Empire: Interesting but incomplete

Crazy Monkey Studios’ Empire is a ‘light’ strategy game for mobile platforms and PC (1) that contains some interesting ideas and a striking dark-fantasy aesthetic, but ultimately falls short of its promise.

 

There are two key concepts at the heart of Empire. From a mechanical perspective,  it opts for simplicity over detail; from a thematic perspective, it’s not about the rise of empires, but about their fall. At first, Empire looks like a scaled-down Civilization: the player starts with one city, which automatically gathers resources. Resources can be spent on city upgrades, new cities (up to three) or units (up to six), or exploration. And as cities gradually consume the land around them, players must periodically abandon their existing cities in favour of new ones. In times of peace, this ticks along with no micromanagement – settlers travel instantly to new city sites; there is no worker management; cities upgrade the moment there is enough food; and the player’s army is treated as a single pool that deploys to wherever it’s needed (i.e. there is no need to manoeuvre separate units).

 

This brings me to the second aspect of the game – warfare. Monster nests will periodically pop up both in and outside the player’s vision, and unless rooted out, monster nests will eventually grow large enough to spawn attacks against player cities. Since more and more monster nests erupt over time, battles become increasingly frequent; and as one successful attack will destroy even the largest city, this makes the game harder and harder. The battles themselves are fought out on a tactical grid, like so. At the start of battle, each unit (friendly and enemy) is placed in a random row, moves forward automatically, and fights automatically if it encounters a foe. Actually giving commands requires the use of cards drawn from a deck (see the bottom of the above screenshot). Different units attack in different directions and respond to different cards; for instance, there is a “Cavalry Move” card, an “Archer Take Cover” card, and so on. Winning battles confers new cards; however, for each unit lost, the player’s deck will be cluttered up by a useless “strife” card.

 

At first, the originality of all this impressed me. Tiger-riding cavalry! No micromanagement! A TBS about staving off decline! Five games (four defeats and, finally, one victory) later, the shine has come off. The problem with Empire is that it takes simplicity too far: there is too much randomness and not enough levers for the player to pull. On the main map,  I can’t discern much room for strategy, other than balancing resource allocation between immediate priorities and the need to develop new settlements. On the tactical level, an army can be wrecked by unfortunate random unit placement and card draws. And because (a) monsters become nastier over time, (b) it takes resources to develop cities, build an army, and fight the monsters, but losing cities will diminish resource income, and (c) losing units produces strife cards (making future battles even harder), it is hard to bounce back from defeats. All it takes is one full-sized monster nest, and one battle where each unit starts in the wrong row and the wrong cards come up, and in a few minutes a healthy empire can cascade into a death spiral. Now, this arguably works as a statement about the fragility of seemingly stable equilibria, but I don’t think it makes for a satisfying strategy game.

 

Ultimately, there are some fresh and promising concepts behind Empire, and I’d like to see what its creators do next — both in terms of patching this game (the designers have promised “a ton of awesome ideas / features planned for post-release”) and in their future projects. Certainly, there are ideas here that other developers should mine. But as it stands, Empire just doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to last beyond its strong first impression.

 

(1) It is currently available on Gamersgate, and Crazy Monkey Studios is attempting to get it through Steam Greenlight.

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