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Exploring a tiny galaxy filled with jerks in Stellaris

"There is much we can learn from you!"

Space, as Captain Kirk once said, is big and empty and boring. Okay, maybe not boring, but it's sufficiently large that you can quite easily miss the important stuff that's going down if you've got your head stuck up the wrong nebula. We seem to be terribly alone out there, which is why it's such a blow when fast-radio bursts that appear to hail from intelligent life in the centre of the universe turn out to come from a microwave oven left on in the observatory canteen, or when killjoys argue that the Wow! signal is just a bunch of old comets. Comets, as Captain Kirk also said, can do one.

And now Stellaris is here: a wild dream of a 4X game, expansive and inventive and shot through with mystery. I already love Stellaris, and I suspect that I'm going to spend the next few years lost within it. But for now, right at the start of things, as I'm starting to learn the rules and get to grips with the rhythms, I thought I would see if Stellaris could help me solve this central usability problem with our universe. If our own galaxy seems to be huge and lonely, I decided to make a miniscule galaxy in-game and then stuff it with aliens. Testify! Galaxy Size? Tiny (150 stars). AI Empires? Eight! Ironman Mode? No chance. With eight alien empires, a spaceman could get killed out there.

Dress for the day you want to have. Can't remember if Captain Kirk said that, and if he did, his velour sex tops suggest he had some pretty strange days in mind. Anyway, when it comes to picking an empire for myself, I go with boring old Humans, as I am already a boring old human. Besides, humans in Stellaris are Xenophiles, and that seems like a good choice for a titchy galaxy I've already crammed, elbow to elbow, with ETs. We are all going to be so happy together!

How long will it take to find my first alien empire? Minutes! My science ship locates an anomaly on Ganymede straight off the bat: signs of recent FTL activity, apparently, and since I'm the only person I know of with FTL and it took me ten whole minutes of fiddling to even locate Ganymede on the solar system screen, this must be somebody else! Pretty soon my scientists are going crackers for alien life. But, to mangle a Fermi quote, where are these nutty space guys right now when I want to say hello?

Hey, this place looks terribly familiar.

Maybe they're at Barnard's Star. It's nearby, so I send a science ship, fresh from surveying my own back yard, out into interstellar space. We instantly bump into an alien vessel. Everyone back on Xenophile Earth is delighted!

First up: Tiyanki. Docile. Slow to attack. Grazers. They are basically big pointy space cows. They're not even able to engage in diplomacy, not that diplomacy with a cow is the exact stuff of dreams anyway. I stifle my disappointment and build another science ship. Off to Sirius, where we find an ancient alien shipyard that's been decimated by conflict. I doubt this was the work of space cows, frankly, so it sounds promising. Oops, though. Oops. My science ship has accidentally blown this priceless archaeological treasure to pieces while I was busy back home mining my own solar system. Multi-tasking in space is dangerous.

Minutes later, my economy is coming together and I've researched enough stuff to build colony ships, even if I can't yet pay for them. Also, one of my science guys has discovered another anomaly. Sadly, it's the same guy who blew up the last one - I think the lesson here is to never hire a scientist named Conan - but I send him to investigate this new doodad regardless. Hmm. Ancient and gigantic skeleton. This does not bode so well. Also, Conan the explodey scientist is not qualified enough to research the skeleton he's just found. Should it be surprising that his ship is called the Doolittle? Also also, in Earth news, it seems I have already crashed my economy. While I move a more qualified scientist in to check out the skeleton, I frantically try to learn how to gather resources and find money. Man, I am going to make a poor first impression on these ultra-violent shipyard-razing giant-skeleton guys when they finally turn up!

A few minutes later and I'm making some progress on the economy when my competent scientist gets back to me with strange news: the giant skeleton is a kind of organic spaceship. I feel that a disappointing trend is emerging. First space cows, and now my least favourite science fiction trope: the spaceship with feelings. Maybe next I'll find some orbiting gas clouds who bang on about homeopathic medicine, and then my dull interstellar adventure will be complete. I will be surrounded by the kind of aliens who build yurts rather than skyscraper planets, and will only trade things for hemp. Also, I can't help but notice that my competent science guy is terrible at locating anomalies, while my useless science guy who blows everything up can't venture two space inches without tripping over one.

The place is filling up.

On cue, and oh God, Conan Catastrophe has found another anomaly. This time it's worms. Precursor, long-dead worms too. This is getting worse all the time. I wanted 2001, and instead I'm in an interstellar garden center. There's literally nothing here I couldn't counter with a jumbo pot of ant killer or a very large shoe.

Suddenly somebody wants to talk: kind-of-metal ostrich people, the Yibrak Interplanetary League. All citizens have a voice in their government - hippies - and yet together they have decided to dress like emo Big Bird doing work experience at a Medieval Faire in Yonkers. They also think we're primitive. I just spilt crisps all over myself, and I have tanked my economy again, so they're probably not wrong about this. I greet them warmly and my population goes bonkers. When I check out their diplomacy panel, however, I read that they're xenophobic isolationists, which is a bit of a buzzkill. Tag-team barbecues are probably not lurking in the foreseeable future. And these aloof jerks live right next door. The "Best Buds" T-shirts I bought in bulk now seem like a mistake.

Here's something very cool about Stellaris, though: when you first encounter an alien lifeform, you often don't fully encounter them, if that makes sense. You get a basic gist of them and apply a codeword, and then you drop that codeword once you discover who they really are. I only say that because, rather worryingly, I've just discovered a new bunch of aliens who we're calling 'dragons' for the time being. Maybe there will be a barbecue coming up after all.

Midaris next. Are these the dragons? Anyway, when they pop up in diplomacy they look like dinosaurs with fauxhawks. I tell them I'm delighted to meet them, which is an obvious lie, as nobody in history has ever been delighted to meet a person with a fauxhawk. The more of the universe I see, the more I wonder about just staying at home and making Earth really pretty. Anyway two empires down: the space cows turn out to be mere cosmic cattle, so it's just the Racists and the Fauxhawks we can properly chalk up. Six left to meet, and then there are those ancient space worms I keep getting told to research. I don't really want to research ancient space worms at this point in my life, but the kicker is that I couldn't even if I did want to. I've crashed my economy again.

What I am hoping, frankly, is that the next aliens I meet are benign political economists whose special attack is shooting store credit at their enemies. And maybe lending me a colony ship or two so I can kickstart this quirky xenophile dictatorship I've been planning. It's shocking: my population loses its s*** for anything with a hint of the unknown to it, but they're all so lazy that we'll never be able to afford the hardware we'll need to explore our tiniest of all possible galaxies at this rate. I suddenly have a terrible and vivid insight into the kind of oddballs my space-faring empire actually consists of: 50 billion people who all sit up in bed at night wearing faded X-Files T-shirts and watching badly made Youtube videos about crop circles. Okay, so I've accidentally just described my own wife, who is great, but still: maybe space would be better off without us sticking our bugles in.

Space Pirates are not meant to be a serious threat, but when you're as unprepared as I am...

Speaking of which, new aliens! Sek-Lokkar League. Indirect Democracy, which I read to mean, "We can get along, but first tell me how you feel about Joni Mitchell?" More eyes than entirely necessary, but they seem friendly enough and they're happy to see me even though we only met because I accidentally started to mine one of their planets. (Joni, I basically tried to pave paradise.) Speaking of accidents, I briefly got some resources coming in and then unwittingly splurged everything on a battleship while trying to find the button to close a menu. I think this is how World War 2 kicked off. While my unwanted battleship is being expensively constructed, some cat people get in touch. Pouz-Jok Territories, according to the calling card, which also includes a portrait of a comically stern kitty. I tell them that we can learn much from one another, which will hopefully keep them guessing while I work out whether you can cancel a spaceship construction halfway through and get all your cash back. Stellaris is wonderful, but it can be a bit like an Inspector Clouseau film when I'm at the controls.

Two things then happen in quick succession: browsing the diplomacy screen I realise I've also encountered another group of bird people who I've already forgotten about meeting, and then I head back to Earth and see that I've finally got enough resources together to buy a colony ship. Construction starts immediately, only interrupted by my useless science guy making fresh anomalous discoveries every ten seconds or so, and my extremely talented science guy wandering around the backwaters of the galaxy and finding zip.

Wait! Who's this? It's the Commonwealth of Qirus, a name they clearly adopted because 'Skin-Inside-Out Yak People' was already taken. I tell the Commonwealth that we can learn much from them, which is my standard greeting by this point, and then I check them out in diplomacy so that I can learn much from them. Another indirect democracy, by the looks of things. More worrying is a note from the bird people, suggesting that relationships between us have really taken a bit of a turn. Srsly, those guys are so flighty! Ha ha! (I bet that kind of joke is part of the problem with our relationship. At least I didn't say that events had taken a bit of a tern.) Oh, the space racists don't like me either. And the Fauxhawks aren't particularly keen. When the multi-eyes offer me a trade deal I accept it without even reading the details, desperate for some kind of friend, even a really disgusting one. God knows what I've just given them. Extra-terrestrial relations quickly lose their romance, don't they? Also, I am not sure I'm really the good guy anymore.

The colony ship is built at the same time as my first budget breakdown comes through, listing a deficit so epic that it makes me wish I could take off with the colonists myself and drive us all into the sun. No mind! Sirius III is our first Second Earth, although if you could see the state of the original Earth after a morning of my wonky stewardship, you wouldn't be very excited about that claim. Regardless, a small celebratory colonist dance is interrupted when I discover that I've accidentally joined an actual alliance with the aliens with too many eyes. I would genuinely rather have thrown in my lot with Paul Hollywood, that barrel-man on TV who only likes bread.

Yeah, this is basically terrible.

Three things becomes immediately clear. 1: I have built my second Earth in a position of literally no strategic value whatsoever. It hasn't got any good resources either. Sirius is basically Sittingbourne. 2: I have crashed my economy again, possibly due to all the money I blithely decided to give to my new allies because I was too lazy to read their space letters properly. 3: I am very unlikely to win this particular game of Stellaris.

No matter: I have a new strategy. If I can meet all the aliens in this universe I have created, I will consider that a victory of sorts, and then I will declare war on everyone at once as a kind of cosmic mic drop. Sure, this is stretching the boundaries of the word 'xenophile' - not to mention stretching the boundaries of the word 'victory' - but you know what they say about space. They say that it is strange and capricious. And that it loves a mic drop.

Next up, I find a squiddish military dictatorship who already hate me by the time I've spotted them lurking in the empires tab. Interesting thing about squid: the only stuff we know about the internal structures of neurons is down to a species of squid that has unusually large nerves. One neurologist once said, upon a colleague winning a Nobel prize, that they should have given the Nobel to the squid! This will make a great anecdote for a cocktail party if this squiddish military dictatorship and I ever trade embassies but, like I said, by the time I realise I've discovered them they've had their fill of me.

End-game. So soon? I would love to tell you that things turned around. I would love to tell you that I waited out and met the eighth and final alien empire who, at this rate, were probably hedge fund managers who loudly talked about crossfit all the time. Instead, my hand was forced, as the hand of many great leaders has been forced, by the arrival of space pirates and the news that I had managed my home planet so badly that everybody on it was starting to starve. A famine, and all because I tend to click through tool tips before I've read them. I have never looked at a flickering icon of an apple with such a sense of shame.

With the final act closing in, I quickly tried to declare war on as many of my enemies as I could, and also, in my haste, on my own empire, which thankfully didn't work. The Fauxhawks in particular were only too happy to oblige, and within seconds their attack ships were racing into my solar systems.

The war that followed was fairly swift: the entire Fauxhawk armada against that one battleship I had knocked up by accident. At least I can tell you that in the crossfire, one of my science ships was destroyed and Conan was finally blown to pieces.

And I've already started in on my second campaign. I think I properly love Stellaris.

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Christian Donlan avatar

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.