Rise of Empires

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Phalanx Games/Mayfair Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 12 and up, 180 minutes; $55)


Charting the course of civilization over a few thousand years is a heavy topic. Rise of Empires certainly responds. After all, the first thing to strike you about this new Martin Wallace game (besides the eye-catching box cover art) is its heft. The game weighs a ton! That’s because of the large amount of wood and thick cardboard that goes into the game.

riseempWithin the box you’ll find 150 player cubes (30 each in five colors), 40 resource discs, 45 action discs (9 each in five colors), a variety of tiles – empire, territory, progress and city (used to grow empires in the game) and a tile display upon which these are placed, gold markers, alliance pieces, player aid cards and a large game board depicting the world and areas for tile placement as well as an action display.

Rise of Empires is played in three eras and both the board and tiles are “color-coded” so that players know which board areas and tiles are available for play during each era: white (for era 1) to tan (for era 2) to brown (era 3). Set up is a bit time consuming as the numerous empire, territory, progress and city tiles are stacked on their appropriate places. The empire, territory, progress and city tiles must be arranged in proper order. Era 3 tiles are stacked on the bottom with era 2 tiles creating a layer and era 1 tiles the icing on the cake. (The specifics for each tile type differ but that’s the general idea.) Four empire tiles (era 1 side up) assume their rightful position on the board while four territory tiles are placed face down in their positions. For the first turn, the top 8 progress tiles, top 10 territory tiles and top 5 city tiles are revealed.

All players start with cubes and action discs in their chosen colors. Five cubes make up a player’s “pool”; remaining cubes are his “general stock”. Action discs are placed at 0 on the Victory Point track, 16 on the Food track and used to show turn order on the turn order track. The remaining six discs are used to claim actions during player turns. In addition, everyone begins with 5 gold and 2 black resource discs.

Rise of Empires is played in three turns to match its three eras with each turn split into two parts – an A and a B. Players use their action discs to take actions by placing a disc in the row, from right to left, on the action display corresponding to the desired action. Six actions are possible:

Take a Progress Tile – Progress tiles enable you to do or get more such as additional resource discs, more food, gold etc. As eras progress, so do the powers of these tiles. (Diplomacy, for example, allows you to force an alliance with another player prohibiting him from attacking you for a turn, a wonderful defense against a strong potential enemy.)

Take a Territory Tile – Different types of territory are available (plains, islands, forests, mountains, towns) and each generate resources (sometimes at a cost in other resources).

Take a City Tile – City tiles can cost gold, resources discs and/or food but generate Victory Points. Some tiles in this category are “Wonder” tiles, good for a one-shot use, expensive but worth lots of VPs.

Take an Empire Tile – Taking one of these immediately allows you to place any number of your player cubes from your pool in regions of that tile’s era equal to the number on the tile (from 1 to 4). Sometimes, in order to control an area, you may need to battle. This means consulting the bottom of your chosen Empire tile. Attacking cubes equal to the number on the left of the tile are removed to the general supply; defending cubes equal to the number on the right of the tile (always more) suffer the same fate. If you end up with more cubes in a particular area than any other player, you gain control of it and reap its benefits (VPs, resources, food etc.).

riseemp2Trade – Each box on the trading track asks for a certain number of resource discs. In return, you can get gold or VPs (as specified).

With all actions taken, players calculate food points. Most territory and city tiles (and some progress tiles) will give or take away food. Control of some board areas will also produce food. Each player’s food total is adjusted accordingly. (If you go below 0 on the food track, you lose 1 VP per food point lost; going over the top of the track earns you 1 gold for each 2 food points over. On the final turn, food points lost or gained are DOUBLED!) In the same way (through territory and city tiles and control of regions), gold and resource discs earned are calculated and distributed to the players. Finally, Victory Points won through city tiles, some territory tiles, some progress tiles and control of regions are marked on the VP track. The player with the fewest VPs will now decide in which order he wishes to go in the next turn. This choice is then given to the player with the second least VPs and so on until next turn’s turn order is established. Now, we do it all again – but in REVERSE!

In part B of a turn, players no longer place action discs. Instead, they REMOVE them from the action display to do the action. Discs are removed from LEFT to right. If no disc is in front of your disc, the action is free. But for each disc in front of yours, you must pay 1 gold to perform that action. When no discs remain on the display, that era is over.

An era’s end can result in some progress tiles being lost, (Players may need to pay 1 gold for each one they choose to keep.) In addition, city tiles players wish to keep require moving one cube from their pool to their general stock. Finally, half, rounding UP, of player cubes from each region on the world map are removed.

Play continues with new tiles revealed for eras 2 and 3 until the final B phase of era 3 is over. To the VPs already awarded, one additional VP is earned for every 3 gold in a player’s holdings (rounded down) as well as 1 VP for each 3 resource discs (rounded down). The player with the highest accumulated total wins.

It seems that in every game he designs, Martin Wallace adds some clever game mechanics to gives the game its individual character. This is certainly true for Rise of Empires. The A/B action turn order twist forces a new calculation into a player’s plans. Players are compelled to not only take the best immediate action but also must consider the order and impact this action will/may have when it is triggered in reverse! What’s more, failing to do a particular action during part A means you are ineligible to do it in part B! This calls upon the best in player planning and educated guesswork, leading to moments of triumph coupled with moments of despair! Great touch! (It should be noted, though, that the Calendar progress tile can prove to be very valuable as it allows you to shift ONE of your action discs to another track to minimize this problem.) Another plus is the stylized way battles are handled. No dice, no combat results table. Results are found on the bottom of chosen Empire tiles making combat results easy and immediate while creating yet another factor to weigh when choosing a tile.

Rules for the game are generally straightforward. The first few pages of the rulebook concentrate mainly on components, understandable as there are a lot of them. The sample turn provided clears up many questions. Particularly challenging, however, is understanding how progress tiles work and work together. As you go from turn to turn and era to era, tiles bestow more and more power to their holders. The play aids provided with the game are extremely helpful in this regard but are no substitute for actual experience. This makes for a significant learning curve. “Gray areas” in the rules regarding placement of forces “across the water” (from Europe to the Americas and Asia) are a problem. Lacking (at least at press time) the issuance of a definitive FAQ, this has caused the emergence of “house rules” by various groups to cover conflicting and confusing rules. For smooth playing, it’s best to have all players agree on this before commencing play.

Although Rise of Empires is listed as for 2 to 5 players with a playing time of 3 hours, this is misleading. Lots can and does happen between each player’s turn. Because of this flux, five player games can become both too long (figure 45 minutes per player so a five player game will easily break the four hour mark) and too chaotic (as, with five players, so much can happen between turns that control is minimal and any attempt at plotting strategy deteriorates into a fruitless task). The sweet spot here is probably three but certainly no more than four.

Rise of Empires is ambitious and demanding, a gamer’s game of tough choices and challenges. It is, in essence, a game of resource management and “engine building” under a veneer of “civilization building” as the road to victory demands the construction of a powerful resource and Victory Point “generator” from progress (and other) tiles – and the game works on that level. But, for those looking for the definitive civilization game, the quest continues.


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