[Review] Struggle of Empires
- When I read an interview of Martin Wallace on www.gamefest.com in mid
2004, I first saw mention of his game Struggle of Empires (Warfrog,
2004 - Martin Wallace). In the interview he mentioned how he had been
working on the game on and off for five years, and how proud he was of
the game. This coming from one of the best game designers currently
in the business had me certainly intrigued.
Struggle of Empires, while not Martin Wallace's best design (that
would be Age of Steam) is still a tremendous game - one of the best of
2004. It's an involving game that revolves around area control, yet
offers players such a tremendous array of options that it's almost
dizzying. Using a unique and tremendously effective alliance system,
the game prevents "ganging up" on the leader, and instead promotes
effective negotiation. A beginner will probably get destroyed by an
experienced player, as the game does have a sharp, learning curve; but
learning the game produces a very satisfactory experience.
A map of the world in the eighteenth century is placed on the table
with seven world powers (Britain, France, Spain, Russia, Austria,
Prussia, and the United Provinces), and eleven contested areas (six
colonies: North America, Caribbean, South America, Africa, India, and
East Indies; and five others: German States, Baltic, Mediterranean,
Central Europe, and Ottoman Empire). These are the only spaces on the
map (aside from some water regions next to the colonies and some other
countries.) Each player chooses a country, taking all the counters
and tokens of that countries color. Players also receive ten gold
coins, with the remainder of the money forming a bank. A pile of
"Unrest" counters is also placed on the table. A pile of "Country"
counters is placed in a bowl, and ten of them are drawn randomly and
placed on the map in their respective countries. Each player then
draws five more country counters, placing a control counter of their
color in each country shown on the tiles, then discarding the tiles.
Seventy-two tiles are arranged in piles near the board, and each
player places one control marker on the "0" of a victory point track
and another on the "5" of a population track. Each player places five
military units on the map (armies, navies, or forts) in turn order,
and the game is ready to begin.
The game is composed of three "wars", or phases. In each war,
players are in one of two alliances and cannot actively attack others
in their alliance. At the beginning of each "war," players bid to
form the alliance. The first player bids zero gold coins, picking two
nations who are not in an alliance yet, placing their counters - one
in alliance "A," the other in alliance "B". The next player can
either pass or raise the bid, putting any two nations they want in the
two alliances. This continues until everyone passes but one person,
and then another auction begins. Auctions occur until half of the
players are in one alliance, and the rest are in the other alliance.
The top player in Alliance A goes first, and the first war commences.
A war is made up of five rounds (six if there are four or less
players). In each round, players take two actions in player order.
They can do any combination of the below actions but can only buy a
tile, colonize, or enslave one per round.
- Build unit: The player can place one military unit in their home
country, reducing their population by one. They can then move the
unit to one area on the board, following some movement restrictions
(like only moving to a colonial area if they already have a ship
there, when moving across deep waters - units must roll to see if they
make it, etc.)
- Move two units: The player can move two of their units on the map,
following the movement rules.
- Buy a tile: The player can buy a tile on the board, paying the cost
of that tile (sometimes nothing). A few of the tiles are a one-use
only type, and when used must be returned to the stock. Alliance
tiles, which correspond with the contested areas, must be returned to
the stock at the end of the war. All other tiles are kept for the
remainder of the game. Some tiles provide an immediate effect; others
must be rotated ("tapped") to be utilized and remain tapped until the
end of that war.
- Colonize/Enslave: The player can replace a country counter marked
"Pop" with a control token by spending a population point. They can
do the same thing with a "Slaves" token, but only if they have a naval
unit in Africa; and it does not cost a population point.
- Attack: (a much reduced version of the actual rules) A player must
pay two gold to attack and attacks either another player's control
counter or a neutral country counter with a number on it. Attacks can
only be made on a player in the opposing alliance. Naval combat
occurs before land combat, if possible; and if both players agree,
either one can back out. The winner of the naval combat gets naval
support for that battle. Players can have folks ally with them from
their alliance and can use alliance tiles to add to their total
strength. Both players involved roll two dice and add the difference
of those dice to their battle strength. The loser loses a unit /or
control token and increases their unrest level by one (taking an
unrest counter). Control tokens are never discarded but are merely
changed - if I beat Joe, I remove one of his control tokens and add
one of mine. If a player defeats a neutral country counter, they
can add one of their control tokens.
The tiles do a variety of things, such as:
- Give a player a free attack
- Reduce a player's unrest by 2
- Add one to the player's population
- Allow a player to reroll combat
- Allow a player to extra bonuses in combat
- Etc, etc.
After the last round of a way, players collect income (one gold for
each population point they still have, and one gold for each control
token they have on the map.) Players must then maintain their active
forces, by paying one gold for each one on the map. At any time in
the game, if a player needs gold, they can take two from the bank in
exchange for 1 unrest. (This can be done multiple times.)
Victory points are awarded after each war for each of the contested
areas. The player with the most control tokens gets the highest
victory point number printed on the board, second place gets the next,
and a few of the areas award points for the person with the third most
control tokens. Ties score points for all players. The next war then
begins, with ten more country tokens being placed on the board, and
another round of auctions beginning. After the third war's scoring,
players reveal their unrest counters. Players with twenty or more
unrest lose the game automatically. Other than that, the player with
the most unrest loses seven victory points, the next highest loses
four victory points. Victory points are then totaled, and whoever has
the most wins the game!
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: There are a massive amount of components in the game;
fortunately Warfrog does something more companies should do - provide
plastic bags for the counters. The money chips are simply copper and
silver-colored tiddly winks, but the remainder of the counters (and
there are a LOT) are of very high quality. Each nation's tokens are
in a different color and have different standards on their control
tokens. This, combined with the colorful but easy-to-read board,
presents a very colorful game. All information is very easy to find
on the board, and the only fiddly aspect is from the dozens of piles
of tiles lying near the board. The unrest tokens come in different
denominations; so one can keep their total unrest a secret, if they
wish. The alliance tiles are colored in the same colors as their
respective countries, which makes them easier to locate; and small
symbols clearly indicate what most of the tiles do.
2.) Rules: And for the tiles that aren't clear, there is a reference
sheet included in the game; one that we look at quite frequently. It
clearly explains each of the different tiles (there are thirty-eight
different ones). The rulebook, itself, is only six pages long; but if
you've ever seen a Warfrog rulebook, you know that that doesn't stop
them from packing in a ton of information. There is one example of
game play in the rules, as well as some play tips; but the game seems
to be more easily learned when taught, rather than reading the rules.
It's a deep game, and almost feels like a war game (it's actually area
control). Beginners may have to be eased in.
3.) Alliances: If there's any mechanic I absolutely love about this
game, it's the forced alliances. Many times you will want to do a
crushing attack against someone else but are forced to sit there,
gnashing your teeth because they are in your alliance. One can still
be a pest, by refusing to help an ally or pointing out attack
strategies to the other players, but they can never outright attack
their ally. This makes the initial bidding rounds crucial and
vicious, as players are not only bidding for turn order but for who is
in what alliance. I found that this was an excellent way to keep
everyone from ganging up on the leader - only half the players can
attack the leader. And a rich player can make sure that they actually
can keep their enemies closer.
4.) Players and Time: The game plays anywhere from two to four hours
and only plays quickly if all players know what they are doing. There
is very little downtime, as a player can't do too much on their turn;
and the only thing that takes a while (an attack) can often involve
most of the players. The game plays up to seven players; and I think
the more, the merrier. Game play is fair with three, but the forced
alliance loses some of its luster with that few of players. This is
not a quick game but a meaningful, lengthy experience.
5.) Slaves: I shouldn't have to mention this, but some folk get into
a furor over the slavery that they say this game approves of. The
game notes the use of slavery and how it affected the empires back
then, in a neutral, historical way. I abhor slavery and feel that
this game deals with it in a historical, accurate way. I'm sure some
gaming groups will add in their comments when playing, but most people
will not /should not be offended by it.
6.) Choices: The agony of choices is in this game. With such a large
variety of tiles to choose from, which should you take? There is only
one copy of some of the tiles, so players may not get the abilities
they want if they wait too long. Other tiles allow whole strategies
to be built around them. If you want a lot of money, then buy company
tiles. If you want to be defensive, buy alliance tiles. If you want
to rule the world militarily, then buy mercenary tiles or army
training tiles. The different tiles allow for such a variety of
strategy that raise this game up and beyond that of a typical
7.) Fun Factor and Theme: The historical flavor adds a lot to this
game. As someone who enjoys history, I was pleased with how accurate
the game was, especially how the colonies were needed by the empires
for them to wield power. The die-rolling mechanic, that of finding
the difference of two dice, was very unusual and made what could have
been a boring battle more interesting. The dice affects battles,
adding luck to the game; but with the right tiles and strategy, I
found that luck played a very minimal role in the game. One's initial
setup is also quite important (On our first playing of the game we
stopped a turn into the game and re-setup, because several players had
made crucial and un-informed setup choices.)
This is not a game that you'll master on your first time, and I don't
see many people who own the game only playing it once. There's a lot
to take in and comprehend; and the game rules, while fairly simple,
have some layers of complexity that your average "lite" gamer might
find overwhelming. This isn't to say that the game should be avoided,
rather it's like chewing your way through a delicious steak dinner.
It's tough, but it's certainly delicious - another treat from the
master chef Wallace.
"Real men play board games."