Year Published: 2016
Designer: Joseph Miranda
Publisher: Victory Point Games
Playtime: 30-60 minutes
One Sentence Synopsis: Prepare for war, fight the good fight, and then discover how much of a powerful jerk Amherst is…
I’ve quickly amassed a decent shelf of solitaire games over the past couple of months, having been turned on to just how fun sitting down and quietly making your way through something actually designed for worthwhile solitaire play can be. I’ve tried to spread the complexity and type around a bit, but have invariably ended up with more historically-oriented titles than anything else, and mostly ones that are easily played over roughly an hour; larger time investments can definitely be fun, but I figure flexibility will ensure I get the games tabled even when I’ve got a regular, at-home partner to play with again. As such, after my initial experience with the tense, thematic Zulus on the Ramparts! from Victory Point Games, which I reviewed, I decided to go back to their successful States of Siege(tm) series and see whether any of its other titles would strike my fancy.
I spent the years in my advanced degree program focusing my study on naval and maritime history and the development of the Atlantic World from the sixteenth through early nineteenth centuries, so my eye naturally settled on the new Second Edition of Empires in America, which puts you in command of French forces in America during the French & Indian War. At first glance Empires in America has some similarities to Zulus on the Ramparts!, as do all States of Siege(tm) games: in this case there are five tracks enemy forces will progress along, and your goal is to stop them from reaching a central point until time runs out. In this case, Montreal.
Although Empires in America adopts the basic formula I discovered in Zulus, I was blown away by just how different it actually plays.
Given those core similarities with Zulus I wasn’t sure exactly how much different Empires in America would be, or how the rest of the States of Siege(tm) games would differentiate themselves in major ways other than theme. Although Empires in America adopts the basic formula I discovered in Zulus, I was blown away by just how different it actually plays. Whereas Zulus felt frantic and tense right from the beginning, Empires in America starts off in the lull before the impending escalation. You know war is coming, and skirmishes are starting to break out across the region, but you’ve got a little time to prepare: constructing forts, establishing trade outposts, and making sure you hold your own in the limited initial confrontations to ensure you’re in a good place when the war finally does come.
You start the game with one French general in play, and one British general in the Ohio valley. Whereas British generals are placed on the map and actually control which of the army counters moves towards Montreal each turn, your own forces are abstracted- your generals are present anywhere they’re needed, representing your constant shifting of forces and leadership to meet different British threats. Each general has three main statistics: Reputation, which moves up and down by winning or losing battles, and may get the general dismissed if it falls too low, Battalion Strength, which dictates how many dice you roll during combat, and its rank number in the small silhouette. The rank number is added as a bonus to all combat initiative rolls, represents the number of spaces an enemy force retreats if you defeat them in a battle, and for British generals it’s also the number of spaces their armies move during the British movement phase of each turn. Additionally, each French general has a special ability detailed at the bottom of their cards that may help you keep the superior British forces and pressure under control.
You also get two auxiliary forces cards at the beginning of the game- one that starts in play, and the other you’ll have to expend an action on to put it down. These militias, along with provincial and Native American cards that come out of the draw pile, can give you extra dice to roll during combat, and even soak up damage in some rare cases. They’re removed from play after use, but might return later on depending on whether you won the battle, which dictates whether they’re discarded or recycled.
The game is moved along by a main draw pile that’s organized at the beginning of the game, and gets reshuffled with more cards midway through. The initial deck is composed of less-powerful cards than you’ll find later on, and gets divided in half with the card heralding the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War getting shuffled into the bottom portion of the deck. Once that card is revealed you’ll shuffle a large stack of additional cards into the deck, and it’s your objective to run that second deck down to empty to win the game.
The dual-deck system and delayed outbreak of war gives you at least a couple of turns to prepare, whether that means building trade outposts which let you use an action point to restore a Battalion Strength on any general, constructing forts to slow the British advance and give you defensive initiative bonuses for that space, or playing generals or action cards. You’ll find yourself at the mercy of the draw for the latter two options, but the deck is well balanced enough I’ve never run into an issue where the situation got completely out of hand within the first couple of turns. That’s further helped by a mechanism that keeps both sides’ numbers of generals within one of each other; you might find it frustrating to possess four French generals and have to recycle the worst two because the British only have one leader left in play at the time, but you’ll look to the heavens and thank the game gods (or Joseph Miranda) that the mechanism exists when the situation is reversed.
Each turn starts with having to draw four cards from the draw pile, or six after the war breaks out, resolving their effects one at a time as they come out. Provincials for either the Brits or French, generals, and events, are all put into play immediately, whereas actions you’ll keep in your hand for a later time. The majority of the deck after war is declared heavily favors the British- their general cards have much higher Battalion Strength on average, and some of the British events are pretty crippling. It’s during this part of the game where I can see people getting somewhat frustrated with their card draws. In one instance I was forced to discard a number of generals two turns prior because I had done so well, but then drew two very powerful British generals who put things at a 3:2 ratio in their favor. That alone wasn’t the issue, though- I then drew a British Blockade event which stopped me from getting anymore generals for two entire turns, and it just so happened I drew my powerful generals and had to put them into the recycle pile as a result. If you were wondering how that game turned out: I lost. It’s moments like that where you might raise an eyebrow about how things all come together, but I personally think it fits with the challenge of this sort of game, especially in a historical context: things don’t always go your way, and sometimes, just like in history, you’re going to get dealt an insurmountable hand. It’s the plays where you overcome those odds when they present themselves that really make these States of Siege(tm) titles worth playing, and generate some stories worth telling.
…sometimes, just like in history, you’re going to get dealt an insurmountable hand.
The British movement is next, and you’ll check whether any British generals need to be removed from the board before advancing their army markers a number up their track equal to the commanding general’s ranking. Fort spaces on the board, or forts you’ve built during previous turns, stop any advancing British army and initiate an assault. You’ll choose which of your generals to assign to combat (unless you’re playing with the optional garrisons rule), and then roll a six sided dice for each side to determine who fires first, adding any bonuses from generals or auxiliary force cards committed by either side. The side with the initiative then rolls a number of six sided dice equal to its total Battalion Strength, and any rolls of five or six are hits and immediately reduce the strength of the other force. The second force then returns fire with a number of dice equal to their new strength, and the army that lost the least amount of Battalion Strength wins. If the British won they stay where they are, if it was a draw they retreat one space if the battle happened during the British phase, or stays where it is if it happens during a French assault, and if the French won, the British are retreated a number of spots equal to the French leader’s rank. The reputation of both generals is adjusted accordingly, and if either force was completely destroyed their general is discarded.
Even though the outcomes of various stages of combat are based on a random die roll, battles actually feel much less “swingy” to me than dice chucking normally does. I think that boils down to a couple of factors. First, your initiative roll allows for modifications based on bonuses from forts, your general, or auxiliary cards. Smart use of engagements during the French phase really maximize those bonuses, and going into a battle against a larger force having the initiative means you’ve got the chance of knocking them down to size before they get to roll. You’re also playing defense in Empires in America, so even during the English phase you’re getting an extra nudge to your initiative thanks to your fortresses.
Second, it makes a huge difference being able to hit on either a five or a six, rather than just a six. One extra number may not seem like a big deal, but consider that it doubles your chances of hitting to 1/3, rather than 1/6, and you’ve actually got the potential for a good amount of damage in one round. Having combat success based on only sixes makes me feel like I don’t have much control, and just makes me feel lucky when I do hit the six. In Zulus on the Ramparts!, for example, rolling a five only let me push an enemy back and delay their advance, whereas a six let me kill a unit and potentially eliminate the threat from one side altogether. That fit very well with the frantic feeling of being overwhelmed with forces constantly closing in, but I don’t think would translate very well to the strategic setting in Empires in America.
Third, the inclusion of auxiliaries means you can choose certain critical moments to get some pretty significant boosts to your Battalion Strength, and some of them will even help you mitigate an incoming hit.
Finally, it only costs one action point to restore a Battalion Strength during the French action phase, so as long as you’ve invested in a few trading posts you shouldn’t find it impossible to come back up to strength even in defeat. Again contrasting with my other States of Siege(tm) experience, having only one action per turn in Zulus really forces you to make some tough decisions about which of the many fires you’re going to use your single bucket of water to temporarily extinguish, and you’re really just constantly fighting to keep your head above water. In Empires in America I feel much more like I can grow my overall strength and actually take proactive actions without completely sacrificing the need to confront an immediate threat. The decisions aren’t any less important by any means, but you’re able to play more angles at once.
I feel…like I can grow my overall strength and actually take proactive actions without completely sacrificing the need to confront an immediate threat.
The French phase follows the resolution of any British assaults, and lets you generate action points according to the ranking of each of your generals in play, and then use those points to take actions. The aforementioned construction options take two points, whereas using an existing trading post to reinforce, playing an action card, or using a general who hasn’t battled yet to initiate an assault, all take one point. Once you’ve spent your points you resolve any battles you initiated, and then move to the housekeeping phase where any forts or trading posts behind enemy lines are destroyed, and you check to make sure all remaining generals in play have good enough reputation to maintain their status. If the draw deck is depleted you’ve won and can compare your score (based on placement of trading posts, army progress, forts/posts lost, etc.) to the game’s scoring chart to see how well you actually did. Otherwise you continue on to the next round until that happens, or Montreal is sacked.
Empires in America doesn’t feel as difficult to me as Zulus on the Ramparts!, and I think that’s mainly due to the number of mitigating mechanisms it employs to tamp down the random elements while still having them in there for the overall dynamism of each play. My win ratio in this is much better than in Zulus, but it’s also less “do or die”…it’s very rare I barely scrape by in Zulus, whereas in Empires in America I’m all over the spectrum in terms of how well I actually did on their score chart. I mention this, though, because it may create a replayability issue for some- your win/loss ratio isn’t going to be as “Ghost Storiesish” as some players might want, so the main draw is coming back to see if you can best your previous scores by building trading posts farther out in riskier places, ensuring British armies don’t make it very far inland, etc. If you’re not going to keep coming back to see whether you can top the charts, Empires in America may not live on your shelf for an extended period of time, though I still think you’ll enjoy the heck out of it while it’s there.
I found setting up and learning Empires in America very straightforward, and it definitely plays within its advertised time of an hour or less. The rules are mostly clear, and setup is aided by very helpful color coding for starter cards, the initial draw deck, and the wartime deck. There’s really not much to prepare on the board itself, either- you place the starting army tiles at the ends of their progression tracks, put the action marker on the action track, and put the rest of the tokens off to one side.
Best of all, once you know the rules you’ll probably never have to open the rulebook again: the board includes a number of information panels with pretty much anything you’d ever need to look up, and if you forget any part of the setup or some of the minor subtleties that might arise, those points are on the back of the rules.
Even with all that information on the game board I don’t think things look cluttered at all. The layout is clean, and the board is big enough that nothing feels cramped. The card design is likewise very clean, and while the graphic design is largely utilitarian it all works very well, and the cards even include a few small flourishes here and there for added aesthetic. In fact, the only real complaint I have about the graphic design is that the rank numbers on general cards should probably be re-positioned. It looks nice where it is, but gets covered up once a general starts getting low on battalion strength.
The component quality itself for the cards is good, and the chits are the standard VPG cardboard. There is no puzzle board in this one, probably because the board itself is so large, so if you were looking forward to that you’ll be disappointed: it’s replaced instead with two folded halves of cardstock.
COG Takeaway: I was impressed with the States of Siege(tm) series after my initial sampling, but having played Empires in America I’m truly hooked. It’s really amazing how different the game feels from Zulus on the Ramparts! while still using the basic principles of placing you in a lopsided situation where you’re trying to run out the game’s timer while enemies progress down tracks towards a central victory point. Being able to take multiple actions during your turn, and having that number change based on the generals in play, gives an added sense of development and progress while you’re playing, and although the game includes some random elements to keep things dynamic it also employs a number of balancing mechanisms to ease any potential for “swingyness.” All-in-all a great, lighter, solitaire war game.