Hearts of Iron IV: Kaiserreich (v0.93)

For the Kaiser!

Deciding to review a mod is quite a bizarre decision. Just trying to write the opening paragraph for this article required a lot of rewrites. How exactly do you start such a review? What are you going to focus on exactly? After all, a mod, by its very name, is but a modification of an existing product. Yet, I wanted to write about Kaiserreich because I’ve been enjoying it immensely.

Let’s start from the beginning. Kaiserreich is a mod for Hearts of Iron IV, a Paradox Interactive grand strategy game. In Hearts of Iron IV the player can choose to play as any country in the world that existed in either 1936 or 1939 (depending on when the player chooses to start the game). Then, the player is thrust into the role of managing that nation, steering its politics, industry and most importantly – army and diplomacy. The main focus of the game is grand battle, with industry serving to produce the equipment needed to arm divisions which the player researches and designs. These armies can then be deployed against rival nations in wars of conquest or submission.

Of course, the mechanics are a bit more complex than that but that is the gist of it. Many nations in the base game have their interesting quirks and focus trees, which allow for a more historical playthrough or “what ifs” scenarios. From deposing Stalin and installing a Russian democracy to uniting China under fascism or even turning Germany or France into communist countries. The tools of Hearts of Iron IV allow players to have a lot of fun during that historical period, and Let’s Plays exist of things such as pacifist Germany or fascist USA.

Per for the course of every Paradox Interactive game, Hearts of Iron IV has its own lively modding scene. From cosmetic enhancements, soundtrack additions to complete revamps. Just to name a couple, Road to 56 lengthens the game time (from 1948 to 1956, duh) and adds more focuses and technological research. Old World Blues completely changes the game, recreating the map of the United States of the Fallout universe, with many of the factions and hallmarks of that world. Kaiserreich is quite similar to the latter, as it presents an alternate world where Germany won the Great War (or Weltkrieg).

Thus, the world of Kaiserreich is very different than the one we are used to in a regular game of Hearts of Iron IV. Germany is an authoritarian democracy with a large colonial empire in Africa, East Asia and parts of China as well as puppets in Eastern Europe. Russia is a democracy teetering on the brink of revolution, with many of its western and southern domains lost. Japan is also an authoritarian democracy with an uncertain future. The United Kingdom and France were taken over by communist regimes with their old governments having fled to the colonies (Canada and North Africa respectively). The Austrian empire still exists and Italy remains fragmented. The United States is facing a second civil war while the Qing empire is licking its wounds and planning its reunification of China as a reformed Mongolia under the leadership of a madman dreams of rebuilding the Khanate. Oh, and the Ottoman empire somehow still carries on, though some of its vassals have dangerous ideas of their own…

Truly, the world of Kaiserreich is far more fragmented and politically diverse than the base game, which is one of the great strengths of the mod. Nations in the mod are less predictable and many a great power could fall into internal strife and civil war, removing major nations from the world stage and allowing smaller ones to take their place. The second American civil war often rages for years with three, sometimes four(!), sides participating. In fact, smaller conflicts flare often in Kaiserreich with major nations unable or unwilling to do more than lend small volunteer forces.

The second strength of the mod are its focus trees. Focus trees were introduced to the base game to allow players (and the AI) to more efficiently steer their nations. They require time and political power (one of the resources in the game) to complete and can give bonuses, decisions or lead to future events. Focus trees can help beef up a faltering economy, lead to a fascist takeover of the nation or grant war goals which allow players to declare war on rival or neighboring nations without being constraint by diplomacy. In short, Focuses are the main (though not only) tool by which nations can be transformed in the course of the game.

The Kaiserreich focuses are quite detailed and balanced for the major nations. The Russian focus tree for example kicks into gear a year into the game and allows the player to transform Russia from a failing state to the powerhouse it once was, reclaiming its territory and prestige through either war, diplomacy or a bit of both. Likewise, Japan can take advantage of the fragmentation to build its empire and expel German and Western influence from the far east (sounds familiar…). The Ottoman empire can attempt to regain is former splendor while battling internal enemies. Communist France may try to retake the Alsace and Lorraine regions which Germany had occupied after winning the Great War and so forth.

Added to this are a slew of world events, some caused by focuses, others hard coded into the world. Economic crises, worker strikes and colonial implosions will all serve to cripple economies and make the early game a nightmare to navigate through, as many a major nation will see itself crippled by the events. Indeed, half the fun of the mod is simply surviving to the war.

Alternate history or not, Kaiserreich inadvertently leads to the second Weltkrieg. It seems no matter who wins the Great War, the second round is inescapable (though oftentimes prompted by Communist France which wants to retrieve its territory). After all, Hearts of Iron IV is all about war and Kaiserreich sure delivers on it. I have to admit, Kaiserreich has been much more fun in that aspect than the base game as the war is far more dynamic since there are a lot more power blocs around. Playing as Russia for example, you may once again commit to Communism and join the Third International with France and the United Kingdom to present a two front war for Germany. Germany might get Austro-Hungarian aid, or perhaps Austro-Hungary falls apart due to infighting, leaving southern Europe exposed. Perhaps Russia would re-join the Entente and fight a separate war with France and the United Kingdom to restore French Republicanism and British Parliamentary rule. Or perhaps it would be too busy defending from a Japanese invasion as Japan pushes its advantage in the east exploiting the disarray of the Russian army to conquer Siberia…

Indeed, these scenarios can and have happened to me on multiple playthroughs. Sometimes to my delight, sometimes to my dismay (goddamn Japanese >_< ). In fact, playing the mod with friends on multiplayer has led to some hilarious scenarios. From dividing Europe between the Triple alliance, the restoration of Russia while defending the status quo and defeating Communism to painting the world red with a Communist France, United Kingdom, Soviet Russia and the Combined Syndicates of America…

Besides that, the mod doesn’t change anything regarding geography, resources and technology. In fact, all the core mechanics of Hearts of Iron IV remain unchanged. That said, I do have a few criticisms of the mod.

Of course, criticizing a mod is quite problematic, especially one that is still considered in its alpha stage. This is why I put the version number in the title, and would write an update should these concerns/issues be resolved. Regardless, I think its important to point out the flaws and not just sing the praises of a work.

First and foremost, China had received a major nerf. Outside the Legation Cities (basically port cities in China that are few in number), most of the Chinese factions had their focuses stripped down to the very basics. The only addition is a small bare bones focus tree to allow Chinese unification but otherwise there is little to nothing there which is a shame as after the Soviet Union/Russia, China is my favorite nation to play in the base game (I like massive infantry armies, okay!?). In fact most of the far east has been neutered to some extent, with only Japan, its Chinese puppet and Mongolia given robust focus trees. It seems like the number of interesting nations in the whole game had somewhat declined.

Another issue is the faction system. In the base game, though players can change the rules, countries could influence each other’s political systems, pushing towards democracy/fascism/communism. Push long and hard enough and faction leaders of certain ideologies could invite said countries to factions. Better yet, faction leadership could be usurped by nations who managed to outpace the leaders in industry and army size. This allowed for a more dynamic game in the long run, as well as creating surprises to enemy factions. In contrast, Kaiserreich’s faction system is rigid and constrained. Faction leadership is locked in, and joining a faction requires an event or a focus. Ideologies can’t be changed either through political power, only through events and focuses again. This sacrifices some of the freedom of the base game for what I believe is narrative, which I ended up disliking.

The last major issue I have with the game is its lack of decisions. In the base game there is a mechanic of decisions which requires only political power to activate (and certain prerequisites depending). Though Kaiserreich has a few of them for each nation, there are far fewer than the base game. For example, in the base game, European nations had a decision available for them that if they managed to conquer France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg they can form the European Union, something which Kaiserreich lacks.

Outside of these issues the rest are nitpicks, mostly the lack of variety in advisors and the fact that unlike the base game, developing infrastructure does not increase resource gain, which I assume would be fixed in the future (and unofficial mods patching this already exist). Putting these aside, the mod is quite stable, with only a couple of hard crashes in the hundred hours (or more) I’ve played it both single and multiplayer. Both times I believe the crashes were due to other mods rather than Kaiserreich itself. Regardless, I can say that it has proven to be quite stable and runs without technical issues.

In summation, Kaiserreich is a fun mod, giving a different, alternate history start to the game with more wars, more power blocs and far more surprises than the base game. There is more action, more challenge even when playing major powers and interesting paths for nations to take. That said, the faction/ideology system is rigid, certain nations have lost their uniqueness and there is a lack of decisions that allow for more/different goals for major nations.

I’d recommend this for Hearts of Iron IV players who are looking for a new challenge or more flavor for the game, especially for multiplayer games. Considering this is a mod, thus free of charge and accessible (as well as updated) on Steam, what are you waiting for!?

Stellaris: MegaCorp (Le Guin Patch)

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.

stellaris_2019-01-22_19-27-13

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.

stellaris_2019-01-22_19-25-57
 Adam Smith’s vision on a galactic scale

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.

stellaris_2019-01-20_23-36-23

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.

stellaris_2019-01-22_19-22-43.png

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.

stellaris_2019-01-22_19-21-04
Workers of the galaxy unite, you only have your magnetic restraints to lose!

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.

stellaris_2019-01-22_19-16-02

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.

stellaris_2019-01-22_18-25-04
Future planet Norway, just as hospitable as the real thing on Earth

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).

Retro

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.

MegaCorporations

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.

stellaris_2019-01-22_19-13-08

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.

stellaris_2019-01-20_23-40-46.jpg

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.

stellaris_2019-01-22_19-08-17.png

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.

Corporate Slaves

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!

stellaris_2019-01-22_19-18-31.png

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.

Summary

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.

-End-

Stellaris: Distant Stars

Reviewing a Paradox Interactive game is a tricky job. Within a year or two the game receives patches, new expansions and downloadable content, changing it completely. For long time Paradox Interactive customers such as myself, the base game is viewed as merely a foundation upon which the company will often build upon. Examples of this abound with Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV and Hearts of Iron IV. Stellaris is no exception and while the base game is solid and fun, thanks to expansions such as Utopia and Apocalypse, it has changed considerably. Now Distant Stars comes along to add another layer to the foundation.

Being a downloadable content pack, Distant Stars adds a lot to the game. Rather than breakdown every addition, I want to focus on what I view as the main selling points of the pack. Otherwise I’d just be parroting the change log. First and foremost, Distant Stars adds a whole slew of events to the game. Stellaris already had a large number of events which gave life to its randomly generated galaxy. Distant Stars adds even more, prolonging the exploration phase and giving players who focus on it further benefits. Some of the new events have quest chains and consequences which I’d rather not spoil in the review. Suffice to say they are all interesting and quite surprising at points.

Another noticeable change brought by the content pack is for anomalies. Before, anomalies would be ranked on a 1 to 5 scale and could be failed, leading to some catastrophic events (and dead scientists). With Distant Stars, anomalies rating scale was doubled, reaching to 10. Furthermore, scientists can no longer fail anomalies, turning the ranking into as a multiplayer which increases research time. The balance of risk versus reward is still maintained though as the multiplayer can really stack up. Occupying a single scientist in an exploration vessel for upwards of two years to research an anomaly is a waste of resources, especially in the early game where every exploration ship counts.

Other additions include two new Leviathans, each with their own unique rewards. New perks as well as changes to old ones (Master Builders receives a huge overhaul that makes it even more desirable). Re-balancing of traditions. A few new technologies including an ability for science ships to travel via sub space, thus circumventing bottle necks. The hyperlane generation has also received a fair bit of tweaking, creating more bottle necks and natural constellations which allow for a proper strategic depth. AI difficulty scaling returns, having been previously stripped from the game, for people who want more challenge. The marauders’ behavior was also improved and once a player empire reaches a certain level of naval power, they would call off raids. Pirates spawn was adjusted and now they won’t spawn every decade (by mid-game, if you manage your empire well, they wouldn’t spawn at all). Some event fixes were also added, in particular the Enigmatic Fortress and the Worm-In-Waiting.

stellaris_2018-06-11_22-20-01.png

Yet I haven’t talked about the most major addition to the game – The L gates. L gates are a new mid-game crisis centered around these gates. Unlike other gateways, these spawn only in black hole systems at their center and are scattered all over the galaxy. They each bear the name “L Gate” and cannot be restored even if the player had researched the gateway activation technology. Instead, the player needs to gather seven insights through exploration. Once all insights are gathered, a new technology would become available called “L Gate Insights”. Researched, it will create a special project for a scientist to preform on the first L gate whose system the player had claimed. The L gates all connect to a constellation outside of the galaxy known as the L cluster.

Without spoiling what is out there, I can say that the gates were sealed for a reason. That said the L cluster has its own rewards. Special strategic resources that can only be found there, plenty of colonizeable planets that can be quickly and cheaply terraformed and lets not forget the L gate itself which connects to dozens of locations across the galaxy. This makes the L cluster quite valuable not just economically but also militarily. However the L gates must be treated as a proper mid game crisis, albeit one the player has some control over its timing (unless the AI beats you to it, at which point you are most assuredly in trouble). Thus opening the L gate should only be done when the player is truly prepared for it.

Graphics wise the content patch adds binary and even trinary star systems, brown dwarf suns and ice belts, making the universe even more beautiful and varied. Sound wise I haven’t noticed any additions to the soundtrack though it is solid as ever. That said there are a few new voice packs for notifications as well as a fully voiced tutorial advisor which can aid newer or returning players.

Overall I had a lot of fun with the new content and it did get me back into playing Stellaris for a few weeks straight. All the additions are solid and for its price tag of 10$ I feel like I got my money’s worth. It feels weird to grade a downloadable content pack but I’d give Distant Stars a solid 8/10 as it adds a lot to the base game. That said when it comes to recommending it, I’d put it strictly for Stellaris fans only. If you don’t like Stellaris or were turned away by the major changes in the Apocalypse expansion, this content pack won’t change your mind.

8/10 for Stellaris fans only.

Endless Space 2: The Most Disappointing Game I Played in Years

Endless Space 2 is the most disappointing game I’ve played in years. Not the most disappointing ever, that dubious honor was claimed by Rome II: Total War, or perhaps Command&Conquer: Red Alert 3? I am pretty sure SimCity is also a strong contender… Suffice to say there are a lot of games that had caused me no small amount of anguish, but Endless Space 2 is the most recent, and the one that sticks in my head the most.

For some context, the first Endless Space was a 4x (eXplore, eXpend, eXploit and eXterminate) released in the dreary year of 2012. At the time 4x games were few and far between, the genre having fallen out of favor with large publishers as the industry shifted more towards FPS and sandboxes to cater to larger demographics. 4x after all, has always been a niche genre, one which grew smaller in comparison as the explosion of gaming brought more players into the market.

That said, Amplitude Studios, the developers of Endless Space, saw an opportunity to cater to that neglected niche. Their debut title, appropriately titled Endless Space, brought them much acclaim and sold well. Well enough in fact that the studio was able to develop more titles set in the fictional universe of said game.

There is no need to be starry eyed about the first Endless Space game. It was quite a simplistic 4x game with rudimentary combat system, bare bones ship design and very basic empire management elements. It was also limited in scope, its generated universe felt quite small. That said it had many redeeming qualities. It managed to create a unique universe whose setting genuinely intrigued me and which made me want to play more to explore and find relics and clues about its past. Graphically, the game was stunning. Not only did the environment look great, but the artwork employed throughout the game for events was nothing less than stunning, something which would become the studio’s defining hallmark. Each of the factions had a distinct look and feel to them that made them stand out. Sound wise, the game had great music and ambient sound. Whatever deficiencies the game had in its core gameplay, it more than made up in its looks and sound.

For those wondering, the setting of Endless Space and the universe it spawned is the downfall of the Endless, a precursor civilization which colonized the galaxy first. It created many technological wonders including Dust, a resource in the game that is one part currency, one part nano machines (Hideo Kojima’s favorite word) and two parts magic. However, the Endless civilization came to an abrupt end of its own design, as a civil war between two factions tore its empire apart and brought doom to the entire race. The player assumes the reins of one of the subsequent races which reached space faring capability and must walk in the footsteps of the Endless.

That said, Endless Space may have been a hit in 2012, but since then much had changed in the gaming landscape. The explosion of Steam, Kickstarter and other platforms led to a second renaissance for genres that had long been forgotten by the large publishers. Smaller publishers, unable or unwilling to compete with the likes of Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard seized on the opportunity and brought to the fore some of these new games. With remasters growing popular, older properties saw a resumed interest and even a revival, with studios developing sequels (for better or worse). One of the main beneficiaries of these developments was the 4x genre.

The true game changer for the 4x genre would come at 2016, when Paradox Interactive would throw its hat in the ring. For those unfamiliar with the developer\publisher, Paradox Games is a company best known for its grand strategy titles. I myself must profess to be a big fan and customer of the company, having bought and played many of its games such as Europa Universalis IV, Hearts of Iron IV, Crusader Kings II and Victoria II. However, the company’s forte has always been in creating historically accurate games which translate the period they depict through complex mechanics, often iterated upon with DLC and expansion over the course of years. No one knew what to expect of their foray into true 4x territory.

The result would be Stellaris, a game so addictive as to be worrisome. It had a greater scope, more events and allowed for greater faction customization. That said it also had a very basic combat system though it did allow for static defenses and its ship design element was also lacking. Yet, when it came to empire management and colonization, it had a much more robust system than Endless Space. The other advantage the game held over its competition was Paradox Interactive’s continued support. Like many of their other in-house products, Paradox Games continued developing and releasing content for the game, slowly populating it with menacing leviathans, mega structures such as Dyson spheres and even re-working its entire faster than light system to deepen its strategic element while also further fleshing combat.

Thus, as time went by, Stellaris got even better. Any game hoping to compete with it had to overcome a huge hurdle. Sadly, Endless Space 2 was not up to the challenge. To be frank, I didn’t even hear about Endless Space 2 until a cursory glance in the Steam store as I waited for the newest expansion for Stellaris to hit shelves. That is not a good sign, considering I am pretty much the target demographic. In the end I did get a copy of the game from a friend and loaded it up, and the result was mixed feelings and a sense of missed opportunity.

By all accounts, Endless Space 2 was just more Endless Space. A lot had been refined and polished, with a few tweaks and additions but remaining overall unchanged from the original. Combat remained shallow, ship design received only an incremental improvement and the scope was virtually unchanged. System and empire managements did not progress at all and were kept as token only. On the other hand, the story elements had been further developed, with factions receiving unique quest lines to follow. The artwork was stunning and overall graphics had been brought up a notch. The soundtrack itself was so good that I actually bought it, something I have never done before.

But I wasn’t having fun. The more I played of the game, the more a certain clip started playing in my head. Any Red Letter Media fan who watched their review of the Pixels movie would be familiar with it. In it, Adam Sandler repeats the line “I haven’t progressed”. That was the feeling I got from the game. Scrape off the fancy facade and all I was left was an Endless Space n+1. Perhaps that was good enough for the casual player or die hard fan, but for me, it felt almost insulting. I expected more from a sequel but felt I’ve gotten instead an expansion pack. Had I bought this full price, I’d have demanded a refund.

The revelation itself shocked me. No matter how many times I tried to get into the game, after a couple of hours I’d quickly give up and play some other game. When Stellaris:Apocalypse rolled into stores I had already abandoned the game, uninstalling it.

When I first sat down to write the article I had a clear goal of just savaging Endless Space 2 and comparing it to Stellaris which I hold as a better game in almost every aspect. However as I delved into the writing, a strange realization came over me. Objectively, Endless Space was never a great game. As described in the opening paragraphs, it was a very basic 4x game released in a time that such games were a rarity, especially as polished as it was. Perhaps I let those memories taint my view and create unreasonable expectations for its sequel, which as I pointed before, came out at in a very different climate. Perhaps what I saw as a good game was merely adequate. Perhaps what I view as mediocre is quite in line with the overall series.

Following this line of thought, I decided to try and rate both the first and second Endless Space games. The result was a 6/10 and 7/10 respectably. Not terrible scores, but not great either. Both games fall into the spectrum of good, just above mediocre.

Thus its not hard to see why Endless Space 2 disappointed me so much when taking all of this into account. I expected something from the series that it never had an intention of supplying. I wanted another Stellaris set in the Endless Space universe, something Amplitude Studios couldn’t, and never intended to, make. I forced my own wishes on the game and when they were left unfulfilled I came to blame the game rather than myself.

Endless Space 2 is the most disappointing game I’ve played in years not because it was bad, but because of my own expectations. I thought Amplitude Studios would build on the success of the first game and make a sequel that would expand on every metric. Instead, they chose a safer route that was more in line with what their fans expected. It was my mistake to believe they’d take a riskier route. Perhaps they know their customers better, perhaps they are just following the trend in gaming of safe, familiar design. Perhaps, Endless Space was never really meant to be anything more than “My First 4X Game”.

Perhaps.