Friends & Citizens: The Richness of Endless Space 2’s Population System
Endless Space 2 is a game all about managing an increasingly sprawling space empire. From battles to economics to policy decisions, the scope is vast and the details are sometimes overwhelming. Many of these mechanics will be familiar from other 4X games, but one system stands out as distinct both from other games in the genre and from developer Amplitude Studios’ previous games. It’s a system that gets at the very heart of what makes a state tick – its population.
Remarkably, the population system in Endless Space 2 is woven into almost every aspect of the game. From economics to warfare, from narrative and quests, to the political system – just about all your decisions will be impacted by how many people you have, what kind of people they are, and where they live. I’d like to spend some time examining how the deceptively simple system pervades the game on a fundamental level, and what it conveys about Endless Space 2’s conceptions of polity and governance.
Briefly, the population system rests on the concept that individual planets have population slots into which can be inserted population units – let’s call them communities, even though they are treated as unbreakable pips. Different sized planets have room for different numbers of communities, but just about all planets can host at least a few. The player can move communities around planets in a star system just by dragging them with the mouse and, after a simple system upgrade, communities can also be shuttled between star systems.
Infrastructure built in systems can provide economic bonuses based on the number of communities in a system. Sometimes these are blanket bonuses, such as every community producing an extra five points of industry. Other times they are more specific. For example, only communities on cold planets produce extra science, or only communities of the Horatio faction produce extra food.
That last example points to a key element of the population system: all of the game’s factions, major and minor, have their own distinct community type, with unique bonuses and political affiliations. For example, each Horatio community produces more food, is happier on Hot planets, and responds most strongly to Ecologist politics; or consider the Cravers, who are staunchly Militarist and have a unique mechanic population mechanic in that their communities devours planetary resources until the whole planet becomes an almost useless rock.
Most importantly, you are not limited to communities of your empire’s dominant faction – even “enemy” communities can be peacefully integrated. Any community can settle on any planet, and most of them grow and spawn new communities of the same type. It’s entirely possible to be running a Riftborn empire where most of the communities on many planets are of the Epistis minor faction, for instance. One major faction, the Vodyanoi, are special in that their population live on ships and can only occupy systems that are devoid of other communities, but every other major faction can cohabit with outsiders. There are 8 major factions and 16 minor factions in Endless Space 2, so you can begin to imagine the complexities that might arise.
Having this diversity of citizenry opens up a lot of narrative terrain that most 4X games don’t touch. Instead of having an abstract, slowly growing number to represent population, this system gives character and distinction to the citizenry of a state. It highlights that a society is a collection of different social groups rather than a monolith, and because of the focus on various alien species, it explicitly builds its mechanics around a sci-fi analog of ethnicity. You won’t find that approach in Civilization or in many other 4X games. Age of Wonders III is one exception that comes to mind, but the contrast is instructive. In that game, populations do not coexist in any appreciable way; each city is entirely mono-cultural. Units in an army gain a morale bonus if they all belong to the same race, and the game makes racial extermination mechanics available for players at almost zero cost.
Endless Space 2, in contrast, presents a generally very peaceful view of multiculturalism. Despite some players requesting the feature, there aren’t any direct means of eliminating specific communities unless you play as the Cravers, who can eat other populations. Systems almost never suffer from having multicultural populations, except in the case of a few temporary quest scenarios, such as Horatio communities demanding they have systems to themselves. There is no overcrowding – once a system is full, communities simply stop growing rather than turning on each other. There are even quests and Hero bonuses that encourage different species living together, and the Sophon faction quest culminates in the Sophons explicitly saving the other races of their empire from the Sophons’ own technological blunders. Diverse communities in Endless Space 2 are mostly an opportunity for good governance, not an inconvenience to be dealt with.
The idea of shuffling communities around for pragmatic reasons may seem like a case of gameplay taking precedence over realism and world building, but it isn’t without historical parallels in real life. It reminded me to some extent of mitma, an Inca policy that saw newly-absorbed communities moved wholesale into consolidated territories, including their internal political structures and traditions. Loyal and wealthy Inca communities would in turn move into new areas to develop them according to established Inca practices. The effect was not only to fragment political dissent, but also to encourage the adoption of Inca culture and language and, most relevant to the 4X paradigm, to maximize land use and resource development.
Much like mitma, Endless Space 2‘s system feels different from how we commonly understand state-driven migration and population management. It does little to address the fundamental premise of the 4X genre that makes a game of expansionism and imperialism, but it does reinforce a theme present in Amplitude Studios’ previous game, Endless Legend; the player isn’t in charge of an ethnic nation-state that must clear out territory in order to occupy it with its own people, but a multicultural state that grows in potential and health as its citizenry becomes more diverse.
Civilization designer Sid Meier has a well-known saying he’s repeated in various forms over the years: “A game is a series of interesting choices.” This is not meant as a definition so much as an aid for designers thinking about their designs, particularly in the realm of strategy games. Endless Space 2’s population system, I would argue, both contains interesting choices in itself and also makes choices in other systems more interesting, by virtue of the way it synergizes with those other systems.
Your population itself, constantly growing and spreading to new stars, requires careful management for optimal resource development. If you’ve welcomed the Happiness-boosting Kalgeros into your empire, you’ll need to think about your planets and decide where a bit of extra happiness could stave off riots or boost production. If you’ve got Epistis, you’ll need to decide whether to put them on sterile planets to gain the extra food production, whether other populations might give you better bonuses on sterile planets, or whether you should terraform your sterile planets entirely. You could boost population growth in certain communities by spending luxury resources, but who do you need most, and which resources can you afford to spare?
What’s even more interesting is how your population impacts all kinds of other systems. There is a species of giant, sentient tree that, if present on planets being invaded, will wade into battle alongside your troops and give you a serious military boost – or foul up your plans if you’re the invader. Having enough Religious communities in your empire can potentially topple your Scientist political party out of power, crippling your scientific research policies and hampering your ability to achieve a Science victory. These kinds of varied impacts mean that you’re better off keeping a close eye on what communities live where, and moving them around as appropriate to ensure your empire stays on track and is ready to weather hardships.
My most memorable interaction with the population system serves as a good example of how the system works to build narrative and mechanical depth. I was playing as the Riftborn, a species thrust into this universe from another dimension. Thematically, the quest sees the Riftborn cautiously stepping into an alien and unwelcoming world, and follows them slowly coming to terms with their new home. One step of the quest requires boosting the empire’s Ecologist political party in a few star systems, which is extremely difficult because the Riftborn population themselves actually suppress the Ecologist party. It quickly becomes necessary to reach out to the native races of the Endless universe for help.
Already this allows the population mechanic to reinforce the narrative themes of the quest, and creates a cascade of interesting decisions. Do you want to progress with the quest, or ignore it and lose out on the rewards? If you pursue the quest, the population system means blasting Ecologist propaganda in a few high-production systems won’t work – you’ll need to make a series of nuanced decisions instead. Which systems are best suited to be occupied by non-Riftborn communities? Which other species should be invited in, and how will their bonuses help the overall empire? How will you move around existing Riftborn or other species to make room for the newcomers?
In my Riftborn playthrough, there was an added layer of complexity – the only Ecologist species I had yet encountered were the Epistis, but they were halfway across the galaxy from me and about to be invaded and eaten by the Cravers. I knew I needed their help to get my Riftborn settled in this universe, and I knew their home world was doomed, so I forged an alliance with them and sent fleets to hold the line against the Cravers while I evacuated every single Epistis community from their home world, and shuttled them across the galaxy to my own planets, where I was at the same time moving around my existing populations to make room for the Epistis refugees. In the end, the Epistis home world was overtaken, but most of the Epistis refugees were happily resettled on a few of my planets, where they prospered and, in turn, helped me prosper as well.
This situation was unscripted; it was driven by interactions between the population system and quests, politics, faction mechanics, diplomacy, and fleet movement. I needed the Epistis and their political influence to complete my faction question. The Cravers had a faction mechanic that allowed them to eat other populations, so if waited and reconquered the Epistis home world later when my empire and fleets were stronger, it might already be too late. To gain the Epistis’ trust quickly I had to praise them and help them with surveying and quest tasks; their civilian shuttles could be attacked, so I had to defend an evacuation corridor for them as the Cravers advanced. The result was a fairly tense and dramatic sequence of the game that was made possible by the population system, its ties to other game systems, and the narrative and lore that bound it all together.
This is just one story from one playthrough, and while the population system doesn’t always lead to such dramatic situations, its pervasive influence on the tone, feel, and rules of the game deepen and enrich the experience at almost every turn. Endless Space 2 is not a perfect game and not always a clear improvement on its predecessor, but the introduction of this population system was a good gamble on Amplitude’s part. Given their history of creating strong DLC additions to Endless Legend, I can only imagine the studio will be expanding and building upon this unique population system in the years to come.