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Review: Shadows Over the Empire

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Shadows over the Empire is a strategy card game with awesome looks. Its small but elegant box with its detailed and colourful artwork, easily stands out among others on a game shops’ shelves. But it’s always the inside that matters, isn’t it? Let’s open the box and reveal its little secrets, shall we?

The game is a sequel to “Archon: Glory and Machination” a game published also by the Greek board game publisher “Artipia Games” although the two games share only a common setting and have the same illustrator. The game takes place in the city of Cardis, a once peaceful place that is now in turmoil. The king is dead and the city has fallen to the empire of Asmidan. Yet there is still no formal administration and different factions fight over the city’s control. The Conclave of Law sent by the Emperor of Asmidan has just arrived and the old Queen is still here, trying to promote her son as the new King but they are not the only ones craving the throne. A group of wealthy people, the Order of the Coin as well as Asmidan’s Church are in the game too. In this struggle for power and control, no arms will be used. Secret gatherings will take place in dark corners and citizens will be bribed, forced or just convinced to support a leader. At the end everybody will have chosen a side. Will it be yours?

Shadows over the Empire is a card game for 2-4 players that can last from thirty minutes to an hour according to the number of players and their familiarity with the game’s cards. During setup, players may choose to play with basic cards or more advanced ones or even make a mix of cards of all levels. All the cards represent people, either leaders of a faction or common citizens. There is also a Distinct Personality which all players will try to lure to their side and is a key to winning the game.

Each player takes the role of a faction and must influence as many citizens he/she can in order to take control of the city. At the start of the game each player will have to choose a leader belonging to one of the city’s factions namely:

1. The Conclave of Law

2. The Queen’s Court

3. The Inquisition of Asmidan

4. The Order of the Coin

By choosing a leader, players take all round tokens of the corresponding faction. All characters of the game have 4 traits in their positive or negative form. They can be either lawfull or non-lawfull, religious or non-religious, rich or non-rich, noble or non-noble. Each leader and ultimately each faction has a compulsory trait which must be a common trait in order to influence another character and a wild trait which is considered common even if it’s not during influencing.

The game features an original and intuitive setup phase, during which the distinct personality is put at the center of the table while each player’s leader is placed at a corner of the table and three random citizens for each player, sharing the same compulsory trait as his leader, are placed adjacent to him. In the center of the game area, on the same row and column as the distinct personality the space between each player’s starting area is filled with random face down citizen cards as shown below.

A round of the game consists of many turns during which players choose an action to perform. This process is repeated until all players pass which signals the end of a round. During his turn a player can perform one of the following actions:

  1. Influence a character adjacent to another character he controls
  2. Perform an ability of a character he controls
  3. Pass

When influencing a character, players must first put an influence token on the character they use to influence and then one on the character they are influencing if he does not already have any tokens on him. This designates that the influence action cannot be used again by either characters until the next round. Moreover a number of faction tokens are put on the influenced character equal to the number of traits they have in common with the influencing player’s leader. If the influenced character has only one faction’s tokens on him, he is considered to belong to that faction and he can be used in subsequent turns to influence more characters as well as use his ability right away. However if more than one player’s tokens are on a character card, that characters is considered to be in conflict and no one controls him.

Abilities of a character may be of three different types:

  • Passive. These abilities are always in effect as long as a player control the character,
  • Use. “Use” abilities can be performed as normal by rotating the character 90°
  • React. Abilities of this kind are performed at the moment described on the card and the character is rotated 90°

The second type of action a player can choose, is to perform a “Use” ability of a character he controls. After doing that, the character can no longer be used to influence or use the ability again. The leader is the only exception to that: he can also perform his ability first and then be used to influence a character.

A character’s ability may do many cool stuff, such as add or remove tokens from characters, force a character to be rotated without performing an ability, reset a character card to its upright position, swap positions of cards or subdue a character. Subdue is similar to influence but it can also target diverging characters (characters not having the leader’s Compulsory Trait) and characters don’t necessarily have to be adjacent to the character using the “Subdue” ability.

When a round is over (everyone has passed), winning conditions are checked and if not fulfilled, players remove one token from each character in a conflict they participate, all influence tokens are removed from cards, all characters are reset back to their upright position and any face-down characters adjacent to newly influenced characters become face up.

In order to win, a player must have placed all of his tokens on character cards and additionally control the Distinct Personality or not participate in any conflicts.

Now let’s see how the game scores in our usual scoring categories:

Components:

The components of the game are the character cards and tokens of various types: influence tokens, faction tokens, round player tokens. This is one rare case in which upon looking at the cards and tokens for the very first time, I instantly knew that I would give a straight and fair 10 as a rating on components. This game is so beautiful from an artistic point of view that when you first open the box and reveal its components, you may just end up staring at all the magnificent details and colours in characters for a while before you decide to read what the game is all about. All character cards are designed with a geometric harmony and bright colors of all hues and it personally feels like I am looking at a real piece of art whenever I look at them. The tokens are made of thick cardboard with bright and clear representation of their use. There is also a useful player aid card for each player, which displays the different symbols that exist on cards along with the corresponding explanation to be used as a quick reference. All in all, components is a strong plus of this game and will leave everyone satisfied. 10/10

Gameplay:

Shadows over the Empire is an innovating area control game in which instead of areas you can actually control characters, which is a refreshing idea on its own. Though the rules of the game are quite easy, actually playing it provides a lot of challenges. At the beginning of the game players control only one character, the leader of their faction, so options are limited to influencing another character and using his ability. As rounds go by, players get to control more and more characters and choosing the best possible action for the turn becomes a fascinating procedure. You must carefully choose what characters to influence, which is the right moment to do it, what card abilities to use, and in which order. I really loved the challenge the game provides from this point of point of view and the analytical thought it forces you to develop. Luck doesn’t play any role in this game. It’s just you and your cunning mind against other players mind skills. In order to do well in this game, one must study the characters in play, figure out which are the most important ones and focus his efforts on controlling them. Usually there are characters with more important abilities than others that can help you spread out your influence faster and they will become favorite influence and ability targets for all players which means that these characters will probably be in conflict the most part of the game.

This is a language-dependent game with text in every card which players must read carefully to fully understand what the different characters’ abilities are. There are also symbols on the right side of each card that help players easily identify the type of actions involved e.g. an ability that adds or removes tokens or subdues characters. There are a lot of characters in the game which makes it difficult to memorize what each character does and I understand that this aspect of the game can become a little tiresome for some players especially during the first game or two where they will have to read again and again what each character does. However If you have a little patience on this one you will be rewarded because after a few plays, you will begin to recognize characters you played with before and spend less time to read and understand their abilities. In fact the more you play the game, the more you will become familiar with the cards and the more you will manage to have fun focusing your efforts on the best winning strategy.

One of the things that I also like in this game is the constant player interaction. However good the plan you have conceived for winning may be, your opponents’ moves are always unpredictable and each turn you will have to reconsider and adjust your strategy according to their plays.

Another positive aspect of the game is the effort made by the designers to gradually initiate players in its world. There are three categories of character cards namely A,B,C where A includes characters with rather simple abilities, B offers more advanced abilities and C even more complex ones. You should start your first, “introductory”, game with level A characters and gradually replace sets of four cards with level B cards. Later on you may play only with level B cards, replace sets of level B cards with sets of C cards or just play with sets from all levels. This way there is an endless variety of combinations that may come up during setup, which guarantees replayability.

The duration of the game can vary between 30 and 90 minutes depending on the number of players, their skill and their familiarity with the game. This duration is an ideal one for a game of this complexity. 9/10

Learning Curve:

The rules of the game are relatively simple. There are only three types of actions a player may perform on his round: Influence a character, perform a character’s ability or pass. After the first read of the rules you may not grasp all the tiny details and you may have to go again through the rulebook to understand e.g. how influencing or subdue works or what to do at the end of a round. If someone who already knows the game, explains the rules to new players, the explanation won’t take more than 10 minutes. The nine-page manual is well written and has two examples that clarify aspects of gameplay. However there are some points that definitely need better clarification. For example the ability of subduing a character even if he is not adjacent to the character using the subdue ability is nowhere to be found in the rulebook though the designer of the game has clarified through forums that this is the intended use of “Subdue”. A F.A.Q. document has been prepared by the designer to answer various questions that may arise throughout the game are which can be found here. 6/10

Replayability:

Considering the vast variety of characters in the game, there are endless combinations of cards that may come up during setup. These unique combinations make the game challenging each time because the individuality of cards in play doesn’t matter as much as being able to manipulate the correct character at the correct time that is before or after a certain other character. Each game is a new puzzle to solve by carefully studying what each character does and figuring out when and how to use him. If you like this game from the start or if you are patient enough to become familiar with the game’s cards, you will definitely want to play again and again in order to master the game and face new mind boggling challenges. 8/10

Theme:

The theme of the game is directly related to the mechanics used. You are supposed to be influencing people to gradually take control of the city and that’s what you really do in the game. Characters may be influenced again and again by all players resulting in situations where the characters will be in conflict between which side to take. The fact that each leader and consequently each faction has a compulsory trait is also very realistic as it makes sense that people belonging in a certain “circle” reach out to the people of their circle for support. Moreover each character’s ability can be translated to a real-life action that would influence or manipulate other characters. The amazing artwork of the game with the detailed character portraits manages to bring us closer to the citizens of Cardis and make us even imagine how the city might look like. In general the theme of the game is nicely applied without any elements feeling unrealistic. 8/10

Fun:

Fun in a game can have many forms depending on the way each player defines the term or rather “feels” it. I personally have a great time playing Shadows over the Empire and that stems from the constant player interaction and the way the game forces you to put your every brain cell into work in order to find the best plays. The whole feeling of the game is also greatly enhanced by the superb artwork which is really an eye candy. During the first few plays you will have to read over and over again what each character does and that maybe will take away some of the fun but once you get familiar with most cards, you will be able to focus on the really important and fun aspects of the game. 8/10

Final Verdict:

Shadows over the Empire is a game with interesting mechanics and a theme beautifully applied. Its strongest points are its superb artwork and a gameplay that will challenge your mind every time you play it. However it will require some plays before you fully appreciate it. If you initially dedicate some time to it, you will be rewarded with the urge to play it again and again to unlock its secrets and master your strategies.

Pros:

  • excellent artwork
  • very challenging gameplay
  • great replayability
  • a lot of player interaction
  • theme nicely applied
  • no luck involved

Cons:

  • requires some time to get familiarized with mechanics and cards
  • more clarifications should be given in the rulebook

Recommended for: strategy game fans, fans of mind challenging games

According to our scoring system, scoring categories have different weights. Components have 15% weight, Gameplay 35%, Learning curve 5%, Theme 5%, Replayability 25%, Fun 15%. According to this system and the above scoring in each category, overall weighted scoring of the game is:

Overall: 8.6

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