Thursday, January 28, 2010

Getting A Rise From Empires

I've made no bones about my unhappiness with Phalanx Games in this blog, especially their heavy handedness in development that leaves tons of rules questions and broken games in their path. I nearly avoided buying Conflict of Heroes because they were the US distributor. When it was announced that Martin Wallace was going to be publishing a game through them, Rise of Empires, I knew that eventually the game would come up for play in my group, and I'd see whether or not Phalanx had actually published a "good" game instead of another "kit" that required enormous amounts of designer support (as opposed to publisher support, which has historically been terrible from Phalanx, at least if you ask questions in English as opposed to Dutch).

Tuesday night was the night. Mike had gotten a copy, being a Wallace fan, and so it was that Alex, Greg, the often elusive Mark (gone from our ranks for too long), Mike, and myself gave this game a shot. While we were unable to finish the game, I have to say that there's a good game here.

I am one of those people who feels that perhaps Mr. Wallace has been putting out too many games lately, possibly with the intent of refilling his bank accounts after his well-publicized (and polarizing) issues with FRED and Winsome Games. I liked Automobile, especially after the second playing, and I hear good things about Last Train to Cheesetown (Wensleydale) although my single play of that title didn't produce the sort of enthusiasm that the 'Geek has had for it, possibly because of the number of players being suboptimal. The rest, however, I could take or leave and nothing has encouraged me to sign up for Treefrog's "bundles" prepublication.

To be fair, Rise of Empires (RoE) looks like another exercise in transforming actions to various currencies which eventually become VP if you're playing it right. During your turn, you devote one of your six action discs onto a track that lets you do one of five actions:

  1. Placing cubes on a map that expands over the course of the game via selection of Empire tiles;
  2. Taking a Territory tile representing a specific type of terrain;
  3. Buying a City tile for Gold, or a Wonder tile for a variety of costs;
  4. Spending Resource discs for VP or Gold (Trading), and;
  5. Taking a Progression tile that has a special mutant power, ongoing income effect, or one-time use.
Whoopee. Sounds like a lot of other Wallace games, doesn't it? You can even be competitive without ever being involved with the board itself, just the tiles that you select. There are even three Eras that you play through, with a set distribution of City/Wonder tiles per turn and set Progression tiles for a given Era, which consists of two turns (six turns total in the game). Empire tiles are different in the first Era, but otherwise are always the same and always known quantities. Territories are fully randomized through the first two Eras, and will all be exposed or taken by the third Era. 

Yet it was a very interesting game for one reason. Eras each have two turns, the A turn and the B turn. When you choose an action in the A turn, you take one of your six action discs and put it on a track for that action, going left to right. The tracks can fill up as the game moves ahead, preventing additional actions (similar to Chicago Express, but with many more spots in the track), and this also allows the game to scale by having different limits for differing numbers of players. 

When it gets to the B turn, however, you now will take actions by taking your discs *off* of the tracks instead of putting them on. That means that if you never bought a city in the A turn, you won't be able to buy one in the B turn. If you Traded in A but are out of resource disks in the B turn, you are going to waste a cycle, and Wallace games are all about efficient cycles. This forces a long-term approach to the game that requires everyone to understand what is coming up in terms of Cities and Progressions and what they do. Like all Wallace games, this one will take a few plays before you fully understand your choices.

Throw in the ability to "pick" your position based on VP position (worst chooses player position first), and there is tremendous opportunity to control your fate over the course of a couple of turns and set up for a strong finish. You also can only keep Cities and Progressions at the end of an Era (not a turn) by spending cubes and gold, respectively. Don't have any gold, like I failed to do at the end of the second Era, and all of those great progressions are gone with the winds of time. You also lose half (rounded *up*) of your cubes in any given area between eras. Make no mistake, this is a game that requires a certain amount of forethought or you will find yourself completely stalled. If you've played Wallace games, though, you know that's nothing new.

In our game, things were very tight after the second Era (as far as we got in three hours of play - the game is rated for 150 minutes, but it clearly takes longer with more players and we had the max) with Mike the only breakout player but one who looked to be stalling on the next turn. I was able to keep all of my cities but not my progressions, and my cube count had gone from 15 the previous turn to 6 in the next turn. Alex was looking to make a strong run based on a very aggressive cube placement strategy. 

I will also note that the credits list only Uli Blennemann as a developer, along with another person whose name I wasn't familiar with. Perhaps Phalanx has finally figured out that messing with game design solely because you think you can do better (as opposed to development as a process to make the game marketable and clearer) is a poor choice. I sure hope so, as I don't see *any* point in *any* publisher thinking that the market isn't very aware of what makes a good game. 

I should also note that while I did *not* read the rules in depth, we only found one situation where things weren't clear (as to whether or not you could place cubes in areas you already had cubes in in the New World or Far East with a non-water Empire tile - you can, although North and South America aren't adjacent). I can't think of a Phalanx game that was that well laid out in terms of rules. Most have had a particularly important rule that was particularly vague with little or no support from the publisher (Revolution, Alex the Great, Italia, all come to mind). It's nice to see that they can put out a good English ruleset where poor support won't be an issue, although I certainly hope they've improved in that category as well.

And I have *some* hope in that respect. After making a comment about poor support on the 'Geek, I was emailed by someone claiming to be Phalanx's new support guy, who asked why I had had such a bad experience. I sent back my reasons and never heard from him again, but I hope that my concerns were addressed (although it is a cardinal sin in the support world not to at the very least acknowledge that you've heard their concerns and will take them into consideration). If RoE is any indication, I am *very* hopeful that I can lift my ban on buying Phalanx products. I will almost certainly purchase RoE but will continue to "try before I buy" with Phalanx titles until such time as I feel they understand that a shiny box isn't enough to drive sales over an extended period of time. Here's hoping. 

Otherwise, I was very impressed with the game, and recommend it, with the caveat that this is definitely a gamer's game and one that you can expect to take about 45-60 minutes per player, so a five-player game is going to take a long time. I think we could have gotten through the game in another hour or so, although there is potential for significant min/maxing throughout the game and particularly at game end. If those aren't issues for you and your group, it's a winner.

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