Just a quick update on my post regarding Rise of Empires. Chris, Mike, and myself got in a three player game on Tuesday, so I have a better sense of how long the game takes with three. The answer: about two and a half hours with one player new to the game (although Chris does extremely well in absorbing rules for games, especially Wallace titles). I would venture so far to say that you could play in two hours with three players if you were motivated and experienced (in this case, knowing what the progression tiles do and the city schedule).
Play definitely felt like you had more control, although I found myself having to take "useless" actions in the third era because there were no territory tiles remaining (you ditch any leftover tiles at the end of each turn, unlike the 4-5 player version), in one case having three (!) Trade actions of which I was able to use exactly one to my benefit.
I found that I was able to change strategies to a certain extent in mid-game, which was reassuring. At the start of the second era, I decided that there was too much competition for the Empire tiles and map placement, and made a conscious decision to limit my involvement on the map to one late-turn placement (something that would have been a lot harder with four or five, as we never ran out of Empire tiles, just global actions, six per turn with three players). Instead, I took steam pumps, went heavy on prairie territories, and also bought as many cities as I could. This strategy paid off, as I was scoring in the mid-30's in Era 3, 20 of it with cities (and TV) alone. By focusing on specific spaces on the board, I was able to generate another 15 or so VP per turn. In the end, I managed to keep ahead of Chris those last two turns while Mike stalled out after not keeping his cities around.
I don't know that this strategy would work as well in a game with more players, especially grabbing those last second board areas. Competition for cities would be more difficult as well - I got the sense that people weren't thinking in terms of cities, although that will change. Cities may cost you more in food or resources (and cubes at the end of eras), but no one can steal them from you and you can mitigate the food problem through Prairies. It was a good strategy, and generates resources (if you have steam pumps) that you can use to get gold or more VP. I'm looking forward to trying more strategies out.
BTW, I bought the game, ending my long boycott of Phalanx. That said, I will still avoid their games as impulse buys, and definitely won't purchase one unless I've gotten a chance to play the game and look through the rules as I play. However, this game is a definite step up for them in terms of rules clarity, and I hope that this was a conscious decision on their part.
I expect that I'll get in a four player game over the long weekend in Eugene at EGG. I'll keep notes on the weekend and will blog on Sunday or Monday. Wish me luck!