Posted by: gschloesser | August 31, 2011

Rise of Empires

Design by:  Martin Wallace
Published by:  Phalanx and Mayfair
2 – 5 Players, 3 – 4 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

NOTE:  This review first appeared on the Boardgame News site 

It is a simple formula:  Martin Wallace + Empire Building game = MUST play.  Wallace’s Struggle of Empires is one of my all-time favorite games, so I was interested in seeing what further twists he would put on a game in this genre.

Rise of Empires places players in control of an empire that they will guide from the early stages of history to the modern era.  Empires will gather territory, achieve advances, construct towns, cities, and great wonders, and engage in conflict with their neighbors in order to expand their territorial holdings.  The player who is able to best transform his fledgling civilization into a massive empire will emerge as the world’s superpower and win the game.

The game is played over the course of three eras, each with two rounds.  In what is the game’s most distinctive feature and creative idea, the actions a player takes in the first round of an era will be repeated – usually in a quasi-reverse order – in the second round.  This forces players to plan their actions for two turns, which requires great foresight, care and judgment.

Players begin their journey in Europe and Northern Africa, with new areas becoming available for settlement in each subsequent era.  Each territory will earn resources (income, food, resource discs or new population markers) and victory points for the player who controls it at the end of each era.  These are a significant portion of a player’s overall victory points, so there is usually keen competition to control these territories.

Each era consists of two rounds:  A & B.  During round A, players will each choose their actions – one at a time – by placing markers on the action track.  There are five possible actions, and each can only be performed a limited number of times.  If all spaces of an available action are occupied, that action can no longer be selected by any player.  When a player places his action disc on one of the tracks, he immediately performs the appropriate action.  The possible actions are:

Take a Progress Tile.  Each turn, a variety of progress tiles are available.  These tiles provide atmosphere – agriculture, iron weapons, colonies, printing, religion, electricity, television, etc. – and each gives the player a specific advantage, often enhancing other tiles a player has in his possession.  With each passing round, new tiles are revealed.  Tiles in subsequent eras tend to grant more powerful advantages, but often carry a financial cost to acquire.  Further, at the end of each era, players must pay a gold for each progress tile they elect to maintain.

Take a Territory Tile.  There are a variety of different territories – forests, mountains, islands, towns and plains – and each grants specific resources and/or player cubes.  It is important to acquire territory tiles in order to garner a healthy influx of resources and cubes each turn.

Take a City Tile.  City tiles cost gold when purchased, and have an ongoing maintenance cost each turn which must be paid in resources, cubes and/or food.  However, they provide invaluable victory points.  As the game progresses, the cities that can be founded become significantly more valuable, but carry a higher acquisition cost.  The valuable tiles will generally be scooped quickly, so turn order will become increasingly important.

Take an Empire Tile.  Empire tiles allow the player to place units (player cubes) onto the board.  The tile will specify the maximum number of territories and the continents into which units can be placed.  A few will allow the placement of units into the Mediterranean, and in later eras, allow shipment of units overseas.  The idea is to place units to control territories, thereby gaining resources and victory points.

Units can coexist with other units, but if the active player so desires, he may initiate conflict.  There are no dice or cards to resolve combat. Rather, the empire tile specifies the losses both players will incur.  The defender will usually lose more units, and sometimes the attacker will emerge unscathed.  A few tiles allow the player to fight multiple battles, but most only allow one.  Players must consider these factors when selecting the empire tiles and plan their actions accordingly.  They must also consider the tiles that will be available to their opponents, as they could be used against them.

Trading.  There are seventeen trade boxes available in the on-board display.  Many are not available until later eras.  Each box lists the number of resource tokens that must be placed into the box, which then yield the indicated number of gold pieces or victory points.  The more resource tokens placed, the greater the yield.  Once one player claims a box, no other player can place tokens into it.  As the game progresses, the competition for the more valuable boxes intensifies, which again makes turn order vitally important.

After players have selected and executed their actions, players again perform the SAME actions, but usually in a quasi-reverse order.  In turn order, players remove discs one-at-a-time and once again execute the appropriate action.  There is no cost to removing a disc IF there are no other discs in that same row that lay to the left of the disc being removed.  If there are discs to the left, the player must pay one gold, player cube, resource disc, food point or victory point for EACH such disc.  This can be quite expensive, but often the desire / need to perform that action makes the cost worthwhile.

This mechanism is brilliant, but also the source of much angst.  The actions a player selects in Phase A will be the same actions the player repeats in Phase B, albeit in a somewhat reverse order.  There are a few progress tiles that allow the player to switch a token to a different action during Phase B, which can be quite useful.  However, the vast majority of times, players will be performing the same actions as they did during Phase A.  Multiple times during the course of a game, players will bemoan the fact that they cannot perform a different action during Phase B.  This entire process causes some gut-wrenching decisions.

After all Phase B actions are performed, players must calculate their food gains or losses.  Most territory and city tiles earn or cost food points, as do some progress tiles, while many regions on the board also earn food points.  If a player plummets to the bottom of the food track – meaning they are consuming more than they are producing – victory points will be lost.  If a player has a very productive empire and he reaches the top of the food track, gold is earned for excess production.  In the former case, opponents should be a bit wary, as it is likely the starving empire will lash out and attempt to capture new and more productive territory.  In an effort to prevent players from starving their population on the final turn, all food points, whether gained or lost, are doubled.  Since plummeting past the bottom of the food table costs victory points, players will want to avoid this dire situation, as the loss of a few victory points could well cost them the victory.

Income in the form of gold is now earned in a fashion similar to food.  Many city tiles, territory tiles and regions earn gold for the controlling player.  Gold is required to acquire many city and progress tiles, and is also needed to maintain progress tiles and some city tiles.

Players next earn victory points for city tiles, some territory and progress tiles, and for controlling regions.  The tiles specify the amount of victory points earned, as do the regions.  To control a region, a player must have more units present than any of his opponents.  If more than one player ties, the victory points are split evenly amongst the tied players.  Victory points are recorded on a track that surrounds the map.

Turn order is reassessed at the conclusion of each turn.  In reverse victory-point order, players select the position they desire for the upcoming turn.  Turn order can be critical when selecting and executing actions, but one must remember that while going first in Phase A can be desirable, there is often a cost to do so during Phase B (due to the cost of removing discs from the action chart).  This presents players with yet another tough decision with numerous factors to consider.

Rise of Empires is played over the course of three eras.  At the conclusion of each era, certain tasks must be performed.  Progress and city tiles must be maintained (costing gold and/or player cubes), although players may voluntarily surrender progress tiles if they no longer desire or can afford to retain them.  The big shake-up is on the map, as players must remove half of their units from each region.  This does make more units available to them for the subsequent turn, but it also makes it easier for opponents to make incursions into controlled territories.

As mentioned, each new era opens up more regions for conquest and areas for trade.  More and often superior progress, city and territory tiles also become available.  Thus, each new era presents more options and challenges for the players.  It is vital for players to amass a collection of tiles and regions that bring them a steady supply of food, resources, player cubes, gold and victory points.  Balance is critical.

The third and final era can be bloody.  Victory points win the game, and the copious amounts available via control of the regions is simply too tantalizing for players to ignore.  The final era usually witnesses numerous conflicts over valuable territories.  Since players lose half of their units at the conclusion of each era and the outcome of each conflict is not left to chance, there are few defensive measures players can take to protect themselves against these incursions.  This final era is chaotic, with regions changing hands frequently and violently.  This chaotic last-turn situation is one of the few complaints registered against the game from those with whom I’ve played.

At the conclusion of the third era, victory points are earned for gold and resource discs (one for every three, respectively.  These are added to each player’s cumulative total to determine the ultimate victor.  Most of our games have taken about three hours to play, with one notable exception that lasted four hours.  That, however, was an aberration.

For years, gamers have been searching for the definitive civilization-building game that can be played in just a few hours.  The target has been to capture all of the feel, strategy and epic scope of Francis Tresham’s Civilization without having to invest an entire day doing so.  Numerous attempts at such a game have been made, with Rise of Empires being one of the more recent.  While I have a strong suspicion that such a search is akin to the fruitless quest for the Holy Grail, I still harbor hopes that such an effort will one day succeed.

Does Rise of Empires meet this challenge?  Well, it probably comes just about as close as any game will.  It is exciting, tense and filled with a myriad of tough decisions.  There are numerous factors to balance, and as in many great games, there are more actions a player desires to perform than he is allowed.  One must choose his actions carefully, but even the most careful plans can be upset by the actions of one’s opponents.  Adapting to a changing environment – both on-board and in the various tile selections – is a constant challenge.

Truthfully, though, it is probably unfair to hold any game to such a difficult and quite likely impossible goal.  Yes, comparisons to other games within the genre are very appropriate, as are considerations to how a game’s mechanisms have been utilized in previous designs.  However, each game should be considered for its own merits and not just in comparison to other titles.  Rise of Empires is a fine game that attempts to create, albeit in a fairly abstract manner, the feel of empire building.  While the absence of historical empires causes the game to feel too abstract, the progress tiles add a touch of atmosphere that does help a bit.  Still, I long for the sense of history and atmosphere that is evoked as I lead and maneuver historical empires such as the Egyptians, Syrians, Romans and Great Britain through the challenges of their eras.

The lack of a historical atmosphere, however, doesn’t doom the game.  Rise of Empires is very engaging game that constantly challenges players with often agonizing decisions throughout its three hour duration.  As with the legendary Civilization, it forces players to pay attention to more than just warfare.  Trade, cities, progress, resources, food and finances – all play a critical role in the success of one’s empire, and the challenge is to find the optimum combination and balance.  It is a challenge that has proven exciting and enjoyable each time I’ve accepted it, and I have no doubt it will continue to do so in the future.


  1. Like many Wallace games, you have several options each turn and you have to balance short and long term goals. The reversing the order of choosing action between the A round and the B round is a good balancing factor. 7/10

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