Empire is billed as a Civilization-style 4X game, but that’s a bit misleading. Civ is a big arena-filling pyrotechnics-and-smoke-machines show that’s grown more decadent with each passing year. Empire, by contrast, a stripped-down, just-the-essentials experience of a 4X game. Civilization Unplugged.
A lot of people — myself included — go in for the flashy stuff. We play Civ for the thrill of unlocking new units and buildings. We download mods to add more units and more buildings. We build huge cities and terrifying armies, and then after we crush the world under their weight, we lean back and watch the aggrandising replay of our glorious victory.
Empire throws all of that right out the window. Hundreds of different units? No: three. Giant terrifying armies? No: only one army, never comprising of more than six units. Huge sprawling nations brimming over with giant cities? Empire gives you a cap of three cities, max. Conquering the world? Never going to happen — the world conquers you. Every time.
Empire is the anti-Civilization. And it is brilliant.
To really understand Empire, you have to understand its designer, Keith Burgun. Burgun is bull-headed about his ideas on what a game should be. He looks at modern 4X games and he sees lots of cruft that has accumulated around the core mechanics. The most interesting part of Civilization to him is the first few turns where you are doing everything you can just to eke out an existence, fighting to survive in a largely unknown and hostile world. If you can get a strong start, Civ becomes a bit of a push-over, a game designed to lose gracefully.
That opening struggle is what Empire is all about — Burgun has made a whole game about it. A guy that looks at one of the world’s most beloved game franchises and says, “I can do better” is either nuts or has huge stones, or both. I’m going with both, but I am seriously impressed by Empire, nonetheless.
You start on a mysterious, fog-shrouded (randomly generated) continent with one settlement, which is drawing resources from the tiles around it. When your city has accumulated enough food, it grows and you can build an improvement, or settle a new city, explore your surroundings a bit, or pull down a few quick victory points. The world is green and pleasant — but it won’t be for long.
Every turn you take, your cities draw resources out of the land, but the land will eventually grow barren. You are your own enemy, because eventually your city will have to be abandoned, having leeched everything it can from the area around it. You’re also not alone in this world: there are dens of monsters that corrupt the land around them and send armies to destroy your settlements, though you can proactively send your armies to attempt to destroy them instead.
This uneasy relationship with the earth is Empire’s crowning achievement. You are going to lose. The question is, how long can you stave that off for? Every turn has a meaningful decision — you know that you can’t focus on any one city for very much time, but when you do you jump? How long do you keep your eggs in that basket? How soon until the monsters overcome your defense?
Fighting the monsters is equally interesting. Your armies can be composed of three different units (infantry, cavalry, and archers), each with different health and attack ratings, as well as different attack patterns on the 2D combat grid: infantry attack in a cross shape in the cardinal directions around them, archers have a ranged attack that hits certain distant squares, and so on. The monsters have three different units with roughly the same setup.
Your units are randomly placed on the left side of the combat grid at the start of every battle, and the monsters opposite. Each turn, units take a step forward and attack if possible. Your objective is to destroy all of the enemy units or bypass them entirely, destroying their camp on the far right side of the grid. A bit of randomness is injected by cards, which you draw four at a time from a deck a la Ascension or Dominion.
These cards let you break the rules a bit: swapping units’ positions, granting health bonuses, allowing you to redraw other cards, etc. Proper management of your cards is essential, as you will eventually be outnumbered by the monsters no matter what you do, leaving clever employment of your deck as the only way to victory. If you lose a unit in combat, it becomes a useless strife card that takes up valuable space in your deck and that you must go out of your way to purge.
If you lose a unit, it’s because you knowingly sacrificed it or because you were foolish. There is no other answer. There are absolutely no mysteries in Empire’s design: the combat units, like chess pieces, behave in a predictable way every single turn — there’s no “AI” to speak of. It’s a glass engine where you can see all of the parts, and its complexity emerges from the interleaving of all of those simple parts.
Empire is so tight it squeaks, and I suspect it’s the best game I’ve played this year. Every system in the game makes immediate sense, and interoperates with other systems elegantly — and there’s no extra bits, no systems sitting around just adding color or atmosphere. Keith Burgun could never make a Saints Row game, or a God of Blades, where style and fluff count for as much as the mechanics. But then again, I didn’t think he could make a 4X either.