Empires of the Clutter II
Ryan Laukat’s original Empires of the Void was one of Kickstarter’s early success stories. It was 2011, long before everybody got jaded with underwhelming indie projects and enamored with the latest empty-headed box with miniatures in it. It pulled in somewhere upward of $35,000.
Now it’s 2018, Ryan Laukat has been a staple of the crowdfunding scene for years — long enough to have witnessed “phases” in his career — and now we’ve got a sequel. It made seven times more than the original game during its Kickstarter run. Does that mean it’s seven times more enjoyable?
Yes, that is how I think math works, thanks very much.
For the three people who might actually be interested, I hate to disappoint you, but I won’t be comparing Empires of the Void II to the original. Why not? Because apart from being set in space, featuring Laukat’s characteristic anthropomorphic animals, and being set in space, there aren’t all that many parallels to be drawn.
Instead of retelling the usual tale of empires stretching their fleets and colonies across the void, this entry trades in less generic fare. It’s the product of a Laukat with an interest in narratives, as we saw in his storybook-style games Above & Below and Near & Far, mingled with a hint of the movement concerns from Islebound, while bearing scant little in common with any of them. For one thing, this is the closest Laukat has gotten to crafting a sandbox game where anything goes, your journey might take you along any of a half-dozen star lanes, and victory in conquest doesn’t necessarily mean victory in the long term.
Here’s the pitch. Each of the game’s five races have recently arrived in a fresh sector of space, borne on the wings of massive worldships. Rather than being uninhabited, the region is teeming with locals, each with their own developed planet and units, and it’s up to you to explore, build, and battle your way into supremacy over the stars. Oh, and manipulate the crap out of the natives, because all the best land always belongs to somebody who deserves it less than you. It would seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Right from the get-go, Empires of the Void II delights in tossing you into the deep end and letting you sink or swim. You’ve got some credits, a worldship with a paltry crew, and a whole lot of potential. Because everybody’s worldship begins in the thick of things, not even your first stop will be obvious.
Even the game’s central action system conspires against an easy transition. Each round, the lead player picks what they want to do — maybe traveling, maybe interacting with the locals, maybe recruiting a band of mercenaries — and when they’re done, each other player gets a choice to take the same action, do something else for a penalty, or refresh their stockpile of credits, cards, and orders. It isn’t a bad system, though it takes some adjusting to, and stands out as an odd choice for a game that hews closer to the freewheeling tendencies of something like Merchants & Marauders than a game about optimizing actions. But even though it feels more clever than thematically suitable, it serves its purpose, nudging players to take advantage of the current action or disregard it to pick up coins and cards, and largely means you’ll never have to “skip” a major turn.
Okay, so this is probably sounding pretty dire. Let’s make it worse before it gets better.
There’s a lot going on in Empires of the Void II. Scoring takes place twice a game, the first instance buried halfway through a deck of action cards — but possibly activated early if you have just the right stuff and don’t want somebody to swipe your gains out from under you — and again once the game comes to a close. There are empty planets to explore, events to take advantage of, and independent alien holdings that can be used as layovers, allies, subjects, or the recipients of the occasional delivery job.
It’s a mishmash, is what I’m saying. A clutter, even. Between all these bits, bobs, and the game’s initially counter-intuitive action system, its first session or two tend to feel more like a wrestling match against an unsympathetic older sibling than play.
However, slowly but surely, those bits and bobs begins to take on meaning and Empires of the Void II starts to form its own brand of coherence. Now you aren’t meandering around the map; you’re striking at enemy holdings and musing over the proper destination for your next academy. Rather than staring blankly at all those action cards, you’re measuring them out. This one to conquer that neighboring planet, that one for its action, maybe a hole card in case somebody attacks you later. It takes a while to click, then it detonates like a cannon shot. And nowhere is this process more apparent than in your interactions with an alien race.
Let’s say you’re approaching an alien world. Right away you have enough options to fill one of the game’s sizable pages of rules. The crass option is to conquer them outright — cue an easy fight against one of that race’s unique units. Now you have a way to earn some points and a slot for one of your buildings. Huzzah for colonialism!
But perhaps that’s not your speed. Instead, maybe you want access to that race’s special unit. And why wouldn’t you? Some of these jerks bestow powers that upend the way you approach combat or movement. Silastian Technicians help pay movement costs, while Virshian Zealots can fly around space without the benefit of a transport. Eekran Foragers ignore the unit limit, Tanlokain Readers force your opponent to show their battle card before you choose yours, and the gentle rock-folk of Arzos smash the stuffing out of everybody they meet.
The thing about making new space-friends is that they don’t join their conquerors, at least not easily. Of course they don’t. You descend from the sky to fry their beloved monarch with superheated plasma and you expect adoration? Instead, they’ll ally themselves with whichever team has invested the most influence into their world. By playing your action cards right, with some effort it’s possible to gain their allegiance and their abilities in combat.
Before long, the entire map becomes packed with interlocking allegiances, dominions, and feuding fleets and colonies. And that’s when things start looking really sexy.
Up above, I mentioned that Empires of the Void II contained some of the narrative sensibilities of Above & Below and Near & Far. Here, though, there’s no storybook to adhere to. Instead, the narrative spools organically from the action deck and the board state. Your ancient foe, the Legions of Decima, may own Tan Lok, but the hearts of the people are yours. The 7th Academy of Eehg has begun infiltrating your alliance with Valka VII. You flip a card and, uh oh, the corporations of Meezle III are engaged in a hack war, one that locks out your influence until somebody eradicates one of the belligerents.
And rather than burdening the gameplay, as the stories of some of Laukat’s other games have done, these tales are opportunities for action, success, failure. A bad strain of fungus has broken out on Emrok? Carry it to opposing fleets and infect them with it. Fusian Beast blocking your progress on Sentina? Bother it until it shuffles off to pester some other planet. Self-destruct sequence threatening Korlo Zan? Time to vacate the premises.
My one significant complaint with all this is that it can often feel as though it’s the story of your worldship rather than the story of your worldship along with all those colonies it’s been seeding. You’re clearly intended to protect your holdings to some extent, and can acquire troops to secure your borders, but the move action is woefully limited to a single group per action, which means it’s nearly always less worthwhile shuffling around defensive troops rather than blasting off your worldship toward the next high-value opportunity. While it’s not impossible to defend a settlement, it’s generally the aggressor who’ll be raising their flag come morning.
This could be seen as a downside, but like many of Empires of the Void II’s peculiarities, it’s also an opportunity. Rather than clamping down on borders, it’s better to be flexible, stay on the move, and always be chasing the next big thing. As I said before, your usual game of galactic conquest this is not.
Reservations aside, what Laukat has accomplished here is not only his most ambitious design by an astronomical unit, but also one of his most articulate. It shoots you off in as many directions as possible, casting you as diplomat or colonizer, builder or destroyer, explorer or exploiter, merchant or thief, and often all of them within the span of a single session. It’s eager to spin a narrative, but by letting you basically do whatever the hell you want and adjusting the details around you, it does so more fluidly than any of Laukat’s previous games managed.
Most importantly, it assaults the senses with bright colors and enough pieces to warrant the box’s unsettling heft, yet provides a tense and tight race for control of its star cluster. It’s got its share of flaws, some of them not insignificant, but it also makes for a grand old time.