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    Real Strategy Requires Cunning

Narva

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Stellaris is nominally a 4X game with a focus on exploration. But the way you find out about alien empires doesn't feed into that theme very well. Unlike in other 4X games, when you discover an alien empire, after carrying out a brief special project, you immediately find out everything you might want to know about them save the specifics of their fleet deployment: their ethics, their approximate military strength, their personality, their attitude towards you, what planets and systems they own, their diplomatic relations, everything. There's no 'exploration' to be done there, and that's a problem.

One of the great themes in Star Trek is the process of coming to understand strange alien races. The Borg are scary because the Federation don't know the extent of their power. The Ferengi start out as quite mysterious creatures, with the Federation's - and the audience's - understanding of them only developing over the course of TNG and DS9. There's no opportunity for Stellaris to capture that dynamic at present, because everything is dumped in your lap on Day 1 - and, consequently, there's no opportunity for the kinds of interesting gameplay that might depict it.

What could be achieved here? Ideally, when your ships encountered a vessel or fleet of an alien empire that you've met but know little about, you could expect to walk away from the encounter with some new information about or relationship with that empire; more broadly, the initial phase of your relationship with an empire would be a process of probing one another, working out what risks to take, bluffing and posturing, and making initial agreements to avoid toppling into an unintended war. To that end, any nasty consequences of your actions would need to feel like they were your fault: you took the risk of settling that system you were warned not to, so when the Fallen Empire comes and stomps two of your planets in retaliation, your response is, 'If only I'd spend some more time and resources looking before I leaped!' rather than 'That sucks, I just got bodyslammed out of the blue.'

Mechanically, this would all cash out as something like the following:
  1. Relations between empires would come in three phases: the initial Phase I of contact without communication; an exploratory Phase 2, in which everything is kept secret which isn't specifically revealed; and a Phase 3, 'diplomatic network membership', in which the empires have established at least informal and indirect diplomatic and trade relationships and everything is revealed which isn't specifically kept secret.
    1. In Phase I of relations, even translating aliens' language would be more involved than it is now: you would have to have a science ship conduct a project on an alien ship, station, or planet. On the receiving end of this, you would receive two notifications: one that an unidentified alien ship was approaching, and another, rather later, that they were trying to communicate, giving you the option of cooperating or not. The point of this two-stage process is that other things that could be done to uncontacted aliens would include technological assessments, strategic scans in preparation for planetary invasion (providing a bonus to invading armies), and straight-up military attacks, so that depending on how paranoid you are you might choose to shoot first and ask questions later in response. (To make this even more fraught, and because it lends itself to Star Trek-ish scenarios, it should be possible for science ships to be accompanied in a fleet by a limited number of military escorts. This would make them safer from attack, as the escorts buy them time to escape, but much more provocative in appearance.) There would also be more aggressive ways to learn to communicate with aliens, which would also provide useful information on the target's species - these would include capturing the crews of ships and stations and abducting aliens from planets. (To make the tradeoff more interesting, Xenophobic and Militarist factions might oppose the use of the less conciliatory type of project.)
      1. Attacking Phase I alien vessels would not necessarily mean outright war. An empire would have options as to what stance to take in response to Phase I alien actions. Naturally, Militarists and Xenophobes would favour more aggressive stances, and not retaliating against aggressive actions might incur a penalty to an empire's reputation for strength in its diplomatic network and that of the aggressor (which would in turn have impacts on its diplomatic relations - check out this thread for how that might work). In Phase II and III, on the other hand, war could ensue as normal.
    2. In Phase II, which begins when empires are able to communicate with one another, formal treaties, threats, the establishment of exclusion zones (like claims, but against a specific empire (also claims and exclusion zones should be visible to your diplomatic network and theirs, and violations of them should provoke a diplomatic crisis, but that's a matter for another thread)) and declarations of war and peace become possible, but the empires may still know little about one another. In this phase, they can engage in diplomatic missions. An empire might send a leader on a science or consular ship to visit a Phase II relation's capital, for example, with the recipient having a number of options as to how to respond. Do you allow the alien ship to fly to your capital world, risking their gathering information on your planets and fleet movements on the way? Do you insist their character be transported on one of your ships instead? If so, do you send them to your capital, or do you claim a different planet is the capital so they underestimate your level of development? Do you abduct and interrogate the leader?
      1. More broadly, an empire A in Phase II relations with an empire B may engage in a campaign of deceit, attempting to convince empire B that A is stronger or weaker than they are, that A's ethics are different, etc. This is a stance decision that is only available so long as B doesn't know the truth, and each diplomatic interaction may have a chance of breaking the deception. (Other interactions, such as the aforementioned abductions and technology scans, might break certain specific deceptions, too.)
      2. Phase II brings with it a 'mutual comprehension meter'. Once that meter hits 100, the two empires progress to Phase III. Diplomatic missions, trade connections (however they end up working), research treaties, and other interactions along the same lines all contribute to the meter's rising.
    3. In Phase III, deceits from Phase II automatically break down, and all the information that would normally be available to another empire becomes available. Empires at Phase III relations cannot return to Phase II with one another. From this point on, diplomacy proper begins - something like @Alblaka's Diplomacy 3.0, ideally.
      1. Phase III is transitive - if Empire A is at Phase III with Empire B and then A reaches Phase III with Empire C, Empire B automatically and immediately reaches Phase III with C as well.
      2. The point of this third phase is to provide the public stage on which empires can have reputations and standing: if Empire A is diplomatically humiliated by/betrays/provides aid to Empire B, everyone in each empire's diplomatic network will know about it, whereas Empire C, which only has initial-phase relationships with empires in either network, will be none the wiser. (None the wiser, that is, until C's own diplomatic network joins up with A's and/or B's, as occurs when any empire becomes a member of both.) The humiliation/betrayal/generosity/etc. would affect A and B's reputations in each network, but if the networks are separate, each empire could have a very different reputation in each network. The idea is that all of a network's members' interactions with a given empire affect that empire's reputation in the network, with all the 'public' information being shared by default. By the late midgame, all the galaxy's non-Fallen, non-Xenophobic empires would probably be members of the same diplomatic network, meaning that empires' interactions would be affecting, essentially, their galactic reputation. (This would keep the number of different reputations you'd have to keep track of down.)
      3. When an empire finds out a piece of information about another empire, it may choose to keep it secret or make it public in their Phase III network. Empires may also choose to share information with one another as part of deals. An intelligence window would have to be added to the top bar, in order to review available intelligence on foreign empires and set information-sharing policy for each category (techs, maps, planet details, Ethics, etc.)
Apologies for the wall of text! What do you all think?

(Edited for structure and additional detail.)
 
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Jdueskov

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As it's sounds to me, this would add alot to the early/early mid game, and flesh out doing mid game. I like it! Adds depths to the interactions between empires, and would really set xenophobic and the rest apart. Maybe this could be implemented in some form, in an espionage expansion, people seems to really want espionage, and this idea is somewhat in line with that idea..
 

OnyxAbussos

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Mechanics can be debated, but I totally vote yes on the larger concept.
 
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DukeLeto42

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What I really want to see with something like this is a xenophobic isolationist trying to convince its neighbors that it's a fallen empire.
 

Narva

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What I really want to see with something like this is a xenophobic isolationist trying to convince its neighbors that it's a fallen empire.
Or a fanatic purifier trying to lull everyone into thinking they're nice peaceful isolationists.
 

Vias

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Actually I wonder why they didn't use something like this since day 1, I find this system intriguing and realistic. It would be good ground for a diplo/espionage future dlc I think. I like it!
 
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Hogloo

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I think this idea is very interesting (at least, we should not automatically discovered all the neighbourg territory after contact, but only know if systems we already have discovered belong to them or no)

The transition between these different phases should also be possible automatically (with a continuous gain in understanding of the other, probably increased if the other makes efforts to complete the events of mutual understanding). So the xenophobic empires that sometimes say "you have developed software for understanding alien languages. Not us" (or something like that, I don't remember anymore) will still be able to understand what the strength and the extent of the territory enemy over time, without the need to research against their life ethic.