Review: Empires II

Lots of birds.

Darien Gap? Oh yeah, we marched right through that.

If I may be so bold about a game that was in print long before my birth and will still be in print long after my ashes have been sprinkled in the end zone of Giants Stadium — Risk is not a very good game.

No, I’ll go a step further. Risk is bad. Risk is about waves of homogenous armies clashing against one another in endless dice-rolling battles. Risk is about a winners-keep-winning positive feedback loop that means only the first part of the game is particularly interesting. The only thing that Risk realistically models about war is the utter tedium of it.

Risk being bad is no obstacle to its popularity (see also: Monopoly). There are hundreds of Risklikes on the App Store, and I would wager that something like 90% of the games on the Google Play store are Risk clones (though who can actually tell, given what an un-navigable funhouse the Google Play store is).

For me to devote review space to a Risklike, it needs to at least attempt something a little special. And Empires II definitely makes the attempt.

Let's go shopping.

Limiting reinforcements to every fourth turn rewards planning ahead.

The sequel to a 2011 iOS Risklike, Empires II has got a a few different wrinkles that sets it apart from bog-standard Risk. If you’re not familiar with Risk (does your mom know you read Pocket Tactics when you should be in school?), it’s a war-themed territory control game where you gain armies based on the number of countries you control — your aim is to conquer the whole world. Empires II refines the model a bit, adding enough complexity to keep things interesting for longer.

First of all, the combat is largely quick and largely painless. Instead of Risk’s endless dice rolling, Empires II just awards victory to the guy who brought more troops more or less automatically — though attackers need to bring twice as many guys as the defenders to succeed. Turns take the form of the four seasons, and troops can only be purchased in spring, which means that you have to plan a few turns in advance.

Troops can also only be purchased in “capital” provinces, and can be moved around the map with ships, another Empires II addition. Ships are the most interesting addition to the formula in this game, because they essentially connect any non-landlocked province in the game with any other. The game has a number of AI difficulty levels, and at the higher tiers the computer is positively ruthless about using naval transport to harrass your flanks.

Risk abhors a vacuum.

There’s no starting positions in Africa, which leads to a colonial-style landgrab early in each game.

That interesting wrinkle is also one of the game’s biggest problems. If your concentration of troops is in Cuba, it takes just one turn to send them to next-door Haiti, or to far-flung Sri Lanka. Ships are theoretically scarce because they have to be bought in the spring (at the opportunity cost of buying troops) but by the middle of any game in Empires II they’re essentially a Stephen Hawking wormhole that makes the game hugely chaotic and frequently frustrating. The map in Empires II features impassable mountain ranges that create a lot of tactically interesting chokepoints, but with enough ships, you can circumvent them entirely.

That said, I still found myself losing time to Empires II at a surprising rate. The app looks quite nice (even if the UI is occasionally mysterious), there’s GameCenter-based async multiplayer, and the higher-level AIs will put up a convincingly tough fight. There’s other unique gameplay elements like fog of war and fortifications. It’s still just Risk, but if I was going to play any Risklike on my iPad, it’d be this one. Faint praise, maybe — but still praise.

The game was played on a 3rd-gen iPad for this review.

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Pocket Tactics Rating

3 Star Rating

3/5 Stars