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Empires in Arms, or: how I learned to stop worrying and love 300 hour games

H Updated May 26, 2019
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Empires in Arms, or: how I learned to stop worrying and love 300 hour games

Game Information

There Will Be Games

I read a lot of comments on board game sites that say things I like "sounds interesting but for me, that would be hard to get to the table due to length or complexity, so I won't even bother."   This irritates me to no end.  I feel sorry for these people. Who lives their life this way?

I bet these same people say “sleeping with three busty redheads at once is fun, but it is logistically complex and not common for me, so I don't even bother.” Jeez dude, did you ever consider that maybe there are some things in life that, even if you only do them once or twice, they are worth a lifetime of memories because they are so fucking awesome? 

I fully understand that for many people, Real Life ™ prevents them from playing a 300 hour, very complex wargame, and I sympathize, but that doesn't mean you should write it off completely. Some things are worth experiencing once in your life, even if you never do it again, even if you know you can't sustain it, even if it isn't something you want to do every week.

Empires in Arms is one of those things. If you are a fan of wargames, or alliance/backstabbing style games, and you have any tolerance at all for longer, more complex games, Empires in Arms is an experience that you cannot miss. Empires in arms is a napoleonic wargame published by Avalon Hill in 1983. The rules are fairly complex and not particularly well written. For a wargame of this scope, it is actually simple, but if you think War of the Ring has tough rules, this will make you shit your pants. The rulebook makes Blackbeard's rules look like a model of clarity. There is a lot of errata, tons of advanced/optional rules, and even with all that there is a need for a lot of house ruling.

You need exactly seven people to play. These seven people need to be able to commit to a game that lasts 132 turns. Each turn will be anywhere from an hour up to five hours, longer for newbies. To accommodate this, your seven players will need to be available all day long to even play the game. Yeah, it is nearly impossible. Despite the difficulty of making this work, my group did get it to work for about three day-long sessions.



Complete and utter garbage, typical of the early 80s. The chits are small, ugly, and functional. The map is huge, paper, and mostly functional. Use the player created aids, the rules are tough.



What are you doing? Well, each player plays one of the great nations of Napoleon’s time, France, Britain, Spain, Prussia, Austria, Russia, and Turkey. The rules are complex, but not uncommon for wargames of this vintage. The game is played in turns representing a month, with a political phase, a reinforcement phase, a naval phase, and a land phase. Of course, there are variable player starting positions. France and Prussia aren't balanced, and neither are any of the other nations. France could literally take Prussia and Austria both at once, and frequently does. 

To compensate, France must get more victory points than these other nations to win. Smaller less capable nations like Turkey and Spain have to do very little to reach their VP goal, while Russia has to do a lot, England has to colonize half the world, and Napoleon’s France must be in a constant state of warfare and a constant state of winning those wars if he wishes to smell victory. Identical starting positions? No. Balanced? Mostly.

You have supply depots, corps markers with a hidden number of troops in each one, and ships moving about the board. The supply rules are good and simple, but I won't go into detail here. There are also garrison markers, militia, and cavalry units. Several other specialty units exist, like Cossacks for the Russians, Guerrillas for the Spanish, and more. The map is an area movement map. Each city (not every area has a city) has defense ratings and a maximum that can be garrisoned there. Each area has a manpower rating and an economic rating. Conquer an opposing area, and you will get money and manpower you can spend to make more units, which pop out a number of months later in your reinforcement phase.

I'm simplifying the hell out of this, but its napoleonic axis and allies, with a lot more complexity and a lot more chrome. If you ally with someone, you can move together. There are numerous foreign neutrals to conquer at the beginning of the game, OR you can declare war against one of the other major powers, played by one of your friends. Conquer certain foreign nationals and you can create new nations, such as Poland, the confederation of the rhine, the ottoman empire, the papacy, and others. These grant you additional political power. Alternatively, you can just hold the territory for yourself and use it to generate more money and manpower for your war machine.

Combat involves the stats of your leader, combined with your force strength, their overall morale, and a choice of combat chit. The combat chits are things like outflank, probe, cordon, defend, etc. This is a little like a multiple part paper rock scissors, but with many different variables. An interesting decision occurs as you try to outguess your opponent. Losses are determined according to a results chart, there are rules for retreating, cavalry can run down retreating infantry, all the typical wargame stuff you would expect for a chromed out napoleonic game. Assuming you have declared war on another player, you can attack them, taking their territory until they surrender to you. There are rules for a few different types of surrender and lists of surrender conditions for you to choose from. Things like enforced peace, money, political concessions (your daughters), territorial concessions, etc. are all on the table.

In addition to a full fledged economic system and military system, there is a full fledged, chromed out, political game. You gain political standing by winning battles, and lose it by losing battles. Similarly, you lose it by declaring war, but allying gains you a point. There are numerous other things that effect the political track here, from the spoils of war, to economic manipulation of the political realm by rich nations. The political track is where you earn your victory points.


What is the big deal?

Well it isn't the overly complex wargame full of 20 year old mechanics. It is the diplomacy aspect of the game, combined with the totally unbalanced (and realistic) nature of the situation. Napoleon’s army can kick your ass, and he has such a crazy economy that when he is done kicking your ass, he can run off to kick your neighbor's ass without stopping for a breath.


Diplomacy Phase

This is where you realize why anyone would play a game with so many hurdles involved to get it to the table. Before each turn, a short diplomacy phase is held, where the leaders of the great nations discuss their plans with each other in secret, determining who will help who, which wars will be declared, and who can or cannot be trusted. This is the part of the game that creates memories that will last for years and really makes you feel like you are the leader of a nation in the era. 

Empires in Arms takes the type of alliance-making, scheming, planning, and grand strategy of the game Diplomacy and applies it in a way that fixes the things that frustrate diplomacy haters. By that, I mean that Empires in Arms prevents the frequent backstabbing through it’s length and adds numerous interesting variables through it’s complex system. If you get a reputation as untrustworthy early in the game, you will find it difficult to survive, so the common stab everyone in the back tactics of diplomacy just don’t fly.

At the same time, many of the other players will feel like your frenemies- people you can’t trust, but you must. The historical facts of the situation, geographical, economic, and even political- drive this. It feels very real – you actually get a sense of the decision making that the leaders of the time went through. What do I do against France? Who should I ally with? What if England hangs me out to dry?

It is difficult to explain why this part of the game is so compelling, so I’ll try an example: If you are playing as Prussia (as I did my first game), you know you are in the path of Napoleon’s French war machine. You need the Austrians as your ally- you cannot fight Nappy alone and you must throw everything you (and Austria) have at him if you want any shot of even getting favorable surrender conditions (much less actually winning). Meanwhile, you need to convince the Russian not to take your back while you are trying to defend yourself from France. The Russians don’t want France to win either, so that won’t be too hard. The British will be shipping you boatloads of money, essentially paying you to tie up France. This is the way the brits win, because if France turns her full military-industrial attention to her navy, England will be in real trouble.

This is where things get interesting, as the Russians are leaving you alone, so they must go somewhere- usually to Finland. Well, there in Finland, your two allies, the Russians and brits are fighting each other- and neither of them likes that you are allied with the other, but you need both to have a chance at surviving Napoleon’s onslaught. But look! Napoleon has driven so far into Austria that, in his glee, he is not going to have the movement to get back to Paris in time…. Is it possible, could you drive to Paris and put it under siege? Well, you could if the Russians would send their Cossacks your way… The Cossacks, with their unique rules, could disrupt the French supply depo chain and possibly force Napoleon himself to forage for food in Austria, giving us, Prussia, an additional turn to besiege Paris and possibly force a surrender of some sort… IF I can convince the Russians to formally declare war on France, instead of just helping us behind the scenes. This could be the story of a lifetime if the lowly Prussian-austrian alliance actually takes Paris and forces Nappy’s surrender!

These types of decisions drive Empires in Arms, and they are the reason the game is so great. There is nothing like walking out of the game room with your Austrian Ally, to the back porch, where the Russian Player is sitting there with a bottle of cheap vodka, speaking in a fake Russian accent, and asking what Mother Russia can expect to receive in return for angering Napoleon? Heading back inside, where the Turkish player (wearing a fez) is talking to the Frenchman, making Russia very nervous about sending help to Austria when the Turks are massing troops near his southern border.



1. Incredible discussion / negotiation game that takes what is good about Diplomacy with none of Diplomacy’s flaws. Feels like Diplomacy crossed crossed with a complex wargame, with a little RPG flavor tossed in by most. No other game I have ever played gives you this incredible experience.

2. Awesome and Epic in scope- you are doing the entire Napoleonic war. All of Europe is at stake, and each corps of troops is meticulously represented on the board.

3. Each game creates numerous stories- even if you only play a handful of months, you will have stories to tell. This is an extremely memorable game.

4. It is an experience game, so even if you don’t finish or play horribly, you will have a lot of fun and a memorable time. This somewhat mitigates the length and complexity.



1. Super long. You will need 10 hour sessions twice a month for a few years. The box should come with divorce papers.

2. Super Complex. The base rules are messy. Errata, optional rules, and confusion will reign if you don’t have someone that knows what they are doing. One player should be a lesser nation (like Spain or Turkey) and play the “GM” role.

3. You need exactly 7 players who don’t have a problem with #1 and #2.



This is a game that is greater than the sum of it’s parts.  Diplomacy is fun but not without it’s flaws due to the lack of a great game system behind all the backstabbing and alliances. It becomes who can stab who in the back the most. Grand strategic games with overwrought rules like Advanced Third Reich are sorta fun, but ultimately the rules bog down the fun. BUT, you take an overwrought, chromed out wargame, and you attach a diplomacy phase to it, then you tweak the starting positions and systems to force some very interesting alliances, historical actions, etc. etc. and you get a game that is a unique experience.

You get a game that provides a type of fun and an epic sense of scope I haven’t experienced anywhere else. There are some things every person should try once in their life, and if you are a gamer, especially a wargamer, I think Empires in Arms is one of those things.

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