Espionage is a fairly complex system, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to master. Not if you know what it’s for, where to find it, and whether it’s any good or not! Speaking of which: it’s worth noting that Espionage (a.k.a. building a Spy Network) is not entirely paywalled behind an expansion or DLC. If you own Stellaris, you can do some spying. Yet nearly all of the options require a certain DLC. The Stellaris: Nemesis expansion adds those and things like the Subterfuge Tradition — giving you even more ways to adjust your playstyle around Espionage. You don’t absolutely require it, but it’s the most notable chunk of the current Spy Network system, so it’s worth mentioning. With that out of the way, let’s get into our Espionage guide to Stellaris!
How to Use Espionage in Stellaris
This is surprisingly one of the more complex questions to answer about the whole system. But Espionage is, basically, an alternative to Diplomacy in the world of Stellaris. It even uses the same NPC type as the more above-board negotiations: your Envoys. You can send Envoys to other empires from the Contacts menu to either improve or harm your overall relationship with that group. Alternatively, you can tell them to build a Spy Network within that empire, which begins to open Espionage options in the next tab of the menu.
Envoys are unique in Stellaris. They don’t level up or gain traits like other named units (e.g. Admirals and Scientists). Instead they rely on stats determined by your empire and the empire you attempt to infiltrate. Chief among these are Encryption and Codebreaking: basically your defense and attack stats when it comes to Espionage. Having a higher level of Encryption makes it harder for enemies to spy on you. Whereas a higher level of Codebreaking makes it easier to spy on them.
Assigning an Envoy to spy on opposing empires will slowly accrue “Infiltration Level.” Infiltration Level acts as both a prerequisite (you need it at Level 30, for example, to unlock the “Acquire Asset” action) and a resource. The higher the level, the more actions you unlock: like the ability to steal one random, unknown technology from that empire. These actions also subtract from your total Infiltration Level upon completion, as if you were spending them like currency. This also happens during operations — which function more-or-less the same as archeology. Your Envoy will try to make “breakthroughs” in an operation. The harder the operation, the lower the chances of success, but the odds go up over time.
The downside is that these breakthroughs can also lead to negative outcomes. Such outcomes might ask you to spend some Infiltration Level, cancel an operation, or just outright botch the whole thing. One way to overcome this is with better Codebreaking — which reduces the difficulty of each operation. Another is by using the “Acquire Asset” operation, which gives you disposable agents to boost your odds of success on particular tasks.
What to Use Espionage for in Stellaris
Espionage has a massive range of uses. You can do anything from check in on your neighbors consume a hostile empire’s home star. All of these cost Influence and an upkeep of Energy Credits; most of them consume some number of Infiltration Levels. How often you engage in these operations is up to you (and your resources). But most of them do something good for you and bad for someone else.
Here’s an incredibly basic breakdown of Espionage operations:
Gather Information: Raises maximum Infiltration Level for 10 years and boosts Intel.
Spark Diplomatic Incident: Causes a random “Envoy Event,” which usually causes some kind of minor debuff.
Prepare Sleeper Cells: Boosts your operations’ success rate and stops Infiltration Level from decaying for 15 years.
Acquire Asset: Acquires a random asset that can be used to buff future operations.
Extort Favors: Generates a currency called “Favors” that can be used when voting on resolutions or proposing Diplomatic agreements.
Smear Campaign: Reduces the Cohesion of the target empire’s Federation, or reduces another empire’s opinion of them at random.
Steal Technology: Gain 30% progress in a random technology the target has, but you don’t, or gain +1,000 to all research categories if the target has nothing you don’t.
Sabotage Starbase: Destroy a random starbase module that isn’t a Shipyard, or a random building if there are no such modules.
Arm Privateers: Spawns pirates that attack the target empire (the size of the pirate fleet scales with the target military).
Crisis Beacon: Directs a Crisis fleet to attack your target’s closest system.
Weaken Imperial Authority: Weakens Imperial Authority (you must be a member of an Imperium target the Emperor).
Target Seditionists: Target cannot undermine Imperial Authority for five years (you must be an Emperor targeting a member of the Imperium).
Spark Rebellion: Declares war against the Emperor and forces all members of the Imperium to join them or the rebellion (you must be a member of an Imperium targeting the Emperor).
Consume Star: Destroys all colonies in the target’s capital system unless they complete a research project within a time limit (requires the Devourer’s Egg Sac).
Some of these are self-explanatory. “Gather Information” is generally useful early on, for instance, since it’s very cheap and low risk. More Intel is never a bad thing, either. This allows you to see an empire’s military strength, colonies, and so on. “Prepare Sleeper Cells” and “Acquire Asset” are good if you plan to do a lot of Espionage, since they decrease the difficulty of future actions. Finally, “Extort Favors” can also be useful against hostile empires — since you can’t buy favors from governments that don’t like you.
The best Espionage operation in Stellaris is still arguably “Steal Technology.” I know, I know… It’s a bit boring. Yet it has a unique trait that most other operations in the Spy Network do not. “Steal Technology” directly and permanently benefits you, the player, instead of just temporarily inconveniencing a foe. There’s also the matter of timing. Since Espionage functions the same as archaeology (i.e. it takes a semi-random amount of time to complete) it’s very difficult to time meaningful damage against enemy empires with other moves you want to make. Research doesn’t suffer from this as much.
You may, of course, also wonder about the “Consume Star” option. This is obviously quite powerful. However, it’s tied to defeating a Stellarite Devourer. This is a Guardian (a.k.a. huge space monster) introduced in the Leviathans DLC for Stellaris. Defeating it gives you the option to retrieve its egg sac to start a parade. Following through with this event will then allow you to use the egg to kill a star as an operation.
The downside is that the targeted empire can simply stop the operation with a research project. The project must be completed before a timer runs out, but it’s hardly insurmountable. The good news is that the project requires the faction to send a Science Ship to their capital star. If you’re already at war with this empire, you can potentially use your navy to ward away the vessel and let the star be consumed.
This one is, admittedly, pretty cool. Even if it’s hardly reliable.
How to Raise Codebreaking and Encryption in Stellaris
Seeing as Codebreaking and Encryption are you primary Espionage skills, it’s worth knowing how to raise both stats. There are, it turns out, a ton of ways to adjust these numbers. I’ve split them up into two separate lists, sorted according to the type of source. Note that “Special Modifier” generally means it’s something you get from an in-game event — such as archaeological digs. Everything else can be selected when creating your empire or through regular play.
Ways to boost (or lower) your Codebreaking level include:
-1 from Inward Perfection (Civic)
+1 from Cutthroat Politics (Civic)
+1 from Ruthless Competition (Civic)
+1 from Static Research Analysis (Civic)
+2 from Bureau of Espionage (Edict)
+2 from Observation Instinct (Edict)
+2 from Covert Analysis Algorithm (Edict)
+1 from Subterfuge (Tradition)
+1 from Operational Security (Tradition subtype under Subterfuge)
+2 from Transcendence (Ascension Perk)
+2 from Quantum Hacking (Technology)
+2 from Simulated Social Engineering (Technology)
+2 from Quasi-Dimensional Reflection (Technology)
+2 from Imperial Security Directorate (Resolution)
+2 from Whisperers in the Void (Special Modifier)
+2 from Rock Brain Linguistics (Special Modifier)
+1 from Mycelial Network (Special Modifier)
+1 from Improved Mycelial Network (Special Modifier)
+1 from Found Encryption Key (Special Modifier)
Ways to boost (or lower) your Encryption level include:
+2 from Gestalt Consciousness (Ethic)
+1 from Inward Perfection (Civic)
+1 from Pooled Knowledge (Civic)
+1 from Introspective (Civic)
+1 from Tracking Implants (Edict)
+1 from Thought Enforcement (Edict)
+1 from Enhanced Surveillance (Edict)
+1 from Information Security (Tradition)
+2 from Enigmatic Engineering (Ascension Perk)
+2 from Transcendence (Ascension Perk)
+2 from Quantum Firewalls (Technology)
+2 from Simultaneous-Collapse Storage (Technology)
+2 from Negative-Time Keys (Technology)
+4 from Imperial Security Directorate (Resolution)
+1 from Disinformation Protocols Special (Modifier)
-2 from Lost Encryption Key (Special Modifier)
Is Espionage Good or Worth It in Stellaris?
This might seem like an odd question, but it’s worth bringing up due to the Stellaris community’s general feelings about the feature. The short answer? Espionage is a little half-baked. At least right now. It’s conceptually very interesting and can even be fun to use. Since it works by generating story events, there are some neat wrinkles that appear in your personal journey through each save. The issues, on the other hand, include many of the things mentioned above.
Spy operations in Stellaris take time to complete. Not only that, but the total time is semi-random. It’s very difficult to line up the small damage Espionage inflicts on your opponent with bigger offensives, like invasion fleets. It’s rarely worth scheduling your whole war around a single spy action versus simply marching in normally. This underlines a more central problem, which is that Espionage just doesn’t… have much oomph. Nothing that’s going to swing a whole campaign or even create many useful openings anyway.
“Sabotage Starbase” is a good example. Since it can’t affect Shipyards, the operation does nothing to hamper the structure as a staging ground for proper fleets. As a military option, the sabotage might shut down a single Missile Battery or Gun Battery. Temporarily, at least. Both of which are only meant as light support for proper fleets (which any base with a Shipyard can still repair or produce since the yard is unaffected). That’s even if it affects the module you want. The operation selects a random target, remember, so it might blow up a Trade Hub instead. This is a minor economic inconvenience. Yet the hub can be rebuilt almost immediately, since the starbase itself remains completely functional after the attack.
There’s also the matter of opportunity cost. Espionage pulls from the same pool of Envoys as Diplomacy. Time you spend trying to undermine an empire could instead be spent raising their opinion of you — leading to things like Trade Agreements or just plain getting them off your back. Tradition slots are also limited. Yet Envoys don’t level up like other agents — meaning Subterfuge and other, similarly limited upgrade tyoes are the only reliable way to boost Codebreaking. Technology choices are usually random and therefore less predictable.
Opportunity cost doesn’t even address the, well, outright cost. Operations require Influence: one of the more annoying resources to acquire in Stellaris. The Influence cost of a destroying a single starbase module is more than that of claiming an entire system for yourself. Assuming it’s on your border. That’s in addition to Energy Credit upkeep. You could simply throw that money at a Mercenary Enclave to buy yourself some direct destruction instead.
Espionage just really doesn’t feel worth it in Stellaris at the moment, which is a crying shame. One criticism you might level at the game is a lack of the personal touch. Named characters, like spies, would be the first place to inject some personality amid the big picture galactic intrigue. Maybe an entirely spy-focused expansion will address this one day. For now, Stellaris is just fine without you ever touching Espionage.
And that’s it for this latest guide! Hopefully, this outline of skills, traits, and events helps you better understand how, why, and if you should engage with Espionage in Stellaris at all. Best of luck with those Spy Networks if you choose to partake in the shadowy side of the cosmos.