Review: Empire Manager01 Aug 2014 0
A lot of the strategy games we love are cleverly disguised abacuses. You're playing as the immortal ruler of a great empire in Civilization, but at base you're shuffling pebbles between rows turn after turn -- a lot closer to Sam Lowry than Caesar. The reason for Civ's enduring popularity is how well it dresses the abacus up, making you feel like Charlemagne because now a tile next to Amiens produces three food units instead of two. When's the parade, your majesty?
Maybe the clue was in the uninspired title all along, but Empire Manager is the most poorly-disguised spreadsheet I've seen in a long time. The game starts out on the right foot, channeling the aesthetics of the classic Centurion: Defender of Rome. But the illusion vanishes almost instantly. Lift Empire Manager's toga and you'll find Excel cells staring blithely back.
Empire Manager thrusts you into the sandals of the leader of one of three empires: Rome, Egypt, or -- strangely -- the Vikings, whose heyday postdates the other civilisations by several hundred years. The choice appears to be entirely cosmetic, at any rate -- I found nothing unique about the factions beyond UI and unit art.
There's some potential in Empire Manager's gameplay, which at its core is about babysitting your empire's bottom line. You start with a single province full of farmers. You can induce some of these farmers to become mineral-producing miners, and you can use their output to hire mineral-consuming scientists -- but you have to balance this against the need to keep farmers in the field to feed your empire and eventually your army, which consumes prodigious amounts of food.
In practice, this is as exciting as balancing your checkbook. Every turn you adjust the sliders until your empire is producing enough food to survive into next year and you allocate your researchers to a project, then next turn you do the same thing again. Scientists will occasionally make a breakthrough, which means that your farms will become 5% more productive or something. There are no wrinkles at all in the formula: no random events, no game-changing technologies. It's just eye-wateringly dull. If this is what it was like to rule an ancient empire then I empathise with Cleopatra's urge to make out with an asp.
The other major activity in the game (I won't comment on the Centurion-inspired chariot races, which are a pointless slot machine) is warfare. Your empire is expanded through conquest, and must be defended against the occasional invasion. There's no moving or positioning your armies on the world map -- you just touch the province you wish to annex and your forces are magically teleported there. Somewhere in underworld, Hannibal Barca writhes with envy.
The tactical combat is as disheartening as the economic management. Empire Manager's turn-based square-grid combat is so basic and uninspired that it feels like the tutorial for a different game, right before they start explaining all of the special abilities and mechanics that make the battles fun.
Empire Manager isn't an empire-building game in the traditional sense, either. There's no other empires to compete with, making this more of a solitaire board game. When invaders show up, they arrive out of the ether and then vanish whence they came. This isn't a bad thing in itself, but without anyone else sharing the board, the monotonous gameplay is even less impressive.
It pains me to be so dismissive about a game that was clearly made by people who appreciated the same games that I did growing up, and there are a couple of touches that I appreciated (like the historically accurate mechanic of bribing an invader into turning around and going home), but Empire Manager is just completely bereft of originality. The final straw for me was when I noticed a bug that caused my armies to disband due to lack of funds, despite having a surplus of everything required. Even someone who appreciates Empire Manager's plodding gameplay can't appreciate it in this state.
Empire Manager was played on an iPad Air for this review.