Tuesday, July 19, 2016

GJJG Game Reviews - Empire Engine - by AEG

Empire Engine
Designer: Matthew Dunstan, Chris Marling
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group
GJJG Game Reviews - Empire Engine - by AEG

Game Overview:
Empire Engine is a tiny little game that I picked up last year for less than $10.  It is from AEG's 5 Minute Fun Games line of microgames that comes in a clamshell pack and has a faux velvet bag, like what many versions of Love Letter have.  Consisting of 22 square cards and a handful of red, yellow, and blue cubes, there's not a whole lot to the game.  It's definitely a micro game, and although it takes longer than five minutes it's still a relatively quick game, playing in 15-20 minutes.

Be sure to check out the GJJ Games Anniversary Giveaway I'm running where you can win a copy of Empire Engine along with a copy of my game, 8 Seconds!

In Empire Engine two to four players (really three or four players - the game just doesn't work very well at two) controlling a civilization that they must grow to defeat their opponents.  They'll produce goods, train soldiers, invent technologies, and attack their neighbors.  This is all in a rather abstract way; there are no miniatures, no technology tree, no economy.  Each resource (goods, soldiers, and inventions) is represented by a colored cube (yellow, red, and blue).  It is the mechanics of the game that are interesting and give it the feel of directly competing against your neighboring civilizations.  You get the feel of a larger civilization building game like 7 Wonders, Deus, or Progress: Evolution of Technology smooshed down into a microgame that plays in about 15 minutes and can be carried in your pocket.

Components & Packaging:
There really isn't a whole lot here to talk about.  The game comes in a plastic clamshell pack that you might find hanging on a hook in your FLGS.  This is the same packaging that the budget copies of Love Letter come in.  AEG has a few other games in this line, too, like Lost Legacy (there are a few Lost Legacy games) and Cypher.  There is no box, just a small velvet bag that contains all the game components and instructions.
You may find this hanging from a hook at your FLGS. 
The components include 22 square cards and 46 cubes.  16 of the cards are the main game cards, 4 are reference cards that also double as special faction abilities if you want to play with those in the advanced game, one card is the starting player marker, and one card is the round tracker.  There are also a rule booklet zipper baggie to hold all the cubes and, of course, a brown velvet bag to hold all the components.
The bag fits easily in your pocket, purse, or backpack so you can take it anywhere!

The quality of the components is fine.  The cards are 2.5" square, decent stock, and linen embossed.  The cubes are nothing special, just 8mm wooden cubes, but they suffice for a micro game.  And the velvet bag is sufficient for holding everything.  I think the only issue I have with the components is that there are not quite enough cubes.  Resources are not limited in the game and I've found in a 4 player game, and occasionally in a 3 player game, one resource can run out.  In that case players are all supposed to return an equal number of that resource from their score piles to the supply.  This generally works, but every once in a while you run into that issue and someone doesn't have any of that resource in their score pile.  In this case you can simply find another item to substitute for that resource, but five more of each resource cube would have avoided this problem, probably completely (at least in the shorter game).

Score: 7/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
Setup of Empire Engine is a breeze.  Just dump all the resource cubes into the supply, pass out one of each type of card to each player (they should each get one reference, two engine, and two gear cards), put the black cube on Round 1 of the Round Tracker card, give each player one Good and one Soldier, and determine a starting player.  Setup should take about 1 minute.

The rules are a little more complicated though.  They're not too challenging, and everyone will catch on after the very first round, but they're those type of rules that are easier done than said.  In the game each player will have two Engine cards that each have have available actions around the sides.  They'll also have two Gear cards that are used on each round to rotate the Engine cards to select their actions for the round.  It's really that simple, but for some reason explaining it causes eyes to glaze over.  But doing it the first time causes a spark of understanding.  The game only takes about a few minutes to explain, but after explaining the basics it's best to just get started.  Best of all, the games are quick, so after the first game everyone will have an understanding of how to play and the second game should go a whole lot quicker.
Each player will have a little reference card that pretty much covers everything they need to know.
The biggest "huh?" That I get when explaining the rules is about the order of placing gear cards.  Not that anyone doesn't understand that each player places one gear card and then in reverse turn order they place their second gear card, it's more that they don't understand why.  And to be fair, I didn't get it my first game either.  But after playing once you'll realize that this back-and-forth placement really influences your deduction and strategy.  It's a key rule that seems overly fiddly for such a tiny game, until you play.

Score: 8/10 x2

While gameplay in Empire Engine is really very simple, it results in a surprisingly deep game where you are playing the other players as well as the game's mechanics.  Empire Engine is played in a series of rounds.  In each round players will secretly manipulate their engines to choose from various actions, and then simultaneously all selected actions are revealed and executed in order of priority.  Since the actions are selected secretly, trying to deduce what your opponents will choose becomes a deeply strategic decision.  Will you be attacked?  Should you defend?  Maybe produce more goods or train more soldiers?  Or maybe it's time to ship your goods, but you can't do that if you're attacked.  So maybe the best choice is to have your scientists invent something.  It's not quite analysis paralysis inducing, but you will be left staring at your neighbor's engines trying to figure out what they are thinking so you can make the right choice.

You see, each player has two engine cards that each have four actions available.  They also have two gear cards that they'll secretly assign to each engine.  The gear cards let you rotate the engine one or two 90 degree turns, depending on which gear you assign to which engine.  And if you expend a resource when assigning the gear card you can turn the engine zero or three turns.
Once everyone has made their decisions about how to turn their engines, the gears are revealed and then engines are rotated.  Then everyone's chosen actions are executed.  

First all production actions are taken.  These are indicated with circular icons and include producing goods or training soldiers on the left engine and inventing on the right engine.  Goods and soldiers are resources that must be managed and go to your ready pile.  Inventions go straight to your score pile.

After production comes the attacks.  Attacks are represented by triangular icons (as is defend) and are conducted in turn order.  Each engine has one attack on it and you can only attack your neighbor on the side that you chose to attack.  The right engine also has a defense icon.  Battles are super simple.  Either the attack was successful or it wasn't.  For an attack to succeed you must first pay for it by moving a soldier from your ready pile to the main supply.  Then your opponent must not be defending your attack (the one defense icon can defend against an attack from either side, but only one side - so, if you get attacked by both neighbors you can only defend once).  If you succeed you can take either a soldier or good from your opponent's ready pile and put it into your score pile.  If you fail nothing happens.

Following the battles, players that were not successfully attacked can scavenge or ship goods (square icons) if they selected those actions.  Shipping goods let's you Nova all your goods from your ready pile to your score pile and scavenge let's you take any one resource from the supply and add it to your score pile.
Attack and Defend, the military is getting a workout this turn!
To end the round simply pick up the gear cards and pass the starting player card to the left.  A standard game consists of eight or nine rounds depending on the number of plsyers, or a like nger game can be played for 12 rounds.  I've found the shorter game to be sufficient.

Score: 8/10 x3

This is a game that I love for its simplicity and depth.  It's small enough to fit in a pocket and take just about anywhere.  Games are pretty quick and don't take up much room, so it's perfect as a filler, wind down, or restaurant game.  I like to take it to game nights, but it tends to get overshadowed by bigger, flashier boxes.  But this is as game that is different every time since you are playing the players as much as the game.  All it takes to change things up is to change seats.  Empire Engine should be able to get a lot of play time with the right groups.

After you've played a few times and everyone is familiar with the flow of the game players can turn over their reference cards and use the special abilities of their empire.  These add a bit of an asymmetrical twist to the game, so now you have to consider what your neighbors' strategies are and then determine if they are going to use their abilities for benefit or as a bluff so they can do something else.  The special abilities add just another level of depth to the gameplay that will keep the game interesting for even longer.

Score: 9/10 x1

General Fun:
I really enjoy Empire Engine.  It's not a goofy, silly game, but its both thinly and casual enough that it's quite fun.  There's a surprising amount of fun packed into that little bag.  The game doesn't work very well at two players (it works, just doesn't have quite the same spark), but at three or four players the game really shines.

Score: 8/10 x2

Overall Value:
I got my copy of Empire Engine for under $8, and it's readily available just about everywhere for less than $10.  At that price this is an incredible value.  A tiny game, a tiny price, and a ton of fun.  You can't beat that!
There's a ton of game packed into these components!
Score: 10/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
Empire Engine is a very fun little civilization management game that can fit in your pocket and plays in about 15 minutes. It is definitely best with 3-4 players, even though it says it works with two.  The first game I played with friends was very casual and we found the game fun, but kind of blah, but it was a learning game and we were familiarizing ourselves with the mechanics and strategies. Then we played again and started really paying attention to each other and found that the game has a lot of depth, strategy, bluffing, and deduction packed into such a tiny little package. I've played it a number of times now and every time I find Empire Engine to be an intriguing game with a surprising amount of depth.  I think Empire Engine is a great little filler game. It won't replace meatier games, but for something that can be packed into a pocket and costs under $10 it's definitely worth adding to your collection.

Be sure to check out the GJJ Games Anniversary Giveaway I'm running where you can win a copy of Empire Engine along with a copy of my game, 8 Seconds!

Overall Score: 82/100
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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.

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