After The Empire: First Impressions

One of my favorite podcasts, Draft Mechanic, recently designed a brand new shirt for sale: It’s called “Thematic Euros”, with a giant wooden cube soldier emblazoned on the front complete with helmet, sword arm and legs sticking out of the block. I bought it right away; it represents everything I love about the marriage between elegant mechanics and a cool theme. But, a great shirt needs a good game to geaux with it!

And here comes After The Empire, Grey Fox Games’ latest offering. img_7172The enemies are at the gates! Rome has fallen, both from internal politics and external threats, leaving its extensive territories to fend for themselves. As the liege of one of those lands it now falls to you alone to protect your people and property from the seemingly endless hordes of invaders looking to loot and pillage. At the same time refugees are fleeing to your lands for protection, bringing along with them a plethora of skills that will surely help your new kingdom prosper. Build up your defenses to protect what’s yours from the enemy while also ensuring the prosperity of your lands by bringing in refugees and constructing useful buildings. Welcome to After The Empire!

The folks at Grey Fox Games were kind enough to provide us with a prototype copy for this first look. The art and components are definitely not final, but give you a good look at what will be in the Kickstarter campaign. Without spoiling this first look too much, know that After The Empire is one of the most thematic euro experiences we’ve had in a long, long time.

Let’s take a look.  (And here’s a link to the Kickstarter page which is live right now, plus a link to the I Heart Board Games + Board Game Gumbo play through right here.)

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OVERVIEW:

After The Empire is a worker placement / tower defense style game designed by Evan Halbert and Ryan Mauk (known as Portland Gamecraft) with absolutely gorgeous art (seen on the box cover and cards) by Yaroslav Radeckyi. This is their first to-be-published design, but you will know Yaroslav from his outstanding art in Reavers of Midgard.

Players will build towers, recruit soldiers, and use their workers to enhance their empire and score as many points as possible over seven rounds, called “seasons.” At the end of each season, invaders in the form of attacking soldiers, arrow companies and siege weapons will storm each player’s castle. Running an efficient empire will aid in scoring the most points.

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PRESENTATION:

Although all production elements are not final, it looks like After The Empire will come in a Champions of Midgard sized box, chock full of cardboard and plastic goodies. The first thing that caught my eye was the oversized board with tons of worker placement spots and the now-familiar to Champions and Reavers fans — rows of cards that you can purchase for your tableau, or that will interact with you during the game.

But even more impressive are the plastic pieces that make up the wooden and stone walls and turrets. It was a visceral pleasure to set up the castle, and through each season, watch as you upgrade its walls and turrets to become a defensive stronghold for your realm. (Or for some reason ask the advice of your friends, who convince you to leave the North wall open to the invading hordes.)

There are a ton of bits in the box, too. I only had a chance to handle the prototype stuff, but I expect that during the campaign backers will unlock minis to replace the red and blue cubes for the soldiers and mercenaries as well as shaped wooden pieces representing food, wood, stone and iron – the building blocks of your weapons and defenses.

img_7176Although not all of the art was final in the production we played, it would be safe to expect that tons of cards will be in the game. Everything from close up looks at the invaders marching on your castle, to the various types of siege engines, and on to the unique citizenry you can recruit and the buildings you can craft will all be represented in beautiful card art of different sizes.

img_7214The wealth of different cards that will likely come in the base game should make the game very replayable.

In a nutshell, After The Empire is visually impressive on the table, especially in the late stages of the game as your castle really takes shape into a sturdy defensive masterpiece.

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GAMEPLAY:

Here’s a quick synopsis of how After The Empire plays. Players will start with a fully built out castle, complete with four wooden walls ready to defend. You start with very little gold and only two lowly soldiers, but with four farms just outside your city walls that need defending if you are going to get the food you need to feed your soon-to-be-growing army.

At the start of each season, players will take turns in the action phase using their three workers (players will get two more over the course of the game) to take spots either on the board or on some of the cards that they purchase. The actions generally fall into a few categories:

  • Get resources;
  • Recruit refugees to assist you in building the empire;
  • Build new buildings to fortify your stronghold or give you in game bonuses;
  • Heal soldiers / refugees and rebuild farms / buildings;
  • Recruit more soldiers and mercenaries;
  • Gather secret objectives and movement tokens, useful for redeploying your soldiers right before the battles begin; and
  • Build new walls and turrets, upgrade the old ones to better quality, and repair the damage to your castle.

Once each player has used all of the workers, it is time to move to the combat phase. This phase is made especially interesting by the setup of the game, because the way that you build out your castle is a visual reminder of where your strongest and weakest defenses lay. At the end of each season players will add invaders, archers, and siege weapons to each player board; the size and strength of the attack is dependent on how much gold is in each player’s treasury and how much it will serve to attract aggressive rivals.

Yes, that means that the leader is going to get beat up on a little bit more than the players in the spots behind, but in exchange, the leader has a chance at earning bonus tokens for surviving each season without being sacked.

img_7213The siege weapons will do a one time direct damage result against the walls and turrets, add more invaders, or even send invaders scaling over the walls using ladders and siege towers. Then it is time for the hand to hand combat to begin. The invaders and defenders will trade blows, and if the invaders can somehow knock down one of the walls — even through the hail of arrows coming from the soldiers and turrets — then they will storm the castle and potentially sack the player.

You never want to be sacked in this game.

Trust me.

Once the battles are complete, the player that survived the round without being sacked and has the most gold at the time will be awarded one or two bonus points. Farms will be harvested for more food, soldiers will have to be fed (or they will abandon your castle for greener pastures), gold will be earned, and the board will be wiped pretty clean to start the next round.

After seven seasons, the player with the most gold will win, after adding bonus points for completing secret objectives, recruiting villagers, and constructing point scoring buildings.

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FIRST IMPRESSIONS:

Let’s hear from BJ and Bradly as to their initial thoughts after playing After The Empire.

BJ — I’ve played After The Empire twice now, at a two player and a four player count, so it is a little early for a full review, especially with the art, components and rules still in the tweaking stage. My goal in evaluating Kickstarter projects is to see if the fun level of the game is already high, because the physical components (board, card art, etc.) will usually be “plussed” (as Walt Disney used to say) during the campaign. Even the rules to pre-Kickstarter launch projects are fluid as the backers weigh in on mechanics they like or find issues with the rule set included in the campaign, and that’s okay by me if the game play exudes fun and excitement. In my first game, I made it my goal to explore all of the different actions (getting sacked twice, unfortunately), and looking at as many cards as I could in the game, just to see how they worked.

After The Empire definitely delivers what I want — a solid euro engine under the hood, and deliciously tense and thematic decisions with my workers in every season. In fact, it only takes one season for the mechanics of the game to disappear from view. The cubes were no longer little wooden blocks, they felt like soldiers rushing up to the walls to repel invaders, and then rushing back down the steps for more action when one of my precious walls crumbled in the onslaught. If the designers were going for “very thematic euro”, they hit the nail on the head here because the combination of building up your defenses and then watching the tense combat unfold as your castle takes on the onslaught projects all of the thematic elements I’m sure they intended.

To be fair, the first part of each season is a little less thematic. Putting workers out on different spots to earn wood, stone, iron or food does feel like an exchange of meeples for cubes. Maybe it will be a little bit different when the Kickstarter components arrive, but the fact that it feels a little bit like an efficiency engine is not necessarily a bad thing in this case. The board state changes enough each round, and requires you to take a little time to survey the cards, the available actions on your own player tableau, and evaluating the strength of your stockpile and granary while healing soldiers out of the barracks.

Overall, I really enjoyed my plays of After The Empire, and I’m anxious to see the final version when it arrives in stores. I had the good fortune of live streaming my last play with the Krewe from I Heart Board Games, and during the play, one of the designers (Evan) was there. I’m excited to learn that Portland Gamecraft has plenty of ideas for expansions for the game, too. I can envision this as a game that could be played many, many times (due to the changing nature that the random building, refugee and invader cards brings to the game play) and then refreshed with additional content for years. I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes out in this campaign.

img_7175Bradly — After the Empire is a game of two halves. The first half is a worker placement game that will be familiar to anyone who is a fan of the genre. Each player will have a selection of pawns to place at various locations on the game board. These locations will allow you to harvest resources, hire soldiers, construct buildings or attract refugees to your kingdom, among others. All of these things are useful to you in the second half of the game, which is tower defense.

The tower defense mechanic of After the Empire is actually quite ingenious. Square cards represent the threats that will visit each kingdom whether they be enemy soldiers, archers or siege equipment. The trouble is that players won’t know which direction those threats are coming from because the cards will be randomly rotated during shuffling and their backs are symmetrical to keep from giving away any information. Each round players will have to contend with a certain number of these enemy cards, but the actual amount of units each player faces is determined by how prosperous their region is. The more prosperous your kingdom (as denoted by your gold) the more likely you are to attract a larger horde of looters.

For what After the Empire is striving to do I think it succeeds. The game is definitely thematically interesting and makes you feel like you’re constantly under siege, and it’s designed in such a way that you can’t play it straight forward. While your wealth is ultimately your victory points and what determines the winner, the enemy cards make the game more difficult based on your success. Accumulating vast amounts of gold may seem like the quickest path to victory but it actually makes the tower defense part of the game substantially harder. There is a really interesting balance while playing After the Empire between advancing your nation and trying to defend it. It makes the refugee and building cards much more impactful because they are a way to divert your wealth into additional benefits.

I like a lot of what After the Empire does, but I just feel like the game has some work to do before delivery. First of all, I think the game would have been greatly served with a building board instead of cards (much like what Kingsburg does). It feels odd thematically that only one player can build a Sally Port or Reinforced Walls; these are basic staples of castle defense that all players should be able to construct. I also think the secret objective cards are just very unappealing as currently envisioned. Three points, in the grand scheme of the game, is a rather miniscule amount and makes the objectives seem tacked on. I would much rather see cards that give players once a turn abilities for completing objectives. For instance, a card that rewards you with the ability to remove three attacking melee units from your gate once a turn, once you’ve defeated a total of 5 units after you’ve obtained the card (I’d call it Boiling Oil).

While I do enjoy the way in which units are sent toward players’ castles, with cards whose strength vary depending on your wealth and randomly assign directions, there is a major problem with the cards; sleeving. Since the border of the cards denotes which direction the enemies attack from you need to rotate the cards while shuffling them. If you’re like me and sleeve almost any card that comes in a board game then you’re going to find shuffling a deck of cards with sleeves in random directions to be a nightmare. I would much rather have seen a compass rose on the cards with the direction they are attacking denoted by a different color, but then you’d lose some of the replayability because those cards would always attack from the same direction. This seems like a small gripe but having to change the way you shuffle to accommodate sleeves in four different directions was noticeable while playing.

There are other things that I would like to see improved before the game hits retail. Grey Fox Games has already said that the rulebook will be significantly updated from the one we used, and that’s really good to hear; the one that was provided to us was just not up to par and was lacking basic rules for the game that we only found out later. The game also sorely needs a reference card for players that specifically deals with the steps of the attack stage; there are a lot of steps that go into how your castle is attacked each round and a handy reference card would be a great improvement. I’d also love to see more refugee cards, even if you are still limited as to how many you can purchase in a round. A lot of the flavor of the game comes from the buildings and refugees yet they’re probably the thing you see the least of during play (you’ll be lucky to get through half the refugee deck in a game). Still, these are all issues that can either be dealt with during production or are specific to my personal preference. Overall After the Empire is still a really enjoyable and thematic worker placement game and even if Grey Fox ignored all of these comments the game would still be worth your time.

CLOSING THOUGHTS:

It is important to note that we were sent a pre-Kickstarter campaign prototype. Some of the card art was gorgeous, most of the basic game play was set in stone, and we definitely had fun playing and building with the walls and turrets that make up your castle. But as with any Kickstarter preview, the art and components and even the rule book were not final. Sure, we’ve made suggestions and comments above, but in some cases, those already may have been tweaked by the developers by the time the campaign rolls around.

If what you are looking for is a euro flavored take on a tense, thematic tower defense game, you should check out the campaign pages for After The Empire. We will come back once the campaign goes live to add links to the preview to the Kickstarter page. If you get a chance, check out the live play that we did with the Krewe from I Heart Board Games and Southern Board Game Fest and tell us what you think of the game play.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

2 thoughts on “After The Empire: First Impressions

  1. Thanks for the preview guys! One thing I will note is the rulebook is undergoing revisions and rounds of blind testing using it presently. I expect several more updates before it goes to print.
    Additionally, reference cards for combat (and construction) will be included with the game.

    Thanks for taking a look!

    Like

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