This is the nineteenth in a series of reviews of Paradox’s empire management games. See the earlier reviews here:
Europa Universalis II: A Tale of Two Europas
Hearts of Iron: Europa of Iron
Victoria: Nineteenth Century Essay
Crusader Kings: A Dynastic Adventure
Hearts of Iron II: Return Engagement
Europa Universalis III: A Whole New World
Europa Universalis: Rome: Make a Desert and Call it a Game
Hearts of Iron III: One Plus Two Equals Three
EU III: Heir to the Throne: Not Done Yet
Victoria II: Same But Different
EU III: Divine Wind: Winds of Change
Sengoku: Shogun: Only War
V II: A House Divided: Limited Expansion
Crusader Kings II: The Second Crusade
HoI III: Their Finest Hour: A Final Polish
March of the Eagles: A Minor EU
V II: Heart of Darkness: Darkest Victoria
Europa Universalis IV: A Fantastic Point of View

In August 2015, Paradox Interactive made a surprising announcement: Paradox Development Studio was working on a new game, and not only would it not be a sequel to an existing game (the last such being March of the Eagles two years before, and the last major one being Europa Universalis: Rome five years before that), but it would be a science fiction game instead of historical. In fact, Paradox was getting into the space 4X genre.

Despite the change in genre, mechanically it stuck with the pausable real-time empire-management format seen in every other game developed by them. (And like all the recent ones, it uses the Clausewitz Engine, with its standard helpful hoverover tooltips, alerts, launcher/main program format, and so on.) Like with any other space 4X game, you start with one well-industrialized planet, and start exploring and settling other star systems, meeting other players (/empires) and engage in war or diplomacy with them.

Stellaris was released on May 9, 2016 on Steam, and then on consoles (PS4 and XB1) on February 26, 2019. The game has gone through some major reworks since its initial release and this review is actually about the state of the game in patch 2.0 (after three expansions), which was released on February 22, 2018. I started playing after this patch, and it is also when Paradox started really reworking major game mechanics.


Stellaris features one of the more developed views of solar systems seen in computer games. Where too many 4X games just present the most worthwhile planet in a system, Stellaris shows the star, its planets, major moons, and some notable asteroids all as separate objects that may have some interactions.

To give some context, if you use the pre-generated empire United Nations of Earth, you start in our familiar solar system with the Sun, eight planets (sorry Pluto), four notable asteroids (Ceres, Vesta, Juno, and Pallas), and seven notable moons. Earth is the sole inhabitable planet, of size 16 (the largest is 25), though Mars can also someday be terraformed.

Scale is distorted, with each orbit being an equal distance from the next (action-RPG Star Control II still wins here with better-scaled systems), and they’re a static display, so the planets are always in the same relationship with each other. At this strategic scale, they’re all basically single points; there’s no split ownership of planets, or even systems, possible. (Though partial occupation of a system is, and it complicates warfare.)

However, the full range of possibilities are shown here. Asteroid belts appear in many systems, with a few larger asteroids picked out for exploration, and occasionally, exploitation. Gas giants are depicted, mostly so that they have moons, but they can also provide resources (usually energy, like stars).

Terrestrial planets are a bit more varied, with plenty of barren and frozen worlds, and a few molten and toxic worlds. And then there are the potentially habitable worlds. These exist in three groups (dry, frozen, and wet) of three types each. Each species is native to one of these nine types, and will find the other two in its group at least marginally habitable, whereas the other two groups are theoretically habitable, but the penalties would be large. (Personally, this is a pretty good system, but I prefer Free Orion’s ‘ring’ of seven habitable planet types.)

As usual with 4X games, the galaxy is created randomly, along with all the systems. A few non-random ones get seeded into the galaxy, however. Each expansion usually has one or more additional unique systems, and they all have events and story bits associated with them.


Originally, the game featured three different types of FTL (much like Sword of the Stars), but it was found this caused too many problems with trying to make warfare (and fixed defenses) work, so in 2.0 they consolidated to just jump drives, which use a network of naturally-occurring jumplines from system to system across the galaxy. This naturally lets all fleets emerge in the outer reaches of a system, where they head towards its star, and the owner’s station there.

Similarly, those stations were new to 2.0. Previously, claims to an area worked on a cultural push-pull not unlike that seen in Galactic Civilizations II (and probably the rest of that series, but that’s the one I’ve played). Now, you claim a system by building a station in it, and in war, the enemy will come in to fight and disable that station and claim ownership, which may become official in the peace process.

Not having played the earlier version, I can’t say how well the original set up was or wasn’t working out. But the 2.0 system does work, and the game has built well on these basics.

Before you can claim a system by building a station, you must scan each major body with a science ship, and this is where some of the real magic of the game happens. Any time you scan a planet, there is a chance of discovering an anomaly. These are small events that need to be resolved by having a science ship work on it, which will often lead to a small one-time bonus or resource deposit being added to the planet. Some are much more extensive.

This is basically the idea of the “goodie huts” from Civilization applied to space, and made to feel like your ships are having their own Star Trek episodes happen to them. This adds a lot of character to exploration, and the galaxy in general, and makes the early game even more interesting to play through.

The bad part is the fact that you must scan everything to do more than just be able to move through the system. This leads to intensively scanning an area, and everything is discovered right at the start. Generally, you don’t get any sort of… continuing discovery; events that happen after the initial exploration. Now it does happen, there are events that can randomly happen later, and as time has gone on, it seems Paradox has gotten better about this, mostly with events that happen shortly after a planet has been colonized. But, generally there’s no new anomalies generated, which I’d like to see, though some anomalies will be way too advanced to be handled at the start of the game, and you’ll want to come back to them later.


Part of the design goals for Stellaris was for the galaxy to feel like it was… “lived in”. As usual with a space 4X game, every player has the same basic start and technology at the same time. But many of the anomalies give hints of previous civilizations. (Like a message scrawled on the face of a moon by a bored mercenary.)

In the standard setup, not only are there the other player empires, but there will usually be a couple of special fallen empires. These are small, compact civilizations with fantastic levels of technology, and are well-equipped with fleets. They spend most of the game quiescent, but won’t put up with other powers trying to wage war in their territory and the like. They have a bunch of limiters on their government that keep them from doing more than replace destroyed ships fast, but in the ending stages of the game, it is possible for them to “awaken”, and become much more active and aggressive, putting a powerful new empire in play.

Also, as a player explores, there will usually be signs of a precursor empire. There are several of these (and the expansions often introduce new ones), but generally only one per game, so following up on the clues is something of a race, though in a single-player game, the AI players are unlikely to get to it. Generally, once the event chain is started, there will be a number of difficult anomalies found that provide clues to them. Once there’s enough clues, you get to see a brand new system that contains their (ex-)homeworld, which will have pretty nice bonuses of some sort.

In all, Paradox does well on their goal. Not great, you can’t assemble a unique lore-rich timeline of what has gone before each game, but given the limitations of the random game start, it’s still well-handled.


Unlike most space 4X games, you claim a system by building a station in it, and then you can colonize habitable worlds there, instead of the other way around.

Scanning it tells you just how habitable it is for any species in your empire, and once you own the system, you can send a colony ship there to begin colonization. This is automatic with a button press (click on the world icon on the galactic map), but the ship takes time to build, to fly there, and then the colony (especially early on) takes time to turn into something you can interact with. While this is generally more time to get a usable colony than many other space 4X games, the amount of effort it takes to build a colony ship is much lower; usually a colony ship is much more expensive than the beginning military ships in a 4X game, and here it’s no more expensive than those.

And when the settlement time is done you have a planet with one population, and one building, the “Reassembled Ship Shelter”. This is the planetary capital, and can be upgraded as the population grows. Each point of planet size is one tile on a grid. Each tile can hold one point of population, which will generate whatever resources are native to the tile, or according to the building you build on it. (This system seems to be taken from the Galactic Civilizations series; I thought it was okay there and here, but far from great, and it would be replaced in Stellaris later.)

Some tiles have blockers, which keep poplation from living/working there, and reduce the effective size of the planet. The homeworld starts with a number of these, which are marked as “slums” and the such, whereas colonies will have a few different types of blocking terrain depending on the planet type. All of these can be removed for a cost in energy, but only the homeworld types can be removed at the beginning of the game; all the others require new technologies to remove, and they don’t become available until you are actually colonizing a planet with that type of blocker. (Terraforming, because it changes the planet type, also removes all blockers.)

It should be noted that different species can inhabit the same world (a feature with a mixed history in 4X games). And it is also possible to find worlds with pre-sapient species to uplift into more working population for you.


Many space 4X games assume you always have enough resources to do whatever you want. Things may take time to accomplish, but the choke point is industrial capacity. The Master of Orion series, Reach for the Stars, Sword of the Stars, Neptune’s Pride and Free Orion, at a minimum, all largely work this way; the primary exceptions I can think of are StarWeb and Sins of a Solar Empire.

Paradox goes for a simple resource model not too far off of that seen in Hearts of Iron games (it would get elaborated on further in later patches from this basic version). Instead, if you have the resources, it all takes about the same amount of time to build, so industrial capacity is what’s being assumed here.

The three basic resources are energy (the primary “money” of the galactic economy), minerals, and food. Minerals are consumed to build anything, from a station to a planetary building, to a ship. Most of these things then require energy to operate. The early game especially is a struggle to bring in enough energy to maintain all the new stations you build, which will consume it. Food is consumed by your population and has a very low maximum amount compared to the others; once it is reached, excess food turns into faster empire-wide population growth.

There’s a few other things that operate as resources (such as influence), but the only other things to find on the map are the strategic resources. These operate like the resources in Civilization III and IV, where having one is enough to unlock advanced capabilities, and spares can be traded with other powers. (This is another system that would get a major rework later.)


Like any other space 4X game, technology plays an important role in Stellaris. Unlike most, there is no solid “tech tree” as introduced in Civilization. Paradox likens their system to a deck of cards, which is a useful analogy, but incorrect in detail.

Technology is broken into three fields: physics, social, and engineering, and the empire will always be researching one advance in each field (it is possible to not pick one, but there’s no cost to doing the research, so you’d just be wasting the research points). Each general field is broken into subfields, and some scientists have a bonus to a particular subfield. And there are six “levels” of advancement in any subfield, which are gated by getting enough technologies in the previous level before being offered the more advanced ones.

Some technologies are directly related to previous ones; you can’t get (level 2) UV lasers without first getting (level 1) blue lasers, for instance. But, while there are chains, there are few branches. There are some many-to-many relationships, but they all seem to be in weapons, and I don’t think it is ever more than two technologies at a time. Being used to complex branchings and the like, I don’t find it that satisfying.

No matter how many technologies you have access to, only a few will show up at a time. This is their ‘card’ system, where you are dealt a number as choices out of the current possible set. However, unlike cards, the chances of any particular entry are not equal. First, there are a few rare technologies that show up half as often as they otherwise should. Whenever you see a purple border on a technology, give it serious consideration, as you may not see it again for a while. Earlier/cheaper technologies will show up more often than later ones. And any technology that was offered in one set are only has half as likely to show up again next time.

Overall, the technology system works, but is not a favorite part of the game for me, and I much prefer how it is handled in Free Orion or Sword of the Stars, which have traditional tech trees. A final problem is that the list of technologies usually runs out well before the game ends. However, Stellaris has one of the best answers to that common problem, in that there are a number of technologies that repeat forever, giving bonuses to various things (mostly for military ships). So, research never becomes useless, even though nothing “new” is discovered.

Lastly, one very nice idea is that of stored research. When an event grants bonus research it doesn’t get immediately applied to the current technology under development, instead it is stored, and an amount equal your normal research is taken out each month and applied to the current project, basically doubling your speed for a while. Better yet in a real-time game, if you don’t immediately get to choosing a new technology to research, unused points are stored for when you do choose something, eliminating the need to pause the game for every new technology.


Ships are strongly segregated into military and non-military types. The non-military ships are colony ships, construction ships, and science ships. The latter need scientists (see “Interstellar Kings” below), and are the ones needed to scan all the objects of a system before you can set up a base in it. Also, troop ships fall under these rules, though they are technically ‘military’ ships.

These all have automatic stats and capability which can get better with technology, while the military ships have components that can be selected. The latter also have set hull sizes that get bigger as technology improves (all genre standard, though they call their small ships “corvettes” instead of the usual “frigates”). Somewhat like Sword of the Stars, ships have basic hull modules, which define what types of components can be mounted on them. The corvettes have a single module, while the larger ones have three, which can be mixed and matched.

Ship construction is the one place where there is a real industrial capacity bottleneck. Bases can be upgraded to take modules, and one of those is the shipyard. Ships can only be built or upgraded at a shipyard, so a vast military expansion will take a long time with the single shipyard that exists at the start of the game.

Common weaponry splits into kinetic weapons which are good against shields, and lasers, which are good against armor. Defense slots are of course shields and armor. This means it’s possible to tune your ships weapons and defenses to what your current enemy is using, or is more advanced in, but with just a two-way split, it is generally best to pick a balanced design, and not worry as much about it.

There are more advanced weapon types that have more interesting bonuses, but many of them are limited too. Overall ship design works, but isn’t quite an absorbing mini-game of its own like in the Master of Orion series. (Paradox has tried to address this too in a much later patch.)


A side effect of getting rid of the cultural model of borders was you now spent influence to claim systems belonging to your neighbors (you also spend this to claim an unoccupied system by building a base), and they become places you may receive after a war. This moves wars to pretty much the classic Paradox model of having a reason to go to war, and then prosecuting the war to get those aims and force the other side to accept them. In territorial wars, you do not declare a particular system the overall war-goal like you do in Europa Universalis IV, but taking the places you want has a direct impact on the AI’s willingness to surrender to your demands.

As a matter of fact, most wars end with the “status quo”. Both sides retain whatever they currently hold that they have claims on. Usually this means one side gains some or all of its claimed territory, but it is possible for both sides to trade territory.

An exception to this is that some governments are “galactic threats” and act closer to the hordes out of EU III: Divine Wind, and no claims work or are needed for them. Instead, as soon as a system (and its inhabited planets!) is captured, it is immediately given to the capturing empire, and all peace agreements merely leave the border as-is.

With jump-drive being the only FTL system, upgraded starbases can be placed so as to be in blocking positions. Early in the game, a starbase can handle a fleet by itself, but while they get upgrades as the game progresses, ships get more powerful faster, and bases can help, not not defend a system by themselves in the late game.

Inhabited planets must be taken separately (and must be taken to count for war score and the like), which requires armies, which come automatically with troop transports. All inhabited planets come with free defensive armies, and capitals get more. These must defeated in a landing battle, which just pits the opposing units against each other.

The size of the planet determines the combat width, or how many units actually fight at a time, with the rest in reserve until needed (this is fairly standard to all Paradox games going back to at least EU III). Normally, there’s little difference between units, though some species get bonuses to ground combat, and there are special types that can become available from events. Fleets are also capable of doing orbital bombardment to soften up the defenders. Surprisingly, this doesn’t scatter damage across the entire defense, but simply reduces the health of the first unit in line until it is destroyed. Of course, this also damages everything else on the planet, so one that has undergone a long bombardment will take quite a while to recover, with wrecked industry and reduced population.

Interstellar Kings

Stellaris uses characters for particular key jobs. Unlike Master of Orion II (the earliest space 4X game to do this that I know of), this is expected to be a regular thing that you hire, and not just notably special people that you pick up through events (there are a couple of those too). This too was changed down the line, but the essentials of how characters work have stayed the same.

The first job that will get noticed is scientists. You automatically start with one in the starting science vessel, and three more in charge of the three fields of research. When you build a new science vessel, you will need a new scientist before it can do anything useful. You also start with a head of government. Later, you will want to hire admirals for fleets, generals for armies, and governors for any new sectors you create to group systems together.

These are vastly simplified from the character system in the Crusader Kings series or even EU: Rome, with no primary characteristics and the like, but they do have a simplified version of the trait system introduced back in the original Crusader Kings. And while there’s no characteristics, they do have levels and experience, which is new for Paradox.

And, as actual characters, they have an age, and they will eventually grow old and die, needing to be replaced. Democratic governments regularly elect a new leader from the pool of all the ones you have, so occasionally a character gets called away from an important post, and you need to replace him.

Traits are what you mostly notice, but for scientists especially, levels are very important, as they regulate how long tasks take. As scientists level up, surveying systems is faster, and investigating anomalies takes much less time, and has a higher chance of positive results. In fact, anomalies are rated by difficulty, which relates directly to the level of scientist which should ideally work on it.

Interestingly, governments also have traits. Instead of a bunch of predefined government types that you unlock as technology improves, as in the EU series, there are base methods of governance (democratic, oligarchic, etc). Ethics then define the main guiding principles of the society, and exist in four paired opposites. Each of these exist in a moderate and an extreme version, and governments on opposite sides of the ethics scale (say spiritualist and materialist) have penalties for getting along with each other. (Or there is the “gestalt consciousness” ethic in the middle for empires made up of a collective consciousness like a hive mind or the Borg.) All of these have in-game effects as bonuses, and restricting what actions can be taken.

Then there are civics to grant specific bonuses. These represent more detailed elements of the empire, and are used to grant particular bonuses. Both civics and ethics can be modified as the game goes on, but civics are much easier to modify, and it is possible to get more civics, while any change to ethics is rearranging the same number of elements.

And of course, species have their own traits, allowing for a wide variety of customization options in the tradition of many other space 4X games, but much wider ranging because of the three different sets that interact here.


Along with making the early game more interesting with anomalies, Paradox planned to make the late game exiting with the end-game crisis. This is analogous to the Antarans in Master of Orion II, but more sudden and dramatic in effect.

The exact timing can be set when setting up the game, but usually after 300 years of game time, one of several different large events can fire. There is one default one, and most of the rest require specific things to happen for them to go off instead.

Generally, you can expect to see an extra-galactic invasion from very powerful and advanced fleets, that will be a threat to all the empires of the galaxy. It is creditably a very big threat, especially if the AI refuses to drop its wars and do something productive.

I don’t know that the crisis system really works as well as Paradox wants. Especially since it doesn’t end the game, so if the galaxy is well prepared, it may be over soon, leaving everyone to go back to business as usual before reaching the end date and getting victory on points. Defeating the crisis really should be an end itself.


My understanding is that any opinion of Stellaris at launch was likely to be mixed. There’s never enough space 4X games to go around, and Paradox’s try at the genre was sure to have its own unique take. But it was, at best, a bit bland.

The first few expansions helped with that, and version 2.0 also, with some work, put the game on a much more solid footing. Once I finally got it in 2018, I devoured it, and spent a lot of time with it, just like on the launch of CK II and EU IV earlier. The game has had some major changes since, that I think have generally improved the game, and I consider it one of my two favorite games from Paradox along with Europa Universalis IV. And it is also now one of my top space 4X games.