Paradox grand strategy games are secretly fantastic multiplayer romps, turning ordinary, good people into Machiavellian, conquest-hungry sociopaths. This week, with the launch of Stellaris imminent, I spent two days witnessing the continuation of this tradition with 20 other would-be space emperors and empresses.
How does it fair in marks out of ten? Find out in our Stellaris review.
We were given a huge galaxy of over a thousand stars, each with multiple planets and accompanying satellites, and unleashed upon it. Two days later, it was a galaxy drenched in blood and full of the stink of betrayal. So yes, Stellaris brings out the worst in people, and that's fine with me.
Day one: We're all friends here
I’d like to tell you about the greatest, most evolved species in the galaxy: the mighty space turkey.
They are collectivist materialists working under a despotic regime known as the Tantric Turkey Tetrarchy. Born on the world of Gobble-Gobble in the Gobble-Gobble-Gobble star system, they have one simple dream: enslaving the entire galaxy. It should be easy. I mean, who wouldn't want to be a slave of hyper-intelligent space fowl?
It turns out, most people, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
The first order of business is to send out science vessels to explore the galaxy, charting the stars, surveying planets and studying anomalies. While that's all going on, little workhorse construction ships follow behind. Building mining and research stations around worlds and moons that are rich in resources that boost the economy, they help speed up tech research along the three paths of social, physics and engineering, which are all studied simultaneously.
As the world of Gobble-Gobble grows, I send out my first colony ship, ferrying brave members of the Tetrarchy across the stars toward a new, tropical home, where I quickly slap them in irons because my civilisation runs on slaves. What a guy! Everything is going so well that I send out another, which is when I make contact with another alien empire, known as 403_Forbidden_Empire (not even remotely the strangest empire name), ruled over by Quill18. From there, I also discover the hideous Blorg, who you might recall from the Paradox streams, and a slew of other empires getting in the way of my glorious expansion.
To keep things civil on the first day, everyone agrees to an unofficial non-aggression pact, though AI races remain fair game. Peace briefly reigns as everyone spreads their tentacles – or whatever their appendages are – but it's clear that despite the honourable agreement between players, tensions are still on the rise. To my left, the empire of programmers and the grotesque bug people of the Loreswarm are already fast becoming enemies over an expansion dispute. It's none of my business, though, as I've noticed a vulnerable AI species just asking to be gobbled up by my ravenous feathered minions.
Calling my first scuffle a ‘war’ is perhaps overselling it. The conflict is quick and decisive, and it's not long before my enemies send me a pleading message of surrender as my slaves and soldiers tear through their planets. Like Paradox’s other grand strategy games, Stellaris makes you set specific war goals like getting foes to cede planets or liberating ones they’ve previously conquered. I now have my first vassal. That's not the end goal, however. I actually want to swallow the territory whole, but by vassalising and integrating it later, I skip over some of the drama of dealing with a mass of unhappy aliens who want to rebel against a conqueror.
My victory over the AI has proved my mettle, so it's no surprise that T.J. Hafer and his alien bugs want to jump into bed with the glorious Turkey Tetrarchy. We've now got chums! And it's lovely. But as more and more species start picking sides, it starts to feel like war will be inevitable. Despite having a new pal, I'm finding myself in a rather troubling situation. I'm completely surrounded by an alliance of aggressive, expansive, mean bastards. And aside from a fight with my now vassal, I've mostly been focusing on building up my infrastructure and embarking on quest chains, hunting down alien animals for my zoo and searching for ancient alien races.
As the first day draws to a close, I've expanded my borders substantially, integrated my vassal, and I'm even close to finishing the research on my third military ship type, the cruiser. Quill lays down some smack talk about his superior forces, so I know war is looming, but I've got countless vessels just on the cusp of being finished. I'm ready for war.
Intermission: Plans are made and lies are told
The game doesn't stop when the PCs are turned off. Indeed, it doesn't truly begin until we huddle around tables, nursing drinks and planning the next day’s fireworks. Deals are made, alliances are forged, betrayals are planned. TJ and I decide to join the charmingly named Tentacle Porn Federation. Stellaris' federations are like super alliances that give their temporary leaders access all the tech from each member.
We'd hoped to take on Quill by ourselves, but the birth of another federation between his empire and several others that all surrounded me like hungry, turkey-loving predators made it clear that we'd have to bring in more people, while also helping them with their own dreams of conquest.
So we're in a federation now. A motley group of bizarre aliens, from Stefan’s empire of Monica and Rachel's Apartment, which includes systems like Rachel's Hair and Joey's Fake Foreskin, to Adam Smith's happy-go-lucky Cthulhu analogues, who lead the federation. As we collude, we spare the occasional glance in the direction of the opposing federation. There are more of them, now, and they look increasingly shifty.
Preparing for a galactic war in Stellaris – especially one exclusively involving a multitude of human players – is appropriately tricky. It's not just fleet and ship configurations that you have to worry about – does the enemy use close range autocannons and fast engines, long range missiles and point defense, lasers and more lasers? – but the method the ships use to traverse the galaxy. Each species begins with one of three travel methods, each dramatically different from the others.
Travelling by warp is the simplest with an obvious advantage: you have complete freedom, able to strike from any direction and any system. It's slow, though. Using hyperlanes, which link up systems in a great big web, is much faster, but doesn't offer the freedom of warp travel and empires using this method can find themselves stuck in a bottleneck. Finally, there are wormholes that allow for instantaneous travel between star systems, but they have to be generated by a wormhole station. That can potentially leave an empire vulnerable, as enemies can completely cripple it by targeting the wormhole network.
Things are getting increasingly convoluted as we plot in the bar. Adam decides to go all double agent, telling the New Space Party, Quill & chums' federation, that he's willing to betray TJ and I, which they seem to buy. I start to wonder if he's really a triple agent. Can I really trust him? I go to bed and dream of turkeys.
Day two: Why won't everyone leave me alone?
There's a problem. A big one. Both Monica and Rachel's Apartment and the Tentacular Triumph have been decimated. See, peppering the galaxy are these ancient, fallen empires who mostly dislike the younger races, especially when they colonise near them. Unfortunately Stefan and Adam's respective empires did exactly that, and the fallen empire gave them a choice: give up all that territory or die. They chose the former, and now they're a bit screwed. The whole federation is, frankly.
Despite this, my own empire is actually looking rather good. I've got a huge surplus of resources and all those ships I had queued up the day before are now free to sail across the galaxy (setting it on fire). I'm still worried though, because I have three hostile empires right next to me, and my only nearby ally, TJ and his Loreswarm, will have to get through Quill's empire if they're going to help me.
It's gotten to the point where I can't expand without conquering, so it's time to kick this war off. I leave 403_Forbidden_Empire to TJ, leaving only a token force to protect my border from Quill's nearby vassals and tiny friends, while I focus on his ally, the Manticores. The intel section of the diplomacy screen says we've got equivalent fleet power, but doesn't go into specifics. I split my largest fleet up into two so I can hunt down his ships faster. It's a huge mistake.
A Manticore fleet jumps into the system I'm attacking, with four times the military strength of my own fleet. I get the hell out of there, of course, but unfortunately it looks like he uses hyperlanes, and that means he catches up to me immediately. My second fleet arrives too late to do any good, and indeed ends up demolished as well. It's only the start of the war, and I'm already out of it, at least for the time being.
I watch in dismay as TJ suffers an even worse fate. Quill's torn the Loreswarm Empire apart, and with his space ports gone, TJ can't do anything but watch it all burn. Elsewhere, the war is actually going surprisingly well. Adam and Stefan have been taking chunks out of their enemies, including the Blorg, and there's no sign of them stopping. That is, until the Manticore fleet moves in to assist their nasty allies.
Our federation surrenders just as my glorious Turkey Tetrarchy was clawing its way back from oblivion. I even conquered a Manticore world. At least the terms of our surrender are easy to stomach. Well, they are for everyone but TJ, who is now a vassal of the Blorg.
Let's jump to the future. Things have changed, as they are wont to do. I'm a lone turkey now, after being betrayed by my federation (they kicked me out for calling them cowardly in the stream, an assessment I stand by) and finding no others who truly deserve friendship with the galaxy's greatest birds. Since the war, peace has reigned. Both sides had teetered on the brink of destruction, and we all needed a rest from the bloodshed. And those who hadn't been involved, well they no doubt counted their lucky stars that they'd stayed away from the chaos.
But peace can't last forever, because we're all dicks. The Blorg want to unite the galaxy against a fallen empire, and is actually having some success in talking everyone into this suicide mission. Turkeys aren't stupid, though. We know it's a war that can't be won, and we've also got a much more reasonable target right next to us: cat people. Cats are terrible. They shed, they scratch, and they ruined the internet. The only thing going for them is that space turkeys like eating them.
As I declare war on the cats, the streets of Gobble-Gobble are filled with joyful singing and cheering (and squawking). I've no idea, at that moment, that this is the beginning of the end – a long and painful end, mind – for the Tantric Turkey Tetrarchy.
While the rest of the galaxy gets its arse handed to it by an antediluvian, hyper-advanced fallen empire above their ring worlds – and man, what a sight that is – I move my fleet into kitty territory, smugly self-assured. I smash their fleet and carry on my merry way, blowing up their star ports, temporarily setting back their ship production. That should have been that. A few planetary bombardments and invasions later and I should have had a kitty vassal to call my own. But no. My old foes couldn't let that happen.
Three (THREE!) separate wars are waged against me while I attempt to subjugate the cats. Quill starts the first one, which means he isn’t there to help the Blorg and friends with the fallen empire, undoubtedly hastening their failure. After a long discussion, he agrees to back off as long as I just take a single planet in what was once my territory anyway. I, of course, lie about my ambitions. He liberates one of my old vassal's worlds and the war ends.
My cat war is reaching its climax when the second separate war is declared, which sees me facing not just Quill and his 403_Forbidden_Empire again, but also those bloody Manticores. I try to ignore them as I focus on the cats, but their armada is vast and tears through my core worlds. It's not a war I can win so I begrudgingly agree to their demands, which leads to the loss of several worlds. Unfortunately, all that time wasting has allowed the cats to rebuild their fleet, while mine has been slowly whittled away. They start to push back. And then - catastrophe - my fleet is wiped out.
I refuse to give up. Before all of these additional wars, I had this one in the bag. Surely I can come back from this. I keep going. I build a new fleet, push the cats out of my territory, and start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. A new federation has also arisen and they tell me that they too hate cats. “Hold on just for a bit longer,” they say. And I do. And I wait. But it does no good. They declare war, sure, but then other bystanders jump into the fray, attacking them.
Already struggling to keep the war going, I watch as another fleet is wiped off the map. I'm completely without ships. As I try to consider my options, Arumba's Transhumanist Arseholes declare war on me. It's out of the blue. The only contact the turkeys and transhumanists have had was years ago when they allowed my ships to pass through their territory. I have no armies, no fleets, my mining operations are in ruins, I've lost multiple planets and am completely without allies. I try to surrender immediately. I offer Arumba a planet. He refuses. A free planet. It's madness.
My goose is cooked. After four wars in such a short space of time, I've got nothing with which I can defend my noble turkey citizens/minions/slaves. Instead of drawing this out, I give into all of Arumba's war demands. I'm left with one world. Which someone immediately declares war on. I'm not bitter or anything.
My complete and utter defeat at the hands of... well, everyone, including your granny, is made a slightly less bitter pill to swallow as I witness the rest of the galaxy tearing itself apart. It doesn't seem like there's anyone left who hasn't flung themselves into an apocalyptic war. I know, and I think everyone else innately understood this one truth, which is why they couldn't let my empire survive, that when the fires settle, the turkeys will be there to rule over the remnants. Even as the game comes to a close, they are already starting to rise up against their conquerors.
Gobble gobble. Gobble gobble. The turkeys are coming.
Stellaris is due out on May 9, and contains many kinds of alien fowl.