The crisp brief answer to the question in the title of this post is simple – it depends! (Isn’t that the answer to almost every question in strategy games?). Both tributaries and vassals can help you expand your empire speedily into a sound position, and both come with their downsides too.
As a true strategist, you must already be wary of absolute, universal methods. And along the same lines, you have to think on your feet considering the merits of the game situation to settle the Stellaris Tributary v.s Vassal debate.
First things first, though.
Why Are Subject Kingdoms Needed?
The fact is Stellaris is a conflict-based game that will land you in inevitable warfare, irrespective of however bonafide your peaceful intentions are.
The best way to win these conflicts is to strengthen your empire by bringing weaker empires under your fold. These subject kingdoms will provide you with resources during peacetime and armies and ammunitions when you go to war. Also, these can be strategic assets in several situations.
Also read: What is Galactic Ambition in Stellaris?
How Do I Make Other Empires My Subjects? Tributaries vs Vassals
Now that you understand the importance of merging other kingdoms into your empire let’s see how you can do this in Stellaris.
Tributaries and vassals are the two most common ways to establish subject states in Stellaris. Both work a bit differently.
The way tributaries are set up in Stellaris, they can be excellent subjects from an economic point of view. Though not so much from a military angle.
As their name suggests, tributary kingdoms pay 25% of both their mineral and energy output, to your empire as tributes. These can be valuable resources as you go about expanding your empire and boosting its capabilities.
The downside is that tributaries do not go to war with you. These empires continue to remain diplomatically independent and are free to make their own decisions when and with whom to go to war.
Tributaries are free to expand their territories through their own military prowess. This could make them risky subjects for your empire. They might end up conquering some territory that you had your eyes on!
Vassals come with the exact opposite benefits of that of tributaries. They are good partners in terms of war but are not economically as beneficial for your empire.
Vassals are like loyal servants to your empire. And they do not have the ability to expand. This means you can breathe a little easy with no risk of your vassals making advances into your territory.
Vassals will go to war with you. They might just be your trump card in heated, intense pitched battles.
Finally, and most importantly, vassals can be integrated to peacefully become a part of your territory. You do this by growing your influence in these vassal kingdoms. In terms of game metrics, this will be a monthly 5 influence cost per population and a 50-influence cost per planet. Please note these costs are over and above a base cost of 20 influence points.
Tributary vs Vassals Stellaris Debate
Now that we know how tributaries and vassals operate, it is time to head into the deep end of the vassals vs tributary debate.
Tributaries – Costs vs Benefits
Tributaries are your faithful suppliers of precious economic resources for as long as you have dominion over them. These Energy and Mineral resources can be absolutely priceless in the early game scenario. It can give you a head start in terms of capacity to quickly expand your empire into far and virgin zones. You could also set up early strategic choke-points to provide a layer of security to your empire.
The drawbacks of tributaries are that they are of no use at all in your military escapades. As conflict becomes more and more important in the late and end game stages, you would want to do away with tributaries once you get into these stages.
Tributaries also have a risk factor associated with them. As they are diplomatically independent and are free to expand, they might lay claims to some lands under your radar. It would be mean having to fight your own subject kingdoms for territorial control.
Vassals – Costs vs Benefits:
Coming to vassals, they stand at the exact end of the cost-benefit spectrum.
The best part about vassals is that you can peacefully integrate them as a part of your empire. No rebellions, no competing claims over territory. They are just like all the rest of your empire. Because of this advantage, many gamers like to choose vassals as an early game expansion territory.
Also, as you progress into the game, vassals pose no risks which could need your valuable attention. They can not expand into fresh territory. And this naturally means they will not be competing with you over some other territory that you wish to include in your empire.
And you can use vassals in an intelligent strategic way. You could set them up as buffer states between you and your enemies’ empire zones. That way you can have an easy shield against any enemy advances. And the good thing is that vassals will not themselves make any advances into your territory.
Vassals also go to war with you. They can provide valuable firepower in tough contests. However, keep in mind that they are not the strongest armies around. You would not have conquered them so easily otherwise, would you?
There are a couple of downsides to vassals. First that they do not provide any resources as tributes to you. Also, the fact that they are not very powerful from a military angle. They will go to war with you, but whether they make much difference to the outcome remains dependent on the specific battles.
Which One To Choose?
With all things strategy, there no quick-fix universal answers to the vassal vs tributary Stellaris debate. You have to make your own decisions as per the game situation.
However, if you approach Stellaris from a pure gameplay win-all and lose-none perspective, you should expand with tributaries in the early stages and switch over to vassals toward the later stages.
If, though, you come from a roleplay-experience-too school, then you might also factor in what story you want to play out. Perhaps you might harbor inhibitions over the ruthless unabashed use of vassals.
Just use your creativity and play Stellaris the way you like!