In Martin Wallace’s excellently crafted empire building boardgame, Struggle of Empires, I experience something I don’t usually experience in a boardgame: regret. Not the kind of regret you get for buying a game and having it turn out terrible, but regret for taking part vicariously in imperialism. I’ve played many civilization builders. I’ve been part of countless virtual atrocities. But Struggle of Empires uses a few key pieces to really frame the historical context. It gives me pause as I consider the ethics, or lack thereof, of the rise of the European empires.
After the jump, the ethics of cardboard atrocities
Struggle of Empires is an empire builder set in the eighteenth century, designed by Martin Wallace and released in 2004. Wallace is a fairly prominent designer known for the industrial revolution economic game Brass, deck builder war game A Few Acres of Snow, and the Cthulhu/Neal Gaiman mash up A Study in Emerald.
Like Endeavor, this game puts the dark specter of slavery and native exploitation front and center. The big empires (players) are playing a territorial control game across the globe, but small neutral tokens pay the biggest price as they’re gobbled up and replaced with imperial markers. For markers labeled ‘pop’, you ship some of your population there to establish a colony. You are simply taking over some relatively empty space for the greater good of your empire. But it never stays that simple. Instead of the rare pop markers, you’re more likely to encounter a number indicating that control can only be established through military force. Indigenous peoples are being brushed aside as imperial ambition is fulfilled. There are also ‘slave’ markers. All you have to do is have a navy off of Africa and you can take that marker at no more cost to your empire than the action. But you know exactly what is happening with that action. Part of your empire is building on human exploitation. A simple word, a simple mechanic. But it speaks volumes.
Struggle of Empires sticks to its guns when it presents imperialism in all its dark glory. But there is a little ahistorical wiggle room. The empires aren’t locked into their traditional roles. England is not the default sea power and you may see the Russian East India company. You can pick up attribute tiles that give the controlling empire a little something extra. From press gangs allowing faster recruitment of navies to merchant companies providing extra income, it’s another perfectly abstract yet wonderfully thematic Wallace mechanic.
Some of the special tiles include tactics such as a fighting withdraw or surprise attacks. But among those tiles are consequences of imperial ambition. If a player cannot wrest control away from another empire directly they can spend an action to have pirates do the job. If the pirates are successful the losing empire no longer counts their marker until the pirates are defeated. There is also a slave revolt which is stronger than the pirates and also denies a losing empire control. A small justice against imperial greed.
Revolution and unrest is also a prime concern. If an empire is short on money they can always gain money in exchange for unrest points. These don’t do anything until the end of the game. Any player having more than twenty is considered to have collapsed in revolution and the remaining players with the highest unrest take a penalty to victory points. Unrest is also gained whenever a military loss is taken. The only way to lose unrest is by taking the government reform tiles and when those are depleted you are stuck. It’s nice to see a mechanism for empires to reform.
I love this game. I love that even when I stand victorious I’m thinking about the choices I made on a level I don’t usually consider. In Struggle of Empires, Wallace has made a great system that finds the right balance of complexity and momentum. Decisions are outwardly simple but have meaningful consequences, and the ugly side is right there the whole time, providing historical context that may be otherwise lost on the players. I still strive to do well and have the ‘best’ empire at the end, but I’m glad that context is there. This is more than just marching armies around. There is a far greater cost. With wonderfully simple mechanics, Wallace complicates empire building in the best way.