Stellaris was a beefy space 4X back in 2016, but since then it’s only kept growing, like a giant cosmic monster that wants to consume every sci-fi trope imaginable. After years of DLC offerings—split into full-blown expansions, story packs and species packs—there’s now a big mess of new mechanics, events and aliens to untangle. The good news is that pretty much all of it is worth getting (but bad news for your bank account). Not all DLC is created equal, however, and what you’re going to get the most out of will also depend on your playstyle—what kind of space empire do you want to build?
Below you’ll find my top five recommendations, and then a breakdown of all the DLC in order of release date, showing what each adds and if they’re essential, worth buying now or if you should just wait for a sale.
Top 5 Stellaris DLC
Utopia: The first and still one of the best expansions.
Federations: Make alien friends and then betray them.
Nemesis: Become the endgame crisis, or unite the galaxy against it.
Synthetic Dawn: Robots! Lots and lots of robots!
Distant Stars: Enough anomalies and mysteries to keep even Picard occupied.
This list should see you off to a great start, improving and adding to every phase of the game, as well as every playstyle. You can bring everyone together for a big love-in with Federations, become an endgame crisis yourself in Nemesis, create hive and machine empires through Utopia and Synthetic Dawn, and explore a more lively galaxy thanks to Distant Stars. You can find out more about my top five below, along with every other bit of Stellaris DLC.
Release date: April 2017 | Store link
Paradox knocked it out of the park with Stellaris’s first expansion, Utopia, and now the additions of megastructures, special civics like fanatic purifier, hive minds and ascension perks feel very much like foundational features. While a lot of DLC goes specific, Utopia’s broad improvements benefit pretty much everyone.
With megastructures you get fun new toys to play with and big projects to embark upon, like ring worlds and Dyson Spheres, giving you more room to build and more ways to generate resources. With ascension perks you get game-changing bonuses, new mechanics and a whole host of other substantial rewards for completing tradition trees, turning your species into master terraformers, transcended psychics and a whole lot more. Hive minds, meanwhile, introduce a new way of playing the game with a host of unique mechanics and a special government type, letting you create a utopian collective or consume the galaxy.
Some ascension perks are now part of the base game, and new ones were added in later expansions, along with new megastructures, but Utopia still adds lots of exclusive stuff, including the ability to indoctrinate primitive species, specialise slaves and build habitat stations. It continues to be essential even now.
Release date: February 2018 | Store link
Apocalypse is one of the most focused expansions and will be of particular interest to galactic warlords. Titan-class ships and planet-killing weapons let you unleash unholy levels of devastation upon your enemies, while new fortifications let you surround your squishy worlds with intimidating orbital installations. The deadly new toys are a welcome addition, but they don’t feel big enough to build an expansion around.
Marauders elevate it a little, however. They’re nomadic mercenaries always looking for a fight or a new place to raid, and while you might become their next target, you can also pay them to pester your rivals—a great way to soften them up before a war. These pirates can also become a midgame crisis, becoming a horde determined to spread out across the galaxy and conquer everyone under the leadership of their Great Khan.
Despite the expansion being a bit on the thin side, I do love the marauding assholes. They liven up every playthrough and make the whole DLC just a bit more worthwhile, but far from essential.
Wait for a sale
Release date: December, 2018 | Store link
MegaCorp is, unsurprisingly, primarily interested in trade, wealth and the unrelenting spread of space capitalism. The headline feature is the introduction of a new type of government: the titular megacorp. Along with getting new civics, these corporate super powers can build offices all over the galaxy and syphon off trade value from other worlds. If wealth is your goal, this expansion will have you covered.
It’s another specialised expansion, so your mileage will vary depending on your playstyle, and while MegaCorp also includes city worlds, new megastructures and more ascension perks, arguably the most important improvements—like the population overhaul—appeared in the accompanying free patch.
Unless you want to run a corporation, you can ignore this one for now.
Wait for a sale
Release date: March, 2020 | Store link
Like Utopia, Federations is an expansion I couldn’t imagine playing without. This is the expansion that introduced species origins, giving your empire a bit more flavour and backstory, along with some significant boons—some of which will change how you play substantially. Naturally, though, its focus is on diplomacy and federations, greatly enhancing both. It also throws the galactic community into the mix, letting you try to pass or thwart resolutions affecting every member of the argumentative senate.
Now, the actual origin and galactic community systems are free for everyone, as they were introduced alongside the expansion in a free update, but to really get the most out of them you’ll need this DLC. It gives you more origins, more things to do in the senate, special federation types and monumental construction projects like the Juggernaut mobile starbase.
Even if you’ve got a penchant for playing as unfriendly space tyrants, you’ll still find a lot of useful stuff in here, using the senate to screw over your enemies and founding martial federations to crush your opponents. Diplomacy isn’t just for peaceniks.
Release date: April, 2021 | Store link
Nemesis is the expansion that finally lets you become the endgame crisis, or the hero that unites everyone to stop it. These two paths give you much more power at your fingertips and greatly enhance the endgame. Destroying the galaxy as the crisis is a blast, but it turns out protecting the galaxy is just as much fun, as you can decide to keep your emergency powers and form a Galactic Imperium, Star Wars-style.
Then there’s the more contentious espionage system. It doesn’t have as much of an impact as you might expect, and to reap the rewards—quite a lot of which are pretty minor—you really need to focus on the shadier side of things. It’s a different way to play, though, which I appreciate, and if you don’t want to mess around with espionage, there are other ways to get important intel on your adversaries and allies.
With the slick new Imperium ship set and its compelling endgame options, Nemesis is an easy recommendation, even if you’re not excited by the prospect of spying on other empires.
Release date: May, 2022 | Store link
The latest expansion, Overlord, lets you have a bit more fun with big empires. There’s a touch of Crusader Kings in this one, introducing new vassalisation mechanics that let you specialise the empires you’ve swallowed up and quibble over vassal contracts. One of the five new origins also starts you off as a vassal of a great empire, right before it’s torn apart by civil war. Maybe you’ll become the next emperor?
All the vassal stuff is great on paper, but now the AI is too eager to vassalise everyone, removing smaller independent empires from the game too quickly. There are some other quirks, too, and how the system works could be a lot clearer, but overall it’s a positive change that just needs a bit more polish.
Oh, and the rest of those new origins are brilliant. Teachers of the Shroud in particular is awesome, putting you on the fast track to a psychic empire. It’s extremely overpowered but just so much fun.
Wait for a sale
Stellaris species packs
Release date: August, 2016 | Store link
The Plantoids Species Pack will put some green on your thumb, letting you make an empire of sentient flora. Originally, the first couple of species packs were exclusively cosmetic affairs and thus completely inessential, but as of the 3.1 update they all now include properly meaningful additions that make them so much more worthwhile.
In the case of the plantoids, they have a couple of traits that replace half of their food upkeep with energy upkeep, spreading the burden, one of which also lets them soak up radiation from tomb worlds, negating the need for energy upkeep in those inhospitable places. A third trait also lets them reproduce by budding, where every plantoid will passively grow new ones. There are some handy civics, too, including one that lets them transform regular worlds into Gaia worlds.
I should add that the cosmetic stuff—ship designs, portraits and diplomacy screen backgrounds—are all good, but just easier to appreciate when they’re alongside thematically appropriate and strategically interesting civics and traits. As a bonus you can use them with fungoids as well.
Release date: December, 2017 | Store link
Like the Plantoid Species Pack, this one started off as cosmetic but got enhanced in 2021. The Humanoid Species Pack’s new civics let you swap the artisan job type for artificers who produce trade value and engineering research on top of creating consumer goods. You can also go in a different direction and make your species pleasure seekers, unlocking the new decadent lifestyle that improves living standards at the cost of more consumer goods. The first civic is great, but the second is so situational that it’s not worth it.
The highlight is probably the clone army origin. This makes your species vat-grown clones, allowing you to field clone soldiers and admirals with some very handy bonuses. It’s a cracking origin for anyone looking for a conquest-heavy start, but there are also some limitations and wrinkles, like their inability to reproduce and short lifespans, to balance things out.
It’s a solid pack elevated by the fact that the civics and origins are not locked to humanoid species, giving you more room to experiment.
Release date: October, 2019 | Store link
The Lithoids Species Pack is a bit of a weird one. These sentient rock aliens have long lifespans and are incredibly tough, making them better in a fight and more adept at colonising less hospitable worlds. But their slow pop growth is a massive hurdle in the beginning, and consumption of minerals instead of food isn’t an advantage at all.
Luckily, their unique origin, Calamitous Birth, negates some of these issues should you choose to select it—at least on the homeworld. With the right origin, traits and civics you can create some ridiculously overpowered builds.
There’s some good stuff in here, but probably not the species you want to pick if you’re just starting out.
Wait for a sale
Release date: October 2020 | Store link
The Necroids Species Pack will be very tempting to anyone keen to roleplay the galaxy’s worst nightmare. The species itself doesn’t come with any hard-baked traits, just some very cool portraits, so you can make them whatever you want. But the pack does contain a new origin and civics that will have a dramatic impact on your playthrough and can be applied to any species.
The main addition is the Necrophage origin, where you play as parasites that can convert alien pops to their species, harvesting civilisations, both primitive and advanced, until they consume the galaxy. Basically, you can kick off a galaxy-wide zombie apocalypse. An exciting prospect, I know, but be prepared for a lot of faffing and micromanagement as you deal with their notable restrictions. If you really want an overpowered empire, combine this origin with lithoids and enjoy the ride.
The pack also comes with four new civics, introducing things like death cults that sacrifice pops for boons and zombie armies. They’re fun, roleplaying-centric additions with questionable advantages, which also sums up the DLC.
Wait for a sale
Release date: November, 2021 | Store link
I love my damp friends. While none of the species packs technically made it into my top five, the Aquatics Species Pack would almost certainly come in at six. A bit like the necroids, the species portraits have been separated from the unique mechanics, so you can add the aquatic trait to any species. And it’s a good ‘un.
The aquatic trait gives you a bonus to ocean world habitability, along with additional bonuses to housing usage and resource output on any ocean world. This can be enhanced further with the aquatic civic that turns farmers into anglers and pearl divers on wet worlds, generating consumer goods and trade value on top of food. To top it all off, you can then pick the Ocean Paradise origin, giving you a very fertile size-30 homeworld with bonuses to happiness, pop growth and output. It’s a beast of an origin. And speaking of beasts, there’s a second origin that plonks a big ol’ space monster next to your homeworld, which you can befriend or get devoured by.
A new ascension perk is a very big cherry on top. This is the only species pack so far that includes one, and it’s powerful. Hydrocentric gives you the ability to create new ocean worlds and then increase their size by taking water from other worlds. Very nice. Just like this pack.
Stellaris story packs
Release date: October, 2016 | Store link
The Leviathans Story Pack was Stellaris’s first DLC and, while not as feature-rich as expansions, was still a pretty good opener, introducing things that have become staples: big space monsters and enclaves. There’s also the War in Heaven event, which pits two fallen empires against each other. It’s fun, but it’s been years since I’ve seen it appear.
The space monsters—some of which are actually machines—are flavourful mysteries that can be investigated or destroyed, netting you new tech and other boons. I like that they exist, livening up the galaxy, but the fights are a bit underwhelming and, by the time I can beat them up, I’m no longer that interested in the rewards—though there are still some appealing ones, and more that have been added in later DLC. The ether drake, for instance, gives you hands-down the best ship armour in the game.
The enclaves are the main benefit of this pack. These are unaligned collectives of artists, traders and scientists who you can trade with or commission great works from. There are some good deals to be made, or you can destroy them and nick their stuff. More enclaves have been added with later DLC, but this original trio are still worth adding to your game.
Wait for a sale
Release date: September, 2017 | Store link
Synthetic Dawn is as much a species pack as it is a story pack, even if Paradox placed it in the latter category. The highlight is the introduction of machine empires. This lets you make machine empires straight away, instead of waiting for your species to shed its fleshy ways, and comes with a new government type, traits and civics that dramatically transform the game.
You can make a bunch of killer robots with drills for arms who want to wipe out all organic life, Borg-like assimilators who want to make everyone a funky bot, or servitors who just want to help organics out. There are a lot of paths to take, and I’ve enjoyed every one of them. They’re thematically rich, come with loads of advantages—but also a big hit to pop growth—and are a pretty great pick for new players, since you never need to worry about food or happiness and your leaders are immortal.
Even when you’re not playing a machine empire, this DLC has an impact. Oppressed robots will rise up against their home empires, adding an element of risk should you choose to use robotic labour. These rebels can then create new empires, if their former masters don’t crush them. I like all the new species Paradox has added since launch, but this is the only one I couldn’t live without.
Release date: May, 2018 | Store link
Distant Stars is a pretty unassuming story pack that ends up being fundamental. One of the main things that sets Stellaris apart from other space 4Xs is that it’s essentially a story-driven sandbox, with Paradox lavishing the exploration phase with so much attention. Distant Stars gives you more of the good stuff.
It adds a lot: Unique worlds, new anomalies and leviathans, and a storyline that will see you discover gateways that will eventually lead to a hidden corner of the galaxy, hiding massive rewards and, of course, dangers, potentially kicking off a deadly midgame crisis. I’ve seen complaints that the crisis (which is not guaranteed to kick off) can come too early, but I’ve yet to see it appear before my empire is sufficiently strong enough to handle it, though not always easily. This all leads to a more surprising and richer galaxy.
The DLC also received an update that included new anomaly outcomes, even more stories and expanded events, making it yet more essential. It might not be as flashy as some of the other DLCs I included in the top five, but it’s one that will improve the game no matter what your species or playstyle.
Release date: June, 2019 | Store link
Like Distant Stars, Ancient Relics fleshes out the exploration side of things, giving you powerful relics to find and an archaeology system to help uncover them. The system is a bit on the simple side, however, effectively being an event chain where the scientist assigned to the dig slowly starts to unravel its mystery.
Relic worlds will also appear in your galaxy, with long-dead civilisations to learn about as you dig through the ruins. Speaking of long-dead civilisations, Ancient Relic also tosses in a pair of new extinct Precursor civs and their accompanying home systems whose fate you can learn from.
It’s a perfect complement to Distant Stars, though I recommend getting that one first. You can’t go wrong with either, though.