Review: Empires: Galactic Rebellion

empires-galactic-rebellion-5987Designer: Glenn Drover, Don Beyer
Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games
Category: Civilization, Exploration, Science Fiction
Players: 1-4
Price: $119.99 Cool Stuff Inc
Under the guise of an intergalactic, 4x, space civilization simulator, Empires: Galactic Rebellion is actually a reimplementation in a line, starting with Age of Empires III: Age of Discovery, both designed by Glenn Drover. Due to a licensing change, Age of Empires was replaced by Empires: Age of Discovery, which would go on to spawn Galactic Rebellion.
With the two original games receiving praise, Drover has also designed Age of Mythology, Attack!, Sid Meier’s: Civilization the Board Game, Railways of the World, and many others. Being a sort of goto for IP games, Drover has a pedigree of excellence, as far as creating compelling games from IPs.

Content Guide

Empires: Galactic Rebellion is mostly devoid of questionable content, but the game does feature lots of nasty back stabbing opportunities between players.

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Review

Many workers stand by for your order. Release them across the galaxy.

Many workers stand by for your order. Release them across the galaxy.

In an alternate future, rebellious factions vie for control of hub planets. Each faction has the goal of uniting the free people against their similar foe: The brutal galactic empire. The empire, hell-bent on wiping out every semblance of freedom, considers any different ideology as hazardous and in need of destruction. Even the galactic senate has been tasked with pushing forward policies that do little to help citizens, and instead strategically place powerful and evil sentinels all throughout hub planets.
Played over three epochs, in Empires: Galactic Rebellion, players take control of a faction and are given the task of gaining interplanetary majorities to gain command of victory points, trade routes, and military science. Players are given five rebels (workers) to place on a sidebar of possible actions, a la Dominant Species.
Players can also influence the galactic senate to push their agendas forward, making it more difficult for other factions to gain holds on planets. Players can also embark on covert missions, which will grant victory points, but pending the cost and presence of the empire, will also allow for special abilities to aid themselves or hinder other players.
Here lies the different cards and tiles included in the gigantic box.

Here lies the different cards and tiles included in the gigantic box.

There are many avenues to strengthening a faction’s resources and abilities. Each epoch ushers forth a new selection of technology that can do a variety of things for players, including: clones for additional workers each turn, additional universal credits each turn, end-game victory points, etc. Tech are purchased with universal credits, but players can use a scientist to decrease the cost. Scientists can be hired, alongside smugglers, heroes, and others, using a recruitment space. These become workers for the upcoming turn, with each bearing a special use, depending on the space they are placed.
Other actions include warfare against enemy players or sentinels, gathering trade resources, and establishing turn order.
After the end of the third epoch, the galactic empire becomes fed up with the resistance, and orders all remaining sentinels to kill every last rebellion member. This can be the crux of the game, with players who were once hidden from the mighty fist of the empire, now being placed square in its crosshairs. Players must survive the onslaught of remaining sentinels for one final planetary majority scoring, determining end-game points.
The player with the most victory points wins, and is declared the victorious rebel faction. All others will now cooperate and succumb to their galactic ideals, free from the terror of the galactic empire.
Whew.
You might not have the force, but you do have plenty of miniatures to aid in combat, control, and other actions.

You might not have the Force, but you do have plenty of miniatures to aid in combat, control, and other actions.

Anyway, the situation of Empires: Galactic Rebellion feels a lot like Star Wars. It just does. The biggest difference to me is we don’t have the Force, and the rebellion is stupidly split into five different groups, instead of working together. Imagine how uselessly the rebellion would have failed if they split into sub-factions. Now we can get a glimpse into what that would have looked like.
At first glance, Empires looks like a cooperative opportunity to face off against the empire. To some extent, and at some points of the game, players might find themselves grouping with another faction, hoping to work together a little bit, just to ensure a higher ranking player will get axed by the empire in the war.
The war. Yes, each game of Empires will boil down into one of two types games: a game totally focused on readying your faction and preparing for the war, or solely working on your faction and being properly trounced by the empire.
See, combat is decided not by dice or card, but by cube draws. This isn’t as tedious as some reviewers would argue. Players begin with three cubes of their color, and over time can accumulate additional cubes for battle. When engaging another player, each drops all into a bag, and draws three from it. The majority cube holder wins the battle, slaying two weaker workers, or one stronger. When battling a sentinel however, players drop their cubes into a bag with five black sentinel cubes. Worse, when the war beings, sentinels are in overdrive and will drop eight black cubes into the bag, hugely weakening your shot at destroying them.
These trade icons will be critical to receiving income every turn.

These trade icons will be critical to receiving income every turn.

From my experience, players will spend a lot of time building up tech, money, and specialized workers, and while doing so, simply have to neglect war preparation. After all, the game is about hedging your bets in the worst possible situation. You not only have to worry about blood-thirsty robots, but you also have other human beings around you. These people want nothing more than to hurt you badly and ensure their own victories on each planet.
Player interaction is what makes Empires sing for me, personally. Each senate action and covert mission seeks to further complicate your turn. Ramble alert: Sure, you’ve planned to have control of three planets by the end of the round, as well as pick up those two trade icons, to guarantee you’ll have enough money to buy the tech you’ve needed to provide that extra scientist you desire to cheapen the tech cost for you each turn.
It comes to your turn, and… oops, you messed up. That guy next to you played a covert mission that puts some of his guys on two of your planets. The next person took the trade icon you needed. Now you can’t get the tech you need.
This kind of mindplay happens in most games, but in Empires, I feel it’s especially interactive. Many moments left me playing out every possible scenario where I couldn’t end up with the scientist I needed. Closely, I would watch each player on their turn, mentally begging them not to take the resource I needed, or to ignore the tech I absolutely must own.
Critical military cubes in order to maintain advantage in combat.

Critical military cubes in order to maintain advantage in combat.

These intense moments are the most enthralling and lovely parts of playing Empires. It’s not Cosmic Encounter, but it’s also not a typical euro game. There are so many interesting decisions to make, and even though you think you have a lot of time to make them, lots of players at the table want to make them as well.
Empires: Galactic Rebellion hosts a huge number of miniatures in the box (over 400), but I didn’t find them outstanding. Some didn’t like to stand up, and would rather fall over. Some have bent arms, but it’s not a big deal. I don’t love cardboard tokens in lieu of minis, but I know it drives up the price, therefore making it more difficult for someone else to experience this game. The biggest issue with all the miniatures and other bits is it takes quite a lot of time to separate everything just to play the game. With six specialized units (10 or so each) and another 30 rebels to sort through, it becomes tedious. Especially because they all sit vibrantly as the same color in a bag of endless miniatures.
On the topic of art and overall component quality: it feels underwhelming. I love the big box approach, but the insert is mostly useless. It’s segregated cardboard sections that are so tall my hand can’t fit in to grab all the bits at the bottom. The graphic design is consistent, but all over the place. The typeface is gaudy. The card design and color choices are just strange, and feel cheaper than the typical 80s space opera-fare. I suppose it’s possible the graphic design and look of the game is from an era I’ve not lived in, thus I wouldn’t appreciate or understand it.
Another strange quirk to the game is the general placement of where things go. The trade icons on the board are smaller than the actual trade tokens, so they don’t fit. Trade route and victory point tokens, I guess, are just supposed to get placed wherever on a planet. It feels a little weird putting things on the board. I don’t think it’s a huge deal, just weird, and you won’t know what I mean until you play it yourself.
Minis, Minis, Minis.

Minis, Minis, Minis.

Despite some of the weird stuff that I feel comfortable overlooking to some extent, I really like this game. I like the decisions to be made. I like that I sort of feel I’m deciding the course of a galactic rebellion. I like the tense nature of drawing cubes from a bag. I like the back and forth of bidding in the senate and ultimately passing an awful agenda that will really hurt another player. I love all of that stuff. However, I don’t like the presentation. I don’t like the setup time. I don’t like the graphic design. Those are my issues.
The biggest frustration from players and some reviewers has been the end-game and galactic war. They call it swingy. They say it makes the rest of the game pointless.
My biggest takeaway is each player needs to put in the time to help fight off sentinels. If they don’t, you will inevitably need to either ignore them completely and face the consequences, or feel pigeonholed into a weird mini-game that doesn’t feel totally resemblant of the rest of the game.
Now, I don’t feel the galactic war is an awful part of the game… even though the sentinels are grossly overpowered (Glenn Drover has uploaded suggestions on changing the structure of the war in order to make it more manageable and fun). I do think it forces you into a role you might not have been interested in. I love the back-and-forth of player interaction, but I don’t love fighting off incredibly powerful sentinels that will quickly destroy my hard work. I caution each player to carefully consider the impact sentinels will make at the end of the game and base their strategy off it.
Overall, Empires: Galactic Rebellion is a great game with some weird quirks at a high price tag. It does some unique things, but balances player interaction in a way I love. It’s not the main focus of the game, which is awesome because I can work on building up resources and units, as opposed to arguing with players the entire game.
With Glenn Drover now in mind, I look forward to playing more of his games, and maybe finally scheduling that six-hour Saturday game of Sid Meier’s: Civilization the Board Game I’ve been thinking about.

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The Bottom Line

Empires: Galactic Rebellion is a swirling hybrid of worker placement and player interaction, with lots of tableau-building and combat. With a high price tag, strange end-game, and gaudy graphic design, it’s not for everyone, but will click with the right group of players.

 

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