I’ve been playing around with Armageddon Empires that I briefly talked about last week. Despite the presence of a fully-fledged deck editor and its collectible card game mechanics, it seems pretty clear that AE is much closer to being an old-school wargame / turn-based strategy game than a CCG. That’s not a bad thing of course, and playing AE brought back fond memories of games like Fantasy General. Like FG, AE plays out on a hex map, though the map is randomly generated in AE’s case. Unlike FG and similar wargames however, AE plays more like a 4X game in a post-apocalyptic setting. Each players starts out with a single base and limited resources and must send units out to control the map to gain additional resources and to scout for the locations of the enemies.
One of my disappointments with this game is that the four different factions (Empire of Man, Machines, Xenopods and Free Mutants) don’t feel differentiated enough for me. I commented on this in the QT3 forums, and game designer Vic Davis replied that he tried hard to make them asymmetrical, but the mechanics of needing to control the map with armies tend to downplay the differences between the factions. I have to agree with him that it’s probably easier to make the factions much different from each other within the context of a more abstract CCG like Magic: The Gathering. Another thing I miss from MTG are deck manipulation cards. Other than hero cards that can give you bonuses like increasing your hand size and decreasing card drawing costs while they’re deployed at your headquarters, there are no real deck manipulation effects in the game. For example, all cards that get discarded are lost forever and there’s no way of searching through your deck for specific cards.
Once I wrapped my mind around the idea that it wasn’t really a CCG, I could get into it as a more traditional strategy game with familiar mechanics like supply range and fog of war. Most of the cards in the game are really permanent assets that are deployed directly from your hand onto the game board, including cards for units, heroes to lead armies, equipment that are attached to heroes or units and facility cards for bases. Some special cards however can be created by your researchers by paying a resource cost and succeeding in a die roll challenge. Special equipment cards that are created in this way go directly to your hand, while tactics cards, which are like instant effects used to influence battles, go into a special hand that holds only tactics cards. Some of the created cards, which are unique to each faction, can be fairly powerful and include special units and missiles.
The battles in the game are more involved than most TBS games since the units of each army are arranged in a front and a back row and units have a range attribute that determines how far away they can hit. Special abilities like Sniper which allows the unit with it to directly attack the commanding hero of the opposing army and Breakthrough, which allows a unit that successfully attacks a front row unit to immediately attack a back row unit as well mix it up even more. Heroes don’t get directly involved in battles but are needed to command bigger armies and give special bonuses to the armies they lead. They also influence the battle through Fate points which they spend each battle to influence die rolls.
Like many wargames, reconnaissance is key to victory and in AE is exploration has the added incentive of uncovering specials on the map which can be anything from extra resources or special equipment including nuclear weapons capable of instantly destroying an enemy base. The more valuable specials are usually guarded by independent armies that have to be bribed or defeated.
The pace of the game is regulated by the mechanic of requiring Action Points (AP) to be spent to do anything from drawing cards, to deploying cards and to moving armies. Each player is allocated a number of AP depending on who wins an initiative test at the beginning of each turn, and you can spend resources to get temporary additional dice for the test. Since large armies cost a lot of AP to move, it is very possible that players who lose initiative won’t be able to even move big armies. The AP mechanic has the effect that even in the late game, where many other TBS games bog down due to sheer number of units deployed, each turn of AE plays fairly quickly since you only have so much AP to spend.
All of this makes for a fairly engaging game for a while but it does get stale. You can try different strategies like focusing on stealthy assassins to hunt enemy heroes and sabotage their bases or deploying massive airpower backed by special munitions and spotters to take out enemy armies, but at the end of the day, you still need a good ground-based army to take over enemy bases and to control the map. The fact that the game is single-player only and that all the cards are faction specific further limits how much replayability the game has. The good news is that Vic Davis is supposedly working on a free expansion to add more cards in the mix which should give it a new lease of life.
All in all, this a solid indie effort of the kind that I’d like to see more of. This isn’t a game for everyone since, as an indie effort, the production values aren’t exactly top notch and the mechanics can be somewhat confusing to learn. But to the more hardcore crowd its low system requirements and the fact that a full game can be completed in a relatively short amount of time makes it pretty much a perfect on-the-go game for laptop systems.