Thursday, August 27, 2015

GJJG Game Reviews - Middle Empire by Nateco Holdings, LLC

Middle Empire
Designer: Nathan White
Publisher: NateCo Holdings, LLC
GJJG Game Reviews - Middle Empire by Nateco Holdings, LLC

Game Overview:

Middle Empire was introduced to me as a game that combines elements of Catan, Risk, and Monopoly all into a 20-30 minute game.  Later the developer removed Monopoly from that comparison, and for good reason.  The game bears no similarity to Monopoly other than the fact it's played on a board and happens to have some cards.  Catan and Risk, however, are spot on.  And the game does play in about 30 minutes, although I'd put it at 30-45 minutes overall.  Middle Empire is for 2-4 players and combines the building and resource card management aspects of Catan with the area control and combat of Risk into a unique, family friendly game that is easy to learn and quick to play.

Middle Empire is available right now from NateCo Holdings, LLC.  It was self-published and did not go through Kickstarter for funding.  If you are interested in the game you can purchase it from their site on sale for $27.99, including shipping (at the time of this review - suggested MSRP is $39.99).

UPDATE: Middle Empire is now on sale for $19.99 (plus S&H).  Order yours here:

Components & Packaging:
The components and packaging for Middle Empire are pretty good, especially for a self-published game.  They're not top quality (e.g. no linen finishes), but are sufficiently sturdy.  The cards don't feel like cheap stock, but they're not high end cards either.  Slightly better than what you'd get from a print on demand publisher.  The bits are all solid wood although the empire pieces seem a little out of place since they are just standard pawns.  I'd have liked to see something a bit more impressive to distinguish an empire from a stronghold (a wooden cube).  The game insert nicely holds everything in place and the game comes with enough baggies to hold all the pieces.  The choice of colors is a bit odd (black, white, green, and red) and isn't very sensitive to colorblindness, but they do look nice on the board.  Plus I'm happy that I get to play black instead of getting stuck with yellow.

Nice wooden components in an interesting choice of colors.
The biggest downside with the components is the artwork.  While thematically nice, and somewhat appropriate in a medieval kind of way, it really gives an amateur aesthetic.  The art on the cards is all scanned pencil drawings that look like they could have come out of a 5th grader's notebook.  The pictures are all appropriate for the cards they appear on, but don't have the refinement of a professional game.  Everything about the artwork of the game points at it being a labor of love published by an amateur, which is the case.  The artwork doesn't take away from the gameplay, but it's definitely not going to attract anyone's attention either.

The aesthetics aren't anything to write home about.  The don't
hurt the gameplay, but the artwork leaves a lot to be desired.
Score: 5/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
The rule book easily and quickly explains all the game concepts.  It takes about 5 minutes to explain the game to someone new and only slightly longer than that to read the entire rule book.  The rule book covers almost every outlying scenario, although we did come across a few questions that were answered on the game's online FAQ.

The rulebook is just a few pages of simple to
understand rules.  The components come
nicely stored for easy setup.
All that's needed is to separate the colored pieces, and
shuffle the decks and you're good to go.
Setup is quick and takes about 2 minutes.  Since the game insert keeps everything nicely stored all that is needed is to shuffle the three decks, place the city wall pieces in a central area, and sort the pieces by color.  Each player starts with three construction cards and one each of defense and attack cards, so there's nothing tricky about setup.  Cleanup is also a snap.

Score: 8/10 x2

The Middle Empire game board is a stylized map of the Middle East, divided into territories that are given historical names, like Mycia and Persis.  Players will work to build strongholds in these territories and then upgrade them to empires.  Throughout the course of the game players will build roads out from their strongholds so that they can attack other players' strongholds and defend their strongholds.  The winner is the first player to control three empires on the board (four in a two player game) for one complete round.

There are three decks of cards in Middle Empire.  Construction cards let you build strongholds in designated territories or upgrade strongholds to empires.  Defense cards let you build roads, defend against attacks, build city walls, and draw extra cards.  Attack cards let you attack opponents and remove roads.  On each turn players are able to draw two cards from any combination of these decks.  Then they are able to play up to three cards for the actions indicated, but no more than one card of a type.
Three Attack cards, four Defense cards, and three main types
of Construction cards make up the three different decks.
Though these mechanics are simple, and obviously fairly luck driven (you need to get the right cards at the right time), after several plays of the game I have found that there is a bit of strategy that develops.  There is a lot of luck in this game, but there are ways to mitigate it somewhat, by deciding what types of cards to draw when, identifying which cards are more important at different stages in the game, and by drawing cards without playing anything in a turn in order to clear out some unwanted cards.  You'll also find yourself paying attention to the types of cards your opponents are drawing and adjusting your strategy based on that.  No, this is no Terra Mystica when it comes to depth, but it is an accessible area control game that people familiar with classics like Risk won't have a problem grasping and enjoying.
The game plays quickly, great for outdoors.
The decisions aren't too deep; there's a lot of luck,
but a strategy does unfold as you gain experience
with the game.
The cards can sometimes be brutal, but you can
plan for that somewhat.
Empires are just as vulnerable as strongholds until they get a city wall.
Score: 6/10 x3

Middle Empire is indeed a blend of Catan and Risk, but with its own unique flavor.  I definitely enjoyed it as a light filler and I like that it plays relatively quickly.  It's a nice, casual game to pull out at the beginning or end of a night of heavier gaming.  It's also a nice game to bring to family events or to pull out with people that aren't usually gamers. The game will stay in my collection and will likely make it to many of the Family Game Nights that I host at my FLGS because of its simplicity.  It'll likely get play when I need something quick.  Because of the randomness of the cards each game is likely to be completely different, however likewise, the amount of luck in the game will prevent this from being a go-to game when I want something meatier.  It'll likely be a closer, or an afterthought, not a primary game.
Each game is going to be different because of the
randomness of the cards.
Score: 6/10 x1

General Fun:
Overall I liked Middle Empire.  It was fast, fun, casual, and easy; the perfect way to wind down game night.  It's a good family, gateway, or filler game that I'm happy to have a copy of.  The game is casual enough that it's easy to play while having other conversations or trying to wrangle unruly kids, but has just enough heft to it that you don't feel like you're just wasting time.  I do wish there were alternate ways to mitigate some of the luck since most games I played seemed to end with a feeling of "well, if I get lucky enough to draw this, then I can prevent him from winning", and many times during a game players felt restricted because of bad luck draws (I once drew six 'Draw 2 Cards' cards in a row over the course of two turns).  I've got an idea for a simple expansion that might help with this and after I test it a bit I'll probably send it off to the designer.
I enjoy the game every time I play it, although I'd like
more ways to mitigate the luck.
Score: 6/10 x2

Overall Value:
The game was self published without the help of Kickstarter backers or an established publisher by Nathan White, the designer, and it shows.  The game itself is solid, but I fear that the presentation will be off putting to many gamers, particularly those interested in hobby or designer games.  Because of this I suspect the game won't see wide distribution beyond a local market that is familiar with the designer.  The suggested MSRP of $39.99 won't help things either.  At the current sale price of $27.99  the game is still priced comparatively high for what it is.
$27.99 is a bit high for a simple, casual game
with decent components and sub-par artwork.
Score: 4/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
Middle Empire is a solid entry in the gateway game market.  It's very easy to learn and teach, accessible to non-gamers, plays fast, and has a nice balance of luck and strategy (although maybe slightly heavy on luck).  Unfortunately the high price tag and poor artwork are going to really hold the game back.  I don't see it getting wide distribution in game stores because it just can't compete on the shelf.  $20-$25 might be appropriate for a game like this, but even then the artwork isn't going to invite anyone to pick this up off the shelf.  That's a shame really, because the game is pretty decent.  It's not my first choice in a game.  If I want an area control game I'll choose Terra Mystica and if I want a bit of combat in the game I'll take Hyperborea or Kemet, but I don't always have 2-5 hours to play.  So while Middle Empire won't usually be my first choice it'll still come with me to game nights because it'll scratch that area control and combat itch without taking up hours of time.  It's a perfect starter or closer game and will be a hit with families and casual gamers.

The price of Middle Empire has come down significantly.  You can now get it regularly for about $20.  Also, I made a fan mini-expansion for the game that I feel adds to the strategic decisions.  The Power Tiles Expansion for Middle Empire gives players special abilities that they can purchase during the game.  These will help them to overcome some of the luck factors in the game and allow players to spend some of the cards that fill up their hands to gain some abilities.  You can download the file to try out the expansion here:
The game didn't wow me, but it also didn't disappoint.
Overall Score: 61/100

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.