Reviews

Stellar Monarch – A Series Impressions

Strategy games are some of the most diverse genres in the video game industry, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Whether you fight on the battlefield as a single soldier or lead a vast empire to glory, their scope is as wide as the universe.

The grand strategy sub-genre has been around for decades, and I’ve always found them to be the most fascinating. The idea of overcoming vast kingdoms and nations over the long game tickles my inner megalomania like nothing else. That’s a joke, but my point still stands. Since the AAA god game craze died in the mid-2000s with Spore and Black&White, this genre is the next best thing.

Some of my favorites include Terra Invicta, Medieval 2: Total War, Old World, and Airships: Conquer the Skies. Once again, the variation in just these four games is impressive. Terra Invicta has the player relying on influence and manipulation to take over the Solar System to either fight or join an alien threat. Medieval 2: Total War takes place across all of Europe with real-time battles that the Total War franchise is most known for. Old World combines the gameplay from Civilization with powerful character relationships from the Crusader Kings franchise to form a powerful strategy game. Airships: Conquer the Skies has players build deadly ships from scratch and overcome nations, mixing the strengths of grand strategy with real-time ship combat with physics.

The Stellar Monarch series is my focus today. The developer Silver Lemur Games is working on an expansion pack for Stellar Monarch 2. For my debut piece with The Strategy Informer, I wanted to look into his two most interesting titles as a whole. Stellar Monarch takes grand strategy on the galactic scale. It’s not just nations or planets to overcome, but fellow empires spanning whole systems. They do not have the same scope as Stellaris, but that is a lot of ‘Dark Lord’ shit to manage.

Stellar Monarch
Stellar Monarch 2

What drew me to these games is how it focuses on the gameplay. You are the ultimate emperor. Not an officer, not a general, but the overlord of the vast empire. This means you hold hegemony over all, and you do not mess with little man things like making ships and fighting battles. That is for the underlings, but that does not mean you are all-powerful. While the Stellar Monarch series automates a lot of 4X gameplay, there is still plenty to do. Courtrooms are full of people begging the attention of the emperor like puppies for treats, noble families vie for power and ambition, and the galaxy brims with threats. Enemy factions follow their own paths to glory, and rebels within your Empire will fight you. This is no cakewalk!

Automating usual features like economy, politics, and war sounds like a design gamble, and it is. However, Stellar Monarch 1 and 2 both perform admirably. While they aren’t as complex as some 4X rivals like the Crusader/Hearts of Iron series, they still demand plenty of attention. I discovered this to my inner Dark Lord’s fury. As it turns out, trying to understand a complicated 4X title on the back of illness isn’t fun or easy! Both games feature extensive guides in game to explore at your leisure, and these tutorial guides are well-written. Whenever I hit a stumbling block on what to do next, all I had to do was click the ‘How to Play’ option in settings, and it opened up into a large encyclopedia covering all the features in the game.

This is one of those times when I would prefer an interactive tutorial. No matter how nicely organized a player guide is, there’s something about playing a tutorial that helps me more. Blending this into gameplay feels more organic, although everyone has different preferences. That’s not to say Stellar Monarch handles player teaching badly: far from it! I’m pretty impressed with it. However, it can be improved, and if it contained a short tutorial level to teach players the basics, I feel it would help a lot.

The beginning of the playthrough is usually the hardest in terms of understanding. There are plenty of options for customizing a single run, with all sorts of difficulty settings to tweak. I recommend playing on easy, at least for your first playthrough so you can understand how things work. From there, crank up the difficulty or tailor it to your preferences. While the opening turns can feel like stuffing several encyclopedias into your brain at times, I found the gameplay surprisingly relaxing. While these games are complex, because there are no time limits between turns, you get a ton of freedom in planning things out.

As I progressed, the more I had to manage. One of my favorite moments was in Stellar Monarch 1, when I launched my massive invasion in the south. While my Empire’s elite fleet was more than a match for the rebel forces, I underestimated the security in my northern territory. Imagine my surprise when one of the great houses rebelled just a few systems away from my capital. If the capital planet is taken, you lose, and the rebellion was pretty powerful. I had to transfer ships from the front back to protect my home world while frantically building more fleets to counter the threat. While I stopped the rebellion, it cost me valuable time in my southern campaign. This kind of emergent gameplay feels so satisfying.

As a sequel, Stellar Monarch 2 expands upon the original in a few ways, and it is the more refined of the two. This title focuses more on the internal politics of managing a galaxy-spanning empire. From squabbling noble houses ala space Game of Thrones to keeping the Imperial Court under wraps, it contains deeper mechanics in diplomacy and options for managing the nobility. It also receives a decent visual facelift with character art being nicer to look at, including a clearer interface. I cannot put it into words how much this improves the player experience. While Stellar Monarch 1 isn’t obtuse, the cleaner interface in Stellar Monarch 2 makes management so much easier.

Both these games make the experience of being a great Overlord so satisfying. The decision to focus on the grand politics of a vast empire, without having to worry about micromanaging every little detail, sets the Stellar Monarch series apart from the rest of the pack. They still require time and energy to get the most out of them, but I’m enjoying both games immensely. I’ve yet to test their performance on the Steam Deck, but with several controller profiles available, they should be fairly playable, especially with the mouse touchpads. Seriously, the Steam Deck trackpads are wonderful!

To conclude: what about the sequel? Does it make the original Stellar Monarch with its DLC obsolete? Honestly? I think there’s merit in playing both games. While many sequels make the predecessors less appealing, I believe it doesn’t make the first Stellar Monarch a waste of time. While Stellar Monarch 2 makes some big improvements to the House politics and diplomacy, I think I prefer how the original balances it out with gameplay. The new mechanics in Stellar Monarch 2 are great, I just feel they might be a bit much for me. The greatly improved interface is a stellar reason to buy the second game, no pun intended. The first game is still a fairly deep and complex strategy sim, and both games get my recommendation.

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