6th best game of 2019: Field of Glory: Empires

, | Game reviews

As soon as you boot up Field of Glory: Empires, you can tell what you’re getting.  Just look at that patchwork map with those little armies standing around. Look at all those numbers and tooltips and region labels.  Looking at the adoringly historical spreadsheet propping it all up. This is a clone of a Paradox game.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Almost all strategy games are based on either the Sid Meier’s Civilization model or the Paradox spreadsheet model.  Consider Aggressors: Ancient Rome, which covers the same part of the world during the same time period as Empires (the ancient Mediterranean is a popular playground second only to World War II).  Aggressors hews so closely to the Civilization formula that it can feel a bit like Civilization, but with an arbitrary cutoff date before you get to the fun stuff with caravels, gunpowder, and railroads.  It raises the question, “Why aren’t you just playing a Civilization?” The answer, of course, is that you want more historical specificity, and that’s what Aggressors has to offer in its Civilization-shaped package. But will that answer work for Field of Glory: Empires when Paradox already has games with the same historical specificity?

What you can’t tell when you boot up Empires is that although it may look like a Paradox game, it’s no such thing. Instead, it’s a distinct design that reveals itself the more you play.  You’ll discover a game with its own flow and pace. It’s turn-based, and it cleverly avoids the long stretches of nothing happening that characterize a lot of Paradox designs. You’ll discover a unique framework with a unique take on the rise and fall of civilizations, on historical detail, on cities and resources, on combat.  You’ll discover Field of Glory: Empires is beholden to no other game.

Let’s talk combat first.  Empires has the Field of Glory moniker to connect it to publisher Slitherine’s venerable tactical combat series.  Well, operational, I suppose. At any rate, moving pieces around on a grid to simulate ancient battles. Field of Glory has been doing ancient battles at this scale for about a decade now, and it’s gotten really good at it.  Empires can export any battle out of its grand strategic scale into Field of Glory II, letting you fight it hands-on, directly controlling the units in your own army. It will then export the results back into your game of Empires.  This isn’t a substitute for Empires’ combat, since it would be a lot of hassle to do this for every battle. Although it works smoothly, it’s not exactly seamless. One game shutting down and another loading up is quite a seam. But it’s painlessly automated.  You don’t have to go hunting around for saved game directories and file names and such. Call it snug, if not seamless.

It’s a bit of a gimmick, but it’s nevertheless impressive.  Especially if you want robust tactical combat in your strategy games (Age of Wonders says “hi!” from its richly adorned fantasy and sci-fi worlds).  But what makes it a gimmick is that combat in Empires is such an integral part of its identity that I can’t imagine why you’d want to circumvent it.  Battles are turn-based, but entirely hands-off. You won’t be making any decisions as a battle happens. You’ve made this army and brought it here, but it’s out of your hands now.  Since the outcome is based on die rolls, there’s a delicious tension as a battle plays out. You can step through, one die roll at a time, or you can let it play out continuously while you watch, helpless as the left flank crumbles to his superior cavalry.  Or triumphant as your elephants rampage right up the center. Or uncertain as the two sides regroup for their next encounter. Large battles can take several rounds, resulting in huge masses of exhausted men throwing themselves at each other repeatedly. Maybe you should attack from a different angle, with a different army, at a different time.  As with actual history, most battles are decided before they’re fought. But the ones that aren’t, or the ones that defy expectation, are ones for the history books!  

(Actually, it’s a shame I can’t export my best battles as scenarios in Field of Glory II.  I wish someone at Slitherine would make that happen. I don’t have any interest in resolving my Empires battles tactically, but I wouldn’t mind revisiting them.)  

Empires shows you exactly how every battle unfolds, and why the winner won and the loser lost.  Any information you could want is always available. Because it’s all so above-board, it’s easy to affect these battles even if you aren’t playing them.  Your choice of unit composition is crucial and you’ll readily see why. Heavy infantry in mountains and forests are just going to lumber about ineffectually, and you’re going to see it happen because suddenly your heavy infantry have a penalty to their effectiveness and now those crappy militia are easily outrolling them.  Cavalry on open plains will chip away at flanks, and you see exactly how it happens, and how it relies on your infantry holding the middle. This is an era well before the longbow, so ranged attacks are more about suppression than casualties, but that suppression can make all the difference; you clearly see the numbers subtracted from units pelted by slingstones.  Frontage is crucial, because a small group of defenders can easily plug a hole in the mountains so the bulk of the attackers never even get a chance to roll a die; a massive army isn’t so imposing lined up in a column only five units wide.

Leaders matter.  Boy, do they matter!  Battles are resolved by facing units squaring off against each other, one pair at a time.  Each of the facing units rolls a ten-sided die and adds the result to its combat rating, which is generally a single digit number, with modifiers for experience, defensive terrain, exhaustion, that sort of thing.  The higher result inflicts damage to the lower result based on the difference. But leaders let each unit roll additional dice and then choose the highest roll. That matters hugely. There’s a lot of variance in a d10.  So if I get to roll two d10’s and pick the best result, I get quite the advantage over someone rolling a single d10. And with a good enough leader, I can roll even more d10s. When a favorite leader dies, either in battle or of old age, it hurts.  

Contrast these explicit details and their explicit interactions with the typical Paradox games, which is full of information, but processed under the hood in a slurry of invisible equations.  The results are spit out. “So that happened,” you think to yourself. It requires a degree of trust in the developers. But Empires doesn’t ask for your trust, because it’s an open book. The accounting is laid bare.  Every number is clearly plugged into someplace visible, and the manual or the tooltips or even just the interface makes it obvious how the number affects the outcome. Combat in Field of Glory: Empires could be a boardgame.  That’s not an exaggeration. Give me some tokens, a grid, and some dice. I could recreate any battle right here on my dining room table, because the information is that specific, concise, and readily available. If strategy games are about presenting players with the information they need to make choices, then very few strategy games let you wage war as well-informed as you are in Empires.

This applies to the rest of Empires, as well.  Consider city development. From looking at the map, Empires looks like a Paradox game.  But from looking at the cities, Empires looks like a Civilization game. You allocate the population among four different jobs: food, infrastructure, commerce, or culture.  Hmm, maybe it does look like a Paradox game, because each population is a specific type and ethnicity, with varying degrees of efficiency. A citizen does better at commerce or culture.  A slave does better at food or infrastructure. All this can be automated, which is especially handy when you’re playing larger nations. But whether you set it up yourself or give it a directive for automation, you see down to the single digit exactly where every bit of food, production, money, and culture comes from.  If you like managing populations in a Civilization game, or even a Paradox game, Empires has what you want. Each individual population even has its own level of unrest, which goes into a great big bucket of loyalty, which determines the percentage chance of riots or slave revolts.

Ah, yes, slaves and slave revolts.  Tricky subject, perhaps. Part of Empires’ historical detail is its attention to slavery.  The acquisition, management, and ultimately treatment of slaves are all meaningful choices.  Keep in mind this isn’t the same slavery many folks know from the colonial era. Slavery was a facet of prisoners of war, social standing, and even financial debt.  But Empires incorporates it unflinchingly. You will almost always have slaves as part of your population. Do you capitalize on this by building slave markets and buying slaves to work your city’s farms and build its roads?  Do you incorporate laws to protect and eventually free slaves? Do you incite slave rebellions among your less progressive neighbors? Civilization (in)famously turned ancient slavery into whipping a point of population to death, in exchange for a temporary production boost.  Empires has more to say on the subject. Actually, to be more precise, it asks you to say more on the subject by how you play the game. It also has its share of explicit commentary on ethnicity, immigration, plundering, disease, a touch of religion. You know, all that ancient Mediterranean stuff, slavery included.

Consider a potentially more controversial subject: logistics. Do you love logistics as much as I do?  If you want to play Empires well, you better love logistics. If this were a Paradox game, trade would be an automated flow of goods.  Maybe you could bend it a bit with your merchants. Veins of money run across the map and your job is to drain away as much as you can. Pretty cool stuff, if you ask me.  I always liked a hearty trade system in my grand strategy. But just as Empires doesn’t expect you to take combat or city management on faith, neither does it want to abstract away the logistics of trade.  It wants to let you play the particulars of who needs what where, and why they need it. In fact, let me tell you my favorite thing about Empires, and what most sets it apart from any Paradox or Civilization game. I’m going to whisper it in your ear, because I don’t want to scare away people who just want to conquer Beotia or levy Marian legions or waddle elephant cavalry up into Sicily or build aqueducts or grow a Germanic tribe into a Europe-swallowing blob.  They’re going to get to do all that stuff, to be sure, but they don’t need to know what I’m about to tell you. Come closer. Ready?

Above all else, Field of Glory: Empires is an intricate resource management game.

Surprised?  I sure was. Like a lot of the appeal of Empires, this isn’t immediately clear.  Playing on the default difficulty level, you might never even discover this fact.  The default difficulty offers plenty of challenge, because powerhouses like Rome, the Seleucids, and Ptolemaic Egypt are formidable just for their sheer mass.  You’ll butt heads with one of them eventually, and for all you know, the challenge is simply dealing with that sheer mass. But to do well in Empires, to make any progress in the harder difficulty levels, you have to understand the intricacies of its resource model.  As sure as any train game, you need to pay attention to supply, demand, and the connections between them. This is the foundation for the entire design. This is the equation through which the whole spreadsheet runs.

Here’s how it works.  Every region in Empires can build a number of buildings equal to the number of citizens.  Growing a city’s population is how you grow its capacity for buildings. The hinterlands can support one or two buildings.  Capitals will support more than 20. Some buildings don’t actually take up a slot, so you’ll often have more buildings than citizens.  But this isn’t like Civilization, where every city gets a granary, then a shrine, then a lab, and so on. The web of prerequisites and interdependencies and culturally or nationally specific buildings is too intricate to suggest a default build order.  What makes it all manageable, and one of the reasons you can’t assure a simple granary-shrine-lab build order, is that your options are always limited to one building from each of four categories: food, infrastructure, commerce, and culture. Basically, as soon as a building in a region is done, you draw a hand of four cards from a deck of, gosh, at least a hundred?  I’m not sure how many buildings total are in the game. Easily a hundred. The more buildings you have of one type, the more advanced buildings of that type will show up when you draw a hand.  

If you don’t like the hand you drew, you can redraw and wait a turn for four different choices.  But the unpredictability presents difficult choices between building something conveniently available or holding out for something else.  You don’t get/have to optimize freely. Some buildings produce goods. Some demands goods. Some get bonuses from different goods. Almost all have a role in income, population, culture, infrastructure, or your military.  I could — and will — prattle on for paragraphs about the finer points of the resource model in Empires, explaining the different buildings and resources. It’s exciting stuff for those of us who like logistics, resource management, and city-builders.  

To give you a sense for how it works, consider the lowly market, a tier 1 commercial building.  It earns 9 gold. In most games, you build a market, you get more gold, period. But back up a second.  In Empires, a market needs pottery. Pottery comes from a potter’s workshop, another tier 1 commercial building that earns 5 gold per turn and provides pottery to any building within its trade range that needs pottery.  Usually trade range is three spaces, unless you have a harbor in the same region, in which case your pottery can travel freely to other harbors. The potter’s workshop earns 5 additional gold for each place it delivers pottery, whether to your other regions or another nation’s regions.  So if you build a market that will be supplied by your pottery workshop, that pottery workshop will earn a total of 10 gold. Well done. You just doubled the effectiveness of that pottery workshop! Did you situate in a place that it can deliver pottery to more than one region? Even better.  That’s another 5 gold for each region that needs pottery.

So now let’s take a look at the market you just built.  It will unlock other buildings and even some larger scale options, but for now, its function is that it earns 7 gold.  But it’s got to buy pottery, which costs 5 gold. So a market importing pottery from another nation is only going to net 2 gold.  However, any good bought from within your nation are half price. So if domestic pottery only costs 3 gold, your marketplace is will net 4 gold.  But remember that potter’s workshop in your other region? It’s still earning the full 5 gold for the pottery sold to your market, which more than offsets the 3 gold the market paid.  Trade is good. Overall, your nation benefits from internal trade. A market and a pottery workshop on their own net 2 and 5 gold respectively. A market and a pottery workshop connected in your nation net 4 and 10 gold respectively.  Now multiply the difference between 7 and 14 by the number of buildings in your nation.

(By the way, you don’t have to remember or calculate any of this math.  As is the case with all of Empire’s math, it’s right there on the screen if you want to follow the money.)

Now I know what you’re thinking: Tom, what if I don’t have a pottery workshop?  Or what if I don’t have one in range? And with the intricate web of resources you’ve mentioned, what kind of ungodly hassle is it when there are so many goods that might not be available as prerequisites for so many different kinds of buildings?  Isn’t this a logistical nightmare?

Fair question.  So the rule in Empires is that you can build your market even if you don’t have a pottery workshop to supply it.  Because pottery finds a way! The hitch is that if you don’t have a source available, your building has to pay three times the cost of the good.  So that market that earns you 7 gold is having to piss away triple the cost of pottery — that’s 15 gold — into some abstract black hole pottery offset tax.  That’s why the screen that tells you what a market does shows its income as -8 gold. What kind of market earns -8 gold? The kind that earns 7 gold, but has to pay 15 gold for pottery, that’s what kind.

But hold on, we’re not done here.  It just might be worth it, because markets aren’t just destinations for pottery.  Markets earn 5 bonus gold for salt, leather, dye, and cloth. But these are bonus resources and not prerequisites.  Bonus resources will only be available if they’re produced locally, directly adjacently, or if they’re imported for another building’s prerequisite.  

So let’s consider that market again.  It’s not going to automatically divert salt, leather, dye, and cloth.  But let’s say it’s in the same region as a salthouse that provides food and a hefty health bonus (health reduces the amount of food a region has to accumulate to gain a point of population, and the 8% reduction from a salthouse will make a big difference as your city gets bigger).  The salthouse requires salt, of course. Salt is mined from a salt mine which you can only build in hill regions. It supplies salthouses. The supplied salthouse now triggers the market’s bonus income. So that market supplied with pottery — the one that earned 7 gold, minus the cost of pottery — is now earning +5 gold.  Your bottom line, as a nation, went from the difference between 7 and 14 to the difference between 7 and 19.

What if there were other buildings next to your market that import leather, dye, and cloth?  For instance, an armorer that needs leather from a tannery, a temple that needs dye from a dye mill, or a clothing merchant that needs cloth from a cotton, flax, or wool spinning mill.  In addition to its base income, the market can earn another 20 gold if you manage to bring these bonus goods into its region.

And that’s just the lowly market.  You can imagine how this escalates.  Yet even for relatively simple buildings, Empires refuses to miss an opportunity to let you optimize if you want to have fun with logistics.  A pleasure house — yep, it’s called a “pleasure house” — adds loyalty to a region (loyalty is basically the same as happiness or morale).  If your region has perfume available, the pleasure house also earns money. Interpret that as you will. Upgrading a pleasure house to a pleasure mansion, and eventually a pleasure district, can earn even more money if wine and honey are available.  

Empires is full of these resource management tidbits that you can ignore if you just want to shuffle your armies around.  But if you want an economy to support more and better armies, you have to play Empires as the intricate resource management game it’s designed to be.  It’s like the city building that made Civilization VI a gratifying city builder, but with a lot more detail and therefore character. With a lot more unpredictability, and therefore interactivity.  With a lot of repercussions, and therefore meaning. The entire game rests on the choices you make in your cities, and these choices are frequent and myriad. Whereas Paradox games don’t give you much to do when you’re not marching armies around, building choices and their logistical implications are a constant part of Empires.  You’ll march armies around and fight battles, of course. But the city building is the beating heart of Empires. The battles are the spasms. The intricate flow of resources is its lifeblood.

Let’s zoom out to a historian’s eye view, far above the salt and perfume.  From up here, Empires offers a slightly esoteric but fascinating model for how nations progressed during an era of limited technological advancement.  You don’t have a tech tree or civics upgrades or national perks. That stuff is mostly part of Empires’ sexy logistics and intricate city building. What you do have is CDR.  The culture/decadence ratio. How’s that for esoteric? It’s a measure of how enlightened your nation is compared to how stangant it is. The arts vs. bureaucracy, innovation vs. entrenchment, reform vs. corruption, culture vs. decadence.

Because it’s a ratio, it applies consistently to all nations, regardless of size.  And it only matters in comparison to the other nations. The top third will slowly advance, the bottom third will slowly decay, and the middle third will hang fire.  Culture exists almost solely to offset decadence, which is periodically purged through reforms or collapses. But here’s the rub. Every nation has a score called legacy.  Legacy is just victory points. You win by having the most legacy, and if you pull far ahead on the legacy list, you can declare victory before the 500 year time limit is up.  One of the best ways to earn legacy is by maintaining a nation flush with decadence, and then offsetting that decadence with culture. In other words, the longer you prop up your current national system, the more victory points you’re earning.  But decadence happens no matter what. You have to actively cultivate and develop culture.

These are accumulating sums, by the way.  Your decadence is a slowly decaying national value, but your culture is a reserve kept in each of your regions, modified by the region’s loyalty as a straight percentage.  If you lose territory, there goes a sum of culture. As loyalty fluctuates, so too does your culture value. During certain events or crises, you might spill some of your culture.  Lose territory, and lose culture, and lower your CDR. Conversely, blindly accumulating territory also accumulates decadence, lowering your CDR. You can play Empires as a Paradox style blobber — paint the map your color! — but it comes with a built-in risk based on your CDR.  As I said, it’s a bit esoteric, but it’s the overall framework for winning the game. Like the resource management, you have to learn it to do well.  

Did I mention the unique gameplay touches designed into some of the nations?  The excellent interface that makes it easy to jump to whatever information I need, whether it’s the size of the Carthaginian navy, the closest source of amber, if there’s a river crossing on the way to the next province, or how good that unit is at besieging fortifications?  The scattered tidbits of historical flavor text, especially on each of the buildings? The post-release support, which includes a new diplomacy system currently available in a beta build? And did I mention that I haven’t played a strategy game this unique and absorbing since Victoria and Imperialism before it?

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The best of 2019:
10. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3
9. Transport Fever 2
8. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw
7. Phoenix Point
6. Field of Glory: Empires
5. Age of Wonders: Planetfall
4. Void Bastards
3. One Finger Death Punch 2
2. Control
1. Sunless Skies

  • Field of Glory: Empires

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Neither Civilization nor Paradox. A strategy game and logistical delight that finds its own way.