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[Review] Empyrean

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Joined: 03/23/2011

My first impression of Empyrean (Versal Technologies, 2004 - non credited) upon reading the rules was that it was a mix of Settlers of Catan and some kind of Rummy. This, joined with the space theme and extremely interesting artwork by the Foglio’s certainly piqued my interest. I wasn’t sure, however, if the mixing of different genres would make for a good or bad game and so was curious to see how it would work out.

After playing games of Empyrean, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a hit-or-miss type game. If you don’t like Rummy then you’ll probably not like this game either - the extra elements will be confusing. Those who can’t stand Settlers because of the luck, on the other hand, will probably find this game a bit more pleasing and strategic. Opinions in the games I played were quite varied, ranging from liking it to hating it; but all agreed it was an interesting game.

The game uses twelve different resources, divided into three categories, each category shuffled to form its own deck. The categories are Farm (Soybeans, Germplasms, Nutragoo, and Zeptoleles), Mine (Tritium, Water, Petroleon, and Anti-Matter), and Factory (Monoliths, Bemusotrons, Robots, and Hyperdrives). Each deck is shuffled and placed face down on the table, along with an Action Card deck. Each player is given one planet to start from (Earth, Pastoria, Rock, or Mecha) and places it face up in front of them. A pile of planet cards is shuffled and placed in the middle of the table. The quick reference card is given to a player to denote that they go first, and play is ready to begin.

Each turn is composed of six phases in which each player participates.
- 1.) Deal New Planet: The top planet card is turned over and placed in a “planet queue”. Only four planets may be in the queue; so if a fifth planet is added, the planet placed first is discarded.
- 2.) Production: Each player’s planets produce resources equal to the icons on the card. Home planets produce three resources, and other planets one or two. Players draw one card from the appropriate draw piles. (For example, a player who controls Earth takes one Farm, one Mine, and one Factory card, while a player who controls Rock and Spica VI gets three Mine and two Factory cards.) Any resource deck that runs out of cards has their discard pile flipped without shuffling to form a new draw deck.
- 3.) Commerce: During this phase, players can trade resources with one another, making any kind of exchange as long as they are honest and open with their dealings. Players can also purchase planets in the planet queue, paying resource cards from their hands to discard piles in exchange for the planet card. Each planet cost from three to four specific resources (for example: Achernar I costs 2 Zeptoleles and 2 Petroleon). If a player does not have the exact resources necessary, they can substitute three of any other resource in the place of one of the needed resources. They can alternatively substitute two of any other resource, but only if it’s from the same category of resources. Players may also buy the top action card from that deck. All of this trading and buying is done simultaneously if more than one player wants the same planet, the player who can play the fewest cards gets it; with ties broken by the player who has the reference card. Players can also buy the top action card from the deck by paying one of each type of resource. These cards (a player can have a maximum of four) can be played at any time (usually during this phase.)
- 4.) Lay down Cards: Players can lay down cards from their hands into “sets” on the board, if they wish. A set consists of seven of the eight cards of a particular resource. The player who has the reference card goes first, followed by the other players, choosing whether he will lay down any cards. A player must have at least one planet under their control for each set they have on the table and must start each set with three cards. After their initial laying of three cards, a player may add cards one at a time, and no other player may lay down cards of that resource. Once a player “corners” a resource (having a complete set of seven cards), they no longer have to pay that resource when claiming planets.
- 5.) Taxation: During this phase, the player with the smallest number of cards in their hand can steal one card at random from each other player who has at least two planets on the table. In case of a tie, nothing happens. The player who steals the card has a chance during this phase to lay cards down if they so wish.
- 6.) Pass the Reference Card: Pass it to the player on their left.

The next round then begins. This continues until one player has cornered a certain amount of resources (two resources for four players, three for three players, and four for two players.) The player who does this first is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: If I had first choice for light artwork in a game, it would be from Foglio studios. The artwork on the cards is fantastic, having a light, cartooned, futuristic feel with different artwork on all the planet and action cards and on each type of resource cards. The resource cards are also distinguished by type using both symbols and colors, making them easy to distinguish. All the cards are of good quality, and it’s pretty amazing how many cards are fit into the box. There’s a lot of game here, and all of it is packaged in a small card box jammed full with all the cards and rules.

2.) Rules: The rulebook is a small booklet of sixteen pages with a lot of rules included. Fortunately, the company has used the pages well, using illustrations and examples to explain the game, and mentioning many little details so that I never had a question that wasn’t answered by the rules. The game is on the medium level to teach. The concept of the game really isn’t that difficult, but with all the different mechanics, new players might get confused. Once the game is underway, however, everything runs fairly smoothly.

3.) Rummy: Laying down sets of cards in Empyrean is very similar to a Rummy game. However, the adding in of the mechanic of trading as well as the chaos of action cards greatly changes the game, mutating it more than any of the Mystery Rummy games. One person I taught the game to hated Rummy, and because of that he disliked this game. On the other hand, Rummy enthusiasts weren’t entirely pleased either, calling this game less “pure”. The folks in the middle, however, enjoyed the game.

4.) Balance: There is a difference in resource value in the game; some resources are more useful than others. Now this difference is slight. It may not become apparent over the course of one game; but I’ve crunched the numbers, and the differences are there. However, they are slightly balanced out by the action cards, and it keeps the game from becoming too balanced; thus by some folk it was overanalyzed. All four starting planets have a different set of resources, with each having their own advantage.

5.) Settlers: For those who dislike the randomness of Settlers, this game reduces that; because you WILL get a resource each turn if you have the planets. At the same time, there is some randomness because you don’t know which of the four resources of a type you’re going to receive. At the same time the trading is interesting but not as frenzied as Settlers can get. Players can easily get the resources they need, if they are only willing to wait. As the game goes by, however, the fact that players are putting down sets of cards means that the resource pool is getting smaller. This has the added effect that trading gets more crucial as the game goes by.

6.) Action cards: And as the game progresses, the action cards become more powerful. At the beginning of the game, it sometimes seems fruitless to expend three resources to get a mediocre action card - one that might only reward the player with one card. However, when you can choose the card, and you are attempting to get that specific card; these action cards can be a lifesaver. All the action cards are fairly equal in power, except for one that I believe is overpowered; it allows a player to destroy a secondary planet of another player.

7.) Taxation: I’m still not sure what to think about this mechanic. At first, it sounds really good, because it allows a player who is losing to take cards from the others. But at the same time, it’s not always the player who is losing who has the fewest cards. It might be a player who is actually winning and laid down most of their cards. Then, they can take cards from other players and possibly lay them down also! I’m not sure that this is always a good thing, and sometimes some real muttering occurred during this phase.

8.) Fun Factor and Strategy: There is a lot of strategy in the game. How long should you wait before playing cards on the table? How many planets should you get, and which ones? What trades are worth making, and when should you take an action card? A player has a few choices in the beginning, quite a few in the middle of the game, and then back to only a few near the end. People who like to trade and like Rummy would have a lot of fun with this one.

I found this game a fair amount of fun, and while I wouldn’t use it to introduce anyone to gaming; it’s a good second game. There is no one main mechanic; so if you dislike Rummy-type games or negotiation/resource collection games, you’ll probably dislike this one also, as both of these dominate the game. At the same time, I really can’t identify a group of people who would like this game; it is certainly a try-before-you buy game. If you like all the mechanics I’ve mentioned, then you’ll probably enjoy the game; but if any of them sound a little “iffy”, then you should probably check it out before making a purchase.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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