I think most of us will agree that diplomacy in Stellaris is very lacking. It did not changed much from 1.0 and consists mostly of AI declaring rivalries on each other to gain reasons for war, joining defensive pacts to protect themselves, and sometimes forming lasting alliances. Espionage in Stellaris is just non-existent, even in rudimentary forms.
I think that main problem of Stellaris AI is that it does not play to win the game. I hardly ever see it developing large fleets and putting those to action; defensive pacts and federations work as deterrence measure against other AIs but hardly make player sweat. Any diplomacy rework would require simultaneous AI rework to make AI actually use diplomacy to win the game and not just to provide some resistance to player.
The first important thing to be made is to get rid of "vassal or tributary" states and replace them with more flexible system of establishing control over other empire. There should be multiple options of control, including:
- force demilitarization, setting limits on naval capacity and army sizes.
- empire paying you some amount of resources, fixed or percentage.
- empire sharing all their tech discoveries and breakthroughs with you.
- empire selling some percentage of their pops to you as slaves.
- empire using your emigrating pops as rules.
- empire government and ethics being under your direct control.
- empire lending your their leaders to use as you see fit.
- empire being forced to join your wars or support your war efforts with their fleets and/or armies.
All wars would be waged to set a certain level of control over other empire; maintaining such control should cost influence to your empire. Those options should not exclude one another. This would allow for a multitude of various options for both players and AI. For example, militarist AI empires could wage war on their pacifist/materialist neighbors to outsource research efforts; slaver empires could conduct a great war raids and make other countries submit to them.
The second important thing is to rework positive relationships in the same way, replacing them with more flexible system of establishing friendship with other empire:
- rework Commercial Pact: instead of getting flat energy/CG/unity you can join trade networks and profit from trade value of your neighbor.
- rework Research Agreement: instead of flat 25% bonus, empires can get percentage of research produced by other country or trade techs outright.
- empires can guarantee independence or outright lend fleets and armies as expeditionary forces (ah, sweet HoI2 memories).
- Culture Exchange: empires can get percentage of unity produced by other country.
- means of influencing ethics of other empire, being able to sway them into your mode of thinking.
The major difference between friendship and control is that friendship agreements uplift the weaker empires by providing them bonuses which don't hurt the uplifter; in contrast all control modes actively hurt weaker empires and make big ones stronger. This would make controller empires stronger in the early-mid game and Federations stronger in mid-late game.
The third important thing is to provide mid-late game challenge to both Federations, "Warsaw blocks" formed by powerful military/authoritarian empires and giant blobs formed by genocidal empire and players. I think this is the part where game becomes boring – you and your bloc are the biggest fish in the pond, what else is to do? Great Khan crisis supposedly should help with this, but in my experience it hurts weaker countries more. What can be done?
All great empires fall because of tendency of outer regions to fall out and confront metropoly. I think that administrative capacity should actually play more important role in the game than just providing some minor malus (which doesn't work anyway). Once empire passes over certain threshold of administrative capacity overreach, bad stuff should start to happen:
- ethics shift increases dramatically on planets far from capital.
- colonies should develop separatist movements who demand to have more political power and perhaps even threaten to declare independence.
- space piracy and smuggling becomes more and more pressing issue.
And here the espionage system becomes possible. Other empires could do the following stuff:
- support crime syndicates, increasing crime and corruption inside empires.
- support separatist movements in colonies, increasing their political power.
- support various political fractions, decreasing overall influence gains.
- regular spy stuff, like stealing blueprints and exploding the capital ships.
General system for doing stuff like this was already implemented in Darkest Hour.
In general, this would create a general timeline where empires expand, grow, form alliances/beat their enemies into submission, grow to be very wide and powerful and then struggle with keeping everything together, potentially collapsing under their weight and starting everything all over again. This may frustrate some players, but ultimately I think it makes for a more interesting game in the end.
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