03 July 2011

Conquest of the Empire II [Boardgame review]

This is the answer from my game collection to my friends Game of Thrones game, though honestly I like this game a lot more. It is the only game I own that I can't say is good straight out of the box, which is also why we haven't played it more than a few times. It pains me a bit because it is not altogether bad, I'll try to explain my reasoning about this game in a moment.

First though, this is a strategy game set in a time when Imperial Rome suffered from civil war. You have 2-6 players taking up the role of an aspiring Caesar who need to win the power over the empire by accumulating more political influence than any of his rivals. To do this you build armies, secure "key provinces" located all around the map and use politics to boost your influence ratio. Losing battles, enforcing war taxes in your realm or even raising armies will gather unrest which at the end of each campaign season (year) will be deducted from your overall accumulated influence.

The game lasts 4 years (a fifth is optional and can be played if you have players that are close to each other in terms of victory points), and each year is divided into 4 turns. Each turn every player gets to do 2 actions. The actions range from recruiting armies, moving them around the map, buying influence tokens in regions, taking over enemy influence tokens and replacing them with your own, pick up or buy "Conquest" cards, buy senate cards and start a senate vote. As you see the options are quite numerous. It's really not that complicated though.

So far so good. The basics are great, and work rather well. The problem is that they came comes with 2 variants, each covered in a rulebook of its own. You have the "classic" which is a much more, I wouldn't say "dumbed down" but that is basically what it is, version. And you get a "Conquest II" which can be said is the advanced ruleset where you get to play with the cards and things working a bit differently.

Classic, is the old version from the 80s. While the Conquest II version is the remake or whatever you want to call it, and it is clearly made to appeal to a broader audience of strategy game nuts with some additional options. However, being completely new to the game, and looking through both rulesets will be VERY confusing and it is hard to really pinpoint one version being completely superior over the other as they play differently. Even the classic version which is perhaps aimed at a younger or more casual audience has some really good game mechanics written into it that aren't included in the advanced version. And vice versa.

Classic version for instance, has currency inflation, road building, fortifications and armies usually only move one area each turn. The inflation is pretty clever as it slows down the pace of the game when players start to earn a bit too much money, inflation will kick in up to two times and each time the cost of everything will be doubled.

Conquest II, has "Conquest cards" which is a deck of cards with random events that are generated each year. Double the amount of conquest cards flipped face up each years to the amount of players. Then during each turn any player may spend one action to pick up or buy one of these cards. Card effects range from army training bonuses, being able to pillage the countryside for more money, have senators which come in handy during the voting process etc.

Conquest II on the other hand has an abstract way of moving your armies around, as long as you have a leader in your army you can move them in a mind-blowing way from one end of the map to the other using only one action! On the other hand armies stop and are "locked" with enemy armies if they move into occupied territory, and to commence battle a player need to spend one action. This balances the magical movement quite a bit. And honestly, after you get over the stupidity of how illogical the movement is - you will get a more action during the game as you no longer need to march 1,5 year towards the enemy lands.

Conquest II also have, in my opinion, a very nice alliance system. At the start of each year the players will start to form alliances (forced or voluntary) that will lock factions in non aggression pacts with each other and also determine the order of play among players during the 4 turns to come. This alliance rule involves bidding with money, and as another twist only the winner discards the money he was using to bid (as opposed to most games that always force you to discard resources used in bidding). The non aggression pacts can be used to keep a powerful player from attacking you for the remainder of the year as you build up your strength, but it will be extremely important if you want to act sooner rather than later at the start of each turn (often being able to grab important Conquest cards on display).

At the start of each year, each player picks up a set number of province tokens and place them on the appropriate province. Players will then be able to go to these provinces and exchance the province tokens with their faction tokens investing money and an action using their leaders. This is also what will win you the game in the end. And guarding these provinces that you control are the main concern of your army.

The thing is that neither variant of the game be it classic or Conquest II, is satisfying. And the reason for that is geographical differences between starting positions and weird game design.

For instance, there are 6 starting locations. 4 in the northern half of the board and 2 in the south of northern Africa. The southern regions have no immediate "key regions" to conquer which will force them to either fight their neighbor over scraps and lose momentum or force them to cross the sea which is very tedious early game. 2 of the northern factions start out in balanced regions where they can conquer areas that will give them reasonable amounts of money and political influence. 1 of the northern regions is basically a top a goldmine of resources - you could argue that it is "surrounded by enemies", but the chance of  getting crazy rich and get political perks of holding Italy/Rome regions is skewed in favor of this player. Finally we have the last northern player who starts out in a complete crap region without any influence/income possibilities at all. Which forces him to move out of his home region completely before can even start to catch up with the remaining players.

The way the map is printed makes re-balancing a bit hard. You would almost have to assign completely new starting locations to all 6 players.

I also think that this game lacks a "unit limit" for each region. You can stockpile your entire unit collection in one tiny province. What I think should be done is to include some sort of food/upkeep limit per region akin to the one found in RuneWars. Where the amount of food equals the amount of units you can have in each region - with starvation kicking in during the winter quarter of the year which reduces armies to your food limit in all regions. As it is now, one player can stockpile 20 units in a region, while the enemy army is limited to 8 models.

I don't know, I want to like this game and there are things I do like about it but it just leaves an awkward and unsatisfied feeling after a completed game. I really think that rewriting or adding stuff of your own could be necessary to make it up to standard of games such as RuneWars.

As such I can't recommend buying it, if you get it as a gift though it won't be a tragedy. The board itself and game components such as tokens and cards are great. The miniatures are OK, much more robust than those of RuneWars. It's not a cheap game and thus you have some expectations about quality straight out of the box which in my opinion are not fully met.

4 comments:

  1. Thinking about it, what would be the easiest way to "fix" all my problems with the game - is simply to use a completely new map where the starting locations and key-region values are more balanced and more properly distributed.

    Because the rest of the rules in Conquest II are actually pretty solid as they are. They just seem halfbaked due to the map layout.

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  2. You are spot on! The reason for this discrepancy between rules and map is because the rules are lifted largely wholesale from Martin Wallace's Struggle of Empires (which has more abstract units though). It is the type of game, with origins in traditional wargames, where not much effort is put into balancing, but tools are given to players to balance the situation themselves.

    Actually this game has been on sales several times and in US can be had for 15 $.

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  3. We had tons of fun playing CoE back in the 80's. I picked up CoE 2 as my original was suffering old age. We still play the original version as we don't mind the unbalanced setup. We also don't care for the artifical alliance system. It is a gamey mechanic, ceasers should be able to make or break alliances at their whim. What good is being a ceaser otherwise? :)

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  4. We actually prefer "fixed" alliances. Random backstabbing is imo making player agreed alliances useless and thus our group never actually makes any. So we really liked this system.

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