which will lead to independence movements and separatists, and in some cases actual genetic mutations), then every other nation will hate you, and that makes doing things difficult. Likewise if you allow slavery, other nations that don't will dislike you. Slaves are good at manual labour - harvesting minerals and food - but they are poor at scientific pursuits and the more advanced art of producing energy, so you NEED some free citizens or you will fall behind in scientific advancement.

If you fuck up your diplomatic options too hard, well...they say that war is simply a failure of diplomacy...but war is expensive.

You can't just declare war and then march in and start shooting people. War is done in a very World War 1 era way. You declare terms. You set out war objectives, and then when you engage in military action, you earn warscore - and you can force a surrender by earning a high enough warscore, unless your opponent concedes to some or all of your demands.

The thing is, the moment your fleet ships out, you immediately take an energy hit. It's expensive to maintain a military force. That's before a shot is even fired - and your fleet size is limited by your population. You can exceed this fleet limit but you will take a further hit to your energy and other resources.

And what happens if you win? Well, you either take the nation you just beat as a vassal state, or you claim several of its planets as yours. What do you do with them now?

You have citizens living there that probably hate you. Do you enslave them? As previously mentioned, that has a cost of its own. Do you purge them? Again, a cost. Do you just hope they don't blow up anything important? Unless you have a way of keeping them happy, damn sure they are going to start sabotaging your shit - and unhappy citizenry can go as far as an actual armed uprising, which you will need to fend off with a defensive army, which has a build cost and a maintenance cost...

You get the picture. Everything costs. Everything is expensive - either materially or socially.

One thing it does teach you, though, is that it's not about having ENOUGH resources. Usually it is about proper allocation.

See, the balance between enslaving and oppressing a population and actually keeping it integrated and happy is a fairly even one. The money spent purging and enslaving - and the associated social cost - is approximate to the money spent making people happy and the hit to efficiency that can lead to. I haven't run any maths on that, it is an approximation - but I bet if I broke out a calculator it would be fairly commensurate.

Also it bears mention that none of the particular ethos traits are associated with what kind of species you are, nor what you are good at in terms of talents scientific or physical. It is just as likely that you will find humans who are horribly racist and good at fighting as you will find lizard-people who are highly democratic and value freedom over everything else.

You know a strategy game is good when it is a teaching tool; when it changes how you think about solving certain problems, and introduces you to new ways of thinking. That is a valuable tool - something that gaming is very rarely credited with.

If you like strategy - like a strategy game that you can sink DAYS into, like Civ 5 - I would highly recommend Stellaris. If that's a little much for you, there's plenty of other games out there. All I say is this:

Keep playing. Keep learning. Keep challenging.

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