Once in a while we return to our roots: Popehat began as a blog about computer gaming and similar disreputable pastimes. Nowadays it takes a hell of a game to make us admit that.
So, back in the days of VGA graphics cards and pentium processors, "turn-based strategy games" were a thing. A big thing. "Civilization" wasn't the only such game most gamers had heard of. There were competitors in non-historical genres, such as epic fantasy or science fiction space opera. In that field, the king was the still well-regarded Master of Orion and its sequel, Master of Orion 2. MOO and MOO2 allowed the player to take the helm of a galactic empire, to unleash fleets of hundreds of ships on enemies, and in general to boldly go where no silicon-based rock form of life had gone before. They were great. And then the genre sort of … died. A followup sequel, Master of Orion 3, played like a spreadsheet and featured artificial intelligence opponents from which the intelligence had been removed. While there are still occasional gems in 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) space opera gaming, such as Galactic Civilizations, Sword of the Stars or Distant Worlds, it's strictly a niche genre, for devoted fans only.
The newest player on the scene, Stellaris, by Swedish games company Paradox Development Studios, probably won't change that, but it should.
Stellaris is not a turn-based game. It runs in real time (which can be sped up, slowed down, or paused by the player), but it definitely hearkens back to the glory that was Master of Orion. The game is big. It's complex. And it's glorious, made by people who clearly love space opera sci-fi and all its tropes. A game begins with the player custom-designing a species (humans, avians, reptilians, and much stranger things are allowed) by look, ethos (anything from benevolent peacekeepers like Star Trek's Federation to xenophobic militarists such as Doctor Who's Daleks is on the table), and exploring from one planet in a galaxy of up to a thousand stars (yes, I know) to build a star empire. Technology will be researched. Aliens will be met, traded with, federated with, and / or conquered. And much else will happen, in scripted or triggered events. Pretty much anything from science fiction can appear depending on the player's actions, such as rogue A.I. attempting to exterminate all life, "uplift" of pre-sentient animals to sapience and starfaring, or the tearing of gaping holes in reality caused by science meddling in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, leading to galactic invasion by Lovecraftian horrors from another dimension. If there's a trope you can think of, chances are it can appear in a game of Stellaris.
I say "a game," because Stellaris is long. Though the game was released on Monday and I've been playing it in pretty much every moment of free time, I'm nowhere close to finishing a game. As with Civilization on a huge map with lots of opponents, it's possible for a Stellaris scenario, in a thousand star galaxy with numerous A.I. opponents, to take dozens of hours to complete. In the game I'm playing, after a couple of false starts (Stellaris' tutorial, while good, can't really teach you everything you need to know about a game that's quite deep), I've come to dominate the northern spiral arm of the galaxy, violated the Prime Directive to lift pre-spacefaring civilizations to the stars, exterminated one species entirely (because I could tell they'd eventually be trouble for my benevolent vision of multicultural galactic harmony), and had my ass (well, my waste disposal oriented anatomy) handed to me by a decadent race of godlike aliens who were upset that I didn't take their warnings about not exterminating species seriously. And I'm nowhere close to finishing.
Combat is a big thing in Stellaris, but this isn't a tactical game. It's grand strategy. Battles are resolved, graphically, by the computer rather than the player based on number of ships, officers commanding, technology and equipment (Shields work wonderfully against railgun projectiles, but anti-matter missiles slide right through. Should have invested in point defense lasers!). The player can gain an edge in battle with good ship design, or that can be delegated to the computer.
Diplomacy, on the other hand, is lacking. Choices on how to influence cooperating and opposing factions, such as trade, war, and peace, seem rather vanilla compared to what's available in other games by Paradox, such as its World War II simulation Hearts of Iron or its medieval empire simulator Crusader Kings. And the A.I. can be rather passive even in war. And espionage against rival empires is entirely lacking.
That said, Paradox has a good record of supporting and expanding games over time. Europa Universalis IV, released in 2013, still receives regular content additions and brand new features three years after its release. This is not a "fire and forget" game. I expect Stellaris to grow and to improve vastly over time, with expansions to diplomacy, to trade, addition of espionage, and more events such as the A.I. apocalypse. The game is highly moddable by players. If you want to play in the Star Trek universe, or the hellish future of Warhammer 40,000, I'm quite sure such mods will be available in the not distant future.
I've only scratched the surface of what's available in Stellaris. If you enjoy grand, sweeping strategic games, and have a desire for something deeper than Civilization, in an entirely different setting, I recommend Stellaris highly. This is a game that can keep you entertained for hundreds of hours.