January 23, 2012

Board Game Review: Conquest of the Empire

Conquest of the Empire (Eagle Games/Larry Harris and Glenn Drover, 2005)
2-6 players / 10 + / 2-5 hours

"Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.  I come to play this game, not bury it on our shelves.  The evil we do to games by not playing them lives on; their good is oft interred with their components.  Let it not be with Conquest.  The noble Glenn Drover hath told you Conquest was ambitious: if it were so, it was a grievous understatement, and grievously hath Conquest answered it!"

"Um, Dad...what are you talking about?"

"Oh, uh, er...nothing?  Maybe, um, I'll just take a card..."

What You Get:

At first I thought the title, Conquest of the Empire, was simply an ambitious reference to the game's epic nature.  After owning it, however, I now understand it is really an old Latin phrase meaning something like, "box so heavy it requires a pack mule."  The components are both aesthetically pleasing and functionally sturdy (with one unfortunate exception).  There are nearly 400 finely-detailed, plastic miniatures of infantry, cavalry, catapults, triremes, and leaders that stand almost two inches tall.  The catapults even have moving arms!  You also get molded cities (16), fortifications (16), and road segments (20). Rounding out the plastic components is a pile of gold and silver, plastic coins which add a charming, thematic touch.  A large deck of poker-sized, linen-textured cards provide a good deal of fun and random historical flavor.  Modest stacks of quality, cardboard chits keep track of territory, political control, and domestic unrest.  To resolve combat, the game includes twelve very nice custom...wait for it...dice!

The one, bitter-sweet component that accounts for the vast majority of the game's heft is the massive 46" x 36" board.  Wow!  Artistically rendered in a stunning, antique style (with imaginative illustrations), it is quite impressive when sprawled out on your table in all of its imperial glory.  Forget about crowding!  No area is too small for your vast legions marching across the Mediterranean world.  Sadly, there are drawbacks when you make a board the size of a refrigerator.  I mean, I can lay my 4-year old down on this thing.  The first issue is space.  This easily swallows up twice the space of any other game in our collection (except for Attack! Deluxe Expansion, also by Eagle).  Many gamers simply won't have a sufficient table conveniently at hand, but will instead need to make special accommodation or suffer through cramped quarters, or both.  Also, even though it comes in three sections, ours warp quite significantly and the paper surface is already beginning to peel at the folds.  Beyond that, it is just simply difficult to reach from one end to the other.  The kids have to walk around the table, and even I have to stand up frequently for greater reach, to complete turns.  There is no arguing against the overall value, however.

Control the Med.
The Quick Rundown:

Essentially, the Eagle Games version is two-games-in-one!  The first rules set is a minor revision of the classic Milton Bradley GameMaster Series installment designed by Larry Harris of Axis & Allies fame...or infamy.  A quintessential area-control, dudes-on-a-map game, you'll start small in one of the empire's major provinces and slowly build up and expand until the inevitable clash with other powers.  Typically, you will deal with your closest neighbors first in a sort of East-West and/or North-South axis divided by the Black and Mediterranean Seas.  Then the survivors of that go-around will try to finish each other off.  You will roll lots of dice, kill lots of plastic men, and spend lots of time.  You win when you're the last Caesar standing.

The updated reboot contained in the second rules set is a much more sophisticated affair.  You can still roll a lot of dice and still kill a lot of plastic men, but you'll spend a little less time doing it all.  Fighting is less the end goal, but instead just another means to an end, and not always the best one, at that.  Conquest II is all about using action points to achieve area majorities in various provinces which will translate into victory points.  On your turn, you choose two actions of the following possibilities: move land units, engage in land battle, move and/or engage naval units, buy political influence, levy emergency taxes, recruit units, take a conquest card, or pass.  Total game time consists of 4-5 campaign seasons divided into four rounds each (players agree on which length beforehand).  With two actions per round, you only have a precious total of 32-40 for the entire game.  A final major difference in mechanics between the classic and new versions is player elimination - there is none in Conquest II.
It's all about the VP...track.
T for Teens:

Conquest of the Empire is yet another title right there on the cusp of complete family friendliness, yet falls just a wee short.  While the kids really like playing, and understand the straight-forward rules quite well, the game is still challenging for an adult to plow through with younger ones (I'd argue it's better suited, at the least, for ages 13+).  It is an inherent aspect to most war games of this nature.  Instead of concerning myself with personal game play, I focus more on teaching opportunities and on playing up the game's thematic moments to build a fun experience that takes advantage of my children's natural fondness for the genre.  That sure beats putting my head through the wall when one of them buys 15 infantry and holes up in Numidia, again.

Coins - excellent thematic touch.

There are some nice elements to the game.  The classic version holds a personal nostalgia for me as one of the games I cut my teeth on in junior high and high school.  It is straight-forward and has a unique combat system.  Instead of rolling for certain numbers to score hits, you are trying to match symbols on the dice with your units engaged in the fight.  Additionally, you do not roll for every unit present, but rather assign a "front line" that will roll for a particular round.  After one round is resolved, you repeat until final victory or defeat.  This gives an out-numbered defender a puncher's chance, while still giving the advantage to the greater force overall.  Still, it's a brutal slug-fest without much nuance in which the poor get poorer, the rich get richer, and turtling can really drag down the pace.  But for an innocent half-day of fun, there's a simple country, or should I say provincial, charm to it.

Conquest II provides a more subtle game of political conquest, rather than military, which considerably refines game play.  To score points, your Caesar must kiss babies, speak at $1,000/plate banquets, and grease some palms.  Only about a dozen provinces are considered worthy enough to vie for this influence.  You must slip into those choice swing-states with your Caesar, or a general, to scoop up available influence markers, which can be yours for the right price.  The whole mechanic is actually a model of the Chicago political machine where buying influence naturally abstracts the system of job nepotism, union schmoozing, vote buying, and trash collecting.

The mix of available non-military actions is a nice change of pace for kids from other similarly fashioned war games.  The conquest cards offer a good variety of bonuses.  Some are even free, but may require another type of trade-off in exchange for its advantages.  Six of these cards simulate Senate votes on various issues that provide further benefits that you must win by having a majority of senators (gathered from still more cards).  Naval and land movement is very abstracted, but in a good way for this game's purposes.  The ability to levy units and raise additional taxes are necessities to be planned for at just the right time - but be careful, as doing so too much creates chaos in your ranks which can lead to loss of victory points.  All of this needs to be orchestrated with the aim of performing the most important action - buy influence.

Of course, battle can be, shall we say, "Advantageous."

The over-arching political goals seem to soften the core confrontation factor somewhat, but adds another wrinkle in the form of strategic hesitation.  You can buy other players' influence markers if they do not have a military presence in that particular province.  Therefore, you must develop a careful strategy of balancing military and political expenditures.  This design actually tends then to limit the amount of warfare, because even if victorious, combat means attrition, which means less boots on the ground to protect your influence abroad, which means you spend more to raise new troops, which means you have less money to buy influence.  That political influence is the most important component as it translates into victory points.  And money is already a tight commodity in Conquest II.  So as kids are confronted with balancing politics, military, and economics, they sometimes can seize up with indecision.

For adult gamers, especially non-wargamers, the action point mechanic should be attractive in that it reduces downtime and keeps things moving at a nice clip.  It may seem like having a limit of only two actions per round would make for agonizing decisions, but it is not a major issue once familiar with the game.  Battles intermittently stall the pace, but those are fun to watch even if not personally involved.  Also, the game time restriction, in the form of four to five campaign seasons, should ease worries regarding never-ending, heavy-weight bouts that are often associated with the genre.

Okay, I'll Shut-Up Now:

In the end, I give Conquest of the Empire a 7 on the Board Game Geek scale (Good game. Usually willing to play).  Conquest I appeals to the wargamer in me, albeit not as a recurring and favorite title.  Conquest II has a good variety of Euro mechanics mixed in that should bridge a little bit of the gap with non-wargamers, although it will run a bit longer for the average hobbyist.  For your kids, ultimately the title is better suited to teenagers.  Not to completely discourage keeping it away from younger ones, though.  There are certainly universal gaming nuggets presented here in a simple fashion.  Just be prepared.  While the structured action point mechanic helps to shorten the overall game length, downtime between turns is still an issue while children try to decide on the best strategic balance.  Patience will be necessary; which is often not one of Caesar's virtues!

Examples of the Conquest Cards.

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