Scheme Your Pants Off (So You Can Wear a Toga)

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bacchanalia3A few years back, Eagle Games was at the top of its game. It had some of the biggest, greatest, most beautiful games you could buy. Bootleggers, Age of Mythology, Attack! - these were huge games, and they were awesome. Back then, Eagle Games was a mighty juggernaut of gaming awesomeness, and every new release was practically guaranteed to be huge and pretty and expensive and fun (except Blood Feud in New York - that game was in my collection for exactly as long as it took to trade it for something else).

Well, unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. They didn't exactly die, but Eagle Games is no longer the kingpin of big-box pseudo-wargames. Happily, they are still selling some of those old titles, including my favorite of theirs - Conquest of the Empire. It's not exactly original to Eagle Games, though. It was first part of the Gamemaster series that also included Shogun (retitled Samurai Swords later) and Axis & Allies, back in 1984. It was rereleased over a decade later, this time with two sets of rules. Classic rules let you play the game the way it was originally released, and the new rules use the same components and map to create a completely new game.

I'm going to glaze over the classic game because frankly, it bores me a little. No, it's not a bad game, but it's basically Risk: Rome with a few twitchy add-ons to mix it up. It's still strategic and interesting and tactical and whatever else, but it's not a new kind of game. I could play a bunch of other games and get the same basic experience. Yeah, now there are roads, but frankly, I don't care. It's not bad, but when you've got a better game right there in the box, why bother?

Now, the new rules - oooh, there's a game. It's incredibly unique, and does a fantastic job of making you feel like a manipulative, scheming senator vying for his shot to be named Caesar. You can raise armies, steal seats in the senate, forge alliances and force through unfair taxes. You can create chaos or enforce order, and in the end, a little luck and a lot of clever manipulation will win the day. And Martin Wallace's name is in there, and when that guy isn't really pissed off about the new Age of Steam, he makes some pretty damned cool games.

One of the coolest features of the new Conquest of the Empire rules is the alliance. Every turn, you'll bid to declare who is allied with whom. This is a little complicated, but basically, the guy with the most money decides who goes first, who can attack him, and who he can hit. This can be just plain critical - you don't need a big army if the only people who can attack you are your friends, and you can cut the feet out from under the big military power if you prevent him from striking the places he wants the most. It can cost a lot of money to nail this down, but if you can get it, winning the alliance bid can be awesome. The greatest part is that, unlike Diplomacy or other political games, you don't always have a choice in who your allies will be, and until another bid comes up, you're not allowed to break those alliances.

And it gets even better. You'll need armies at some point - sooner or later, someone is going to want to take what you have - but they're not the deciding factor. You can be underhanded and sneaky and rely on politics over military might. It helps to have the biggest army - but it's even better to have the biggest friends.

Through a series of careful manipulations, feints, bluffs and timely card plays, each player will try to weasel and brawl his way to the big seat. You'll buy influence and soldiers, wage massive land wars, raise armies and establish relationships with Egypt (I think the best thing the Egyptians bring to the table is a wealth of hot nubile females, but I can't verify this in any history books. But if you think I'm wrong, look at what happened to Anthony - he would have had a shot, if he hadn't decided to shack up with Cleopatra. Oh, and allow me to encourage any prospective empress to avoid keeping jars of poisonous snakes just laying around. You never know when you're going to slip and put your hand into one of them).

The board for Conquest of the Empire is huge, and the game is appropriately long. It will take several hours to play this whole game, but it will be several awesome hours. I've only been able to play it two or three times, because it can be tough to round up players who want to dedicate this much time to a game this involved, but suffice to say, I'll play it any time I have a whole evening to blow on just one game.

Not everyone is going to love Conquest of the Empire as much as I do. Some people have short attention spans and want to play some themeless Euro that finishes in an hour. Some people don't like to see bodies piling up like firewood at an Aspen ski lodge. Some people just have an aversion to really long rule books. So leave those people to enjoy a nice game of Apples to Apples, and break out a game of Conquest of the Empire II to separate the men from the boys.


You can lose most of your battles and still win the game
Great political intrigue
Theme so thick you could chop it with an axe
Beautiful components in a hugely heavy box
Tons of scheming, strategy and manipulation

Takes a long time
Fairly complicated rules

Matt is a staff writer for Fortress: Ameritrash and the author of the Drake's Flames blog, where you can read more of his reviews.

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