There isn’t a more important long-term decision in Stellaris than creating your Empire. The Ethics, Traits and Government you choose will stick with you throughout the game, and determine the choices available to you, as well as the bonuses and setbacks you’ll face.
Stellaris provides a number of pre-generated builds for you to choose from if you’re not too fussed about the choices you make, but those of us with a penchant for min-maxing will want to fully customize every aspect of our Empire from the word “go”.
These are a few of the best builds for different play styles and strategies. These will give you direction and strengthen your options, but are by no means an exhaustive list. As with every strategy game, it’s as much about how you want to play, and how well you play a certain style, as it is about the bonuses you get.
Ethics: Militarist (weapons damage; war happiness; extra rivalries); Xenophobe (rival influence gain; alien slavery tolerance)
Traits: Strong (+20% army damage; +5% minerals); Industrious (+15% minerals); Enduring (leader lifespan +30); Non-adaptive (-10% habitability)
Government: Military Junta (+1 admiral skill level; -5% ship upkeep; -25% ship upgrade cost)
Some people just want to watch the galaxy burn, and hey, I’m not judging you. If that’s what you’re after, then this build will let you crush your enemies in the most efficient way, and get the most benefits from doing so.
The Militarist ethos is designed for warlike empires, giving your ships a damage boost and reducing your population’s war unhappiness. Xenophobe lets you turn the populace on conquered planets into slaves without facing unhappiness at home for doing so. In combination, it becomes easy to conquer your neighbors and then reduce the fallout of conquest by enslaving the populace. Meanwhile, the extra rivalries offered by militarist combo perfectly with the extra rivalry influence gain from the Xenophobe ethos.
For traits, I suggest a boost to minerals, helping you build and maintain a huge navy. Ships will be destroyed in battle, so you need high mineral production to replace them. Strong and Industrious together provide you with an excellent 20% mineral bonus. Non-adaptive isn’t a crushing negative, since most uninhabitable planets will be populated by alien slaves rather than your main race. Finally, Enduring allows your good admirals to survive longer. Given how difficult it can be to find a good admiral and level them up, you want them to survive as long as possible.
For government, Military Junta seems ideal. While Martial Empire (+10% navy size; -10% ship cost; +25% rivalry influence gain) clearly works well with these ethics and play style, the Military Junta ensures that your admirals start off a step above most others, giving them +5% fire rate and making it less painful to replace them when they die. Further, it will often give you access to the “Fleet Expansion” agenda, which makes ships cheaper and quicker to build. Perfect when you have plenty of minerals and need to keep replacing ships lost in battle.
Ethics: Xenophile (Diplomatic bonus; cheaper alliances); Pacifist (trust growth; peace happiness)
Traits: Charismatic (+1% happiness to other species); Communal (+5% happiness)
Government: Enlightened Monarchy (-15% edict cost; +15% edict duration; +2 core sectors)
Playing the diplomatic game can be difficult, but rewarding. If you prefer to peacefully co-exist with your neighbors than exterminate them all, then this diplomatic build will help you to create a strong, long-lasting federation and allow you to focus on internal politics over external threats.
Building relationships is much harder than maintaining them, which is why we’ve gone for Xenophile and Pacifist. The Xenophile ethos gives aliens an automatic boost to their opinion of you, making it easier to get into alliance range, while Pacifist increases the growth of trust, so that you’ll get there quicker. As a bonus. Xenophile decreases the influence cost of your alliance, and Pacifists get extra happiness from staying at peace, which is probably your aim as an alliance or federation.
Playing the diplomatic game often means creating migration treaties, and as a Xenophile you’d love aliens to migrate to your planets. As such, we’ve chosen the Charismatic trait, giving a stacking +1% happiness bonus to other species for each Charismatic pop on the planet. In keeping with the happiness-based, peaceful gameplay we’re aiming for, Communal gives your own species a nice 5% happiness boost too. Fun for everyone! With only 2 points spent in traits, we needn’t take any negative ones.
Enlightened Monarchy will help out with happiness by giving you cheaper, longer lasting happiness edicts, as well as a planetary unique happiness building, the Royal Gardens (+10% happiness). Since it also gives you extra core systems, it makes for a generally strong pick, though you could easily opt for a Peaceful Bureaucracy or a Moral or Indirect Democracy.
A good diplomatic game will help defend you against threats from larger empires, and allow you to focus on infrastructure more than military. It gives you something to focus on while at peace, and turns Stellaris into more than just the war game it can sometimes become.
Ethics: Materialist (+15% science; Research Institute); Collectivist (reduce ethics divergence)
Traits: Intelligent (+10 % science output); Talented (+1 leader skill levels); Sedentary (+50% migration cost; +33% resettlement cost); Weak (-5% mineral output; -20% army damage)
Government: Despotic Hegemony (+5% research speed; -25% research station build cost)
What’s a science fiction game without the allure of creating a super-scientific empire decades ahead of everyone else in technology? Just a fiction game, I guess. In any case, if you want to focus purely on the sciences and the bonuses they provide, then this is the build you want to use.
Fanatic Materialist is the clear choice of Ethos here, giving +15% science output from each pop. Add Intelligent to make that a 25% boost from each pop working a science tile and you’ve already got a good head start on science, as long as you have science tiles to work.
The Despotic Hegemony government then gives you a bonus to research speed, as do your Talented (higher level) scientists and the Empire-unique Research Institute provided by the Materialist ethos. Ultimately, your science tiles are providing 40% more science than any other Empire’s.
After that, you can go with almost any other ethos and traits, and none of it should interfere with science. I chose Sedentary and Weak as the negative traits, since they interfere least with the general game plan, and Collectivist as the ethos thanks to unique benefits that reduce ethics divergence.
Collectivist unlocks both the Ministry of Benevolence building (-15% Ethics Divergence, empire wide) and the Frontier Commissars technology (-15% Ethics divergence). Not only does this stop your people diverging away from Materialist, it also lets you run the Encourage Free Thought edict (+10% research speed; +15 % ethics divergence) with no risk.
The science-based Empire build takes a long time to come into effect. You have almost no early game advantage, which means you may be slow to settle, weak at defending yourself and bad at diplomacy. Once you transition to the mid-late game though, when tech really begins to matter, you should begin to accelerate far beyond the competition, and leverage that advantage to overcome your earlier troubles.
Ethics: Collectivist (slavery tolerance); Xenophobe (alien slavery tolerance); Materialist (science output)
Traits: Conformists (-20% ethics divergence); Decadent (-10% resource output without slaves); Weak (-5% minerals; -20% army damage); Intelligent (+10% science output)
Government: Despotic Empire (-15% building cost; +10% slave mineral output; +10% slave food output)
Slavery in Stellaris is a bit of an all-or-nothing proposition, so if you want to try them out, I’d advise you to go all-in. Slavery will give you a strong bonus to mineral production, and allow you to worry less about unhappy pops, especially on newly conquered planets.
The Collectivist ethos gives you slavery tolerance, and Xenophobes get even more tolerance for it as long as those slaves are aliens. Being both at once not only makes you super tolerant of slaves, but gives you the broadest range of options for how you employ slaves (either all allowed or Xenos only). Being decadent also removes the happiness penalty from owning slaves, and as a negative trait is basically a freebie, since we’ll be using slaves everywhere if possible.
Since we get the full tolerance bonuses from our ethics without being fanatic, we can also add Materialist into the mix, gaining a science boost from our race. I’ve combined this with the Intelligent trait. Since slaves give bonuses to food and mineral production, we can use our non-slaves to get a science boost. Neither should ever be working the other’s preferred tiles, so there’s no competition here.
The Conformist trait ensures that our pops won’t diverge away from their Collectivist and Xenophobe ethics, so they won’t suddenly become unhappy about all the slaves we keep. Weak is the final negative trait, since we’re going to be using Xenos for mineral production and as the core of our armies, so it shouldn’t matter. Early game, the penalty from weak pops is counteracted by the bonus from slavery, and once you have aliens you can use them to work mineral tiles instead.
Despotic Empire is a shoe-in as our slavery based government, giving us bonus minerals and food from our slaves. If you choose to remove the Materialist ethos in favor of going Fanatic in one of the others, the Despotic Empire is one of only 3 government types you’re allowed to choose from anyway.
Ethics: Fanatic Pacifist (peace happiness; Paradise Dome); Individualist (Hyper Entertainment Forum)
Traits: Communal (+5% happiness); Adaptive (+10% habitability); Sedentary (+50% migration time; +33% resettlement cost)
Government: Monarchy (-15% edict cost +15% edict duration; Royal Gardens)
Happiness provides a scaling bonus of +0.4% to output for each point above or below 50% happiness, making it a strong, all-round bonus to every output. By focusing on happiness you become good at everything, and won’t have to worry about factions or internal politics. As such, happiness remains one of the strongest builds in the game.
Pacifist is now by far the strongest happiness ethos. Fanatic Pacifists receive +15% happiness at peace, which translates to a 6% bonus to output for each of your pops. That may sound small, but while most modifiers only give +10-15% to one specific output, +6% to everything is unmatched as an ability.
Being a pacifist also gives you access to the Paradise Dome, which not only boosts happiness on a planet by 10%, it also increases habitability (i.e. max happiness) by 5%, which allows your pops to keep up with the happiness provided by the bonuses you have.
Finally, pacifism gives you access to the Enlightened Monarchy government, which unlocks the Royal Gardens building. Each ruler can build one of these in their lifetime, and it provides the planet it’s built on with +10% happiness. Practically, however, this isn’t often necessary, and the Monarchy’s greatest asset is in its use of edicts.
As a Pacifist, you can use the Peace Festivals edict on a planet for +10% happiness, alongside the Propaganda Broadcasts edict for the exact same effect again. Ordinarily, each of these would cost you 150 influence for a 10 year bonus (15/year), but with Enlightened Monarchy that becomes 127.5 cost for 11.5 years (11/year). With the advanced Irenic Monarchy, it becomes 105 for 13 years (8/year). When you begin to add in other Edict cost/duration bonuses, it quickly becomes easy to have these edicts constantly in effect on all of your planets.
Individualist contributes to this build with the Hyper Entertainment Forum, an expensive building that gives +15% happiness. A cheaper alternative is Xenophobe, giving you the Monument to Purity for a +10% bonus at a lower building and tech cost, and with less infrastructure. Either one will do well.
Finally, the Communal trait will give you +5% happiness just for existing. Apart from this, you can use any set of traits you like, based on how you like to play. Any of the 2-cost bonus output traits are good, though Adaptive is probably the strongest trait, giving+10% habitability, and the max happiness bonus from that. Sedentary is a good negative modifier to take, since your people will be so happy they shouldn’t want to migrate anyway.
Ultimately, if you can get your pops up to 100% happiness, they’ll be providing you with +20% output on every tile, though you’ll also be using one or two tiles for happiness buildings instead. You’ll also get to avoid factions and shouldn’t have to deal with ethics divergence. It’s a strong bonus, but it will take time to ramp up towards. Expect to be a late game powerhouse with this build, but prepare for a potentially slow start.
Ethics: Xenophobe (rivalry influence gain); Militarist (additional rivals; weapons damage)
Traits: Talented (leader skill levels +1); Quick Learners (leader experience gain +25%)
Government: Indirect Democracy (leader skill levels +1; leader recruitment cost -15%)
The Leader build is probably my favorite thanks to its diversity in play style and raw power in the early game. Your leaders provide passive boosts to everything they do for each level they have, and so starting with +2 levels means getting bonuses to almost everything. Unlike happiness this doesn’t affect output, but it will give you quicker research times, stronger military, quicker build times and more happiness. Essentially, instead of increasing output, you’re increasing the efficiency of your output.
The Talented trait and Indirect Democracy are obvious picks here, giving you the actual leader level bonuses. Quick Learners helps your leaders level up even faster, turning already good leaders into superb ones. The leader recruitment cost from Indirect Democracy means that you won’t suffer too much when your leaders die.
Your ethics for this build can really be used to focus on anything you want; strong leaders make every strategy better. I advise Xenophobe and Militarist. Xenophobe gives you extra influence from your rivals, and Militarist offers you additional rivals to gain influence from. You can feed this influence back into hiring more leaders or, once you’ve reached your cap, for enacting edicts to strengthen your position even more.
That’s not the only reason I’ve picked Militarist though. With Admirals starting at level 3, they gain +10% fire rate over other race’s leaders, which is the exact equivalent of the Aggressive trait, possibly the best Admiral trait in the game. Early on, this allows even a small fleet to completely dominate larger fleets and space stations, so you can begin conquering straight off the bat.
Destroying nearby neighbors with minimal effort, as well as the increased happiness from governors and increased research rate from scientists, gives this build an incredibly strong start that will let you snowball into a late game superpower.
Although these are strong builds, they’re far from the only options available. As with every strategy game, a large part of the enjoyment in Stellaris comes from personal experimentation, so don’t feel like this is a restrictive list at all.
There are plenty of different options for your specific Empire build based on playstyle, game plan and personal preference, so if none of these offer what you’re looking for, I encourage you to try out different builds that work for you. Who knows, you might even find something that blows all of this out of the water.