Stellaris Review

Since humanity first looked up at the skies, we have been inspired by the great inky expanse that blankets us every evening as we close our eyes and dream. That’s what space is, really. A dream of everything that might be.


In many ways, space 4X games are an attempt to take those fantasies and make them into a clickable, playable reality. That is no easy thing – gathering all that imagination and making it tangible. When it works well, you have something that is still rooted in science and yet undeniably magical.

Stellaris, the latest game from Paradox Interactive, takes the grand strategy games that the studio is known for, blasts them into the future, and then shoots them out to space. Like more traditional 4X games, players are given one planet and tasked with taking over the stars. But Paradox’s roots also shine through – Stellaris is a game about relationships, diplomacy, and incredible, unfathomable depth.

The final product does more than reach for the stars. Stellaris is a love letter to all the space 4X games that came before it and a roadmap for future games to follow. A rip-roaring space adventure, a philosophical rumination, an intergalactic C-SPAN simulation – Stellaris is many things. But mostly, it is amazing.


Stellaris begins, naturally, by letting you select your race. There are several pre-made ones available, but maybe more than any game before, players will be better off creating their own. The only bad choice you can make is a boring one.

The staggering depth of choices here should give you a feel for the ocean of options that Stellaris offers. You start by naming your race and choosing their appearance. Next, you decide what your race calls themselves, even what they call each other. Then you get to choose traits like being extra strong or inexplicably happy. So far, it’s standard fare. Getting the best features, though, means accepting some serious flaws. You can have your super-smart squid-people, but they’ll have to be irredeemably lazy as well. It’s these tradeoffs that give your characters character.


Wheel… Of… Ethics!

Next you choose the ethics of your people and, based on those ethics, your type of government. Options here are numerous and should keep the game fresh for a long time. Then it’s time to pick what kind of space travel you’ll use – warp (recommended for first time players), hyperspace, or wormhole generators. What do you want your ships to look like? What should those be called? And what sort of weapons will they use? Last, you design your flag using a multitude of symbols and patterns. All set?

Just making one race will almost certainly leave you with ideas for two or three more. And remember, this is only the setup for the game. Technically, you could skip this part. But you’ll be cheating yourself if you do.

Regardless of your choices, you start the game with a home planet, a science ship, a construction ship (more on those later), and some armed corvettes. The science ship should be the first thing you click. This is the primary way of rolling back the interstellar fog of war – by sending your science vessels to survey everything around you.

The travel type you selected at the start determines how your species goes around finding suitable stars to settle. Of the three types – warp, hyperdrive, and wormholes – hyperdrive is so much better, it’s not really worth debating. The lanes are not nearly restrictive enough to make slow, distance-limited warp a viable decision. Wormholes are even less viable since you have to build vulnerable generators all over the galaxy. Even though wormhole travel is technically faster, hyperlanes are often the quicker option because your ships can jump into hyperspace from anywhere in the system, rather than having to lope over to a gate. Each of the travel options can also be upgraded through research. For example, warp ships can eventually reach farther stars, negating a lot of their early weaknesses.


Even when there’s nothing to say, the writing can be clever.

On its tour through the universe, your science ship will discover all sorts of intriguing stuff. Sometimes even finding nothing to interact with can be interesting: a planet with so many moons it looks like its own solar system, a pulsar, or just some really well-rendered planet types. This is eXploration at its finest – when even the non-discoveries feel exciting and fresh – enticing you to lose even more sleep.

You’ll also find anomalies – odd little bits of history for your people to investigate. Some of these will give you quick, permanent boosts. Others will open up whole multi-chapter storylines, sending you from star to star in search of some greater unknown.


Help me, Starbuck! You’re my only hope!

If you are a fan of science fiction, or have just gone to the movies a few times, you’re going to find a lot that feels familiar. That’s part of the fun, too! It’s like experiencing a universe created by our collective creativity – where everything that’s ever been imagined is waiting and you’re free to follow each tale as you like. Remnants of a massive space battle near a forest moon, an immense creature that doubles as a transport ship for smaller beings, a sentient probe looking for its parents – they’re all here and it’s fun to follow the twists and turns.


The option to deep fry this guy in eleven herbs and spices was, sadly, not available.

The universe is filled with other species as well – those major and minor, sentient and not. Meet some strange being and you’ll have to research them to learn more, another neat little feature that adds tension and a sense of realism. It could be another race, just like you, eXploring the stars. Or, maybe you’ve found a “fallen empire,” a species that essentially “won” the game and then became stagnant. These older races often have a singular focus that makes them a unique challenge to deal with. For instance, they may have religious sites they’ll shoot you for even looking at or they may believe in the evils of artificial intelligence and hunt you down for having robot workers.

Then there’s the other side: races that have yet to reach the stars or, in some cases, even make fire. You can study these simple folk to drive your own research or even teach them how to become spacefarers, themselves. But whichever of these “Uplift” methods you choose, be ready to spend a lot of time, resources, and money to get them caught up.

You will also encounter entities that are far more alien. Things like living clouds, crystalline beings, and giant space amoebas are sprinkled throughout the game, adding their own flavor to your interstellar interactions. We’ve learned that space is often very weird and Stellaris definitely demonstrates that. How you deal with these odd galactic wanderers may give you new research and greater understanding of the possibilities life presents. Or you’ll blow them into little crystal bitsies. Regardless, the Stellaris universe always feels interesting and alive. Like any good page-turner, the possibilities offered by Stellaris keep you coming back for more.


Constructing a new home for your people feels like a massive endeavor – a truly expensive and expansive project that conveys the experience of space exploration. Before you can go out and seed the stars, you’ll need to research and build expensive colony ships. This is a huge undertaking, especially in the early game when your economy is still young and only occasionally spitting up resources.


Finding a place to park was a pain in the behind.

Once you’ve landed on a planet, there’s a massive energy cost to establish the new colony. A chunk is taken every turn until your settlement becomes self-sufficient. Even when established, there’s a period of growth where only the most basic buildings can be constructed. Eventually you’ll have a fully functioning outpost which can be used to extend your borders and lock down nearby systems. It really makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something

There are also several ways to make a planet more suitable for settlers. Technologies can be researched that will make some planets habitable for your species. There are also terraforming techs and various buildings that increase your population’s (pops) happiness. Finally, while your race may only like certain planet types, you can always absorb another race and use them to settle where your own people would be incapable of surviving.


Does making a corgi empire mean I have to give back my man card?


One colony is never enough, of course, and this is the point where most 4X games go into grind mode. You begin by settling a few colonies, then add a few more, suddenly you’re upgrading 22 farms on 13 different planets, and you wonder where the fun has gone as you descend into micromanagement hell. Stellaris attempts to solve this with sectors.

Each empire can only control five colonies at a time (though this can be expanded to a limited degree based on your government type or with certain techs). Once the player has more than five, they start to incur serious penalties, strangling their resource flow. To mitigate this, players can create sectors – separate semi-autonomous sections of their empire.

Basically, by creating a sector, you are putting the AI in charge of some of your colonies. Note that this is different than a vassal, which is always a different civilization than the one you control. Most 4X games offer a “planetary governor” or something similar. But because Stellaris forces you to use the AI assistance, it’s a very different experience. You literally cannot micromanage and that makes empire growth far more strategic and, overall, less frustrating.

At the time of launch, however, the sectors are more of a good idea than good execution. Some of it might be my own need to control every aspect of my empire. It doesn’t help that my sectors do seem to run sub-optimally under the AI’s aegis. Optimization of the planetary AI would definitely help – it can build a mediocre colony, just not a great one.


If your planet is located in the white zone, then you’ll need to get on line 5a and…

There are also some inconsistencies in the rules around sectors that can lead to frustration. For example, if I want to get a research bonus by observing a prehistoric race in a sector, I have to build the monitoring station, myself. As soon as it’s built, however, the sector has control of it and I can’t change the station settings, which will limit my research gain.

Edicts, Policies, and Factions

While the sectors help reduce the burden that naturally comes with eXpansion, they also add several new strategic challenges. The further your pops (population units) drift from your main empire – geographically or culturally –  the more likely they are to differ from the consensus. This means they will develop their own ethics and, eventually, even demand independence.

There are some clever ways to deal with this, though. The game offers edicts and policies, rules that you can enact over all of your empire. Things like allowing your people to migrate of their own free will, allowing subjugated races to have their own leaders, not forcibly moving pops – all of this will help your people feel happier and less likely to revolt.

These mid-game choices really help your early-game choices feel like they matter. Just being collectivist xenophiles is nice, as a title, but seeing those traits play out with the options for your empire makes them necessary and distinct. As, say, a military junta, you should be forcing your people to move to fit your needs. As a fervent religious empire, it makes sense that you might enslave some of those people less chosen by the gods than yourselves. It’s just another way that Stellaris’ depth blows everything else out of the water.

No matter how hard you work to keep everyone happy, though, opposing factions will appear in the game. These splinter groups will make demands, and the game provides some ways to deal with them. You may have to pay off the leaders or assassinate them to get the people back in line. The alternative? The faction revolts and suddenly you’ve got one more enemy and much less territory (and resources).

Even if you manage to keep your own people in line, the universe is full of other civilizations to challenge you. Even on the smaller maps, you might have as many as 20 different empires, all with their own traits, ethics and goals. As you might expect, these other races’ reactions to you will depend on how well your philosophies mesh. I encountered a group of religious zealot, xenophobes who could barely bring themselves to talk to me. Most other groups, though, were far more amenable.


And here I thought leaving Earth would take me away from all the weirdos.

There are a few options to improve diplomatic relations. Establishing an embassy within another empire will gradually improve their opinion of you, though you’ll usually only have three or four of those to work with depending on your government type. There’s also the usual set of trade options, which can also lead to better relations. Players can exchange resources and maps. Techs, themselves, can’t be exchanged, but you can agree to share research resources. If relations become particularly close, you can agree to an alliance. Get even closer, still, and you can form a Federation – a sort of space United Nations made up of at least five other races that has a shared navy. Federations also have a shared leadership, where each member gets a five-year term to take charge. This means that, yes, some other race may be in charge of your Federation and drag its members, including you, into war.

Of course, not everyone wants to get along and there are plenty of options there, too. Players can declare another race a rival in order to get an influence boost. You can also hurl insults to further antagonize your neighbors, if you see fit.

There is a lot to international (intergalactic?) relations – just look at the UN and their constant shenanigans – but there’s also plenty to keep players busy within their own borders.


The massive amount of detail in Stellaris can be overwhelming at times, but resource collection is on the simpler side. There are really only two resources: minerals that you need to make things and energy that you need to maintain those things after you’ve built them. So, for example, that little (red) corvette will cost you minerals, mostly, to make. Once it’s built, however, you’ll be spending energy to keep it running. You may also find rare resources that can give a boost to your empire once discovered. These are limited in number, however, so you’ll have to be prudent in how you spend them.

As for the actual mechanics of eXploiting resources, players will generate resources from tiles on each planet. They can also build structures on these tiles to increase production. And in this system you also have to assign a pop to work a tile in order to claim the resources. Some tiles may be blocked, initially, but there are technologies that clear them.


Active volcanoes, dense jungle, and wild animals. Still nicer than Camden, New Jersey.

There’s also the resource I mentioned above, called influence, that is needed for certain larger projects. Influence is also spent on the edicts and policies that help shape your empire and is used when hiring leaders as well. Regardless, influence is generated at a set rate – you can’t really mine it. Your base income of influence is determined by a few factors, primarily your government type. There are a few technologies that increase influence, but it will always be more of a trickle than a gush. This means you don’t really have to worry about acquiring influence – at least until you run out, at which point, there’s little you can do but wait for it to build back up again.


If you feel your pops are too squishy, you can also research robots and use them to harvest your tiles, instead. There are some tradeoffs, however. Robots don’t eat food and they’re really good at getting resources. However, they’re also terrible at collecting research and they have a tendency to go nuts and kill everyone. So, y’know, think about what you’re doing before you decide to robot-ize the work force.

This freedom to move/replace pops continues throughout the game. Players can absolutely take those same robots – or members of any race that is part of their empire – and turn them into effective, horrifying ground troops. If you control people who are better at mining than your original race, you can absolutely set them to digging while your own people do something they are better suited to. Some of these options may be limited by your empire’s ethics or government type (some of which you can change over time), but the possibility is there to try any number of things to optimize your output.


Research is also treated as a resource in many ways. Your empire generates research on the planetary level, but there are also caches of these to mine from planets, asteroids, and even suns. You may also get some from investigating anomalies. Every little bit gets you closer to discovering a new technology.

There are actually three research areas in Stellaris, so your empire is researching three techs at any given time. Research is broken into physics, society, and engineering. Getting new technology is always one of the drivers in a 4X game, so having three going at once definitely triples the fun!


Don’t worry, boss. Larry, Moe, and Curly are on the case.

Adding yet another layer, instead of the usual research tree, Stellaris has sort of a research deck. Every time a new research comes up, players are given three semi-random options to choose from. It’s like drawing three cards off the top of a deck and then picking one. The available techs are a little less random than that; some techs are “shuffled in” more than others and you do need some techs to unlock others. This setup also adds another exciting moment – when a super rare tech (colored purple, of course) pops up in your queue. These will only appear on occasion, sometimes not at all, and when you see them they’re basically must-choose research for that round.

Like the sectors, the semi-random technology tree is a great idea that drives controlling gamers like myself a little bit bonkers. If a tech you need doesn’t show up, then there’s really nothing you can do about it except hope to see it next time. Also, like sectors, research could probably use some refinement. I’m in a playthrough right now where I’m in the late game in every way except my people are still in the smallest military ship. That’s just weird. Maybe there should be a feature where I could set a slider to focus on some general areas of research? Or perhaps some kind of trigger system that never lets one area of research fall too far behind? Stellaris’ system may not be perfect, but I like that it is trying to bring new (or at least, not regularly tried) mechanics into 4X. I think it’s an interesting way to make research feel more organic – give it that “Eureka!” moment that exists in real life but has yet to really appear in games.

There are other ways to get research than the traditional tree/deck thing, as well. As I said above, you can gather research just like resources. Also, after space battles, ships leave behind debris that your science ships can salvage. You usually get some specific tech – if you were fighting ships with lasers, you’ll get research towards lasers, for example. You may even find unique techs to research as you go.


Usually I’d just use LinkedIn.


To help with various aspects of your empire, you can recruit leaders. These hero units make your people feel like more than a faceless mob. If you have an empire with multiple races, your leaders can even come from the various peoples you’ve assimilated. You can bring in governors to help boost your individual planets, sector heads to help with those, science leaders, plus admirals and generals for your navies and ground troops, respectively. There’s a limit to the number of leaders you can have: it starts at ten, but there is research that expands the potential pool.

Not all leaders are of equal importance either. Your science ships will just drift around aimlessly unless they have a scientist on board. Research is also seriously hobbled if there’s no one left in charge. Your planets, however, won’t wither and die without a governor. And I honestly didn’t notice much of a difference if my admirals and generals were there or not.


This whole empire’s going to the dogs.

Leaders don’t just provide generic bonuses, though – they also have traits. So, for example, your lead scientist might be really good at investigating anomalies or your planet’s governor can increase happiness. They may even acquire negative traits over time. I had a research leader develop a drug problem at one point, shortening her life span by about 30%. I did not expect to find Crusader Kings out amongst the stars.

As leaders age and gain experience, they get better at their jobs. They do, however, eventually die. You will usually get a choice of three possible candidates (again, certain technologies and traits can increase this number) to replace the deceased leaders, each with their own set of traits.


Probably the weakest point of any Paradox game, even the great ones, is the combat. Stellaris is no exception, but it also has some of the strongest fighting of any Paradox game to date (outside of their wargames, at any rate).

The actual options for war are quite strong. Like other Paradox entries, Stellaris uses the war score system. Players must set goals before the actual engagement, which can include appeasements for allies, as well. You may wish to conquer a planet or two, make a vassal of the offending empire, or wipe them off the map entirely. Setting your goals will determine your war score – i.e., the amount of pain you need to inflict before the enemy accedes to your demands. If you make 60 points’ worth of pre-war promises, you need to earn that 60 by destroying fleets and bases, invading planets, and taking territory.

stell battle 1

Oh boy… Somebody’s about to get a whoopin’

This helps reduce a lot of the grinding down wars of attrition that most 4X games feature. Even better, the AI seems to know when it’s licked and will lay down arms well before the war score is achieved if you beat it badly enough.

To prepare for battle, players can customize their fleet with the ship builder. If you’re curious, the customization options are more Endless Space (set models with slots for certain upgrades) than Galactic Civilizations III (infinite starship builder). This is one of the many, many game systems we’ll have to save for the AudiX. There is so much going on with this game, it’s impossible to talk about everything in detail.

Combat itself is… Fine. There are at least some strategic options and how you construct your fleet will absolutely affect its prowess. However, combat is still more Hungry Hungry Hippos than checkers. Let alone chess.

There are definitely opportunities to feint with your fleets or set traps for your opponents. If you want to run your war using guerilla tactics rather than just full-on smashing all your ships together, you can do that and be fairly successful. If you imagined crossing the enemy’s T, however, there’s nothing so involved at that tactical level.

While I don’t think there needs to be a full-on combat simulator, I do feel Stellaris would benefit from some deeper tactical options. For example, if my fleet is in combat, some ships will inevitably be damaged. When I move on to the next engagement, I’d love to be able to tuck those vulnerable ships into the rear of my fleet to keep them protected. Those options simply don’t exist. Instead, the fleet always deploys in the same way, so my most fragile ships are right up front, begging to be pulverized.

stell battle 2

Red lasers can be upgraded to blue lasers. Seriously, that’s what the tech is called.

Adding to the satisfactory feel of battle, the AI can be really clever at times, There are moments when it is opportunistic, aggressive, even predatory. In one game, I watched with horror as the AI found a weak spot at the back of my empire and proceeded to dismantle my forces with ease. In that same war, however, in a separate system the AI sent one tiny ship at my fleet, watched it get destroyed, then sent another one. The potential for a truly frightening opponent is there, however.

Regardless of space combat’s limitations, it’s still better than ground combat which features the good old “icons sit there and flash at each other till one side is gone” mechanic. There’s nothing broken here; the system works fine – it’s just boring and anticlimactic. This is the big moment, you’ve crushed the enemy fleet and now you’re readying the drop pods to send in the marines and… Blink… Blink… Blink…  We win? That doesn’t feel like winning.

For the most part, though, combat is satisfying and doesn’t at all feel like an afterthought. I enjoyed it, but there’s certainly room for more development down the road.


Stellaris is often quite beautiful, even striking – the wonders of space are well-realized. Yet my (admittedly aging) system was almost never taxed by the sumptuous graphics. I had a little bit of slowdown when there were thousands of ships battling across my screen. That’s about it.

The contextual sounds are what you’d expect, effects like laser beams and ship engines are as satisfying as you’d hope, and the music is actually better than I could wish for. It’s actually in my head right now as I’m writing this, and I don’t even mind it. I do wish there was a more dynamic soundtrack. It’s hard to marshal my troops for bloody, glorious war when something ethereal and maudlin is playing in the background.

stell exp

My cruiser looks really happy about melting my opponents’ fleets to slag.

With all the big things that Stellaris does well, it is easy to overlook the subtler functionality that enables the game to be great. Paradox clearly put time into building the foundation of Stellaris, and all of the elements, from gameplay mechanics to the UI and visuals, fit together beautifully.

For instance, the developers have created one of the best UIs I’ve seen in a game of this type. Making so much information accessible and intuitive is really quite a feat. There are games with many fewer options that are far harder to navigate than Stellaris. This is an especially impressive feat considering that past Paradox games like Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings 2 are infamous for their terrible UIs.

The “Outliner” feature, a sort of universal menu on the right of the screen, deserves particular mention. You can do almost everything you want right from that little list. Upgrade your planets, send your navy into battle, check on factions – it’s all there, sometimes better presented than on the main screens dedicated to those same functions. I learn more about what my planets are building from the Outliner than I get from the planet screen itself. Contextual clicking on the map is also a joy. Want to start mining a system? Select a construction ship from the Outliner, right click on the system, select “build mining.” That’s it.


This game is so pretty.

I did have an issue, however, with the pop-ups that come down from the top of the screen. They’re just not all that informative and occasionally distracting. Letting me know that my planet finished building something is awesome. Not telling me what the project was is frustrating. Clicking the pop-up takes you to the system screen, i.e., not the planet screen where the construction was done, which makes the lack of information even more galling. I could have just finished building a factory or upgraded a farm… There’s far too much to keep track of in this game for the updates to be so opaque.

With everything Stellaris offers, it’s amazing to see that there is also multiplayer. The game-finder is a little choppy, but navigable, and the game itself runs well once you’re set up. I didn’t experience lag or de-synching issues – it ran about as well as when playing single player. Setting up a universe with another person was neat, but it didn’t feel all that exciting with just two. If you could get 10-15 people dedicated to the game for several days, I think you’d have something pretty special. But that seems like a lot to ask.

While Stellaris often feels like space 4X perfection, it is definitely not flawless. I encountered multiple minor bugs during my play time, including faces and clothing of leaders changing for no reason, misidentified races, admirals being listed as “available” when they are clearly assigned, and missing quest markers. There are enough little issues that it’s often hard to tell between a bugged feature and an intentional design decision. That said, I was playing on a review build, not the final release, so some of these issues may be fixed by the time you get the game. Further, I have no doubt that any remaining bugs will be hunted down and squashed by Paradox.


I encountered more bugs on-screen than I did in the game.

More important, however, are the bugs I didn’t see: no crashes or black screens, no missing features or uncompletable quests (I had one where the planet names were changed, but that was still completable, just annoying), no weird memory leaks, and no massive graphical glitches. A game this big, this complex, is going to have errors and I went in expecting a bit of a mess. It is to Paradox’s credit that there were so few bugs and none were game-breaking.

Other little issues will come up as you play. Like gnats on a sunny summer’s day, they don’t ruin anything, but it would be great if there were fewer of them. I mentioned some of the UI missteps above. I also miss being able to click-drag to move the screen. The contextual clicking works so well that the few times it fails, especially with giving research ships additional projects, it feels all the more egregious.

I can’t look more closely at my leaders from the leaders’ screen. The pop-up showing your relations with other civs is both unintuitive and uninformative. If I have an embassy or a rivalry with another race, it shows up on my list, rather than theirs. This means players have to mouse over the rivalry icon in front of the empire’s name, then scroll through and figure out which race it was that upset them. There are easily twenty or more empires whose relations affect mine, even in a relatively small game. The fact that this screen is so strange only exacerbates the issues.


Anyone else craving a sunny side up egg right now?

Stellaris has two victory conditions: kill all the alien races or occupy 40% of the galaxy. For a game that is all about options, those goals for the end game feel oddly under-developed. If there is one thing we’ve learned from contemporary 4X design, it is that conquest and expansion are hardly the only two ways to win a strategy game. I think there are plenty of opportunities to add more down the road, and I hope they will.

The developers have, however, stated that players will encounter endgame challenges, such as evil AI revolutions and interdimensional invasions to give players something to wrestle with. It will be interesting to see how these play out: whether they give the game a more dynamic ending or just add one more to slog through before you call yourself done and start up a new empire. I’ll admit this concept does not appeal to me, but Paradox deserves credit for trying something outside their regular wheelhouse.

As much as I am in love with the Stellaris we have now, I’m salivating at what the game could become with post release development. It’s a foregone conclusion that there will be loads of DLC. And like other Paradox games, Stellaris is designed to be moddable. Just look at other Paradox games and get giddy over what can/will be done in Stellaris.


A whole great galaxy to explore.

Like our own passion for the infinite adventure of space, Stellaris was clearly a labor of love for the developers. Every night since I received my copy, I’ve closed my eyes at night imagining what I’ll do next. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so enamored. The game is not just well-made or high-quality. Stellaris has a unique spark, like a comet streaking across the sky and not seen again for generations to come.

Rob’s Additional Perspective:

4X will never be the same. I’m nearly certain that Stellaris will have the same sort of impact on strategy games and more importantly, 4X games, that titles like Galactic Civilizations 2, Master of Orion, and Distant Worlds did. Paradox took their familiar formula, made it more accessible, set it in space, and added so much relevant content that I’m still finding new things 55+ hours in. It plays much better than even I had anticipated.

Stellaris is the first game to make me feel like a true space emperor. From the establishment of my ideals and ethics, to the selection of my hull types, and to the depiction of my alien race, never before have I been given so many ways to personalize my experience. My current game, with a race of one-eyed birds, has progressed from one fledgling colony to a juggernaut at the head of a powerful federation that threatens to take over the galaxy. The journey has been incredibly fun and I can’t wait to do it again, this time with more Fallen Empires and a bigger map!

That’s not to say that Stellaris is without its faults. Notifications don’t always convey pertinent information, sectors aren’t very accessible and building infrastructure in them is cumbersome. Then there is the zooming issue where I can’t just go in and out of systems freely from the galaxy map. I find that rather strange. I’ve also encountered some graphical glitches during combat.

My absolute biggest qualm, since I’ve reached the end-game, is the lack of victory conditions. The two currently implemented are fine for a short while, but I’ll need more to keep starting more games! Please, Paradox, add more, and don’t make me pay for them.

Just before the Federations and the blobbing occurred in Rob’s game.

However, these are all easily overlooked (for now), as the release version of this game runs well, is extremely fun, and so immersive that you have to nitpick to see some of these issues. This is my favorite space 4X in decades and with Paradox’s business model for their DLC, expansions and patching, I have a feeling we’ll be enjoying this game for at least another half decade before it’s all said and done. Transformative games like this don’t come around very often and even when they do, it’s usually not very obvious at first just how much those games affect their respective genres. Stellaris’ contributions to 4X are immediate and obvious; our beloved genre will forever be better for them.

TL;DR: Stellaris is an absolute masterpiece, combining the Paradox sensibilities of grand strategy and epic international relations with the best that space 4X has to offer. Those looking to experience a huge range of spectacular encounters, in a seemingly endless galaxy, while feeling like true space emperors, are going to be very, very happy.  The game isn’t perfect, but knowing that it can and will grow almost makes it more of a pleasure to play. Stellaris is a landmark in the genre and we fully expect it to have a lasting impact on the games we play and love.


You Might Like This Game If:

  • You dream of space exploration, staring up at the stars, wondering what is waiting out there for us to discover
  • You love the Paradox Grand Strategy games and you’re not averse to the sci-fi setting
  • You enjoy the roleplaying aspect of a 4X, going into a game with certain goals and trying to achieve them
  • You like a deep game that can take days or even weeks to complete
  • You’ve played the heck out of MoO, GalCiv, and ES and are looking for the next big thing

You Might Not Like This Game If:

  • You only like turn-based strategy games
  • Big games with lots to keep track of turn you off, even if they do their best to keep from overwhelming you
  • You must have asymmetrical races with unique, specialized traits, a la Endless Legend
  • You need deep, strategic or tactical combat
  • You want a distinct victory condition to aim for in every playthrough

Review Policy

Joshua played for 70+ hours on a custom-built Maingear X-Cube with an AMD Phenom II X4 processor, 8 GB DDR3 RAM and a Radeon HD 5800.

Rob played for 55+ hours on an Intel Core i7-4770, Windows 10, with a 390X Fury and 16 GB RAM.

54 replies »

  1. I almost never pre-order, and i really think it’s a good practice in general. However, i made an exception here, and i’m not surprised to see the amount of love this game generates. I’m also salivating…just need to wait 45 mins more :S

    Excellent and very informative review, thank you!


  2. Most 4X games have some form of morale/rebellion/vassal/sector mechanics, but they generally are superfluous in the sense that they don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.

    In the few cases where they *DO* matter, they are generally only aggravating, as the interface is rarely set up for meaningful feedback or acting upon that feedback. (Sword of the Stars 2 comes to mind.)

    Stellaris sounds like it might be the first 4X game to really pull this off!


  3. It’s a real-time game, with real-time (not instanced) combat, right?

    I’m afraid that while the game clearly seems to be set up to allow some very meaningful roleplaying,
    it’s fast paced nature won’t really be conductive to that in multiplayer.
    It wouldn’t matter that there’s 15 people playing the game, if there’s no time for them to conduct meaningful diplomacy.
    I’d expect the games to quickly end up in a free-for-all, with random alliances dictated by in-the-moment circumstances, and any roleplay thrown out of the window the moment it’s clear it’s a losing proposition for that player, compared to exploiting the mechanics to win.
    But at that point, why would you play Stellaris, when there are better competitive multiplayer 4X out there?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stellaris has a tempo, I find, and that allows for plenty of points where it would be possible to discuss things like treaties. It’s not racing along like, say, StarCraft. There are slower moments for contemplation, most definitely.


      • Yeah, but what about the moments when the action happens?

        For instance if an empire back-stabs you, you’ll hardly have the time to put diplomatic pressure on it trough your and his neighbors, since you’ll have to dedicate your attention to your own empire’s defense?

        You are unlikely too see epic, pages long, in-character exchanges between empires either, with in-game screenshots and all…

        So I doubt you can have diplomacy, player coordination, and role-play nearly as meaningful as in, say a Play-by-E-mail game with, say a 1 turn per day game speed.


    • Like all Paradox games, Stellaris has a range of speed settings. On Fast or Faster, engagements and wars will zip by. On Slowest, even just going across a system will take a while. A multiplayer game moving on slowest will have ample time for inter-player diplomacy. Past that, the game can be paused at any time.

      As for your second point, that Stellaris can’t compete with a play-by-email for roleplaying: well of course it freaking can’t. You’re comparing a house-ruled system designed primarily for that purpose against the base rules of a game. With the tools available to you in Stellar is, you could easily construct house rules to reinforce the same behavior. But honestly, as a GSG player, saying that there is no time for diplomacy is silly. You’re going to have plenty of time.


  4. Thanks guys. Great review as always. Kind of a stark contrast to the ign review. I have a question, if you don’t mind. In multiplayer games, if I’m playing in a game that my friend created, will we both still get to see the “tactical battles” play out? One of the things that frustrates the tar out of us is that the new MOO doesn’t have that option in multiplayer. I am hoping Stellaris is more like EL/ES/SOTS in that regard. Thanks!


    • You will, yes so long as you have shared vision. The battles all happen on screen in real time, so if there’s a war between the two of you, you’ll see it. If you’re allied with your friend and he starts a war (or vice versa), you’ll absolutely be able to watch it play out. However if your friend is in combat and you’re not allied, his actions are hidden by the fog of war, so you wouldn’t see it unless one of your ships was in that system, as well.


  5. Rob, Do you think Stellaris could be the space strategy game that takes the place of classic MoO 1 & 2 as the legendary game that future space 4x games will be compared to?

    I mean, I know people are going to compare this game with others coming out over the next year, but I wonder if 5 even 10 years from now Stellaris will be considered the foundation of space 4x that everybody tries to recreate.


      • Good grief. I’m not asking if he knows it. I’m asking if he thinks that after having played it. It’s just an opinion. Given what a lot of people are saying in their reviews, it seems plausible.


    • I can’t speak for Rob, but for myself, that’s what the eXemplary rating means. The game is not just good, we expect it to redefine the genre in some way. I don’t think it’ll unseat MoO just because Master of Orion was the first and that always counts for something. But yes, my belief is that this game should become a tentpole of space 4X along with MoO, GalCiv, and (in my opinion), Endless Space.


    • I think people will speak of Stellaris in the same type of way they speak about Distant Worlds: Universe. Nothing will ever replace MOO 1&2, there’s too much nostalgia. But Stellaris is clearly the new classic for this decade.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Distant Worlds was definitely a well-established (if even more underappreciated) classic before Universe. The vanilla game wasn’t great from what I understand, but Rise of the Shakturi and particularly Shadows are what made it a classic.

        Universe just took those expansion (plus the less great Legends expansion), streamlined them, reduced the price under the $70-something it cost to buy them individually, and launched it on Steam. It definitely took a few expansions to make DW the classic it is, but Universe was more the wrapping paper.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with Troy that there’s no replacing MoO 1 and 2 in that way. They’ve made their impact, won their fans, and built their nostalgia.

      What I *do* believe Stellaris may pull of is breaking space 4X out of its decades-long rut, and set a new standard for what’s possible in the genre and setting. In that way, yeah, I can see it being a new MoO 1/MoO 2. I just don’t see it replacing them.


      • It’s interesting that you mentioned a decades long rut for space 4X. I know some won’t agree. I myself am on the fence. There have definitely been some great space strategy games since MoO 2, but I’ve also felt like there’s been a definite stall the past few years.

        With the MoO reboot, clones, recreations, and all the talk about trying to create the next space 4X that captures the essence of MoO over the last few years; I find it interesting that the space 4X that appears to be the run away hit is the one where the devs chose to blaze their own trail and take some real risks rather than just try to make the next classic that was true to the MoO formula.

        Honestly I got a little tired of all the “MoO is our inspiration” I was seeing from studios. MoO 1 & 2 were wonderful, but how often do you create something truly great simply by seeking to emulate your predecessors. Of course, there’s a reason for the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but imo, if you really want to “recreate the magic” you have to risk innovating even the things that aren’t broken.


  6. The biggest thing that has me scratching my head (I haven’t played it yet) is the endgame. I love that there are some robust and varied endgame threats (from what I’ve heard), but I’m a bit deflated to hear that there aren’t any compelling or interesting victory options. Stellaris, with all the initial wonderment to be found in exploring a rich galaxy and interacting with various aliens and factions, has the perfect setup to do something really amazing with the victory conditions. I’ll love to see some sort of all-encompassing transcendence victory condition that goes beyond researching some top level tech to having to transform your empire itself in some crazy, final, ultimate act. Going post-physical or slipping into a parallel brane universe, or ascending to a higher dimensional order … something wild like that. I’ll keep my DLC fingers crossed…

    Liked by 1 person

      • That may indeed be the case …. but I find this approach to be incredibly strange. How can you make a truly engaging strategy game if you haven’t figured out the winning conditions or made them interesting and challenging? Everything… pacing, flow, balance, decision points, etc. should feed into the end goals of the game to make a complete experience (IMHO). What would happen if you played a boardgame that didn’t have a end game trigger or victory condition? Are you just supposed to push the pieces around the table or keep reshuffling the deck to infinity?

        Without being built around the end game and race/competition for victory (brace yourself), I’m hesitant to even call the thing a “game” … at least not a competitive one. It’s more of a galactic survival sandbox where you get to roleplay the emperor … which is completely fine too, but to call it a strategy game makes me scratch my head sometimes.


  7. Oliver I agree completely – I don’t think Stellaris is a game, but rather a simulation. I also agree that the opportunity for some really interesting, unique victory conditions is very much in play for Stellaris.

    I believe they have two options going forward. Embrace the ‘role play/sim’ nature of Stellaris and remove all victory conditions, or add a bunch of interesting unique goals like the ones you suggested above. This in-between thing where the game encourages as much diverse thinking as possible but then drops two generic, war-based victory conditions does not work.


    • Thank for the insight! Stellaris sounds great (and I’ve bought it already) and I have high hopes for improvements regarding victory.

      I just wish **for once** that a 4X game would be designed from the onset around an interesting endgame so we can experience the results.


  8. Victory conditions and diplomacy stuff are probably reserved for the DLC’s. Knowing PI, they don’t add too much stuff to the base games anymore ;=).


  9. Click-drag works with the middle mouse button. I knew I saw it in one stream somewhere. It took a little experimentation, but it’s there….not what I intuitively try to do, but it’s there.


  10. Well done guys. Where as other sites seem to have lost their way and can’t tell a good game from one that’s bad (I’m looking at you 3MA), you boys are flying the flag for inventive and creative developers everywhere.

    Stellaris is a triumph and it will only get better with time.

    The big problem these days is knowing what to play: Age of Wonders 3, Endless Legend, Xcom2, Stellaris; I wish I had four pairs of arms…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just out of curiosity, having spent roughly 25 hours with the game so far.. what exactly do you find inventive about this game?

      At first, I would have said the exploration and research sections of the game, based on what was described in the dev journals and what i was hoping for. In the end it just amounts to the same tropes others have done before. For example exploring systems is practically identical to DW:U, but even less compelling due to a lack of fuel mechanics for ships. The technologies that you research themselves could not be more bland, by and large just incrementally improving game mechanic numbers and percentages, rarely giving the player any meaningful or strategic choices. (Naval Capacity +10% or Missle Weapon III, fun!)

      In my opinion the population mechanics such as species, traits, and divergence is all that seems somewhat new. To be honest, I don’t think its particularly well fleshed out either, although the foundation is definitely there. In its current state as mentioned on the 3MA pod and other places, you can see that there is a potential for those mechanics to drive some new and interesting strategic and role playing choices, they just don’t quite happen yet.

      I’m not saying the game as it stands now is bad, it’s certainly not. I just think people praising it as inventive, a step forward, or anything else is a major stretch unless the people praising it haven’t played any of the other recent games in the genre.

      Hopefully some DLC and content/modding over time will begin to layer more innovation on top of a good foundation that this game presents. I trust the developer enough to think they will be able to make that happen over time (as opposed to say Firaxis with Civ: BE)

      Liked by 1 person

      • When you say, “Less compelling due to a lack of fuel requirements…” I say, “Less tedious due to a lack of fuel requirements.” When you say, “technologies could not be more bland…” I say “technologies are straightforward and easy to understand…” When you say, “not fleshed out…” I say, “perfectly adequate for the job.”

        Stellaris gets the praise from me and others because it is good the way it is. It is also not trying to be the most complicated game ever which is what DW:U is to many of us and what I’m afraid ES2 will become.


      • Certainly its fair that everyone is looking for something different and can create their own interpretation of what is boring, tedium, interesting, compelling or otherwise. I was just genuinely curious as to what exactly is inventive about most of what this game has to offer at this point. I won’t argue that the game is good, and enjoyable to play. I enjoy it myself.

        I just can’t see where anyone would interpret what is here is some change in direction for the space 4x genre unlike for example Endless Legend, which introduced a variety of new mechanics and wove them all together pretty effectively out of the gate.

        I think we all hope and agree that with the support of Paradox there is plenty more to come through DLC that will add to the package as it is.


      • @ 20Five – good reflections. I’m growing increasingly pessimistic towards the current State of steallaris. Like you said, I don’t find many of the mechanics particularly innovative or original. Some of them are. But the bigger problem is that so many of the choices I face in the game just feel inconsequential in their results or the best path forward is the only path forward (or the obvious choice). The game is competent, but there is no spark for me.


  11. Very informative review, thanks! If I can ever tear myself away from playing GC3, I’ll definitely be checking it out.


  12. Wow, that’s an extrem positiv view most of you have. I know i’m pretty picky and i read steamreviews and comments at spacesector.com that shy me away of Stellaris, that it’s still not worth my time.

    What is about the tedious or utterly boring mid to end game? AI that is unable to make your people happy and causes whole sectors to rebel? UI desaster that you have to search every system manually to find your shipyards and bases? that conquered planets are even after 50 years utterly usless because of unhappyness but you are not allowed to garrison troops to stabilize and protect the infrastructure? War get’s tedious because of the system itself, you can often just conquer few systems (usless) systems and then you have to wait ages to finish them off? Diplomacy, that should be a big part of such a game is just rudimentary and lacking options. That the fleetsystem is just painful because your most damaged ships from the last battle are again in the front row for easy pick for your enemy next battle. In general to passive AI. Questlines that are stuck behind empire borders, quests that are unfinishable because an opponent empire took out the fleet instead of you and the system doesn’t react in anyway. Upgrading Ships is a chore, as it’s flat price and time it consumes (not short under what a new ship would cost), even it’s just few parts that need to exchanged, so to upgrade a big fleet in an reasonable time, you need to split it and spread it to all of your shipyards (which you have to search because the UI doesn’t show you). War AI is dump plays cat and mouse with you, so you can distract the main enemy fleet with a small fleet and take out the rest or you have to chase them to give the finall hit. NO tradenetworks and so on.

    As i said, i don’t own the game, it’s just what i read. Everyone of the players said it has an freaking great start, exploration rocks absolutely, but after sectors and midgame outrunning most of the quests it’s just dull. Most say it’s polished but unfinished (AI, Diplomacy, Tradenetworks etc.) So an unfinished Paradox title where you have to spend around 100$ DLC for the complete experience or juggle with tons of mods.

    It’s a lot of negative points that accumulate for me. I see you adressed some of it but most not in detail and your review indicates that it’s an instant classic but for me it looks rather “just” promissing. i know it’s a harsh sentence for someone who didn’t play it, but i know how picky i am and especially how scarce my time is.
    Did anyone have similar experiences of what i read and is kind of concerned about it or are you all just in love with stellaris?


  13. Fimbul:

    Every reviewer is going to bring their own perspective to the game. I can only say what I experienced and can’t really speak to what other reviewers enjoyed/did not enjoy.

    To your specific concerns, I can only say that some of them were things I didn’t encounter in my playtime and others just aren’t problems for me. For instance, you note that the game has no trade networks. To me that IS a positive because I find that kind of gameplay tedious. But that’s just me :)

    I think, in the end, that’s why it’s important to read multiple reviews and to hunt down (and support) reviewers whose opinion and game preferences tend to match your own. There is no such thing as a “wrong” review, but I know that some people’s opinion will not match mine. Perhaps my preferences are different than yours. That’s fine. Take my reviews with an extra grain of salt, then.

    For me, I’ve had fun with the game every minute I played and I’ve continued to play almost every day.


  14. I kinda disagree with the review score. While the early game of Stellaris is truly something to behold and follow, its mid and late game is severely lacking. There essentially is nothing happening. You can’t explore anymore, because you are surrounded by other empires, but you can’t conquer them either, because the war score system essentially forces you into bite sized micro-wars for 3-5 planets at a time. As much as I have waited for that game, as much as I have loved its early hours, right now I cannot bring myself to play, because of the stale and boring mid-late game it brings.


  15. Then, besides the boredom, there is the useless diplomacy, where the most I want from AIs is to stop hammering me with useless requests for stuff I denied N+1 times already.

    The rather weak combat system, which is 90% of the time – unless there are huge tech differences – “biggest blob wins”, but even if we would call it rock paper scissors, that does not matter, because you have 0 control over the way your fleet behaves in combat. Even CK2 “numbers only, nothing visualized” combat system was more interesting. Combat visuals are only good to get an idea what setup the enemy sports, but for that its way too chaotic.

    Last, but by far not least, there is the lack of balance in racial perks. Being a militarist means you can have an obscene amount of influence from rivalries, which in turn equals to more headroom for land grabbing with stations. Since much of the game boils down to economy and that – besides RNGsus – is a factor of how many systems you control, militarist instantly equals huge and powerful even before you have waged any wars. Wanna be an economic powerhouse? Try military dictatorship… because apparently materialist oligarchies do not like to build and maintain space stations for the sake of claiming resources… yeah, likely.


    • If the combat was purely about countering opponent’s designs based on a few archetypes (aka “rock/paper/scissors”), then any combat visualizer or tactical control would be completely superfluous.



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