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STRUGGLE OF EMPIRES

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Warfrog, 2-7 players, ages 13 and up, 3-4 hours; $59.95)

 

Struggle of Empires is the latest design from Martin Wallace, creator of such varied releases as Age of Steam (Winter 2003 GA REPORT) and Election USA (Fall 2004 GA REPORT) but the game bears a stronger resemblance to another of Wallace’s works: Princes of the Renaissance (Winter 2004 GA REPORT). In PotR, players attempt to spread the influence of their “family” through treachery, bribery and cunning. War is only one route to victory. Struggle of Empires is the flip side of PotR. Here, war and diplomacy are the twin paths to victory.

Struggle of Empires comes bookshelf boxed with a mounted mapboard, six sheets of counters, four dice, several player aid cards and instructions in three languages (English, German and French). The mapboard depicts the starting countries of the players and areas of contention in Europe and colonial areas in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the East Indies.StruggleOfEmpiresEach player begins as the head of one of seven European countries seeking to expand their influence and carve an empire out of the 11 colonial areas on the board. These areas are noted by sets of numbers (Victory Points waiting to be awarded). All players start with a bankroll of 10 gold, a population of 5 (duly noted on the board), and a set of color-coded counters which serve to represent control in an area as well as that player’s military forces (armies, navies and forts).

Country counters for the colonial areas are mixed with 10 of them randomly drawn and placed on their respective areas. Now, each player draws five more of these counters and places one of his control markers in each area drawn. (These country counters are now out of the game.) Finally, each player may place one military unit (army, navy or fort) on any of the target areas. (Exception: navies may not be placed in the German States, Central Europe or Ottoman Empire.)

The game is played in a series of three “wars” with each war consisting of five or six rounds (depending on the number of players). Each round follows the same sequence: seed the board with 10 country counters (already done in set-up for the first “war” and done again before embarking on wars 2 and 3), determine alliances (and play order), take action, collect income and pay maintenance costs, calculate Victory Points and, finally, end the war. At the conclusion of the third war, the game ends. The player with the most Victory Points wins.

Players will divide into two alliances, determined by an intriguing auction mechanism. The first player proposes a relationship between ANY two players/countries and not necessarily himself. He makes a bid in gold so that his proposal carries. Subsequent players may accept the proposal or seek to change it by substituting one or more powers and making a higher bid. When a proposal results in all players passing, that relationship is ratified and control counters are placed in the respective, opposing, alliance boxes, one in the top row and one in the bottom. Now the next player proposes a relationship between remaining, unaffiliated, players. This continues until ALL players are aligned with one side or the other. The resulting alliances alsodetermine turn order.

In that turn order, players may do TWO actions each round. They may buy a tile (generally quite valuable so you may only buy one each round), build one unit, move two units, make one attack, colonize or enslave (also limited to one each round) and/or pass.

As in PotR, there are many tiles. Here, they fall into three categories: Improvement (which augment or modify abilities), Alliance (which adds to military strength in a particular area) and Company (which can increase your gold income). Tiles generally cost you something (denoted on the tile itself) in one or more of the three “commodities” of the game: gold, population and unrest.

Building an army, navy or fort costs one population point. These units begin in a player’s home country and then may be transported (even a fort!) according to movement rules.

Two units may be moved per turn. Land movement through Europe requires the player have a control token either in the destination area or in an area adjacent. Despite these apparent restrictions, movement is fairly fluid, particularly within the European areas of contention. When moving off into the colonial areas (or from the colonial areas back to Europe), die rolls are needed. A roll of 1 necessitates a second roll which can result in the moving unit forced back to the point of origin or, worse yet, sinking into oblivion! But even the roll of the dice can be modified to minimize chaos. (The Navigation tile, for example, will prevent any sinking!)

Attacks are possible and, unlike PotR, inevitable and necessary in Struggle of Empires with the means of resolving them quite interesting.

Attacks cost 2 gold and both sea and land conflicts are resolved in a similar fashion (with naval combat resolved first). Each army/navy unit is worth +1. Forts, used only in defense, add +2 to the defender. If the combatants have naval units in the contested area, the winner of the naval combat adds +1 to his land combat resolution. Any tiles with modifying effects are added and each player rolls 2 dice. The DIFFERENCE between the two dice is added to the combat factors. (So, for example, if player A is attacking with a +2 advantage and rolls 2 and 5 on his dice, he adds 3 to his total for a +5 total combat strength.) The side with the highest total wins the battle. The attacker, if successful, replaces the control token of the defender (if there is one) with one of this own. In addition, for each unit lost in combat, that player receives 1 point of unrest. And there’s something else. If ANY player rolls a 7 (such as the player in our example above), that player LOSES a unit AND receives 1 point of unrest on top of it even if he won the battle!struggleempinside

Some neutral country counters are marked with “Pop” or “Slaves”. The active player may replace that counter with one of his control counters by expending a population point for the former or for free (if he has a naval unit in Africa) for the latter. And, of course, a player may simply pass.

Once all players have performed their chosen actions, income is calculated and maintenance costs paid.

All players receive 1 gold for each population point they have remaining as well as 1 gold for each of their control markers on the map. Now, all must pay 1 gold for each unit (army, navy or fort) on the map. In many games, running out of money is a serious danger but here, that can never happen. If more gold is needed, you simply tax your population! You get 2 gold for each taxation but not without cost. For each taxation, you receive 1 unrest point. Players now add 5 population to their total (never exceeding 9) and Victory Points are calculated.

All 11 colonial areas have Victory Point values. The player with the most control counters in an area receives the first VP value; the second place player receives the second value; the third place player receives the third value (if there is one). Should there be a tie, BOTH players receive the higher VP value.

At the conclusion of the third war, after Victory Points have been awarded, players reveal their accumulation of unrest counters. If a player’s unrest total is 20 or more, his country is considered to be in revolution and that player LOSES! Among those remaining, the player with the highest amount of unrest loses 7 VPs and the player with the second highest total loses 4 VPs. The player with the most VPs after that wins the game!

Struggle of Empires offers a colorful historical theme. But, of course, any connection between actual history and the way the game plays out is purely coincidental. (Russian colonies in South America???) The board is very attractive and of a good size. Unfortunately, because most of the pieces materialize in the lands of contention and home nations are bereft of counters, the board tends to crowd in certain areas while vast stretches remain barren! The vast array of tiles available gives players a host of viable strategies to pursue. They also increase the learning curve of the game as it takes awhile to digest what tiles can do and how to use them to best effect. To speed the game along, we suggest making Xerox copies of the tile play aid sheet so each player has their own copy for reference.

Going in, a major concern was “down time” between turns. Fortunately, this concern proved to be unfounded. As allies, you have rooting interests in everything the other players do. Not only that – you are constantly planning and reinventing your plans as the actions of your partners and opponents change your possibilities and best options. Which brings us to the extremely clever symbiotic relationship between gold, unrest and population.

Gold is needed to buy tiles and maintain forces to win battles and gain control in colonial areas. But taxing the population increases unrest as does losing battles. Population converts into armies, navies and forts but also generates income if not used. These three key commodities intertwine so deftly that a player needs to chart a balanced course to maximize Victory Points.

The alliance mechanism is both unique and subtle. By being able to set up sides, you can both protect yourself from attack (allies cannot attack each other) and maneuver turn order. The concept that each power with identical influence receives the SAME amount of VPs in an area works brilliantly. Because of this, powers are not compelled to attack an enemy who EQUALS their influence since they will not lose any VPs on a tie, an important concern in constructing alliances. This is a significant difference from the standard approach of adding VPs awarded for 1st and 2nd place and dividing them. This “minor” difference is a major change that transforms the whole dynamic of play.

Struggle of Empires is a gamer’s game that offers would-be empire builders a chance to test their mettle against forces of the 19th century. Once again, Martin Wallace has come up with a challenging and satisfying design. – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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