Whenever I play a 4X/grand strategy game, I almost always come across a dozen things that make me think, ‘Oh, that could be so much better with just a couple of changes…’ These posts are the records of what I would do with those things if the opportunity came my way.
Stellaris‘ sector system is a brave attempt to address a perennial 4X problem: micromanagement hell. In many of these games, after you’ve conquered a dozen or so planets, play slows right down: the bigger your galactic empire, the longer you have to futz around to optimise it all. By using resource income penalties to force you to bag up your planets into these larger entities, sectors, Stellaris stops you doing this, thereby avoiding the infinite-sprawl problem.
Unfortunately, it does this in an un-fun and frankly annoying way. Sectors come off as characterless spreadsheet entries, with none of the interest available in planet management – they can’t even be selected on the map, you have to open a menu to find them. Hand a planet over to a sector, and you more or less never see your carefully-customised world again. Your management of the sector is limited to choosing one of about five ‘focus’ options and deciding which planets to put in it (using an atrocious interface that forces you to pay to correct mistakes rather than waiting for you to select your changes and then asking you to confirm them); beyond that, it just sits there and does its own thing, running on not-very-efficient autopilot. The governor makes no demands of you. There might be an independence movement, occasionally, but in the main it just sits there processing resources and building suboptimal buildings you never see anyway.
The fundamental problem here, it seems to me, is that Paradox have not decided what sectors really are. Are they larger management units, like planets, or are they semi-autonomous vassal states? They don’t have the depth of control to be the former, and they don’t have the political liveliness to be the latter; the Imperial Routine mod adds sector factions with leaders and agendas, which makes things more interesting, but the base game does very little with them.
What I would want to do to fix sectors (above and beyond allowing you to select them directly from the map) would be to separate out those two functions and add much more depth to each. The basic sector should be a larger management unit that does fundamentally the same things, and is fun for the same reasons, as a planet. There can then be a selection of reasons – pro-devolution factions, for example – why you might also want to grant the sector a varying measure of self-government; and when you do so, that ought to give rise to interesting political interactions between you, the sector, and your neighbours. To really get into that, though, would involve looking at Stellaris’ political and character system as a whole, which is a bit far-reaching for this post, so I’ll stick to looking at the first function. How do we make sectors work better as management units?
The key to this is to look at all the things the player can do with planets, and have sectors mirror those capabilities. So what does a player do with a planet?
- Look at it. The planet screen is (kinda) visually pleasing, with little pictures showing the player the landscape. (To be honest, the Stellaris planet screen is ugly as sin, and only marginally better than the one from Star Ruler II (a brilliantly innovative indie game that sadly ended up feeling lifeless, due not least to its barely-there art direction), but there are still little people and bits of scenery, which is much better than nothing. I might look at better ways to do planet screens in a future post.)
- Build buildings on tiles and assign pops to them. The management unit has a bunch of slots and the player decides what to put in them, with an eye to good placement.
- Build spaceships. The management unit has a single, central management interface for doing this.
- Set edicts and planetary policies. The player spends Influence to shape the development of the planet in various ways.
- Manage troops. The management unit has its own defensive ground army and the player can build, customise, and assign offensive armies from its interface.
- Produce resources for and consume resources from elsewhere in the empire.
All of these things could quite easily be done on the sector level:
- The interface – currently a dry sub-list of planets within the territory manager menu, which doesn’t give you any clue where they are – needs to a) open when you click the large, prominent sector name, and b) show you the planets in their locations on the map. Ogi Schneider and I had a hell of a time trying to make this work in Alliance of the Sacred Suns, but we had more information to communicate. Stellaris can probably fit everything into tiles only slightly bigger than those on the planet interface, and allow for a bit of scrolling within the display, which might be projected onto the main map to save space. This is not an exhaustive specification, obviously, but the main required elements would include each planet’s image, name, population, specialisation (see the next point), resource surpluses/deficits, and happiness; the tiles would be more or less elastically tethered to their stars on the map. Each star might also have a smaller tag attached to it showing the inputs and outputs of the mining and research stations in the system. There would also be a similar map for troop movements, substituting information about troop numbers, types, and rally points for the default mode’s political-economic information. You’d also need a build menu for each of those modes, a population breakdown by species (either in a corner somewhere or under a different tab), a place to display the governor and active edicts (again, probably under a different tab), and a shipyard interface (mostly the same as the planetary one). The idea would be to follow the pattern of the planet interface wherever it makes sense, to reduce the amount of new interface the player has to learn.
- Rather than building particular buildings on particular tiles, the sector interface ought to allow the player to choose planetary specialisations: agri-worlds, research worlds in various specialisations, diplomatic nexi, administrative centres, military and civilian industrial worlds, various kinds of mixed-use world, and so forth. The AI would then develop those worlds in the appropriate direction. Planet-level and intra-sector migration policies might be set, in lieu of reassigning pops on individual tiles. Mining and research stations and shipyards could be built on planets in the sector directly from the sector interface.
- To have a single sector-wide shipbuilding interface would be simplicity itself. Although different spaceports can be specialised to have different strengths and weaknesses, just allowing each build order in the queue to be toggled between ‘get produced as fast as possible’ and ‘wait for this (/one of these) specific shipyard(s) to be available’ would handle that problem. The sector AI could add things to and reorder the build queue, strictly on the understanding that it can’t increase the wait time for anything the player has ordered built; the player might set aside shipyards exclusively for either their or the sector AI’s use.
- Replicating the planetary edicts and policies mechanics for sectors should not be a problem – sector-wide edicts and policies can work in exactly the same way. It might make sense to make them more cost-efficient than planet-level ones, given they’re more of a blunt instrument.
- Troop management is a more interesting problem, because rather than the troops all sitting on the same planet, they may be raised on a bunch of different planets, with different bonuses to skill, etc. The case of defensive armies is relatively easy – the player can simply have a dial on each world that says ‘Have this much strength of defensive armies’, perhaps with lists of checkboxes for which upgrades to give them (an even mix of all the boxes checked). Assault armies, in their various exciting guises, will be a little more complicated: they should have a muster point or points (between which they’ll distribute themselves evenly) in the sector, and the player must have the option to choose which of the variously-buffed versions to produce. This might be a little fiddly; unfortunately, the whole army interface is already kind of fiddly. Anyway, so long as it’s all done through a central interface, it’s less of a pain than going through and doing it planet-by-planet.
- Finally, resource imports and exports should be a) possible and b) managed through the sector interface. Right now, all you can do is bung them some energy or minerals, or spend Influence to drain their coffers. This is better than nothing, but still not great. Instead, their day-to-day surplus or deficit of each resource, including the special ones and excluding capital costs, should be visible, and the player should simply set how much of each is to be imported or exported by the sector to the main empire, with the option of saying ‘As much as you need to cover your maintenance’ for each resource. High imports and low exports would make the sector’s people and governor happier, while the reverse ought to do the reverse; perhaps Influence could be spent to perk them up for a while, to reproduce the resource exchange that takes place in the game as it is currently. This is a more complicated and hands-on approach than is taken by the planet interface, but it’s necessary in order for the player to be able to keep tight control of their stockpiles: they need to know what’s going to be going out and what’s going to be coming in, rather than being blindsided by some idiot AI building a bunch of expensive-to-run boondoggles without their knowledge. As a priority (because it’s a point of high visibility for the player) the AI ought to make use of imports assigned to its sector – if I send it some Beltharian stone, it ought to have the good sense to build a reactor with it – and address its own deficits if it can, within the strictures of the planets’ assigned roles.
The end result of these changes would be to make sector management engaging in the same way planetary management is – keeping the amount of micromanagement the player has to do at a constant, pleasant level throughout the mid- and late game, whilst still allowing them to have a feel for the shape and character of their empire.
Join me next time for, uh, more kibitzing about Stellaris, most likely. There are things I’d like to see done with characters and procedural storytelling, and a rejected planet screen design concept from Alliance… that I still really like, so you’ve got that to look forward to. Until then, keep it real.