How To Optimize Ship Loadouts in Stellaris

May 16, 2016 by Samuel Wicks

Are you putting together a fleet of spaceships in Paradox's new grand strategy game? We've got some tips.

Is the AI handing your butt to you at war time? Even when you’ve got comparative fleet sizes? Even though your weapons are shiny and new? The problem might be your ship loadouts, especially if you’re letting the computer auto-generate them for you.

Stellaris doesn’t do much to teach you about how ships are supposed to fight each other, but there’s actually a complex system underlying the choices you make behind laser, kinetic or torpedo based weaponry. In-depth micromanagement of your ships will help you gain an edge on your competition, so that even with a smaller navy and less production value you might still be able to eke out a win.

Ship Defense Values

Firstly, in order to understand which weapons you need to use, you need to understand what they’re competing against. There are multiple ways for your ships to defend themselves, and even to defend other ships in their fleet. Knowing how to use these will not only help you keep your ships alive, but also help you decide which weapons you should be using to counter your enemies’ defenses.

Hull Points: This is the bread and butter of ship defense. Conveniently abbreviated to HP, hull points are a measure of your ship’s health. HP damage is permanent until repaired at port, and once a ship’s HP is reduced to 0, that ship is destroyed. All other means of defense are a way of preventing that.

Shields: Shields are probably the best value defense equipment available, thanks to their ability to completely prevent damage and recharge in between fights. However, shields also require your ship to use more energy, and will only prevent a flat amount. Shields are great for smaller ships, where the flat damage prevention is a much greater percentage of their total HP.

Armor: Damage prevention from armor plating is based on a percentage of damage dealt, rather than flat damage prevention. The more armor a ship has, the more damage it prevents from incoming weapons, including damage that would be dealt to shields. As such, armor is great for high HP ships, where it will prevent a greater amount of incoming damage over time, far more than a shield would.

Point Defense: Point defenses are an interesting mix of weapon and defense. They are mounted in small weapons slots only and are used to shoot down incoming missiles, completely negating missile damage as long as they’re intercepted. What’s more, they’ll even shoot down missiles headed for other ships in your fleet! Although using point defenses reduces your offensive capabilities, they are a strong counter to enemies who use missiles, and should be included somewhere in any good fleet composition.

Evasion: Evasion is largely tied to your ship’s engine, as well as bonuses from your combat computers and admirals. The evasion stat helps your ships avoid incoming damage, and is balanced against your opponent’s ability to hit. Generally, smaller ships have better evasion, and upgraded engines will further increase the evasion stat, as will defensive combat computers.

Ship Weapons & Counters

Different weapons have bonuses against different defenses, and your fleet composition should bear this in mind. If you know what defenses your enemy is using, you can prepare with weapons that are designed to counter it, and gain the upper hand. If in doubt, don’t be afraid to use multiple different types of specialized ships, such as a missile ship, a kinetic ship etc.

The only thing you shouldn’t do is rebuild your fleet over and over to deal with different enemies. If you find yourself facing a wide range of different technologies, build a diverse fleet made up of differently specialized ships. Don’t waste time and minerals rebuilding for each different war.

Kinetic: Kinetic weapons are simple and cheap. The advantage of kinetic weapons is their cost to damage ratio and long range, providing higher damage per second than an equivalent cost energy weapon, and from further away. However, kinetic weapons have no bonuses against shields or armor, making ship defenses much stronger against an enemy armed with kinetic weapons. The highest tier of Large-only kinetic weapons have massive range and damage.

Energy: Energy weapons are the weakest of the three main weapon types, but offer high accuracy and armor penetration. The ability to completely ignore armor with higher level energy weapons, as well as more consistently hit, makes energy weapons the most efficient and perhaps most all-round powerful weapons in the game. Their shorter range does leave them vulnerable to kinetic and missile weapons before they can fire, however, so initial losses may be higher. The highest tier of Large-only energy weapons have great accuracy.

Missile: Missile weapons are by far the strongest of the three starting weapon types, but also the easiest to counter. Missiles have a high damage output, 100% accuracy, and can ignore shields, but point defenses can completely negate a missile’s damage. If your enemy comes prepared with point defenses, you can find yourself completely unable to damage them. Missile weapons are great to mix into a fleet’s composition, but should very rarely be the only weapon you bring to battle. The highest tier of Large-only missiles can bypass point defenses.

Strike Craft: Strike craft are available on larger ships and defense platforms, operating from a special hangar weapon slot. They have incredibly short range, which means that they won’t start functioning until ships are up close and personal, but their damage output is high and they have bonuses against both shields and armor. The main counter to strike craft is other strike craft, which can tie each other up, or flak point defenses.

Alien/Advanced: The neutral aliens in the game offer special weapon techs which become available when you research the debris from their ships. These offer you unique and interesting weapon types, especially in the early game when certain paths might be closed off to you. Other than the ability to always research them without depending on luck, however, these weapons are far behind more upgraded basic weapon types.

Size Matters

Finally, a note about size of both weapons and ships. There are 4 sizes of ship, and 3 sizes of weapon (with a potential 4th planned, according to Paradox’s dev diaries). As well as gaining bonus damage when they get larger, weapons also take a penalty to hit ships in a smaller size category. Thus, medium weapons have difficulty hitting small corvettes, and large weapons take an even bigger drop to accuracy. Meanwhile, a small weapon will do less damage but still has a much better chance of hitting small corvettes, without losing the ability to hit larger cruisers and battleships.

This is important, because it means that a fleet composed entirely of large ships with large weapons will be almost unable to deal with small ships, while small ships will be able to deal with each other. It’s important to keep a mix of both ship and weapon sizes in your fleet, to be able to deal with whatever your enemy throws at you. Large weapons will allow you to deal the damage necessary to take out large ships, while small weapons give you the accuracy to take out smaller ones.

In this case, strike craft count as small weapons, being able to hit everything with the same amount of ease.

The Theoretical Loadout

So, with the explanations out of the way, how should you actually be composing your fleet? It’s clear that 100 battleships with large missiles is a mistake, no matter how cool it looks, but what should you be using instead?

Before I get too deep into it, remember that this is a theoretical, catch-all loadout, and that once you understand how ships work you may want to consider designing your fleets to counter your closest neighbors. If everyone around you is using laser weaponry and shields, then you should definitely specialize to punish them. However, if you’re just getting started, here’s what I would suggest.

1 battleship, 2-3 cruisers, 7-10 destroyers, 12-15 corvettes

For every Battleship in your fleet, build around 2-3 cruisers, 7-10 destroyers and 12-15 corvettes. This gives you a few larger ships to deal with bigger threats, both in terms of damage and accuracy, with a screen of smaller ships to take out whatever the larger ships can’t, and to take the brunt of the damage. corvettes will be destroyed regularly, but they’re cheap and quick to replace, so it’s worth sacrificing them to protect your larger Battleships. Battleships are great at dealing with stations, and will also provide passive bonuses that help your entire fleet out, so a battleship for every dozen corvettes lets you spread the love around.

You want to make sure that the core of your fleet is able to do plenty of damage, while keeping specialized ships around for specific purposes. You want at least half of your fleet to be pure damage dealers, perhaps even up to two thirds, with the remainder being specialist ships. Specialist ships should deal with whatever your core ships can’t deal with, with a strong emphasis on point defenses to protect you from missiles. Treat your missile carriers as ‘specialist’ due to how hard their counter is. Consider these basic ship loadouts:

Corvettes: 3 small weapons, 3 generators, 2 shields

Your Corvettes will mostly want to deal with other corvettes and perform double duty as ablative armor for the rest of your fleet. Their main advantage is small size and high evasion, while low starting HP makes armor pretty useless for them. So load them up with shields to absorb as much damage as possible. 3 small weapons will give them the greatest amount of firepower to deal with their enemies, or to protect your own fleet in the case of point defenses.

Destroyers: 2 medium weapons, 2 small weapons, 3 medium generators, 4 small shields

Destroyers are your mid-range ship, and you should be confident in using them to deal with basically anything. They have enough HP and room for defenses to be somewhat survivable, and can also carry everything from small to large weapons. Your main damage dealing destroyers can be fitted with 2 small and 2 medium weapons to keep up firepower and deal with other destroyers.

You probably want to keep some destroyers as point defense ships to outlast your corvettes, in which case use 2-3 point defenses, and fill the rest with small or medium weapons of your main type. Later in the game you might also want to consider mixing in a couple of large weapons destroyers, to give you a bit of extra damage against top-heavy fleets and stations. Like corvettes, you want plenty of shields on destroyers, and armor only to fill in the gaps (i.e. when generators and shields balance out, but you have 1 spare slot).

Cruisers: 2 medium weapons, 2 large weapons, 2 large generators, 1 medium shield, 1 small shield, 1 large armor, 2 medium armor, 1 small armor

A cruiser with the above build should have high damage output and defense against everything but corvettes. I recommend taking 2 of these, and if you want a third cruiser, that can be your specialist ship. A specialist cruiser can be built either as an anti-corvette ship (6 small weapons, 1 medium weapon, 1 hangar) or a missile ship (4 medium missiles, 1 large missile). Cruisers are a hefty damage dealing ship that should provide strong backup for destroyers to deal with larger threats.

Battleship: 6 large weapons, 7 large generators, 2 medium generators, 1 small generator, 1 medium shield, 1 medium armor, 3 small armor, nanobot cloud

With 6 large weapons, your battleship is specialized against cruisers, other battleships and stations. With high damage it should make short work of anything it can hit. Eventually you should unlock special, large-only weapons, which are ideal for battleships, and what this build is based on. The large amount of armor provides damage reduction, and the nanobot cloud will heal hull damage dealt to all of your ships. As long as the battleship doesn’t die it can self repair, and repair other ships around it. The shield provides a few extra hp before damage starts hitting the hull, and some defense against lasers.

For specialist battleships you can honestly just play around. They form such a small part of your fleet, and have so many options that there isn’t really a right or wrong answer. Basically, battleships are awesome and fun, so have fun with them!

The Practical Loadout

Unfortunately, as with all games not everything is created equal. Balancing a game of this scale and size, especially for a developer new to the genre, is a gargantuan task and smart players will always find strategies that run contrary to what the designers had in mind. With every patch and update balance is likely to change, honing in on something that’s as close to ‘perfect’ as possible, but we’re not there yet.

As of Patch 1.02 this is one of the strongest fleet compositions achievable. If you really want to crush your enemies, try the following:

100% corvettes, 3 small lasers, defensive combat computers, evasion admirals

Right now, based on their cost alone, corvettes are the strongest ship available. For the amount of minerals it costs to build battleships, cruisers and destroyers, let alone the upgrades required for spaceports, an equal cost of corvettes will absolutely destroy them. The high evasion stat makes them hard to hit, while the high damage potential of larger weapons is wasted against their low HP. Larger weapons will also struggle to hit corvettes, while corvettes have no trouble hitting battleships. Outnumbering the larger ships means being able to get more shots off which, while they do less damage individually, still adds up to roughly the same amount, and none is wasted on ‘overkill’.

In short, large ships can’t hit the smaller corvettes, and when they do their excess damage is completely wasted. Meanwhile, the smaller corvettes can take their time killing the helpless giants via death of a thousand cuts.

Enjoy it while it lasts! Next patch will surely (hopefully) bring about some changes. Until then, I’ll continue using a mixed fleet, because as powerful as corvettes may be, nothing is cooler to me than a battleship with 6 long range kinetic artillery.

EDIT: The corvette strategy has been patched.

Check out our update to learn more about how this cheesy build was patched and how the recent changes affect fleet loadouts.

Based on tests by Anruz on the Reddit r/stellaris subforum, battleships reclaim their place as the mightiest of ships, and corvettes perform much better as dog fighters, hit-and-run craft or for running interference.

Alongside these changes, strike craft have been much improved, now able to attack from much further than their previous range allowed. This upgrades them from “useless” to “potentially devastating”, right where they should be. Military stations previously cost more than a similarly outfitted ship, and now cost an appropriate amount. It won’t bankrupt you to build them anymore, so go nuts!