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Awards

Rating

  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You Might Like

  • Simple rules that anyone can pick up
  • Games are generally under an hour even at higher player counts
  • Beautiful art and high production values
  • Surprisingly engaging and tactical at times
  • Despite combat-heavy turns, the gameplay is neither mean nor unfair

Might Not Like

  • Low player interaction
  • The differences between Civilisations are very slight. Thematically weak
  • High degree of randomness may put off some gamers
  • The lack of choice between Civilisations at lower player count
  • Not a lot of variety in replays

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First Empires Review

First Empires Review

Board games about conquest and world domination are not exactly in short supply. Games such as Diplomacy and Dune have been around for decades and earned a reputation as intimidating and unapproachable for newcomers to the hobby. Often characterised by punishingly long play times and ruthless tactics, they are by definition “Marmite” games- as divisive as they are popular. They seem to ask one question of the prospective player: Are you a SERIOUS gamer? To which my answer is a resounding, “No, not really”. So I for one was excited to try First Empires, which attempts to offer a much lighter, quicker take on the genre.

On the surface, it may appear to have little in common with the big bruisers of board gaming but essentially, it’s still about world domination and sneaking into your opponents’ manor to steal their stuff. So in an arena dominated by heavyweights armed with impenetrable rules and backstabbing tactical powerplays allow me to introduce the featherweight contender. First Empires arrives on the field with its pastel meeples and no-kills combat like a toddler with a Super-soaker. Prepare for the charm offensive!

Set Up

First Empires, only the second game from Sandcastle Games,  is played over 8 rounds or 7 rounds in the five-player game. Players take control of an Ancient Civilisation and their corresponding coloured meeples, tokens and double-layered player board. On each of these boards are 5 coloured progression tracks which will increase the players’ abilities over the game and also earn higher victory points at the end.

Each Empire starts slightly stronger in one of these key areas at the beginning, although to call them Asymmetrical factions would be stretching the term somewhat. It can subtly influence a player’s tactics at the start of the game, but the differences between Civilisations are very slight. Players also have their own deck of nine Objective cards which again vary slightly between civilisations. These offer victory points for completing objectives, usually related to control of areas on the main board, or can be discarded during the game to improve your dice rolls in crucial turns.

An Old/ New World

The main board is a compact map of the world geographically identical to our own. However, First Empires is set in a uchronic version of reality (which according to Google means “alternative history”, fact fans) where Ancient Civilisations from around the world continued to prosper and expand rather than falling to colonialism and aggression of the early European powers. It adds a nice touch of flavour and diversity to the art and theme which is still sadly lacking often in many games. The board shows different regions with colours corresponding to the different powers on the players’ progress tracks. It’s also double-sided, with an even more constricted map for the two-player game.

Players start with a small number of their tiny, and frankly adorable, Explorer meeples and one of their 6 city tokens in their home region. Cities are each worth 1-3 hidden victory points and are added to the board automatically throughout the game as players reach set points on their progress tracks. These can then be captured by opponents or, if they remain to the end of the game, will be scored for the home player.

Round Actions

Each round in First Empires is a pretty speedy affair. On a player’s turn, there are three phases carried out in a set order: Rolling dice, Movement & Conquest and Advancement.

At the start, players have 2 or 3 custom dice to roll but can gain more as the game progresses. The faces of each die have either coloured symbols, representing the regions on the board, or a sword. One of the progression tracks on the player boards will increase the number of dice thrown in this phase. Another track grants re-rolls allowing players to mitigate slightly against the whims of the dice gods. Once rolled, the dice themselves have no immediate effect but are used later either in conquest (if a sword is rolled) or in the Advancement phase.

During the movement phase, the active player can move their Explorers around the board to occupy the various coloured regions. Movement for players is again determined by a progression track on their boards, as is the number of Explorers they have present on the map, up to a maximum of ten.  Explorers can only move into free areas or those occupied by their forces. If they wish to move to regions occupied by another civilisation then this is considered a conquest action. Players’ pieces can’t coexist in the same territories. Like many cute, small people, explorers in First Empire aren’t good at sharing.

Play Fighting

In keeping with the rest of the game, combat in First Empires is quick and logical. The active player can usually move into an area only if it has more explorers than the defending player. However, if they have rolled any swords in the previous phase each of these counts as an additional explorer in combat. Hence, for example, one Green explorer could take over a region with two Orange Explorers if they had rolled two swords at the beginning of the round. After combat, the defeated Explorers are simply relocated to another of their occupied regions on the board. If at any time a player is reduced to only one region, that area cannot be attacked. Hence in First Empires, all combat is bloodless- once placed on the board, Explorers are in play for the rest of the game.

Movin’ On Up

The most important part of a player’s turn is the Advancement stage. In this phase, a player can move up on their progress tracks anywhere that they occupy a region that also matches one of the dice rolled earlier. Hence they will progress on the green track (which gives the player additional objective cards) if they have at least one of their explorers in a green region on the board and have rolled a green symbol on a die that turn. Players can progress up multiple tracks in a round, or even multiple steps on one track if they have sufficient dice and regions occupied.

Through advancement players will slowly increase their dice, rerolls, movement, objective cards or Explorers depending on their priorities and hopefully earn themselves enough victory points to win the game.

Rainbow Warriors

First Empires has to be one of the prettiest games I have played. Colourful, but not garish, the map and player boards are well thought out and the iconography is easy to understand. The rest of the components are just as high quality and show what a difference good graphic design can make in creating a game that feels inviting to play. And if you don’t give a little squeal when you see the tiny, coloured meeple Explorers for the first time then I won’t judge… but can’t help wondering who hurt you. The gameplay itself, though, is surprisingly assertive.

Aggressive play is needed to advance and earn points and players are heavily incentivised to explore, expand and basically be very bad neighbours. Play defensively and you will quickly get left behind. Yet gameplay never feels mean or unduly punishing. Because a civilisation can never be completely wiped off the board, Explorers are simply relocated rather than exterminated. As a result, Conquest is usually a minor setback and often presents an opportunity to explore further afield as retreating is not limited by your movement level.

Despite its simplicity, First Empires has far more depth than the cute aesthetics might initially suggest. A player will get a maximum of 8 turns in the game so action economy is a huge consideration if you want to win consistently. Decisions such as which tracks to focus on, and whether to score an objective card or use it to alter a crucial die roll need to be weighed carefully. And that map is not as even as it looks...  As with all the best games, hard choices have to be made every turn, and players will soon realise that simply trying to max out all your progression tracks without a plan is not a good enough strategy in the long term. There is a genuinely cunning game at the heart of First Empires and it will catch the unwary off guard.

Pastel Shade

Unfortunately, some definite weaknesses may deter gamers from buying First Empires. Firstly, the opportunity for negotiating, forming alliances, even ganging up for a quick game of “bash the leader”, is limited or extremely rare. In a game which is designed for five players, this lack of above-the-board interaction feels like an opportunity missed. Of course, this could be music to the ears of gamers, who dislike the duplicitous nature of most boardgame ‘diplomacy’, but it is a vital characteristic of the best area control games and its absence is felt.

Secondly, First Empires does not really work thematically. For all the flavour in the art, ultimately it feels like an abstract game, where there is little difference between civilisations. Even the abilities are purely mechanical. There is no technology or culture track here and no thematic justification for the different starting abilities or incentive to build a play style around them.  Having powers named after game mechanics such as re-rolls, extra cards and movement etc makes the game easier to understand and a more welcoming experience for new or casual players, but ultimately it feels very dry. Take away the adorable meeples (please don’t!) and this is a cube pusher, pure and simple.

Verdict: Anyone For A “Two X” Game?

So First Empires appears to be a beginner’s Four X game stripped of the more antisocial elements: all about the Explore and Expand, not so much with the Exploit and Exterminate. If this was intentional then I’m not sure it succeeds as there are games that do everything it does better. If you want a beautiful area control game with less focus on combat, Inis has got you. If you want a quick, tactical abstract game, heavy on strategy and light on theme, then The King is Dead is hard to beat, especially at two-player.

But this misses the point of First Empires. While it may not end up on many players’ top ten lists, it has genuine appeal to a wide variety of players and is difficult not to like. It is light and fast to learn, so new players or casual gamers will quickly feel comfortable but it also has enough tactical depth to keep more serious gamers on their toes. Crucially, it’s short enough to play if you don’t have hours to spare or if you have friends who don’t play a lot of games and you want to wow them with something beautiful but not over complicated.

Honestly, the main reason I will keep First Empires in my collection is that I know I will actually get opportunities to play it. So give First Empires a try. It is as engaging as it is charming and that is saying something.

Zatu Score

Rating

  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You might like

  • Simple rules that anyone can pick up
  • Games are generally under an hour even at higher player counts
  • Beautiful art and high production values
  • Surprisingly engaging and tactical at times
  • Despite combat-heavy turns, the gameplay is neither mean nor unfair

Might not like

  • Low player interaction
  • The differences between Civilisations are very slight. Thematically weak
  • High degree of randomness may put off some gamers
  • The lack of choice between Civilisations at lower player count
  • Not a lot of variety in replays

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