Thursday, May 18, 2006

I don't like you OR you, but I HATE him (Conquest of the Empire)

After some trepidation, I now own Conquest of the Empire. Last night, joined by relative newcomer Brian, we gave it a whirl.

Reviews on this game have been mostly positive, but Chris Farrell recently panned it at his blog (agree or dissagree with him, his arguments are pretty astute when it comes to determining if a game system is sound. How that applies to "fun" can be debated). I was looking for a large scale war game to round out my collection, and this looked like the best bet. The game ships with two entirely different sets of rules, the first being a tweaked re-release of an 80s title and the second being a modified Martin Wallace design based on his "Struggles of Empires" game. The Martin Wallace partnership yielded great results with Railroad Tycoon, so that's the one I wanted to try.

Well, first off, it turns out that this ruleset isn't really a war game. Conquest of the Empire is an area influence game, wrapped in a war game's clothing. That's not a bad thing (and I suspect the other rules would satisfy that itch if I gave them a try), but it needs to be kept in mind when evaluating the game.

I won't get into too much detail regarding the rules, but a general overview is in order. The board represents the ancient Mediteranean, and players are vying for the title of the new Ceasar of the Roman Empire. To this end, they must hold influence in key regions.

The game is broken up into 4 "Campaign Seasons" and two major things happen every such season: 1) the board is "seeded" with a random assortment of tokens representing opportunities to gain influence in the Empire. 2) "Alliances" must be formed, meaning that players must bid their way into one of two groups (i.e. if there are 5 players, 3 will be group "A" and 2 will be group "B"). Alliances are important because although there is no illusions of friendship between players of the same group, they are not allowed to attack each other.

So, over the 4 campaign seasons, players must figure out the most effective method for converting the influence tokens on the board to their colour. The most direct way is to send troops, accompanied by a general or ceasar, to a location containing a token and take an action to "convert it". However, if the target is another player's token any units in the region belonging to that player must first be eliminated or driven away. Each "key" region is worth a number of points to the player with the most influence tokens (and fewer points to the player in 2nd place), similar to the scoring in El Grande. It's worth noting that while the point values vary from region to region, Italia is worth the most by far, and is the only region where a third place is worth points.

Players only get 2 actions per round. They will normally want to do much more than that! There are several reasons for this, but the main one which comes up is that moving units is an action, battling is an action and converting an influence token is a third action. That's 3 actions required for accomplishing the central task of the game, yet players only get 2 at a time! This means that while snapping up an unclaimed influence token is a breeze, getting one from another player takes some planning.

The game also features a number of cards which are turned up every campaign season (similar to Railroad Tycoon), which allow all sorts of special events and abilities to happen, including a political sub-system which adds an interesting twist (and, again, the front runner in Italia gets special abilities during that process, making it even more of an important region than it already is).

In our game, I started with a concentration in Egyptus and Neapolis. I succesfully bid to go first and quickly grabbed some influence tokens in Italia. Kozure, Luch and Brian largely stayed elsewhere, dominating Greece, Mesopotamia, Spain and the rest of the south, while Shemp built up just west of me.

The game system offers plenty of opportunity for surprising plays, largely due to the variety of cards and the very odd movement mechanics (in one "move", armies can move as far as they want inland, so long as they do not cross a region containing enemy units, and can travel by water to any destination adjacent to a ship they have on the board). Brian, for example, swooped into Spain all the way from Egypt and stole a few influence tokens from Kozure when he didn't expect it.

By the end of the first campaign season, I had a small target on my head as the early leader. Luch assassinated my general, leaving me with only my ceasar to activate my troops for the remainder of the game (buying a new one would have been worthless as Luch would have killed it again using the same card). Lucky for me, no one spent a whole lot of time purchasing units, so for most of the game our positions weren't terribly threatened. Most skirmishes were one-sided affairs where a player had left a single unit behind to protect a token. Thanks to Luch, my units in Egypt were stuck without a general to lead them, but luckily there was enough of them that no one attempted a coup. I largely sat in Italia with only the occasional little trip to convert an available nearby token (At one point, Kozure attempted to destroy my Trireme but was unsuccessful... thank goodness because I was relying on that to get me around to the nearby islands). Over time, my investment in Italia grew and that target on my head got bigger and bigger. In the last rounds, my armies in Egypt were destroyed, large armies were being mustered to attack and Shemp tried unsuccesfully to get a majority of influence in Italia, but it wasn't enough. The game ended and I had a large lead, giving me a comfortable victory.

Ironically, Brian (who had to leave early and didn't participate in the last two rounds) only came in 2nd last! I won't mention who lost.

A few lessons learned:
1) Italia must be contested at all costs. It's simply worth too much to allow a single player to hold all game. By the time our group realized this, it was very hard to turn things around.
2) The Alliance system makes a big difference. Most obviously, if you are weak and threatend by an opponent, being in their alliance can buy you the time to rebuild. Also, if a player can't fight you, they can't steal your influence tokens away. Finally, if a player is on your side, he/she can't block your passage across the board.
3) The political angle is a little tricky to work properly, and it can definitely backfire, but the card effects can be quite powerful.
4) Inertia is a real challenge in this game. Once a player has established influence in an area, it's hard and slow to wrestle it away. Once a leader is out front, it's hard to catch up.
5) It's easy to get lost in the "war" aspect of the game, and lose sight of the fact that destroying armies is only a means to an end (and, in fact, of no value on it's own)

I quite enjoyed the game. The massive board and over the top bits lend themselves well to this theme. Downtime can be a problem if players think too long, but with a max. of 2 actions a round, it was never too bad. On the other hand, the game did take nearly 4 hours... I suspect things will go much quicker in the future (probably 2- 2 1/2 hours).

Conquest of the Empire: 8

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