Exploration is one of the most important tasks for a spacefaring empire. At the game's start nobody will know anything about the universe beyond their home system. To learn more about anything beyond it, an empire will need to send their science ships out to survey them. Early game exploring is key for an empire to start growing rapidly, however caution is warranted for the various events and anomalies associated with exploring can bring either great boons or banes with them. Part of the Discovery tradition tree is focused on exploration.
Empires can build science ships from the start of the game, and every empire starts with a science ship which is ready to be sent out to survey the stars. Every science ship must be assigned a scientist for the ship to perform tasks such as surveying, assisting research of a planet, exploring uncharted hyperlanes, or researching a special project (the ship can still move around without being assigned a scientist).
By default, science ships are set to "evasive" stance, which means they will flee any system where hostile ships or spaceborne life forms are present. They can be set to "passive" stance instead, which lets the ship continue its current orders even if the system it is in contains hostile aliens.
Science ships cost 100 Alloys. They are built at starbase shipyards, like all other ships. They do not have weapons but are automatically equipped with the latest sensors, engines, reactors, armor, and shields based on your current technology. Science ship components are automatically upgraded as your technology advances without the need to refit them at shipyards.
Science ships can do the following actions, all of which require a scientist to be assigned to the science ship:
- Surveying gives detailed information about a celestial body, namely deposits, habitability, and anomalies.
- Researching Anomaly will investigate an anomaly, the investigation time being dependent on the level of the scientist and of the anomaly.
- Assist Research allows science ships to boost the research output of the planet, by an amount depending on the skill level of the scientist.
- Automatic Surveying requires the Automated Exploration Protocols technology and explores the galaxy automatically.
- Experimental Subspace Navigation requires the Speculative Hyperlane Breaching technology and makes the science ship travel directly to any explored destination as MIA.
In order to survey a planet, select a science ship and right-click on the planet and select the "Survey" option. The player may also select the "Survey System" option to order the science ship to survey every celestial body in the system. From the galaxy map, the player may queue survey missions by holding down the "Shift" key and right-clicking on a system and selecting the "Survey System" option one by one. The science ships can only survey systems that they have a path to. Science ships can be ordered to explore the galaxy automatically once the Automated Exploration Protocols technology has been researched.
Surveying celestial bodies such as stars, planets, and asteroids allow for the discovery of resources such as energy credits, minerals, strategic resources, research points or a primitive civilization or pre-sapient species on them. The player may then send a construction ship to build mining and research stations to harvest them, provided the system with the resources are within their borders. Starbase outposts can only be constructed in systems that have been fully surveyed.
Scientists may also come across anomalies (unusual things in the galaxy that require further study and analysis) when surveying a celestial body. These anomalies can be investigated by any scientist, but will be analyzed faster if the scientist has a high skill level. When an anomaly is found, the player gets an alert at the top of their screen. Clicking on this alert will bring up a screen that has the option to direct a scientist to research the anomaly immediately. The scientist will return to their current assignment once he or she has completed investigating the anomaly.
Planets surveyed by an empire within its own borders do not have to be surveyed by other empires. However, planets within Fallen Empire borders will have to be surveyed once border access is gained one way or another. The same applies to Marauder systems in Apocalypse.
The situation log helps to keep track of special projects and anomalies, which are discovered when venturing out into the galaxy and exploring, and allows individual projects and anomalies to be tracked on the map. For democratic Governments it will also display Election Mandates. If there is an update to the Situation Log, it will glow in orange.
Most projects are centered around a location (often a planet, but it could also be an object in space), and many of which requires the presence of a science ship with a highly skilled Scientist assigned to the science ship before the projects can be researched. However, some of the projects may require something other than a science ship such as a military warship, or a troop transport, or something else entirely. Some special projects are timed while others will remain present until resolved.
Eventually alien ships or starbases will be encountered for the first time, creating a multi-stage First Contact which can be accessed from either the galaxy map or the situation log. In order to complete a stage an Envoy must be assigned to the First Contact. Every 50 days the Envoy is assigned is has a chance to make a Breakthrough and advance to the next stage. The chance is increased by previous successful First Contacts as well as Codebreaking. If no Breakthrough is made there is a chance to gain 1 or 2 Insights instead, increasing the Breakthrough chance for the rest of the stage. At the end of each First Contact an empire will receive a small amount of Influence.
Each First Contact has 2 or 3 stages:
- Completing the first stage will compile the information known about the aliens based on whether First Contact was made with a ship or a starbase. If First Contact Policy is set to Aggressive and the target is an empire completing the stage will bring the option to seize a ship (if no starbase was encountered) or abduct specimens (if a starbase was encountered).
- Completing the second stage will reveal the primary species of the target empire as well as their First Contact Policy. If the target is spaceborne aliens or an empire created by the Lost Colony origin First Contact will be completed. If specimens were abducted the empire will gain the option to vivisect them as well as, if Devouring Swarm, eat them for a small amount of Food, Minerals or Alloys depending on the targeted primary species. The abduction/seizing will be canceled with no other effects if the aliens turn out to be part of the same species.
- Completing the third stage (if applicable) will complete First Contact. Abducting or seizing a ship will bring a temporary -100 opinion and a permanent -25 opinion. Vivisection and eating will unlock a random Biology technology if the targeted species is biological and a random Computing technology if the targeted species is robotic at the cost of a further temporary -50 opinion. In addition if Nemesis is installed vivisecting a biological species will grant an Internal Organs asset.
After First Contact is completed with another empire it will enable diplomacy and bring the First Contact Dialogue. Depending on government and ethics the exact replies will vary but will always have the same effects. The proactive option is not available to empires that are Genocidal, abducted specimens or seized a ship.
- The proactive option will grant a temporary +30 Opinion
- The cautious option will give them -33% Spy Network Growth
- The aggressive option will grant +33% Spy Network Growth on them as well as a temporary -30 Opinion
If the First Contact Policy is set to Aggressive fleets can be ordered to attack an unidentified empire. A hostile action will have a permanent -25 opinion towards that empire while capturing any of their worlds will mark it as a first contact war and give a permanent -75 opinion instead.
Various events can take place during a First Contact.
The layout of star systems is determined by the galaxy shape. All systems are connected by hyperlanes in clusters connected by choke points. The latter will never be a home system nor will they house anything that will stop an empire's expansion. The systems at the very edge of the galaxy will always be isolated, with a single hyperlane connection.
The number of choke points is set at galaxy generation.
Nebulae are visible from both the galaxy map and the systems located inside and tend to have fewer habitable planets within them, but the chance of finding Strategic Resources is increased by 50% and allow Starbases to construct the Nebula Refinery building. Nebulae block all sensor coverage originating from other systems, meaning that it's impossible for an empire to see what is within and beyond a nebula's hyperlanes without having a ship or station inside. Nebulae are named and visible on the galaxy map from the start of the game.
Systems within a nebula have a small chance of being ionized, visible by occasional lightning strikes within the system. Such systems disable shields and reduce sublight speed by half but grant +30% Evasion.
After the mid-game year passes there is a 1% chance each year for a Space Storm to appear. Space Storms affect half of the systems in the galaxy, disabling all shields and causing -50% sublight speed.
Space Storms last 5-10 years. After they're over another Space Storm cannot take place for the next 20 years.
Space Storms can be used to defeat superior fleets or Guardians that focus heavily on shields.
A neutron star's effects combined with a Space Storm will slow down ships greatly, so caution should be taken when navigating the galaxy during a Space Storm.