I’m normally not one for turn-based worldwide military strategy games. There’s something about the idea of smashing together numbers with a thin veneer of national might that kind of puts me off. Granted, that same complaint can be levied against some of my other preferred video game genres like RPGs and RTSs, most of which quite literally surface the numbers to the player as the computer figures out if 200 is indeed bigger than 100. Poorly designed ones actually feel a lot like the crappy casino in Vegas Vacation where you play Guess the Hand and Pick a Number.
All of this, of course, went out the window somewhere around hour two of playing Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest.
Aside from the horribly long and tiring title that I can’t imagine anyone would ever willingly say in its entirety outside of the strictures of martial law, Empires II is quite the enjoyable iOS title. It’s a sequel to the 2011 Empires: World Conquest. Both games by Fabrice Noui and both games featuring historical-but-not-quite-accurate empires and armies vying for world dominance. Played either solo, cooperatively, or competitively via pass-and-play, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, or online, you pick a country of origin and begin to take over other sovereign lands.
Each turn takes place over the course of a single season in a year. In spring (and only spring), you can spend your money to buy more troops and ships and spend a tiny amount to spy on other countries to figure out what they’re currently stacked with. The other three seasons are dedicated to moving your armies and fleets around. You can freely move any number of any resource to any land you already own, but doing so to territories not under your control results in a skirmish.
At first, these fights seemed overly simplistic. In fact, a tooltip spells out for you the requirements to win: in general, have double the number of soldiers invading than those holding (quadruple if it is a fortified capital). Then a little recap comes up and spells out how many units you lost and how many they lost and if you won or lost. It’s instantaneous and is nothing more than seeing whose stack of chips is higher.
But this reduction actually facilitates the strength of Empires II, which is the locomotion of your global might. Since determining the (probable) outcome of each encounter is so easy, the focus is instead put on constantly relocating and building your forces around the world. All troops originate from one of your capital cities (or your starting capital, if that’s a rule you choose to enforce), and they can only march into adjacent land that isn’t blocked off by mountains or lakes. If they’re on a coast, though, then you can use ships to transport them to any other coast.
In any given movement season (i.e. summer, fall, and winter, if you’ve forgotten everything about how the world works), you can touch one of your countries and choose to move as much or as little as you want. So if you want to move 10 empty ships from Libya back to Columbia but also 50 armies in either direction, you can. You can issue as many movement commands as you want, so your response time to any invasion or failed attack feels almost immediate, even though you’ll probably still have to walk through several countries to get there.
Unless, of course, you use ships. Going from any coastline to another only takes one turn, regardless of absolute distance; moving from Cuba to Mexico takes the same amount of time as moving from Quebec to Angola. This helps play into the reactive feel of Empires II (since invading coastal countries means you must overpower both their naval and land forces, and you can’t even fight the armies without first destroying their ships), but it also contributes a hefty chaotic feel to the mid-game.
Early on, you’ll be focused on taking over your initial region (usually whatever continent you start out on) so you can get the annual monetary region bonus and really start to rack up your armies and ships. Once that begins to wind down, though, you’ll begin to scope out the other world powers. I tended to either go for the one with the most land (shown by the color bar at the bottom left) or the weakest nearby region. And then you’ll move and disperse your resources to your non-landlocked territories so other countries can’t invade and you can easily invade others.
But the status quo can shift crazy fast, and all because of the ships. They make combat and movement so incredibly interesting, but they also drag out the mid-game so much and make it almost frustrating. If you’re evenly matched with a given empire, it’s likely that after they attack one of your countries, you’ll just take it right back. But the following turn in your rebuttal, they’ll take over neighboring countries or another coastline. And so on and so on until it becomes a war of attrition, except it’s a war of slowly chasing a mouse out of your house.
That can, however, be fun, given a certain brevity. Human opponents often realize whether a particular invasion attempt is futile or fruitful rather quickly, but only on the easiest and hardest difficulties did I find the back and forth pace to be anything resembling fun. It’s fun having those little shakeups where you have to scramble nearby armies and shuttle in new ones with your fleet to keep up defenses and drive invading hordes out. Having those little rattles protract out into annoying tinnitus, however, was almost enough to make me quit playing entirely.
I never did, though. While there are quirks here and there that highlight the singular creator aspect of the game like lack of music, inconsistent and troubling UI, and a few bugs, the very act of playing the game was quite compelling, keeping track of dozens and dozens of localized forces and naval impositions and remembering a handful of parallel tactics. And playing with a buddy actually upped the required strategy, even more so when you play against other people. (Disclosure: I only played via the pass-and-play option, which froze on me rather consistently.)
Given my history with the genre, I was skeptical I would find even $1.99’s worth in Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest, but I did. It controls responsively (if a bit unintuitively), it looks good, and the mechanics are actually quite interesting. They play into a design that both streamlines and adds complexity to an otherwise rote formula of global dominance. If you can get over the snail-like slump you often encounter on your way to victory, this is a mighty worthwhile game.
+ Looks quite good and handles rather well with nary a slowdown in sight
+ Puts the focus on moving and handling armies rather than the battles they fight
+ Ships add a necessary and fun wrinkle to defending and attacking coasts
– Ships also add unnecessary bloat to the mid-game process of attacking and defending coasts
– Sound design is…strange, as are some UI choices
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest?
Release: August 8, 2013
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Developer: Fabrice Noui
Available Platforms: iOS