Empires: Age of Discovery Review

Age Of Empires, Empires: Age of Discovery, Eagle-Gryphon, Worker Placement

It would appear that we at Polyhedron Collider are a shower of dirty liars and hypocrites. "What is the reason for this confession?" you may ask. It seems that we may have made the statement on an earlier podcast that “it’s not all about the bling”. Whilst true, my track record on this sort of thing isn’t exactly exemplary as I’ve got a growing number of games in my collection with more shinies than Malcolm Reynolds after having Serenity diamond-encrusted - one of which is Empires: Age of Discovery, a hefty Worker Placement/Area Control game from Eagle-Gryphon.

Working in a world of scientists and engineers, I’m a big believer in the “Standard Weight Test” for any product; a term with which any technically minded individual should be familiar. Basically, if it’s hefty enough, it’s decent. So when I pulled Empires off the shelf and nearly put my back out, we were off to a good start. In fact, the ability of a game to cause crippling physical pain should be right up there on the list of “things that are good about it”.

Age Of Empires, Empires: Age of Discovery, Eagle-Gryphon, Worker Placement

Empires is in fact a re-make/re-hash of Age of Empires III and it’s had a bit of a polish for this edition of the game. It supports up to six players and everyone has their own collection of 70 miniatures. Not meeples, miniatures. So that’s 420 of them plus 10 model ships, which is quite a lot. Add to that the large pile of silver and gold dubloons, the very generous thick tiles and playing board and you can see where the quality is. If I’m brutally honest, most of it isn’t necessary as you’d get away with counters or standees for what they actually add to the game, but by crikey it’s pretty. 

Empires is a worker placement at heart, but it’s driven by a longer-reaching strategy element whereby you’re trying to colonise the New World. Yes, this is set at the time when Europe was expanding rapidly into a new patch of land that would eventually be called America and each player takes on the role of a European power to see who can exploit, invade, bully and occasionally trade their way to victory. Set over 3 ages, Empires gradually ramps up the pressure to gear players up to their endgame where they can adopt a financial, warlike, mercantile or conquering approach, or a mixture of all of them. 

Age Of Empires, Empires: Age of Discovery, Eagle-Gryphon, Worker Placement

The object of the game is quite simply to score points. There's a few ways to do this, but the main way is to move as many of your different colonists (of differing abilities) to the New World as possible. Controlling territory is a major point-scorer so you always want as many folk in the Americas as you can muster. I loved the feel of the game and lining up colonists on the docks really felt like the video game Colonization by Sid Meier. If you haven’t played it, just watch this video review where someone not a million miles from this keyboard casts their expert opinion over it in their unique style.

You need to explore areas before you can move to them, which requires a force large enough to mount an expedition - this also scores points and rewards with plunder. Players also gain money through the sale of goods; acquiring as many goods as possible is worth your while as money allows you to build structures, a major contributor to getting end-game VPs. Miss out on a structure and your entire strategy might go up in smoke, something a little punishing if you're not careful. 

Age Of Empires, Empires: Age of Discovery, Eagle-Gryphon, Worker Placement

Disappointingly, Empires doesn’t really scale very well for fewer players. The amount of interaction for spaces and regions of the board is almost zero for two players. For six players you have no such luxury and the board gets more crowded than the mosh pit at an Iron Maiden gig. There’s a real competition for the spots so I’d advise a learning game with fewer players and a solid competitive game for 4-6 as Empires gets much less forgiving as the player numbers increase. Waging war is much more likely with higher player counts, although I've yet to see it used as much as I'd expect. It's a costly action and less likely to be used by many players.

It'll probably take you a couple of playthroughs to truly get a working strategy and you'll almost certainly make a mistake or two along the way, but stick with it, Empires is definitely worth persevering with. As you'd expect from a worker placement game, you get a limited number of colonists to perform actions, although you can buy more, so choose wisely where you put them. A single worker in the right spot at the wrong can make all the difference, so there can be a lot of Analysis Paralysis along the way. Because of this, Empires is not a short game; realistically it'll take up to three hours to get through it with a full complement of players, possibly less if you're all used to it. The game gets more complex the further you get into it, so be prepared for a quick start followed by a lengthy finale.

Age Of Empires, Empires: Age of Discovery, Eagle-Gryphon, Worker Placement

Overall, Empires is a highly competitive, very pretty and deep strategic game that you’ll keep coming back to. It’s a game that you need to keep on top of as you play as there’s a time part way through that things “click” and you need to set your strategy in stone or you’ll be left floundering in limbo with nowhere to go. Empires rewards single-mindedness and a good plan right from the outset, although in the 1st Age there’s a little more forgiveness as you find your feet. It's brutally timing-critical as if you miss an opportunity to place a mini down in the right place at the right time, you will pay for it the rest of the game as you watch your opponents slowly walk away with their scoring.

As anyone who listens to the ColliderCast will know, I’m a big fan of “value for money” in games; objective price is less of an issue provided what you get justifies it. Empires is not cheap and £90 will put a lot of players off, but it’s definitely worth the price tag in terms of quality and the sheer amount of stuff you get. As a game in its own right, Empires is very accessible, deep in strategy and both rewarding and brutal at the same time.

So I heartily recommend Empires and invite you to return to the Year of our Lord Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
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