Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Games to play on date night: Rule the galaxy together in Stellaris

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Games to play on date night is a series that focuses on finding the best video games for small groups to play together. The big idea here is that many of us have “played out” our favorite go-to games during the extended lockdowns and may be looking for new ways to spend our game time together. Send your recommendations to [email protected].

Somewhere, out there, you and your soulmate could be gazing at the same yellow star. Or perhaps they’re looking at a trinary star system while you’re exploring the gaping maw of a supermassive black hole. This week, we’re playing Paradox Interactive’s Stellaris, a hybrid RTS/4X that puts players in charge of a fledgling civilization that’s just achieved interstellar travel.

Stellaris launched to critical and player acclaim in 2016 and has picked up numerous free patches and DLC expansions since. We’ll be focusing on the vanilla game for the purposes of this article.

Why Stellaris? My fiancee and I have been gaming together for years but this one’s a bit “advanced” for us. It marks our first foray together into something close to a title in the grand strategy genre. But, in this case, Civilization VI was our gateway drug.

Much like Civilization VI, you’ll be controlling an entire empire but in Stellaris you’ll move beyond a single planet to conquer the stars. The point of the game is to manage your civilization by choosing and enforcing government policies, building and directing your military, deciding what to research, and slowly expanding its influence across the game maps.

We like it because it’s absolutely gorgeous. Not only is space a pretty backdrop, but the graphics and ambient atmosphere hold up excellently after five years. Plus the gameplay is exquisite. Everyone playing has something to do all the time, even if it’s just taking stock. And we can also stop the action any time we want if one of us needs to deal with something important in the game.

Stellaris is a real-time strategy game. You control the passage of time so, for example, if you want to deal with a new development, issue orders, or just take a breather to surmise your empire you can pause the game at any time for as long as you want. Once time rolls you can choose how quickly it passes allowing you to decide whether to speed through lolls in the action or to slow things down to observe interesting events.

Why play it on date night? Obviously Stellaris’ multiplayer mode wasn’t designed strictly with small groups in mind as it supports up to 32 players. But the experience here works equally well in single player or with just two or three players.

The experience is an ambient and often relaxing one that’s regularly broken up by exciting events such as combat or diplomacy. During the early game (before all the empires have discovered each other) it feels a lot like you and your fellow human players are playing different games because you can go hours without actually encountering one another.

But chatting together during this seemingly solo portion of the game is what makes it special. My fiancee and I had deep, satisfying conversations about the nature of geopolitics in space, whether might was right, and how cute the giant space whales attacking my ships were.

Managing an entire space-faring civilization at both the big picture and individual ship level is a daunting and incredibly rewarding feat. We actually co-managed a single civilization the first time we played (by simply making all the empire’s decisions together during a single-player tutorial run) so that we could learn to play together.

And that brings us to what you need to play Stellaris. The first thing you’ll need (aside from the game) is the time it takes to learn to play it. This isn’t a game like Pac Man that you can just pick up and play. Paradox does an excellent job of on-boarding players through its optional tutorial quests, but at the end of the day it’s still a complex game.

It took us about 2 hours to get the hang of things. After we had about 8 hours into our first game together we were ready to split up and start a new match with our own empires.

Like any multi-platform, multiplayer game Stellaris can be a bit difficult to get up and running for the very first time. If you’re planning to play with someone in the same home as you, you’ll need separate PCs or consoles. Stellaris does not support any form of split-screen or hotseat local co-op/multiplayer.

Your options are to purchase it on Steam, GOG, PC, Xbox, or Playstation or to play it while it’s included in the Xbox Game Pass. The Steam experience is typically seamless. If you and your fellow human players are all on Steam you should be able to connect via the in-game interface with little or no problems. If you’re on GOG or PC (meaning you purchased it from the Windows Store or are playing as part of the Game Pass for PC) you can still play cross-platform with Steam users. And if you’re both on the same console you should be able to connect via the in-game interface as long as you have the necessary subscription service to play multiplayer games.

Note: I ran into an issue where it was impossible for me and my partner to play multiplayer together while connected to the same router while playing the PC version via Xbox Game Pass. This is easily fixed by adding a second hardware router or using a VPN to ensure you appear on different networks.

Final thoughts: Stellaris might not seem like a date night game up front, but it has everything you need to get a little more emotionally intimate with someone whether you’re in the same room on a LAN or playing together remotely (as long as you connect to a voice or video chat).

We found the depth and scope of managing our individual empires played well against the background of navigating the cosmos to find each other. In our current game we haven’t yet reached one another but we’ve enjoyed sharing our triumphs and tribulations while planning our impending alliance. We know something our current enemies don’t: one day the stars will bring us together and we’ll be unstoppable.

And, if we ever get bored of conquering the galaxy, learning to play Stellaris works as a nice inception into the Paradox games universe which includes a vast array of games for us to play together such as Crusader Kings III and Europa Universalis IV.

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