In addition, a number of colonies you can directly control is strictly limited to around 5 or 6. If you want to colonise more planets, you need to split your empire into sectors, and assign governors to control sectors independently. This removes you from directly controlling buildings and policy in these sectors, and also reduces your overall income from them.
The restrictions on influence and colonies are essentially brakes on your power, preventing you from spilling across the galaxy like a race of hive-minded insects and forcing you to think more carefully about where to expand and when. Should you stick a Frontier outpost way out from your borders, so you can mine some rare and valuable resources? Or should you keep your borders tight, and perhaps lose out on those resources to other civilisations?
To be honest, I struggled a bit with this aspect of the game. It’s the one area which Stellaris fails to explain particularly well, which is silly considering how important it is. What doesn’t help is that the subjects you can research are semi-randomised, with the game providing three or four options in each “area” of research for you to choose from every time you complete a project. It took me ages to figure out how to research those all-important techs that provide that small but massively important boost to influence and colony allowance.
That said, I did gradually come to understand why this system works in the way it does. The idea is to encourage you into interacting with the other alien races, forming alliances, declaring rivals and basically setting up how the game is going to play out. This is because it’s dangerous to explore space alone in Stellaris. Lingering amidst these how new factions are Fallen Empires, stagnant civilisations that are stupendously powerful and technologically advanced, but keep to themselves. Unless, that is, you do something to annoy them. Fallen Empires cannot be taken on alone, and if you aggravate them, you’re going to want someone to back you up.
If enough factions band together in alliance, they can form a Federation, where they essentially act as a single civilisation, although still with independent control of their own Fleets and colonies and so forth. If you’re elected leader of the Federation, the power you can wield is incredible.
The politicking side of Stellaris does produce some entertaining stories. I decided to form an alliance with a group called the Tycan state, a pacifist, democratic race of sentient Fungi. I did this because I wanted to create a Federation myself. But I soon realised that there was nobody else who was interested in joining our Harmonious Compact. So I abandoned the Tycans and joined the far more powerful Rek’Thar Entete. I felt genuinely bad about leaving the Tycans alone in the universe. But then the Rek’Thar Entete asked my permission to let the Tycans join as well, at which point we all formed a big, happy Federation.
Another fun little story involved my encounter with a primitive species of aliens currently undergoing their own industrial revolution. I set up an Observation post above their planet, and when they reached the Machine age, decided to help them elevate their society into the stars. But once I’d done this, I realised I’d given birth to a bunch of despotic imperialists who utterly resented by power over them. So I quickly assimilated them into my own Empire before they could grow powerful enough to challenge their default stance as vassals.
All of this is enjoyable, but there is one big problem with the diplomatic side of Stellaris, which is that it simply isn’t as fun as building a fleet of warships and getting into a big old scrap. The combat itself involves little more than attacking your opponent with a more powerful fleet than theirs, but watching your ships obliterate their targets with bright red lasers and barrages of fusion missiles is delightful, especially when they’re ships you’ve designed yourself; a lovely side-system of Stellaris’ that, again, is designed to be quick and clear.
For some reason, perhaps because Stellaris plays on a much grander scale, it lacks the political nuance of Crusader Kings. There’s no ability to send spies to other empires, steal research, or form plots. You can only really defeat an opponent through outright conflict, forging alliances, or by simply becoming so powerful that you can essentially absorb potential enemies outright. Given Stellaris places such great emphasis on diplomacy, it’s a shame the diplomacy is so limited, and that there isn’t really a viable diplomatic road to victory.
I admire Stellaris for its commitment to guiding players through (most of) its complexities, and for doubling down on the “exploration” element of its 4X framework. It’s the most immediate fun I’ve had with a strategy game for a while. But my enjoyment undoubtedly cooled as the emphasis shifted from the joyous potential of exploration to the frustrating limitations of its political game. It’s still good, and it makes for an ideal introduction to Paradox’s style of strategy game. But if you come to Stellaris expecting Crusader Kings in space, you may well come away a touch disappointed.