Empires of the Void: 3X Goodness
Very few things miff the staff here at Space-Biff! more than when folks treat genre labels as interchangeable—it leads to the same sort of discombobulation as staring at a Che Guevara sticker while seated in an Olive Garden restroom. Worse, it transforms the angelic stillness of the SB!
living room office into a cacophony of complaining voices. “Spec Ops is not an RPG!” Dan was shouting the other day. “Small World is not Ameritrash!” Thurot blurted a few weeks ago. Even Lee can’t stop talking about how The Walking Dead is an entirely new (and “the boldest”) genre. And over the last couple days, Wee Aquinas won’t shut up about how “Empires of the Void isn’t a 4X game!”
This is fine, because Wee Aquinas usually comes out on the wrong side of genre arguments and this has been a big get for him. Also, because Red Raven Games never claimed Empires of the Void as a 4X game—just that it’s a good one. And on that count, they’re absolutely right.
For those among you who are uninitiated into the second circle of The Nerdhood, “4X” refers to those strategy games that contain these hallowed play elements: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate (the X must always be capitalized. Go, and remember). It’s easy to see how some of Empire of the Void’s critics came to insert the 4X moniker into the game description. After all, like many 4X games, it looks sprawling and complex—though as we’ll see, it’s actually a very tight competitive game that isn’t actually trying to muscle in on the expansive goodness already offered by other space games. Not only is the map intimidating upon first glance, but you’ve got a massive pile of technology and ship tokens, an unreadable race sheet (unreadable because you don’t know the rules, not because it’s printed in Chamicuro), and what appears to be ten thousand starting options.
Don’t fret! As intimidating as the above picture may be, your head will stop spinning once you realize that most of these options will only unlock later in the game. You only really begin with a choice of five technologies (maybe six depending on your starting race) and two or three ship construction options. One of the most beautiful details about Empires of the Void is that designer Ryan Laukat has managed to make it not only provide a wide array of options, but has made them clear and simple enough to explain to even easily-overwhelmed gaming groups.
I can smell your doubt wafting through my internet cables, so I’ll explain the basics to restore my credibility. And Ryan Laukat’s.
First, you pick a race. The game comes with eight of them, and they’re each different enough to have their own feel and a nice bit of theme, while being similar enough that nobody is going to get overwhelmed and run from the room in tears. For the most part, these races inhabit well-worn niches: you’ve got parasites (shown above) that can infest planets to gain the locals’ special bonuses without having to actually talk to them, robots that excel at production and fail at diplomacy (thank goodness nobody designed Empathy Bots), or academy lizards that are good at science and not much else; as well as a few races that break the mold—for instance, the human faction is a bit more interesting than the middle-of-the-road designation that terrestrials are usually relegated to. Here, they’re inhabiting a wasted Earth, and, as a result, have honed the skill of mooching off of the more egalitarian-minded planets of the galaxy.
Once everyone has picked a race, the game begins with the Pre-Round phase, during which everyone builds and researches technology simultaneously to save time (I should mention that another bonus of Empires of the Void is that it plays fairly quickly compared to most space-themed games). You’re only allowed to research one tech at this time, and the game’s basic ships are pretty pricey, so most turns won’t see you purchasing more than a few items. In order to grow a big fleet, you’ll need to either spend quite a few turns amassing a navy, or ally with neutral planets to gain access to new types of ships that provide a bit more punch.
Then in turn each player takes three actions. There are five to choose from, all but one of them can be performed multiple times, and most of them are pretty basic. You can Attack a neutral or enemy planet or fleet, Move a ship, or Mine for an extra credit.
The other two are a bit more tricky, and allow you to interact with the neutral planets I mentioned above. You see, it’s these neutral planets that you’ll be spending most of your time trying to finagle an alliance with—or brutally conquer. This is because the game’s neutral races provide all the resources you’ll need for a healthy and thriving space empire. Like so:
The green triangle is the amount of credits the race provides, the purple wingding thing denotes the planet’s victory point value, and the blue circle is that race’s influence with the galactic council based on Pyrious. In addition, each planet provides a special material (artifacts, crystals, lifeforms, metals, and gas) that can be traded or used to research locked technologies, and a special ability that can range from extra cash to extra ship abilities to new types of powerful ships for you to construct.
You gain bonuses from the game’s races based on how you interact with them. Allying with them through tricky and time-consuming diplomacy (or liberating them from conquerors) will provide all of their bonuses, while taking the easy road and conquering them (or conquering an enemy’s ally, since alliances are generally permanent) will only provide their raw resource, credits, and victory points—the special ability and influence won’t be available, seeing as how they’re more likely resisting your occupation than spending time teaching you how to use their technological wonders or championing your cause with the galactic council.
So gaining allies—or underlings—is the central goal of the game, because they’ll earn victory points on the rounds that the “scoring” card appears in the event deck. Since everyone is trying to woo these neutrals, the first half of the game is usually spent jockeying for position—resources, cash, useful bonuses, and chokepoints—while the second is often about depriving your opponents of theirs.
This is where those last two actions come into play. The Culture action lets you draw a culture card. These come in five colors, each corresponding to one of the classes of alien races you can ally with—mysterious, capitalistic, scholarly, peaceful, and militaristic. By using the Diplomacy action, you can use your culture cards to attempt to ally with neutral races of the corresponding type. The more cards you dedicate to the task, the easier it will be to persuade them to throw in their lot with your bid for dominance.
But these cards aren’t only used in diplomacy—they also give you little bonuses when you turn in matching sets of them. The militaristic cards might let you turn in two of them to allow an extra Attack, a pair of mysterious cards might earn a victory point, three peaceful cards can let you change a conquered race into an ally, and so on. In this way, these cards are more than just keys to diplomacy; they’re hidden moves that you can spring on your opponent when they least expect it. This means that while some races might not feel the need to use the Diplomacy action all that often, even the most heartless baby-chomping AI can make use of Culture.
And that’s the primary thing that I love about Empires of the Void: It excels at using its narrow and simple toolset to allow for a broad array of possible outcomes, all of which are interesting and have tangible effects on the game board. There are no unnecessary actions here, no faffing about. Every single decision has the potential to shake things up, to placate enemies or make allies suspicious. And that’s why it doesn’t matter that it’s not a 4X game. What it lacks in the finer points, such as entirely missing eXploration, it makes up for in impact. The eXpansion is about more than just settling whatever star system is sitting nearby—each planet you conquer is a tempting morsel for other players, who might jump at the chance to liberate them from you to gain an instant ally. The eXploitation informs every little detail about what your race becomes, since every ally isn’t just a resource, they’re a bonus that alters the rules in favor of their patron. And the eXtermination… well, let’s talk about that.
In the above situation, the Narkani Alliance (the green player, in case you’ve boycotted captions) has allied with three planets, despite not being particularly good at diplomacy (their bonus is to have good mobility with centipedes, which are crummy early-tech ships). Because of their perceived wealth—and weakness, since they’ve spent time picking up culture cards and researching rather than building a navy—the nearby Collective Five has amassed a formidable fleet at Sentina. Worse, they’ve researched the space port tech, and plopped their brand new station near the Narkani border. This is a hugely threatening action, since star ports let you build ships there rather than only at your home planet.
Up to this point, Collective Five has conquered a number of planets, but hasn’t allied with a single one. This is because they have capacitors instead of hearts, and diplomacy is quite hard for them. They want to strike at the undefended Narkani Alliance worlds before they can build reinforcements.
Things might be looking bad for the Narkani (and they are), but they have a few things going for them. First, they have more mobility than Collective Five, because the robots haven’t researched a way to travel through asteroid fields or ancient defenses (the space-octopuses). The Narkani have, so they can strike back along more space-lanes in the event of an attack. Second, the Narkani have amassed some impressive wealth, so they’ll be able to build a fleet rather quickly if the Collective doesn’t strike hard and fast. Third, they’ve arranged for their other border to be safe, having made trade deals with the Parasites of Sreech, so they probably won’t lose any of their worlds to opportunism. And fourth, if they can manage to conquer Sentina, they’ll blow up the Collective star base, thus setting back their enemy’s technology.
Two turns later, things have gotten hot:
Collective Five managed to move in and conquer Beta Com and Phin, but now they’re facing a strong counterattack by the Narkani Alliance’s higher-tech fleet—which if they win this battle (they will), they’ll be in a perfect position to threaten either the Collective’s homeworld or Sentina and its star base. The Narkani will also gain Bindok II as an ally when they liberate it from the machines. So Collective Five has some hard choices to make. Not only do they need to choose where to fortify, but their ships are halted by Narkani tractor beams, which the Collective hasn’t yet researched. This means that, as it stands, the Narkani navy can simply bypass the Collective’s ships. The Collective can research these tractor beams on the next turn, but it will mean sacrificing credits that could be used to bolster their defenses.
Both sides are poised to deal massive damage. They’re also on the cusp of total failure, especially with the other two players demanding bribes to stay out of the war.
All the while, on the other side of the galaxy, the parasite player is annoying the Nomads of Earth by infesting all their planets, thus gaining their racial special abilities without needing to actually ally with them. It looks like a second war will break out within a couple rounds. Neither one has a strong military, but they’ve been growing fat off of bribes and peace. Both players are sitting across the table and glaring mightily.
Final score: It’s impressive how this game’s systems, which as I’ve said are absurdly simple, can combine to create such a strong sense of involvement—and to do so within a couple hours, as opposed to the marathons that many 4X space games demand. I do wish there were more than seven hexes, to allow for more configurations and bonuses, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine what Ryan Laukat could add in terms of special bonuses without unbalancing the game. As it stands, it’s not a 4X game, but it’s a great territory-control game with strong elements to be found in its player and board interactions. I recommend it.