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Initial Impressions of Oliver Kiley's Hegemonic

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
I am actually not quite certain of when I first became aware of Hegemonic, but it was likely as a result of its designer, Oliver Kiley, starting to post on my blog and my natural curiosity over his Game Designer badge. This interest level was increased even more by his comments in my Two Different Styles of Civilization Games article and his description of what made Hegemonic special. When he offered me a chance to get a late stage prototype I eagerly accepted. The copy arrived earlier this week and I got a chance to play two partial games last night, though between the two of them I got a very good idea of the overall scope and essence of the game.

Last night I got a chance to play two partial games. The first was a three player that was stopped due to the third player being put into an unrecoverable position after some very bad early moves, but pretty soon after that we had three other friends show up, so Mike and I joined Chad, Kelly and Scott for a five player game.

Even before we started the five player game Mike and I were pretty excited about the game, with Mike wondering how he could get a copy. The three player was definitely a learning experience but we greatly enjoyed what we had learned about the game, and the five player game did little but enhance our general enthusiasm. Chad, Kelly, and Scott also really liked the game, Chad said it was better than Eclipse, which had been his favorite 4X game up to this point, and Kelly and Scott were also very enthusiastic about it with Scott asking when the Kickstarter was going to begin.

I will let the others explain the source of their own excitement if they chose, but for me personally the primary basis for my enthusiasm is how the game handles conflict between civilizations. Most 4X games, and civilization games in general for that matter, are focused almost exclusively on military conflict. Political influence is merely hand-waved by saying the game is a negotiation game or is extremely abstracted, while economic aspects of the game are almost exclusively focused on building economic power for yourself and using that economic power to build a military. If you want to effect another player’s position you are going to build up an army and send it over to attack their armies, burn down their cities, seize their solar systems, or whatever depending on the focus and scope of the game. While this can make a quite entertaining game, I prefer a more comprehensive approach to my conflict, with both opportunities for direct economic and political conflicts as well as purely military ones.

Hegemonic provides that opportunity, as player infrastructure is focused in those three major spheres: political, industrial, and military. Each one improves your income, and each one provides you with the ability to interact with, either through destruction or conquer, the other spheres of influence. Of course this results in a level of abstraction that many fans of the 4X genre will find to be a bit disconcerting. There are no hordes of plastic miniatures to play on the board, and each player only has 3 fleet markers and 3 agent markers to represent their ability to project military and political force. Still, if you are willing to get past, that I think it is very easy to see past that abstraction and get a feel for how tightly integrated the mechanics are to the theme. Open negotiation and exchange of currency is allowed, but because political conflicts are the ones that allow other players to influence the results, you are more likely to see this negotiation and exchange in currency when political power is on one side of a conflict. Military power’s area of influence and power is directly determined by relative location and size of fortresses, and an increasing focus on military also causes military fleets to scale up in power accordingly. Industrial power can be used to take over locations of types, representing the power of money and economy, while military power and political power can only take control of embassies. How you calculate military, industrial, and political power differs as does how you are able to project power, making it so that even with the level of observed abstraction there is an important differentiation between the different spheres of influence.

The economic system is clever, but does not particularly stand out. Essentially your progress in each of the three tracks associated with either industrial, political or political influence, as you place more complexes, embassies, and outposts on the board your income increases, your costs increase, and the amount of currency you can hold between rounds decreases. Three tiers are associated with each track, and advancing the tiers gives you access to special powers as well as the ability to place more advanced technologies. This is straightforward and utilitarian and most importantly does not get in the way. You will be thinking about your economy and the income and output of the currency you have to spend to expand your position, but it does not interfere with the true central focus of the game: conflict.

The resolution mechanic is both clever and does stand out. Each player has a hand of five cards, each of which is divided into a conflict half and a technology half. Whenever a conflict occurs calculated power is added to the power of the card to determine the winner. Each card has a general power and a specialized power that comes with specific pre-requisites. When playing one of these cards for a conflict it is left face-up and unavailable until the player runs out of cards, takes an action to refresh them, or the round ends, meaning that there is a very strong element of hand management when dealing with a very conflict heavy round. The double nature of the cards also leads to some interesting decisions, as when you get a new technology, you are losing that as a potential card to play in a round. This does not decrease the total number of cards available, you will always have 5 total available active and inactive cards, but it does lead to a potential decrease in the overall level of quality of cards you can play. If you have invested strongly in industrial, political, or military infrastructure this is particularly tough because the cards that have the best synergies with these types of influence are also the ones that provide the valuable level 3 technologies.

Action selection is secret and simultaneous using a hand of cards that is identical between the players. Each action card has up to three potential actions on them, with an individual player having the ability to take either take up to three actions from this menu or, in the case of one card, a single action. Player order, is determined by the initiative value of the card, but plenty of ties will occur and when that happens the arbiter, essentially the “first player”, determines the order. This can be a particularly valuable role on contentious rounds, and bidding wars for the ability to go first are likely in these cases, but in other rounds it is only marginally useful. The individual action cards are comprehensive, allowing for a variety of different ways you can interact with the board, and the ability to initiate a conflict is spread across them making the reason a player selected a particular action delightfully ambiguous.

It is tough to compare it to other 4X games I enjoy because they are doing something quite different. The need to manage fleets and internalize the capabilities of a half dozen ships is removed, but strangely enough, despite its lesser focus on military conflict the total amount of conflict in the game is greater. Conflict aggressors are rarely harmed permanently in the process of an attack, making it so it can be optimal to attempt experimental attacks if you think you have a chance to win, and the fact that victory points are scored in such a way that you are encouraged to expand across the board means that players are constantly driven to be in each other’s proximity, so turtling is non-existent. You can certainly build centralized locations where you are very strong, of course, but these locations are merely a tool for launching game winning conflicts, not as a means to turtle while you pursue victory in isolation. You also see a sort of interweaving of player presence that is virtually unknown in other games of this type. Any individual hex could have up to three different players in it, and it is possible for two players to coexist in the same region in a fairly peaceful manner.

The only real problems I see with it are ones of clarity. As a red-green colorblind person, I found some of the differences between the political faction tiles to be unclear. Additionally you frequently need to add and read numbers from adjacent areas in order to calculate actual and potential powers for different networks. This can be a bit problematic for people who prefer a slightly more visceral play experience, but I did not find it problematic except in the case of political power, where the power contributions are more dispersed, and a wider array of factors need to be considered. Luckily this is something that can be easily solved at a component level, as a track that indicated each players power level across the three political factions would easily allow for a player to consider the possibilities without a lot of AP-induced counting. It is nowhere near the level of permutation that is seen in something like Dominant Species, and most of the down time I saw was from people wrestling with tough decisions rather than attempting to overcome hurdles that stopped them from actually playing the game.

While it is a 4X game, is probably the most “euro” of games of this style. In fact, it probably reminds me most of some of the big conflict-driven eurogames that have had a strong crossover appeal like Dominant Species or Tigris & Euphrates and as such I see this game having a strong potential to appeal to both players who are fans of traditional 4X games as well as those who are not typically into the genre but like big conflict-driven games. I see little opportunity for my opinion of this game to go anywhere but up, and it’s a damn shame that it has not found a publisher yet. Hopefully Oliver will work out a publishing deal so that this one can get into wider distribution. Yes, it is another 4X entry in a crowded market, but it is a very distinct one and one that I think will ultimately be very popular, particularly for those who like big and deep board games.
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