Struggle of Empires
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Think of Civilization/Age of Renaissance set in the 18th century. Players take the role of one of the major powers of the period and fight in both Europe and the colonies. The twist to the game is that in each war players must form into two alliances. Once allied with a player you cannot fight each other. This means you do not have the backstabbing of Diplomacy to worry about; if he's allied he's with you until the end of the war. This means that a player has to think carefully about who he wants to fight against and who he wants to ally with. Very often he will want to ally with his natural enemy and go to war with the guy who doesn't really want to fight him. On top of this you have lots of improvement tiles that you buy to shape your empire, plus alliances with minor powers, and the possibility of going into revolution.
There is little doubt that, for me, the most anticipated game to be released at each Essen Spiele Faire is the new release from Warfrog. The last three years has produced a steady stream of winners from the jolly British lads: Liberté, Age of Steam, and Princes of the Renaissance. All of those games have great depth and are personal favorites.
After praising Princes of the Renaissance, designer Martin Wallace teased me a bit by saying that if I enjoyed Princes, I would REALLY enjoy his next design. Unfortunately, I had to wait the better part of a year before having the opportunity to affirm or contradict his prediction.
After playing Struggle of Empires several times, I am pleased to say that Martin was absolutely correct. Struggle of Empires is a thing of beauty, a true gamer’s game. The game is overflowing with tough choices, rich flavor, and numerous strategic options. Further, all of this is wrapped in a game that is not difficult to learn, and plays in less than four hours. Sometimes it can be difficult to assess a game after only one playing, but I feel confident enough here to declare that this is yet another winner from Mr. Wallace and the Warfrog team.
Struggle of Empires is set in the 18th century, when the European powers were vying to spread their influence and power not only throughout the continent, but around the world as well. Players struggle to find the most successful combination of military, diplomatic, economic and expansion policies that will carry them past their formidable opponents. Creating an empire is the ultimate goal, and this usually must be achieved at the expense of one’s rivals.
Up to seven players lead the powers of Britain, France, Spain, Russia, Austria, Prussia and the United Provinces. I’ve now played with 5, 6, and 7 players, and the game works equally well. Yes, playing with a full contingent of 7 players does add a bit of length to the game, but it also adds even more tension and decision-making.
In addition to the seven major powers listed above, the colorful board also depicts numerous other areas, both within Europe and overseas. These additional areas are the focal point of the players’ expansionist efforts, as they will award victory points to the players who establish control or a strong presence in those areas. Some areas will award points to the three most influential nations, while others will only grant points to the top two powers present in the area. Deciding on where to concentrate your efforts, and how best to accomplish those tasks, are main decisions to be made throughout the game.
Before beginning the game, the board is seeded with ten “country” counters, which are placed directly into the country named on the counters. These country counters list an inherent defense strength of the area, and once defeated, allow a player to place one of his own control markers into the area. Control markers are vital when determining the awarding of victory points following each of the three turns (known as “wars” in game parlance). Ten more country counters will be placed at the beginning of both turns 2 and 3.
Players then each seed the board with five of their control markers and five of their military units. The location of these initial control markers is determined randomly, while players do control where their initial military units begin. Some players may opt to send their military units to the areas where they have already established control in order to protect their interests, while others may send them to new areas in order to begin efforts to gain influence in those territories.
Each of the three turns follows the following sequence of play:
1. Place Country Counters. Ten new country counters are drawn at random and placed into their respective territories. This provides the players with new areas in which to expand. This is NOT performed on turn one since the seeding of the board prior to the beginning of the game serves this purpose.
2. Determine Alliances and Play Order. Yes, the auction mechanism is present here, but the twist is somewhat different. During this phase, alliances are determined. In the bidding round, players will have the opportunity of nominating two nations which will be in different alliances. Each player can accept this suggestion, or change it by bidding a higher amount. Ultimately, the player who bids the most will have his nomination approved.
This is a very important aspect of the game as it will split the players into two alliances. Players who are allied CANNOT attack each other during the current turn. Thus, players are faced with tough choices. No doubt, there is an incentive to force a rival into an alliance so that he cannot attack your possessions, but then you must also realize that you cannot attack his possessions! Of course, each player will have their own designs, so this alliance phase can be quite spirited.
Another consideration is that this division of powers also determines the player order for the current turn. Turn order can be critical, so it is yet another aspect to consider when participating in the bidding.
The currency being bid is gold, which is usually in precious short supply. However, a player can bid more gold than he possesses, and simply raises the excess amount by taxing the population. The bad news is that people generally don’t enjoy being taxed (that sure hasn’t changed in 250 years!), so the player must increase his unrest by taking 1 unrest counter for each 2 gold he secures in taxes. Unrest can come back to haunt a player in numerous ways …
3. Player Actions. Here is where most of the time in each turn will be spent. Players may perform two actions per round, and they will each have five (or six, depending upon the number of players) rounds per turn. So, players will have a total of 10 (or 12) actions to perform during each war.
a) Buy a Tile. A player may only select one action tile each round (5 total per turn). While there really aren’t many different actions from which to choose, there are dozens of different action tiles a player can select, including, temporary alliance tiles, which grant the player combat aid in specific territories, and “company” tiles, which grant extra income in the specified areas, and wide variety of special tiles. Each of these provides different advantages and powers, and understanding each of them can … and will … take time. In fact, it will likely take several games before a player is familiar enough with each of the tiles before he can make his selections in a timely fashion.
Deciding upon which tiles to choose during the course of the game is extremely critical. Players can formulate long-term strategies and choose their tiles accordingly. However, changing situations often require players to alter their strategies and react to various threats or opportunities. This will likely alter a player’s tile selections. Further, many of the tiles are extremely limited in quantity, so there is an urgency to grab those tiles early so as not to be left out. These decisions can be tough, as players often would love to have many of the available tiles, but can only choose one per round. It is the acquiring of these tiles in the correct combination so as to maximize one’s performance and effectiveness that helps make this game so rich.
b) Build Unit. Players may build an army, navy or fort. Each unit causes the player to lose a population point, as citizens are in-scripted into the services. Population is usually very limited, meaning players do not have the ability to build huge military forces.
A unit is constructed in one’s home country, then immediately shipped to a foreign land. There are dangers, however, when shipping to overseas areas, which will be explained in a bit.
Some action tiles (militia, mercenaries, trained natives, press gangs) allow players to construct extra units each turn, but many do cost an extra population point. Ouch.
c) Move Two Units. For one action, a player may move two of his units already on the map. Movement within Europe is fairly easy, with a few restrictions dealing with where a player already has control or adjacency. Movement overseas, however, is a bit more risky.
In order to move a unit to the colonies, a player must first roll a die to see if the unit is able to complete the journey. Only a ‘1’ is dangerous, as that requires another roll, with a ‘1’ or ‘2’ resulting in the unit being lost at sea. A ‘3’ or ‘4’ on the second roll forces the unit to remain in its place of origin. Thus, the risk isn’t that great … but disaster can occur. In one of my games, I lost two units to the perils of the deep.
The other restriction involves the transportation of an army unit overseas. A player must have a ship present in the area where he wishes to transport the army unit.
d) Attack. Attacking is the only way to expel foreign troops, or place or replace a control marker. Attacking is often a two-step process, and requires the expenditure of two gold pieces.
Before combat begins, both players may call for assistance from their allies, provided those allies have military units present in the area. Usually, calls for alliance result in bribes being offered in order to entice the wary … and greedy … allies into the fray. The danger for allies is that they incur any military losses in the ensuing conflict. Thus, extortion usually occurs before anyone comes to the aid of a beleaguered ally.
First, if both players have naval units present in the area, a naval battle must occur. The victor of that battle will have naval supremacy in the ensuing land combat, which equates to a +1 modifier when rolling the dice. Either opponent may opt to not participate in the naval conflict and automatically cede naval supremacy to his opponent.
The combat procedure is fairly simple. If fighting an active player, each player tallies the number of army units present in the area. The player who has naval supremacy receives a +1 modifier. Further, the player who possesses the most “Army Training” tiles receives an additional +1 modifier. Finally, if the defender has a fort present, he receives a +2 modifier.
Both opponents then roll two dice and add the DIFFERENCE between their dice to their combat total. High value wins. For example, if Keith had 2 army units and a fort in an area, and had the most Army Training tiles, his base value is ‘5’ (2 + 2 (fort) + 1 (army training) = 5). If Keith rolls a “2” and a “5”, he adds ‘3’ to this amount, giving him a total of ‘8’. Jim’s total must be higher than ‘8’ if he is to win this battle.
The losing player must remove one of his army units and he receives an unrest marker, as the population back-at-home doesn’t take too kindly to military defeats. Further, the victor gets to replace on of the vanquished opponent’s control markers with his own. Since control is the name of the game, this is critical.
If the result was a tie, both players lose an army unit and must take an unrest marker. No control markers are replaced. Further, if any or both players dice roll totals ‘7’, they lose an additional army unit and take an additional unrest token. Since ‘7’ is the most common roll on two dice, this is a frequent occurrence, causing the players unrest tokens to creep steadily upwards.
Combat against the neutral country counters is held in a similar fashion, with the exception that no players can form an alliance with the neutral country. The neutral country’s defense strength is listed on its counter.
e) Colonization / Enslavement. Here is the controversial part of the game. Some neutral country counters will have the word “pop” or “slave” listed on it. No problem with “pop”, as players may simply replace one of these counters with their own control marker by losing a point of population. The controversy erupted over the “slave” counters.
A player may convert a “slave” neutral country counter into one of his own control markers IF he has a ship present in Africa. There is no loss of population due to this action. The simulation, of course, is the shipping of slaves from Africa into the region. There is no escaping that this was a historical fact and a major aspect of colonial policy for many European powers. The game system in no way glorifies or condones slavery. However, it includes it since it was a vital aspect of this time period and the colonization process. Some folks have taken exception to the inclusion of slavery into the game system. It is certainly there right not to purchase or play the game. Personally, I think omitting the subject would have been a more grievous affront, and the matter is treated here in a very inoffensive manner.
f) Pass. Do nothing. Sometimes, a player will execute this option if he has previously selected a tile and does not wish to perform any of the other actions.
4. Income and Maintenance. After all players have performed – two-at-a-time – their two actions, player will then receive income based upon the number of control markers they have on the board, one gold piece for each marker. However, they then must pay one gold piece for maintenance for each military unit they possess on the board. Many times, a player’s large army will require more upkeep than the income a player’s possessions are generating. That, of course, leads to unrest.
Finally, each player restores five points of population. The only other way to acquire new population is by securing a “Improved Agriculture” tile, which gives the player one new population point each turn.
5. Victory Points. Players then tally their victory points, examining each country and earning points as indicated on the board and described above. Certain areas are more valuable than others (German States, Central Europe and Mediterranean), but it is critical to secure a strong control presence in as many areas as possible. This aspect of the game is kin to many other ‘majority control’ games, but all of the surrounding features elevate it above most of its brethren.
There are a few other methods by which players can earn victory points during the course of the game. Some neutral country counters grant a victory point when defeated, and the ‘Industry’ tiles award three victory points, but at the cost of two population points and two unrest markers.
6. End of War. This is the “clean-up” phase. Players return any “alliance” tiles, which are temporary, to the available stock, and the formal alliances between the players are dissolved. The same procedure detailed above is conducted for Wars 2 & 3, after which point the game ends with a final accounting.
After victory points are earned following the third war, players reveal the unrest counters they have acquired during the course of the game. If any player has 20 or more points of unrest, his country collapses in revolution and that player is out of contention for the victory. The player with the most unrest loses 7 victory points, while the player with the second-most unrest loses 4 victory points. After these deductions, the player with the most victory points is declared the victor.
Wow! What a game! In all of my matches, I have been completely and thoroughly enamored. This is a very rich, and very deep game, with loads of strategic options and difficult choices. Every action seems critical and often has profound impact upon the options and actions of one’s opponents. However, an early misstep is not fatal, as each player has 30 actions in a typical game.
Although Wallace does borrow some ideas from other games, including several of his own titles, the alliance mechanism seems highly original. The struggle to maneuver certain players into alliance status, while slotting others into the opposition faction, is a vital aspect of the game and often evokes quite a bit of diplomatic discussions and tense atmosphere. It helps gives the game a boost to a higher level.
Problems? Perhaps, but it really depends upon the individual gamers’ tastes. A full game will take nearly four hours to play to completion, perhaps a bit more with seven players. I certainly don’t mind such length, particularly when the game in question is engaging and challenging. Struggle of Empires is certainly in that category. Folks accustomed to traditional German-style games, however, may balk at this time frame.
Another possible bone of contention with some folks will be the downtime between turns. Since there are so many action tiles to consider, and so many strategic options to ponder, players will often take several minutes or more on each of their turns. One of our players … and the only one out of nine different people with whom I’ve played to rate the game poorly … cited this downtime as the primary reason for his poor rating. This downtime doesn’t bother me, however, as I am keenly interested in the actions of my opponents as it usually has a direct impact upon my subsequent actions and overall strategy. Apparently it didn’t bother the rest of the players, either, as all of the remaining ratings were 8.5 or higher.
Aside from these two very subjective factors, the game is very tightly constructed and appears to have been thoroughly play- tested. In what is quite likely a first for the Warfrog crew, the rules are concise and easy to understand with few, if any, ambiguities. Martin and his crew have constructed a mighty fine game here, one that will have great appeal to those folks who enjoy sinking their teeth into meatier fare.