I am on board with the way more planets/clusters idea. I would just call them galaxies. That is not to say that "smaller is better" is wrong, though. It's just the artistic direction this is taking. This sets up D-Day style invasions and would probably feel similar to Continents style maps in Civ. But this could take on a whole new Star Trek feel, where play styles in different galaxies are very different. One galaxy is tight-cluster, ample resources. Another is spread out, lots of life support, lots of precursor planets. Anomalies which simply don't exist in other galaxies. Technologies which just don't unlock unless you meet this minor race.
You'd have missions, just like Treasure Hunters and Salvage missions. But they're "Explore Andromeda" and "Explore Milky Way" missions. After some time, you get a weak survey ship in the other galaxy, on a semi-random tile. You explore around a little bit and set up a hyperlane. You can set up multiple hyperlanes. Then you set up starbases to defend/augment them. But the xenophobic Iconians don't like it and will blow you up ASAP if they catch you doing it.
The architect on Freeorion decided to go all hyperlanes because it made the AI easier. Everything becomes a directed acyclic graph. But they did not have the advantage of already having AI source code sitting around from previous projects, and they weren't mixing tiles with hyperlanes, like this is. DAG software libraries are really easy to find.
I'm not really on board with no campaign, unless resources simply don't permit. This cluster idea just screams CAMPAIGN. First scenario is one-cluster. Second scenario is two-cluster, with you starting in one and having to take care of the other. Third is multi-cluster, with several neutral parties standing between you and the evil dragon lords on the other side of the universe. You have to use diplomacy in order to travel across the universe on time before your ships all go out-of-date just getting there.
I was happy with Galciv3's campaign, and was even happier with the campaign's mod than Crusade's sandbox one. It was just short-lived.