So if you haven’t played Stellaris, it’s a space 4X strategy game from the team that made Crusader Kings and all that other real high-maintenance crap. Stellaris is easily the most approachable of their games, and today I wanted to talk about how it does combat, especially compared with Endless Legend. Now Endless Legend is another 4X – it’s turn-based, rather than the real-time gameplay of Stellaris, and it’s got more of a fantasy vibe. Let’s get into it.
So in Stellaris you’ve got two main visual modes – the map of the whole galaxy, and the maps of each individual system. You can scroll in and out between the two of them, that sort of thing, but I find that most of the gameplay really takes place on the galaxy map. It’s worth noting as well that there’s different types of representation on each level – so if you’re on the galaxy map, your ships show up as little icons next to the system that they’re in. You have to scroll into the system to actually see the ships properly.
The other thing to note about Stellaris is that every real-time second counts for one in-game day. You get resources replenished at the end of each month, so you get them every 30 seconds – it’s just how the game’s depiction of time works. But there’s actually a little slip in how the game approaches time – there’s a little inconsistency. When two fleets are in combat, it seems much closer to a real-time battle. Check out this video below – it’s a minute and a half of combat. Look at how frequently the different ships are moving and firing – remember, of course, that each real second it supposed to be a day in the fictional world. Logically, either these ships can only fire once per day, or there’s a bit of slippage and the battles are actually kinda real-time even though that’s not how time is supposed to work in Stellaris.
So I tend to the belief that the battles are real-time – even just on a visual level. That’s how fast those ships would be firing if a game-second corresponded to a real second. Obviously when you finish a battle you get a battle report and it’ll tell you that the fight took two months even though it took like a minute tops, and – so there’s some slippage here, right. It’s inconsistent. That’s not to say that the game is bad – Jesper Juul has a quote about how if you tug hard enough at any video game, you’ll always find the gaps, the places where the rules aren’t really consistent enough to maintain the fiction. So it’s totally fine that there’s a gap. What’s important for our purposes is that we can acknowledge that gap without it feeling like a massive gaping hole in the fabric of the fiction. It kinda seems to fit, right, it doesn’t make us go ‘hold the fuck up that’s inconsistent’. It seems fine – as illustrated by the point that we don’t really notice it in the first place.
For contrast, let’s move to Endless Legend. Similar basic kinda set-up. There’s a global view, and you can click into cities to get a pop-up table and do all your city shit. And you’ve got figures that walk around on the tiles – those are your armies and so on, they’d be like Monopoly figures on a board or something. You can see from the image above that it’s all kinda scaled down – so you’ve got a whole city in that center tile there. When you get into a fight, then, you’d assume that the camera would maybe zoom in to a micro level, lay out all the terrain of that one hexagon and let you fight it out, right? That’s how scale works – your current view is blown up, so the actual real human being sized view is going to have to go down. But that’s not what happens. Instead, your armies spread out across the board as you can currently see it. One unit can inhabit each hexagon, and then it turns into a simple turn-based combat scenario – you shoot at each other and hit each other and all that stuff.
So there’s a clear break in the logic of the game here too. The figure on the board is always assumed to be a representation of the smaller army traipsing across the terrain. But when combat happens, instead of moving to a smaller visual scale, the game makes the characters enormous. It uses the one board-space to represent multiple types of scale – the city-level and the army-level. In this way, I suggest, Endless Legend has more obvious gaps in its fabric than Stellaris. In Stellaris, the combat doesn’t make sense if you think about it, but it’s folding back into our normal understanding of time, so we don’t notice. In Endless Legend, we have a sense of what scale means, and then that sense is really directly assaulted by the army moments. The whole thing just seems kinda inconsistent.
The point is that inconsistency in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Arguably all games are inconsistent, to some extent. But games set up a bunch of metaphors, a bunch of short-hand representations that we all collectively buy into, and when that internal logic is transgressed against, that’s when it’s jarring.