How to increase Mutual Aid gains?

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this is basically my whole playstyle. my games, regardless of empire build, all start out the same. explore my immediate surroundings and then rush to claim my way to the chokepoints into my neighborhood. i prefer to have 3 or less avenues in or out of my territory. 2 is ideal and a single chokepoint can be difficult to manage if you get surrounded by a hostile advanced empire.

then, my starbases at my borders/chokepoints become bastions, every other starbase becomes an anchorage and i beef up my fleet and defenses so i can build up my infrastructure and economy without getting the crap stomped out of me. i've given up on federations unless i'm playing an origin that starts with one, and when i'm strong enough i try to vassalize my nieghbors to make them into prospectorums or scholarium.

Yeah, I don't think there's anything off about that opening as it's pretty much mine as well. I really think it is an inherently unfavorable galaxy roll for neighbors for the spec of the playstyle, also combined with you probably not taking every barrier reducing option ahead of time for the play style -

Criminal Syndicates have their drawbacks but the lack of barrier to play ball with branch offices is so good. Lithoids have their drawbacks, but radiotropic Lithoids cut one of the biggest ones in half which is usually more than made up for by Branch Offices when you start plopping them down like bulbs in a tulip garden. Mutual Aid has it drawbacks especially in comparison to Consumer Benefits with beelining Mercantile as a tradition, something you usually do as a Megacorp anyway, but combined with Lithoids and Bioreactors and all that newfound building slot space on Habitats that can't possibly be worked early enough in the game by actual workers or fine even if inefficient to any comparison. I am definitely considering Catalytic Processing for a 3rd Pick at some point here and in another playthrough from the outset, just to see how wild we can get with swapping around resource accruals, it might be really stupid, but it might be hella fun.

Like, I've been playing this spec so long now (at least the Voideborne, Radiotropic Crystalized Lithoid, Criminal Syndicate with MIl/Egal/Xenophole) that I don't really know how the game works or could work outside of it, and why one early wipeout every so often due to the galaxy roll is fine because the game really doesn't begin earnest for the spec until Vassals and Branch Offices are a thing. Barely any time or thought invested until it gets to the good stuff.

I am not trying to too my own horn on making a funky silly thing work out for a challenge, but sizing up everything I didn't like about standard play with Megacorps and Food Eaters, given the first chance to subdue those outright, I took it and never looked back.
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and i am telling you, i have tried to run a game by not building out my fleet at all,

And you mis-play, for reasons we already discussed.

what you suggest simply does not work in my experience. it literally cannot work in any game session i have played of stellaris. it's literally "build a fleet or freakin die, immediately".

And this is likely a result of your gameplay and game setup decisions, or relavent context already identified that you are omitting.

it's far better for me to take supremacy as a first tradition and build every starbase as an anchorage so i can build "F U" fleet power and vassalize my neighbors immeidately after first contact.

It's really not.
I federated in 2248 and went trade league and...

this is pretty funny...

it didnt hurt that bad to transition out of mutual aid, because I am so far behind. I am absolutely hurting for minerals but food is offset by subsids, i shut down the bioreactor, its fine. the hilaroius thing is i have i dont have enough minerals to build the buildings that could convert the CGs to research or unity/naval cap
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Update: I waited until 2350 to post an update and I don't know how material the state of things are for Mutual Aid because that is long in the past but I wanted to talk about it regardless.

So 2350ish, and everyone has habs, is building basic megastrcutures, has at least a half dozen if not more 70-90k fleets, the Khan was a total fizzle, I opened the L-gate just now, I've unlocked all traditions but havent research the ascension perk tech, and some repeatables are finally available for research. I have over 800 pops and am top of the 'Victory Screen' leaderboard but about 1/3rd the diplomatic weight of the Galactic Senate leader.

So very high level, I feel like I am behind the leaders of the galaxy and the whole thing is about 15-20 game years off, and I attribute it all to not getting a full fledged subsid under my protection voluntarily or otherwise earlier in the game. Up until I unlocked a wormhole and saw barely equal empire on the other side (who I liked and who liked me back), I was struggling in production of Alloys. One of the ironies is that my tech was finally coming along and taking out chunks and then I took this empire on the other side of the wormhole under my wing and it sandbagged my tech production but gave me about 70-80 alloys as a Prospectorium and a tidy sum of CGs. plus hefty sums of Minerals/Food and ECs, but gobbled up about 300 tech per month, now 600 tech per month. Yeah...I still took it though.

I was able to use more alloys to build up my and reinforce ramshackle fleets, use surpluses to buy more alloys, they were smaller, less technological and tap on the Federation fleet and Federation Partners to take some chunks out of The Chose (The Chosen who reside on the other side of another wormhole in their own pocket of space got beaten down and their pops stolen, by me. The rest of my Federation Partners never joined in though despite 'take point' settings on the Fed fleet. It was a two phase takedown because I did not have enough in the tank to go for their whole thing after the first two major battles, yeah, I was that far behind.)

Anyway, I took those planets and habs eventually, resettled a huge amount of pops, took another minor neighbor that was a vassal of another, took the Galactic Market that way, and FINALLY the game started opening up as I could be a wheeling and dealing smooth criminal. There was actually a really lucky event to get the Vacuum Flower event which I snagged right about the time I needed motes and minerals for all my mineral/alloy processing.

Other tidbids - my traditions were Supremacy, Mercantile, Diplomacy, Subterfuge, Genetics, Adaptability, Prosperity, in that order and yeah, not a pretty order but much more of a 'I need to do this or I'm gonna fall further behind', so Diplomacy was to get a Fed, Subterfuge was to open up more tech research options and get tech, genetics was to backfill population to make it grow super fast combined with Xenocomptability (and also make the most populous species really good), Adaptability/Prosperity was to get scale benefit from the small modifiers they provide. My perks are Shared Vision, Xenocompatibility, Lord of War (I love Merc Enclaves hehe), Engineered Evolution, ArcheoEngineers (Never taken it, wanted to see what it did, I do have a Battleship variant that is all Archeological Tech if possible with the spinal mount weapon), Master Builders, and now Galactic Wonders. Really don't know what to take with the final one, as Galactic Force Projection seems like the most uninspired but 20 Fleet Cap is 20 Fleet Cap, and Colossus feels like Overkill, and Arcology seems like...I am Voidborne, those 8 or so planets don't need that and it's not timely and so what if they're already City/Industry...that is not the fluff point.

So why has this game always felt a step behind and trapped in molasses?

1. Galaxy Roll didn't provide at least one good neighbor to make/encourage to be a subsid earlier. This is essential to what I do since subsids you conquer/encourage enable a lot more and the flow of resources, if they're an actual empire, keep pace as you grow. I had to spin up every single one from scratch on planets or habs, until the big one on the other side of the wormhole wanted to be my sweetie.

2. My Crimsyn Fed partner basically plowed through every neighbor with their own branches before I could. Was the benefit of teaming up in a Cartel fashion worth it not to get wiped by another neighbor? And worth the Fed fleet plus bells and whistles? And not even once getting pushed around on my own territory? Perhaps, but almost every Branch Office was on one of my homespun subsids...

3. Without some benefit of Power, I couldn't work any secret fealties, I couldn't snag any loose losers barely hanging on, I couldn't catch and release subsids (basically make claims on half/most opposing planets, do a subsid war, plop down Branch Offices on the released planets into subsids, keep planets with cool things, you basically get productive subsids with no lag time for them to build up, unlike homespun ones. The homespun ones grow up eventually and smooth out kind of a sawtooth sensation, so they're still useful but not substitute)

I think additionally I should have never wasted any time settling starbases in the empty pocket that nobody inhabited between me and my federation mate. Back of envelope math says that's about 1000 influence, which matters so much more than the 1400 alloys, and is not made up for the handful of resources on any of those systems, and barely made up by the 3 subsidiaries I plopped on planets in that patch in a time relevant manner. The important thing to nab in that wasteland was a busted Cybrex Ring World, which I did nab, but couldnt actually work until Mega Engineering. That 1000 Influence could have been several 'Steal Technology' missions which would have been trivial and quick since I took Subterfuge but noooooooooo, you can't have any loose ends with territory says my click happy aesthetic tinged brain.

Or claims, or part of 2 habitats, you get the idea. There were simply more productive uses for that Influence at the time I had it, and even though everyone might doubt the usefulness of Steal Technology, it does two things at once which, the subtle effect of allowing for beelines being way underrated (getting the exact cards to research you want by starting them off via Steal Technology absolutely works this way as I interpret and play it) but how you save a game that might not be going so great. I should have done that more and now that I am clocking about 17 Influence per month, I can really flex and am doing my missions as I can but...I wish I had done more of this earlier. Now it's all claims and espionage...

So basically, this game has been very satisfying despite not being in the driver's seat of the game as a mover and shaker, and it makes me wonder about engagement and disposition with games like Stellaris...I think I'll probably pull out a Victory in a 100 years now, but most of this game so far I have been middle of the pack and struggling to keep up with others, never feeling like I was inhabiting a game state where I was firmly in control. The thing I wonder about is how much players think they need to be in the driver's seat doing the things they want to do, and doing the things the game says you should do and have a Big Benefit (Relics!), and how there is an immense pressure players put on themselves to dominate the game as early as possible. And I get it, The Snowball is real, however...

For certain playstyles, I don't really think you can say a game is screwed or out of reach or going badly if you aren't the Toast of the Galaxy circa 2300. In my previous main playthrough 3.9, I had a lot of luck early including straight up flipping a ring world segment with a Pre-FTL civ on it to myself, getting the Omnicodex to keep pace with pops, getting a couple of exogenous subsids early, and basically having tighter borders with closer neighbors so that I could unleash the full fury of a very technical and plodding playstyle that seeks to be adaptable, earlier. That game was going to be a winner and I knew it early enough that it got kind of boring - this playthrough has not been boring, just frustrating in comparison to 'where I should be', basically comporting to the schema of precocious dominance. Let a game cook folks, you're not so bad at it, promise.

Overall Point To Mutual Aid: Needs a rework and I don't know where to start because it's mostly an issue of 'okay to start but you won't stay in it for very long and will never go back due to irrevocable changes to how you orient your economy after.' Like, I make so many minerals and energy now through Empire to Empire trade and the Galactic Market swapping around that the benefit to switch back, now that I'm done with Traditions, would be so marginal. I do like the idea of fractional Unity as a benefit as its totally fluff congruent to Mutual Aid but, maybe as a wink nod, it doesn't stand up competitively to other forms if available, and if not available, then tough luck on making it sing to a similar extent mid-late game when you simply can barter on market or empire to empire for ludicrous sums with your CGs as primary commodity, exotic resources as sweetner. Other parts of the Civic are fine on their own but the trade policy combined with the CG consumption increase really make it a tough sell, heh heh, to continue with. I did mentioned a planetary decision and/or situation (I could do so many cynical jabs towards my comrades with this, like, Manifesti levels of taking the piss on the absolutely microscopic faux pas of the Anarchocommunist milieu of which I am part of), to make it continue to be flavorful and situationally useful even if comparably insufficient.

A crafts festival that lump sums CGs every so often? A fury of zine production that gives a lump sum of influence and causes ethics shift on a neighbor or even a rival? Worker's Rights Charter passes - There should be a unity/happiness bonus, perhaps? There's little ways to play around with the Civic that gives the trade policy but I don't think there's much latitude on making the policy itself per se better (other than micro unity production) or rejiggering the whole Civic. I would absolutely stick with Mutual Aid if there were some novelty to it over the bog standard way other trade policies work.

Extra Extra Sidebar: Relics feel like Wonders of the World from Civilization IV in some way - yes they are good, yes they have power, but a whole playstyle predicated around leveraging their passive and activation bonus is not good, getting bent out of shape about missing the bonus is not good, yes I got the Cybrex in this game but I couldn't even use it to effect until I had sorted out my Alloys and Minerals and by that time I had the better Vacuum Flower which came to me entirely at random and was a headache and a half when it started. I remember a lot of meta chat revolved around this for a while, whether you absolutely need Pyramids or absolutely needed to Oracle Slingshot at Deity and it turned out...not always and to your opening's detriment very often. It is not the end of your playthrough if you cant snag your start Relic even though the game purposefully puts you on a path to consider it greatly.
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