Empire Engine

Chris Marling, Matthew Dunstan
2 - 4
10 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

Empire Engine, a game by Chris Marling and Matthew Dunstan, is set on the planet Mekannis, a planet that was converted by its inhabitants into a giant, mechanical engine. Really the whole planet, people were living on the spinning wheels. But as always happens with projects of this magnitude, sooner or later someone gets too greedy, or too careless, and throws everything into chaos. That, too, happened long ago on Mekannis. Now there are four cultures living on the cogs, fighting for dominance over Mekannis to maybe restore the engine to its former glory.

The planet Mekannis has one thing in common with the game Empire Engine. Both are just one mechanism. But Mekannis, being a planet, is still huge. Empire Engine, on the other hand, is what they call a micro game. It has one mechanism and little else, besides the description of the setting in the rulebook. It’s not only a game mechanism, it’s also a literal mechanism, the players use two cogs to select their actions for a round. Each player has his own two cogs, each cog has four actions to pick from.

The Wheels of Action
The Wheels of Action

There are three different gathering actions on the cogs, each for a different type of resource: soldiers (red cubes), goods (yellow) and inventions (blue). When you collect soldiers or goods, you take two cubes of that color and put them in your ready pile where you keep your resources to use. When inventing, you only get one blue cube, but that goes directly into the score pile where it’s safe from greedy opponents.

You want your points in the score pile to be safe, because this is not a peaceful game. By turning your wheel to the Attack action, you can raid an opponent’s ready pile. Attack is the only action that is on both your wheels. You select this action on your left wheel to attack your left neighbor, on the right wheel to attack to your right. The last player, if you’re playing in four, is safe from you. To carry out an attack, you pay one soldier from your ready pile back into the supply. If the attack is successful, you pick one resource from the victim’s ready pile and put it in your score pile. Obviously, attacks are not an automatic success. If your enemy chose to defend for this round, then you get nothing and he gets a soldier to his score pile, as a reward for repelling you. Defending is not specific for one side, but you can only fight off one attack per round. If both your neighbors attack you on the same round, one of them will succeed and you should consider bribing them with pizza before they do it again.

The final two actions let you put things in your score pile. You can not pick either if you were successfully attacked this round, so think about that pizza bribe again. When picking Export, you may put all your goods from the ready pile into the score pile. It’s tempting to collect a lot of goods and then export them, but it paints a target on your back. It’s safer to export early, export often. With Salvage you may pick a cube of any color from the supply and put it in your score pile.

Turn faster, Soldier!
Turn faster, Soldier!

Now, if you could just pick any two actions, there wouldn’t be much new here. But everything on Mekannis is, well, mechanical. The wheels only turn clockwise, and it’s somewhat predictable how far they will turn. To control that, each player has two cards. One shows a large one and a small zero, the other a large two and a small three. Starting with the start player, each player puts one of his cards face down next to one of his wheels to select how far that wheel will turn. Then, going backwards from the last player, everyone places the second card next to the other wheel. Then all cards are revealed and the wheels turned accordingly. A card played by itself will turn the wheel as many actions forward as the big number indicates, so one or two. But when playing the card you can place a soldier from your ready pile on it and make it use the small number, zero or three. Your opponents won’t know what exactly you plan to do until the card is revealed, but they know if you plan to move one or two actions forward (no soldier on the card) or zero or three (soldier on the card). That tells them which two actions on a wheel you’re not going to pick and they have a good chance to guess which of the remaining two you will take. Unless, of course, you’re bluffing.

Being a micro game, Empire Engine is also pretty short. You do the above for eight or nine rounds, depending on the number of players, then the game ends. Eight or nine turns of the wheels, a total of 16 or 18 actions. Then you count cubes in your score pile. Each is worth one point, having the majority in one of the three colors is another three. Those majority points often decide the winner, so try to specialize where your points come from. A good memory helps, too, as score piles are supposed to be hidden and you have to remember what the other players scored to know if you still have a majority or not.

The advanced game only adds one more detail: variable player powers. Each of the four empires has a special ability. For instance, when the Kestrel Dominion defends against an attack, the attacker loses one resource back to the supply. That will make your opponents think twice about attacking you, but it doesn’t give you anything. The Sylphian Commonwealth and the Grail Prelacy both have abilities that let them take more cubes, one when salvaging and the other when inventing. All those abilities are useful, however. Compared to those, Nova Centralis is left in the dust. They can pay for an attack with two goods instead of one soldier. It’s not entirely useless, the ability does give you some flexibility and makes it a bit harder to predict your moves, but paying two cubes to plunder one from an enemy is not all that profitable. Consequently, the Novas didn’t win in any of our test games.

War on the Wheels
War on the Wheels

At this point, you can tell why they call it a micro game. There is one mechanism to master, and it’s not a very complex one. Once you learned the rules, a game takes 10 minutes, and there are not enough different strategies to try to keep you playing for an evening. The wheel mechanism for action selection is pretty neat, it forces you to plan ahead for a round or two, lets you guess other players’ actions and allows you some limited bluffing, all without long pauses for thinking. I really like the wheels, but they leave me thinking “I like those wheels, I wish there was a game around them.” You know what you’re getting into when you play a micro game, there just isn’t much flesh to it and you are unlikely to keep playing it for long. But hey, that’s why it’s micro. As those games go, Empire Engine at least gives you a couple of fun rounds before it expires.

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