Celebrating Stellaris’ Spiral Galaxy

When I started playing Galactic Civilizations II, I was given good advice to turn the frequency of habitable planets from the standard ‘occasional’ to ‘uncommon.’ Without that change in the galaxy setup the first hundred turns are tedious, as you compete with AI (or slower still, human) opponents to build and micromanage your colony ships to take as many planets as possible as quickly as possible. The uncommon setting makes Gal Civ II speedier, and critically makes finding a habitable world exciting rather than routine. Stellaris’ galaxy settings aren’t as complex as what Gal Civ II provides but it also has an option which improves the game’s pacing. That option is the spiral galaxy type, which makes for a better early and mid-game as you advance from fighting or befriending empires on your star belt to encountering aliens across spiral arms. The trouble you’re bound to have with moving between arms also opens up a range of problems for players which simply aren’t present on elliptical or ring galaxies.

When you pick your race in Stellaris, you’re taken to a game setup screen. There, you can adjust the number of AI empires, the galaxy size and importantly its shape. The default is elliptical, a doughnut galaxy with an impassable centre. The ring galaxy has a narrow band of stars, restricting movement to either right or left around the ring rather than across it. The final option is a spiral, the most recognisable to us both because the Milky Way is a spiral and because sci-fi movies tend to use a lot of this type. This option has a bit more flexibility than the others, since your galaxy can have two or four arms. In either case, the bands of stars swirl inwards towards a glowing centre.

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When the game begins, you’re somewhere along a spiral arm, either towards the galaxy’s edge or centre. Likely you’ll find it difficult to move outside of your own spiral arm. This is especially true if you’re using hyperlane travel, which limits the number of routes between stars. It’s presumably possible for the map generator to throw out a galaxy in which first level of wormhole or the even warp travel gives you the opportunity to cross to another arm early, but if so it’s exceedingly rare. For the most part the stars on different arms are far enough apart that you’ll need to research warp drives and wormhole stations with greater range to cross. This has real advantages for the pacing in Stellaris’ early game. In an elliptical galaxy you can expect to continually be alerted to new contacts from everywhere, but on a spiral you need only worry about two directions – left and right. When you make first contact with an equally matched empire, you’ve got a natural rival. On an elliptical galaxy, it’s simple enough to circle around your first contacts and colonize behind them since they occupy only a small blob of space, but that’s not the case here. If another empire builds a frontier outpost or colonises a planet near their capital, you can very quickly find your expansion path blocked.

In the latest version of the game the AI are finally willing to let your civilian ships through their territory, but they’ll almost never let navies through which means your military will be split. I love the conflict that results from this, since it’s generated by a real imperative not to slow your expansion. If you’re provoked to war by a neighbour who just won’t give you access through their territory, war feels more logical and expedient than, say, if you just run across an empire with the ‘fanatical purifiers’ personality who can’t be reasoned with. Part of the reason why conquering your neighbours in this way is encouraged is due to the advantages of having contiguous territory in any galaxy type. Your military can move around freely and you are less likely to suffer from ethics divergence if your planets are closer together, since the ethics divergence chance is modified by the distance of a colonized world from the capital solar system. The spiral is the best at encouraging this though, since it’s easier to get ‘locked off’ from expansion routes than in an elliptical galaxy, and unlike a ring galaxy if you’re using hyperlane travel it’s critical to secure access routes to the other spiral arms.

It’s worth acknowledging that being locked off can ruin a game of Stellaris if you’re surrounded by Fallen Empires, the game’s superpowers who have enormous technology advantages. However, this is also true of an elliptical galaxy and especially a ring galaxy, where the presence of two Fallen Empires around you is a supremely tough start. These scenarios are extremely frustrating in Stellaris since the Fallen Empires don’t play to win: they’re more concerned with protecting their own territory than taking yours and frequently declare war to make you abandon a world which presses against their borders rather attempting to take over your planets. Defeat is rarely swift here, and it’s usually caused by the player quitting rather than the Fallen Empire crushing you in a decisive battle. Unfortunate, but not a problem exclusive to the spiral galaxy.

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Presuming you survive the early game and secure access to other spiral arms, though, you’re in for a fascinating ride as you venture across spiral arms. In a recent game of Stellaris, the first three civilizations I encountered beyond my own arm were all allied to each other (in a group blandly titled ‘Favourable Concord’) and completely blocked off my route to the galaxy’s interior. I tried to make them let me into their alliance so I could pass peacefully through their territory, but none of them were interested. I had to give up after a decade of embassies, bribes and cajoling led to nothing more than pleasant greetings in the diplomatic relation screen. It took years to clear a path through them: I had to find allies of my own, then destroy civilizations between myself and my allies so they could reach my territory and attack the Favourable Concord. One casualty of this strategy was civilization of pacifist turtles whose only crime was blocking my connection to my allies. I’ve never felt so much like the villain in a game as when they responded to my war declaration with a short message: ‘We just want to live in peace… is that so difficult to accept?’

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This was only possible on a spiral galaxy. Without the spiral arms, there’s no drive to expand in a particular direction. The only way my empire could thrive and eventually fight the scattered Fallen Empires was to secure the uninhabited territory near the galaxy’s centre. My allies were on my spiral arm, but an array of neutral civilizations stood between us. I had to clear a path. That led to a great supervillain moment, but like the best supervillains I wasn’t being consciously cruel, just focused on a goal which didn’t include independent space turtles. It wouldn’t have been as serious an issue with a travel method other than hyperlane, but even with wormhole technology I’d have been forced to catapult my ships around the alliance.

Anecdotally, the pattern in spiral maps appears to be that as you come to dominate one arm, so too will other empires, alliances and federations come to conquer other arms. It makes sense for alliances to form among empires from the same region of space, since they’re likely to encounter each other early and will quickly lose the ‘New Contact’ modifier which makes civilizations wary of others they’ve recently encountered. Also, empires with mutual rivals and threats are more likely to ally with each other, which is more probable when they occupy the same area. This is true of an elliptical or ring galaxy too, but what I enjoy here is that there are often clearer late game frontlines. In one game, I had a little pocket of planets in enemy space due to annexing a vassal. When war was declared I quickly lost control of all those planets and the enemy fleet crossed on to my arm. It took a herculean effort just to expel them from my arm, and still more to use my wormhole technology to find part of their fleet isolated across the void and attack it.

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The spiral galaxy type in Stellaris is not unlike the missions in Europa Universalis IV or the predetermined kingdom borders in Crusader Kings II. In all three cases, these systems help to provide structure in a game which can otherwise feel overwhelming to players without a prearranged goal in mind. Many of EUIV’s missions encourage proactive play, suggesting a colony which could be established, a province which could be captured or armies or navies which could be built up. With the exception of two of the worst missions (accumulate money or allow our manpower reserves to recover), this system guides new players through the game while still allowing some flexibility since players usually have a choice of three missions and there are no negative repercussions to failing. In Crusader Kings II, the predetermined borders suggest routes of expansion which, while non-binding, make sense for players since they have the opportunity of gaining multiple claims on enemy territories. The spiral galaxy type is like these systems since clearly guides path through the game without being overly restrictive to players with clear goals or strategies in mind.

Since Stellaris’ release, most of the coverage on the game has taken place on elliptical galaxies. This is understandable since it’s the default, but in future I hope (and expect) the spiral to catch on. By accident or design it resolves two of the game’s problems: directionless expansion and the predominance of scattered blobby empires which are a chore both to fight and to play as. Now if you don’t mind, I have a few rebellious space turtles to resettle.

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