The Hitchhiker's Guide to Stellaris [2.5.1 Shelley]

By Alexander Williams 20 Nov 2019 0

Stellaris builds on Paradox's rich architecture of emergent gameplay, with a dozen pieces of mechanic whizzing by your head while you try to keep an eye events and control the pulse of what's going on. Building your first Habitat? Taking down your first Leviathan? Balancing the resource budget as you roll out to war? These are big deals.

This article is mainly aimed at newcomers, or at least past players returning after a long break, but hopefully even veteran players will be able to glean some insights that will help them in the wars to come. All information is correct as of Version 2.5.1.

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Down on the Corner

Managing planets and how planets develop has long been almost controversial in 4X game design. There have been many games where your role as player is to direct things in space and merely suggest how things should be going planet-side.

Not surprisingly, Stellaris is firmly in another castle. Before 2.2, planets were composed of individual tiles which had very specific resources and which could be allocated a token representing a population. In a game design sense, it was almost skeuomorphic with a board game representation. Each game turn, you would be able to harvest a certain number of resources located on the square, possibly modified by any buildings you also put on the square, but those buildings largely stood alone without much interaction with each other.

Districts

Le Guin changed all that. Instead of the planet being represented by a literal field of squares it has become an abstract space divided into "districts." Those districts can be devoted to various functions, whether it be energy generation, mining minerals, agricultural products, or city space to provide housing. Get enough of one kind or have a certain distribution of districts and the type of planet that you're on changes in description, possibly carrying a light bonus. Filling up a planet with generator districts? You might get the tag "Generator Planet" with a 5% bonus to making energy. Put out a lot of mining, generator, and farming districts but no cities? You're on a "Rural Planet" with a 2.5% bonus to worker output.

Stellaris Tips Districts

Not only have the game spaces of planetary surfaces become more abstract but so have the population tokens which are involved. No more is one pop associated with one square of the planet but instead things are split out into jobs and pops which can have those jobs.

Districts create jobs simply by existing. The kind of job that they provide determines what that pop working that job will produce. For example, a mining district provides job slots for two miners. (Not to be confused with 'minors'.) If there are two unemployed pops on that planet, they will become miners. Each miner will produce four minerals per month.

Buildings

Every planet has a separate space allocated for buildings. Planets can have up to 20 buildings; the first building is always some sort of administrative building (your planetary capital) and the rest unlock one at a time whenever you get a multiple of five pops. When/if your planet has 100 pops, all 20 of the building slots will be open and available.

Like districts, buildings provide jobs for pops. In general, buildings let you control what second-order resources that you can make or provide a specific bonus to some other sort of production on the planet (like Food Processing Facilities adding an extra farmer job and making all farmer jobs produce 15% more food).

Stellaris Buildings2

While allocating districts controls what kind of raw resources a planet will produce, buildings are the more long-term means by which you control what planets end up doing. Are they pure resource generators? Focus on buildings and upgrades which augment the districts directly and add more of those kind of jobs. Is the planet intended to be capable of maintaining full a production chain on it's own, meaning that you don't have to worry about your entire empire collapsing if they're taken or destroyed? Spread out your alloy foundries and civilian industries so that they can't be taken all at once.

Building upgrades have changed significantly. Instead of being a no-brainer to click on the yellow upgrade triangle every time you can afford it, now upgrading buildings often takes a strategic resource, either found, produced, or purchased. Because of the interaction between population, jobs, and housing, you probably won't want to upgrade every building that you can or you might find yourself really wishing that you could upgrade a building later but finding yourself without the resources to do so.

Resources

Speaking of supply chains – Stellaris actually has them now.

No longer are your only concerns minerals, power, and food. On top of that are alloys, which are made from minerals in buildings called Alloy Foundries, and consumer goods, which are made from minerals in buildings called Civilian Industries. Alongside those two refined resources are strategic resources which before Le Guin could only be found as a deposit in space. Now, you can find exotic gas deposits as mineable locations in space, rare swamp deposits on planets, or just straight up make them from minerals given an Exotic Gas Refinery building. Volatile Motes and Synthetic Crystals join the Trinity of strategic materials.

Advanced strategic resources appear to only occur very rarely and on space-borne areas like asteroids, gas planets, or locations created by special event chains. Like standard strategic resources, they require that you finish a special research to make use of them. Living metal, dark matter, and nanites will be familiar to players from previous versions of the game but some of their uses have changed.

For the most part, it's the big three of strategic resources that you're going to want to pay the most attention to, because it's they which allow you to upgrade buildings like research labs, alloy foundries, and the like to provide more jobs and thus more output.

These Are the People in Your Neighborhood

The people that you meet each day in your empire are very different than they used to be. Once upon a time, it was enough that they were on a planet tile with some sort of production building. If they had no production building, they were unemployed. Aside from having a job working indoors and not being part of a faction currently interested in rioting, they were pretty satisfied.

That is no longer the case.

Stellaris Pops

Most empires (and we'll talk about the exceptions later) have populations which fall into three strata: 

  • Rulers are the guys at the top of the social pyramid, are responsible for organization, leadership, and to some degree making sure that the people underneath them are happy. When there is a ruler job available, they tend to create Unity and Amenities, which keeps people happy.
  • Workers generally work in the districts' jobs, mining, farming, and pulling the levers in the big generator facilities. Most of the time, they are going to make up the vast bulk of your population.
  • Specialists are all the guys in between. Odds are good that if the job is provided by a building rather than a district, it's being worked by a specialist. The specialists which turn minerals into alloy in alloy foundries (Metallurgists) are a prime example.

Pops, like buildings, require a certain amount of resources in order to continue functioning at their optimum. Predictably, food is one of those resources. For most pops, consumer goods are another. Those in the lower strata want amenities, which are produced by the ruler pops and by certain types of specialists (like entertainers in holo-theaters). All pops want housing, which you get from city districts and from specialized buildings.

Without sufficient housing, food, and amenities, pops become unhappy. If a pop was working as a ruler or as a specialist and that job went away (because you decided to change the building out for a different one, for example), and any open jobs are of a lower strata – that pop won't take the lesser job immediately. They prefer to be upwardly mobile. Since they won't take a downwardly mobile job immediately, they add to the unhappiness of the strata they believe themselves to be. Unemployed rulers make the most noise. Depending on your government type, you may only care if certain strata are unhappy. Authoritarian governments care more about what the people at the top care by far than menial workers or slaves. Radically egalitarian societies can place equal emphasis on all strata. The Domination ascension tree can be of significant help in allowing for unrest among the rabble to have much less impact on the stability of your society as a whole.

The main reason that you care about the happiness of populations is that it leads directly to the calculation of planetary stability. Stability is calculated as a base number which is modified by population unhappiness, planetary decisions, and certain policies, at high levels leading to more efficient output from jobs on the planet and at low levels reducing efficiency as well as leading to special events with riots, rebellions, and general unpleasantness.

Along with stability, there is also the issue of crime, which is driven in by unemployment and general unhappiness – though in some cases it can be enhanced and exploited by criminal corporations (which we touched on in the full MegaCorp expansion discussion). A high crime rating lowers the planetary stability, leading to less efficiency and bad events. Criminal syndicates can also take advantage of high crime planets to open branch offices and earn money while you try to keep the people in line. Unsurprisingly, most of their branch office buildings also increase the crime that you have to deal with, though they may bring certain advantages.

Keeping the districts and buildings balanced with the amount of housing and the number of jobs against the total population of the planet is very much a minigame unto itself. When there are too many pops for the housing or for jobs, the planet experiences emigration pressure and people will tend to move away to other planets which have open housing or too many jobs for their population, or to other empires entirely if you have migration treaties. Likewise, if a planet has plenty of housing and plenty of jobs which remain unfilled, immigration pressure will tend to draw pops from overpopulated, high unemployment worlds. Along with planetary decisions which can allow you to boost population growth by spending food or reduce planetary population growth by spending influence, keeping on top of population dynamics is a big deal.

Keeping in Hivemind

Not everyone does things the same way. The Gestalt consciousness empires provide very different experiences.

Hiveminds are highly efficient, highly motivated workers. The empire wide edicts that would normally consume power instead use food. Planetary buildings that would normally eat consumer goods use unprocessed minerals instead. The pops themselves only need housing and amenities – though for hiveminds, amenities are more like tools and general maintenance.

Because they start with a 25% bonus to population growth and so much focus on food, playing a hivemind effectively is often about assembling agricultural worlds with a bonus to food-making and taking advantage of the fact that they get extra housing from most of their buildings.

Like the other gestalt consciousness, the machines, hiveminds don't get access to the trade system, making them effectively immune to criminal syndicates but keeping them from being able to take advantage of the new trade system. That can lead to some real problems in the later game as more buildings come online that require power that can't be taken from trade. Access to the galactic market can help make up some of the difference, making use of the high population density to sell minerals and food in exchange for power to run late game machinery.

The administration cap can be a source of pain for hiveminds as spreading yourself across several planets early can be a short-term gain as you leverage access to their resources and parallel population growth, but because population growth is so high you'll be building districts at a much faster rate than other empires and consuming that administrative cap really quickly.

But Exceedingly Fine

Machine empires, like hiveminds, are gestalt consciousnesses, so they don't get to enjoy the benefits of the new trade system and don't make use of consumer goods at all. Same as prior to Le Guin, machines are sustained by consuming energy instead of food. As a result, unless you have taken it as your duty to eradicate all life, the galactic market can be the very definition of life-sustaining.

Machine Replicators, the complex drones which work in Machine Assembly Plants and which you get one of for free in every machine planet capital, don't just make more robots but also maintenance amenities. This results in planets which are extremely well maintained without expending more resources than you would have just to maintain population growth and keeps deviancy to a minimum.

Unless you're specifically geared to rapid population growth as a machine empire, you may end up discovering that you must do more with less since the minerals needed to grow your population will also be needed to make alloys to grow your fleets and stations. While hiveminds are uniquely geared to to grow wide, machine empires find themselves generally structured for growing tall, putting their administrative cap toward more districts on fewer planets. Their environmental adaptability means that you can be picky and only select the largest planets with the most potential for growth or the rarest surface deposits for your actual colonies.

Within the Gestalt

Gestalt empires have their own buildings. They have their own districts. They have their own end-game massive planet modifications. Many of their technologies are customized. They allow modes of play which are substantially different from more conventional empires/oligarchies/democracies.

They also deliberately don't engage with part of the base mechanics. We've already touched on the fact that hiveminds don't use consumer goods and primarily focus on food and its application, and machine empires don't use food but instead assemble their populations from minerals and support them with even more energy consumption. By choosing a gestalt empire, you make the conscious choice to remove that gameplay from your experience. Likewise, you also pass up managing a multi-species demographic because most types of gestalt empire can't coexist on the same planets with populations of another type. (There are exceptions with careful selection of civic and in the late game there's always forced assimilation if you have the ability to cyborg or genetically modify your poor victims.)

You also pass up on the new trade system mechanics, which I personally feel is a little bit disappointing. Even the hiveminds and machine empires which have access to the galactic market don't even get to see trade deposits in systems nor can they build trade outposts. I'm sure that there are mods which will change that, but it would have been nice to at least have a civic which opened access to stellar trade for gestalts.

Up In the Skies

The 2.0 Cherryh update changed space combat massively almost a year ago. Instead of population creating a consistent circle of expansion, starbases need to be constructed in systems to claim them. Instead of three different FTL systems, everyone starts with hyperlane drives, etc.

The next most important space-side change is the addition of a trade route system. Solar systems can have deposits of trade resources just as they can minerals, energy, and other rare resources. Inhabited planets also create trade resources. In order to be collected, these resources need to be within the radius of a space station with a trade hub. Once they are, you can switch into the new trade map mode and set the route by which that starbase is connected to your home world. Upon arrival at your capital, trade value gets converted into energy units.

Stellaris trade routes

Starbases can collect trade within a range based on the number of trade hubs they have, giving a really good reason for upgrading space stations significantly which are not on the fringes of your space. A large space station with a number of trade hubs can collect trade over a significant volume of space and ship it home.

That brings us to piracy. Pirates no longer merely appear next to your empire and start marauding; instead, trade routes have a certain amount of coverage provided by space stations along the path and when the trade value being shipped exceeds the amount of protection, pirates begin taking part of that margin. If it goes on long enough, actual pirate craft will swoop in and start doing what pirates do.

You can stop this by building guns, missiles, and best of all hangar bays on space stations which provide pirate protection to paths which go through their space. Setting fleets to patrol problematic areas also suppresses pirate activity.

Those patrols are worth discussing for a moment, because they work in a different way than you might expect. To set a patrol, put the ships that you want to do the work at one end of the path. Click on the patrol icon on the top bar of the fleet card and then select the system that you would like the fleet to patrol to. It will then begin to move back and forth between the two, suppressing pirate activity as it goes. It's rare that part of the UI in Stellaris is driven by that top bar and there is no guidance outside of the tutorial on how to set up a patrol.

By way of empire-wide policy settings, you can decide how to convert your trade value. The default is to make all of it into energy but you can decide to convert half of it on receipt into consumer goods or alloy if you find yourself in need of expanding your civilian or military position at the expense of general funding.

Tips and Tricks

Build a third Science Ship specifically for archaeological digs early.

With the release of Ancient Relics, it's become more important to have more than two Science Ships going about their business at the same time. It's always been useful to push out that second SS almost as early as you can afford the energy to hire the Scientist in order to explore the planets near your homeworld as quickly as possible to best exploit orbital resources, whether they be mining or research.

The addition of Archaeology makes it extremely valuable to have at least a third ship available to be tasked with doing archaeological digs because they take a significant amount of time to go through all of their stages but can have extremely high impact results. The chance of getting a powerful Artifact with a great passive effect early in the game is easily worth the 100 Alloy and 200 Energy it takes to have someone available.

Once you've depleted the digs in your local space, the third SS can switch into doing more aggressive exploration – which can lead directly into finding even more digs.

Upgrading buildings often more than doubles the number of jobs available from that building.

This is both a pro and con. On the good side, you have more jobs available for a growing population (unless you've taken steps to reduce the growth of the population). On the bad side, each of those jobs when taken consumes more of whatever resource it's converting. It's very easy to lose track of where you are on the production curve and start converting entirely too much of something like civilian goods into research, because once you are out of one of those resources – everything that follows it in the production chain stops being produced.

The galactic market is your friend.

You will often find yourself working at a deficit. This is not necessarily a failure on your part; quite the opposite, if you are growing, production will lag as jobs get taken by your population. Some of the jobs which consume resources will come online before those which produce them. This is the real reason that you want to be running a surplus with a nice pad most of the time, but when that's not possible remember that you can always buy from the galactic market. That also means that you should always try to keep a positive energy generation curve all the way up to whatever your maximum storage for energy happens to be whenever you can because it can be turned into ships (by buying alloy), population (by buying food), or just more time to run your industries (by buying consumer goods) in the blink of an eye.

Machine consciousnesses have one of the best early colonization options.

Colonizing a planet with the machines only takes 300 alloy, so if you construct an alloy processor early along with the mining district to support it, you can be sitting on a comfortable store by the time you're ready to colonize your first planet. Take advantage of that fact when you can.

Migration treaties can make investment in infrastructure a net gain for both parties.

If your neighbor has an overpopulation problem, be a sport, establish a migration treaty, and watch his pops come across the border to work in your agricultural districts, generator banks, and dirty, unsafe buildings. Even if they may not be a perfect environmental match, they'll much prefer it to starving in the freezing rain on their home worlds. With the right ascension perk from the DLC, your sister might even marry one.

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Fin

It's rare that any company will completely rework the foundations of a game a couple of years after it was released, but Paradox is a rare company. By making the game more abstract, they've opened the door to much wider modifications in the future which allow for a greater diversity of building types, government types, and population traits.

If Stellaris was one of the best strategy games of the last two years, and it was, then this incarnation of Stellaris may qualify as one of the best games – without qualification – of the last two years. The difference is that stark. The learning curve has become a little steeper. There are more moving parts to keep track of. Along with that has come more engagement with managing the empire on a regular basis and an overall better experience.

This game remains one of the must-buys for a serious gamers' shelf. Paradox is only helping by frequently running sales so that new players can jump in and get all of the DLC without emptying their pockets.

Do you have any Stellaris tips or tricks you want to share? Let us know in the comments!

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