(Note: this post assumes that the building AI will be improved in the future; it's getting better already, so that seems reasonable. Also, numbers I use are for illustrative purposes only; the real numbers would be determined thru playtesting.)
Currently, Stellaris's sectors can only exist in two states:
- Maximally dependent. This is the current sector system, where it's purely an organizing label, and lets you assign an AI focus and a governor, but otherwise you micromanage fully. You're 100% on the hook for every cost, but also get all the resources directly.
- Maximally independent. This is the vassal/tributary system, a semi-independent empire that is bound by your diplomacy. You don't pay any of their costs, and they only slightly contribute to your empire, either via fleets or by tithing a portion of their economy as energy credits.
The game is begging for an intermediate state, something where you don't micromanage as hard, and still pay some costs, but get better returns in exchange. I think I've come up with a decent skeleton of a mechanic for this, that doesn't scrap any of the current design, just elaborates on it in hopefully-natural ways.
You can release a sector as a "state", similar to releasing it as a vassal today. When you do so, you no longer have direct control over the planets in the state; instead, you assign a governer, give it a focus, and the AI handles those planets for you, removing them from the outliner/etc and giving you a simplified economic interface, described below. The outliner would then grow a States section, showing you the most important information for each state. The current Sectors window would grow a States tab as well, to show more detail and expose the controls.
A state is still fully part of your empire; it doesn't carve up your borders, rivals can't support its independence, etc. And underneath the covers, the planets of the state are still using the full planetary mechanics, etc. But its economy is abstracted into a stockpile (fed by you donating energy/minerals/food, with an option for a monthly transfer for simplicity) and a monthly drain representing the state's costs (maintenance and construction, abstracted), and then a trade value that it earns for your empire, representing the state's economy enriching your greater empire. Both of these can be directly calculated from the actual costs and production, with different resources contributing at different multipliers. (For example, per the current Trade Policy ratios, 1 trade = 1 energy, but .5 goods, or .15 unity. You can translate that back, so producing 3 unity would give 20 trade value, or consuming 100 consumer goods would add 200 to the drain rate.)
Each state has an independence score. When first released, the independence is low; this can go up and down based on many factors, like government, policies, or how full (or empty) you keep its stockpile. The primary effect of independence is as a multiplier on both its drain rate and its trade value: as independence rises, more of the state's internal economy is turned inward to support itself, so it takes less resources from the greater empire, but also trades less with the rest of the empire.
The state focus guides the AI in construction, just like it does for sectors, so that if you reintegrate the state you'll see buildings about like you'd expect. It also gives you a portion (20%?) of the state's Trade Value directly in those resources, at a better conversion rate than you normally get. (See below for elaborations on Trade Value.)
Ships and Fleet Capacity are affected by states as well. Based on their independence, states contribute some portion of their Fleet Cap directly to your empire (going down as independence rises) and the rest goes to a semi-independent, Federation-like Empire Militia (going up as independence rises), which you directly command but don't have control over building. There's a new Fleet-based state focus that contributes more fleet cap, instead of other resources.
Admin Cap is also tied into this. Claiming systems and planets for your core empire is made more punishing; each is worth more cap, or the penalties for going over-cap are increased, something like that. But states are worth only a fraction of their nominal admin cap, making it naturally worthwhile to release sectors as states as you grow larger. This scales with independence as well; more independent states cost you less capacity.
There's a lot of capacity for Ethics to play into these, particularly the Authoritarian/Egalitarian axis. Auth presumably wants to maintain more dependent states; maybe the admin cap reduction starts higher but scales at a slower rate, and the reverse is true for Egal, so as they grow they want to maximize the independence of their states. This means Auth gets a large directly-controlled fleet, and can fund megastructures more easily, but has to wrestle more with Admin Capacity and thus will usually still maintain a smaller overall empire, while Egal just doesn't have to worry about economy or fleet-building as much, and has the AI handle a lot more, letting them grow much larger for a given amount of admin cap but still have a similar-size economy to the Authoritarian.
If Independence rises and stays too high for too long, the state will eventually ask to be released; if you refuse and keep the independence high, they might rebel on their own. There's lots of possibilities for fun events here, too, where your choice affects their independence or grants unique modifiers to the state, affecting how they benefit your empire.
And yes, because the state boundaries become more important here, you should be able to move a Sector Capital before releasing it. Probably can just upgrade the current Sectors map overlay with something like the Claims UI, so you can move capitals, form new sectors, and reassign planets that could be claimed by multiple sectors.
Trade Value Improvements
As this system shifts more of your economy into Trade Value rather than direct resource production, Trade Value needs to become correspondingly more robust. We have the first hints of this already in the Trade Policy, which lets you shift half of your Trade between energy, consumer goods, and unity.
The Market page needs to grow an additional tab, for your Trade Policy. While half of your Trade Value continues to convert directly into energy, this window dictates how the other half is converted; it represents how your government is shaping the independent economy thru investment and direct govt contracts. You have a number of bars, one for each resource you could buy on the Galactic Market (plus a few more, like Unity, Research, and Fleet Capacity), and you can adjust the percentage of Trade Value that converts into each. Different resources have different conversion rates, as Consumer Goods and Unity do today.
For simplicity, rather than doing the "self-balancing sliding bars" UI that's always frustrating to work with, maybe you just have a number of "blocks", each representing 5% of your Trade Value, that you can drag into each resource; by default all ten are in the Energy area.
The "Goal %" (represented by you assigning blocks) is tracked separately from the "Actual %"; the Actual % approaches the Goal % over time, a few % per month. (This parallels the current "can't change Trade Policy more than once every ten years" mechanic, but more directly and sensibly.) You can't turn your economy on a dime, and if you do have a sudden need for a particular resource, that's what trading on the Market is for.
The ideal here is that if you reintegrate a 0 Independence state, your economy should change fairly little; you'll get a bit more resources directly rather than thru Trade Value, and have to pay their costs directly rather than abstracting thru the stockpile, but not a huge shock overall. Similarly, if you release a 100 Independence state as a Vassal, you should feel relatively little change; you already were receiving only a small % of their economy as resources and paying a small % of their costs, so the biggest effect is just that their portion of the Empire Militia reverts to completely under their control.
The reverse should also be true: releasing a sector into a state should be a fairly small change to your economy, as it starts very dependent; integrating a vassal or tributary should break it into high-independence states at first, so it also is a fairly small shock to your empire. Right now the sector<->vassal change, in either direction, can cause huge swings in your empire, so hopefully states will be effective at smoothing that transition.
The states are meant to represent independent economies – the normal buying and selling between individuals that indirectly enriches the greater Empire. It's unclear how much, if any, of this should change for Gestalts. I think it's reasonable to say "not at all" – just assume that the limits of interstellar communication bandwidth mean that a truly unified galactic mind isn't actually possible, and the states are semi-independent subnodes of the gestalt mind. But there might be small, clever changes which keep the system mostly intact, but make it feel slightly more hive-mind-y; I can't think of any immediately, but there's room for improvement there.
I bet there's also similar tweaks that can be done to make it more Megacorp-y, but I haven't played a Corp yet so I don't know what sort of interaction I'd want with my Franchises. _^
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