14 August 2018
Endless space, almost endless stories
The universe may be an empty abyss, but it’s completely crammed with things to discover. Few sci-fi games make an infinite universe feel as close-knit and jam-packed as Empires of the Void II, a fascinating exercise in sci-fi storytelling from Above and Below and Near and Far designer Ryan Laukat.
Empires is ostensibly a 4X space epic in the mould of Twilight Imperium and Eclipse, albeit with the ‘exterminate’ X all but removed. Here, your units and ships don’t die when part of a failed attack on a planet, but simply retreat to the nearest safe spot, ready to try again with another dice roll and deployment of power cards to swing the decision. It’s a lowering of the stakes that neatly trims the grind of rebuilding your forces after a crushing defeat, keeping the competition a nippy back-and-forth tussle for control of the galaxy’s planets throughout the game’s pacey runtime instead of a wearisome struggle to remain a contender after one harsh loss.
It’s a couple of hours packed with interesting decisions, too, with each player’s selection of one of the game’s core actions offering up the chance for their opponents to either copy their move, gain credits and cards, or expend some of their command points to perform a different action. The offering is slim enough to keep things moving forward while presenting plenty of options, from gaining favour with alien planets and bolstering your forces with their unique units to completing delivery missions for resources and influence.
There are echoes of the emergent story-generation of bigger games baked into the deck of cards at Empires’ core, which has plenty of refreshing customisation to go along with the random selection and placement of planets during the game’s over-long setup phase. The stunning artwork and licks of thematic flavour on even the more passing cards are enough to sketch out a living universe, which is coloured in by the more significant events that present one-off scenarios to great narrative effect; players might rush to help contain a prison break on one planet, only for alien invaders to begin terrorising another. The pacing can be a little inconsistent – one of our games had a quiet first two-thirds followed by a final run where the planetary system suddenly exploded into chaos – but it’s a entertaining way of livening up what might otherwise be a more run-of-the-mill space strategy game.
Even when Empires does indulge in the genre’s tropes, it does so in a way that feels smartly streamlined. Collecting resources to construct buildings and increase your income of credits and power cards (thereby expanding your options for taking over planets or fending off rivals) is straightforward but rewarding, and even the game’s reliance on rolling dice isn’t overly exhausting when it’s not the be-all and end-all of every encounter. The asymmetrical player factions are distinct enough in their available technologies to be interesting without feeling like each requires learning a completely different strategy, and the thrill of exploration is well concentrated into random tokens revealed when a planet is visited for the first time, granting its owner a benefit.
Empires of the Void II succeeds because it feels like a far grander game than it is, but the condensed form leaves it wanting in a few areas. The smooth gameplay keeps play time very reasonable, but the pared-down scope can limit the potential for stories to leave as much of a lasting impression. There’s also not quite as much room for the intense plotted strategy as the true epics of the genre – if you dream of amassing an all-conquering space armada and sweeping it across the galaxy, this isn’t the game for you. Still, when you only have two hours to spare instead of eight, Empires manages to capture so much of what makes far bigger games such icons of the tabletop. It is an absolutely solid sci-fi game, if not a truly outstanding one.
The way its universe is cleverly brought to life provides lots to see over multiple playthroughs and the well-honed gameplay is a joy. Empires might not have the true heft of the epics needed to leave a long-lasting impression, but it still does a heck of a lot with relatively little.
Designer: Ryan Laukat
Artist: Ryan Laukat, Michael Leavenworth
Time: 30 minutes (per person)
This review originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
Sometimes we may include links to online retailers, from which we might receive a commission if you make a purchase. Affiliate links do not influence editorial coverage and will only be used when covering relevant products.