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Subject: Review from Slingshot magazine rss

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John Graham-Leigh
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I wrote this review for Slingshot and it was published there in 2004. I hope it will still be useful.

Another old classic has been revamped and reissued, this time the SPI favourite from 1980, Empires of the Middle Ages. The original game gave an excellent picture of the frustrations of medieval kingship – however rich and powerful one’s empire, it could collapse with the turn of a card followed by a few unlucky dice throws, coupled with ill-will from the other players. Decades could be spent struggling to suppress disaffected peasantry or convert obstinate pagans; wars were fought over rich areas which, by the time both sides were exhausted, were no longer worth having. All very realistic. I looked forward to finding out what Decision Games had done with this classic design.

Well, the first thing I noticed on opening the box was that everything was bigger. The two maps, put together, measure 44” by 34”; there are 1,120 counters compared with 600 in the original, and the rules booklet is 40 pages long rather than the previous version’s 22 pages. The rules are supplemented by six quick-reference sheets (three each of two different sheets). Most noticeable is the expansion of the card decks – there are still 56 “Year Cards” but the original 56 “Event Cards” have expanded to a massive 164. This is a big game. Plenty of talent went into the design – the original design by James Dunnigan was developed by a team including Joseph Miranda and Ty Bomba – and the physical quality is excellent with all the event cards now carrying appropriate pictures.

The game is played on a map of Europe and parts of the Middle East, divided into areas (for example, the British Isles consist of six areas, Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, Wales, Scotland and Ireland; the Iberian peninsula contains Cordova, Seville, Castile, Leon, Portugal, Aragon and Valencia). Each area needs a marker showing its “Social State”, or general prosperity level, on a scale of +4 to –3; the counters are nicely designed so that the high value ones show stately mansions and the low value ones squalid hovels. The colour of this marker shows who physically owns the area. Then an area may have diplomatic markers – claims and ties. A single area can have diplomatic markers belonging to several players; a foreign marker in one’s area is a Bad Thing, as a claim can make the area vulnerable to loss through dynastic inheritance and a tie can help to foment rebellion. Finally there may be special markers denoting fortifications, cathedrals, “commerce” (markets, factories etc), universities and palaces. The last four categories are new to this version.

The heart of the game is the turn system. Each game turn represents 25 years and is divided into five rounds of five years each. A player is dealt five “year-cards” per round, each of them representing a year’s activity. In each year he can undertake one “endeavour”, which can be conquest (an attack on a neighbouring area), pillage (a raid to seize plunder and reduce the enemy’s prosperity), ruling (attempting to increase the social state of an area, or to build cathedrals, universities etc), fortification (building castles or raising armies or fleets), or diplomacy (a diplomatic attack on an area). A player whose area is attacked can defend it by himself expending a year card. Most endeavours cost money (“gold points”), and extra money can be spent to increase the chance of success.

As an example, let’s assume that the German Emperor is attempting to conquer Silesia from the King of Poland. First he announces the attack, launched from Bohemia, and spends two gold points (the minimum cost of a conquest endeavour). The Polish player announces that he will defend, and spends one gold point (minimum cost for defending). The German player then looks at the social state of Bohemia, which is +1, and adds it to his combat rating of 3. The social state of Silesia is –1 so that counts as a positive modifier for an adjusted total of +5. But Silesia is in a different language group from the German’s court area of Swabia, so there’s a negative modifier of 2 which reduces the total to +3. The German player now declares the “Frederick Barbarossa” card which he has been hoarding – this gives a combat bonus of +5 to make the total +8. As the Polish player is defending, his combat rating of 3 is deducted so the final modified total for the endeavour is +5. Both players could spend additional gold points to adjust the total, but the Pole is (as usual) hard up and the German is satisfied with his +5. Then the German player turns his next year card. If it’s Card 104, for instance – success! Silesia is conquered on any positive total, so the German takes possession and replaces the Polish marker there with his own, showing a social state of –2 as the invasion has devastated the area (“Target –1”). The area is automatically in unrest, giving it a high rebellion value. Bohemia, from which the attack was launched, is unaffected because the final endeavour total was at least +2. If, however, the next card happens to be Card 105 instead, the result is a devastating defeat for the Germans; irrespective of what the endeavour total was, the campaign fails and the social state of the base area, Bohemia, is reduced by one.

In this instance Card 104 was excellent and Card 105 disastrous; the reverse would be true if the attempt were to pillage an area, or to increase its social state by “ruling”. It’s an elegant system, which does away with multiple die-rolls and exact odds calculation.

The other cards shown [in the magazine article, not reproduced here] are from the event deck. Cards 10 and 23 are events which must be declared immediately; one is a routine famine in Central Europe (a nuisance for one or more players, and no doubt terrible for the unfortunate populations, but not a catastrophe), but the other, “Leader Dies Heirless”, could be disastrous. It could lead to widespread unrest, loss of provinces to rebellions and the loss of diplomatic ties and claims.

Cards 28 and 200 are “holding cards”, which a player can keep concealed until he wants to use them. We’ve seen how the leader card, Frederick Barbarossa, is used; “Recognition of Claim” is a valuable asset which can add a claim to any area where the player has a diplomatic tie. For instance, in the example just given the German player cannot obtain a claim to Silesia while the Polish player has a claim there, except by play of this card. In other circumstances, a “Recognition of Claim” followed by a “Dynastic Inheritance” card can result in an area immediately changing hands (such as happened to Aquitaine in 1152, for instance). A loss of territory in this way, or through “diplomatic conquest” by an endeavour, can usually be challenged by the original owner who can call a “parley” of all the Christian players to decide the rightful owner. Such parleys are marked by much bribery and play of “Influence in Church Hierarchy” cards. There is an important exception – a player who has just drawn a “Leader Dies Heirless” card cannot dispute “Dynastic Inheritance” cards played against any of his areas. It’s touches like this which make the game such fun.

Gold is raised by taxation from prosperous areas (those with positive social states), with a risk of unrest or even rebellion. Less prosperous areas can also produce gold through “plunder”, which is something of a last resort as the area concerned automatically goes into unrest or, if already in unrest, is likely to rebel. The third method of getting money is by pillaging enemy areas – again, at some risk.

The new edition’s innovations include four kinds of “civilisation markers”. These are Cathedrals, which help with ruling endeavours and (naturally) with converting the heathen, Commerce, which increase taxation income, Palaces, which help centralised government (a single ruling endeavour can affect any number of areas which contain palaces – can be a two-edged sword, of course) and Universities, which add to social state increases. Separate army and fleet counters have also been added.

The scenarios included with the new edition are the same as those in the original. One, Charlemagne, is essentially a solitaire game but can be continued into the Grand Campaign game – Charlemagne’s empire is split into three kingdoms, a fourth player takes Byzantium and any others take peripheral kingdoms such as Poland, England etc. Play then continues until 1500 AD or until all players but one have had enough! The other scenarios each last between 65 and 100 years and are intended for four to six players, whose countries vary according to the date. The 12th century scenario, for instance, is for six players who control Germany (which also controls large parts of Italy, of course), France, England, Sicily, Byzantium and Poland. Victory is decided by the total of the social states of all controlled areas (many of which can be minus) with bonuses for claims, plus handicap points for players who started with small kingdoms. This means that prosperity is at least as important as territorial extent – a small but wealthy kingdom may well outscore a large but bankrupt empire. The game is also very well suited to solo play, for those with plenty of time on their hands.
There’s lots more to it, of course – independent areas suddenly becoming aggressive, devastating Mongol invasions, outbreaks of heresy, the Great Schism, crusades… overall it makes for a frustrating yet very satisfying game.

Now, the minus points. The new rulebook is essentially the old rulebook with a supplement for the additional rules. This was a very lazy way to do it, and results in a lot of referring back and forth, especially when setting up scenarios. It’s also resulted in some unaltered paragraphs being obsolete and misleading for new players – for instance, there are references to each area’s “social state register”, which doesn’t exist on the new map. Instead of the old map’s register, each area has a series of codes which are, in order, language group, religion, religion again (for some reason), population and social state norm; these appear not to be explained anywhere in the rules. Again, there’s a reference to a “leader counter” which no longer exists in the game. Some of the rules are not entirely clear and need elucidation – for instance, a university is founded by conducting a ruling endeavour and spending four gold points; the marker is placed “if the endeavour succeeds”, with no definition of what constitutes “success” – if the social state goes up? if it doesn’t go down? Some sections of the rules which never really worked, such as those for Viking and Saracen raiders, are unaltered, which is a pity. Of course, those particular rules don’t affect most of the scenarios, and they’re easily fixed by “house rule” amendments. Some map changes which were needed, such as the anomalous status of the “Anatolia” area, have not been made. So, the game has suffered from some sloppy editing – but happily that doesn’t make it unplayable, just more difficult for new players to learn.

Overall, though, the game looks to be a genuine improvement on the original. It will best suit players who have a good deal of patience and a fair amount of time available for playing, plus some knowledge of the history and an ability to laugh at misfortune.

Empires of the Middle Ages is available from Decision Games, website http://www.decisiongames.com/, address PO Box 21598, Bakersfield, Ca. 93390-1598, USA, phone 661 587-9633, e-mail: dgservice@earthlink.net. The price is a hefty $100 but if this game is your sort of thing that’s good value.

Official errata/clarifications received since writing the review:
33.0 Fleets, case 4.0: The first sentence should read: " A player may not conduct conquest or pillage endeavours across sea areas against an area containing defending fleets, unless the number of fleet points he has in his base area equal or exceed the number of fleets in the target area."

33.0 Civilization Markers, case 1.0: A success in a ruling endeavour is defined in 15.2 as picking a Year card which would increase the targeted area's Social State by +1. In this case, place the Civilization marker (but do not increase the Social State).
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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I have the old SPU version but have not gotten a chance to play. How long should I expect it to take and what scenario would you recommend starting with?
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John Graham-Leigh
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whac3 wrote:
I have the old SPU version but have not gotten a chance to play. How long should I expect it to take and what scenario would you recommend starting with?

Hi Moshe

First, you need at least five players to play properly - or it's possible for three players to take two countries each.

The scenarios vary in length. A typical one covering a century or so would take, in my experience, a day's gaming - say 6-8 hours. Can be longer if one or more players is a slow type! The campaign game takes proportionately longer - 700 years = 42-56 hours.

To start with I suggest avoiding any scenario involving raiders. The raider rules are pretty broken and I'd recommend replacing them with house rules such as the ones I propose in a recent thread here. The best starting scenario is probably the Crusades one - it's on the short side, there are no raiders and no devastating factors such as the Mongols or the Black Death. It does have the Crusades, of course, but these won't happen unless the players want them to.

Have fun, and let us know how you get on.

John
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Jon Akers
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whac3 wrote:
I have the old SPU version but have not gotten a chance to play. How long should I expect it to take and what scenario would you recommend starting with?

You can start with charlemagne, gives you a grasp of the rules, a;though life is easy when you are him. The sceanrios are just about balanced, but they don't feel it. Hence three players with two powers each may make for a better game.
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Chris Hansen
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Thank you for the review on the Decision Games version, very informative. I've played the original many times and have always enjoyed it, though as indicated above, it does seem to play best with 4 or more players.

I keep dickering over whether I should buy this new version or not. The $100+ price tag makes me hesitate to lay out that much money to buy something that I already own, and my SPI version is still in good condition. I suppose it boils down to just how useful of an addition all those new events are, since much of the rest is just a graphics upgrade/change. Distressing though to hear how the condition of the rules were initially and the fact that some of the old problems still remain. Fortunately at least for the rules, there are now integrated rules available from Decision as well as from an enterprising gamer here.
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John Graham-Leigh
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My opinion is that the new version is worth it, for the new cards and capabilities (palaces etc). I recommend making leaders usable throughout a player-turn, though, rather than just for one endeavour - you get lots more flavour that way.
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Dan Fielding
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John GL wrote:

To start with I suggest avoiding any scenario involving raiders. The raider rules are pretty broken and I'd recommend replacing them with house rules such as the ones I propose in a recent thread here.

John

Can't find them in the Files or in the Variants section. Link ???
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John Graham-Leigh
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Sorry! They're in the General forum at [thread=http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/559723/raiders][/thread]
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Geoff C
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Quote:
In this instance Card 104 was excellent and Card 105 disastrous; the reverse would be true if the attempt were to pillage an area, or to increase its social state by “ruling”. It’s an elegant system, which does away with multiple die-rolls and exact odds calculation.

Its not clear to me at all how the turn of the cards affect an endeavour result. Must the single digit be lower than the positive modifer of the player attempting the endeavour? And how is 'the reverse' true?
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John Graham-Leigh
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Each Year Card has one of a target number, automatic success or automatic failure for each type of endeavour. 104, for instance, has a C for Conquest, which means that any positive total will succeed in conquering the area. For Pillage it has a dash, which means automatic failure. Card 105 is the reverse: automatic failure for Conquest, and success for Pillage on a modified total of 3 or better. So it all depends on which card is next in the pile...

Hope that's clear.
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Geoff C
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Aha! Thank you. Might be worth finding or recreating the images of those cards to better complete this review.
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