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Stellaris: A Great Strategy Game With An Infuriating UI

The dangers of presumed knowledge

My excitement for Stellaris [official site] was somewhat vicarious: the more Adam vibrated impatiently for its arrival in the RPS Super Secret Clubhouse, the more I began to share his conviction that this would be the strategy gaming event of an already mighty-fine-lookin' year. However, we were coming to it from different places: he as a long-term fan of Paradox's historical grand strategy fare, particularly Crusader Kings, me as more of a strategy generalist who was very taken with the idea of spaceships rather than little men for a change. (I've never quite got around too much time with Paradox's mainstays - for no particular reason, and I do mean to change that, but life can get in the way).

It wouldn't be at all true to say that I bounced off Stellaris, because I'm continuing to play and learning more all the while, and getting more and more out of its remarkable scope and complexity as I do, but as a relative newbie to Paradox's bread and butter, I am hitting roadblocks that veterans steer right around without even knowing they're doing it.

My main complaint has been the interface. I'm used - from Civilization games - to being presented with a whole heap of information at one time, so it's not the concept of lots of numbers that's been getting the better of me, but instead how critical systems are presented. For instance, the game takes a sort of 2.5D approach, and this means what looks like it's presented on a flat plane actually has some degree of depth. I ran afoul of this early on in my campaign, when struggling to establish why my Construction ships were not able to build anywhere. Let me illustrate, actually:

Now, let me state very clearly that absolutely everything in that image now makes sense to me, but it took some doing. What Stellaris told me, when I repeatedly tried and failed to find somewhere, anywhere I could build a research or mining station, was that I could only do so within my own borders. I had literally nowhere to go.

Which of the three different types of coloured circle in that image was my own borders anway? The green cloud, the dotted green line, the yellow line? I worked out that it must be the cloud-like one, as the smaller, dotted green one moved when one of my ships did, so it must represent their... something. And the yellow? I had to ask Adam for clarity there - apparently it shows my ships' warp drive travel distance or something.

Point being, this was a basic and essential piece of interface illumination that the game's tutorial did not grant me, and nor did any in-game label explain it - a small key on the galactic map could have cleared up many things. Even once that was sorted out, I then couldn't work out why I wasn't allowed to build something in the Ullus system (see top left-middle of the image), which seemed to be squarely within my big green cloud of homeliness. Same for Alkald, over to the right.

Well, the problem is that, despite position of the name and the actual graphic of the star - that tempting orange glowy thing - the game actually has the system located at the hexagon just above it, which in both cases is inconveniently just outside my borders. Because something something z-planes. A casualty, then, of the hybrid 2D/3D approach. You can get a far better sense of where a system really lies by rotating the map: but never mind that it needlessly snaps back into place afterwards, this was something I didn't even realise I could do until a fair bit later, as once again it's never mentioned. The vital galactic map - the overview of the whole campaign - is almost entirely skipped over in an otherwise fairly verbose tutorial, in fact.

Later, I discovered - after once again verbally raining on poor Adam's parade - that what I was looking at was a pretty lousy starting position. There really was nowhere I could build anything, which is not a great way to begin, forcing me to build expensive Frontier Outposts or Colony ships right off the bat, which effectively closed the door on doing much else for a while.

That in itself doesn't bother me, because Stellaris' unpredictability is one of its greatest strengths, but the trouble is that I, as a newbie player, simply had no way of knowing that I was starting out in an unbalanced situation - nothing in the game setup had talked me through it. All I knew was that I apparently couldn't build on systems which seemed to be within my empire, and so I ended up slowly and expensively Colonising those unnecessarily, just so I could do anything at all. The cost of this meant I couldn't raise a military or perform other, more vital upgrades, and got duly spanked not much later.

Again, once you know all this you know all this and it ceases to be any kind of problem, but it's one example of why I kept littering the chatroom with extremely rude comments about Stellaris' user interface.

Another is that, if I'm trying to right-click a system to work out whether there's anything left in it for my science ships to survey, quite often they'll just start flying over there rather than that I'll be given a choice of action menu. Then there's how similar the icon for a habitable world and the icon showing that a research station can be built are. And don't even get me started on the obtuse horrors of the diplomacy UI, or how the Situation Log is a muddled dumping ground for whatever information or decisions didn't have its own clicky button on the over-stuffed top bar.

War was hell, as war is supposed to be, but more so, as the military tutorial or any sort of guidance on how big an army I needed didn't kick in until an immensely more powerful faction had unexpectedly taken against me, a few hours in. I have yet to get my head around the anti-logic of wartime negotiation - and have probably described it wrong - because I lost that war badly. With no option I could find to try and broker peace once it had begun - instead only allowing me, at the moment war began, to choose what rewards would be doled out in the event I won the war, I had little choice but to be crushed.

Though I couldn't barter with them, I was, however allowed to declare that the guys who'd attacked me were my 'rival'. Um, yeah, I took that one as read, thanks. The vagaries and restrictions of diplomacy UI also meant I wasn't allowed to ask any other species (I did have a couple of friends already) for help once I was embroiled in any kind of war.

I appreciate - in both sense of the word - that the whole idea of Stellaris is to learn on the job. For instance, I now know to keep a weather eye on relations with other species and do all I can to placate the guys who are steadily hating me more and more simply because I do not look the same as them, rather than presume that I'll be OK so long as I steer clear of their borders. I now know that I basically have to raise a fairly significant army or two in case this happens, no matter how peaceful my own intentions.

I know, most of all, to look for the hexagon and not the star when I'm looking for somewhere to build. I am without doubt enjoying Stellaris more the more I play it, but I have had to restart a couple of times already and expect to at least once more again, because I've been painted into a corner.

I feel that the interface, not puritanical Mollusc-people or over-enthusiastic expansion has been my enemy: keeping me from understanding a game which is absolutely my sort of game, due to decisions which are either bewildering or simply the consequence of presumed knowledge after years of Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis games. I suspect the latter: icon placement and labelling being more opaque than it needs to be cause it presumes that I already know the concepts each one represents. If I'd come into Stellaris knowing the general conceptual ropes - inherited, as I understand it, from Crusader Kings II - then it would have been easier to pin obtusely-presented tails to its many intergalactic donkeys.

I've had similar problems with Total War games in the past, which I was always a Johnny Come Lately to, and struggled whenever I dipped a curious toe into the waters of a Rome II or Shogun II. They felt that they didn't have to tell me anything remotely useful about how not to get totally spanked on the battlefield, presumed that I knew it all already despite a hilariously cursory tutorial which lobbed a few buzzwords at me then ground to a premature halt. Presumed knowledge is less of a problem when you're a sequel, and much of your audience is already established, but Stellaris is deliberately aiming for a far wider audience than the Paradox norm, be they disappointed Civilization Beyond Earth players or general spaceship fans (I fall into both categories myself). Many of my problems stem simply from a muddled tutorial, and as such it's a short term issue, but I struggle to understand why essentials get missed given the deliberate broad appeal of this game.

I'm sticking with Stellaris: there's no question about that. I love its scope and scale and unpredictability, and once I have learned every rope I'm looking forwards to finally actually playing the thing with a plan in mind. Right now, it still feels a bit like house-sitting for someone who for some reason keeps their crockery in the cupboard under the sink, their spoons in the utility room and their milk on an upstairs windowsill. Everything I need for a lovely cup of tea is there, but by God is it harder work than it needs to be.

I've been playing Stellaris in tandem with Dark Souls, my first real experience with that series, and both are journeys of discoveries and learning. The latter, though, has a natural flow to the progression of knowledge: insight from observation and experience, these dawning moments of realisation rather simply piece-by-piece translation of the opaque.

I took all these complaints to old-hand Adam, who did not dispute quite as much as I'd expected, but had an explanation for the disparity. "Maybe one of the reasons that I don't mind so much that the spoons are in the utility room is because it's a pleasant change from the days when I used to house-sit for Paradox and became accustomed to stirring my tea with a steak knife."

Fair enough. I know I'm late to this particular house party, and my frustrations are because I want to get onto the dancefloor as soon as possible, rather than spend all this time working out where the hell I'm supposed to leave my coat. I've at least got one arm out of it now though: very soon, I'll be pulling shapes in space at last.

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