Friday, 2 October 2009

Struggle of Empires

Date: Wed 23 Sep 2009
Venue: Carcasean boardgame cafe

I bought Struggle of Empires in 2004, in Taiwan. This was my first time playing it (almost 5 years), and it was not even my copy. But I'm happy that I finally got to try it. This is a multiplayer conflict game, so it needs more players to be good. And it needs players who don't mind some conflict. I seldom have this combination, thus why the game has been unplayed for so long.

We played a 4-player game - Han, Shankaran, Chong Sean and I. I'd like to play it with 5 or more (the game supports 3 to 7 players), but it turns out that 4P is quite fun too. The backdrop of Struggle of Empires is the age of colonialism. Players are European countries competing to exert influence on other minor European powers or on distant colonies. The game is very much an area majority game. Each of the 11 regions where you can exert influence awards points to the countries having the most influence in the region. There are many ways to exert influence, population migration and shipping slaves, but most of the time, you need to fight - either the local powers, or other foreign powers. So, you build troops (navies, armies or forts), you move troops, and you fight.

So far, it still sounds a little bland. Where a lot of flavour comes in is the tiles. The game comes with a LOT of tiles, which provide special abilities. Some have one-time effects, some have ongoing effects. Some have very quirky effects. They add a lot of character to the game. What kind of country do you want to run? Which tiles would benefit you the most? There is a random set-up at the start of every game, which makes things variable. Each country will have some influence already established in some regions. At the start of each of the three wars that make up the game, there will be 10 tokens placed randomly. These are opportunities for the players to exert influence on the regions. So there is quite some variability in the game.

How scoring is done is a little unusual compared to other area majority games. Each region has 2 or 3 numbers, e.g. Central Europe is 6/4/2. The players with the most influence all get 6pts. The players with the next most influence all get 4pts. In the case of ties, everyone gets awarded the same higher score. So you just want to be one of the players with the most influence. There is less incentive to reduce the influence of other players. Gaining more points for yourself seems to be a more efficient use of your actions than trying to make others earn less points. This scoring system also seems to encourage players to have some influence in many regions, rather than having heavy influence in a few regions.

Combat resolution reminds me a little of Perikles. There is a navy support phase followed by the main combat. It is quite straight-forward. It uses dice, so there is some luck. Not as much as Risk, but still you need to be prepared for some bad luck to strike. Your basic strength come from your units and the effect of your tiles. Then you add the result of rolling two dice and taking the difference (i.e. die roll result ranges from 0 to 5).

Money is tight. It is mainly used for fighting battles ($2 each). War is expensive. There is a concept of unrest. Every time you are short of money you can take $2 from the bank at the cost of 1 unrest point. Every time a unit dies you take 1 unrest point. At game end, you lost immediately if you have too much unrest. You also lost points for having the most or second most unrest. So you need to be careful about unrest.

One interesting part of the game is the alliance system. For each of the 3 wars that make up the game, you go through an auction process to set up two alliances. Players in the same alliances are not allowed to fight each other. So if you want to attack a person, you need to make sure he's in the enemy alliance. If you want to prevent another player from attacking you, try to force him into the same alliance as you.

The many tiles that are available in the game. And these are not all. At this point some of the tiles had already been claimed by some of us. The coloured (i.e. non light grey and non dark grey) tiles are region specific. Some provide extra income if you have influence markers in those regions. Some provide extra strength when you fight in those regions.

Top row: armies, navies, a fort, $1 coins, control markers. Bottom row: tiles. The black triangle icon means you can use this tile once per war. The number in the red circle is the cost you have to pay when you claim the tile. Alliance tiles (with an A in a white circle) are effective only for the current war an must be returned to the general supply at the end of the current war.

Unrest tokens (at the top) should be hidden from other players. In our game we liked to take the Reserves tile, which allows you to reroll all dice during a battle. I found it quite useful.

In our game, as expected, most of us started off attacking the neutral tokens, before attacking one another. We also tried to grab as many useful tiles as possible early in the game, so that we could benefit more from them. Chong Sean took a Euro-efficiency-peaceful approach, exerting influence as widely as possible at the most lucrative areas, while minimising conflict. Han took a more aggressive approach. Shankaran and I were probably somewhere in between, but maybe tending more towards the war-mongering side. Most of our fighting took place in Europe, some in North and Central America. Other colonies were quite peaceful. The Ottoman Empire was pretty much left alone throughout the game. No one wanted to fight the locals (i.e. the square tokens) who were strong, and they also cost you an unrest point.

By the end of the 2nd war, Chong Sean was the clear leader, followed by Han. So during the alliance phase of the 3rd and last war, we (i.e. the rest of the losers) conspired to place Chong Sean in a difference alliance from Han (2nd place) and I (3rd place), so that both of us could attack him. We did so mercilessly, even though Chong Sean has been a nice guy. He lost much influence in the 3rd war. At the start of the 3rd war, Shankaran and I started taking Reform tiles to help us get rid of unrest points. These are the only way to get rid of unrest. Chong Sean and Han didn't do this as much, and by game end they had the most and 2nd most unrest, costing them 7pts and 4pts respectively. However this penalty didn't cause any change in position. Chong Sean won the game, albeit with a smaller margin. Our scores were close.

The game board. This was in the middle of the first war. The alliance table is at the bottom left. In this war, I (green/Russia) was the start player, followed by Han (yellow/Spain), then Shankaran (blue/France), then Chong Sean (red/Britain). Shankaran (blue) and I (green) were in the same alliance, and Han (yellow) and Chong Sean (red) in the other.

Middle of the second war. Same alliances, just minor change in turn order. Things were heating up at the German States, Mediterranean (Italy) and Baltic states.

Start of the third war, just after the 10 random square tokens were drawn and placed, and before we started the auction for alliances. At this stage both Shankaran (blue) and I (green) have been kicked out of the German States and Central Europe.

End of the third war, before scoring was done. Han (yellow) had greatly reduced Chong Sean's (red) influence in Central Europe and the German States, however it wasn't enough to keep Chong Sean from winning.

Struggle of Empires feels more like a wargame to me than an area majority game, because there is a lot of fighting you need to do. Mechanic-wise it probably should be considered an area majority game, since most of the scoring revolves around establishing influence in the 11 regions. Maybe the theme left more of an impression on me than the mechanics, which I think is a good thing.

I was pleasantly surprised that the game plays quite well even with only 4 players. I was initially worried there may not be enough competition.

The number of tiles, and their special abilities are quite daunting. You have much freedom to shape your strategy. But this is definitely not a game for casual players. I think I probably spent as much time trying to explain the tiles as explaining the rest of the rules. I imagine this would be a turn-off for non-gamers. Also this is not a game for those who don't like conflict in their games. In Struggle of Empires, you will fight.

I enjoyed the game, and I'm keen to find out how it plays with the full complement of 7 players. Ooh... that's going to be brutal.


Han said...

The alliance system will be more fun & important with odd players.

The mark of a good game is that it make you think about it long after the game is finished. And i have been thinking that: What other strategy can i try? What tiles should i choose for my next game? What else i could have done to bring down the leader (Chong Sean) in the game? (make use of Pirates & Revolt tile to attack a lot of his region with only one control marker but claiming lots of point, don't take Reform tiles (-2 unrest) but keep on attacking)

I like the game. Actions are limited, that's why tiles that provide free action are very valuable.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Yes, I think there is much more to explore in Struggle of Empires, especially the combination of tiles to use. There are many we haven't tried. The random starting distribution of square markers and starting influence should also make each game different and keep things fresh.

nijoos said...

How long did it take?

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I think slightly less than 2 hours, excluding rules explanation. This was the first time for all 4 of us.

nijoos said...

Wow, that's quick. I've heard good things about the game but always veered away because of the perceived length. Looks like I got to take a closer look at it again.

wankongyew said...

Wow, our game took closer to 4 hours, though we had six players and that includes rules explanation time. My wife commented to me later that the rules seem really simple, but I think that this is still quite a cerebral game. I could spend ages thinking about possible ramifications of different moves, especially in the alliance auction phase and my wife already complains that I play too slowly.

The free action tiles seem a bit unbalanced to me though. Why have tiles that are so far and away superior to the rest that taking any one of them is a no-brainer?

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I think it's fine that some tiles are better than others. I think there are quite many free-action tiles, so I guess the tension is in which one to go for before they are all grabbed. Also the random set-up at the start of the game will probably make some tiles more valuable to one player than another.