Don’t be fooled by the iOS platform. This universal app isn’t exactly lite fare. A game can last for a few hours, or at least several sessions, once you’ve learned to endure the weight of constant decay. The tactical combat is simple, but occasionally oppressive, sometimes because of the randomness. Your entire army might march into a cruel latticework of archers and there’s nothing you can do about it. No matter what happens, it will all end with a crushing defeat as you scrabble to eke out a few more points. You probably won’t get any more points. The final turns will likely be a matter of rolling over to die. Just hit the next button a few more times.
After the jump, learning to live with failure.
Empire: The Deck Building Strategy Game is about entropy, about the onslaught of chaos and decay. Its strength is that it’s the polar opposite of so many strategy games that push inevitability in another direction. Thanks partly to dumb AI and your superior resources, you will prevail no matter what, or you will reload or start over until you prevail. That’s the model of, say, Civilization V. So many strategy games are about marching inexorably towards the victory screen, which can be pretty gratifying. Isn’t the conventional wisdom that videogames, even the more cerebral ones, are power fantasies? But in Empire, you march only towards your inevitable defeat. Every city will fall. Entropy always wins.
The name of the game is ironic, because you will never manage an empire. You will only manage a handful of besieged cities, each of which will only ever get three upgrades. The cities will survive long enough to hopefully provide a foundation for a decent army, and maybe a good start for whatever city replaces them. They’ll either be overrun by monsters, or you’ll abandon them and move the refugees (the game optimistically calls them settlers) elsewhere to start over. Don’t worry about giving your cities names. It’s almost as if Empire is taunting you when it provides the option to name a new city. “Do you dare get attached to this one?” it asks. Don’t fall for it.
Empire is a scoring game, but the scoring is smartly built into the gameplay rather than consigned to a post-game evaluation. You earn points from well fought battles and from larger cities hitting certain thresholds. Meanwhile, resources deplete and the pink fungus advances (Are we on Brian Reynolds’ Alpha Centauri?). Monster nests spring up and sprout attacking armies, which force you into either defensive combat or Bush Doctrine preemptive offenses against the monster nests. Worthless strife cards worm their way into your combat deck as surely as maggots in a corpse. Your only hope is to hold out for a few points more. This is not going your way.
The overall progression of a game of Empire is a fascinating take on the balance between the tactical and the strategic layer. The tactical layer is a very simple I-go/you-go chess match, played on an even simpler grid, with only the simplest units. The units move and attack automatically. Your only effect on the battle is playing from the hand of four cards you’re dealt every turn. These cards can buff your units, hurt enemy units, move units in certain ways, manage the deck, or even earn you resources after the battle. It’s an overwhelmingly elegant system once you suss out how it works, although the tutorial and rules are a bit sketchy. It might take a bit of trial and error at first.
Winning battles lets you choose better cards for your deck, including powerful spells if you’ve been building shaman huts in your cities. Meanwhile, casualties, certain city upgrades, and just the overall progression of the game will force useless strife cards into your deck, each of which limits what you can do on a combat turn. With a hand of only four cards, and with such a simple combat system galloping apace, every card counts. A strife card squatting uselessly in your hand is never a good thing.
So here you are, leveling up cities to help you explore the map, maintain an army, and manage your deck, all of which cost resources. But cities drain resources from the map, which grows the pink fungus, which causes the monster nests to spring up, which then send armies to attack you. It’s a downward spiral in the opposite direction of your better and better combat deck.
So the juxtaposition in every game of Empire is that you’re getting stronger on the tactical level as the strategic level inevitably falls apart. By the time the game is over and you’re helplessly hitting the next button while your last city starves to death, you’ve probably got a pretty powerful combat deck, at least until the strife cards start flooding in. That’s when you know it’s all over. How many points did you get this time? Are you ready to try again? Have you gotten more than 200 points yet? You’re not really playing Empire until that happens.
The name is horrible, not just because your handful of cities are a pretty poor excuse for an empire. It’s a generic word slapped onto a thousand forgettable strategy games and it in no way expresses what’s unique about this design. It’s nearly impossible to find on the iTunes store, so here’s a link for you. The beatings will commence as soon as you tap the icon.