Released in December of 2016, Stellar Monarch (SM) is a Space 4X-Grand Strategy Hybrid created by one of our regular eXplorminate forum members, Chris Koźmik and his company Silver Lemur Games. Originally, the game was called Pocket Space Empire, but it was too big to fit in a pocket, so the title was changed shortly after release.
At this point, all of us have been trained to hear “Space 4X” and think “Master of Orion clone.” But thankfully, this is not the case with SM. Chris Koźmik has attempted to do something far different here.
You see, Stellar Monarch is advertised as the antidote to all the same-ness in the space empire morass. The game promises you a more “true” emperor experience, one not bogged down by the day-to-day hassles of other Space 4X games. Instead, you are supposed to feel like “The Man,” ordering your underlings around rather than doing all the work yourself. It’s an enticing premise, and the game’s strengths and weaknesses stem straight from it. On the one hand, it’s great to play something so different. On the other, it quickly becomes clear why everyone else stays on the same old path.
When you boot up SM, you get smacked right in the face by a very daunting vision for a Space 4X game. There are so, so many decisions to make before you get into the whole eXplore, eXpand, etc., that it often feels like you’re drowning in it all. You basically have to know how to play the entire game before turn two ends.
Players start by choosing the universe they’d like to begin with. Standard fare for Space 4X, but you’re not only selecting the number of stars in your procedurally generated galaxy but also the era your empire exists in. There is no way to begin with one planet and then settle from there as you would in a traditional Space 4X game. Instead you can choose to start with an early empire, consisting of a few stars and a somewhat-unexplored galaxy, a mid-range empire where the universe is mostly discovered and the stars are almost all settled, an empire well on its way to decline, or an apocalyptic post-empire where the people are in full rebellion and it’s all over but the crying.
The game recommends picking the medium option to start, but I actually found it easier to start with the growing empire option (which is pretty large in size), because there are fewer variables to sweat over. This is going to be a theme: SM drops you into the deep end of the pool and laughs while you struggle to tread water. Then, just as you’re climbing out, it pushes your head back under the water.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back to game setup. Once you pick the state of the galaxy, you’re given the chance to customize your own personal emperor. Mass Effect, this is not, but you can choose to make your man (yep, future leaders are boys-only) unique with advantages to science or growth. You can also choose to spend less and save your points – turning them into a resource called prestige once you enter the game world. Prestige is a pretty important catch-all stat. It’s needed to control your populace and influence other races. So there’s a nice balance here – you can’t just make Superman and save the day.
There is a problem, however, and it’s one that plagues every last decision you make. There simply isn’t enough context to help you make smart choices. Even after several games, a lot of the inner workings of this digital universe are terribly obscured, hidden deep within a menu, or just poorly explained. Beyond just role playing it (“I want my empire to be money focused and stupid”), there’s little there to guide you in making an informed decision and you are left to just wing it. This advancement gives you an extra 1000cr – is that a lot? This one boosts your Imperial communications range – what does that do?
Let me repeat: even after a fair amount of experience with the game, I’m still unclear as to what many of these bonuses do or what their value is vs other bonuses. That isn’t tight decision-making, it’s just annoying and, admittedly, a little scary. I want to swim, damn you. Why won’t you let me swim?!
Emperor created, you can now generate your galaxy. Huzzah! Time to play! But not yet. First you have to go through almost every major game mechanic, menu by menu, and make some choices for your new empire. Actually, first you have to look at the map.
Chris Koźmik has actually done a pretty decent job with limited graphical assets. The illustrations are cute (although sometimes a bit of a non sequitur – many images don’t depict anything that happens in the game), and the UI is (mostly) clear. There are places where the game stumbles however, and the map – try as it might – is one of those.
Seeing the star map for the first time is just… You’re drinking from the fire hose. One of the reasons space games start with one planet and then let you grow outward is that they’re gradually revealing the universe to you, letting you get used to everything as it opens up – so that by the time you’re looking at a map with hundreds of stars and 20 empires, you’ve grown accustomed to it. SM makes no such allowances; it’s the whole thing all at once and it’s totally overwhelming.
There are your planets – you know this because they all have light blue flags on them. There are numbers on those flags, but what do they mean? Do all the planets with your flag have colonies on them? Or are some of them just in your territory? Then there are all the other colors on the map. Who are those guys? Some are major factions and some are minor. What’s the difference? You have to look at that map and, at some point, assess the situation. That is a tough task.
Anyway, you’ve seen the map, but you’re still not clicking “End Turn” and haven’t even really started the game. Oh no, not yet. First, you have to make decisions for your empire – a LOT of decisions. You can choose your tax rate and what industries you want to promote or penalize. You can set priorities for your planetary governors and what you want them to build and the level of autonomy they have. You have to pick your research – there are five different trees you can go down at one time.
I’m skimming this on purpose, mostly because I could spend pages upon pages on these options. There’s a lot here and it feels both empowering – in that there are a lot of choices – and withering, in that, again, there’s very little context to help you make a decision. Do I want better power plants? Sure, why not? But is that better/worse than getting a new ship hull? Should I research these techs in order, or should I skip around? There is no way to tell if there’s a penalty for doing so or if it’s a smart strategy.
And yet, all of these options are at least somewhat functional and feel like fun decisions. You may find yourself wondering why other games in the genre don’t use more of these features. The choices FEEL momentous and smart. But certainly, once the game starts, you will see the impact of these choices and be able to make more informed decisions, right?
OK, it’s all done. We are ready to play Stellar Monarch now. I promise. Let’s…
In keeping with the premise of the game, you will not be exploring the stars. Manually ordering around science ships and picking destinations… That’s for those other, penny-ante space dictators. Exploration is almost 100% automated. Every turn you’ll get a report listing the planets your ships have looked at. You can click to see where the planet is on the map, examine the planet’s resources, and start thinking about colonizing. But mostly you’ll just be clicking through the reports.
Since you have zero agency in the act of exploration, you’re never really invested in the results. Some scouts found a green planet. Hooray? The larger issue though is that exploration is really a very minor aspect of your overall space adventure. In most SM scenarios you boot up, the majority of the planets are already discovered and in your (or someone else’s) empire. There’s no neutral zone between the Federation and Klingons in this game. Thus, there’s not a lot of excitement in revealing planets you’ve already found.
Well then, surely in eXpand there’s more to do, right? Not really. Again, most of your planets are already incorporated into your empire on your first turn. Or, if they’re not in yours, they’re in someone else’s domain. There may be some unclaimed soil out there for you to plant your flag on, but most of it is well out of reach and it’s tough to tell whether the initial outlay is worth the potential payoff.
Again, the game simplifies the process. You’re not building colony ships or picking who populates them, just clicking a button on the planet screen and sending new residents on their way. So long as a planet is within one warp lane of one of your colonies, you can settle it.
What happens if the planet is NOT within range? Well you can still order your colony ship there and the game will “helpfully” give you a pop-up every monarch-loving turn that will not… Ever… Go away. You can’t recall the ship or undo the action. You’re just going to sit there and be pestered forever ‘till you make a connection that allows the planet to be settled or you turn off the game.
If you do it correctly, however, you’ll get a notice that the planet is now properly settled and… That’s about it, actually. Nothing more to see here. Go back to your regularly scheduled emperor-ing.
Well, then SURELY in eXploit there’s more to do, right? RIGHT?
Eh. Somewhat. Planets produce food (to feed your populace), gas (to generate energy), or minerals (to build stuff), and almost invariably your empire will start with an extreme deficit in at least one of those resources. If you’re low on resources, your people get ornery and, if ignored long enough, they will rebel. That’s bad.
Fortunately, the populace is usually patient enough in the early turns that you can lessen the danger, either by researching the necessary tech to improve resource output or by settling enough planets to generate the needed resources. The latter, however, is a bit of a Catch-22 because those new colonies also increase the demand for said resources, and so it’s just one gradual slide down the drain.
What does work in SM, and its most interesting innovation, is the Imperial Court. Every few turns, the movers and shakers in your empire will show up and ask for help. You can even summon extra ones if you’re not happy with their performance and want to have a little chat about it face to face. This process is shown in a special Audience screen with a bunch of heads, each one with a problem that needs solving. Maybe there was a diplomatic incident that allows your empire to take advantage. Or perhaps a planetary governor is skimming funds. Or maybe someone made a failed assassination attempt on you.
All of these present opportunities to make interesting choices. You can fire that corrupt governor, or you can take his money, or you can let him continue his larcenous ways. But all of those options have consequences. What consequences you ask? Well… That’s not entirely clear. Again, the game doesn’t exactly explain things and even simple choices can suddenly leave you stuck in a confusing quagmire.
To use that same example from above – a planetary governor is stealing money. So let’s fire his sorry ass. Does another governor come in to take his place? Who is that person? Are they less corrupt? More? Maybe they’re incompetent? Some of this is “gameplay” and interesting. A lot of it is just a mystery, and it takes the fun out of things because there’s no way to know what’s going on behind the scenes.
And so, the screen that seems the most exciting in Stellar Monarch – manipulating your many subjects and playing them against each other – ends up as its most disappointing. It’s not Game of Thrones, it’s Candy Land, and damned if you’re not gonna end up drowning in Molasses Lake or wherever. There are bits here, glimpses, of the kind of game SM could have been. A lot of the people who were looking for Stellaris to be a little closer to Crusader Kings II – this is what they wanted! But it’s implemented in a way that makes it worse than broken – boring. Just more clicking for clicking’s sake.
So, ummm, then exterminate is….
Yeah, no. In some ways, battling is SM at its most broken. You don’t have control over individual ships. You have fleets. You can tell the fleets to automate, blocking a border, or you can manually move them around. In order to move a fleet, you just click the number above the planet, then click on another planet, and off they’ll go. If there’s an enemy fleet there, the two will fight.
That’s it. The fleet with more ships invariably wins, so strategy just involves piling as many fleets as you can together and then sending them on their way.
Can you build more ships? Maybe. It’s not clear. What happens when you research a new ship type? I have no idea. How do those new ships join the fleet? Do they replace the old ships or just add on? Where are they built? How do they join fleets? Do they make your navy better? I. Don’t. Know.
Yet, in the end Stellar Monarch is about maximizing your military might – you’re not winning a cultural victory or something like that. So the game forces you to focus on its worst feature. Most of the other races are at war with you when the game begins and the rest will join in soon enough. Sadly, the enemies are more or less indistinguishable from each other, as well, so there’s little to push things narratively, either. There are also space pirates and an Alien-esque bug race no one likes. They will all pick at the edges of your empire, forcing you to constantly shift your fleets around in endless, boring battles. Then your people will revolt, leading to MORE fighting and… Ugh.
All of this might sound like I absolutely HATE Stellar Monarch and the truth is, I really don’t. It’s a very interesting experiment – an attempt by one person to reinvent the genre. The game is full of really innovative ideas and, many times, I found myself amazed at how clever it all was.
Yes, the graphics go from “cute-ish retro” to “downright ugly.” Many of the systems are not fully fleshed out and most are poorly explained. There is A LOT going on, yet most of the gameplay involves just pushing “end turn” and watching it play out in front of you – like a chemistry experiment where you add all the ingredients and hope to see something happen. You don’t ever really feel emotionally invested and in many cases that was a purposeful decision by the developer. But it doesn’t always work well.
SM is also not another MoO clone, and there’s something to be said for that. Stellar Monarch is interesting – there are a lot of smart ideas that other developers with more resources could do and do well. For that alone, I think it’s worth checking out – especially if you’re a game designer.
Chris Koźmik believes in his game and is constantly squashing bugs, will listen to the community, and has a passion for his project that is admirable. At $20, SM isn’t the cheapest thing out there, and there are far too many frustrating issues for me to recommend it. However, if you’re on the lookout for something unique, full of interesting ideas and a new perspective, you may find yourself entranced by the vision of the stars that SM offers.
Troy’s Additional Perspective
Stellar Monarch is a perfect example of a game that has all the right ideas and all the wrong execution. The designer deserves to be saluted for coming up with so many unique and creative mechanics that are pretty much bug-free. SM is truly one of a kind in Space 4X.
However, uniqueness does not imply enjoyability. This game has a massively steep learning curve. No, it’s more like a learning cliff that you have to scale with barely any handholds. You have to understand how nearly every aspect of this game works before you start playing! You have to understand combat because you’re going to get attacked right way. You have to understand research, because you’ve got five decisions you have to make right away. You have to understand all of diplomacy, production, exploration, expansion, palace intrigue, and even the bloody endgame invaders (the equivalent of the Antarans in Master of Orion) by turn two!
One of the advantages of the 4X genre is starting out with a small, manageable board state at the beginning of a game – usually one city or planet. Normally, t rival factions don’t have you backed into a wall, so you get left alone and have time to figure out the basics before having to deal with combat and diplomacy. Not in SM, there is no neutral zone, and internal and external problems hit you in droves right from the start.
The worst part is, the game does not help the player make good decisions. Take ships for example. There are different classes of ships, like any good Space 4X game. However, is it good to diversify your fleet, or is bigger always better? What’s the difference in upkeep? How do ships get repaired? When a shipyard builds a new ship, does it travel alone to its destination or does it wait for escorts? I have no clue.
Joshua complimented the UI, but I found it difficult to use at times. The font is that 80’s pseudo-futuristic script that can be really hard to read. In other places, the font size is so small it’s barely legible.
Overall, I think this game was an admirable attempt at creating a different 4X experience. However, I don’t believe the end result is a very enjoyable game. There is so much to learn right away and once you do, the reward for all that work is mind-numbingly repetitive gameplay.
TL;DR: Stellar Monarch fulfills the promise of dropping you into the role of a true space emperor, in every sense. You won’t be micromanaging; instead you deal with everything on a big picture level in a way that feels unique in Space 4X. However, like someone handed a massive job with little oversight or explanation, you will also often find yourself confused, overwhelmed, and unfortunately, kinda bored.
You might like the game if:
- You’re tired of every game tryin’ to be Master of Orion
- You like the idea of new ideas in games, even if they’re in rough form
- You’ve got a lot of patience, and you’re willing to scour massive amounts of tiny print
- You have a low end gaming computer but still want to play 4X/Grand Strategy games
You might NOT like the game if:
- You need polished gameplay, beautiful graphics, and clean UI
- You’re only into traditional 4X gameplay
- You don’t have a lot of time and you’re not looking to spend it figuring a game out
- You WANT Crusader Kings 2 or Europa Universalis 4 in SPAAACCCEEEEEE
Joshua has played for 15+ hours on a custom-built Maingear X-Cube with an AMD Phenom II X4 processor, 8 GB DDR3 RAM and a Radeon HD 5800.
Troy has played 15+ hours on his Windows 10 Dell Inspiron 7000 Series 7537 BTX 17” laptop with Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-4500U CPU @ 1.80 GHz, 16GB Ram, 64-bit Operating system, x64 processor, and 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics card.
Disclosure: Joshua and Troy were given game keys for Stellar Monarch at no cost for the purposes of review.