IMPORTANT: This post is going to delve into the issue of doomstacks, what they are, why they are a problem and what the developers can do to mitigate or outright remove the issue of them entirely. Feel free to offer feedback on whether or not you think some of these ideas are good or bad and please add some of your own if you feel like I missed any. I know that both the community and developers have for a long time tried to find a solution to this problem and I hope that this post can inspire some ideas. Thank you!
The Issue Of Doomstacks
First of all I want to clarify for those who may not know what a doomstack is. A doomstack is a common term within strategy gaming used to define ‘’an army that is too powerful to be defeated.’’ In Stellaris terms, it’s often what we call a super fleet that comprises every single ship available to an empire. Alternatively, it is a term we use to define ‘’the strongest possible army (fleet) we can get from what we have’’ which of course will always be to merge every single ship you have into a single massive fleet. This is how wars are fought in Stellaris. Both sides will always merge all of their ships into a single massive fleet, then duke it out in one lose all/win all battle where the winner takes everything and wins the war.
There are many reasons why having every war revolve around a single massive battle between two doomstacks is bad game design. First and foremost, it means that whichever side has the strongest fleet is always going to win, with the other side having close to no opportunity to change the outcome. This makes wars very one sided and unengaging. If you are the stronger empire, wars are going to be a boring steamroll taking system after system with no repercussions. If you are the weaker empire, you’re simply going to get rolled no matter what you do, which is frustrating.
It is important that the player always has the opportunity to do something about a bad situation. An empire with a small fleet shouldn’t instantly lose to a bigger empire. Of course it should be at a major disadvantage, but it shouldn’t be without a chance to defend itself. We see this constantly in the real world. Take Vietnam or Afghanistan for example. Both were fighting against a superior force, yet they still managed to hold their own. Wars aren’t fought by taking one massive army and doing a push. It is fought over frontlines stretching unbelievable distances. There is a reason for this. Defense. If you consolidate all your forces, you are putting your other fronts at risk of breaking. All the enemy has to do is hold back your main forces long enough for their other armies to defeat you at the other fronts, cut off your supplies and end the war. That is why you don’t see doomstacks in real life and space is no different.
It is my belief that weaker nations should be able to deploy guerilla tactics against a superior enemy to shift the tides of the war. The ideas I’m gonna bring forth are all going to lead to a more strategic battle experience, giving you more options in how you want to wage war. I believe wars in Stellaris should be fought between multiple fleets stretching multiple fronts. That wars should be about frontlines being pushed back and forth and not all decided by a single battle. Below I have comprised a list of some ideas which all contribute to making wars less one sided.
The first idea is something that has to certain degrees been tested before, and although it didn’t work as intended, it’s still a step in the right direction. Admiral capacity is all about exploring the limits of your admirals. Realistically, it will be easier to be in charge of 20 ships than it would be to be in charge of 200. I think the game should have a way of showing this. Admirals should only be able to effectively field a certain amount of ships. If you bypass this limit, the odds of your admiral picking poor unfavorable battle plans should be increased. This makes it so that you need multiple admirals to commandeer a large fleet to its fullest potential.
The capacity could be increased in many different ways. Combat computers, components, technology, doctrine and admiral level would all affect how many ships an admiral could effectively field without problems arising. Admirals falling into the o’so unfortunate habit of drug abuse would of course have their cap reduced.
As said before, an idea similar to this has been tried in order to get rid of doomstacks. It didn’t work. Players would just stack multiple fleets on top of each other instead, and as before, wars were still swiftly decided by a single engagement. I believe however that it was a step in the right direction, and even though it won’t fix the issue on its own, it will still help improve it to a degree.
Orbital Bombardment Tweaks
The way orbital bombardment works today is lousy and unimpactful, but changing how it works could possibly be our best opportunity to get rid of doomstacks once and for all. I wrote earlier that the reason we don’t field ‘’doomstacks’’ in modern warfare is because our enemy would take advantage of our weaker flanks and destroy us from behind. There is currently no way of doing so in Stellaris because even if you slip a fleet past your enemy and into their territory, there is very little you could do with that fleet. Their planets would still function as well as ever. You could of course start bombarding one of their planets, but by the time you would have done any significant damage to the irrelevant colony, the war would already be lost.
This is why I propose that we change how orbital bombardment works. The way it works in Stellaris is painfully unrealistic. A space faring civilization wouldn’t need five years to destroy a planet from orbit. It would barely need a day. For gameplay purposes tho, I won’t go too overboard, but I will still propose that the time it takes to reduce a fully fletched colony into rubble be reduced to 1-2 months instead of multiple years. Having fleets be capable of absolutely obliterating a planet within a short timeframe would force you to keep other fleets behind the frontlines to act as border defense in case your enemy manages to sneak through any of your fleets, because if you don’t do so, your enemy will simply send multiple smaller fleets after your undefended colonies and burn them all into the ground. This would absolutely wreck your economy if you were to field a single doomstack and you would no longer be able to continue the war.
This would also increase the importance of planetary defense buildings like shields. Shields should be able to keep your more important colonies from falling to bombardment and should force your enemies to invade the planet instead, but your less important outer colonies would still be at great risk and would need additional border patrols in order to catch enemy fleets taking advantage of your overextended armies.
I could talk all day about how terrible ground armies are as of current in Stellaris, but that won’t solve the issue of doomstacks so I will refrain from going into depth about ground combat here. I do however think that the way ground troops are transported needs an overhaul. Transport ships are a micro intensive chore, makes no sense and causes a lot of frustration. No competent civilization would transport their armies through interstellar space with absolutely no protection at all. Think back to all the times a single corvette has single handedly wrecked a hundred transport ships on its own. I believe the entire system of which we transport our armies needs to change. I propose that transport ships be removed entirely and replaced with ship components. This way, planetary invasions would be done by your fleets instead.
The reason why I think this is a good idea is because it would give additional incentive to protect your borders from smaller fleets, plus give players who bypassed their enemies borders additional options. Now you have the opportunity to either burn your enemies worlds, or occupy them. It will also remove the frustration of constantly ensuring that your transport fleet follows your main fleet so it won’t get destroyed by a single corvette. Currently enemy transport ships bypassing your main fleet aren’t any danger at all as they will quickly get shredded by the star port in the next system. With this change however they would be able to both take your territory, fight back, burn your worlds to barren crisp and invade them, making them a much higher priority. This gives you more incentive to have additional fleets stay behind in case your enemy tries to slip through some fleets.
Stellaris captures the size of space terribly, but then again, having systems be at a realistic scale would be way out of reach and in many ways, having it simple and compact is a good thing. I still believe the scale and width of systems should be increased quite a bit, or the scale of the ships and their engagement range be severely reduced. Not to an extreme level, but enough to make room for maneuvration. The reason I feel like this is important is because we currently have no way of sneaking past fleets in the same system as us, even though realistically it shouldn’t be much of a problem to pass by undetected. In order to bypass enemy fleets, you need to wait until they are out of the system before jumping into it. Fleets often engage each other at ridiculous distances. Being engaged half a system away is outright stupid. By increasing the scale of systems, faster and smaller fleets would be able to outmaneuver larger and slower fleets, giving them an opportunity to fly past and into enemy systems. It would also give smaller fleets the opportunity to escape when a system gets invaded by a larger fleet.
Many strategy games employ geographic features such as mountains, rivers and desert in order to create natural choke points and affect the way you move your armies. Mountains that are hard, slow and dangerous to pass, rivers that defenders can use to give themselves an edge in a battle and deserts where your forces suffer attrition and lack proper supply lines. Space is no different. Space is a dangerous place, and I think it is unfortunate that Stellaris doesn’t show this. Solar storms, gamma ray bursts and asteroid belts are all things that could wreak havoc on your fleets. Imagine having your entire fleet get temporary disabled and become vulnerable to attack because you decided to take the chance of taking the shorter path to the enemies capital by bringing your fleets through a system known for frequent gamma ray burst, or having parts of your fleet destroyed and damaged by solar storms because you just had to pass through a system with an unstable star instead of doing three extra jumps in order to bypass it. Having geographical elements that could destroy your fleet if you were reckless would give a lot of incentive to have reserve fleets ready in case things don't go to plan, and would make smaller fleets favorable for taking high risks as the losses wouldn’t be as severe.
Imagine that you are making contact with the Rukhaan Purifiers for the first time, and after they have ranted about how much they are going to absolutely destroy you, they share with you their entire border, the location of all their colonies, plus all of their hyperlanes. The fact that you know where all enemy systems lie beforehand makes no sense. Neither does knowing their hyperlanes. During a normal Stellaris campaign, you will usually have discovered the entire galaxy by 2230, and much of the exploration part of the game is done. First of all, this doesn’t make any sense. No civilization would instantly share such information about themselves to strangers they don’t trust. It also incentives you to use doomstacks as you know exactly where your enemy’s capital lies and how to get there, so why waste any time?
With the upcoming Espionage DLC I hope that fog of war is overhauled and that a ‘’cole protocol’’ system is added. When starting a game, you would have to use your science ships to scan for possible hyperlanes. Same would happen when invading enemy territory. You would need to scan where their system lies. You wouldn’t be able to breeze through unknown territory with your fleets. You would need science ships to search for hyperlanes in the system, gradually revealing their planets slowly as you advance. An empire might also try to actively hide their systems from you. In this case, science ships wouldn’t be able to discover their hyperlanes. You would need to board enemy ships and hope to secure data about where their system lies.
The reason this makes doomstacks less favorable is because it could lead to scenarios like this: ‘’You bring your doomstack into unfamiliar territory, searches for additional hyperlanes that might unlock more of their colonies, but after spending months searching you realise that the system you’re in only has one hyperlane attached to it. The one you went through. And as you have wasted your time by having your entire fleet sit in an isolated system, your enemy has taken advantage of the situation and moved his fleets into your territory through an undiscovered hyperlane, and your fleet is now too far away to be able to do anything to stop the coming storm.’’ Larger fleets would also be unfavored because they would reveal more information. The larger the fleet being boarded is, the more information about enemy systems you will attain, making it favorable to have smaller fleets that reveal as little information as possible.
Being able to board ships could add a new layer to warfare. By boarding enemy ships, you could potentially secure yourself some valuable information and technology. This is risky however. During a regular Stellaris battle, a few ships will flee and the rest will be destroyed. What if we add a third option. Some ships will, instead of being destroyed, be disabled. The disabled ships will by the end of the battle remain drifting, and you’ll be presented with a choice to either board them or destroy them. If you board them, you’ll have a chance of securing valuable information about the enemy, like the location of some of their colonies and stealth ships in your territory. It could also give you access to technology if their ships are technologically superior to you. This comes at a risk tho. By boarding the ships, there is a chance that the defenders will repel your boarding parties and escape with the remaining ships, so you’ll have to evaluate if it’s a risk worth taking.
The reason this makes doomstacks less viable is due to another proposed mechanic. The larger the fleet you board is, the more value you’ll get out of your boarding craft. A large fleet will reveal more information about enemy mapping and spy networks than a small fleet will, so by going into enemy territory with a large fleet, you risk giving the enemy access to large amounts of sensitive information that they otherwise wouldn’t get from a smaller one, if things didn’t go as planned.
Espionage and Sabotage
Spies and agents could be a powerful way to affect a battle before it has even begun. Spies could use stealth ships to reveal the location of enemy fleets. They would also be able to do various actions against enemy fleets beforehand, like sabotaging their nav data, which would force their fleets to a halt temporarily, or to plant bombs and overload ship generators causing some of their ships to explode. The chance of assassinating admirals would also be there, and an opportunity to disable some of the ships guns could severely reduce their combat effectiveness during battle. The larger the fleet, the greater the damage done, but the chance of success would also be lower, and stealth ships would be expensive to lose so it would offer a high risk high reward situation. The use of doomstacks would be greatly unfavored despite the reduced success chance because they would be constant pickings for spies and agents, halting their movements and sabotaging their ships on the way. The more fleets you have, the less effect agents would have on them overall, and it might not be beneficial losing expensive stealth ships in order to sabotage a small fleet.
Longer Space Combat
Space combat is way too short. Well, in terms of gameplay it is. In reality it can last a few days, but from an ingame perspective they last just a few seconds. I believe space battles should last way longer than they currently do. Not only will it provide some great visual entertainment, it will also provide some more strategic flexibility. If you’re a weak empire and a powerful empire runs at you with a massive doomstack, and all you have is 3 small fleets to defend yourself, what you could do would be to temporarily halt their progress by ordering one of your fleets to engage them, whilst you sneak the other 2 fleets through and burn their outer colonies. As it is currently, space battles are over so quickly that you barely even realise that they happened, and having fleets simply halt the enemy is impossible as it currently is. War isn’t about winning every single engagement. Sometimes it is about doing what must be done to flip things in your favor, and if that means sacrificing some ships in order to halt an enemy attack for a few months, then that should definitely be made possible to give weaker nations a greater fighting chance.
Something that has been bothering me for some time now is a lack of control over your ships. Stellaris is a strategic game, not a tactical one, and I don’t think they really need to give you much control over how a battle is fought. I do think that having a little more control over how your ships should approach the enemy would be nice. I have gone over many ways in which to make outmaneuvering your enemy a more accessible option, but another way to do so could be through orders. Ordering your fleet to ‘’run the blockade’’ could set them to not directly engage the enemy but try to fly straight through the system, even when under heavy fire. The enemy fleet may pursue, but as long as the order is active your fleet will try its hardest to press on through whatever defenses your enemy has. Can be a good way to force yourself through a choke point or to escape from enemy territory. Another order could be ‘’border protection’’ which would allow you to assign a fleet to a few selected territories and order it to engage any enemy ships trying to pass through these territories unbidden or hunt for piracy whenever it occurs. These fleets would patrol your territory and frequently visit your colonies for a stability boost.
Piracy is an integral part of any sci-fi and Stellaris should be no exception. The way piracy is handled as of now is pretty stale. Whenever they spawn, they are quickly finished off by the system's star port, and it happens too rarely to be a problem anyways. I propose that systems should have a stability modifier, and that the modifier is affected by the wealth of the systems, stability of the planets and how many ships are actively searching for piracy. Pirate fleets should arise in systems with a lot of trade value but low stability, conduct raids on trading ships that follow your trade routes and then quickly retreat back into obscurity until their next targets arrive. This would force you to dedicate a few ships to watch out for pirate activity in the systems and increase the stability, instead of putting them all into one massive fleet where they otherwise would have been.
Piracy should also be directly affected by other empires. Normal internal piracy won’t be particularly common as long as you have ships guarding against it. It will also be weak whenever it occurs and not something you would have to worry too much about. What you should worry about, however, is when another empire decides to take piracy into their own hands and offers supplies and support to pirates in your territory by offering them ships and resources, causing the pirates to become even more aggressive and reckless in their conquest, and force you to dedicate more resources into fighting piracy than you otherwise would.
Destruction of Property
I have proposed many ideas for how fleets could do damage deep in enemy territory, but if you are attacking systems you don’t want yourself, you should be able to do an additional ‘’fuck you’’ move and attack their mining and science stations, destroying them completely. If you have already burned their discovered colonies and want to cause even more harm, why not have the option to do so? Destroy the system and force them to build everything up from scratch after the war is over. War is costly, and you win wars not by destroying a civilizations army, but by destroying their economy.
This has been my first proper ‘’wall of text’’ post so I hope it wasn’t too overwhelming. I don’t expect all of these ideas to become a reality. They are just meant to offer some inspiration for the developers on how to expand further on warfare and remove the one sidedness of it all. I tried to keep things pretty vague and not go too much into detail on each of the ideas, as I believe it should be up to the developers themselves to decide how they would balance and implement something like this. Please tell me down below whether you agree, disagree or have any input or ideas of your own. I’m hoping that this will inspire some discussion about the state of space warfare in this game. Looking forward to hearing your ideas and opinions, and thanks for reading all the way through.
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