When it comes to empire games, I am a fighter. I don't mind negotiating alliances, planning research paths, or maximizing my economic output, but none of those activities are ends in and of themselves. They're only useful to me to the extent that they can set me up for lightning-quick invasions in the future. So when I heard that the conflict-heavy Sins of a Solar Empire's final expansion was called Diplomacy, I was a little nervous. Thankfully, while the expansion does include a number of ways to win by playing nicely with others, it also recognizes that the olive branch of diplomacy is just another stick you can use to beat your enemies into submission.
Diplomacy comes with an entirely new diplomatic technology tree for each of the three races, and offers up the chance to spread good will, engage in mutually profitable agreements, and even pay for your rivals to undertake specific missions against each other. Being able to move from general bounties to specific targets is a big improvement and can help you soften up not only your target, but also tie up another rival's fleets while they do your dirty work for you.
The AI's affinity for using the diplomatic envoys and missions makes the experience much more active and engaging and means that even diehard warmongers will have to at least become familiar with some of the basic new diplomatic options. The AI starts with a bit of a boost in this area, so it can make use of many of the diplomatic options sooner than a human player would. While it definitely unbalances the game somewhat, players can achieve parity pretty quickly if they stay focused on improving their relations.It takes a tremendous investment in civilian research to get your diplomatic efforts up to a level where you can really impact another empire's opportunities, but the potential gains in the form of shared knowledge and cheaper prices for handing out missions can definitely make it worthwhile in the long run, even if all you care about is watching things explode.
The mission system can be a real game changer if you fully embrace it. AI players will be using it a lot, so it only makes sense to get your own seat at the table. With this system, players can actually pay their rivals to target specific assets of a common enemy. It's a bit like placing a bounty, but instead of just having it apply throughout the galaxy, you can tie it to certain enemy planets, or to fleets, or civilian or military structures in general.
The mission sponsor will like you a bit more or a bit less depending on whether or not you accomplish the mission goals in a timely manner, but if you get a mission you absolutely don't want, you can just reject it outright for a negligible relation hit. Unfortunately, the AI in our games has tended to spam certain missions, so you'll either constantly be rejecting pleas to attack your allies, or just letting it run out and dealing with the larger reputation penalty. After all, you're probably just going to invade them anyway, right?
If you're not inclined to absolutely demolish every other form of life in the galaxy, you can opt for a diplomatic victory. You can achieve this based on the sum total of all of your relations with other factions. If the total is positive, you'll slowly inch towards a diplomatic victory. If they're negative, you'll slide farther away. The game is very good at explaining each and every reason that another empire loves or hates you, so you'll know right away what you need to work on to improve relations, but it's not particularly easy to keep track of your overall progress towards the win.In any case, the diplomatic victory still might not be an attractive option to some players. Sure, it requires a lot of effort and attention and players should be proud for managing all that it takes to claim a (relatively) peaceful victory. The problem is that you have to expand your empire in order to build the economic base needed to really compete in the diplomatic arena. That requires that you have enough force to claim new territory and hold it, which itself requires a significant investment in technology and ships.
When you look at the thousands of credits it takes to bribe a pirate fleet to assault a nearby enemy planet, you might find yourself wondering if that same money might be better spent on some new ships and some upgrades for your whole fleet. Of course, you can't negotiate with the pirates at all, and if you spend a lot of time just using them as your mercenary hammer, you may not be prepared when they run out of other empires to plunder. The pirates seem much stronger this time around as well, which only makes the value of the Entrenchment expansion's defensive improvements that much more apparent.
Though I personally don't find the diplomatic victory all that appealing, I definitely appreciate the interesting opportunity to shift the resources and thought required to advance your military might towards the side of manipulating the actions of other factions. Over the last few days of playing, I even found myself thinking of new ways to leverage the diplomatic options to break through problems that my fleets weren't able to solve.
Diplomacy is not as essential an expansion as Entrenchment but it's still a worthwhile addition to the Sins of a Solar Empire experience. If, like me, you're more concerned with building bigger and better fleets to dominate the gravity wells of your enemies, then the new additions in Diplomacy will still offer an indirect way to supplement that strategy. If your thinking is a bit more flexible, there is the opportunity here to forge alliances and win a valid victory by promoting peace and mutual prosperity. This is the last micro-expansion for Sins of a Solar Empire, so if you're a hardcore fan, then there's no reason not avoid getting this one.