Continuing my love-hate relationship with Stellaris, aka the best game I don’t enjoy playing.
Aside from my geography and “planets are spreadsheet” complaints of last week, there’s something that’s been increasingly annoying me lately, especially in highly diplomatic games with lots of federations : politics are essentially absent of Stellaris. And this is especially egregious compared to Endless Space 2.
Logically, there should be a massive difference between running a militaristic federation of planets, a one-planet isolated democracy or a galaxy-spanning imperial administration, right? Ah! The same way Paradox decided that planets were to be spreadsheets with no actual geographical reality (especially post-Le Guin update) they also decided that politics would be spreadsheets. And as such have no actual reality in the game.
At present, there is no functional difference between a direct democracy and a centralized stellar empire in Stellaris. Not a single one. Sure, you get elections, so what? Only your faction leader is elected, you can (and have to due to the experience mechanic) influence elections anyway and, as far as I know, elections are…calculated with a mix of approval and ethics? I guess? It’s never explicitely said. Not that you’re going to care because democracies handle exacly like totalitarian regimes anyway. Local leaders aren’t elected, there are no parties and internal politics…what internal politics? Right, there’s a faction system. Guess what? It’s useless. I have almost never seen a non-governing faction actually gain traction in a player-controlled empire. Never. Which leads to severely stupid situations : if I’ve been expanding militarily, and with resounding success, you think the militarist faction would gain traction, like in Endless Space 2’s system? Nope. It wont. Because all it matters are the centralized policies of your empire, that you, as a player, are the only one capable of changing and controlling. Factions are just ways to gain influence. Spreadsheet boons, again.
Maybe populations can change that? No they won’t, because Stellaris isn’t actually based around governments, it’s based around civics and ethics. Which is fine. Which would be fine if Paradox wasn’t operating with some kind of weird “ethical racism” perspective (no bashing here - it’s litteraly how it works) where ethics are essentially integrated in a species’ DNA and basically cannot be changed. In hours of gameplay I’ve almost never seen pops change ethics, which in turn makes factions even less interesting than before.
Local sectors rebelling? Never happens unless you play deliberately bad. Interesting features like star federations where each planet or sector is an integrated vassal, with votes? You can dream. Administration and rivalries inside a feudal empire? Nope. Again : playing as a pacifist direct democracy and an oppressive militaristic slaver monarchy…is basically the same. Sure, you get modifiers. +20% to ship fire rate (I didn’t know supporting a militarist party made you physically fire faster); +15% Influence gain per turn; yay, I can now build temples!, etc. But does it change the way you actually play - as in, the way, you eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate and eXplore?
Sometimes I wonder why there are actually mechanics for Hive Minds or Gestalt Consciousness empires because for all intents and purposes, “basic” empires already play the same way as far as decision-making is concerned.
And I get that it’s not even Stellaris’ fault here, even if Paradox’s logic of “moar numbers will improve the game” isn’t helping. Just like with the planets = spreadsheets mentality, it’s a 4X problem. Because 4X require optimization, and politics…are basically the contrary of raw optimization. They get in the way. They mess up with plans. They slow down empires. Of course, their very presence is what makes stuff interesting and lively, but from a pure gameplay standpoint, it makes sense to only have politics as numeric modifiers that don’t change much.
And really again, just like with my planet rant, I don’t have the solution there. Massively decreasing scale and increasing detail would be a good start, as well as giving each planet different ethics and government systems, but then we’d be, again, outside of the 4X framework.