Seven Reasons I Keep Trying to Play Shadow Empire

, | Game reviews

There are a lot of reasons to stop playing Shadow Empire.  I’ve hit many of them several times over.  The most common is that I don’t understand how something works, but I didn’t realize I didn’t understand until it was too late.  Maybe I built some expensive structure that took several turns of saving up resources, and then several turns of actual building, and now it doesn’t work like I thought it would.  Maybe I move my armies into position for an attack, and now they’re decimated because the supply rules are impenetrable.  Maybe I get into a sudden economic death spiral when I didn’t even realize why I suddenly ran out of food.  Who’s eating all my food?  Maybe I simply can’t figure out how all these numbers are supposed to line up.  Why are these numbers here if I’m supposed to simply take them on faith without even understanding what they mean?

Among other reasons to stop playing Shadow Empire are the torturous interface, the primitive graphics, the slow turn processing, and the uneven documentation.  

But there are also lots of reasons to start playing Shadow Empire again.  Most games that are easy to quit playing are also easy to not play again.  That’s not true of Shadow Empire, an (overly?) complex combination of hardcore operational level wargame, intertwined with a King of Dragon Pass style leader management game, played atop a sci-fi 4X.  Every time I’ve quit playing, I’ve picked it back up.  Here are some of the reasons:

1) Shadow Empire is a card game

The cards in Shadow Empire aren’t just powers displayed on card shapes with patches of card art.  They’re actual decks that you assemble and draw from each turn, and they determine what kind of game you’re playing.  The cards are called stratagems, and they drive every element of Shadow Empire.  

One of your primary resources is called political power.  Every turn you earn political power points based on how many resources you’ve diverted into your main organization, the ominously named Supreme Command Council.  You’ll have other organizations for science, covert actions, diplomacy, economic development, and so forth.  They’ll want resources, too.  Slide those sliders wisely!

Political power points are spent playing stratagem cards.  Every card has a cost and the more powerful cards cost more.  Just like Hearthstone.  And the stratagems affect every element of Shadow Empire, which is why it’s a card game.  Star Ruler 2, a fantastic and sadly overlooked sci-fi 4X, has a similarly clever card system.  But it’s limited to diplomacy, so Star Ruler 2 is not a card game.  It’s just a game with a cool card game inside it.  But the cards in Shadow Empire affect everything.  

Do you want a new leader?  Play the Recruit Talent card.  Do you need to see your opponent’s territory?  Play the Place Spy card.  Or better yet, the Spy Ring card.  Are you worried that your covert ops leader doesn’t have the skill to make the roll that determines whether Spy Ring succeeds?  Then first play the Shadow Spy card to give him a +40 to his next roll.  Now play the Spy Ring card.  Do you want to raise the tax rate?  Play the Increase Tax card.  Do you want to apply tariffs to the jerkwad faction that keeps blackmailing you?  Play the Raise Tariffs card.  Do you want to build a zoo, or casino, or gladiatorial arena in your territory?  Play the appropriate stratagem, because you won’t find those under the construction menu.  Do you want to adjust your army with a bonus to attack and a penalty to defend?  Or how about a boost to experience points while you put it in training mode?  Some stratagems are called postures, and they tweak an army’s basic function.  Do you want to reward one of your leaders and improve his loyalty?  Do you want to prospect for a new source of resources in your territory?  Do you want to curry favor with one of the internal factions in your regime?  Do you want to meet with the CEO of your planet’s unique corporation, or the leader of its cult, or the head of its crime syndicate?  Do you want to raze an occupied territory?  Do you want a bunch more political points, or a huge cash windfall, or maybe even some precious alien artifacts?

All these are done with stratagem cards.  

Of course, you can’t play a card unless you draw it.  So what determines which stratagem cards you draw each turn?  This, too, is a factor of your organizations, and it almost makes Shadow Empire a deck-builder.  Each organization has a list of cards it can produce, and the resources diverted to that organization will determine a percentage chance of drawing a card based on its rarity.  If you want to see the math behind the draw, it’s all available.  You can see the card distribution, the percentage chance of drawing a specific card, and even the roll you rolled that determined whether you drew the card.  Or you can just enjoy the display at the beginning of each turn that shows which new cards have been added to your hand.  Like Hearthstone, but with less screenshake and particle effects.  But the bottom line is that the distribution of resources among your organizations — how many to covert ops, how many to your diplomatic wing, how many to your interior council — is the equivalent of managing the distribution of cards in a deck-builder.

2) Shadow Empires expects me to hoist myself with my own petard

Some of the stratagem cards are too powerful to be played with mere political points.  So they cost fate points.  And I probably don’t have any fate points.  I can earn them at extraordinary points in the game, such as by conquering large areas or hitting certain advancement thresholds.  But even then, I won’t get many.  Fate points will always taunt me for how few I have.  Those powerful stratagem cards will always taunt me for what boon could be mine if only I had a few more fate points.

Oh, wait, look here.  These red cards are called fate stratagems.  If I play them, they give me fate points!  But what’s this?  What are these cards called?  Paranoia?  Radiation Leak?  Chemical High?  Bad Rations?  Hey, these all do terrible things!  Death, madness, destruction.  If I want fate points — and I do! — I decide which calamity to visit upon my own head.  Is a radiation leak worth discovering a treasure trove of abundant resources?  Is a boost in fear among the population worth being able to deploy killer robot sentries with my army?  Is it worth introducing illicit drug peddling into the population or poisoning a few families if I can pry a new technology out of the hidden computer archives?

(The answers are yes, yes, and yes.)

In any other game, these disasters would be random negative events that pop up from time to time, to keep me on my toes.  But I control my fate in Shadow Empire.  I make the disasters happen, I live with the results, and I reap the benefits.

3) Shadow Empire makes totally unfair worlds

Before any game of Shadow Empire, the particulars of a planet are randomly rolled up in a series of categories: atmosphere, geography, local fauna, that sort of thing.  These factors determine the setting, whether it’s on a moon with no atmosphere, a mineral rich desert planet, or a rain-soaked jungle world infested with murderous spiders.  Which in turn determines how easy it will be to cultivate food, mine resources, and defend my borders.  There will also be random perks scattered around the map I can assimilate into my empire, and sometimes helpful or hostile factions at my doorstep.  

There doesn’t seem to be any attempt to balance the varied starting conditions.  One game might start me at a huge disadvantage, hemmed in by militaristic neighbors, with no source of metal at hand, and nothing but rugged mountains for miles.  I’ll be lucky to survive fifty turns.  Using the exact same settings, another game might start me at a huge advantage.  A friendly militia joins me, there are great bonuses right near my starting city, the neighboring factions are weak and acquiescent.

There’s a certain satisfaction in rolling up new games of Shadow Empire, where it’s “there but for the grace of God go I…” or “oooh, that looks like a fun starting situation!”  My games of Shadow Empire are almost like my characters in an MMO.  I have my mains, which tend to be games with lucky starts that let me make some progress along the road to prosperity and expansion.  But then I have my alts which I play out just to see how much I can make happen given the awful starting conditions.  Rolling up a game to see what I get this time is uniquely appealing for the variety of situations I’ll have available.  Who needs difficulty settings (although those are in there, too) when you can just let the random number gods rampage freely?

4) Shadow Empire has the beating heart of Distant Worlds and Victoria in its chest

In Shadow Empire, a self-sustaining private economy ticks away under the surface, out of my control.  The little people in the game are in charge of the fundamental commercial transactions in their society.  They determine which goods they produce, buy, and trade.  They determine how their quality of life is developed.  They determine which structures get built.  They’re a bunch of little bootstrappers making the best of it on this hostile planet.  There’s usually some corporation looming over them, some cult trying to seduce them, and some crime syndicate taking a cut because it would be a shame if something happened to the brothel.  Like many elements of Shadow Empire, I can ignore this and just let it run its course.  But why would I?  I can cozy up with the CEO.  I can crack down on the cult.  I can divert money into a commercial sector.  I can give the people a hospital.  I can buy them food if times are lean.  I can raise their taxes if they’re fat, happy, and prosperous.  Hey, they just built a mine on the last rare minerals deposit on the map.  I needed those rare minerals for a bitchin’ new tank with a plasma gun, but now they’re sealed under a privately owned mine that just shunts its treasure into the economy at large.  I think I’ll nationalize it.  

Most strategy games assume you want complete control over the economy.  Most strategy games are right.  But some strategy games recognize that economies are inscrutable clockwork intricacies beyond the ken, much less control, of any one man.  That was one of the contributions of Paradox’s Victoria games.  They suggested a private economy that government could influence, but not directly control.  Distant Worlds was a science fiction game that expressed the same idea.  And it’s refreshing to see it so thoroughly embraced in Shadow Empire.

5) Shadow Empire is an RPG about playing a government on a tightrope

I play a “regime” in Shadow Empire.  It’s one of several competing factions on a ruined alien planet.  A regime is characterized by a rating from 1 to 100 in nine different “profiles”. This rating constantly shifts based on my actions.  The profiles are qualities like democracy, commerce, mind, and so on.  They’re arranged into three sets of interlocking values with a paper-rock-scissors structure in which each profile can suppress one and can be suppressed by another.

In the image above, you can see in the politics category that meritocracy can suppress democracy, which can suppress autocracy, which can suppress meritocracy.  But you can see by the color coding that no one is suppressing anyone in the political sphere.  Why is that?

Because suppression only comes into effect when the total of two adjacent profiles exceeds 100.  In the psychology category, you can see that mind is suppressing heart because their total is 105.  Mind’s 61 plus heart’s 44 means that heart will degrade over time, until the total between the two profiles is 100.  Heart is on its way to 39.

So why does this system of interlocking politics, social values, and psychology matter?  It matters because profiles with high values unlock feats.  Feats are a sort of skill tree that encourages me to pick my favorite profiles and push them as high as I can.  Here’s the feats display:

Each row is one of the different profiles, and each box on each row is a feat I can unlock by holding that profile at a certain value.  These feats give me global bonuses, they unlock the option to draw special stratagem cards, and they give me special units to attach to my armies.  For instance a medical team, a techno mage, or a musical band.  Yes, I’m imagining the drum truck from Fury Road with the Doof Warrior’s flamethrower guitar.  You know you are, too.

So the actions I take in the game, which always tell me exactly how many points are added to or subtracted from each profile, are a kind of RPG for what kind of regime I want to play.  If I push certain profiles high enough, you can win special prizes.  A new game of Shadow Empire is a new opportunity to try different sets of feats.

6) Shadow Empire is King of Dragon Pass, but science fiction instead of goofy druids

A fundamental part of Shadow Empire is managing a cast of characters who serve as leaders for my organizations, my armies, and my territories.  Each of them has a detailed character sheet, brimming with skills, attributes, statistics, and even a history of how he or she has developed over the course of the game.  Each of them has a loyalty rating, which serves as the basic number for his or her relationship to me.  Each of them will perform at a level of efficiency determined by that relationship.

So a fundamental part of Shadow Empire is which of my leaders likes me and how much they like me.  I can demote the inept or disloyal ones, but how will that look to the others?  I have to be careful who I alienate.  Every decision I make includes a breakdown of how it will affect the leaders who care about the decision.  My challenge is to balance what I want with what they want.

All the numbers remind me of managing generals in a Nobunaga’s Ambition game.  The decisions remind me of Crusader Kings with bureaucracy instead of inbreeding, madness, and murder.  And since the characters change over time — as my decisions affect their stats, as they spend their experience points improving their skills, and as I use stratagems to help or hinder them — it’s especially gratifying watching characters grow into their jobs.  Well, more often, struggle to grow into their jobs.  I’ve got my best and brightest, and then a whole lotta dross who slowly learn by doing.  It’s impossible to play Shadow Empire without having your favorites.

(Please don’t ask me about that game I lost because I wanted to see what would happen if the leader of my main infantry group got his loyalty rating into the 30s.)

7) Everything is connected in Shadow Empire

Decisions are random events that pop up each turn.  You have multiple options, with explicit information available for what each option means.  For instance, one of my neighbors with whom I have strained relations just asked that I help fight terrorist cells supposedly hiding in my cities.

If I help, I’ll increase the relation value with my neighbor, which is currently at 31, and adjust my autocracy profile by +6.  

I’ll also upset three of my leaders.  The unifying factor among them is that they all favor a strong government profile, so I’m assuming they’re reacting to the -7 hit to my government profile.

If I don’t help, I’ll decrease the relation value with my neighbor, but please the three stooges with a government boost. 

But I’m trying to cultivate a profile called meritocracy, which has three feats queuing up.  

Every turn I’ve got a 24% chance to unlock Accomplished Envoys, which gives me a +30 to diplomacy rolls on a d100.  It also puts a stratagem card in my deck called Recruit Talent that I can play to recruit an advanced leader.  If I hold meritocracy as the highest profile in its group for three more rounds, I’ll start getting a chance to unlock Capable Supervisors every turn.  These guys give me a food bonus based on my population.  Capable Supervisors also put a strategem card in my deck called Grand Convention that I can play to improve my leaders loyalty with the equivalent of a corporate getaway.  Finally, if I hold meritocracy as the highest profile in my group, and keep it above 60, I’ll start getting a chance to unlock Martial Tournaments every turn.  This adds 25 to the combat rolls my army leaders make in battle-related situations.  It also puts a stratagem card in my deck called Patriotic Collection, which lets me pass the collection plate for a little donation from the people who love their regime.  Martial Tournaments is also known as a unit feat, because it gives me the option to attach a new unit to my armies.  In this case, the unit is a Champion, which has a percentage chance to turn a damage result in combat to an outright kill.

Meritocracy is one of the three groupings of three profiles.  It suppresses democracy, which suppresses autocracy, which suppresses meritocracy.  Since each suppresses/suppressed pair wants to normalize at 100 total, you can see my meritocracy of 63 and autocracy of 40 are at the stress point (they just got there with a recent decision that gave me +7 meritocracy, as indicated in the green circle).  Autocracy is going to start pushing down on meritocracy.  If I help Tiefmark expose and exterminate the terrorist cells, it’s going to add six points to autocracy, putting its value at 46. I don’t want that, because it will push hard and degrade my meritocracy to 54.  So I’m not going to help them with the terrorist cells, which will degrade our relationship, but will help me progress the meritocracy feats.

In this situation, my diplomatic standing with a neighboring regime, the loyalty of some of my leaders, my regime’s profile, the units I can use in my army, the stratagem cards I’ll be able to draw, and global bonuses for diplomacy, food income, and combat are all connected.  I hope it’s not a spoiler to tell you that a war with Tiefmark — an avoidable war — broke out a few turns later.

NOTE: Right now, I’m in post-rage-quit mode with Shadow Empire because I cannot figure out how rail transport and logistics works, despite poring over the manual, reading the ingame help, and running several tests with saved games.  But writing this list of seven things has nearly turned me around.  I expect I’ll be playing again within a few days. 

  • Shadow Empire

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Slightly more fascinating than confounding, which keeps me coming back