It was a few years ago, at the Gen-Con Convention in Milwaukee, that I happened upon the Hobby Products booth. There was a large board with beautifully detailed terrain regularized with a hexagonal overlay, set-up for demonstration battles. The game on display was called EMPIRES. The designers are from Germany and had touted everything over to the U.S. to promote this new fantsy game. The hexes represented various outdoor landscape like plains, forest, hills, sea, etc. But it was the figures that really drew my attention; wonderfully sculpted 15mm figures that were very well painted. I played a demo game vs. one of the other conventioneers wandering the large arena. And on the next day I returned to play it again. But I did not invest in purchasing the game at the time, so many other games vying for my attention and limited spending money.
But in the spring of 2004, I happened upon the game’s website and decided to “take the plunge”. And a plunge it is, as you’ll see. The boxed game comes with concise rules, one nice battlefield, cool dice, a load of hexagonal counters representing various army units of the Good Guys (the Empire; think Imperial good guys in Battlemasters) and the Bad Guys (the Orcs; with assorted other badies, again a la Battlemasters), and a Resource card for each of those units. I picked up my copy cheap, $25, so where is the plunge? Well the game really shines when you switch from playing with the cardboard counters, to playing with those aforementioned 15mm figs. And of course, those come at a pretty-penny more. Plus the painting, as it seems a crime to play with such crafted figurines unpainted. Still, I believe that this game is a great find, played either way. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why it hasn’t caught on more in America.
Play is not particularly difficult and is best likened (again) to a more complex version of Battlemasters… on steroids… for mature gamers who want to think more. Each turn is divided into 5 phases: Upkeep (pay a token amount for the troops you have), Recruitment (generate income and purchase new troops), Shooting (ranged combat, although figures must still be in adjacent hexes as the board represents the entire kingdom), Melee (clobberin’ time), and Movement (a clever innovation, with the moving taking place after all the fighting). Sprinkled into every phase is the option of Magic, if you have figures that can cast spells for your cause.
A nifty feature that adds to the strategy concerns generating income and troops. At the start of the game, you have only one source: your Capital. You start with troops you select (and there are a lot of choices). These can go off and battle, but they can also go found new Villages, which later can be upgraded to Towns. These create new income for more troops. There are also many unique structures that can be built: Castles, Standing Stones, Ports, Town Walls (a miniature ‘ring’ that slips over the town for extra protection), etc. Some have to be discovered, like Dragon Caves and Wyvern Eeries. Although the basic game is played until one person captures his opponent’s capital, there can be numerous variations for unique scenarios. In this way, the game reminds me a bit of the new Runebound, as both are ideal for clever design add-ons and house-rules.
Each figure and structure has an accompanying Resource (think ‘reference’) card, that lists it’s abilitys. These include it’s name, a photo of the painted unit, it’s values for Shooting, Shooting Defense, Melee, Melee Defense, Initiative (speed in battle), Movement speed, Cost to buy, and number of hits until eliminated. When a unit takes a hit, place a hit marker on the card, eliminating that unit when it reaches max damage.
Many units and structures have unique abilitys and rules; these being listed on the back of the card.
The Hobby Products website has several additional maps you can download and print out. Of course, these are best mounted first, but that is not too much a chore. Each is 4 pages in size, for a moderate-sized battlefield. However, I have downloaded quite a few pages, and then cut-and-pasted together my own battlefield designs that are larger in scope, and better for multi-player skirmishes.
The strategic aspects of the game remind me somewhat of Wizard Kings, with that block game having the advantage of hidden movement. But EMPIRES has a more elegant revenue and combat system, with many more play options.
The company has also added three new races: Elves, Dwarves and Isthak (icy barbarians). There are plans for a fourth, the Undead. You can download the lists of all the figures associated with each army, as well as download player-designed scenarios.
Accumulating figures has been fun, and a true indication of the game’s impact is the desire to want to get more! In that way, it is similar to other collectable games: it stands alone out of the box, but players bitten by it’s bug will want to collect larger and more varied armies. Perhaps this brief review will generate a little more interest. EMPIRES is well worth looking into.
The Hobby Products website announces that they will not be producing game materials for Empires any longer after the first of the year, so if you are planning to get into the game, now is the time. If you want to buy directly, they are offering some discounts.
There is also the US sales at Brookhurst Hobbies, and the local shop here in the Dayton, OH area, Wexford Hill Hobbies has a fairly good stock of the core game system and some army packs, as well as many of the blister packs.
Shame the system didnt sell better. The company has removed all the downloads from their site, which included scenarios, army lists and boards 2-5.