Published by WizKids in late 2017, Empires is a game of absolutely pure, unadulterated, unapologetic economic strategy. In a game of Empires, you compete with between one and nine (that’s right, NINE) other players to become the greatest empire the world has ever known.
Being the greatest empire on the table isn’t about money however, the empire with the most support from their people is the one that will ultimately claim victory. A game that can be played between two and 10 players might seem like madness, with the upper player count normally reserved for party games and the odd chaotic round of Avalon, but luckily Empires has a few unexpected tricks up its sleeve.
What's in the Box?
When you open the box and peruse its contents, the first thing that will strike you is the simplicity of the components. This will appeal to some gamers and not to others, it’ll be down to personal preference. The components are broadly split into two categories, generic pieces that all players will share, and items specific to each of the 10 (yes, TEN) playable factions.
Firstly, there are enough meeples in the box to run a Carcassonne world championship, and you’re going to need them to keep your empire running smoothly. There are green territory tiles which you will use to keep your meeples hard at work. There are brown goods tiles for you to produce luxuries for your people, and red bond tiles for you to borrow cash to keep your imperial machine running.
There is a deck of supporter cards and a deck of revolt cards which are used for scoring. There is also a large number of coins in the box that players will accumulate and spend throughout the game. My only complaint about the component quality is that the coins don’t have the heft of metal, but that’s down to personal preference and Empires certainly isn’t unique in having cardboard coins (looking at you, 7 Wonders Duel).
The artwork of the generic components is simplistic, but it suits the theme of the game. Where the design truly shines though is in the faction specific components. Each faction has its own small deck of cards to use in the game, as well as a reference sheet for its starting resources and a faction token.
Each of these components feels very suited to each of the empires that you will be playing as, for example Great Britain is decked out in a red, white and blue design whilst the Ottomans are resplendent in green with star and crescent. Others, like France, Sweden and Russia, are similarly suited to their historic look and feel.
Quite a lot of research was clearly done in making each of the faction’s coat of arms, identifying artwork and card design consistent. It’s also worth noting that the only “board” in this board game is the market tracker, this isn’t a game, even at 10 players, that will take up too much of your table space.
Each of the 10 factions available to play in Empires has its own unique ability, which to a certain extent will dictate the flow of the game and how you will play. Players start by bidding for the faction they want, with players that choose the same faction penalised and forced to choose again.
In the first phase of Empires, the development phase, you will do a series of actions in a specific order, possibly the only part of the game which is restricted to following a set of highly specific actions. To start, each player must allocate meeples to their territory tiles. Each meeple will produce a goods tile, but if you have any unemployed meeple, you’re going to have a revolt on your hands!
After allocating meeples to land, they can then be allocated to goods tiles, and any that are will consume those goods and your people will praise you for your mastery of economics by giving you support cards. To win the game, it’s quite simple, have the most supporter cards (plus one point) and the least revolt cards (minus one point). Easy!
In the second phase of the game, the market phase, all players may try to offload any spare goods from the first round to the market for cash. In a mechanism that Adam Smith would be a particularly pleased with, the more goods that are sent to the market, the lower the amount of cash each player that contributed goods will receive. Crucially, players use their faction cards to secretly bid how many goods they will be selling on the market. If you’re desperate for cash you might be tempted to put all your spare goods onto the market, but perhaps the King of Sweden to your left has had the same idea and you will both receive very little from your sale.
The third phase of the game is the war phase, but this being a game of economics and strategy there is very little by way of actual fighting. Again, players may secretly bid how much money they wish to spend on a series of wars, each of which has powerful bonuses.
These wars are also thematically and historically appropriate, for example winning “The New World” war will give you new territory tiles and some new goods. “The Protestant Reformation” will give you new meeple and support (probably not from the Pope though). Once the war phase is over, each player collects their bonuses and the next development round begins.
Reading this description, you might be thinking; OK, so what sets this game apart from any other Euro-style economic engine-building game? Well, the golden rule is this: You may trade anything, at any time, with anyone, for any reason, with no binding agreements. Within a game like Empires, this is ultimately a stroke of genius and elevates it from a game that you may take off the shelf once and never play again to a game that will get you coming back for more every time.
There is a certain thrill to the freedom that Empires offers you through its stripped-down gameplay and free-trade mechanics, which is how the designers managed to pull off the seemingly ludicrous player count scaling. With a player group willing to wheel and deal their way to victory, Empires becomes a lot more interesting than the mechanics would suggest at face value.
Final Thoughts on Empires
I was lucky enough to be taught how to play Empires by one of the designers, Dave Stephenson, and learning from him gave a lot of insight into how he intended the game to be played and what he was trying to achieve with the overall game design.
I love the design of the faction specific components with their exciting historical flavours, but the generic components leave a little to be desired. Thematically, perhaps these were designed to be generic as they can be traded between players without care for where they are (and this is certainly in-keeping with colonial era disregard for national identity), but it would have been fun to have the names of provinces, or perhaps different varieties of “goods” so ubiquitous in Euro-style games just to spice up the theme a little.
As previously mentioned, each faction has its own special power, but also its own unique starting set of resources. With so many factions to choose from, it’s possible to get plenty of good playtime out of Empires before you even start to properly understand how to optimise your playstyle as a specific faction, and even when you do, the freedom to make deals whenever any player sees fit adds flexibility to the way in which you might play. Doubling down on limiting the gameplay elements governed by rules was a smart move, making way for the element in which the game really shines, the negotiations with your fellow players.
Empires is a game specifically designed to get players interacting with each other in every way possible, this is no solitary effort like Terraforming Mars or even Puerto Rico, the freedom to negotiate and strategise to win the game necessarily means that you have to take every opportunity to barter with other players. Any player who does not do so is going to miss the fun of the game entirely.
This is where my main criticism of Empires lies, the majority of players need to be invested in the bartering element of the game otherwise it’s just a generic Euro-slog to the finish. Another area of issue is that, although a lot of work has gone into balancing the faction powers, some factions are admittedly harder to play and win as. For some, you need to know the game very well in order to play well, or constantly look down at your cheat sheet to make sure you’re leveraging your faction ability every time you take a turn.
Overall, Empires gives you a rare experience for a 45-minute board game (although this scales slightly with player count), fervent discussion with your fellow players, very little downtime between turns, and a lot of replay-ability. The game is intended to be played in a certain way, and it can reduce the fun considerably if most players aren’t on board with this.
That said, if you get the right people round the table then this game is absolutely excellent, exciting and freewheeling in equal measures with a few little jokes for history buffs thrown in for good measure, like France starting with loads of debt, or Russia having huge amounts of land. The loose structure of Empires is both a strength, and a weakness, but get it right and you’ll come back to this game again and again.