Empire's End box cover

Kickstarter Tabletop Alert: Burn It Down in ‘Empire’s End’

Gaming Kickstarter Reviews Tabletop Games

You’ve heard of civ-building games … but how about a civ-bashing game?

What Is Empire’s End?

Empire’s End is a tableau-building game for 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, and takes about 45–60 minutes to play. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $35 for a copy of the game. (There are some higher tiers available to add screen-printed tokens and wooden resource tokens.) The game’s theme is about the fall of empires, with disasters like drought, famine, and riots—serious issues but nothing that would prevent kids from playing (and they might even learn something!).

Empire’s End was designed by John D. Clair and published by Brotherwise Games, with illustrations by Kwanchai Moriya.

New to Kickstarter? Check out our crowdfunding primer.

Empire's End components
Empire’s End components. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Empire’s End Components

Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final component quality.

Here’s what will come in the game:

  • Game board
  • 44 Location tiles (11 per player)
  • 11 Conflict cards
  • 66 Disaster cards
  • 12 Exhaust markers
  • 4 Player screens
  • 4 Score markers
  • 8 Disaster tokens
  • First Player token
  • Turn Marker token
  • 120 Resource tokens:
    • 30 Wheat
    • 25 Axes
    • 25 Hammers
    • 20 Coins
Empire's End main board
The main board: a turn track and a score track. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The game board is double-sided, with one side for the 2-player game and the other for 3 or 4 players. It’s essentially a long track that shows the order that phases will be played, with a score track around the edge. The background is a bas-relief sculpture that goes from blue to red, a prowling lion near the beginning and a lion pierced by spears at the end.

Empire's End location tiles
Location tiles showing the healthy side (top) and destroyed side (bottom). (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The location tiles are tall, narrow tiles. Each player will have the same set of 11 tiles, depicting various locations like roads, farms, and towns. The tiles are double-sided: one side shows the healthy version, and the other shows the destroyed version, with everything in flames. My only complaint about these is that the two Army tiles have red artwork on the healthy side, which makes them look similar to a destroyed tile at a glance. Each tile has an ability at the bottom of the healthy side.

Empire's End disaster cards
Disaster cards show required resources on top to avoid the disaster, and an innovation at the bottom if you take the disaster. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The disaster cards are also long, skinny cards, similar to Space Base, another John D. Clair title, and as in that game, you’ll be tucking cards underneath, sometimes with multiple cards tucked under the same location. In Space Base, you tucked cards under a long board so it was mostly keeping the cards from shoving each other. Here, you tuck the cards under the location tiles, so it can get even more fiddly because you can accidentally shove a tile out of place while tucking a card, and sometimes you even rearrange tiles in the row, which means you have to move all the tucked cards along with them. I don’t know a better way to do this, but it can add an unintentional dexterity challenge to playing Empire’s End.

Empire's End player screens
Player screens double as player aids. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The player screens are used to hide your resources, and they show a city that is half-and-half healthy and burned. The insides of the screens serve as a player aid, indicating how various abilities work and which phases they activate. Because of the width of the tableau, it can be a little tricky to arrange things on the table: you want everyone to be able to see all the tableaus, but if you put your screen behind your tableau then it can get in the way of seeing your own. The resource tokens are simple tokens—I like how they lull you into a false sense of security with the 5-denomination tokens, as if it will be a common problem that you have so many of a resource that you’ll need to cash them in for the larger tokens. Ha ha ha.

The illustrations in the game are by Kwanchai Moriya. I particularly like the cover image with the overlap between a burning city and a vision of how it looked during its glory days. The game itself doesn’t have as many large illustrations inside other than the player screens.

How to Play Empire’s End

The Goal

The goal of the game is to score the most points by the end of the game by preserving locations, winning conflicts, and using innovations.

Empire's End 4-player setup
4-player setup. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Setup

Place the game board in the center, using the side corresponding to the player count, and place each player’s score marker at 0. Shuffle the conflict cards and the disaster cards to form separate decks, and place the remaining resource tokens in a supply. Deal 4 disaster cards to each player. Place the turn marker token on the Start space of the track, and give the first player marker to the person who most recently lit a fire.

Empire's End player setup
Player setup – the order of the tiles is randomized each game, though everyone starts with the same order. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Give each player a player screen, a set of 11 location tiles, 2 disaster tokens, and 2 of each resource (wheat, hammers, axes, and coins). Players should keep their resources behind their screens so they’re secret.

The first player should shuffle their location tile and place them in a row, with the healthy side face-up. All other players should line up their location tiles to match the same order.

Gameplay

The game progresses through a series of phases, marked on the turn track. Each phase, you advance the turn marker and then everyone plays that particular phase of the game. The majority of the phases, as you may expect from a game called Empire’s End, are disasters, but there are also economy, industry, and conflict phases.

Empire's End bidding to avoid disaster
Is it worth taking this disaster for 2 wheat, 2 axes, and a coin? (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Disaster Phase

For a disaster phase, draw the top card of the disaster deck and place it face-up in the center. The card has a number in the top corner—this is the location that is targeted, counting from left to right in your tableau. At the beginning of the game, everyone has the same order of tiles, but as locations get destroyed or rearranged, the disasters may affect different tiles for each player. Place a disaster token on the targeted tile so everyone can see at a glance what will be destroyed.

Each card indicates which resources can be spent to avoid the disaster (coins are wild and may be spent as any resource). Starting with the first player, each player must spend one of the designated resources, placing it next to the card, to “pass” the disaster to the next player, or else take the disaster card along with all the spent resources. There is an effect on some innovation cards that allow you to exhaust the ability (place a marker on it) in order to pass without spending a resource.

If you take the card, you must flip over the targeted location to its destroyed side. If the targeted location was already destroyed, you must flip over the closest healthy location. You then tuck the disaster card underneath one of your healthy locations, which adds an innovation to that location. Finally, you take the first player token.

In the 3- and 4-player game, there are some locations that are double disasters. In those instances, you draw 2 disaster cards, and players have to bid on both of them simultaneously. When it’s your turn, you can spend 2 resources to pass both, spend 1 resource to pass one and take the other one, or take both. The player who takes the second disaster card gains the first player marker.

Economy Phase

During the economy phase, everyone activates their green economy abilities. You may trigger abilities on healthy locations and on innovations attached to healthy locations. (Innovations that are attached to destroyed locations have no effect.) Economy abilities will generate resources, let you trade wheat for other resources, and refresh exhausted abilities. There are also some abilities that may give you points, sometimes based on what is adjacent to them. There is no turn order during an economy phase—everyone resolves their abilities as needed.

Industry Phase

During the industry phase, you will build or sell cards from your hand, repair one location, and triggering any industry abilities. These actions may be done in any order, and there is no player turn order.

You must build or sell two cards from your hand. You may discard a card to gain one coin, or you may spend a hammer to tuck a card as an innovation. (Note that some innovations have an additional hammer icon and cost 2 hammers to build.) When adding innovations to your empire, you must distribute them as evenly as possible among all of your healthy locations. When all of your healthy locations have the same number of cards, then you can start doubling up. After building or selling two cards, you must then either discard both of your remaining cards or keep both of them; then draw back up to a total of 4 cards.

To repair a destroyed location, spend the listed number of hammers and flip it back to the healthy side. You may only repair one location per industry phase.

Industry abilities include getting a 1-hammer discount on building an innovation or repairing locations, swapping two locations (along with all the attached innovations), and a few other effects.

Empire's End conflict cards
Conflict cards have a range of thresholds for scoring and varying rewards. (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Conflict Phase

For a conflict phase, reveal the top card of the conflict deck. Each player counts up the number of swords they currently have from healthy locations and innovations. Then, each player secretly adds axes or coins to their hand, and everyone reveals simultaneously. You add the tokens you spend to your swords for your total conflict strength.

The card has three thresholds: if you are below the lowest threshold, you will lose points. Otherwise, if you exceed the other thresholds you will gain points and resources. Finally, the player(s) with the highest conflict strength will gain additional bonus points and resources. Anyone who did not have the highest conflict strength suffers the “upheaval” effect, which will swap a particular location tile in their tableau.

All resources spent in a conflict are put in the supply.

In the 3- or 4-player game, there is one space that has a combined industry/economy phase. For that phase, each player may choose the order of the two phases, but they must complete one phase before starting the other.

Empire's End tableau
“Some men just want to watch the world burn.” (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Game End

The game ends when the turn marker reaches the end of the track. Players add the value of each healthy location to their score, and also trigger “End of Game” abilities on innovations that are attached to healthy locations. The player with the highest score wins, with ties going to the player closes to the first player (going clockwise).

Why You Should Play Empire’s End

Empire’s End is curious game with a fascinating theme. Instead of building a civilization, you’re witnessing its downfall, trying to manage the best you can while everything falls to pieces around you. The key to victory—if you can truly claim “victory” in a game where winning means your empire declined a little less than everyone else’s—is knowing how much to spend to avoid a disaster, and when it may be more profitable to let something burn. (Playing this in the past two weeks during Elon Musk’s reign at Twitter has felt particularly apropos.) 

When you begin the game, you have access to a few simple abilities: you generate one wheat, hammer, and axe every economy phase, you have some discounts for building innovations during an industry phase, and you have some armies for a conflict phase—same as everyone else. But that’s not going to be nearly enough to keep your empire afloat, given the ratio of disaster phases to economy and industry phases. What you need is some innovations!

You can build up to two innovations per industry phase (and if your towns are still healthy, those will be free)—but of course the primary way you’ll be getting innovations is by letting disasters hit you. You have to decide if the loss of points and ability for a location is worth the innovation and resources you gain. The bidding against disasters is where most of the player interaction comes from in Empire’s End: how much do you spend to pass? How long can you string the other players along for a disaster you’re planning to take? If the disaster will affect your army (low points, cheap to rebuild) but another player’s city (high score, expensive to rebuild), you can guess that they’ll probably spend more to avoid taking it, so it can be a good opportunity to amass a lot of resources … as long as you take the disaster at the right time. There have been many times when I got greedy and tried to send the disaster around the table one more time, hoping to gather a few more resources before I took it, only to have it snatched away by another player.

Some of the innovations trigger based on disasters. There are abilities that give you points or conflict strength if they’re adjacent to destroyed locations. There’s even an innovation that scores 13 points if you have the most destroyed locations at the end of the game. But getting them into place can be tricky, because if a destroyed location gets targeted, then it may hit that newly deployed innovation right next to it!

Empire's End turn track
Oh, look! Another double-disaster round! (Prototype shown) Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The drawback to Empire’s End is that, well, it feels bad. In a 4-player game, you’ll be facing 30 disasters over the course of the game, and you only get 5 economy phases and 4 industry phases. Remember, you can only repair one location per industry phase, so … you can do the math. It can feel pretty demoralizing to look at the turn track and realize that you’re going to be facing four more disasters with your meager pile of resources. Of course, this should come as no surprise: it’s right there in the title of the game. Still, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the pillaged city.

If you don’t mind a bit of doom and gloom, though, Empire’s End does a great job with its theme. Pressure and conflict breeds innovation, and you have to balance those opposites on a knife’s edge.

For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Empire’s End Kickstarter page!


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Disclosure: GeekDad received a prototype of this game for review purposes.

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