Western Empires: The Kotaku Review

Western Empires: The Kotaku Review
Image: Western Empire

Western Empires is a big board game. A very, very, very very, very big board game.

Designed for nine players (though you can go as low as five), and played over the course of around eight hours, it’s the setting for an entire day of expansion, science, trade and battle as you and eight friends/former friends take on the role of a fledgling human civilisation somewhere between the Near East and Ireland.

It’s a vast game, one that seems at first glance hugely ambitious, but it’s actually nothing of the sort. For this isn’t really a new game at all; instead it’s a stripped-down remake of Mega Empires, an existing (and hideously expensive) game for 18 players that did the same thing only it stretched from Britain to India.

And Mega Empires itself is a reimagining of the classic board game Civilisation, first released in 1980 and so good a couple of guys were inspired to turn it into a video game series a decade later.

Western Empires is basically half of Mega Empires broken off and sold separately, with Eastern Empires — taking in the Middle East and India — coming later. When it’s out, like with Mega Empires, you’ll be able (in theory) to get 18 people together and destroy an entire weekend with it.

For now, though, I only destroyed an entire day.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given its origins, Western Empires takes a very classical view of history, that the development of civilisations is something defined by their cultural and technological advancement, and that the people moving farthest along that process can be crowned some kind of “winner”.

And so this board game, like the video game series you’re likely more familiar with, wants you to guide a civilisation from its earliest days settling on empty plains 8000 years ago to the dawn of the late Iron Age, around 500BC. Given I’d played a lot more of the video game than the original board game, I decided to bring my digital strategies to the tabletop, and aside from a few mistakes (albeit one pretty major one), it served me pretty well.

Each player — and for our game we had the full roster of nine civilisations — starts with a single area of the map and a handful of people. Every turn, any people you’ve still got on the map automatically double. Because birds do it, bees do it, even Neolithic settlers do it.

As you keep doubling you’re able to spread out across the map, taking control of more territory which in turn will allow you to support more people. Get enough together in one place and you can build cities, which are expensive and a pain in the arse, but also vitally important for trade and research. Keep expanding past your first few settlements and you’ll eventually run into other civilisations.

While you’d expect this is where war would come into it, that’s actually not the case. Western Empires takes place at such a lofty vantage point in history that it doesn’t deem it necessary to view conflict between groups as individual battles, or even wars. Instead it settles them like centuries-long demographic shifts.

Each region on the map can support a certain number of settlers. If a region supports three, already has two from a rival and you move one there, you can just…stay there. There’s plenty of room for everyone, and everyone gets along. Only when you or another player exceed that limit is there a struggle, which is settled simply by removing one settler token each until you get back down to the maximum value, then everyone’s happy again.

Photo: Kotaku

Everything else about Western Empires stems from your population count and spread. You collect taxes based on the number of people you have on the board, and the more cities you’re able to build, the more trade goods you’ll be able to accrue. And the better the trade goods you get hold of, the more likely you’ll be able to cash them in for some serious money, which in turn you use to buy technological advances.

I mentioned trade a few times there, so let’s talk about it. Trade isn’t just the most important part of Western Empires, it’s also by far the most enjoyable. For much of the eight hours or so I was playing this game I was stuck in my chair, occasionally moving units around but mostly just calculating numbers in my head and waiting for other players to do stuff.

Once a turn, though, it’s time for trade, and that involves getting up, putting your trade goods in your hand and literally walking the room trying to get a deal together. Some players will slink from group to group seeing what’s on offer, others — like me — are content to stand up and shout like old-timey grocers “MARBLE GET YOUR MARBLE HERE ANYONE GOT GOLD IM PAYING GOOD MARBLE FOR GOLD”.

It’s so fun! It’s great being able to break the chains of board game boredom and get social in a way few other serious games like this even come close to. There’s usually always some kind of deal to be made, and they’re definitely worth pursuing, because the value of your trade goods explodes when you’re able to get hold of more than one card of the same type, incentivising players to pursue only one or two types and try and offload all others.’

That in itself is great, but what makes trading especially spicy is the fact that, hidden amongst the trade cards that are handed out to players are calamities. These are cards that will cause some very bad shit, from plagues to pirate raids to volcanic eruptions, and the spice comes from the fact that these aren’t activated until after the trade round.

Meaning that if you draw one, you’ll have a chance to trade it, because the game’s trade rules mean that when swapping three cards, you don’t have to tell the other player what every card is. You might say, hey, wanna swap two grain for two ivory, and they’ll say sure, and the third card you slip in there is PESTILENCE.

It feels wonderful to get rid of a calamity like this, but it’s even more wonderful to be traded one by an arsehole rival and then, before the trade round is over, manage to offload it to someone else. Conversely, if this happens to you while simply trying to get hold of some oil, you will feel like you deserve to be pelted with rotting vegetables until you die.

The advances you buy with your trade cash is, more than population movement, where the game is really won and lost. Advances start small and relatively cheap, but quickly escalate into powerful and expensive ones, each one providing some kind of perk or bonus. Some have perks that build atop previous ones, though, and each one gives you credit in the bank towards future purchases, so these techs, while initially intimidatingly distant and costly, soon start piling up.

In other words, a big part of winning this game is dependant on engine-building, aka buying the right cards in the right order so that their cumulative bonuses multiply at a greater/more economical rate than your opponents. And I don’t usually like engine-building. It requires repeat playthroughs and a keen study of systems to get on top of, things I don’t like doing when I’m just trying to hang out with friends, and rarely enjoy playing most games more than once or twice.

Normally this isn’t a big deal. I can get by in other games reliant on engine-building, like Terraforming Mars, because they’re over in a couple of hours. Who cares if you’re out of your depth and losing if you can just make small-talk for an hour then go home? It’s still fun! And if I did want to learn a game in order to master that system, then a few nights playing for 1-2 hours is fine and a totally normal way to spend my spare time.

Here, it sucked the life out my game of Western Empires when half the table — newcomers to the game — realised only 3-4 hours in that we were never going to even get close to the other, more experienced half, and that we had another four hours of this to go.

Photo: Kotaku

What had started as a fun-filled afternoon of human expansion, and simply revelling in the fact that where I live nine people were allowed in the same room at all, had by dinner turned into a social death march. It was excruciating. Even trade, the lifeblood of my earlier enjoyment with Western Empires, lost its lustre when any chance at victory was already out of sight, and there was still so long to go.

The only thing keeping me going by then was a desperate attempt to offload calamities on as many front-runners as possible, which of course rarely happened because a) they had little interest in trading with me, a loser and b) they probably knew what I was up to because I am a petulant arsehole.

By the time we were winding up, it was very much time to wind the game up. Eight hours in a single day playing the same, single game was too damn long, especially when so many of the players had lost so much interest in it so long before.

I don’t have a problem with long games! I’ve played countless 3-4 hour ones, and then plenty of campaign-style games as well, which will break the action up over multiple days/nights. I don’t really remember playing any other single eight-hour games, though, and maybe this is why.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad I got a chance to experience Western Empires. Like a movie marathon, or an all-you-can-eat buffet, there was pleasure to be had amidst the trauma and damage done to my body and psyche. It’s easily one of the most grandiose board games I’ve ever played, and likely ever will play, so it was worth it just to be able to set that marker down.

And if you somehow have both the time and willing friendship group to play this enough times to really get on top of it, then I both respect and am slightly terrified of you.

But man, I spent so many hours while playing just thinking, what if instead of just re-releasing it as a board game with a few changes, what if someone could take the good parts of the old Civilisation board game, automate them and turn it into a video game, where games could be shorter and faster and oh…

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