The Thing About Space. . . . . Is It's Black - Empires Of The Void Review

When we think Space 4X games, typically the three names that come to mind (at least in our area) is Twilight Imperium 3, Exodus Proxima Centauri and Eclipse. Now all have their pros and cons, with TI3 having more pros and Eclipse having far more cons, but one big con for all of them is the time length of each game. When you get a proper game of them going with multiple players and/or expansions, it's going to take you a long time. Exodus will easily take a whole game night, games of TI3 have to be planned out as a day event and I've had the misfortune of sitting through a 6+ hour Eclipse game including explanations which was maxed out in players and expansions. 6 hours of balancing your cheque book in space, god that was boring.

They also tend to be pretty complex, featuring all kinds of weird and wonderful rules and giving the player a plethora of options available to them each turn lending themselves to Analysis Paralysis. So what if you want a balance between the two? The feel of a Space 4X game but without the obscene time length and making it still accessible to many players. Well Red Raven Games has jumped to the rescue with Empires of the Void, dubbed as a light 4X experience, but was it justified?

Now a quick disclaimer first - this review is going to discuss the base game only. The Print & Play expansion "Key To The Universe" will follow shortly in a subsequent review. Observant followers may remember that this made No 1 in my Top 10 Essential Expansions list on the podcast. I strongly urge you to read both articles and find out why. Also the pictures here are from BGG - I've been somewhat busy lately, but want to get this content out!



Designer: Ryan Laukat (2012)
Publisher: Red Raven Games
# of Players: 2-4
Ages: 12+
Play Time: 120+ minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: 1235/7.11
Dice Tower 2013 People’s Choice Rank: n/a
Category: Space 4X Game
  
Galactic Conquest. . . Err.. I Mean Friendship

The typical formula for a Space 4X game is to build ships, explore the map, conquer or befriend alien worlds, gather resources and build up your empire in order to win by victory points while engaging in battles with the other players. This is no different.

Each player takes control of a race with its own unique abilities and on their turn they will perform one of several actions such as building ships, attacking, moving, researching technology and diplomacy. Some actions are performed simultaneously while others are done in turn order. All the ships are identical to each race however additional designs can be obtained from alien worlds through diplomacy.

When encountering alien races, you have a choice as to how to add them to your empire. You have the quick and easy conquest option of simply subduing them into submission or you can take the slightly harder, but more profitable approach of diplomatic relations. Conquering a planet requires a standard attack with your ships, but diplomacy is handled by trading in cards that match the demeanour of the alien race (e.g. peaceful, militaristic, etc.) and then rolling 3 dice against a target number based on the cards traded in.

"Lots of cool races to choose from, but note Pirates are a promo"

Conquering a planet gives you access to the income, influence and victory points, but diplomacy also allows access to the race's unique ability or ship design. Abilities handle exactly like the player's racial abilities, but the ships are unique and only accessible by that player allowing them to gain more diversity in how their space armada is formed. Obviously these planets can be subsequently conquered or liberated by other players.

Battles with enemy players are handled by dice rolls by which each ship has a target number required to score a hit. All ships are destroyed in one hit, but more advanced ships will attack first with initiative, roll extra dice or have easier target numbers. Some ships will also have special abilities or functions that differentiate them from others.

"Even this little baby can take out a battleship if it gets lucky"

As with all Space 4X games players can research technologies throughout the game that grant the race additional bonuses and abilities based on the style of play that they have adopted whether it's concentrating on diplomacy, conquering, space combat, ship building, etc.

As the game progress, there will be event cards each round that add new elements to gameplay and after 11 rounds have elapsed, the victory points are totalled up to find the winner.

Set Aside Some Time For Component Punching

The first element you're going to notice about this game is that it looks beautiful when it's laid out. You have a selection of giant hexes, each with really colourful layouts that when laid together, form a galaxy which in my opinion looks nicer than even the Twilight Imperium 3 layout. Most are randomised so the map is ever-changing from game to game, though it's a bizarre move by the publishers to print the same thing on both sides of the hex. Why not make some subtle changes and thus improve variety? Weird, but that being said, there's still a ton of combinations in the box.

"Each hex is GORGEOUS and when put together it's lush (NB: - Tengol doesn't actually exist in-game!"

It's also incredibly token-intensive (is that a phrase?) - each player has a lot of tokens to represent the ships and a hundred more besides to represent the various technologies that can be researched. For once we don't have miniatures, but at least these tokens are painted. Miniatures for me are cool and all, but some of that theme is lost when they're all coloured green for example and I can't paint to save my life.

"That's just one of the sheets! Lots of cool player ships and the unique planetary ones as well"

With the cards for each alien race, the diplomatic cards, the tokens for money and many more besides, you can certainly get a feeling that you've got your money's worth in components. However it also comes with a problem of being very fiddly. There's a lot to set up and having to manipulate and use these tokens during the game can be a pain. They all look cool, but there are simpler ways to do this. There have also been reports of the adhesive used to make the tokens being less than adequate, most noticeable when you're punching the tokens out. I didn't have many problems with my set, but it's a let down overall.

The rulebook however suffers here. I've seen worse, but there's going to be a lot of ambiguity when playing the game, enough to generate a significant FAQ. It's not well laid out and you find yourself flipping back and forth trying to find the specific rule you want. Some more proof-reading I feel was needed here.

Combat vs Diplomacy

The unique feature of this game is that each planet bears its own alien race with different levels of income, influence and victory points. In addition each race either has a special ability or a unique ship design that only the ally of that world can build. This is one of the best things I like in this game. You have to decide for yourself whether you want to take the easy conquering route or take some extra time to make friends for those special abilities and they're all very useful. Conquering grants quick access to more income and points, but you might be losing out on a key advantage to exploit. No other space 4X game I know of does this (haters gonna' hate if they know otherwise), but it's wonderfully thematic.

"The sheer amount of tech tokens you end up with is a pain for fiddlyness"

There is a luck element to the diplomacy action as you have to roll 3 dice and hit a target number based on the cards you use. You can mitigate this luck with the cards, but obviously you have to draw those cards first, which sometimes can result in you being unable to ally with a planet you want. It is however possible to trade these among players and each diplomacy card has a secondary Tactic action which can be played as an alternative, allowing for some good tactical play (go figure!)

Star Wars: Golden Gun Mode

Ship combat can be very bloody, which is fine, but this is due to the fact that ships all die in one hit regardless of how big it is. Some criticise this as being odd, but I think it simplifies combat enough so that it can be taken care of quickly. Also even though all ships die in one hit, their ability to hit other ships will vary and the initiative order of the ships matters. Yes, a lowly starfighter can take out a battleship (trench run anyone?), but it has to hit on a 6. That same battleship will not only attack first, but also for example be rolling two dice and hitting on 3's. Chances are the starfighter won't survive, but there's always the hope it will. It stops the heavy ships becoming too overpowered but also gives enough of a reason to have them in the first place.

Movement across the galaxy is also slow if you're only using basic ships, so if you want to head out at warp speed and get to those planets first, you'll need the bigger ships. Whether you simply build the best that your own race can provide (by default or through technologies) or ally with a planet for their "go faster stripes" model is up to you and the more choices a game forces you to make, the more entertaining it is.

4X Within One Game Night

A common complaint with a true 4X Space game is that it's too long. Twilight Imperium 3 will take you a minimum of 6 hours with a full group whether you've played it before or not. Eclipse with a full complement and expansions can take the same amount of time but even a smaller game will set you back 3-4 hours at a bare minimum and that's not including rules explanations for new players. This however even with four players can be done and dusted within 3 hours tops and that's including rules explanations. AP players can slow this down however so bare that in mind as with all games like this, but the majority should be able to quickly deduce what they're going to do on their turn in advance and the game doesn't get bogged down in combat for too long because of the simplified mechanic.

Verdict

The game itself is great to fun to play and worth the time, but it has been apparent that there are some balancing issues with some of the event cards and the ability to spam a particular type of ship. These don't have a drastic effect on play, but are a niggle in themselves. The theme is strong though and a lot of this is down to the simplified combat as well as the cool distinction between diplomacy and combat, both of which are valid strategies to take. The game is relatively combat heavy, so don't think you can just sit back and avoid it, but this is a lighter 4X experience so it's expected - this kind of thing is more of an issue in larger scale games (TI3) or long civilization games.

"Make sure you have a LARGE table with four players"

The components, despite the occasional quality issues are generally good and very colourful. It looks gorgeous and almost cartoonish when set out, but there are far too many tokens to keep track of. It's getting to the levels of Agricola where there's a lot of bits to manipulate and I cannot see the logic of having the technology tree represented by lots of different tokens as you'll spend half your turn searching through your stash to find the one you're after and there's no handy reference guide in the rulebook to show the tech tree evolution.

Is it a good game? Yes, definitely and an under-rated one at that. You can get a good 4X experience within the space of a typical game night with ease and have a great time, however the fiddlyness and balance issues are going coupled with a less than stellar rulebook are going to put off many from this game so it may take some "breaking in" on its own. So why do I own this game, why was I hooked on it after playing a two player with my friend despite these issues and why is it one of my top space games? . . . . . well that's because there was another addition, which is this games knight in shining armour. . . . . .

TO BE CONTINUED. . . . .


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