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‘Struggle for Empire’ by Martin Wallace

Just when you think someone is hooked on playing games, they go and let you down. Ros and Derek were supposed to re-play ‘Struggle for Empire’ after a trial play-through two weeks ago. But come the big day (i.e. today) they have blown us out, blaming not reading their e-mails – a novel excuse.

Consequently, Dicken appears rather later than usual and the Ragnars go head to head. It does say ‘Struggle for Empire’ can be played as a two-player, but the suspicion is that it falls into that category of game that ‘can be played by two or more….’, but is probably better when played by ‘more’. Interestingly (for those wearing anoraks), there appears to be no difference in the rules what so ever when playing the game with two. Presumably there is an over-sight here, as the alliance rules would mean that the two players would always end up allied throughout the game. Perhaps that is what Martin (he is a friend of Roger, so first name terms feels appropriate) wanted or perhaps there has been a customary misreading of the rules or perhaps it is an over-sight. Kendall and Dicken assume the latter and choose to ignore alliances altogether. Time to get stuck in.

Low-fat Pringles don’t appear too appetising, so Kendall risks his heart on a bumper pack of Doritos. The John Smiths is also going down a treat on a hot, sticky evening.

The map shows Europe and colonial lands including India, the Americas, West Africa, the Caribbean and the East Indies. An initial cash of 10 country markers are drawn and placed on the map. These markers are the ‘opportunities’ afforded to the European powers to expand into. In addition to the colonies there are opportunities in the Ottoman Empire, the Mediterranean, Central Europe, the Baltic and North East Europe.

Each player then draws five further markers and places a control marker in each of the respective areas – this is the initial allocation of ‘Empire’. Kendall is dominant in the Caribbean, Dicken in the rest of the Americas. The remainder of their markers lie in Europe. Players then place five units (armies, navies or forts). Dicken reinforces America and Central Europe; Kendall fortifies the Caribbean and places a navy off the West African coast (hoping to capitalise on human misery).

And so begins the first ‘War’. A War is made up of six turns, each turn giving each player two actions. Dicken turns a population token into a control marker and then picks up a tile (‘Militia’). Kendall turns a ‘Slaves’ into a control marker and picks up an Ally tile (the Nawab of India) to give a combat bonus should he instigate conflict in that part of the world.

Now, the rules run to some four or five A4 pages (in each of three languages – the Ragnars just using English). However, they are pretty dense and there is a lot of variety in the tiles available for selection. Together this results in some turns taking considerably longer than others as players delve through information before deciding on their actions. The earlier game involving Ros and Derek showed how this can create large imbalances in down-time. Some turns can be well prepared and take a minute or two; others can stretch to five minutes or more.

With two players however, there is a tendency to share in the rule untangling and so Kendall is soon trying to gain a foothold in India, while Dicken looks to reinforce his existing position, all of which costs money and population – both of which (as you’d expect) are in pretty limited supply. Population is needed to raise armies and navies; money buys tiles and pays for conflicts. While population is finite, money can always be raised by taxing the home nation – collecting an ‘unrest’ point into the bargain. Conflicts also generate unrest and he that hath most unrest will lose victory points at game end. Any player having twenty ‘unrests’ at game end loses all his victory points – and presumably the Mountain Rescue service will be sent out to deal with the ensuing ‘revolution’ in the home nation.

Sandi (Kendall’s wife) puts in a brief appearance to thank Dicken for purchasing a 10 foot trampoline for the Kendall household. He’s a generous soul, but not so generous. Kendall’s hard drive had crashed just as the need arose for a speedy internet purchase. Dicken stepped into the cyber breach, flashing his ever ready credit card. He has been repaid. Sandi takes the opportunity to berate Kendall for eating Doritos.

End of the first War and time for victory points to be tallied, population to increase and income and maintenance to be effected. The upshot in this game is that Kendall has 26 victory points, 9 population and a hatful of coins; Dicken has 24 victory points, 5 population and just a couple of quid to rub together. First blood to Kendall then.

As a further bonus, the low-fat Pringles are a good deal tastier than expected.

The second War commences and follows a similar pattern to the first; consolidation, tile collecting then aggression. This time Dicken attacks Kendall’s Mediterranean control. The first combat ends in defeat for Dicken (loss of an army), but on the next turn he triumphs. The combat system is quick and effective, with a somewhat more unusual dice roll system. That said, it isn’t particularly thrilling – the build up to the conflict being the meat of the action.

The second War ends and Dicken has gained the lead in terms of victory points. His financial and population positions are weaker than Kendall, so (as it’s already 10.20) a ‘no-result’ is declared. Both combatants agree that the third and final war will be one almighty slog, with each player trying to winkle the other out of as many ‘top dog’ positions in as many regions as possible.

Time for a quick discussion on where ‘Struggle for Empire’ stands in the grand scheme of boardgames. Here are some of the points made:

  • · The mechanics deliver the theme pretty well; but there is a lot to get to grips with,which reduces the gaminess.
  • · Both games failed to get beyond two wars in two hours and the playing time is recorded as being three hours (there are three Wars altogether). This begins to put the game in the ‘Ragnar bash’ category rather than ‘Gamesnight’ material.
  • · The interactive element demands that players start to attack each others control markers. Because this is quite ‘precise’ attacking it may be that the conflict starts to have that personal / vindictive quality which is to be found in ‘Serenissma’ and ‘Buck Rogers’. Games like ‘Tigris & Euphrates’ avoid that feeling.

And so ends another games night. Jolly good fun all round.

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