Every time you complete the colonisation of a planet in Stellaris, the game’s AI assistant cheerfully barks ‘New colony established.’ When I started the game, it was a pleasant reminder to plan the future of a new planet. By the time I was approaching the two victory conditions it warned me of a chore. By then, my empire was the strongest in the galaxy and I’d settled into the long galactic clean-up that precedes formally completing the game.
Stellaris’ victory conditions demand you either own 40% of the galaxy’s habitable worlds or conquer or subjugate all other empires. Both are a bad fit: rather than guiding you through the game’s rich, durable simulation of competing sci-fi civilizations, they shunt you down one narrow path which takes far too long to complete. Whether you’re colonizing planets to fill a victory bar rather than to meaningfully enhance your empire or crushing weak empires who don’t stand a chance, Stellaris’ victory conditions suck some joy from an otherwise great strategy game. They are badly implemented, badly designed, and even were both of those issues solved they’d detract from the game.
Stellaris’ implementation of victory conditions is baffling. Take, for instance, the game's relatively complex system of alliances, which doesn’t figure into deciding whether a player has achieved either victory condition. For the purposes of controlling 40% of habitable worlds, your planets and your vassals’ planets are the only ones which contribute towards the quota. Since allies and federation members count as independent, it’s impossible to achieve the victory condition to eliminate all other independent empires in an alliance or federation. The former is particularly baffling, since it can lead to situations where, if your federation is large enough that you cannot occupy the necessary space to reach the quota, you end up in a stalemate with your allies.
The one empire which can actually help you win comes in the form of the extragalactic aliens the Prethoryn Swarm. These Tyranid-like beings are permanently hostile to everyone when (and if) they arrive from beyond the edge of the map in the late game. When they capture planets, they add them to a special, uninhabitable ‘infested class’ and as a result these planets are removed from the pool of habitable worlds. As planets are removed from the pool, though, your remaining worlds make up a greater proportion of the total and so the Prethoryn's onslaught can actually boost you to the victory quota of 40%.
Given the excellent foreshadowing of the aliens’ arrival, and the events which imply they’re a threat to the whole galaxy, it’s bizarre that you can end up as a supporter of an alien race which is always hostile to you. It is, of course, possible to play on beyond victory or fight the aliens even if they’re technically helping you in the spirit of roleplay. In that case though the victory conditions are still detrimental: it’s extremely jarring to be interrupted during a struggle for survival with a notification that you’ve won the game. It’s easy to brush aside criticism of Stellaris’ poorly implemented victory conditions by condemning competitive play rather than the game itself, but in cases like these the people worst affected are those who want to roleplay as a particular empire, or at least behave sensibly in a well-written science fiction universe. Where someone playing to win might have no issue with casting aside a century long alliance or helping to bring about the extinction of all life, someone with their eye on creating a cool sci-fi story will balk.
This speaks to a larger problem with the victory conditions as currently implemented: namely, they’re at odds with what Stellaris otherwise allows or encourages players to do. To win at Stellaris, you need to be a large empire. Colonising or conquering 40% of habitable planets even on a small map will make you enormous, as will conquering your rivals’ planets. While you could theoretically make opposing empires into vassal states and remain small, they’re sure to be disloyal since their opinion of their overlord is modified by your power relative to theirs. This requirement is odd, since Stellaris includes plenty of incentives to make small empires viable and enticing. As a small empire, you don’t have to create as many sectors (self-governing parts of your empire).
The game’s punishing research penalties imposed for expanding too quickly are easy to avoid as a small empire too, since one way around them is to own a small number of exceptionally developed planets. The latest patch even further enhanced small empires by attaching an influence cost to colonization based on the distance of the planet in question from your space. This is not to say Stellaris wants everyone to play as small empires; rather it’s odd they’re viable to play but not to win as.
Similarly, your chosen empire ethics play a large part in how easy it is to win. With fanatic pacifist ethics you cannot declare wars of conquest, making the condition to eliminate the other independent empires all but impossible. Instead, you’re limited to liberating planets from existing empires, which causes a new empire to be created in specified systems with your ethos and a positive opinion of you. You can’t forcibly vassalize empires as a fanatic pacifist, so your only hope is to convince these newly created empires to willingly become your subjects. By selecting fanatic pacifist ethics, you’re opting into a marathon mode where winning is almost unachievable because of the sheer length of real-world time it would take. Ethics in Stellaris are in theory created equal, but for the purposes of winning you’re at a severe disadvantage as a pacifist.
And ethics are important. The game differentiates ethically dissimilar empires by giving populations various bonuses and tolerances (so materialist populations are better scientists), limiting the types of governments empires with different ethics can choose, and changing the text of events as well as your possible responses during diplomatic actions. As far as victory conditions go, though, a pacifist and militarist or a spiritualist and materialist are all pursuing the same goals.
Stellaris lacks the broad spectrum of victory conditions which could recognise the validity of the many different ways to play the game. There is something to be said for 4X-style victory conditions, which usually allow for diplomatic, scientific, and cultural ways to win. As well as encouraging the spectrum of playstyles Stellaris is otherwise so good at fostering, this approach has the advantage of allowing players to begin with one idea in mind and transition as circumstances demand. For instance, you might form a strong alliance in Galactic Civilizations II, but in order to win choose to eliminate a particularly intransigent empire who won’t get on board.
Unfortunately, these kinds of victory conditions are usually fun to pursue because other AI empires want to win too, which is not the case in Stellaris. Instead, Stellaris’ rival AI empires behave according to their personality type which is determined by their ethics. There are an impressive variety of personality types, from largely peaceful federation builders to ruthless capitalists who prefer to attack weaker empires. Stellaris’ AI empires have particular behaviour patterns depending on their personality, which they execute whether or not it will lead to victory.
Fanatical purifiers will almost always be hostile and will never enter alliances, while democratic crusaders like other democracies but dislike empires with other forms of government. It would be criminal to break this delightfully complex simulation by making them uncharacteristically pursue either of the two existing victory conditions, and the addition of a few more victory conditions wouldn't be a significant improvement.
Stellaris’ AI empires inhabit a galaxy rather than a game board, and that’s to the game’s great credit. Where Civilizations V’s AI compete against the player to win the game, Stellaris has clearly been designed with greater attention to creating a galaxy which could conceivably exist. The abundance of pre-spacefaring species and the game’s Fallen Empires both bolster the sense that you’re stepping in to a pre-existing ecosystem when you start a game rather than just setting up chess pieces. That, of course, makes it all the more incongruous that the player is encouraged to pursue an arbitrary win condition which doesn’t necessarily fit with the empire they’ve either selected or created. It also means that just expanding the existing range of victory conditions is not a good solution for Stellaris.
It’s no surprise that Stellaris excels as a simulation as well as a strategy game. The same is true of Paradox’s other games, such as Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV, and Hearts of Iron IV, none of which include victory conditions. Partially that’s because it would be absurd to have France pursue the same victory conditions as Ragusa, but it also encourages players to make up their own goals. Even Hearts of Iron III, which did have victory conditions, allowed for some flexibility since players could pick a range of objectives from a list. You can (and should) make up your own goals in Stellaris, too: I’ve had fun just defending pre-spacefaring civilizations from interference as well as running entire empires based on slavery. It’s just irritating that while the game allows for this, the built-in goals discourage it. Victory conditions in Stellaris are discordant with its robust simulation.
Paradox have dealt with the problem of providing structure to their games without explicit victory conditions in the past. Both Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II have scoreboards, and the latter is particularly inventive. In Crusader Kings II you play as a sequence of characters in a dynasty, so your score is the prestige and piety of each character you have played added together. When you get to the score screen (either at the end of the game or when your dynasty becomes extinct) you’re not judged against other in-game dynasties, but rather Paradox’s ranking of historical dynasties. At the top of the scoreboard is France’s House of Capet, followed by the Hapsburgs and other notable dynasties from the period covered by Crusader Kings II (that is, 769-1453).
What’s great about this system is that it attempts to judge you, however crudely, from a contemporary perspective. Prestige is gained in Crusader Kings II in most of the same ways you would expect a ruler in the middle ages to gain prestige: victories on the battlefield and winning wars, for sure, but also making advantageous marriages and creating or usurping noble titles. The same is true of piety, where participation in holy wars and pilgrimages bolsters your total. Crusader Kings II began as a game allowing you to play as a European Christian ruler and the game judges you as such.
It’s incongruous if you’re playing in India or North Africa, but as of the original version of the game you’re judged according to the society to which you belong. This is the opposite of the approach taken by Stellaris, where at least one of the conditions, to control 40% of habitable planets, is completely arbitrary and neither take into account your empire’s ethos or government form. Crusader Kings II provides a good counterexample to Stellaris since the objective there suits the setting and makes instinctive sense in the universe.
Stellaris’ built-in goals highlight its worst features. Even if you want to play an extremely aggressive game, it’s tedious to mop up empires who stand no chance against you, and even if you want to play a large empire it’s tedious to colonise planets for the sake of filling a bar rather than enhancing your empire. Even in the very rare case that you want to pursue either objective, their messy implementation is frustrating. Meanwhile, if you’re playing anything other than a large, aggressive empire you’ll be locked out of the game’s nominal goal. These victory conditions are terrible, and even were they fixed they wouldn’t fit Stellaris. Despite its dedication to rethinking staples of the 4X genre, when it comes to victory conditions Stellaris fails badly.