Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Empires in Arms Review

Empires in Arms, developed by Austrailian Design Group and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Deep gameplay with tons of strategic options, play-by-e-mail
The Not So Good: No tutorial, unwieldy user interface, only one scenario and no editor
What say you? If you can get past the incredibly steep initial learning curve, you are left with a decent grand strategy game: 5/8

I was never in to those historical board games. By the time I was old enough to fully understand them, computer games were popular enough and it’s a lot easier to play those when you don’t have any friends. There have been a number of quality adaptations of board games in the strategy genre (Montjoie!, to name one recent example), and the next in the line is Empires in Arms (or, alternatively, Empire in Arms, according to the official forums). The Napoleonic Era has been getting lots of attention recently (it’s slowly becoming the new World War II) with a number of quality titles. Empires in Arms is an update of an old (1983) board game that received some awards and such; has the computerized version made the gameplay more approachable to a wide audience?

Empires in Arms looks like a computer adaptation of a board game. The graphics in general mirror the original board game, although more detail has been put into the map, making it closer in appearance to modern grand strategy games. However, the map makes it really difficult to tell who owns which provinces; you need to pay attention to province borders (which inconveniently meld into the tan background) and color-coded names, neither of which is sufficient. The game needs a colored filter that would change the background color, making it easier to see which country is where. The square chits have been replaced with more vertical units that do an OK job showing proper unit icons, but relative unit strength is not indicated. There will be plenty more about other user interface shortcomings later. As for the sound, the effects are basic, but the classical background music is entertaining. Overall, Empires in Arms looks and sounds like a simple port of a board game would look and sound like.

Empires in Arms lets you take control of one of eight countries during the Napoleonic Era from 1805-1815. The game is turn-based and each turn represents one month; you can do the math and see that each campaign lasts a really long time. In addition, there is only one campaign to choose from that lasts the whole time and no editor to create smaller scenarios. Replay value or giving alternative, smaller missions is necessary to cater to the largest possible audience, and Empires in Arms does not support this feature. The game does allow for hot-seat or PBEM (play by e-mail) games for organized folk, and Empires in Arms supports a procedure for determining starting countries to prevent everyone fighting over France and Great Britain. The most ghastly omission in Empires in Arms is the lack of a tutorial. Every modern computer game needs a tutorial, and a complex game such as Empires in Arms missing one is inexcusable. You mean I actually have to read the 128-page manual (which, incidentally, mostly tells about rules and not how to actually do things)? Unfortunately, players unfamiliar with the board game will be dumbfounded and overwhelmed as they step into their first game, and a lot of these newcomers will be turned off immediately by the unfriendly approach Empires in Arms takes. The manual doesn’t even have a written tutorial to run through the first couple of turns with an example the player can follow along with. Frankly, I expect a lot more from a $70 game.

After you choose a country, the first order of business is to deploy your initial units. Confusingly, some territories have already been conquered but those invading forces have been removed from the map since every unit must be manually placed (unless you saved your setup from a previous game). Like several other grand strategy games, units are actually containers that will hold a variety of land or naval units. In order to place an empty counter, you must go to the counter pool, left click to select it, right click to exit, and then double click to place it. Wait, you are not done! Then you must double click to open it and then move units into it. I wish there was a more straightforward way of doing this, and this is the first piece of evidence showing how unintuitive the user interface in Empires in Arms is. You have to manually place garrisons in controlled minor countries even if they have only one place to go. While you do not need to place all of your counters during the setup phase, you do need to place all of your units into counters. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere to display how many units are available for deployment without double-clicking on a container (and, even then, it only shows units that can be deployed in that container type). Confused yet? I suspect a lot of people will be, and this is just the first phase of the game.

Diplomacy in Empires in Arms involves navigating through a very large spreadsheet that sets general rules in dealing with every minor province and major power. You can set which minor nations you will accept control of, who you will accept alliances from, which minor nations to support in a war, and which to agree to a peace treaty with. The spreadsheet does not show where the minor nations area located because the game assumes you know where all forty or so of them are located (duh!). In addition to setting general behaviors, you can declare war, declare free states, offer loans, or engage in trade with Great Britain. If you are currently at war with a minor nation and don’t maintain an active army within its borders, the war is dissolved; since there are so many lands to worry about, this is a useful feature. One feature the game lacks is a numerical representation of nation relationships, especially with all of those minor nations; this would be helpful in determining which countries to worry about and which to ally with. Still, the diplomatic options in Empires in Arms give you enough control over your empire.

The reinforcement phase allows you to (surprise!) reinforce your armies. However, unlike in the setup phase, you can’t double-click to add units (you must use the “add units” button in the bottom left) and the game doesn’t even tell you what kind of units are ready to be deployed. If you try to advance the turn, the game will warn you that you have unplaced reinforcements; however, I can’t seem to find them (clicking on the reinforce buttons in the bottom left all say “proper factor type not present this turn”). This is yet another part of Empires in Arms that is poorly designed and will confuse new players. You are given new reinforcements every three turns (so why the reinforcement phase appears other turns is beyond me) and you must deploy all of your reinforcements or they are lost permanently (makes sense). Each naval counter can contain a number of light, heavy, and transport ships (although they are limited according to the counter type) while land counter units contain infantry, cavalry, and guard units (which the game confusingly calls “factors”). There seems to be a unit cap for each counter type, although the manual (and non-existent tutorial) is fuzzy about this. You will also have to deal with reinforcements with your minor nations; luckily, the game will automatically move the map to countries you may have forgotten about (but, again, it won’t tell you what they are). Another “feature” I found is a warning about unassigned leaders: clicking on that leader and then pressing the “assign leader” button resulted in a “no available leader present” warning that effectively prevented me from playing that game further. Awesome. Like a host of other areas of the game, the reinforcement phase of Empires in Arms could have been streamlined for computer play.

Moving units is fairly conventional. When a unit is selected during the naval or land phases, possible destinations are highlighted that give a great indication of a unit’s range. Naval units that move through opposing units won’t necessarily engage in combat (the ocean is big), but the possibility exists; intercepting enemy fleets is an interesting aspect of the game that gives smaller, faster fleets opportunities to sneak by large, imposing enemies. Naval units can also be instructed to blockade ports or engage in piracy (or anti-piracy) against enemy trade ships. Naval combat involves a wind gauge (who attacks first) and attacks are automatically resolved using a dice roll with bonuses determined by the forces that are present. Land movement and combat is similar, although you have to worry about supply (influenced by constructed depots) and weather (slower movement during winter). Leaders can be attached to land or naval corps (is the plural of “corps” corpses?); the leader unit remains on the map, even if the unit is attached to a subordinate. While corps can hold a lot of units, corps cannot be combined into larger units to make micromanagement any easier; luckily, the force pool is usually small enough where this is not an issue.

At the end of every three turns, new units are produced as money and manpower is collected. Eventually, a winner is decided upon when a specified number of victory points is achieved. Overall, I found Empires in Arms to be too unexplained to compare favorably to other grand strategy titles. The lack of a tutorial seriously hurts this title, as a lot of the game rules and user interface conventions are different or just plain confusing. Most (if not all) of the unique features present in Empires in Arms are included in other titles as well, and those games are a lot more polished. Information that should be highlighted, such as reinforcement types and more specific warning information, is either buried or completely missing. There are also a lot of unique (some would say “weird”) rules that are poorly explained in the manual that I don’t fully understand, and I imagine a lot of others will be in the same situation. Personally, I like AGEOD's Napoleon game a whole lot better, as Empires in Arms is too basic of a board game port and lacks key features that would make it a more rounded title appropriate for a wider audience.

There are two ways of approaching Empires in Arms. If you know what you are doing, there is an enjoyable strategy game contained herein. However, most of us will be dumbfounded by the outright complexity of the game and the lack of a tutorial. With a game of this difficulty, it is imperative that a user-friendly tutorial be included to ease unfamiliar players into the game, and Empires in Arms lacks this important feature. I feel that a lot of players will fire this title up, mess around for five minutes, have no idea what they are doing, and consequently quit in frustration. Which is too bad, because I think there is a good game underneath all of the initial aggravation. The various diplomatic and strategic options, along with manipulating minor nations and moving your forces across Europe, makes for some intriguing gameplay that can be quite satisfying. But unless you really like grand strategy games and you think you can conquer the learning curve, spending $70 on Empires in Arms is too large of a gamble. Veteran players that understand what the heck is going on can bump up the score a point or two, but there are plenty of other games that provide similar strategy depth at a cheaper price and come with more user-friendly features for beginners.