Great Übergeek Old One
"That is not dead which can eternal lie; yet with strange aeons, even death may die" Abdul Al-Hazred, Necronomicon
Another Wallace's Game. Since Age of Steam is my favorite game, and I highly respect Runebound and Liberte, I had to try this out.
We gathered around the rulebook, started to read it and the first thought that came to my mind was: "This game is going to suck!". After reading the whole rulebook (examples of gameplay included), I wasn’t sure about what was going to happen there... and so... it all began.
Since I’m a wooden cube lover, this is probably a little biased rating. What is found into this box? A nice and well designed sturdy board, pure chits (lots of them), just like in Twilight Struggle or any wargame of course, not saying that Struggle of Empires is one of those.
About the Rulebook? Well, much has been said in the past about Warfrog’s rulebooks. I really consider them very hard to read, but useful to clarify. Every single situation within the game, could be clarified just reading some paragraph. Even though, learning the game from the rulebook could (and is) be painful.
So, what about this game? How does this incredible board game gem flows during its 4 hours of play?
“The game consists of three major periods, called 'wars'. Alliances are formed at the start of each new war. A war consists of five or six rounds. In each round a player may perform two actions. At the end of each war victory points are scored according to the relative number of control tokens in each area. Military units can be used to defend or capture control tokens but do not represent control of an area. The various Improvement, Alliance, and Company tiles grant economic, political, scientific, and military benefits without which a player will find it hard to win. Throughout the game money is essential and can always be obtained but at the cost of increasing unrest among the people.”
(From the Rulebook)
The most amazing thing about this game is the alliances. Every war, an auction takes place where the players bid to conform an alliance with other player(s). No attack can be made within an alliance, but you are not obliged to help you ally either. This is very strategic, because most of the time it's better to make the one you fear the most, your ally. Each alliance will define one third of the game for you, so this is the most important decision you make through the game.
The improvements prevent this game to have the pure elegance feeling found in games like El Grande or Die Macher. Many things to memorize and in your first games, you need to look for their explanations many times in the rulebook or the support sheets. No big deal though.
Very Light Very Heavy
In this game you have only 30 Actions until third war is over. Over those 30 actions you have to keep your unrest count (more on that later) low, conquer foreign countries, move troops, buy improvements, buy armies, bid for alliances, but the money you need cost you unrest counters. What I’m trying to say is that, as in every Wallace game, you always feel the need for more resources to make things, and also that the resources are at the reach of your hand, but at the price of your blood. Even if this is not Wallace’s heavier game (that would be Age of Steam from the ones I’ve played), its heavier enough to please heavy eurogamers (just like me).
No Luck Pure Luck
Luck is present in this game, because dice are rolled for every combat situation you face. Even though I'm a dice hater (hmmmm... perhaps it's the other way, dice are Nodens' Hater), that randomness can be minimized fortifying your positions on the table before rolling those pesky plastic dotted cubes. You can (and must do so) get some improvements which means, in terms of gameplay, bonus modifiers for the most important rolls you make during the game, mitigating the “luck factor” and allowing you to plan ahead crucial strategic decisions. Also, you know when is smart to start a battle against an opponent, counting the number of armies you posses, modifiers and so forth and making a simple comparison against your victim... (hmmm) target’s armies. Even though, sometimes you just call out loud “Freedooooooom!!!!” and roll the dice.
One thing I liked a lot from this game is how the dice roll results are interpreted. You always roll 2D6 (2 six-sided dice for those who have never read a RPG book) and calculate the difference between them. Now you have your result and you start applying your modifiers (Rolling the same number means 0, ZERO, NULL, NOTHING, “I’m going right to oblivion”). Also, rolling a seven (7) in any combination while attacking means casualties from the attacker, even if you WON the battle! I suppose this means how deadly battles can be, and no matter how strong are you while invading a country, there’s always a peasant with a shovel ready to take down your best soldier.
Our first game was a 4 player, but I think you can make the most of your gaming experience with this game, with an odd number of players, because there will be an alliance with one more player than the other, and let me say that sometimes, you will want to be part of the smallest alliance in order to expand your domains.
Pure Tactics Pure Strategy
In Struggle of Empires, Strategy means Alliances. You have to make this crucial decision three times in the game, and live with it for a third of the game each time you make it. That’s long term planning. Also in this game, if you are aware of the other players board’s positions, you might notice when an invasion is coming. You can plan ahead properly, and the improvements help you fortify your positions against future enemy actions. Tactics are in the form of dice results, beginning of each war and, of course, adapt to other player’s movements. I really loved this aspect in this game.
No Interaction Lots of Interaction
This is a game of war. Interaction would be its last name. Every single action you take in this game impacts, one way or another, your opponents. Auction for alliances is pure carnage, since it’s the most important and strategic moment in the game. When you buy some improvement, you are preventing other players to take it. When you attack, others are forced to defend. When you move your troops, others are forced to rethink everything they’ve planned so far. Long story short... when you play Struggle of Empires, you Interact.
Abstract Lots of Theme
It’s pretty clear that you are a big and powerful empire. You rule the destiny of many, and of course, you’re plans are, among other things, to submit other cultures to yours. War, is present in naval combat, ground combat. Every time you lose a unit, your fellow countrymen raise their hands against the government (YOU) and an Unrest counter comes to your playing area. At game’s end, if you have 20 or more unrest counters, you just CAN NOT WIN, meaning you as a leader are worthless. No one follows you anymore, even if you managed to destroy every single enemy’s army in the board. Theme is all around when you play Struggle of Empires.
Easy To Learn Hard To Learn
Due to its elegance, this game is easier to learn than it seems. The fiddly part of the game is the one that makes this aspect to be in the middle and that would be the improvements. You need to constantly refer to some charts (making a wonderful idea to photocopy them one for each player) in order to learn what improvements do. I suppose that, with more plays, this would be no issue at all and you will finish memorizing each token abilities, but that elevates the learning curve a little.
The game is somewhere between El Grande, Liberté, Risk, Diplomacy, Intrigue and Shogun... meaning that this is rapidly becoming one of my favorites. Wallace did it again, what a great game.
This game is a solid 9 for me. I'm sure that, with 5 or 7 players (an odd number of players), this game despite the length of the game session (almost 4 hours), will become a 10.
thanks for the review, I think you have hit the spot with your writting.
I am a fan of this game (hey - I started with axis and allies so have an acceptance of dice rolling) and agree with you that the more you play it the higher the rating will get, particually once you get to grips with all the combo moves and tiles.