It took me more time than I figured write a review for Stellaris’ new update/expansion Le Guin/MegaCorp. Part of the reason was that like any other Paradox Interactive game, it takes hundreds of hours of play time just get a feel of it. Another part is the fact that like any major overhaul, I had to basically re-learn how to play the game from scratch.
This is the main problem with reviewing any of the Paradox Interactive grand strategy games. They are constantly morphing. What is true today may be completely different by the end of the year as more and more expansions, downloadable content and free updates are implemented into them. This means that on the one hand players can rely on years of new content and game support. On the other hand, they’ll need to open their wallet frequently and be certain that coming back to any game after a long absence means going back to square one.
If you are interested only in my thoughts on the changes themselves, you can skip to the end of the article where I give them in bullet points. If you want a full review of all the major changes, you’ll have to wade through all the following paragraphs. You, the reader, have been warned!
So Stellaris Is…
For those still unaware, Stellaris is a 4x (eXplore, eXpend, eXploit and eXterminate) game set in the distant future of 2,200 AD. In the game the player can build a stellar empire from scratch, explore a vast galaxy filled with various mysteries, settle planets, confront marauders and fallen empires and in the end try to survive against a galaxy threatening crisis. So far, so good, so what does Le Guin add to the mix?
Le Guin is basically a complete economical overhaul. Pretty much everything had been changed to make the economy a more robust and complex system. I can write countless pages comparing this new system to the old one but that would be both boring and very technical in nature. Instead I’ll write this review as a first time player learning to play the game (though I may still bring up the past here and there).
It’s the Economy, Stupid!
Playing Stellaris well requires mastering the economy. The economy consists of five resources; food, energy, minerals, alloys and consumer goods.
Food is obvious. To grow a population, you need a surplus of food. Food requires farmers and agriculture districts or hydroponic farms.
Energy operates as currency and is needed by pretty much everything in the game. From trade to the upkeep of structures and fleets. Only technicians can create energy in generator districts.
Minerals are basically raw materials which are used in their base form to build structures, districts and mining stations. They can be harvested in mining districts by miners.
Alloys and consumer goods are both created from minerals using specialized buildings and workers. Alloys are required to build ships and star bases while consumer goods are, well, consumed by the population. Consumer goods can also be used by other specialists for various jobs.
Phew, let me catch my breath. This is the basic economy, without getting into other stuff like unity output, influence and strategic resources. So let’s get into them! Unity is basically a pseudo resource that can be created by various specialists. Unity itself is used to unlock traditions which give various benefits and abilities to the empire (just an example, the prosperity tradition lowers upkeep and increases specialist output among other things). Once a tradition tree is completed, a perk point is unlocked which gives the empire a special, distinct ability (from building galactic wonders to advance genetic tailoring and so forth). In the late game, unity can be spent to purchase special edicts.
Influence is a more static resource. Each empire has a fixed increase of influence based on its civics and government type. Though some technologies and traditions do give flat increases, it is still a very slow replenishing resource. Factions can also contribute to the overall influence gain, but most empires will fluctuate between a 3 – 6 monthly gain. This is because influence dictates expansion as claiming systems requires the use of influence. This also applies for conquest claims for wars. Last but not least, diplomatic agreements also require influence to maintain. Thus influence can be seen as a check against unlimited growth.
Strategic resources can be found all over the galaxy, some are more common than others. They have many applications in ship construction and in the creation and maintenance of advanced buildings. Suffice to say that securing an adequate amount of them is important for any empire. Besides being used for those things, strategic resources can be stockpiled just like any other resources and used in special edicts that give temporary bonuses to an empire such as faster terraforming speeds or stronger ship shields for example.
The Invisible Hand of the Free Market
Say a player is lacking alloys for a construction project or requires certain strategic resources they have no access to, what would they do? In the past the answer was either to wait for production to catch up or fight to gain access to the resources. With Le Guin, the answer can be much simpler, and less bloody; the galactic market. The galactic market is accessible to players from the start and has pretty much every resource imaginable. A player can purchase stacks of material from the market or put in place monthly orders. The market only accepts energy credits as payment and if a player is short on cash, they can always sell other resources to make up the difference. Truly capitalism at its best.
That said the market collects a fee and commodity prices aren’t set in stone. If a player buys a lot of alloys, the price per unit will spike depending on volume. Prices may subside as time goes by, but with other empires also purchasing or dumping resources into the market, players should expect some wild swings.
Trade Makes the Galaxy Go Round
One of the newest additions to the game is the trade mechanic. Trade routes are established between colonies and the capital along hyperlane and gateway connections. For trade to be collected in a system, it needs to either have an upgraded star base in it or be in range of a trade hub, which is a star base module. The trade value itself is fixed on asteroid and other celestial bodies but on colonized worlds differ according to many factors. The more populous and developed a world is, the greater its trade value is. That said, there are ways to directly increase trade value like certain buildings and jobs. Once trade is collected it generates energy credits and can, through policies, be partially converted into consumer goods or unity points.
Where there is trade, there is piracy. Pirates are attracted to trade lanes. In fact their new spawning mechanics sees them grow in overstretched and poorly protected trade lanes. The more they are allowed to operate uncontested, the more they grow, eating into the profits and finally spawning an actual pirate fleet. Should the fleet overwhelm the local star base, a pirate base will spawn. Thankfully, the player can assign fleets to patrol trade routes and keep the pirate presence at bay.
District 9, 10, 11…
The word district had been mentioned before and now I want to expand on it. In the previous iteration planet size dictated the number of tiles it had which would have exploitable resources on them. With Le Guin, this has been radically changed. Planet size now refers to the amount of districts a world can build. There are four major types of districts: Agriculture, Mining, Generator and City. Each type provides housing and jobs. While city districts are only limited in number to the planet’s overall size, the other three are determined by the planet’s properties. These planetary features can be viewed, showing how each contributes to the number of available districts. If a planet has a lot of ore-veined cliffs for example, these will increase the available mining districts while if a planet had an abundance of bountiful plains, that means it will have a large number of agriculture districts available for construction.
So far, so simple. Besides districts, each planet has 20 building tiles. These are unlocked by population size, with each five members unlocking a new slot. Building slots are universal, with most buildings available across the empire. That said some planetary features may grant special buildings such as crystalline caverns which allow the construction of special mines to extract the strategic resource. Most buildings though require population to work at, so balancing districts, housing and population is important in colonial development.
Last but not least is the aspect of specialization. As written above, planetary features dictate the amount and type of districts available for construction. This means some worlds will have an overwhelmingly large amount of mining districts available while others may have an evenly spread number of districts. If a world has a large number of districts or buildings of one type built, it will gain a specialization. A simple explanation would be a world where only mining districts are built, making it a mining world that has an inherent bonus to mining output. On the same weight, a world where most building slots are used by forges will become a forge world that will gain a bonus for alloy production. Specialization is important in the grand scheme of things as it is more efficient.
Work, Work and More Work!
Districts provides housing and jobs, and so do buildings, but what does it all mean? Simply put, housing is the number of population a world can accommodate without negative penalties. Jobs, on the other hand, are basically everything needed to produce and manufacture everything. Temples have priest jobs, civilian industries have artisan jobs and mining districts give miner jobs. These jobs need to be filled by citizens, slaves or machines. That said there is a job hierarchy. Administrators need to be part of the ruling class, specialists need to be rights holding species and workers are pretty much the riffraff.
Jobs basically create everything. Miners work in mining districts and produce minerals which are used by specialists in the civilian industries to create consumer goods which are then converted by the priests in the temple into unity and social research. This is the essence of Le Guin, the creation and operation of production chains. Of course this machinery needs workers at every stop. If districts and buildings lack workers, they won’t operate, or will do so in reduced capacity. This means players need to keep an eye on staffing levels and make sure population grows to the desired levels.
Of course, districts and specializations are not set in stone. With stellar expansion, the needs of an empire may change, not to mention the increase in size. Le Guin’s current expansion driver is mineral wealth which is needed for alloys and consumer goods. This means worlds may change designation as population growth unlocks more building tiles. Agriculture worlds may turn into industrial worlds filled with civilian industries and generator worlds may turn into refineries, synthesizing the strategic resources needed by the empire and so forth. This change in designation happens automatically but may pose a problem due to stratification.
According to empire civics, traditions and species rights, the population is sorted into jobs. If districts and buildings are replaced/demolished, these jobs disappear. The population that worked there is left unemployed which may pose a problem. Unemployment may cause unrest and is a drag on local resources. Worse yet, depending on various factors, new jobs may not be staffed by existing population as social mobility is now a thing in Stellaris. Thus planning is very important in colonizing worlds, not to mention the importance of knowing the benefits and drawbacks of the civilization the player chooses and their forms of government.
Blackjack and Hookers
I’ve already mentioned housing and jobs, now its time for the other important factor governing population: Happiness. Happy population increases the world’s stability which is translates into higher resource output and trade value. The more unhappy a population is, the less stable the world which will lead to unrest, nasty negative modifiers and even open revolt. Happiness itself is a complex thing (ain’t that the truth) that takes into account species rights, traditions, civics and amenities.
Like everything else in Le Guin, amenities are created by jobs, with certain buildings offering better amenities production. These are important as a lack of amenities will lead to unhappiness. That said, the happiness approval rating is wholly dependent on what type of a civilization a player plays. For a feudal society, so long as the ruler class gets its amenities, the rest of the population will have little to no influence on the approval rating.
Crime and Punishment
I may have already discussed piracy, but crime can occur everywhere, especially on the planets below. Crime can be the result of civics and species rights, government type and even external factors like criminal syndicates branching into a player’s world. When crime does rise, it will start effecting a planet’s stability (not good) and a population’s happiness (doubly bad).
There are ways to combat crime, such as buildings providing enforcer jobs which suppress it, declaration of martial law, crackdown campaigns and other measures. That said, if a player doesn’t get a handle on the rise of crime early on, it may lead to a chain of events which will worsen the situation considerably. Players have to make sure that there are no criminal syndicate empires around them, because those like to spread crime like the plague and also make sure their own worlds are adequately policed.
Speak Softly and Carry a Large Stick
Besides the economy, the second major overhaul the game has seen was the removal of hard caps. An empire can hire as many leaders as it sees fit, the only barrier being their cost and upkeep. For colonization, the same applies but with a caveat. In the past, colonizing beyond the empire’s capacity would often result in huge penalties, necessitating the creation of sectors and transferring planets to them. In Le Guin, the hard cap has been replaced by administrative capacity and empire sprawl.
To put it simply, empire sprawl is the size of the empire as derived from the total number of built districts, claimed systems and colonized planets. The administrative capacity is the ability of the empire to handle this sprawl. That capacity can be increased with technology, perks, certain civics and starting ethics. However any expanding empire would soon outpace its capacity, resulting in negative modifiers.
In the past, these modifiers would wreak havoc on the economy and stability of the empire. With Le Guin, they become more of a nuisance than an actual disaster. Going over capacity results in increased technology, tradition adoption, campaign (edicts costing energy credits), leader recruitment and upkeep costs. These can go quite high but by medium to late game are manageable even at very high multipliers thanks to total empire earnings. That means that leaders may cost a bundle to hire and maintain, but all fleets will have admirals at their head, and the same goes to governors, scientists and generals.
Empires that keep to their administrative cap are basically more efficient, as they don’t incur penalties to research and upkeep. This means that while expansionist empires may manage, more isolationist empires can remain competitive with faster research and more traditions and perks adopted.
Sectors themselves have become automatic. They cover a radius of two hyperlane jumps from planet of origin, with each world settled in their sphere becoming part of that particular sector. They cannot be created by the player and instead spring automatically once a colony world is too far from either the home world or another established sector. There is no way to edit existing sectors either.
A Whole New World!
Talking before on planetary features and exploitation, colonization itself had somewhat changed. In the past, it was always beneficial to terraform a planet before colonizing it since most species have a preferred climate type. Colonizing a planet with low habitability score would result in unhappiness which would make for quite a rebellious populace.
In Le Guin, that changed. Happiness is no longer dictated (for the most part) by planet type. Whatsmore, with certain planetary features being unique to one planet type or another, terraforming becomes less desirable since districts can be lost in the process. Instead, habitability score penalizes the upkeep rate of population as well as its amenities consumption. The worse the climate, the more food, consumer goods and entertainment a population needs.
This saves the hassle of needing to terraform worlds to exploit them and helps, in my opinion, keep a far more diverse empire.
The Silk Road
The last addition, which I myself view as mostly miscellaneous, are the caravaneers. These are small fleets which roam the galaxy in search of trade. They are quite strong early on, but are quickly outpaced by the player by the mid-game. They travel through an empire’s borders triggering diplomatic events in which they offer to sell products or exchange goods for a price. They may also trigger other events like energy theft (the thieving bastards!).
The Caravaneers are mostly harmless, giving a tad of flavor and life to the galaxy but not much else. Their home system is generated randomly and offers the player a chance to buy reliquaries which contain random stuff for CaravanCoinz. Some can have extra resources in them while others are just filled with junk. So yes, loot boxes have made it into Stellaris, even as a joke (my god).
That said, not all civilizations are as effected by the recent changes. Hivemind and machine consciousness empires remain the exception. Both empires cannot generate trade value, are unable to trade or create trade lanes and have no need for consumer goods. This means that for players still getting to grips with the changes, these empires still offer a more vanilla experience and are somewhat easier to play.
The expansion which launched alongside Le Guin, MegaCorp is basically the addition of vulture capitalists as playable empire type and a few interesting add ons. If a player ever wanted to role-play as Weyland-Yutani, they now have a chance.
Civilization wise, Mega corporations are basically trade oriented empires with special civics of their own and a special, exclusive mechanic. They can be made to be pure inter-stellar traders, televangelists working to convert the entire galaxy (and make a lot of money in the process of course) or criminal syndicates like Star Wars’ Hutt Cartel which spread crime and corruption for monetary gain.
Game-wise, they handle pretty much similarly to other empires with one crucial exception; they can open branch offices. Branch offices cost energy credits to establish and can be opened in other empires regardless of permission. Of course distance plays part in their cost but once established, they will generate half the trade value of the world they are located on as income. This makes them pretty lucrative.
Branch offices can be even further expanded upon as the world they are located on grows in population size, unlocking unique building slots available only for the owning mega corporation. These can be used to increase branch office value, build temples to sway local populace into a more spiritual path or underground labs that generate research points with less than ethical methods. The upgrades of course depend on the type of mega corporation in charge.
The branch offices and the host empire can have either a symbiotic or parasitic relationship. Criminal syndicates for example, are complete parasites. The mere existence of a branch office of theirs will generate crime, with each subsequent corporate building only adding to the anarchy. Empires that are forced to host such branch offices will often need to invest a lot in crime prevention. On the other hand, a trade league will establish beneficial buildings that can supply amenities and more trade value to the host civilization, thus ensuring both sides benefit from the presence of its outposts. In both cases though, these buildings provide jobs for the local population and require it to staff them.
Should a mega corporation overplay its hand, especially criminal syndicates, empires do have a remedy. There is a special casus belli (expropriation) added to the game for opening branch offices in a civilization. Winning it will basically shut down all existing branch offices in the empire (though be certain other mega corporations are always ready to jump in). Funnily enough, two mega corporations may also fight each other over branch offices in a hostile takeover. Begun, the franchise wars have!
In a way, branch offices feel more like the beginning of an interesting mechanic rather than a finished product. I suspect they may be fleshed out more in future updates. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Paradox Interactive testing fledgling covert ops mechanics for future iterations since the current system does have a slight feel of it (such as the devastating impact of criminal syndicates). That said, not a huge fan myself.
Age of (Galactic) Wonders
Alongside mega corporations, MegaCorp also added four new galactic wonders into the game, two of which quickly became my favorites; Matter decompressor, strategic coordination center, mega art installation and interstellar assembly.
Matter decompressor – used on black holes, this baby somehow excavates the black hole, creating minerals. With the industrial needs of a growing empire, these matter decompressors become a HUGE boon.
Strategic coordination center – adds naval, star base and defense platform capacity as well as a permanent sub light speed bonus for all empire ships. Quite useful when building up fleet power later on, not to mention the increase in defensive capabilities with more bastions and defensive platforms.
Mega art installation – adds unity and amenities to the empire. Never felt the need to build one.
Interstellar Assembly – increases other empires opinion of the host empire as well as generates immigration pull. The only structure to need consumer goods rather than energy credits to operate. Again, felt no need constructing it.
Besides these, all galactic structures require alloys to construct rather than minerals, meaning that any attempt to rush them early game will be met by the alloy production bottleneck, which is quite fine by me. Each mega structure is a huge investment of alloys (a full mega structure will require as many alloys as two 200 sized fleets which include titans). Another change is ring worlds having only three district types (city, agriculture and generator) but having an upward limit of 50(!) per segment, making them huge energy/food producers.
Perks of the Job
MegaCorp also saw the introduction of three new perks, one being the arcology project, the other being the xeno compatibility trait and last but (not) least being universal transactions.
The arcology project can only be unlocked as a third perk and for a good reason – it is immensely powerful. Once a planet had converted all of its districts to city districts and built them to capacity, it can be transformed for the poultry sum of 20,000 minerals and ten years of hard labour into an Ecumenopolis – a world spanning city. Ecumenopolis replaces all of its districts for four new ones; residential, which offers twice the housing a city district has, foundry which produces alloys (one foundry district is better than a fully upgraded forge plant), industrial which creates consumer goods and finally leisure district which supplies amenities. All told an ecumenopolis can house hundreds of people and generate an absurd amount of alloys and consumer goods.
Xeno compatibility allows different species in an empire to mate with one another (eww) and create half breeds which inherit the traits of both parent species and have an extra trait point and trait limit. This allows quite a remarkable ability of min/maxing breeding to create a truly amazing species with ludicrous traits. That said, while the perk has no tier lock, it does have several perquisites including xenophile ethics, a resident alien species and a specific technology to be unlocked. Also sex with aliens is gross and against Imperial Creed and anyone practicing it should be reported immediately to nearest Inquisition office.
Universal transactions gets to be the runt of the litter. It basically gives a permanent 15% discount on the creation of new branch offices as well as remove the influence maintenance cost from commercial pacts. Not a huge fan of it.
Outside of those three, the rest of the perks had received a nice re-balancing thanks to the patch’s many changes, meaning players have more freedom to choose various new builds rather than stick to the same old, rigid molds. I found myself trying different things and actually creating several new perk suites, each tailored to fit a certain race/playstyle rather than using the same old tired approach I had before.
The galactic market may be a useful tool to get resources, but it has its own seedy underbelly. MegaCorp introduces a dark aspect to the galactic market, namely the slave market. Players are able to buy and sell slaves, which is great for despotic empires to quickly fill workers’ jobs. A player has an excess of slaves? Sell them on the market for some quick energy credits. The same can be done to robots, which is fitting. This also makes the nihilistic acquisition perk extra poignant as a player can raid an enemy planet, enslave its population and then sell it on the market… Talk about unchecked capitalism!
My Personal Thoughts
For experienced Stellaris players that skipped the wall of text to go straight into my personal thoughts/views of the changes I’ll give them in bullet point form:
– The economic overhaul makes Stellaris more hard but at the same time more fun as there is a lot more to manage/do even so far as the mid game.
– The soft cap is a better way to penalize expansion while giving the expansionists a fighting chance rather than previous mechanics. Also there never should have been a leadership cap to begin with but that is my personal opinion.
– The automated sectors are terrible and need fixing. I am okay with a sector size limit and reach, but it needs to be more flexible than what we currently got.
– New perk balancing is a godsend.
– Habitats have kind of become rather useless in the grand scheme of things, being too limited by their district availability and cap.
– Tall game is more viable than before.
– The introduction of amenities and the change to colonization penalty makes early colonization easier and helps in crappy starts.
– New mega structures are a mixed bag, with matter decompressor becoming as important as a Dyson sphere and the strategic coordination center proving very useful for increased fleet power.
– Black holes are the new black gold (pun very much intended). Every empire needs to secure one!
– The arcology project is an amazing perk considering the advantage an Ecumenopolis offers in the raw production of alloys and consumer goods.
– Mega corporations are just not my cup of tea but I understand anyone who does want to play them. That said, there is no better way to grief players early on than with a crime syndicate. Really, that build is just powerful and annoying and can ruin friendships when played cooperatively.
– Not allowing machine mega corporations is a grave miscarriage of justice that should be amended!
– Xeno compatibility is for heretics and anyone using it should be burned at the stake.
To summarize, Le Guin is a gigantic overhaul that pretty much touches on every aspect of the game through the lens of economy. It made planet management more complex and interesting, population growth and housing important, not to mention governing ethics and government form more pronounced overall. It brought a much needed complexity to the game without making it too obtuse or confusing. It removed artificial barriers that felt more constrictive than actually beneficial and re-balanced a lot of different perks and traditions.
MegaCorp itself added a new government form with its own civics and unique mechanics, a few more perks and several new galactic wonders one of which has become pretty much indispensable. Though I admit the mega corporation stuff itself is not my cup of tea, I do like the rest of the expansion and can understand players who do prefer this new form of government with its peculiar mechanics.
That said, the question comes down to, would I recommend it? Its at this point that I feel a tad hesitant. On the whole, I love pretty much everything introduced except the sector mechanics which, to be fair, is a petty gripe. Much of this is things I always wanted to be in Stellaris and getting them feels like a great birthday present.
However, I can’t ignore the voice in my head telling me that this is a patch and an expansion aimed strictly at Stellaris players. If you own Stellaris, then you already get the Le Guin overhaul for free. Chances are you’ve already purchased the MegaCorp expansion as well. If you are not already a fan, this is not going to win you over. So my recommendation will be for the people who pretty much already have it… What a strange thing to do.