Video from the 2011 Kickstarter campaign for Empires of the Void
The set up for science fiction 4X video games is quite simple. A player starts with a galactic map, a single planet, and usually one colony ship — allowing the player to inhabit a second star system at the beginning of the game. From there the goal is simple: take over the galaxy by exploring new planets, expanding your empire, exploiting new resources, and exterminating the other players in the game — thus the name 4X gaming. While games like Starcraft offer a similar experience in a real-time strategy environment, older classic titles like the Masters of Orion franchise offered the same mission with turn-based strategy game play. Empires of the Void takes this turn-based strategy game into a tabletop gaming medium.
(Note: the game funded successfully last year on Kickstarter and is now available for purchase.)
The amount of effort, strategic prowess, and time it takes to play a tabletop game runs along a spectrum. At one end are the casual games like Zombie Dice or simple card games like FlowerFall. In the middle of the spectrum come games which reside in the sweet spot for family gaming. Here you find the vast majority of strategy game titles such as Ticket to Ride, Carcassone, Settlers of Catan, and Dominion. When everyone knows how to play, these games tend to run an hour or less and require a reasonable amount of decision making and planning. Then there are the games on the far end of the spectrum. These behemoths can take several hours to play, offer deep strategic thinking, and complex rules.
Empires of the Void belongs on that far end of the spectrum. With a play time at over two hours and a complexity which matches other high strategy games, this is a game for gamers who are looking for the chewy meaty goodness of an evening’s worth of entertainment in a single game. I played this game twice with newer gamers without being able to reach the first scoring round after two hours of game play. The third time, I still spent a number of minutes looking up rules and verifying how to handle certain situations, but, with the help of experienced GeekDad Jonathan Liu, we were able to finish a four person game (each of us with two players) in about two hours and twenty minutes. (That doesn’t count the fifteen minutes it takes to set up the board.) Now don’t misunderstand, I thoroughly enjoyed the game every time I played, even the times which I was not able to finish the game, but Empires is a game which requires a commitment.
When I first saw this game, I was both intrigued because of my love for the Masters of Orion franchise and skeptical because games which require tracking and using several types of information and large numbers of bits in order to play the game are often just better handled by a computer. On a board, the classic version of Risk can be a three hour game. On a computer, even with all human players, that is cut down to an hour or maybe a little more. The difference comes simply from the computer automatically calculating dice rolls, resolving battles, counting out bits, and physically moving pieces around the board with ease. Risk is a much better experience on a computer than it is on a table.
There is no way around it. Empires of the Void is fiddly and has lots of bits. It took nearly a half an hour to set up the first time and fifteen to twenty minutes subsequently. Not only do you have to organize all the various ships a player can acquire, but each player has their own tech tree to use, and all of these bits have to be organized at the start of the game as well.
The look of the game is well done. The art is quite good and fits the 4X theme nicely. On occasion, the look can overcome the game literacy a little, favoring nice big pictures of the player’s character or ships over clearer information on the card, and there is a ton of information which needs to be conveyed. But once a player figures out how to read the character card, it is a sensible enough source of information. The board can suffer a little in the same way. Some planets offer the ability to build special classes of ships, and it would have been helpful to have pictures of which planets offer new ship building capabilities rather than text. Jonathan and I compensated for this by placing the ships on the planets which allowed you to build them.
The game itself is played over a series of 11 rounds with the final score tallied at the end of the last round. Scoring takes place at the beginning of rounds 5, 9, and at the end of round 11. In this way, it is similar to Agricola in which the opportunities to re-position yourself for scoring come more quickly each time, and the number of scoring opportunities are much greater as your empire expands. Players score points for the planets they own, some technologies they have developed, and for their influence on the galactic council. Like all 4X games, the player starts out with a home planet a ship and a mission to try to control as much of the board as possible.
At the start of the game each player picks a character card which shows the race of alien they will be playing during the game. Like classic 4X games each race offers different advantages to the player; for instance one race builds technology more cheaply than the others, another gains points for taking over peaceful planets. The expansion of a player’s empire happens in two different ways. First, one can simply bomb a neutral or enemy planet into submission. This has the effect of giving you control of the points of that planet but does not let you control their special ability, like for instance the ability to build the most powerful ship on the board. The other option is to try to collect enough diplomacy cards to give you enough of a bonus which will allow you to make the planet your ally through a roll of the dice. This is a longer and more difficult process but also a more rewarding one as well, giving the player bonuses which remain as long as they control the planet, plus influence points for the galactic council.
The size of the board is set up so that, by the end of the game, players are inevitably in conflict with each other. This is not a Euro strategy game in which players build their empires alongside each other. This is a game in which players will attack each other directly in order to win. The combat system is set up so that attacks are not likely to eliminate a player from the game but they do allow planets to changes hands occasionally.
Ultimately, Empires of the Void is a game of risk management in which the dice determine much of what happens. There are a large number of options and decisions available to players which keep this from becoming a fatal flaw. However, like all dice-dependent games, a player who goes through a string of bad rolls is unlikely to recover and from my personal perspective this is much more tolerable in a game of an hour than when investing in a two-hour-plus game. However, for players willing to have a bad game now and then, Empires of the Void offers a great depth of strategic play, a fun system of combat, and a long learning curve. All of which give Empires of Void a great deal of replayability and enjoyment.
Empires of the Void brings the best of 4X gaming to the table top world. It successfully recreates the experience of exploring a galaxy, improving your abilities, and fighting against other players in a table top environment. Anyone who loves turn-based 4X video games should find a way to add this game to their tabletop collection.
A review copy was provided to the reviewer by Game Salute.