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Cracked LCD- Empires of the Void in Review

Ryan Laukat’s Empires of the Void is a very solid, very smartly considered but derivative space conquest-themed 4x game that’s been recently Kickstartered and released into the wild. It’s a handsome production with charming, cartoon illustrations that are very welcome in a genre that tends to go for stiff and sterile or grit and grime. It’s big on the table with tons of counters but not a whole lot of rules bulk or complication, and although it doesn’t have the scads of plastic miniatures these kinds of games usually feature, there’s still multiple ship classes to play with and lots of dice to roll at them.

The problem with the game isn’t the game itself, which I would absolutely recommend to tabletoppers looking for a smoother-playing, lightweight game in the Twilight Imperium (or Master of Orion) mold. It’s that it’s coming so soon after Eclipse, one of the best games in its genre. Not to mention that Twilight Imperium is still widely played and considered by many to be the last word in building cardboard space empires. Then there’s games like Ascending Empires, Space Empires, and any number of other jumped-up Dudes on a Map games with tech trees and other 4x gameplay elements.

So this game has got to stake a claim and state its differentiators up front. When I first got my review copy, courtesy of Mr. Laukat, I was initially worried that it was going to miss this mark and suffer the same fate- mediocrity followed by obscurity- that Galactic Emperor did a few years back. That was the first game that made a play for the TI-lite crown. After a couple of games, I’m not ready to mothball Eclipse but I think there is definitely a case to be made for Empires of the Void.

These games are kind of like falafel joints. One might have the best hummus, but another has better Baba Ganoush and grape leaves. Then another has the best falafel. TI3 has the epic, sweeping scope and detail down pat. Eclipse has the economic and technology angles completely cornered. With its finger-flicking combat resolution, I’d have to give the combat edge to Ascending Empires. But Empires of the Void, so far, has the best Star Trek sense of diplomacy, negotiation, and politics.

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The setup is standard. Everybody gets a race and a home planet from which they send ships out into the titular void for typical 4x goings-on. There’s a bunch of races, more than the four players the game supports. Races each have advantages and different start-up material. The map is a modular, point-to-point thing with a couple of roadblocks in minefields, asteroids, and tentacle monsters (dubbed “ancient defenses” for reasons unknown). It looks more like Merchant of Venus than TI3, and the presence of specific and very different alien races on each of the planets on the map makes the game world feel more alive and vibrant than other games where the planets that are little more than resource numbers.

As players head out from their home planet with fleets of Diplomat-class ships or war vessels ready for battle, the idea is that you can lay claim to these populated planets either through diplomacy or violent conquest. Diplomacy requires you to spend some Culture actions to draw cards. Each race has a particular disposition- Militaristic, Capitalist, Scholarly, and so forth-and the more matching cards you have, the lower the die roll needed to sway them to fealty. Make friends, and you drop an Ally token on their card and they give you access to any resources (needed to build some technologies), income, influence in the victory point-generating Galactic Council, and a special ability. It’s a cool touch that some races do things like give you access to special ships that you otherwise can’t build.

But if you don’t want their junk, you can just blow them up by rolling a combat success against them, which makes them enemies and a subjugated people only willing to share their money and materials. I didn’t care for fishing for cards to get the matching sets at first, particularly since you only get three actions per turn and it felt like a waiting game. But thematically, it makes sense at an abstract level. You’re negotiating, finagling, maybe learning about their culture to influence them, and bartering. And there are technologies that give free Culture draws and increase hand limits. But you’ve always got the quicker nuclear option, which is not only viable but also advisable for certain races.

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There’s also an interesting- and subtle- concept regarding the cards. Over the course of the game, as planets are claimed their utility actually changes. Every card has an effect, activated by turning in two or three sets of matching cards. So by the end, they almost serve a completely different function.

I don’t like that the tech tree is so short and shallow, with particular techs all but required to be competitive. Actions do feel somewhat restrictive, with the Move action initially only moving one ship at a time but there again, with those must-have technologies it ramps up over the course of the game. The combat is somewhat ho-hum, with the standard Axis and Allies-style order of battle. It definitely feels like the work of a first-time designer, and I do not necessarily mean that as a perjorative- there’s a great sense of heart and passion on display here that smooths over some derivative and sloppy design moments.

I love the event cards that send Space Pirates out to hassle the galaxy or start crises that happen on planets that areresolved and affect political positions. These narrative events occur without bogging the game down in tracking devices or “effect creep”. I like that there’s so many different aliens in the game and a sense that this setting has personality beyond spaceships and endless warfare. And I really like that there’s loose trading rules so that players can swap money and resources along with threats, bribes, and promises.

Overall, Empires of the Void’s biggest and most important differentiator is that it has sense of fun and simplicity that these other space 4x games do not have. It’s a spirited if not completely original design with some smart streamlining that cuts a little close to the quick at times (that tech tree), but manages to retain its scope and design goals admirably. It’s a fun game with minimal hassle, which is exactly what I like playing these days. It can still run a little long, but the four player cap seems to keep a two hour and change game from being a four hour and change game.

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It is definitely a situation where those with limited gaming budgets (of time and/or money) may find themselves asking if Empires of the Void delivers anything unique or compelling in competition with similar titles. Those looking for the hardcore all-day-a-thon game may be better off sticking with TI3, those looking for a more serious, balanced, and intricate design would be better served by Eclipse. Empires of the Void is best positioned as an alternative, “indie” version of this kind of game.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

9 thoughts to “Cracked LCD- Empires of the Void in Review”

  1. An acquaintance of mine played this and loved the thematic diplomacy mechanics, but he complained that the end game invariably blew all that to shit, at least in the three games he played. Any thoughts?

    1. A good question…the game is kind of designed to be staged in such a way that the diplomatic/political element is built into the first half, where players are kind of staking out their territory. The second half is far more frictive and combat-oriented because you start to get into the border conflicts, raids, and other territorial squabbles. This is why the Diplomacy cards effectively change utility- by the end, you’re collecting them to use their combat and political effects, not to sway planets to your side.

      So it’s kind of meant to be like that, I think. The game becomes more aggressive and hostile between players as it matures. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing and it’s a pretty common thing for this kind of game, but the tempo is such that this shift may feel more abrupt.

      Some have criticized the “beat on the leader” effect toward the end and that’s definitely there too, but there again that’s kind of a common function in DoaM fare. If you’re going to push your nose out, make sure you’ve got a defensible position.

  2. Nice to see this column over here. It was one of the very few reasons to head over to gameshark and suffer through the UI.

    Not much to say on the review in general as I have yet to get my copy to the table. That being said, I think the comparisons you made between the main Space 4xish games were apt, and I think this one will generally be easier to get to the table than Eclipse and a bit easier on the skill-challenged than Ascending Empires.

    1. Glad to see you over here, RSM…I’m still in that “OMG will people find out that the column is over here now” stage. We had a really strong readership at Gameshark, and there were months were Cracked LCD actually outperformed AAA video game reviews. Trying to get the word out, hopefully we don’t lose anybody in the transition.

      Yeah, I think this is going to be an easier pickup-and-play 4x than the others. It explains pretty easily and there’s not scads of cards that screw you if you don’t know about them. The economy, combat, and so forth are extremely easy and straightforward, and it doesn’t take all day to play.

      It is an advantage over Eclipse that it’s more simplistic and less intricate.

      1. Mr. Barnes! Once more I supplicate myself at your dark altar, bringing offerings of goats and cheese and goat cheese to satiate your black hungers, that you might bestow upon me your infinite wisdom again!

        I really appreciate how you answered some of my prior questions, and I have another now that you’ve done this review. I own TI3 and an expansion. I built my own custom board for Ascending Empires (so much do I love it). Eclipse sounds pretty sweet, especially considering that it was the primary competitor with Mage Knight for your Game of the Year award, if I recall correctly. But then, the accessibility of this game sounds appealing for me as someone who sometimes (with disheartening frequency) has difficulty convincing people to give the more complex games a go.

        So, here I am to ask that most terrible, most baleful of questions: Which one should I get?

        It sounds to me like the advantage of Empires of the Void lies in its accessibility, while Eclipse is a finely tuned, humming engine of a game. Is that a fair assessment? Is Eclipse so inaccessible that it would be genuinely hard to get those with a bit of complexity-aversion to give it a fair turn?

        Your point that these games are like falafel joints, and they all do different things well, resonates with me, but I liked the idea of replacing TI3 with a cleaner, shorter game (Eclipse). Would Empires of the Void do well at filling that niche, do you think?

        1. I think it would. This is a much smaller game than TI3 with FAR less administration, setup, playtime, card sprawl, and so forth. You lose detail, but you gain playability and you won’t have people balking right out of the gate because it’s a six-eight hour game.

          Eclipse is a closer comparision because both skew more toward abstraction and streamlining. Where Eclipse really excels is in its amazing economic system and the way it handles technology. It’s probably more of a “dry” game, but I think it plays well and it’s tighter than TI3. The beauty of it is that it’s really a quite complex game,but the presentation is beautifully excecuted in such a way that it makes things very clear and easy to parse.

          Empires of the Void’s weaknesses are its tech tree, combat, and some other bits that feel unpolished or underdeveloped. But I would definitely say it’s the most accessible of these games. The rules explanation is ten minutes instead of thirty, and the concepts, strategies, and goals are always clear. It is more derivative, but its familiarity is really kind of a benefit.

          It’s a tough call. If your games gang is more into the Euro thing, likes crunching numbers and long-term strategy then Eclipse is it. If they’re more about the theme and flavor, then Empires of the Void might be a better fit. It’s definitely a lighter tone, and that carries through to card effects and things like the inevitable beat-on-the-leader business toward the end.

          But then again, I don’t think EotV would make it to a Game of the Year shortlist, so that says something too.

          Funny enough, I like the counters in EotV better than the generic spaceship plastic in Eclipse.

  3. I got a chance to play it last night and while it was interesting, I’m not sure how our game played out so differently.

    You put the diplomacy forward as what differentiates the game, as it is more of a focus. That didn’t come through at all in our game. With the sparsity of actions per turn diplomacy became mostly an afterthought. During the course of a 4 player game we colonized the entire map, but only had 3-4 diplomacy plays come into effect. Perhaps it was our races, the mystics and the five are both geared towards conquest while the parasites can get the bonus powers through other means. Perhaps it was our group, but the military end really dominated the game.

    The game was close with 2 players tied for first, with me one point behind. The victory came down to a desperate last turn fleet maneuver to conquer a planet behind my front lines. It was close, and mostly good, but far from the diplomatic focus you described. Is that something that takes a few games to develop, where all new players overplayed the military end? Or is it more because our races, or group dynamics? As much as I enjoyed pushing around my stack of five starcruisers the game never really stood out otherwise.

    1. It sounds like some of it was to do with the races. If you’ve got V and Screech out there, you’re going to have a more hostile game.

      It also sounds like something of a tempo issue…if you’ve got these hostile races that are taking planets for three or four actions and you’re trying to farm diplomacy cards over six or seven actions, you’re going to get behind the curve.

      I don’t think that diplomacy is a focus per se, it’s just what the game does differently- and better than the others at least in regard to it in an NPC/game world creation context.

      The military end does seem pretty much inevitable after several games…I don’t think you’ll ever see a game that doesn’t devolve into tit-for-tat battles toward the end.

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