Stellaris: Federations is An Impressive Expansion Delivering Democracy via Juggernaut
While already an impressive management space sim in its own right, Stellaris' new Federations expansion brings greater depth to the galaxy.
I frequently wander back to Stellaris every couple of months, keen to try out a new concept. I’ll build a new species, tailor them to whatever idea or style I’m in the mood for, and then launch them into a galaxy that will likely devour them whole. There’s a relaxing rhythm to a game of Stellaris, despite its initial complexity (and I prefer that over a game that’s too simplistic anyway). It’s a game I’ll happily sink hours into. My new civilization will rise to space, flourish in various ways, and either become the dominant force or come crashing down. Whatever the outcome, I usually walk away with an interesting story. At present, I’ve picked up all the DLC for Stellaris at some point with the exception of Lithoids. As such, it was probably inevitable that I’d grab Federations.
In previous revisits to the game, I found that conflict was almost always inevitable in Stellaris. No matter what kind of empire or species I’d try to build, it’ll eventually reach the point where empire management gives way to a wargame. This isn’t because I always play a warlike species; it’s simply because the options for diplomacy and more pacifistic approaches were limited. Eventually, I’d get bored trying to utilize them and just start triggering conflicts just to keep entertained. Violence would always rear up in some way.
Federations is primarily an attempt by developers Paradox to address this. Their stated goals were to flesh out the basic diplomacy system, overhaul the existing lackluster federations mechanics, and make interacting with other empires a little less binary. So how’d they do? Having now played it for a decent chunk of time to sample these systems, here’s what I think.
Diplomacy at Laserpoint
Stellaris used to have pretty weak negotiation systems. Upon meeting a new empire, your relations would be set according to your policies and government style. An egalitarian utopia isn’t going to like discovering that you’re a slaving despot, for example. After that initial bar was set, there was very little you could actually do to change those initial opinions. You could shower them in gifts and tribute, or guarantee their independence, and that was about it. If they reached a positive relations level, then you could start forming cooperative treaties or mutually beneficial trade deals. Still, it was so time consuming and frequently not worth the effort. There were many groups that I’d just instantly flag as rivals and proceed to ignore until it was time to invade them.
Federations attempts to address this by adding Envoys to your empire. You’ll have a select number of Envoys, determined mostly by government types and civics. These envoys are then deployed to another empire with the intention of either improving or harming your relations. Once deployed, they’ll start shifting your relations level accordingly, and they do a far better job of it than the previous methods. Give them enough time, and even really disagreeable jerks might at least be willing to bomb your starbases a little less.
This is also boosted somewhat by a new trade option: Favors. Are you really strapped for resources, but you have nothing to offer the opponent? Trade them a Favor instead. The game keeps track of these Favors and lets you spend them to increase approval ratings at a later date. Maybe the robot empire doesn’t want to sign a research agreement with you, but you bring up the Favors you did for them and they’ll relent. You can also deploy them in the Galactic Community, which I’ll get back to.
There’s also a new empire policy that lets you tune your overall diplomatic stance. Declaring yourself an expansionist will cause a lot more border friction, for example, but declaring yourself as cooperative will make diplomatic actions cost less influence. It’s a small detail to help you fine tune your approach, at least.
The titular federations have been expanded quite heavily. You still form a federation through the unity trees (or via your origins; more on that later), but the actual benefits and use has changed. There’s now a handful of federation types, such as the Trade Union or Hegemony, each with their own perks. You can only form a federation of a suitable type according to your government, though; militarists aren’t likely to be forming a Research Cooperative, after all.
Once the federation is formed, you’ll immediately get the associated bonus for its type. Further bonuses can be unlocked as the federation gains experience and levels up. But in order to gain experience, the federation needs to remain cohesive. Cohesion will start to break down if various members are of different or opposed ethics. Assigning envoys to function within the federation will combat this, however.
Beyond the passive bonuses, you can tweak the specific laws the federation upholds. As the federation levels up, you can elect to increase its centralization; doing so means it will start having more direct influence over the governing of its members. You’ll be able to grant more executive power to whichever empire is currently president. You aren’t president? That’s okay; just vote to determine presidency via trial by combat, then beat up the previous one. Make the federation become unwilling to trade with non-members, or encourage members to donate huge swathes of their naval capacity to the combined armada. Or you can just keep things simple and reap the benefits of jolly cooperation. Your choice.
Previously, federations were a real nuisance due to making the combined armada mandatory. A section of your naval capacity was donated to the cause, and you’d have to build two sets of ships. When you were serving as president, you’d have command of your own fleets as well as the federation ships, and it became tedious to deal with both…or else have your AI president just not deploy them well at all.
The federation fleet is now mercifully optional, so you can vote to just make it a non-issue entirely. Unfortunately, choosing to enact it still comes with those similar hardships. Playing multiplayer is a different story, but in single player? You’re largely at the mercy of a computer that doesn’t fully grasp the systems. The AI isn’t nearly as broken as it has been by some previous updates, but it still remains quite imperfect. Hopefully that’s something Paradox continues to address later on.
In short, federations are now a more interesting set of mechanics. Issues do remain, of course, but now it’s a system I’m more happy to partake in. It’s far better than the “avoid at all costs” mentality I used to have. Combining that with the diplomacy tweaks, players now have options in what approach to take. It’s a lot better than the painfully binary system of old, and nothing is stopping you from playing as you normally did in the process.
United Nations: Galactic Edition
To further supplement the diplomacy game, the Galactic Community can now be formed. It’ll trigger once a majority of galactic species are in contact with each other. If you’re not feeling democratic, you’re perfectly free to spurn it and take no part, or else leave it once established (though there will be hits to relation levels for those within it still).
In short, the Galactic Community offers a selection of proposals that empires can put to the vote. If it gets passed, all members will receive the modifier until (and unless) it gets repealed later. These will come with drawbacks, so you’re encouraged to vote on what suits your empire better. Votes themselves aren’t equal; your empire has a diplomatic weight that’s determined by all sorts of factors (fleet strength, tech level, economy etc.), which you can bolster by calling in favors. Depending on what proposals pass, certain criteria might be weighted higher or lower. A peaceful Community won’t give much diplomatic weight to the biggest fleet, for example.
The further down the proposal trees you go, the more hefty the drawbacks are. Eventually, laws will be included that demand certain policies from its member states. Fail to comply, and you’ll be hit with sanctions, which are also determined by the proposals. In the early days, it doesn’t really matter what you do, but eventually the Community will be more focused and denounce you for crossing the line.
Voting goes into recess between decisions, wherein proposals are made and stacked up based on interested diplomatic weight. When it goes back into session, the most pressing resolution is called, so it might be a while before anything you specifically need comes up. Later, you can elect to form a Council of the three empires with the highest diplomatic weight. Being on the Council lets you push an emergency proposal during a recess. These can include banding the known galaxy together against the endgame Crisis, so the urgency is sometimes appreciated.
Ultimately though, I found this to be a lot less impactful than the smaller changes. You can play the senate game and fine tune everything to eventually become the sole power in the Galaxy if you want… but I mostly just found myself voting and then not checking again until much later. It warrants more attention later when the proposals come with heavy effects and laws can cripple your progress, but even then it’s still a side activity.
Plus, if you’re really powerful, it doesn’t exactly mean much to have a minor sanction against you. Oh, I’m receiving less trade value? Guess I’ll have to make the difference up by annexing a few of your systems. Deterrence via Space Geneva Convention will only go so far.
On the Origin of Species
Origins are the last major included feature in Federations, and they’re probably the most interesting. You select one in Species Creation, and it will determine the means by which your empire arrived on the galactic stage. Some were previously government civics and traits, but they’ve been expanded a little (not to mention freeing up those civic slots for other perks).
Your homeworld might be a tomb world from a nuclear war, or a relic world from when your civilization failed the first time. Perhaps it’s a Gaia world, seeded by an advanced species. Maybe you’ve even been directly uplifted by a fallen empire, starting the game as their vassal. Or, you might’ve been at this for a little while and begin in a federation with a couple of alien species nearby. There’s a decent selection of options.
These are the most immediately engaging inclusions in Federations. You’ll be seeing their impacts immediately, and some proved to be quite entertaining. My first new empire had a number of sealed vaults on their world that, when opened, contained technological boosts left for them by an advanced species. This launched a series of excavations near my homeworld that told an interesting story, as well as helped establish me for what was to come.
One new origin is labelled specifically as being challenging: Doomsday. 35-45 years after starting, your homeworld will explode, so you have to found a colony and evacuate as many as you can before it goes boom. The planet will continue to degrade during this time, becoming increasingly hostile to life in exchange for having massive mineral riches. It was an interesting scenario, though it took quite a bit of focus to deal with. As such, I was quite behind on a galactic level once the situation was resolved.
I initially had concerns that this would be content already in the game that was stripped out and resold as DLC. Thankfully, you don’t need Federations to access the base handful of these, and more are unlocked based on what content you do have. As such, it’s a nice little inclusion to further add options and flavour for your species.
Choose to Democracy, Maybe
There’s a few other little bits of content with Federations. For example, you can build a new Megastructure or create the larger-than-a-Titan Juggernaut class of ship that functions as a mobile shipyard. While nice inclusions and fun to use, they aren’t huge features. There’s also been some fine tuning to the way that Administration works, as well as a couple new buildings to better manage some areas that were lacking. Much of this is likely in the base update that all Stellaris players get regardless of DLC purchase, but I haven’t tested how much is changed personally.
What I can say is that since the DLC drop, I’ve started a few games and tried out some of the options. The general diplomacy changes are welcome adjustments, and federations are now something I’m happy to be a part of (and not just avoid on principle). Origins are fun to play around with, and the Community is a good way to nudge some more bonuses my way.
Ultimately, nothing here is so overwhelmingly large and all-consuming that it absolutely changes the way that Stellaris plays. You can play much as you did previously and find little difference. But for those who are willing to embrace the changes, many options have been opened up that previously were just a waste of time. They might not be optimal, but they aren’t going to ruin your game for investing in them.
That brings us to the question of whether Federations is worth it, then. Personally, I found it to be so! If any of what you’ve read sounds interesting, then it might behove you to check it out. But if you’re itching to play Stellaris yet aren’t sure about it, I don’t think you’ll be suffering for its absence. It’s also not the most balanced update yet, though that’s nothing new for the game. Still, buyer beware.
So all in all, I consider Federations a good DLC. It gives you options, expands on some lackluster systems, and adds yet more variety to the already varied Stellaris. Given that it’s already one of the best space empire management and strategy games out there, that’s all I really ask for.
Stellaris: Federations is currently available for PC, with news to come for a PS4 and Xbox One release.