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[Review] Struggle of Empires

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Joined: 03/23/2011

When I read an interview of Martin Wallace on in mid 2004, I first saw mention of his game Struggle of Empires (Warfrog, 2004 - Martin Wallace). In the interview he mentioned how he had been working on the game on and off for five years, and how proud he was of the game. This coming from one of the best game designers currently in the business had me certainly intrigued.

Struggle of Empires, while not Martin Wallace’s best design (that would be Age of Steam) is still a tremendous game - one of the best of 2004. It’s an involving game that revolves around area control, yet offers players such a tremendous array of options that it’s almost dizzying. Using a unique and tremendously effective alliance system, the game prevents “ganging up” on the leader, and instead promotes effective negotiation. A beginner will probably get destroyed by an experienced player, as the game does have a sharp, learning curve; but learning the game produces a very satisfactory experience.

A map of the world in the eighteenth century is placed on the table with seven world powers (Britain, France, Spain, Russia, Austria, Prussia, and the United Provinces), and eleven contested areas (six colonies: North America, Caribbean, South America, Africa, India, and East Indies; and five others: German States, Baltic, Mediterranean, Central Europe, and Ottoman Empire). These are the only spaces on the map (aside from some water regions next to the colonies and some other countries.) Each player chooses a country, taking all the counters and tokens of that countries color. Players also receive ten gold coins, with the remainder of the money forming a bank. A pile of “Unrest” counters is also placed on the table. A pile of “Country” counters is placed in a bowl, and ten of them are drawn randomly and placed on the map in their respective countries. Each player then draws five more country counters, placing a control counter of their color in each country shown on the tiles, then discarding the tiles. Seventy-two tiles are arranged in piles near the board, and each player places one control marker on the “0” of a victory point track and another on the “5” of a population track. Each player places five military units on the map (armies, navies, or forts) in turn order, and the game is ready to begin.

The game is composed of three “wars”, or phases. In each war, players are in one of two alliances and cannot actively attack others in their alliance. At the beginning of each “war,” players bid to form the alliance. The first player bids zero gold coins, picking two nations who are not in an alliance yet, placing their counters - one in alliance “A,” the other in alliance “B”. The next player can either pass or raise the bid, putting any two nations they want in the two alliances. This continues until everyone passes but one person, and then another auction begins. Auctions occur until half of the players are in one alliance, and the rest are in the other alliance. The top player in Alliance A goes first, and the first war commences.

A war is made up of five rounds (six if there are four or less players). In each round, players take two actions in player order. They can do any combination of the below actions but can only buy a tile, colonize, or enslave one per round.
- Build unit: The player can place one military unit in their home country, reducing their population by one. They can then move the unit to one area on the board, following some movement restrictions (like only moving to a colonial area if they already have a ship there, when moving across deep waters - units must roll to see if they make it, etc.)
- Move two units: The player can move two of their units on the map, following the movement rules.
- Buy a tile: The player can buy a tile on the board, paying the cost of that tile (sometimes nothing). A few of the tiles are a one-use only type, and when used must be returned to the stock. Alliance tiles, which correspond with the contested areas, must be returned to the stock at the end of the war. All other tiles are kept for the remainder of the game. Some tiles provide an immediate effect; others must be rotated (“tapped”) to be utilized and remain tapped until the end of that war.
- Colonize/Enslave: The player can replace a country counter marked “Pop” with a control token by spending a population point. They can do the same thing with a “Slaves” token, but only if they have a naval unit in Africa; and it does not cost a population point.
- Attack: (a much reduced version of the actual rules) A player must pay two gold to attack and attacks either another player’s control counter or a neutral country counter with a number on it. Attacks can only be made on a player in the opposing alliance. Naval combat occurs before land combat, if possible; and if both players agree, either one can back out. The winner of the naval combat gets naval support for that battle. Players can have folks ally with them from their alliance and can use alliance tiles to add to their total strength. Both players involved roll two dice and add the difference of those dice to their battle strength. The loser loses a unit /or control token and increases their unrest level by one (taking an unrest counter). Control tokens are never discarded but are merely changed - if I beat Joe, I remove one of his control tokens and add one of mine. If a player defeats a neutral country counter, they can add one of their control tokens.
- Pass

The tiles do a variety of things, such as:
- Give a player a free attack
- Reduce a player’s unrest by 2
- Add one to the player’s population
- Allow a player to reroll combat
- Allow a player to extra bonuses in combat
- Etc, etc.

After the last round of a way, players collect income (one gold for each population point they still have, and one gold for each control token they have on the map.) Players must then maintain their active forces, by paying one gold for each one on the map. At any time in the game, if a player needs gold, they can take two from the bank in exchange for 1 unrest. (This can be done multiple times.)

Victory points are awarded after each war for each of the contested areas. The player with the most control tokens gets the highest victory point number printed on the board, second place gets the next, and a few of the areas award points for the person with the third most control tokens. Ties score points for all players. The next war then begins, with ten more country tokens being placed on the board, and another round of auctions beginning. After the third war’s scoring, players reveal their unrest counters. Players with twenty or more unrest lose the game automatically. Other than that, the player with the most unrest loses seven victory points, the next highest loses four victory points. Victory points are then totaled, and whoever has the most wins the game!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: There are a massive amount of components in the game; fortunately Warfrog does something more companies should do - provide plastic bags for the counters. The money chips are simply copper and silver-colored tiddly winks, but the remainder of the counters (and there are a LOT) are of very high quality. Each nation’s tokens are in a different color and have different standards on their control tokens. This, combined with the colorful but easy-to-read board, presents a very colorful game. All information is very easy to find on the board, and the only fiddly aspect is from the dozens of piles of tiles lying near the board. The unrest tokens come in different denominations; so one can keep their total unrest a secret, if they wish. The alliance tiles are colored in the same colors as their respective countries, which makes them easier to locate; and small symbols clearly indicate what most of the tiles do.

2.) Rules: And for the tiles that aren’t clear, there is a reference sheet included in the game; one that we look at quite frequently. It clearly explains each of the different tiles (there are thirty-eight different ones). The rulebook, itself, is only six pages long; but if you’ve ever seen a Warfrog rulebook, you know that that doesn’t stop them from packing in a ton of information. There is one example of game play in the rules, as well as some play tips; but the game seems to be more easily learned when taught, rather than reading the rules. It’s a deep game, and almost feels like a war game (it’s actually area control). Beginners may have to be eased in.

3.) Alliances: If there’s any mechanic I absolutely love about this game, it’s the forced alliances. Many times you will want to do a crushing attack against someone else but are forced to sit there, gnashing your teeth because they are in your alliance. One can still be a pest, by refusing to help an ally or pointing out attack strategies to the other players, but they can never outright attack their ally. This makes the initial bidding rounds crucial and vicious, as players are not only bidding for turn order but for who is in what alliance. I found that this was an excellent way to keep everyone from ganging up on the leader - only half the players can attack the leader. And a rich player can make sure that they actually can keep their enemies closer.

4.) Players and Time: The game plays anywhere from two to four hours and only plays quickly if all players know what they are doing. There is very little downtime, as a player can’t do too much on their turn; and the only thing that takes a while (an attack) can often involve most of the players. The game plays up to seven players; and I think the more, the merrier. Game play is fair with three, but the forced alliance loses some of its luster with that few of players. This is not a quick game but a meaningful, lengthy experience.

5.) Slaves: I shouldn’t have to mention this, but some folk get into a furor over the slavery that they say this game approves of. The game notes the use of slavery and how it affected the empires back then, in a neutral, historical way. I abhor slavery and feel that this game deals with it in a historical, accurate way. I’m sure some gaming groups will add in their comments when playing, but most people will not /should not be offended by it.

6.) Choices: The agony of choices is in this game. With such a large variety of tiles to choose from, which should you take? There is only one copy of some of the tiles, so players may not get the abilities they want if they wait too long. Other tiles allow whole strategies to be built around them. If you want a lot of money, then buy company tiles. If you want to be defensive, buy alliance tiles. If you want to rule the world militarily, then buy mercenary tiles or army training tiles. The different tiles allow for such a variety of strategy that raise this game up and beyond that of a typical area-control game.

7.) Fun Factor and Theme: The historical flavor adds a lot to this game. As someone who enjoys history, I was pleased with how accurate the game was, especially how the colonies were needed by the empires for them to wield power. The die-rolling mechanic, that of finding the difference of two dice, was very unusual and made what could have been a boring battle more interesting. The dice affects battles, adding luck to the game; but with the right tiles and strategy, I found that luck played a very minimal role in the game. One’s initial setup is also quite important (On our first playing of the game we stopped a turn into the game and re-setup, because several players had made crucial and un-informed setup choices.)

This is not a game that you’ll master on your first time, and I don’t see many people who own the game only playing it once. There’s a lot to take in and comprehend; and the game rules, while fairly simple, have some layers of complexity that your average “lite” gamer might find overwhelming. This isn’t to say that the game should be avoided, rather it’s like chewing your way through a delicious steak dinner. It’s tough, but it’s certainly delicious - another treat from the master chef Wallace.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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