Conquest of the Empire
In my younger days and college years, I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I'd never acquire Conquest of the Empire - at that point one of the GameMaster series by Milton Bradley. I had the "big three", Axis and Allies, Fortress America, and Samurai Swords, but Conquest was more elusive and didn't seem to be in many stores. Then, I read on the internet that the game was a good one but had "broken" rules about catapults. This, added to the games rarity, pretty much convinced me that I'd never pick up the game.
Then I heard that Eagle Games had acquired the rights and were going to reprint it. Wow! I mean, I consider Eagle Games to be the successors of the GameMaster series, and now they were going to make one of the games I had wished for into a purchasable reality with their incredible component quality! (Waiting on Fortress America, still). When I finally saw the finished product, I was blown away by how it looked; and I was expecting it to look great! Conquest of the Empire (Eagle Games, 2005 - Larry Harris and Glenn Drover) comes with TWO sets of rules for two almost completely different games. One set of rules is an improved version of the original rules of the game - a rule set redone by Larry Harris with input from Glen. But another set of rules is included, a set done by Glen Drover but heavily based on (and attributed to) the rules to Struggle of Empires by Martin Wallace. Both games involve the struggle between would-be-Caesars and their competition to control the ancient Roman empire in the second century. Players take the role of their "Caesar", attempting to conquer all other players either by total destruction (the first game) or most points (the second).
I've had a chance to play through both rule sets; and while I'm not sure I would buy the game on the strength of the first rule set (although I'm sure there are plenty of people who will enjoy it), the rules based on Mr. Wallace's game are tremendous; and I had a real blast playing them. They're certainly abstract, and I almost feel guilty for using such beautiful pieces and such a massive board to play what is closer to a "Eurogame."
Some comments on the game… (Game #1 refers to Harris' design, and #2 refers to Drover's design.)
1.) Map: The huge map is pretty much the standard in any Eagle game these days; but unlike a few of the former boards, this one utilizes space pretty well. Yes, they could have made the board much smaller, but the larger board provides a much more grandiose experience. I do understand that some might have a problem with this, as table space is limited - Conquest certainly demands a gargantuan playing area.
2.) Miniatures: I always insist that a war game with miniatures is invariably more fun to play than one without them and still think that here. There are only five basic types of units (leaders, spearmen, cavalry, galleys, and catapults), but they are beautiful models - some of the largest plastic models I've seen come in any war game. The galleys are huge and well detailed, and the catapults actually have a moving piece! Add this to some nice city, fortress, and road pieces, and the game is a plastic treasure trove - the complete setup game is amazing to behold.
3.) Money: The plastic coins used for money in both games is fantastic to see and feel, while at the same time feeling just a tad bit overdone. I love the coins - they're HUGE, and easy to pass around and move. In fact, I think any game such as this is often better served by coins rather than paper bills. But the coins are spent (at least in Game # 1) to such a high degree that people rarely hang on to them. We found that we spent our entire income each turn, as one can barely afford not to. On the flip side, money is much more important in Game # 2, as it's used for alliances, purchasing cards, units, etc. The coins are a big "wow" factor of the game - not since Ave Caesar have I seen such neat plastic coins.
4.) Other Components: The cards (used for # 2) are of the highest quality with the stunning artwork by Paul Niemeyer all over them. In fact, Paul's artwork for this game, both on the box, board, and cards, is some of the best artistry I've seen in a game ever. It's very invocative of the turmoil-filled period of the second century and helps set the mood quite well. The chaos tokens, province tokens, and influence tokens are all two-sided cardboard tokens, easy to handle, and all easy to distinguish from each other.
5.) Combat: Six-sided dice are included with the game, each with a picture of an infantry on two sides, a cavalry on another, a catapult on another, a galley on the fifth side, and the sixth blank. While battles are different in each game, there are similarities. Basically, dice are rolled, and for each picture that matches one of the units making the attack, a casualty is taken from the other side. It's almost a reverse of the combat system from Memoir '44. While it's effective, and I enjoy it more than using regular six-sided dice; it's still quite lucky. We found that occasionally a much superior force would lose ignominiously to a smaller troop, and for some people, that can be annoying. Having combined arms is a help in battles, but I'm wondering if an optimal combination can be found. In the first game, catapults have their uses (can attack from reserve), and cavalry are fairly useful (can move two spaces instead of one like everyone else). But the infantry are the true backbone, and I found myself continuing to buy them. Not only are they the cheapest unit to buy, they also seem to be the most powerful - hitting 33% of the time, as opposed to the 16% of the other units. There is a limit of troops a player can have, and I suppose that the fact that players will eventually be forced to buy other units balances the game out; but I wonder if the power of infantry might not cause war strategies that are too similar. Time will tell.
6.) Struggle of Empires: Struggle of Empires is a fantastic game by Martin Wallace that is an excellent abstract game about colonizing the world and spreading one's influence. Game # 2 is, while not an exact replica, fairly close to Struggle, using many of the same mechanics and having the same basic game structure. It's quite a bit simpler than Struggle, and I'm not so sure that's a bad thing - quite the opposite! In Struggle, there were a myriad of different tiles that players had a choice of acquiring each round to further their cause. In Conquest, players utilize almost the same system - but instead using a deck of cards. Each turn, cards are turned over equal to twice the number of players in the game. This allows the players some options - from a deck of many - but not enough to overwhelm them. The card mechanic also helps cut down on some of the angst of decisions and makes play smoother. I really enjoyed the Conquest cards and thought that Glen took a clever mechanic by Wallace and made it even better.
7.) Abstract: Game # 2 is fairly abstract, especially in movement. Players can, if not stopped by their opponents, move their armies in ways that might boggle the mind of a traditional war gamer (it's similar to the free move in Risk). I've found that the war gamers that I've played # 2 with have generally not been as impressed by it, and some can't deal with the abstract nature of the movement. I think the movement symbolizes political maneuvering myself, and enjoy it, but I can see how some might find it shortcoming. Either way, both games force all players to move armies only with a leader, and that is something I find enjoyable. Players can't move all their armies - just five or so of them (players have four leaders and "Caesar"). Leaders add some combat bonuses in battle, but their biggest draw is that they move armies around. This takes the game above being abstract and grounds it in the reality of that historical period.
8.) Elimination: Game # 1 has elimination, while # 2 doesn't. That, simply, is the sole reason that I would have to enjoy game # 2 better. When a player is eliminated in the game, the conqueror gains all their resources, getting richer in the process. This is fine, as long as you come into the game knowing this, but I enjoyed the peaceful yet wary cooperation that occurs in game # 2.
9.) Alliances: The single best feature of Struggle of Empires was the force alliances, and that has carried over to Game # 2 of Conquest. Each "season" (series of turns) players bid on turn order and player alliances. Players attempt to place each other in either "Alliance A" or "Alliance B". For the remainder of that turn, players in the same alliance may not attack one another (although they can do underhanded things), thus giving a rich player a lot of power (they can determine who's in which alliance). For me, this is one of the best ways I've seen to handle multiplayer games where everyone gangs up on one person. With alliances, at least two other people can only resist the leader in a passive way.
10.) Players: Both games support up to six players, but I'm not sure that six is a good number for game # 1. In # 2, players simply take two actions, and then the next player takes a turn, keeping downtime to a minimum. In game # 1, downtime is rather long, and I found myself occasionally getting bored because others moved a little slowly. In # 2, I think six is the optimal number - it makes alliances more exciting and important. In # 1, it would appear that four is the magic number.
11.) Rules: Two rulebooks are included with each game and are full of colorful rules, pictures, hints, examples, and more. I didn't have any problems with the rules for # 2, but we did have some questions (which I did find the answers for online) from # 1. Both games are easy to teach, but # 1 is much more comprehensible for people to understand - the strategies are straightforward and don't differentiate much. In game # 2, players have many options, and therefore can take a variety of tactics.
12.) Senators: There are a lot of different things I could say about game #2, but the senate vote was a neat feature for me. Each player receives some senator cards that have values of 1-3 at the beginning of the game. Players can purchase vote cards during the game, which means they can call a vote on one of five different agendas. Each player uses their senator cards to sway the vote (more of these can be picked up during the game) with the winner usually getting a pretty nice benefit. I liked how the senate added a bit of variety to the game. If one concentrates too much in the Senate, they have to back off a bit militarily, and vice versa. It's fairly difficult to maintain the perfect balance.
There's a lot more that I can say about both versions, but the burning question is - which one is better? For me, it's a no brainer - version # 2 is more enjoyable for me. I like the fact that it's much shorter, that it has less downtime, and that it offers a wide range of possibilities. It's possible to do well without much combat, which might scare of some prospective players, but they would probably enjoy version # 1 better, anyway. For me, Struggle of Empires was a magnificent (but fairly complicated and long game). Conquest has taken that system, streamlined and made it more accessible, while at the same time adding in some of the best components in a game ever.
But why quibble? The best feature of Conquest of the Empire is that you get two complete games in one box! I loved version # 2 and had a fairly fun time with # 1, while some of the people I played with had the opposite reaction. Yes, Conquest carries a fairly hefty price tag but compared to the huge amount of toys in it (it weighs a lot!), you're certainly getting your money's worth. And having games inside that will appeal to both war gamers and Eurogamers - the value of the new Conquest is amazing. If you're interested in an empire building game, whether you like combat as a focus or not, this is an excellent game to purchase. Just pick the rules set that best suits you. Either way, the beautiful components are yours to have fun with.
"Real men play board games."