At Least They’ll Get Some Shade
Here’s a situation for you to puzzle through. You’re a wealthy patrician seeking to consolidate your power over a kingdom that was recently annexed by a great empire. The surest route to success is to control the spoiled heir to the puppet throne, but there are two problems. First, the boy’s childhood governess is trying to do the same; and second, you don’t actually know the brat — though you do know a Socialite who knows a Florist who knows a Monk who knows the Prince.
How do you go about influencing the Spoiled Heir?
How Does One Go About Influencing a Spoiled Heir?
That’s the sort of question at the heart of Shadows over the Empire, a recent Kickstarter success from Artipia Games. And unless your answer goes something like this—
You persuade the Socialite to join your faction, hire her to seduce the corrupt Mayor to get closer to his friend the Investigator, then bribe him into investigating the Queen’s contacts so that she cannot make use of them until the investigation has concluded. At the same time, your new friend the Florist has introduced you to the Monk, who is all too happy to preach your gospel into the Prince’s ear. Then, while the Queen manipulates the Warden, the Philosopher, and the Physician (none of whom have the slightest interest in your bottomless treasury) you have the Socialite put the Physician to sleep for the entire afternoon, send the Florist to spend the day gossiping with the Warden, and employ the Dandy Thief to steal something of value from the Watch Officer, who then exchanges his debt for his heirloom’s return to beat the ever-loving shit out of the Philosopher. By the end of the week, you’ve bought, sold, harassed, beaten, and pimped your way into the Prince’s heart.
—unless your answer went something like this, you didn’t win. The Queen won. Or, if you were playing Shadows over the Empire with three or four players, perhaps the department of justice or the church won. Either way, they’ve probably lopped your head off for treason.
The point is, no matter who you’re playing as (the royal governess, a cardinal, a judge, etc.) and no matter which influential figure you’re trying to leverage (the spoiled heir, the royal chancellor), the game of thrones is nasty, brutish, and short.
Nasty, Brutish, and Short
I mean these in the best possible way, of course.
See, your average game of Shadows over the Empire goes something like this. On the first round, you’ll have your leader influence a single character, carefully figuring out which one seems to bring the best long-term benefits in the form of connections and capabilities. You might also have someone take an action, like having your Viticulturist remove some of your opponent’s tokens from whomever she’s manipulated this turn, or having your Exorcist go over and cast out the “demons” that are filling the home of someone your adversary is interested in acquiring, just to take up the poor sot’s entire day. You’ll go around the table, influencing and activating abilities, until everyone has passed. It will take maybe five minutes.
Then all the characters will refresh, ready to influence, be influenced, and take actions again, and the second round will begin. And this time, it will be every bit as insane and mind-bending as the first round was calm and reasonable. You’ll chain incredible numbers of actions off each other. The Jeweler will bribe a character who’s conflicted into seeing the reason of your ways. The Biographer will influence someone she doesn’t know just by promising to write their story. You’ll spread influence, and the Troubadour will reinvigorate you with song so you can go out and do it all again. The— well, you get the idea.
It’s entirely possible that the game will end on that second round. Your main goal is to get all your influence tokens out on the table, angling either to definitively control the “distinct personality” situated in the middle, or to influence enough people without being in “conflict” — which happens when your tokens are on the same character as somebody else’s. It sounds simple enough, until your support evaporates because you neglected to lock down that pesky Lady-in-Waiting.
If the second round didn’t end the game, you’ll get a third. This time, everyone will take around a dozen actions, and it’ll be crazier than ever. Characters will become conflicted, then make up their minds to support one faction, then become conflicted between two other players. Loyalties will change. Some characters will become exhausted early, while others will linger like an axe over your head, waiting for the blade to fall and topple your plans. If your opponent has figured them out, that is.
The best players will be nasty. They’ll connive and remove their opponent’s strongest characters early on. Because a single misstep can lead to defeat, they’ll pull off brutish moves, prompting dagger-glares across the table. Strategies constantly shift with the allegiances and positions of the characters, and only the most opportunistic bastards are going to be able to ride the wave to victory.
And best of all, it’ll take maybe thirty minutes. Usually, anyway. If you have a four-player game packed with clever people with a will to win, it’s easy for them to gang up on the leader and keep the game going for an hour or more. But most of the time, Shadows over the Empire burns half as long but twice as bright.
Shadows over the Empire won’t be for everyone. For a filler game, it certainly requires a lot of its players, especially once the game gets going and everyone has control over four or five characters spread across the table, with conflicts and opportunities and weaknesses all clattering around in the back of your skull and threatening to explode out the front. Also, sometimes it doesn’t balance itself out, one leader ringed in by stinkers with poor abilities, while the other guy surrounds himself with only the best talent. It’s rare, but sometimes all the characters who can rob you of a handful of influence tokens at a time will be on the other side of the table.
But other than those minor notes, Shadows over the Empire is a fantastic filler game, with more betrayal, intrigue, shifting strategies, and political machinations packed into half an hour than most games manage in two or three. If you think you’re capable of outmaneuvering your friends and family — or at the very least of not getting too upset when your little sister steals your best supporters and leaves you with nothing — then Shadows over the Empire is something to consider.