26 May 2012

Empire of the Dead rules review

Empire of the Dead is a 28mm campaign driven skirmish game which takes place during the last years of the 19th century (1888 to be exact). It comes with Gothic Horror and Steampunk influences and the story is telling about troublesome times plaguing Europe ever since the discovery of a new metal called “Infernium”. “Infernium” could be compared to Uranium in that very tiny quantities of this material contain huge amounts of energy which is used by the people in this universe to propel the technological advancement of the late Victorian era. The hi-tech advancement has reached the stage where such oddities as gyrocopters, steam powered constructs and tesla technology among other things are present.

The balance of power has shifted with this discovery, the largest deposit of Infernium is located in England and there is a lot of cloak and dagger activity involving secret societies trying to manipulate and control governments going on. Furthermore the technological abominations has led to an upswing in unnatural beings emerging, werewolf sightings are now commonplace and the ancient Nosferatu haunt the lands leaving a trail of corpses in their wake.

In this world players take control of a small band of characters belonging to one of the 4 factions; “Gentlemen’s Club”, “The Lycaon”,  “Nosferatu” and “The Holy order”. Each such band is made up of a leader, supported by lieutenants and backed up by regular members (minions). A band is roughly 6-7 members strong on the outset of the campaign and may grow or shrink as the campaign progresses. Members start out with basic attributes, skills and powers but may grow stronger and accumulate various abilities in between games.

Let’s first talk about the rules before going into details about the factions and the campaign.

Empire of the Dead uses D10 dice combined with stats numbers to generate results in an interesting way. Interesting because you have modifiers and opposite rolls but also a threshold that has to be reached in order to succeed with an action. For instance a model that wants to shoot combines its Marksmanship stat number with 1D10, if the combined number is 10 or more the shot has hit the target. This is an easy and elegant way of making things a bit more sophisticated and to really press home the difference in skill between different attributes or characters in a gang.

You also add a set number of modifiers such as long range, firing at someone who moved, is in cover etc. You basically add the negative numbers to your grand total and see if you reach the threshold to achieve your desired action.

The turn sequence in this game goes like this:

Maintenance phase – checking scenario effects, victory points and resolving wound recovery rolls.

Initiative roll, winner gets to activate his faction first.

Action phase, players move and perform the actions of their entire faction – one model at a time. When one player has completed his actions - the other player goes on to do the same.
Combat phase, simultaneous hand to hand combat is resolved one fight at a time.

Turn ends, start over.

Actions in this game include all kinds of movement, such as walking, running, sneaking, hiding, climbing, flying etc. It also includes shooting, casting spells and declaring charges. The action phase is combined of two steps, players choose what type of movement their models are to perform – and then what type of other action they are going to do when movement is done. The rules really cover a lot of various situations; models can help each other climb fences and walls, jumping gaps and so on.

There are 9 stats in this game that each character has; Movement range, combat, marksmanship, strength, fortitude, attacks, wounds, bravado and arcane.
Most of these are self explanatory.

Bravado is the “morale” stat of this game and used when a model is exposed to something scary and to test the force morale. Your models have to test their morale once your gang is reduced below 50% of its starting members (either "Down" or removed from play). Each miniature remaining has to test morale individually (leaders are useful here to boost nearby models).

Wounds are also self explanatory, but the effect of dropping to 0 wounds has a twist. You roll on a small table which includes “flesh wound” (nothing happens) and “removed from play” (casualty). But it also features a stunned effect where the model is dazed and cannot do much next turn except for staggering around – and – “Down”. Down is pretty serious business as you have been so badly injured that you have to roll “wound recovery” at the start of each turn. Unless you roll a 1 you will remain in your own pool of blood, crawling about – or even bleeding to death. Becoming down is pretty much being neutralized and it has a penalty effect on you once the game is over if you play a campaign. More about that soon.

Results are as mentioned generated by using a D10 and adding a stat and possible modifiers. There are no “save rolls” in this game. Some rolls have a threshold requirement to succeed, other rolls such as “to wound” once you have hit your enemy only require a roll of Strength vs Fortitude. Casting spells works in a similar way to shooting in that you use a D10 and your “arcane” stat combined. When casting passive spells you only have to reach the casting threshold for the spell, when casting offensive spells you use the target models “arcane” stat as well – adding it as a negative modifier to your own casting roll. So there is stuff going on with the stats beyond the usual standardization.

The campaign rules are really the heart of this game. You can play standalone games, but just like in games such as Legends of the Old West, Strange Aeons, Gladiator, Mordheim and other skirmish games the fun lies in progressing with your gang of characters and see them accumulate injuries and new abilities. Players of mentioned games will be familiar with much of the campaign mechanics – mainly the “post game sequence”. However Empire of the Dead  tweaks the familiar features with a couple of innovations.

First of all, the game revolves around money – the currency is “shillings”. Each faction starts with 150 shillings which they spend on recruiting members for their faction and supplying them with weapons. Players proceed to play scenarios that include various victory conditions. Fulfilling victory conditions in a satisfactory way and for killing enemy models players earn more money. Now the usual campaign rules would have player automatically upgrade all survivors of their gang. In Empire of the Dead however you have the choice of paying for “advancement rolls” for your models. You may thus spend or save cash for other things – such as recruiting more members, buying more weapons or buying “influence”.

If you want to buy advancement rolls you are free to choose between either a random increase of your stat line, a random generic ability or random faction related ability.
Models that ended the game removed from play have to roll on a chart to see what happens – it includes all types of physical injuries and may also lead to being arrested by the peelers, captured by the enemy faction or going temporarily insane. Each result branches out even further. Being arrested may end with just paying a fine, serving time or being deported/enlisted in the army. Going insane is a continuous effect that you roll for after each game – where your character may either regain his sense or completely loose it and be locked up in the insane asylum. Being captured by the enemy means that you can play the “rescue the hostage” scenario and try to free your friends – it may also end with the captured character being killed and robbed by the enemy faction. It may even lead to the enemy faction converting your character to their side!

Beside spells, which are limited to but a few characters at the start of the campaign and which you receive by rolling on the faction table, there is another thing called “Unusual occurrence” which players may trigger by spending “influence” points. Influence points are purchased in between games, and may be used to affect the day/night of a scenario, create mobs of angry bystanders, raising zombies and other such things that affect the gameplay.

The gamplay as weird and tech savvy as it may sound in the fluff is actually on the outset based around regular modern and medieval weaponry with a few spells and the occasional “Unusual occurrence” thrown in. It is when the campaign progresses and factions start to buy really high end technology and accumulate more spellcasters and spells that the game adds a feeling of a world moving away from the normal.

The 4 factions are compact in their roster, each includes a leader, a subleader and minion profiles. No factions is over the top in any one department, the differences are more subtle like starting with a slightly higer statline, starting with some spells or abilities. The overall feel of the game and the factions is a lot more controlled than compared to Malifaux which really is all over the place and so over the top in every department that it becomes fatiguing trying to cope with it. No, Empire of the Dead, despite including Werewolves, Vampire and regular humans have factions that begin the game rather close to each other and goes on to specialize as the campaign progresses.

Worth mentioning is that the “Gentleman’s club” has the option to specialize a bit at the start of the campaign by spending money on belonging to one of 4 distinct clubs. Each club tweaks 1 (but significant enough) stat in a positive way while reducing another to keep the balance.

The campaign includes a lot of ranged and close combat weapons, gear, special weapons, skills and features to give you a detailed and rich campaign experience.

A lot of things in this book look and feel familiar, but it really feels like a “best of” compilation of features that blend and work very well together to give a smooth gaming experience. The rules are written clearly, the rules are easy to follow, easy to learn but have enough going on to be beyond the “roll 4+ to hit” formula. It includes Day/Night features that affect vampires in and human visibility, it includes "the public" (bystanders) and locations that have their own special features and impact the gameplay or after action phase.

I think the design choice is actually clever when it comes to the restricted unit roster. For one, it sure makes it a lot easier to balance the factions, and two – you really go on to create your own unique characters with the help of the campaign rather than buying specialists for standalone games. The design choice of IGOUGO is a bit strange for a skirmish game but it has been done before albeit on a smaller level (Strange Aeons) and in a hybrid form (Legends of the Old West). In Empire of the Dead it works as a straight IGOUGO sequence but it does work and keeps the game flowing fast. It will take a few more games for me to really tell more about my impression about this decision – but it only feels strange for the first couple of turns and then you get used to it. 

The rulebook is absolutely stunning, the artwork is wonderful and for those familiar with the work of West Wind’s Andy Cooper will be familiar with its style, but it is a lot better and dare I say inspired than in Secrets of the Third Reich. The rulebook is in full color and hardback and beside the great artwork it features a lot of pictures of the new Empire of the Dead miniatures which add to the already vast Gothic  Horror/Vampire Wars range of West Wind miniatures. West Wind really learned their lesson from the Secrets of the Third Reich game, and this time around the release of the rules already have all the factions covered with new and old sculpts, no need to wait for anything. The layout is also good, fluff and backstory comes first, then the rules. You won't have to flip through fluff to find the rules. All core rules are in one place, all campaign features are in another.

Check out the discussion of the game and to download the additional special characters PDF for free over at the West Wind forum here: http://westwindproductions.co.uk/forums/index.php

Publisher: West Wind
Contents: 152 pages full color
Authors: Nigel Atkinson, Sam Catterall
Format: Initiative based IGOUGO
Dice used: D10
Price: £30 (includes limited edition miniature)


  1. Thanks for the review I was looking at buying this game. But I think I'll pass now as IGOUGO kills it for me.

  2. I'm actually going to try it with alternate activation as well - so don't give up just yet.

    1. I'll be interested to see how that turns out.

  3. So how does it stack up against Strange Aeons?

  4. It sounds really good, but I'm holding out for Osprey's steampunk rules out next year. I am not so keen on rules linked to a particular background/range of figures.

  5. Empire of the dead is a great game. I heartily reccomend it -and if you happen to be in Glasgow, Scotland, on the 2nd of June for Wappinshaw, come see me. My gaming group is running participation games all day.

  6. @Paul , they are two pretty different games - I have already planned a "skirmish game" post next week where I intend to talk about things like sharing ideas, rules, concept within "Skirmish games".

    Suffice to say it is a different kind of game and a different experience so Strange Aeons and Empire of the Dead don't really cannibalize each other for attention.

    Some AAR's are coming up (Nosferatu vs Gentlemen's Club faction) as well as my report from trying out the rules with a "alternate activation" tweak today with a friend. This works, but needs a bit of work - it's not a clean conversion. On the other hand the core rules work remarkably well for being IGOUGO in a skirmish format.

  7. A little question, which board size do you play this game on?

  8. I'm really enjoying Strange Aeons (your reviews are great by the way), and after having found most of the best information about Empire of the Dead on your blog here, am very tempted to pick up a bunch of it as well. I had the same concern as Paul, but hopefully some of my players will have room for a similar-yet-different game.

    One thing I'm surprised that no one has mentioned about the EotD fluff is that it sounds a LOT like Deadlands, set in urban UK rather than the US west. I don't mind that at all though, because I think Deadlands is a great setting.

    If all else fails in terms of EotD as a game for me...I'm sure I can find a use for some of the really excellent miniatures that they are producing!

  9. The Masked MinstrelJuly 8, 2012 at 8:42 AM

    Was interested in this, but it looks too much like Mordheim which sucked bigtime. Pity, nice miniatures

  10. Thanks Anatoli after reading youre blog i got my Gentelmen and vampires and this saturday im going to play this with friends in my club.

    1. Happy to hear that Damien, it's a really fun game and I think those two factions offer a great time when pitted against each other :-)

  11. Anatoli, could I reprint this review in my VSF e-zine, The Aethergraph?


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