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CONQUEST OF THE EMPIRE

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Eagle Games, 2-6 players, ages 10 and up, 3-4 hours; $59.99)

 

Over 20 years ago, Milton Bradley unveiled its GameMaster Series. These big beautiful games consisted of three titles: Axis & Allies (a game that has maintained a large following and spawned several spin-off editions), Broadsides & Boarding Parties (a game of pirates and plunder that did not find such great favor and soon disappeared beneath the waves) and Conquest of the Empire (a game of Roman conquest that, despite receiving a warm reception from many gaming critics of the day, soon found itself out of print). But interest in CotE did not wane as the game commanded a lot of attention (and high prices) on the secondary market. Eagle Games has answered the call (as it were) and has gone a step further. In its new edition of Conquest of the Empire, designer Glenn Drover, quite literally, gives you two games for the price of one.

Conquest of the Empire comes in one of those big boxes Eagle Games traditionally uses – and it’s a good thing too because the box is stuffed with lots of pretty things. The large and beautiful board (artwork by Paul Niemeyer) depicts the Roman Empire as it existed in the 2nd Century. The “Roman world” is divided into land and sea areas with tracks around the perimeter to chart various items. There are, literally, hundreds of beautifully molded plastic pieces (Caesars, Generals, infantry, cavalry, catapults, galleys, cities, fortifications and roads) along with silver and gold coins representing “Talents” (the currency of the Empire), lots of markers, 12 dice (although the rules stipulate 8!) and TWO sets of instructions, one based on the original game designed by Larry Harris and the other (dubbed Conquest of the Empire II) in which Drover adapts the game system of Struggle of Empires designed by Martin Wallace to ancient Rome. Now let’s take each version separately.conquestoftheempirebox

Each game turn of Conquest of the Empire consists of six phases: Movement, Combat, Collect Tribute, Destroy Cities, Purchase New Pieces and Place New Pieces.

Movement depends on the presence of Leaders. Groups of pieces move as Legions, defined as a group of up to 7 land units (infantry, cavalry and catapults) accompanied by a Leader (either a Caesar or a General). Roads significantly increase movement range. “Straits”, marked by black arrows, allow for easier water crossings. Galleys move in sea areas but are best used to transport land units across large sea zones. Should forces end up in an area occupied by enemy units, combat occurs.

In combat, both players “organize” (the defender organizing first) by placing 1 to 5 combat units, plus one additional unit for each General or Caesar in the battle, into the “first line”. Any leftover units are “in reserve”. (Galleys do not participate in land battles.) Combat dice (depicting icons for each type of combat unit plus a blank side) are rolled for each piece in battle. Icons matching units in battle result in hits. (Infantry is more susceptible to hits as two infantry icons are on each die; catapult icons rolled are considered hits even if the catapult is in reserve!) Each hit forces the defender to remove one of his units (his choice). Then the defender rolls the dice as the attacker did. If the defender has a fortified city in the province, he gets two extra dice – only one if the attacker has at least one catapult still surviving in the conflict.

Speaking of catapults, two changes, for the better, have been instituted. First, the unbalanced power of the catapults has been fixed. Before, each catapult in battle gave a +1 on the dice roll in combat and that effect was cumulative plus catapults were difficult to destroy. Now, their edge in combat has been muted. In CotEII, Catapults only hit when the matching battle die is rolled and they, in turn, can be more easily hit by the enemy. Second, catapults in the original game were prone to breakage. Here, more pliable (hence, less breakable) plastic is used.

Fighting continues until either one player retreats or one side’s forces are completely eliminated. (Naval battles are even simpler. Two dice are rolled for each galley involved. A galley icon rolled sinks an enemy galley. No retreats allowed but, regardless, a naval battle may only last three rounds.)

Players collect “Tribute” based on the number of provinces and cities under their control. (Cities in danger of falling into enemy hands may, at this point, be destroyed.) Talents so collected may be used buy new pieces (from the inexpensive infantry and roads, priced at 10, to the pricey fortified city at a cost of 50). An interesting touch is the presence of inflation. Twice during the game, at specified points, prices for new pieces are first doubled and then tripled the original cost!

Play continues until all Caesars but one are eliminated. Last surviving player wins! With Conquest of the Empire II, however, elimination is eliminated and the emphasis shifts to a more Euro style of play.

As mentioned, the origin of Conquest of the Empire II is firmly rooted in Martin Wallace’s design, Struggle of Empires, featured in the Spring 2005 GA REPORT. (As Struggle of Empires is a relatively new game, we’ll concentrate on differences and modifications here. If unfamiliar with SoE or wish to refresh your memory, flashback to our review of the game.)

An obvious change is the setting, from the seafaring days of early European imperialism to the Age of the Roman Empire. Reflecting that change is each player’s starting forces. All begin with 1 Caesar, 1 General, 8 infantry, 1 catapult, 1 galley and 4 influence tokens in their chosen color. They also receive a starting bankroll of 80 Talents and, in a new addition, three Senator cards (in denominations of I, II and III). The Senator cards tie-in with the five “Senate Vote” cards which are placed face up next to the gameboard. (More on this later.) Each player now draws 5 random Province Tokens in which one of his influence tokens is placed. (It Italia is drawn, that token is returned and a new one picked. Otherwise, drawn tokens are removed from play.)

The board is seeded by placing Province Tokens on their respective locations on the map. (Tokens equal to twice the number of players are drawn. This procedure is repeated at the start of each Campaign Season.) In a change from SoE, Conquest cards (cards which substitute for the tiles in the original game), equal to twice the number of players (instead of ALL as in SoE), are placed face up by the board to be available during the next round of play.

The game consists of four Campaign Seasons with each Season divided into four rounds (a departure of SoE’s three wars of 5 or 6 rounds each). What has been maintained from SoE, is the formation of alliances and, here too, alliances are critical.

Alliances determine two things: who is on your side (and is thus prohibited from attacking you – or you them) and turn order. The first player (generally, the player who went last last turn) selects two players to be on opposite sides. Players, in turn, either accept the proposal or bid (in money) to support another proposed alliance. When someone wins the auction, the proposed alliance is now fact. More proposals follow until all players are aligned into two alliances. Now, in turn order, players place their starting forces, 1 unit at a time, on the board and the standard player turns begin.conquestempire2

During each round, players may perform TWO actions from a menu of 8. They may obtain a Conquest card (but may only do this ONCE per round), recruit (by buying additional forces at a cost of 5 per Infantry to 20 for a General), buy influence, tax, move, land battle, naval battle and/or pass.

Influence is key. Players buy influence in a province by replacing a Province tile or unprotected enemy influence marker with their own influence markers provided that one of their Generals or Caesar is present in the province. One influence token may be purchased if a General is present; 2 if his Caesar is there. Influence tokens cost 10 Talents each. An enemy influence marker is protected as long as at least one land unit is present in that area. So, if you want to extend your influence there, you must battle.

Wallace’s “difference between two dice rolled” mechanism for battle has been changed in Conquest of the Empire II. Instead, each player rolls three dice (plus one more if a General or Caesar is involved) no matter how many units are involved. Each roll that matches a unit in battle results in a hit. For each hit, the opponent selects one unit to remove. (Generals and Caesars are impervious to harm and may not be chosen.) The battle ends when one side is totally destroyed or one side retreats by moving surviving units to an adjacent province. The winner of the battle may place influence in the province. The loser gets 2 Chaos Points, representing “unrest” (as in SoE) .

After everyone has taken their actions, taxes are collected. For each influence token on the board, a player receives 5 Talents with a bonus of 5 Talents per token in provinces where they have a city. (Another change: although the phase is called “Taxes and Upkeep”, and in SoE you had to pay “upkeep” for military forces in play, there is no upkeep in Conquest of the Empire II.)

Despite receiving a very positive response from the gaming crowd, Struggle of Empires did have some criticisms leveled at it. Drover addresses these criticisms and has devised some interesting modifications and additions.

As in SoE, the main concern are “11 “key” provinces noted by the presence of Victory Point totals. Having the most influence in those areas will earn you those VPs. Most of the provinces have two values (Italia has three). At the end of each Campaign Season, VPs are awarded and tracked on the gameboard. And, as in SoE, losing battles and heavily taxing the population increase instability in your regions (labeled “unrest” in SoE and “Chaos Points” here). In SoE, unrest totals are revealed only at the end of the game and could potentially eliminate you! Not here. CotE II is much more forgiving. Chaos Points are revealed at the end of each Season. Although you won’t face elimination, having the most Chaos each SEASON does extract a price. The player with the most Chaos Points loses 10 VPs; having the second most costs you 5. By handling unrest/Chaos this way, players have an easier time keeping track of enemy instability, another factor to consider in planning your next set of moves.

Choosing Conquest cards is one of the pivotal decisions in the game. All of them are useful although some more than others. For example, some allow you to build cities and each city owned by a player reduces his Chaos Points total by 3. On the other hand, that card costs a hefty 40 Talents. But since only SOME of these cards are available each Season, Drover has limited the number of options (instead of having ALL of them available in SoE). This does two things. It makes it easier to get a handle on the options available and it also forces players to be flexible in their planning as cards crucial for a particular strategy may not have appeared yet.

In SoE, travel between Europe and the Americas necessitated a die roll that could be disastrous as ships found crossing the Atlantic to be perilous, forcing a ship to return to its starting port or, worse yet, sink! Despite that, movement in Struggle of Empires was far reaching. Drover has made movement even more fluid. That die roll has been abandoned. The active player may move all of his units in a single province provided that a Caesar or General is also present. This allows units to travel, virtually, from one end of the world to another (unless moving into enemy-occupied territories which halts further progress).

The idea of Senate votes is a new and interesting addition. The five Senate Vote cards may be purchased by any player. Once bought, the player may use the card once during each Campaign Season. Using a Vote does NOT count as an action but must be done during a player’s regular turn. These votes allow you to gain more Talents, lose Chaos Points, gain Victory Points, gain infantry units and gain influence markers. Votes are auctions using the Senate cards in your hands. The winning bidder gains the benefit of the Senate vote – but used Senator cards are discarded! Knowing when to hold them is just as important as playing them since calling for a Senate vote is no guarantee you will win the vote. There are 28 Senator cards (8 each of I, II and III and only 4 IV) but the good thing is that, when available, they are free for the taking. Sometimes, it pays to call for a vote to entice other players to burn their cards so you can win a subsequent vote you really want!

At the conclusion of the fourth Campaign Season (five if a longer game is desired), the player with the most Victory Points wins and becomes the next Caesar of the Roman Empire!

In this new version of Conquest of the Empire, the purchaser receives a reworked – and improved – version of the original. What makes the game especially attractive however, is the second set of rules based on Struggle of Empires offering Euro style adventure in the best sense of the phrase. The Eagle edition shows respect for its origins and manages to add a few touches of its own to make both games more balanced and accessible. Couple that with exceptional graphics and component quality and Conquest of the Empire ranks high in style AND substance. – – – Herb Levy


 

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