Review: Stellaris MegaCorp

When I said I needed more consumers, I didn’t mean a devouring swarm. My corporate empire can sell its wares to democracies, slave states and even some robots, but a hateful hive mind inclined to eradicate all other sentient life is bad for business. Worse, they border my best customer, a hapless race of egalitarian slugs who cannot confront the swarm alone. Joining the federation that eventually defeats the Savix’Qast Swarm protects my profits and, I suppose, my customers’ lives.

MegaCorps are great fun, an excellent headline feature in an expansion (and accompanying update) which greatly improves the galactic economy of Stellaris, the aspect of the game most in need of attention. It has taken some time, but Stellaris is now the best space strategy of its kind. MegaCorp is a major reason why.

MegaCorps are the new type of playable empire, or authority, added by the MegaCorp expansion. MegaCorps represent societies in which corporations outgrew the state: every citizen of the empire is an employee of the company, and its goal is to make money. Accompanying the new authority are a menu of new and civics which make most corporations unique.

My MegaCorp, Multistellar Games, is a colossal alien video game publisher. To best represent the theme I selected the civics Media Conglomerate and, obviously, Brand Loyalty. The Yutani, the founding species of my empire, are intelligent but weak lizards. My empire is extremely good at research, and if my founding species are poor at mining and generating energy, I expect to build or buy robots to handle those tasks anyway.

MegaCorps differ from other empires principally because they do not usually become enormous. Administrative Cap, introduced with the Le Guin patch which accompanied MegaCorp, determines how many districts, systems and colonies an empire can accommodate without penalty. Because empires build districts to give populations jobs and housing, just a few densely populated worlds can take a MegaCorp to its limit. It’s possible to exceed the cap, but the costs of virtually everything an empire does – researching technology, adopting traditions and recruiting leaders – increases.

It is a standard in any civilization building game that the greater your empire’s size the more things cost. Stellaris had a similar, albeit hidden, system prior to the latest update. Most empires will still benefit from expanding even in excess of the cap but MegaCorps suffer much greater penalties than other empires, the potentially crippling effects of which mean MegaCorps must expand cautiously.

The clear direction of Stellaris’ updates have been towards forcing players to give greater consideration to when and where they expand. Paradox have consistently added incentives to build ‘tall’ (i.e. running a small number of highly developed worlds rather than a huge empire) with limited success. Foregrounding the penalties players suffer for expanding, combined with new incentives to keep empires contiguous (as opposed to scattered pockets of colonised space) are welcome, but probably do not go far enough to put small, highly developed empires on par with larger empires – MegaCorps excepted.

Multistellar Games couldn’t afford to claim every system and planet it visited. I took a cautious approach to expansion, claiming just a few systems in the first decade and one new, rich ocean planet for my geckos, rechristened Asset Recycling. Once I colonised the additional worlds of Brand Management and IP Refactoring my colonisation was, shockingly, complete. Then I met my best customers, the friendly, and presumably video game loving, Mathin Union.

The Mathin Union were the aforementioned slugs: a representative democracy of fanatically egalitarian xenophiles. When the executives of Multistellar Games found them, their eyes probably transformed into cartoon dollar signs. Their homeworld Mathin Prime quickly became the site of the first Branch Office of Multistellar Games.

Branch Offices are the other key ingredient which makes MegaCorps different: they can build on other people’s planets. Provided the host empire is not hostile, a corporation can open a Branch Office on alien worlds which generate energy for the corporation. Depending on the size of the world, the corporation can also construct corporate buildings to generate research, consumer goods or other resources.

Branch Offices establish a mutually beneficial relationship between the corporation and host. MegaCorps collect the resources the branch generates, but the host gets jobs for its people which enriches the planet. I’m incentivised to see the Mathin Union survive, and Mathin Prime thrive since it increases the value of my office. Mostly for this reason I helped them defeat the Savix’Qast Swarm when we discovered them.

The sum of these features is that MegaCorps play very differently to other empires. They’re compact, rich and highly developed when played correctly and they make money through meeting as many other alien empires as possible. They’re small on the map, but their strength is outsized because of their branch offices and the new type of vassal, a subsidiary, they can create. Because MegaCorps can’t build branch offices inside other MegaCorps, their rivals are often each other, and in fact Multistellar Games’ first war was waged against the neighbouring Till’Lynesi Stellar Industries.

Till’Lynesi Stellar Industries were the Pepsi to Multistellar Games’ Coca-Cola. Where Multistellar Games’ founding species are cute, pacifist geckos, the Till’Lynesi were disgusting, authoritarian octopus-dragons. Having already established a migration treaty with the Mathin Union, so its slugs could work my farms, I expected to do the same with my eastern neighbour. Instead, almost as soon as we met they declared me their rival.

MegaCorps select ethics in the same manner as other empires, and like other empires certain civics have ethical prerequisites. To make your corporation a MegaChurch, which blends religion and capitalism, you need the spiritualist ethic. Till’Lynesi Stellar Industries and Multistellar Games could never be friends, in part, because they were ethically opposed empires bordering one another.

However, even when MegaCorps align ethically, it’s difficult to coexist with fellow corporations. MegaCorps cannot do business with each other, and each alien world can only have one branch office so they are at all times competing to occupy the best worlds. Indeed, one feature missing from MegaCorps is an acknowledgement of this fact: though the player will be aware that MegaCorps should not befriend other MegaCorps, the AI fail to understand this and the game fails to account for it.

MegaCorps do not have a negative opinion of each other by default, though they probably should, and there is no easy way to wage war on another MegaCorp for trade reasons. When I declared war on the Till’Lynesi, I had to use the casus belli to bring them into ethical alignment with my empire. Even when I won, I ended up with a corporation with the same borders and branch offices, it just more closely resembled my empire. It is curious that the game creates a thematically appropriate environment in which ruthless MegaCorps compete for business on a galactic scale, but fails to present players or the AI with the tools to properly engage in conflict.

As I mentioned, MegaCorps have their own ethics which make them different from one another as well as from standard empires. While many ethical choices unlock new civics, the most significant are easily and obviously those which grant access to the MegaChurch, Criminal Syndicate and Subversive Cult governments.

Criminal Syndicates and Subversive Cults invert the standard way of playing corporations. Rather than building on other planets for the mutual benefit of the corporation and host, these hostile governments build destructive criminal or subversive enterprises on their enemy’s planets. Unlike MegaCorps, they do not require permission to build on alien worlds, but there is a chance their branch offices may be detected and shut down by the authorities. In the meantime, they construct buildings which generate resources for the syndicate or cult and crime for the host.

The Piscine Convent are a fish-worshipping cult inhabiting the deepest recesses of ocean worlds. When their initial expansion concluded, many of their spacefaring neighbours found the crime souring on their worlds. Cultists had infested their rich capitals, manufacturing drugs, arms and developing a black market to rival the host’s own economy. My nearest neighbour, the Scyldari Confederacy were the worst sufferers on their homeworld, which at its height had a crime rate of over 90 per cent. The whole economy was crippled and the empire suffered wave after wave of negative effects, many in themselves boosting the crime rate in a vicious, lawless cycle. Admittedly, with just under ten per cent of citizens not signed up to a gang or alien cult, it’s a surprise the government survived as long as it did. When I declared war and made them my subsidiary, I imagine it more as a formal transfer of power than an invasion.

Criminal Syndicates and Subversive Cults are fun, not least because they remain one of the few ways for governments to hurt their rivals without declaring war. Better still, the income from these branch offices is higher the more crime in the host, so the player’s benefit is proportional to their neighbour’s suffering. When developing branch offices, players will make genuinely tough choices about whether they would rather a building which produces a critical resource like alloys or the option which generates most crime.

Stellaris has a pretty robust war/diplomacy options but countries have few interesting domestic concerns. Crime adds a welcome complication to running your empire. Its ill-effects mean making your empire to be happy (or submissive) is a more analogue progress as against the pre-existing system of rebellions which can break out in desperate situations. Crime has, by contrast, negative economic effects which saps empires’ resources. It won’t bring your government crashing down, but it might weaken you so someone else might. As the Piscine Covenant, that was often me.

MegaCorp is an excellent expansion for Stellaris. It’s additions are carefully crafted to address the areas of the game most in need of revision. Playing as MegaCorps is extremely fun, and crucially playing with MegaCorps is extremely fun. MegaCorp enhances every game of Stellaris, and it’s certainly among the best expansions Paradox have released for one of their modern games. Perhaps the nearest direct comparison is The Old Gods expansion for Crusader Kings II, which greatly expanded Crusader Kings II from a crusade-era strategy game to the best game about medieval Europe ever made. Yes, I am very much sold on MegaCorp.