Thursday, December 06, 2007

It's broke, let' fix it (Conquest of the Empire)

... or 'another evening of deviance'

Conquest of the Empire is a game I’ve always had mixed feelings about. It’s close to being very interesting, it’s sometimes fun, but it’s got problems. In May, after the last time we played it, I started thinking about possible variants which might help the game work a bit better. I was therefore pretty happy when Luch decided to pick it this week, as it gave us the chance to try some of these ‘fixes’.

The variants:

1) Moving:

Problem: Movement is wonky. Triremes are not as useful as they could be due to the fact that units can move as far as they want unless they are blocked. In my mind, the blocking itself was also problematic… a single unit stopping a large army felt cheap to me.

Variant: Units are limited to moving 5 spaces. Units encountering resistance must leave behind one unit per enemy crossed.

Result: This change had virtually no impact on the game. Further, blocking became nearly impossible, so no one bothered.

Thoughts: On one hand, this is more a philosophical problem than a game problem, so abandoning might be in order. If I were to pursue it, however, forcing players to leave behind 2 or 3 units per enemy crossed might strike a good balance between effective defense that isn’t needlessly paralysing. Another thought that crossed my mind is that an ‘overrun’ rule could be implemented which allows movement to continue if any combat along the way takes only 1 round to resolve.

2) Differentiation of Units:

Problem: Units aren’t differentiated enough. The most effective unit is the cheapest, and the others have varying cost but equal contributions to the game.

Variant: I proposed that 6 soldiers or 3 cavalry in excess of an opponent’s forces in a region could apply ‘intimidation’ to cancel an influence token during scoring. I also proposed that the presence of a catapult in a battle give a player an additional die (max 1 additional die regardless of the number of catapults).

Result: We entirely forgot to apply the intimidation rule, which suggests to me that it’s too fiddly in practice. I liked the catapult rule (and it did ensure that most people tried to have one in the mix whenever possible), but others found it to be too powerful.

Thoughts: Maybe it’s fine the way it is. In our next game, we should play without the catapult rule and pay attention to how people purchase units.

3) Getting more done in fewer actions:

Problem: The number of steps required to move an army, attack and then convert influence tokens can cause the game to stagnate for players, particularly in the later rounds when it’s obvious there aren’t enough moves left to accomplish anything.

Variant: Immediately at the end of winning a battle, a player has the choice to convert 1 (or 2 if a ceasar is present) influence tokens at 30 talents each.

Result: I really liked this change. I think the others did too.

Thoughts. This element had an impact on the game, and added some interesting decisions. I’d say this one’s a keeper.

4) Fixing the political system:

Problem: The political system doesn’t quite work. It doesn’t feel well integrated and isn’t used very much due to it’s high cost and unreliability of the results.

Variant: This was the biggest change. Players didn’t start with any political cards. The political cards themselves were separated from the ‘choose/purchase a card’ action. As an action, a player could choose a political action card and call any face up vote. The player was free to spread the rewards for passing the vote amongst several players or to keep it for him/herself (ex: win 40 talents could become ‘I propose that I receive 20 talents, that Mike receive 10 and Luc receive 10). Once the terms were set, all players secretely committed vote cards (which they would have aquired through the normal ‘choose/purchase a card’ action) and declared ‘yea’ or ‘nay’. All committed votes by all parties are spent. If the vote passes with a majority, the effect happens as proposed. The political action card was then considered ‘used’ and placed face down until the next campaign season.

Verdict: This change is a step in the right direction, but still didn’t work very well. In the first campaign season it worked, and several interesting proposals were made. Interest in choosing vote cards was higher than it used to be. However, in subsequent seasons, all vote cards from the first season were spent, and so players were frequently taking a vote card as their first action and then calling a vote through a political card as their second action, conscious of the fact that no one had any cards left to counter.

Thoughts: Players simply need more vote cards to make this work. We should probably go back to starting with some vote cards, and should probably receive a number throughout the game. It would be interesting to weave into the game a way to earn automatic votes. For example, let’s say that players started with 4 vote cards (at random). Then, certain regions could be designated as politically important (some being victory point generating regions, and others not). Control of these regions would yield an automatic vote (or random vote card) in any political action. This would probably require the creation of a new token which would indicate political control, to distinguish itself from the influence tokens.


The random setup dealt a harsh blow to Kozure (hmmm, another variant needed? Choosing initial locations, perhaps?) but gave the rest of us reasonably even territories. Shemp and I were concentrated around Italia, Luch and Bharmer more to the south and east. Kozure had single regions spread throughout the map, which would prove to be difficult to defend.

Shemp and I happily shared first place in Italia before long, and were otherwise getting fairly prosperous through our various acquisitions. Bharmer was winning despite his absence in Rome, largely because he was going unopposed in several 15 point regions (Egyptus, etc). Luch started getting hammered early and often.

As the game took it’s course, Bharmer’s terrible luck in battle and constant spats vs Luch sent his empire crumbling. Kozure made a remarkable comeback in Asia (crushing Bharmer's last substantial presence)and Shemp grabbed first place in Italia. In a very shrewd move, Shemp spent enormous amounts of money to make sure he was allied with me and Kozure in the last season. This meant there was literally nothing any of the players with remaining large armies could do to unseat him from his lead.

When the dust settled, I had gathered enough influence from the remnants of Luch and Bharmer to help me catch up to Shemp`s lead... along with a quick 15 point grab through the Hail Ceasar political card. The two of us were tied. Only, we weren’t, because I realized that I’d been counting my points for two seasons as though I still had the tie for first in Italia. Ooops. Close second for me, then.

(I looked into the tiebreaker rule, and it goes to the player with the most influence chits on the board. That would have been me. Grrr.)

Anyway, Conquest of the Empire remains perplexing for me. It is occasionally quite fun… shows moments of brilliance… but also engenders boredom, frustration and feels unpolished. Downtime is a factor (honestly, it doesn’t bother me much in this game, but others in the group took issue). There is a weird problem which results in too many choices to act quickly, but not enough choices to have something interesting to do at all times.

Finally, although I’m not opposed to long games, they are much more pleasant when you feel like you can contribute until the end. The combination of very few moves in the game, the need to make several moves in sequence to achieve a result and long play time means that you often can foresee several turns ahead where you want to go and you just have to wait until you get there. Or, worse, that you know you don’t have enough time to actually do anything, so you just wait for the game to be over (which can still be an hour away).

Other games played in this genre: Risk, Vinci, War of Thrones, Nexus Ops (sort of similar), Sid Meier’s Civilization. Looking to try: Mare Nostrum. Some of these are bad. Others are good, but either have a more limited scope than CotE, or a different focus altogether.

With it’s combination of ameritrash theme/ bits and some euro sensibilities, it’s inclusion of combat, area control, politics and event cards, Conquest should be an amazing game. It’s a shame it will take continued exploration with variants to make it great (if it ever gets there).

edit: I reread our past blog entries on this game and I'm a little fascinated at the change in my perspective. At first, I really liked the game despite it's faults. Since our last playing, I seem to have transformed those faults into the guiding impression of the it in my mind. The sessions reports describe games that were far more dynamic than this last session. Did the variants encourage a more static game? (we pretty much sat and held the territory we started with for most of the game, with the exception of Kozure near the end). Did the added focus on the political aspect take so many moves away from the conquest that fewer things got accomplished? Either way, it seems like it was an odd convergence of a session which matched the flaws I had convinced myself the game had. Something to think about.

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