Empires of the Ancient World
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Going back to the age of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, you control the destiny of your empire--building armies, annexing neutral provinces, trading across the Mediterranean, and fighting battles. The heart of the game is its innovative card combat system. Superb, full color cards allow the use of pikes, swords, war bands, elephants, heavy cavalry, foot skirmishers, light horse, siege towers, artillery, and galleys. Special cards allow you to develop better military leaders, diplomats, traders, and engineers. However, winning the game is not just about having the largest empire. The player with the largest army will also lose the most victory points, so he had better use his forces well! If warfare is not to your taste then you can trade your way to victory, by having the largest trading empire.
I've now played this a few times with a mix of different players and everyone agrees that this is an excellent game.
Trade, diplomacy, land and naval combat, sieges, plunder, special units--the game covers a wide spectrum, but within a simple system (once you've finally deciphered the rules).
We all felt that the length of the game was about right. In actual fact, you never seem to have enough time to do everything you want.
The card combat system is the highlight of the game, with no one set of cards being all-powerful.
The mixture of luck and tactics means that the battles aren't usually foregone conclusions.
Interestingly, the winner of our last (4 player) game was a new player who never had a presence in the med, made very few attacks and didn't possess any merchants, diplomats, military leaders or engineers. As you can imagine, he took advantage of the mayhem that was happening in an all-out war throughout the south of the map, to build a large trading empire in Northern Europe.
Our previous games have been closer and have sometimes hinged on one or two decisive battles. It's one of those games where you know that war is expensive and difficult to prosecute and you should really establish trade everywhere, but the temptation of military victory and plunder means the warmongers among you just can't help yourselves. (Unfortunately, that's usually me, although I have won a couple of games.)
Maybe this game just happens to suit our set of players, but we all emerge from a game having thoroughly enjoyed building our empires and fighting land and naval battles across the map, whether we ultimately win or not.
I can't believe that more attention isn't coming to this excellent game. Maybe if it was about a herd of Druids fighting over a can of Spam or some other ridiculous theme, the reviewers would stampede over themselves to give it kudos. This game is well worth a serious look. It has several options, a simple combat resolution system, and quite a bit of depth.
This game is one of balance, tactics and strategy. It has an elegant and smooth system and deign. You must balance trade with warfare, diplomacy with intimadation. It has all the makings of a milestone in multiplayer conflict games. As a fan of Diplomacy, Risk and Civilization, I believe this deserves a place among them.
"Rocks-Scissors-Paper" has been elevated to a new level in this sophisticated game of conquest. Warriors fight for Roman Europe's provinces and the Victory Points awarded for conquering them. Traders also roam in search of Victory Points. One player can control a Province militarily, and another economically! Diplomacy, too, has its benefits. Just how useful are the more powerful Army Cards? They cost Victory Points if not discarded before a round ends. There's enough novelty here to justify yet another game following in the footsteps of Britannia and [page scan/se=0893/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]History of the World, but this one will appeal even to non-wargamers.
I'll admit that when I saw the advance list for Essen, my reaction to this game was "Do we really need another one of those?''. Ancients; squabble over territory; score victory points: we already have Britannia; Hispania; Chariot Lords; History of the World; Vinci; Rise and Fall; Barbarian, Kingdom & Empire; Ancient Conquest; etc. It is a long list, stretching back to Terrence Donnelly's Decline and Fall back in the early seventies. And those are just the good ones. However, I am pleased to be able to say that, although the theme is old, the mechanics contain more than enough in the way of novelty for the game to justify its existence. Even better, we rather enjoyed it.
The map offers no surprises: a region corresponding to the Roman Empire at its height is divided into provinces, each of which has a victory point rating. These range from 2 for places like Arabia & Armenia up to 7 for Egypt. The Mediterranean itself is split into three sections and these also have VP values--a chunky 8 for each of them. The game lasts four turns and at the end of turns 2, 3 and 4 each player scores victory points for the areas that they control. Victory points can also be gained (at half rate) for being the leading merchant in the various areas and that is the first major departure from the norm for the genre: this game isn't just about who owns what.
The second is that Empires doesn't involve stacks of counters. The only things that go on the map are wooden trade blocks and control markers. Combat is handled using cards, of which each player has a basic set, which they can augment by drawing from a common pool. In addition to providing extra fighting strength, these drawn cards can give the sort of special powers that one associates with military leaders, diplomats, merchants and military engineers.
Players begin with a small empire of contiguous areas and a number of trade blocks. They then expand, initially by taking over neutral areas and later by fighting with each other. The trade blocks are used to buy fortifications, to build trade empires and to launch diplomatic attacks (conquest by bribery). Trade empires originate in areas that you control but can then expand into other people's territories. It is quite possible for an area to have one player as its ruler and another as its leading merchant.
Each turn begins with a revolt check: roll two dice and consult a table to see which areas are affected. In general this will prove to be no more than a minor setback. Next, everybody receives their allocations of trade blocks: a basic ration with bonuses for certain areas and for merchant cards. Then come ten "action rounds'', with each player taking one action in each of them. The four main options are
Combat between players is done using troop cards. Each player selects five from their hand and arranges them in order. There is then a direct, card by card strength comparison. If the attacker wins more than the defender, the area changes hands; if not, it doesn't. The cards are the standard 'ancients' mix of sword, pike, archers, light horse, heavy cavalry, elephants and so. Each has a basic strength which may be modified by the opposition they are up against. For example, fast skirmishers such as light horse gain a bonus against elephants but suffer a penalty against heavy cavalry. At the end of the combat, depending on how it's gone, players take casualties, which involve the possible loss of some of the cards they have used. The other thing that happens if the attacker wins, is that they remove from the province all trade blocks other than their own. This plunder translates into victory points at the end of the turn and its possibility means that building trade empires is not a soft option.
Military leaders, fortifications and engineers give you extra options and bonuses in certain types of combat.
Provinces can also be attacked diplomatically by expending trade blocks and rolling a die. If you are successful, you gain control of the province. Any player can do this against neutral provinces; those with a diplomat card can do it against other players. However, though a powerful option, it is expensive, it brings no plunder and success is by no means assured.
In deciding whether this is a game you would like, you should use Britannia and History of the World as your yardstick. If you like those, the chances are that you will like this also. It occupies the same sort of territory, on the fringe between general games and wargames, and is of a similar weight. First impressions are that it is also of a similar quality. My group contains several players who began their gaming with wargames. They are big fans of the earlier two and this one also has their approval.
Taking Vinci as a guide is more dangerous, as that is both lighter and a lot shorter. The box has this game at 2-3 hours, but I think that is a little optimistic, which is why I have changed it to 2-4 in the heading. Two things will have a significant affect on how long the game takes to play: one is the number of players and the other is how much fighting you do. Almost all the time in the game goes into the action rounds. With 3 players, there are 30 of these per turn; with 5 there are 50. That is a big difference. The other big difference comes in the time per action: selecting a card or placing trade blocks takes a few seconds; combat much longer. So while 3 players who believe in competing mainly on the trade front will be able to finish in 2 hours, a group of 4 or 5 armchair generals should reckon on double that. As for my assertion about the weight difference between this and a game such as Vinci, that is also to do with the combat. The rules of Empires are very simple, but the extra detail that has been put into the combat in order to make things more interesting will be as big a turn-off for some as it is an attraction for others. Fringe wargamers will approve; fringe gamers, and those whose preference is for the light and fluffy, won't.
In summary, then, a fairly long and a heavyweight game, but one that those who enjoy the likes of Britannia and History of the World will want to try. My group likes it.