Friday, 28 January 2011

Inca Empire

The Game

Inca Empire was first published in 2004 by a small publisher Hangman Games, as Tahuantinsuyu, and even back then it had caught my interest, and I could spell the name without needing to double-check. However it was not widely available and thus expensive to buy, so I never managed to try it. Now Z-Man Games has published a new version with much improved components.

The game is about the rise of the Incan Empire. Players are regional rulers who compete to contribute most to the expansion and development of the empire in order to impress the divine emperor. You build roads, you explore and conquer new territories, and you build cities, garrisons, temples and terraces (farms). You start with some manpower (which is the only currency in the game), and you use it to conquer new territories and to build all sorts of stuff. Conquering new territories give you a long-term supply of manpower and also one-off victory points. New territories also provide suitable sites for new cities or garrisons. When you build something, you gain some one-off victory points, but every time a scoring round comes about, you score again for these buildings. You also score for buildings that your road network is connected to, which means you should try to link your network to buildings constructed by other players. They will certainly try to do the same to leech off your hard work. Network building is a very key part of the game. You try to block your opponents as much as possible, and you need to plan your own expansion well. Usually it's difficult to completely block off others. More often the question is prioritisation - how much effort do you want to spend and in which direction do you want to spend it.

Constructing buildings for the one-off victory points is good, because only you will earn it. You try to delay others from connecting to "your" building for as long as possible, so that you monopolise it for as long as possible. You try to build at locations inconvenient to others.

Early in the game, all players start from the Incan capital of Cuzco. Round discs which have been turned face-up are territories available to be conquered.

Top row: roads, labour tokens that have been conquered from the game board (big number is resistance level, silhouettes are labourers provided every phase, and small number is victory points), and player order marker. Bottom row: Card back of event cards, reference card showing the cost of each building and victory points awarded.

The other key aspect of the game is the event cards. Some are good and some are bad, and you play them on a pair of players, which can include yourself. This is quite unique. The event cards break or change some rules, or provide some bonuses. Some of them can have big impacts if used under the right situations. Wilderness Roads is one very useful card, because it lets you build roads without having to adhere to the pre-determined paths on the board. Rural Unrest can be devastating because it removes all roads in unconquered territories.

Event cards mat. Each card affects two players, whose colours border the quadrant that the card is played in. Only icons are used on the cards, but after one game you'll remember what they mean.

This is the timeline in the game. You just move the black token along the tracks and it'll tell you what to do.

The game has some catch-up rules that help lagging players and penalise leading players. They may feel a little artificial, but I think they are alright. It's an interesting aspect that you need to consider. E.g. when playing event cards, the last player goes first, so the leading player will have no choice in which pair of players to play a card on.

The Play

Jeff, Kevin, Jimmy and I did a four-player game at Old Town Kopitiam, Cheras, on Thaipusam (20 Jan 2011). The game supports 3 or 4 players, and I think 4-players is the ideal number. At first we were a little confused by the rules about placing roads in unconquered regions (my fault, since I was the rules teacher), but thankfully we managed to clear that up and didn't have to do much undo-ing. In the early game we all went for conquest, to secure sources of manpower. That's normal I think. You do need a strong manpower base for all the building that you are going to do for the rest of the game. However we soon found that we had a glut of surplus manpower. Every few rounds some surplus is discarded, which means you better use your labourers to build something expensive and profitable before they go home for holidays.

Thus the construction boom started, and the network building too. Every turn you can build 2 roads for free, and normally you will always want to do that, sometimes even spending your normal action to build extra roads. We tried to spread out our networks as much as possible, often going in opposite directions from where our starting locations were pointing towards, because we wanted to leech off the buildings built by others. So we never quite built to the edges of the map, and there were many buildings that 3 or even all 4 of us were connected to. The network building aspect was quite temptress-like. I felt like I could almost connect to every single important building, and yet throughout the game I never quite got there. So close, yet never actually achieved; often because someone had just built yet another new thing again which was slightly out of the way. So I had to prioritise. Which sites should I try to connect to, that would cost me the least effort and give me the most gain?

Close-up. Blue marker = city, orange marker = garrison. Cities cost more labourers to build and are worth more points. There is one error in this photo. That brown road in the middle, being a Wilderness Road, should not have been allowed because it crossed a regional border.

The score markers are cute little Incans.

The event cards were an important part of the game. The effects were cumulative and were only reset during a scoring round. There were quite many different cards and we had to refer to the rules quite frequently at first, but after one game the icons on the cards were sufficient to remind us what they do. Inca Empire has a rein-in-the-leader mechanism in the event cards. The trailing player gets to play cards first, and often wants to play a card that penalises the leader, unless he has a card that rewards himself generously. So the leader will have to be prepared for this. I'm not sure yet whether it's worthwhile to make an effort to avoid being the leader. The effects of leader-handicapping seem to be less severe than Power Grid.

Kevin was leading from the early game, and Jimmy in 2nd place most of the first half of the game, while Jeff and I struggled rather far behind. Kevin was the target of bad event cards quite a fair bit, and Jimmy too. As we entered the second half, I jumped ahead to become the leader, and also took over the role of big-red-juicy-target. There was once when I was the victim of two "one fewer road" cards, i.e. I couldn't build any road unless I took the "build extra road" action. As the game progressed, the points gained at each scoring round accelerated. We scored less than 10pts in the early game, but around 50pts towards game end.

Before we entered the final phase, I suggested that we add the Pizarro variant, because I needed to leave soon. This variant is simple and only randomised the game end, making it possibly shorter. A check is done after each of the last four action rounds to determine whether the game ends. It turned out that our game went the full length anyway, so I couldn't leave earlier anyway. However I did enjoy the variant. The uncertainty added some tension and excitement. Actually it also cost me the game. In the final phase, Jimmy had a good Pilgrimage event card (and we couldn't remember whether he played it on himself or someone else did) which allowed him to earn 7pts in lieu of building something as long as he was connected to a temple in a particular region. He made use of that 3 times, which gained him 21pts. If the game had ended earlier, he might not have overtaken me.

Look at how the networks developed. I (green) started in the southern quadrant of Cuzco but expanded more northwards than southwards. All the others went further south than I did. Jimmy (brown) started in the western quadrant and expanded both north and south. His road network was primarily on the western side of the map. Kevin (blue) started in the northen quadrant. He expanded widely in the north, and also stretched down towards the south along the eastern side of the map. Jeff (orange) started in the eastern quadrant, and mostly expanded south.

The yellow cubes are temples. Normally they can only be built in (blue) cities.

The Thoughts

I would say the three main aspects that define Inca Empire are (a) the construction of buildings for the empire for the one-off points, (b) the development of your own network for those recurring scoring rounds, and (c) the event cards. The game is almost fully open-information, the only exception being the three event cards in each player's hand. However after one game you'll know what to look out for. Due to the open-information nature, there is a risk that players may spend too long thinking about their moves. It's best to plan ahead while others are taking their turns, perhaps thinking of several possible moves before your turn comes around, so that in case some moves are prevented by others, you can still quickly pick the next best move.

The game may feel a little scripted, because in the early game you will be fighting for manpower, and you will be conquering new territories. Also the sites for cities and garrisons are fixed. So are the sites for the powerful Pilgrimage event cards. However I feel these are just general directions that the game sets, and there is still a lot of freedom and opportunities for smart play within this framework.

The game is very rewarding. You really need a strategic view of how you want to grow your road network. It is also quite interactive, because you want to block your opponents whenever you can, and you are racing to the building sites. There are many things you can do, and you are forced to prioritise. This aspect reminds me a little of Through the Desert. You need to balance between spending effort on construction (for those one-off points) and spending effort on connecting to buildings constructed by others (for the continuous stream of points). You need to judge when to stop getting more manpower and start spending it. You need to decide between playing good event cards on yourself and playing bad event cards on others. If it's a good card, which other opponent should you help? Do you play a not-so-great card on yourself to prevent others from playing a very-bad card on you?

There is a fair bit to think about, but every turn is simple, which keeps the game moving at a brisk pace. Every turn is just build two roads, and build one thing. That's all there is to building an empire - one step at a time.

No comments: