by Jessi’s Mega-Late Game Reviews
This is a review of Star Ruler 2 (SR2) as it is as of March 2017 with the “Wake of the Heralds” (WotH) expansion. My critique is quite positive, as was my review of the [base game]. Please note that, although I have played nearly every 4X game released on Steam since 2008, and have several hundred hours in the original release of SR2 and for the expansion SR2: WotH, I do not tend to play 4X games at the highest of difficulties, nor do I engage with any multiplayer systems.
Previous game and review reference
You may find my review for the release version of SR2, after its very large update about a month later, here.
While I had my own ideas for potential improvements to the game, my conclusion was that SR2 was an exceptional and unique entry to the 4X genre.
Desires heading into expansion
The dev team posted a query in its Steam forum, while about half-way into their work on the expansion, asking players for their wish-list for WotH. Specifically, I proposed (& whether it made its way into WotH):
* More item/weapon research for ships (Yes)
* Enhanced fleet demographics (Some), research for differing fleets (Yes)
* More native planet traits (Yes), multiple resources per planet (No, though increased native planet traits), manufacturing opportunities to create virtual resources (No, though introduced new race-resource interactions)
* Pre-settled planets (No)
* Alternatives for artifact generation (No, though more artifacts can be simulated using researched ship modules)
* Re-balanced and varied ore-based systems (Yes)
And to end this section, I want to say that the dev team replied to my list very thoroughly, and implemented systems similar to those that its player-base requested—mostly in a better form than we had imagined!
More, more, more
I’ve always said that good expansions should (A) introduce more of good systems, (B) improve or eliminate poor systems, and (C) streamline ‘meh’ systems. The SR2 dev team delivered in spades! I’d say that the theme of WotH is ‘More, more, more!’
* More Resources! In each tier of resource, the number and their effects have increased. More Tier 0 foods and others; Tier 1 and 2 resource types; more unique resources; and more native planetary resources (some of which apply their effects to their planet, some to the planet that imports them). With these new resources, ‘specializing’ a planet to produce a specific resource is more effective. For example: a new Tier 2 “Lattice [xxx??]” increases Research on the importing world by 40%, decreases energy generation by 40%. A new Tier 0 food ‘Syrup’ increases Influence pressure by 25%. New resources allow planetary specialization for Defense, Influence, and Research. Cylium unique planets still enhance Energy, and while there are no explicitly Credit-enhancing resources, the Tier 0 “[xx??]” and “[yy??]” improve the development speed of planetary tiles and population growth, respectively, which improve the economy of planetary upkeep and taxes. More Tier 3 planets provide higher Defense and Labor generation and effects; focusing all of one’s Tier 3 resources on one’s unique planets is even more effective!
* Two new race archetypes! ‘Extra-galactic’ places three beacons in random star systems across the universe; your people from Andromeda (my fluff, not SR2’s—Andromeda is the galactic neighbor of the Milky Way) send colony ships through these extra-galactic beacon stations to colonize planets you have designated for colonization. ‘Ancient’ un-automates your civilization’s economy. Economic buildings must be purposefully built, large orbital replicators must be moved from one planet to the next to colonize them, and Crew and Power modules are combined into one Core module. For extra fun, play with ‘Sublight’-only FTL. Then check yourself into the nearest 1930’s-style asylum.
These two options, along with two new map options, provide more options for veteran players. Because this is exactly the kind of content that should be in an expansion, I approve! (I have not experimented with all of these variants, however.)
* More Researches! The research tree has been enhanced and expanded. New paths and combinations, more enhancements to resources, general enhancements to ships, ship weapons, ship hulls, and ship modules. Additionally, ‘infinite researches’ (a la Civ 6) have been added for weapon damage, engine thrust, shield capacity, support capacity, and hex health. Which leads to:
* More Ship Weapons! Additional weapons in each of the three primary weapon categories (projectile, beam, missile) have been added, as well as novel weapon design! A beam-like weapon that does damage to every hex through which it passes! A missile-like weapon that launches globs of plasma that attach to ships, doing damage-over-time! A drone launcher, that…launches fucking drones; they persist for a time, doing consistent damage! A star-bomb that creates solar flares which wipe out the population of all settled planets in the system!
* More Ship Modules! Many artifacts that specifically target ships are now available to add to a ship after their research: skip drive, ion cannon. A deep space telescope duplicates the lvl 4 Crystal planet effect of showing all ships engaged in FTL travel. “Troop pods” can be unlocked to provide an alternative to sieging a planet using time and supply. “Broadcast antennae” mounted on capital ships will periodically convert other empires’ in-system support ships to be part of your fleet! Additional ship energy and control modules, and armor types and mechanics are also available.
For some reason, a high proportion of SR2 forum posts pertained to making capital ships that were not carriers. As a huge fan of all carrier-style ships—literally, in every fucking game I can play, e.g. carriers in Axis and Allies; carriers in Civ and Civ Beyond Earth; carrier modules in Endless Space; strike craft carriers in Battlefleet Gothic; SoSE’s cruiser-carrier and carrier capital ships…and carrier defense stations…and carrier modules on stations and titans….
Where was I going with this? Right: many forum posters didn’t want carrier ships. Kinda supports my theory that all forum posters are slowly driving themselves insane. But the devs responded by expanding the types of ship hulls that can be applied to capital ships.
Don’t want a capital ship that can have support ships? The ‘Destroyer’ hull improves a ship’s damage and health, but cannot maintain a support fleet. On the other side of the spectrum? The ‘Carrier’ hull doubles the amount of support capacity on a capital ship, although it cannot sport any weapons itself. The ‘Titan’ hull is still available, and can be expanded upon by the ‘Colossus’ hull [does what??]. There’s also a hull that decreases the [??] cost(s) of a capital ship by requiring an ore cost.
Ship design is still 100% under the control of In addition to being able to design independent stations, we can now design ‘Support Satellites’, which orbit a specific planet…:
A great way to improve planets using what I consider SR2’s best, most unique, most fundamental mechanic: being able to use multiple types of resources to accomplish similar goals. It’s late in the game, and you need more damn food, but your planet has neither the space nor the upkeep for a megafarm! ‘[XX??]’ satellites add one neutral food to the planet around which it orbits at a one-time, upkeep-free cost of credits and those spare research points you’ve been building up! Need even more defense for your core worlds? Build a ‘Tactical’ satellite to improve the effectiveness of your defense fleets! Increase population by spending Influence, or duplicate the refinery sans maintenance costs with a higher up-front cost!
Defense is now more useful, easier to understand, and easier to implement. One still has the option to assign Defense to a star (via right-click menu), and it will still create support ships around the system’s settled planets.
In WotH, one also has a ‘Defense Reserve’: a pool that fills at one’s Defense rate, to be expended anywhere in one’s civilization to instantly build support ships. There’s nothing more fun than building up a Reserve of 1000, then assigning it to a planet, whose surface is immediately covered with layers of support ships!
Since Defense has always been a somewhat nebulous concept for SR2 neophytes:
- Defense is a resource, one of the five global resources of the game (Credits/Money, Research, Influence, Energy, and Defense). (Labor could be considered a resource, but it’s not global; it’s produced on a planetary basis, although labor-producing planets can export their labor to shipyards.) Therefore, Defense is produced on planets, in surface structures, triggered by the ‘pressure’ of imported resources. There exist Tier 0, 1, and 2 Defense resource providers, as well as a (new!) Tier 3 planetary resource.
- The primary use of Defense is to spawn free support ships. (Edification: support ships are smaller craft which are attached to a planet, a station, or a capital ship. Like the latter, one’s support ships may be completely customized; however, they are limited in the types of modules one may include in their design, and rely upon Supplies from their host.) Unless created by Defense, support ships cost credits, and must be created by something that produces labor (usually a planet, especially in early-game).
- (Once support ships are created, they are placed in orbit around their creator, unless something in-system is set to receive them. One may also transfer support ships between any two objects that can support them.)
- Defense is not exactly equal to an equivalent proportion of support ships’ cost in labor. The ratio is 1 Defense : 4 Labor worth of support ships; I believe this is a constant throughout gameplay, though I have only anecdotal evidence for this claim.
- When one’s Defense production is small (e.g. 5/minute), defense is stored (hidden) until enough has accrued to build a support ship. However, once said threshold has been reached, the ship is built instantaneously. If one’s Defense Reserve is large enough to cover the labor cost of one or more ships, they are built instantaneously upon triggering the Reserve.
- The Reserve fills from global Defense production first; once it has filled, Defense production is then distributed to all star systems tagged to ‘Use Defense’. If no system is so-demarcated, then Defense is automatically applied to one’s home/start system. Defense is never wasted; even if your start system has no available fleet capacity for support ships, Defense continues to accrue in the background, until the system’s capacity is increased. (However, any Defense stored in this ‘hidden’ manner cannot be transferred anywhere else.)
- ‘But Jessi: how do I increase my Defense Reserve value??’ Admittedly, this one took me a while to figure out. ;P However, just like every other aspect of SR2, there are multiple ways to improve the size of one’s Reserve: a neutral fleet ‘reward’; some researches; but the primary method is by the construction of Barracks on planets. One begins the game with 0 Defense Reserve capacity (unless one begins play with the Deliquent Attitude; see below). Barracks are cheap to build, cheap to maintain; when one’s budget can afford the consistent construction of a barracks upon every new planet, it is quite possible to increase one’s Reserve to 1,000 or more!
- And although Defense provides one with very small benefits in the early game, many players use Reserve (instant when applied) and production (a steady rate) to create nearly all of one’s support ships—handy when one is building carriers that can support thousands of hull-size of support ships, but one wishes to spend credits elsewhere! This is where the 4:1 exchange rate really shines, since support ships tend to scale linearly with hull size: one expenditure of a 1k+ Reserve can produce ~4k worth of support ship hull-size, fleshing out the support fleet of a large capital ship (or medium-ish carrier hull ship) just constructed!
Changes to the Senate, and the Popularity Win Condition
In vanilla SR2, the ‘Senate’ was basically nothing. A single diplomacy card allowed its player to, after a vote, host the Senate on one of your planets, moderately increasing the Influence generation of said planet. Although moving it from one civilization to another improved its benefit (and cost to play), the AI almost never hosted the damn thing, so its effect was largely blunted by the mid-game.
Some changes to the Senate system make it more interesting, and tie into a new victory condition. Bear in mind: the original senate diplomacy card remains unchanged (although the AI activates it more frequently). ‘Election’ cards now pop up in the diplomacy stack; with 10 Influence cost, one can create a vote to become the Leader of the Senate. (One must succeed at the vote. Additionally, ‘Open Elections’ are now one of the Events that occur randomly; if the Open Election passes, the most supportive civilization becomes the Senate Leader.)
Being the Leader of the Senate creates 3 new opportunities:
(1) There are Leader-specific cards in the diplomacy stack. (E.g. permanently increase population of target planet by 2, Labor by 1; stall a vote for two minutes after placing your influence; and kick another civilization out of a vote!) Any civilization can purchase these cards, just like any other cards. However: only the Leader can activate them! You can hoard them until you want to become the Leader, keep them once another ruler takes over, or you may need to spend a lot of Influence to retain your Leadership!
(2) As the Leader of the Senate, you are occasionally gifted a Leader-specific card. Since being the Senate Leader does not increase your Influence generation [true??] (recall: being the Leader has nothing to do with ‘hosting the Senate’), these free cards effectively generate free Influence…assuming you use them! Drawing the free cards is worth nothing if you don’t, which actually encourages players to take advantage of Leadership.
(3) Finally, only the Leader of the Senate can build the ‘Senatorial Palace’. Unlike the ‘Host Senate’ card, the Palace is an orbital; it has a build cost associated with it (which can be attenuated by building it upon an orbital platform artifact!). When you lose Leadership, the Palace becomes inert, but will activate again when you retake the Senate. From the Palace, you can purchase three cards: Election, Galactic Superpower, and Galactic Utopia. All of these cards share a purchase cooldown.
The former allows the Leader to keep her/his position, or to retake it when desired. The Galactic cards (“Utopia” and “Superpower”) allow the Leader to begin a vote. Although each grants powerful effects in their own respect, having both in effect simultaneously activates the new diplomatic win condition. Upon passage of the second card of the pair, planets in systems bordering yours begin to lose Loyalty—at a pretty rapid rate!—and when they reach zero, the planet converts to your control! When your trade borders increase, you begin converting those planets, until someone (i) cancels your Leadership, (ii) destroys your Palace, (iii) ends one of the Galactic cards (e.g. via the ‘Sabotage’ card), or (iv) there exist no foreign-controlled planets within your trade borders.
It’s a very powerful win-condition which forces your opponents to maintain a vigilant watch on the diplomacy system. It’s not like Influence used to be useless; like for the other four resources, one of Star Ruler 2’s most engaging, fundamental concepts is that resources can be transformed into another, or a resource with a high production rate can be used to bolster a player’s efforts in a low production resource. The WotH expansion…expands this flexibility. As mentioned above, Influence can be spent on: population-increasing orbitals; cards to replicate food; research unlocks; winning or opposing Events; and, of course, the diplomacy cards, which permit numerous benefits. But the new win-condition and other diplomacy additions, just as the expansion’s streamline of Defense, make Influence an even more powerful system.
I’ll admit: one of the largest barriers to entry for SR2 is the vocabulary they’ve chosen for some systems. I understand why the importation of planetary resources creates ‘pressure’ to construct buildings that create said resources. But ‘pressure’ is not a common term in the 4X genre used in the context of resource production. The new ‘Attitude’ system suffers the same obfuscation of the its purpose; while ‘attitude’ means precisely what the dev team intended for the system, ‘societal belief’ or ‘philosophy’ would better express the concept.
Having said that, the Attitude system is fantastic! There are six categories of Attitudes, each of which contains two quasi-mutually exclusive philosophies. Each civilization begins play with level 1 in a single attitude, based upon your Government type. As the game progresses, you may purchase level 0 in another attitude category, up to one philosophy in each of the six categories. Depending on one’s playstyle, and the challenge one faces in one’s opponents, leveling certain attitudes is more difficult than for others. The benefits gained at each level range from fairly weak to fairly strong, and again, some players will find some benefits better than others.
Overall, however, the attitude system is a welcome addition to SR2 because it makes gameplay more dynamic. Some of my attitude preferences (level the bonus is gained):
- Collectivism (lvl 5): All ships created at a planet gain +10% HP / Factory on its surface.
- Deliquent (lvl 2): Double pick-ups from defeated remnant fleets (super handy early game).
- Progressive (lvl 5): Increases ship blueprints by 14 hexes.
I don’t play SR2 because of its graphics—although the ability to zoom way the fuck in and way the fuck out has always appealed to me!—just like I don’t play SR2 for the story. The game doesn’t really have one. Personally, I don’t think it needs a story. Even the races have little in the way of story, relying upon the mechanics of each race (or racial options, if customizing) to spin a narrative. Playing a Capitalist Terranoid Empire with hyperdrive is a very different experience to playing a Communist Verdant Theology!
Fans of SR2 are also fans of Endless Space (ES), GalCiv 2, Sins of a Solar Empire (SOSE, “so-see”), and even more heavy-strategy-focused games like Creeper World 3: the story is unimportant—one’s playstyle, one’s opponents, the mechanics and the map: each of these adds to the narrative of a map. The map lasts for 5-30 hours of gameplay, and the narrative is finished: the ‘story’ of the game is complete.
All that said, the dev team overhauled every art asset in the game! The models, the planets, 2D and 3D surfaces all look crisper, grimier, shinier, etc. There exists some variety among art assets now, and blended effects on planetary surfaces look more natural, more subdued. Weapon, shield, and jump effects are more colorful, more smooth. And this graphical update was, of course, made available to all SR2 players, including those sans expansion.
Again: I was heavily biased for SR2 going into the WotH expansion. For me, for my playstyles, for what I wanted, the WotH expansion is nearly perfect.