One of the most disappointing things about Stellaris to me is that you will for the most part only ever use one design per ship class, and you just spam ships. I feel that for the ship designer to have a real purpose, the player should be rewarded for making multiple designs that complement each other, not a one-size-fits-all like the pocket knife cruisers of 1.8. This would make warfare more interesting, as developing new doctrines or technology could help turn the tide. I think there are a few things that must be done for this to happen:
- Reduce the amount of ships fielded
- Provide more variety in components
- Allow the player to recover from lost battles
Reducing the number of ships
In vanilla Stellaris, there are too many damn ships. Having hundreds of cruisers and dozens of battleships gets old after a while, because it feels so impersonal. Individual ships have no impact on the battle, and strategy is reduced to cranking out as many ships as possible.
I'm currently trying out the Star Trek: New Horizons mod, and it's awesome. Their equivalent to a corvette, the patrol frigate, takes up 4 naval capacity. As a result, while early game fleets in Stellaris can be 50+ corvettes, early fleets in ST:NH are maybe a dozen.
Now this doesn't solve anything on its own, besides improving performance. But, reducing the number of ships present will make the next change far more impactful:
More variety in ship designs
Currently when you start a game, you get 3 weapons slots and 3 support slots, with one component available for each (base weapon and power). This means that the player essentially has no control over the setup of their initial fleet, and the only change they can make to it is to produce more ships.
For contrast, the patrol frigates of ST:NH have 5 light cannon slots and a torpedo slot for weapons slots, and for utilities they have an engineering slot and a science slot, as well as computers, sensors, engines, thrusters, defenses, and hull components. The sheer amount of slots, and their variety, means that from the start of the game the player has a lot of choice in determining how their ships will fight.
But even in ST:NH, I still only really use one design per class, because of a core problem with Stellaris's components. They are very limited in what they can do. Weapons simply output damage. They have values determining how likely they are to hit and how much damage they do to specific targets, but it's still only single-target damage.
What I would like to see is the ability to have more unique weapons. Make cloud lightening chain between ships. Make tractor beams apply a movespeed and evasion debuff. Make electronic warfare decrease accuracy and tracking.
However, you could still mount all of this on one ship and call it a day. So there should also be core components like combat computers which affect the effectiveness of certain weapon types. Have one that gives bonus evasion and tractor beam range so your ship can pin down enemy capital ships. Have one that gives bonuses to electronic warfare. Have one that gives AoE healing. By making the player choose between these, they'll be forced to use multiple ship designs to have an effective fleet. This, combined with the reduction in ship numbers, will make individual ships far more important to a battle's outcome, and new ship designs could help turn the tide of a war.
Allow the player to recover from lost battles
SGM Battle Survivors is an excellent mod that gives individual ships to emergency ftl rather than die upon taking lethal damage. They eventually return, heavily damaged, but can still be repaired. This means the a single battle won't determine the course of an entire war, because the loser has a chance to rebuild. This would work well with the other changes proposed, because it would give people time to refit their fleet to comply with new doctrines and adapt to enemy strategies.
TL;DR: Ships are laggy, I want cooler components, and battle are too punishing.