Before the title makes you pass this by, stay awhile. Empires of the Void II is not a sequel, nor a continuation of a franchise, or some part in an ongoing story of which you have missed the first chapter. A better name for this would be Empires of the Void, 2nd Edition. This is a refined, enhanced and beautified remaster of Ryan Lauket’s original.
It takes the concept of a 4X game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) with fleet building, discovering planets, building resources, and dominating opponents, and wraps them in a gorgeous sci-fantasy world with more than a hint of movie-like storytelling. And it does it all between one and a half to three hours.
Each player takes control of one of five ‘world ships,’ containing the last of their civilization, heading out to establish a new home and compete with each other for dominance. This goal is complicated by the fact that the planets of the new system already contain intelligent life. The winning faction at the end of the game is the one with the most victory points — and whether you gain those through military domination or diplomatic cunning is entirely up to you.
The board itself is a huge space map, populated by eight large planets and several smaller ones. The larger ones are occupied by a native faction, while the smaller planets each hold a secret discovery to make: ancient artifacts which provide bonuses to the holder. The native inhabitants of the large planets can be recruited, but only if your political influence is high enough.
And this is where the game shines for me. There is an ongoing tension between invading planets and influencing them. You can control a planet by force or you can be its ally, but it’s extremely hard to do both.
It’s a wonderful balance, because to control a planet allows you to build structures — each of which releases new resources and victory points on your unique player board — but to have the most influence on a planet makes you their ally and gives you access to unique faction abilities as well as the ability to hire troops from the native inhabitants, all of whom are more powerful than your own basic recruits. Each world can only accept one additional building, so there’s a race to control each planet for building rights. But then, the best way to gain control is to recruit strong units able to invade, so maybe you should prioritise diplomatic missions…
It’s these kinds of choices which make Empires such a compelling, multi-layered, strategic challenge. Compared to many other space battling games, this leans heavily into the ‘Euro’ style of game design, favouring investment of resources and acquisition of unique player powers over straight head-to-head combat. Like most Euro games, you never seem to have quite enough actions or resources to do everything, so each choice is a gut-wrenching search for the strongest path.
Empires of the Void II also cleverly takes the sting out of player versus player (PvP) engagements. After a fleet battle, the victor gains control of that planet and the loser retreats to the nearest friendly planet. There is generally no unit loss, meaning that, unlike a lot of 4X experiences, there is no lengthy process of rebuilding decimated fleets. Additionally, regardless of the size of a fleet, only three nominated units actually provide stats for battle, so a player amassing a horde of cheap fighters doesn’t gain any rush-style advantages. This focuses the game’s combat on control of locations, rather than simply removing each other’s pieces.
Compared to many 4X games, Empires is kept comparatively short by use of a shared deck of cards. Once this deck has run out, the final round begins — so the game is always on a kind of timer. These cards serve as both secret combat modifiers (each player choosing a single card during each skirmish to boost strength) and secret missions; usually rewarding the player with diplomatic influence, but sometimes resources as well.
Hidden within this deck is one special event card for each planet. When an event card is drawn, it goes into play immediately and changes the way planets function, providing new opportunities or setbacks. There are events such as prison escapes, viral pandemics, unleashed space monsters, and even the complete destruction of one of the in-game planets. This lifts Empires way above dry strategy and into the realms of space adventure. As well as the randomised planet selection, each planet has multiple event cards which can be added to the deck, so each play is unique.
The game is stunning and the component quality is some of the highest I’ve seen. Ryan Lauket’s quirky characters create a universe that feels a world away from overused genre tropes. The art style may not appeal to gamers who like their space fiction dark and gritty, but the mix of wistful humans, inscrutable amphibians and steampunk androids sits very consistently with the fantasy worlds Lauket has already established in fantasy treasures such as Above and Below and Near and Far.
Empires of the Void II compares very favourably against the heavyweight title in the genre, Twilight Imperium IV. Empires has the advantage that it’s a game for an evening, rather than requiring the commitment of a whole day. But, even condensed, it never feels too light or careless. The correct decisions are vital and there is a huge amount of room for self-expression in your play style. It scales brilliantly between two and five players and, as I hinted, every visit to this game feels somehow unique. This is comfortably a ‘top ten’ game for me.
Title: Empires of the Void II
Publisher: Red Raven Games