Now that Trent's publicizing my logged plays page everywhere, some of you noticed that I already got a play in for this game!
To be honest, I've been hesitant to do a write-up on this because I couldn't quite put my finger on how I feel about this game. I thought about getting a solo session in before I do it justice, but I think it's fine since it's not a full review after all. So here are my first impressions after one 2p game with my wife, where we played as the factions with the lowest complexity (as recommended by the rulebook).
1. Pre-Game Experience
(+) Charming theme and presentation - It's cute, and I mean that in a good way. Just about everything inside the box has a charm about it, from the unique resource tokens to all of the unique card art across the 6 different factions. Many of the illustrations have the type of humor that I tend to like using in my own art too.
(+) Great insert - Of all of the games I own, the ones with the best insert so far are this game, #Atlantis Rising (second edition), and #Camel Up (second edition). Easy access to all components, finger slots for pulling out the tray that holds all resources, and labels to help you figure out how to put everything back. This all means short setup and teardown time.
(-) Rulebook - It's laid out pretty well, but it's definitely not the best I've seen. I feel like it tried to present all of the info in the most streamlined way with as few pages, but in the process lost out on the details that would be helpful. For example:
- Each faction has a unique faction marker (used for keeping track of VP's) and ship token (used for the sailing action). The rulebook doesn't have a "key" that shows which belong to which faction. These tokens have a unique art, and in the case of the ship token, a unique shape as well, but it's just one little detail that would've been helpful (this key was later provided in the online FAQ).
- I felt confused on its usage of terminologies like location and field for referencing different card types, and also felt that the terminology wasn't the most intuitive (they weren't used consistently either, as mentioned in the FAQ), so whenever it used those words throughout the rulebook, it was slightly difficult to follow. And perhaps its just a nature of a card-driven game with lots of unique cards, but there's a need for additional clarity on its abilities sometimes. This is also provided in their FAQ, which I referenced a few times throughout the play.
(+/-) The Teach - I personally had a harder time teaching this in comparison to a game like #Viticulture: Essential Edition. Empires of the North is definitely on the simpler side when it comes to its gameplay, but I think the nuances of the card usage added to its difficulty to teach (which was still quite easy). This was one game that I didn't test out ahead of time before teaching my wife, so I'm sure that added to it as well.
2. The Game - Each round is broken up into 4 phases: Lookout, Action, Expedition, Cleanup
- Lookout - Get additional cards into your hand
- Action - Play or activate cards to get resources and convert them into points. Set off your ships on a sail to pillage/conquer islands
- Expedition - Resolve your ships that went sailing
- Cleanup - Un-exhaust all activated cards, get your workers back, etc.
- Fast turns and great combos - The majority of your gameplay time is spent on the Action phase, where you have a choice of 4 different actions. It's a quick back and forth between you and your opponent where you're improving your engine and maximizing your resources by chaining your actions so that you can extend the number of turns without passing this phase. The action wheel at the center is the crux of your strategy because placing your action pawn in one of these tiles grants you more powerful moves (e.g. constructing a card without paying the cost). The catch is that you only have two pawns that can each be used twice at most. If you place a pawn on one of the actions, you can use it again in a later turn by moving it to and activating an adjacent tile by spending one food token. It's an elegant touch that presents you with an interesting decision space. I do think it falls apart in terms of thematic connection though, which I don't mind. The combos build up fairly quickly so this phase will get longer and longer with each round. With experience and knowledge of the cards, I can imagine finishing this game in an hour after 4-5 rounds.
- I especially like how rewarding it is to pillage or conquer an island.
- I always love variable player powers and Empires offers 6 flavors! We tried out the factions with the lowest complexity so I'm looking forward to seeing how the other factions will change up the game. In line with this, I could definitely see why others have commented that the game feels like it's "on rails," where it seems to put players on a set path in strategy. I can't disagree with that at all, but I also feel like just as players typically make a decision in the beginning of the game on which strategy they will go for, Empires would have players making this decision in their choice of faction.
- I have a feeling that Empires will be a great solo game, likely even better than multiplayer.
- This game currently falls in the same category as my first impression of #Architects of the West Kingdom, where it wasn't love at first sight. They're both a race to the finish line with little tension where you're mostly focused on building up your combos, gaining resources, and scoring VP. Except, I like Architects a lot more in this area because it gives you what to aim for. Architects awards VP's for contributing to the construction of the cathedral or building structures by gaining a specific set of resources, which is often challenging and unique in its teeter-tottering of the virtue track. For Empires of the North, the main method of gaining VP's is by activating card abilities and conquering islands. It's less about accomplishing difficult tasks, but more about triggering the right card abilities in order and building up your engine with the right cards. Granted, there are some cards in the deck that seem to reward big points. For example, my clan's deck is heavily focused on expedition, and has cards that reward you lots of points based on the number of islands you've conquered. It also has cards with permanent features like giving you a VP every time you pillage an island. To sum it all up, Empires is a lot more focused on engine-building and achieving a consistent flow of VP's, while Architects is better at giving you sense of accomplishment that's more grounded in reality (due to difficulty, lots of points, and because the type of structure built affects your virtue positively or negatively).
- Very low interaction. The game does offer a way to interact with your opponent. The primary way is by using raze tokens, which can be spent to exhaust one card in your opponent's empire so that it throws off their combos. The game doesn't encourage this usage all that much though because unless you're playing as the clan I played as, raze tokens are harder to generate and they're valuable resources for conquering islands that reward you lots of resources or great powers if constructed. I never used these to ruin my wife's combos because I don't like mean plays especially when it's a 2p game.
- Tied to the first point is that this game seems to be best played with 2p. You're presented with so many choices in the number of actions that you're mostly focused on your own tableau the whole time, and having AP prone players will bump up the gameplay time too much. I think the Action phase will last way too long at higher player counts.
- Thematic ties. The game definitely has thematic ties because it has players expanding their empire, collecting resources, pillaging and conquering islands, etc. My issue is that in the end, despite all of the really nice illustrations, it felt like it all disappears into thin air sometimes. I found myself focusing mostly on building the right combos and paying attention to the effects of the cards that the cards/buildings became just one piece of the puzzle I'm putting together, instead of feeling like a "structure" that I've added onto my empire. I asked my wife for her thoughts after the game, and while she liked the game and had fun, one of her comments was that she wished it had a board, or some building components like in Catan or Viticulture. She likes to have a sense of progression and accomplishment when she looks at the board state, and for Empires, she felt like it was just a lot of cards in front of her. This also made me wonder if tableau builders may not be the right fit for us, but I thought of two exceptions. (1) #Wingspan is also low in interaction, but I like its satisfying chain-building and how it lays out three engines to focus on: food, eggs, bird cards. This brings organization that helps players focus on tuning their engine and even having the leisure to enjoy the fine details of the art and flavor text, whereas Empires relies on the players to come up with their own method of establishing order. (2) #Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization is another example. The cards feel like actual structures because you have to spend workers to build them. They can also be upgraded to a more advanced structure to improve production. There are also religious buildings that provide "smiles" to increase contentment among your workers instead of them stirring up a riot, and many other examples.
To be clear, I like the game, but I didn't love it. I'm still very interested in exploring the other factions and see if it changes my opinions. And just as I ended up loving Architects for its solo play after my first impressions, I'm hoping the same will happen to Empires too!