In stellaris, I've always played materialists and gone for robots. with Utopia, I always went synth. as soon as synthetic dawn came, I played almost exclusively machine empires. sure, they had some serious disadvantages, but hell, they were fun. plus, I'm not against modding the hell out of the game to make it more fun and fix anything that isn't.
A couple of days after 2.2 was released and enough of my mods were updated to appease me enough to put down Spyro and Epic Battle Fantasy 5 long enough to turn all organics in the galaxy into electricity again, I saw a lot of posts talking about how MEs were nerfed into the ground. I figured, maybe the reviews were overstated. or maybe even if they aren't it's somewhat fixable. maybe someone's already made a mod that fixes any problem people are currently having with MEs.
fast forward to today, and I can assure you, the reviews were understated, the problems plaguing machine empires are not reasonably fixable, and mods that slap bandaids on the massive leaks only serve to reveal even more problems.
First off, the problems of a machine empire.
Machine Empires, as you may expect, do not require food to survive and grow
FIRST ISSUE: district limits. by default, there will always be at least 3 energy districts, 1 mineral district, and 3 food districts. it's not hard to find planets that are lacking in minerals or energy, but plentiful in food. even with the Bigger Colonies mod, you'll often be left with these relatively useless districts.
"but you can use bio generators to convert food to energy" except it converts food to energy rather inefficiently – 20 food to 15 energy (I believe it used to be 20-20, which was reasonable, but 2.2.2/GAI
"but you can also sell food on the market" true, I've seen the prices be as good as a 1:1 ratio of selling food for energy. the second you start selling food, though, the ratio gets worse. if at any point you get a 100:66 ratio, you're better off just not farming.
furthermore, you're going to research techs that boost your energy production, like the energy nexus and the "+10% from tech drones" tech. that's just a fact. however, if you're -also- making food, now you also need to research food bonuses and food buildings to keep up. that's tech points better spent elsewhere. you could have researched something more useful, like terraforming tech. which leads me to my next point.
SECOND ISSUE: You can forget about research if you're playing a Machine Empire. Machines are heavily reliant on expansion (more on that later) and basic resources. if you have pops without a job, you're putting them to work in the mines, reactors, and factories. with their abysmally slow pop-growth (even with all possible modifiers), you can't afford to man more than that, and energy is a huuuuuuuge need for MEs. you can build no districts but energy districts and still come out losing energy.
Furthermore, because pop-growth is so slow, you're forced to expand – which is energy intensive and alloy intensive. if you're going to make a colony, you have to stop everything else you're doing to send drones to the new colony to sit around picking their oil-ports until the population reaches a size where they're capable of building pops on their own so they can actually begin producing energy and minerals. until then, they're a massive drain on resources, rather than a net gain. the colony's basically useless until you get 10 pops there, at which point it's mildly self-sustaining and can start dripping back profits.
so why not try playing tall instead? because that's not a choice for MEs. I've tried it, several times (mostly because I couldn't reliably get enough alloys to actually expand, and energy was so much of a problem that if I did, I'd run out of energy). if you don't colonize other planets fast, you'll soon hit a point where you can't get more energy, and your population will be so low that you can't support increasing science production. even if you do it anyway, everyone else will be ahead of you.
robots need energy for resettling, blocker clearing, typical building/starbase maintenance, generating unity, and simply existing – existing will by far be the most expensive part of the bill. they need minerals to make buildings, districts, replaceable parts, making alloys, generating science, and building pops. they need alloys to feed the neverending expansion caused by always running low on energy and minerals, both with starbase creation and colony ship creation (oh, and forget making a navy for a long while, and forget fielding a large/good one for even longer. ships are expensive to build and have an alloy maintenance cost. this impedes your expansion immensely. enjoy seeing everyone around you having a "superior" or "overwhelming" fleet. even if you did make a fleet, it's not like war will help you much due to having low influence generation). alloys especially are very hard to get – vanilla it's a 6 mineral – 2 alloy ratio (GAI it's 6-3), and each foundry only creates 2 jobs, and requires 5 pops per building (and your pop generation is s l o w). you're going to need at least 4 of these on your home world (so 48 minerals->16-24 alloys). the advanced version requires getting lucky with tech choices (x2, the mineral->mote building and the advanced alloy building techs) because your low research generation in these two fields means you can't just burn through low-tier techs until you get what you want.
ironically, MEs are very good at society – don't let your 200/300 research points per month fool you, 250 of that's society, and the rest is split between physics and engineering. considering society's always been considered the weakest tech branch, and doubly so for MEs who need engineering for most of their tech-equivalents, it's rather funny how society of all research types is easy to come by. The reason why is because MEs are also reliant on unity to work. for MEs, it's a rush to megastructures and machine worlds. Coordinators are the best source of unity. they also give a bunch of society research. they also eat up 3 energy. at least machine worlds require a society tech, so that's not that bad, but both megastructures and synthetic age require engineering.
ISSUE 3: extreme reliance on expansion and unity. MEs require lots of minerals and energy. if you are lucky with spawn generation and are given enough room to balloon to the point where you have well over 100 systems, then great! once your currently colonized worlds aren't providing enough E/M, you can colonize another world in your massive borders and use the resources there. and, of course, mining stations are a boon. I seem to get more basic resources from mining stations than planets. of course, this is also the only time you'll be getting a reliable amount of science via research stations. However, if at any point, especially early game, you find yourself boxed in and you don't have machine worlds or megastructures (especially megastructures), and you're not going to be getting them real soon, you may as well quit right there and start over.
to give an example, in my most recent game, I had tossed in a mod that cleared up one of the biggest issues with MEs, their slow pop-production. it does this by changing the robot factory to have a cap of 4 per planet and provide 2 jobs each. now, that's for both robots and machines, so it's not purely a ME buff. I definitely needed it this run, as I ended up boxed in. I had no choice but to play tall. and thanks to being able to field 8 pop-builders on each planet, that was actually possible. however, I quickly reached a point where an increase in population hurt me more than it helped. all of the planets in my own borders had their district count capped, I couldn't add more energy or mineral production. my starbases and even outposts (from the starbase mod that gives 24 M/B slots to starbases, and I modded that to add in the removed feature that gave outposts module and building slots. spoiler alert, I needed them) were kitted out with everything that could boost energy, mineral, and even science production. however, despite completing 4.5 tradition trees, I never managed to come across climate restoration, and thus couldn't get machine worlds. Briefly before this point, I had come across the market exploit, and since I was just trying to have some fun without being too serious for this run, I did it (currently looking at ways of getting rid of the exploit for future runs, though so far it looks like the best way is to just not do it lol). fast forward to the death spiral (-70 minerals and -50 energy), and suddenly the exploit was needed just to survive. up until then, I had only done it once, and once the death spiral kicked in, I tried everything I could to avoid having to do it again. and then I ran out of minerals. from 15k to 0. no choice but to do it again until my resources stabilized. utilizing a cheaty exploit could not save my empire from dying once I ran out of space and didn't have access to megastructures and machine worlds.
why didn't I declare war on a neighbor? despite having a higher pop growth, alloys were still hard to come by. the AI was somehow capable of fielding 40 ships while I could only field 20, and they definitely weren't very upgraded ships (lvl 2 kinetic guns and lvl 2 shields, eventually a basic combat computer). by the time I was capable of attacking them, they were not in a defensive pact with my other neighbor. I could deal with 1 guy with equivalent fleet power, but not 2. by the time I could realistically make a fleet to deal with both, now they're in a federation with the largest empire in the game. I had no choice but to sit in my corner. and I ran out of time.
to summarize the issues, machine empires are heavily reliant on basic resources (namely energy and minerals), can't focus on research (at least on-world) due to needing alloys to get more basic resources, has a max pop production worse than organics who focus a little on food, and even when getting rid of max pop production issues, you're running against the clock on when you get boxed in and when you get megastructures/machine worlds. machine worlds alleviate the issues with resources, and megastructures allow you to generate resources without a planet. I have never considered building a dyson sphere other than because I could. 2.2 machine empires though? downright necessary.
I've played a lot of ME games. I'm familiar with the strategies for pre-2.2. I've tried that and various new strategies for 2.2. I've tried modding out the disadvantages of MEs without breaking the balance too much. I've tried modding out the disadvantages without care to balance. I've tried straight-up cheating. it always resulted in the same. they are always playing catch-up, and in the cases where they aren't, they've got a time limit until they break. As soon as they stop expanding, they die.
Alright Paradox, you win. I'll go play the space commies instead.
© Post "2.2 Machine Empire Review by a Very Unhappy Drone" for game Stellaris.
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