Armageddon Empires Review
Review - posted by Astromarine on Tue 13 November 2007, 02:30:32
Armageddon Empires is a turn based, post apocalyptic strategy game. It features a randomly-generated hex-based map that comes in three sizes, 4 races with dozens of units each and over 80 special abilities to differentiate them. But the most distinct feature is the card-based gameplay: each of your units, heroes, and facilities are represented by cards that you pre-arrange in a deck before battle. This deck is then randomized and you purchase the cards you draw to actually affect the battlefield. This leads to an incredibly varied game, not only in how the games play out, but also in the strategies you can attempt. This is fortunate, as there is no campaign to string gamers along for a few hours with a threadbare “story” as is customary. Another effect of the card mechanic, which can be a positive or negative one depending on your preferred style, is that the whole game feels more like a board game than a direct simulation of combat.
Graphics and Sound
For an indie game, the audio and graphics are perfectly adequate. Everything besides the cards themselves is simple and utilitarian, but the cards and tiles elevate the whole thing. They are very well drawn, very evocative of the units and heroes themselves, and give the whole game a classy feel. The same is true for the music. As for sound effects, they are practically non-existent. Button clicks, dice rolls, and that's pretty much it. Going along with the boardgame feel, there's actually no explosion or weapon sounds.
This is arguably the worst part of the game. The biggest problem lies in technical limitations. The game was made in Macromedia Director, and Cryptic Comet has acknowledged that this simple fact led to a lot of the design decisions in the game. The attempt to design a kind of “computerized boardgame” is also responsible for some of the quirks, like the simple fact that the game even bothers to show the dice being rolled around, even though they're really coin flips, as each dice can only succeed or fail. There's too much clicking, there's buttons on opposite ends of the screen that you have to click in succession, there's popup windows describing irrelevant information to the player. All in all, it can be quite a painful experience (and it was even worse at release, with 2 or 3 seconds spent watching the dice roll). However, I can say I'm not sure Armageddon Empires would be so fun and engaging if the interface was cleaned up to simplify all this. Truth of the matter is, no matter how weird that sounds, the dice and separate information boxes etc DO add to the atmosphere of the game. In any case, it should still be noted that someone getting into the game will have this extra hurdle to cross before they can enjoy it completely.
The first thing you do once you know how to play is choose a faction and deck to play with. Beginner decks for each faction exist (2 come with the game, with the others downloadable from the official site) but the most fun way once you know how to play is to build one yourself. Decks are made of 40 to 100 cards, with points limits of 175, 225, and 275 available. One of those has to be one of your faction's Strongholds, which is where you will start the game. Each deck also needs to include board tiles (minimum one, which is where your stronghold will start), with limits of 5, 10, or 15.
The four factions are distinguished by the cards available to them: The Empire of Man is the standard mechanized and high-tech humans, the Machine Empire consists of sentient machines, the Xenopods are vaguely Cthulhoid aliens that use humans as food and slaves, and the Free Mutants are misshapen man-beasts that fight alongside dinosaurs (called Dragons in the game). In gameplay terms, some special abilities are restricted to one race, but otherwise the differences are subtle. The biggest Dragon the mutants have available isn't too different from the biggest 'Mech the humans or bots have, and so on. The only race that works noticeably differently in deck construction is the Xenopods, due to a card called Xenopod Larva, which is really cheap to include and free to play, but gives a random unit if you pay enough resources to “hatch” it. Typically a deck will include a good portion of your faction's 19 or 20 heroes, a few facilities to extend your empire's rule, air support to perform ranged strikes on the enemy, and ground units to project your force.
A note about the deckbuilder program. It has only the most basic features, and as a huge fan of card games I felt like I really needed more power to search and filter at my disposal. I realize it will be enough for most people, though. Performance is slightly slow with so many cards in sight, but not enough to be a hindrance. What IS sorely needed though, is an “export to text” feature. A lot of the strategy discussion of the game will hinge upon deck construction, and not having to share decklist files or type down the whole thing would be very useful. All in all, solid as long as you don't want to quickly find out how many of your race's units have stealth, for example.
Once you have your deck built, you choose which type of game you want to start, both in terms of difficulty level and game options. A neat idea is that the point and tile limits are actually only upper limits for you. However, the AI chooses one of the 65(!) AI decks prepared for each race by the developers based on the limit you chose. Therefore, it is possible to play a 175/5 deck (175 points, 5 tile points) against an AI using a 275/15 deck, if you like a challenge. The rest of the selections is straightforward, as the map is randomly generated: How big you want the map to be, how many races you want to fight against, and how many resources and special tiles you want there to be on the map. After all is to taste, you have to place your initial tiles (pretty pointless in 5 tile point games, more important in bigger matches) and off you go.
Here's how the game works: Each turn, you roll for initiative. This not only determines who goes in which order, but how many action points each player has that turn. By default, each player rolls 3 dice, but you can spend any resource to buy extra dice, if it's REALLY important that you get the most APs. Then, when it's your turn, you can use your APs and resources to perform actions. Everything costs at least some action points. Drawing extra cards (you start with a hand of 7), creating armies to distribute your units and heroes, moving, and so on. Resources are typically used only to buy cards or create “extractors” on resource-rich tiles.
A typical game begins with a phase where you do heavy reconnaissance of the surrounding area. Typical stuff you can expect to find (besides enemy units doing the same) include resource caches, special items that you can attach to your units (give your lowly infantry a portable Nuke launcher, for example, and they can give a huge tank a sound whupping), resource tiles, and (most interesting of all) independent fortresses and armies. This stuff is what gives the game flavor. In a game with common special tiles, you can find advanced alien technologies, hive cities filled with mercenaries, Vault 13 (for you RPGCodex nutters reading this) and tons more special units and buildings taken from almost every source of sci-fi.
After recon is done, it's time for battle lines to be drawn and epic fights to begin. The heavy hitters you can have in your deck can kill tons of the light units, so combat will mostly be between the behemoths. The basics of combat are as follows: after initiative order is determined, players can select units to attack with. As with everything in this game, this involves a dice challenge. Roll a number of dice equal to your attack, and count your successes. If you beat the other guy's similar defense roll, you get to deal damage equal to the difference in results. Of course, special abilities on units complicate matters tremendously, and armies led by heroes even more. Beyond his own special abilities coming into play, a hero has “fate points” he can spend to reroll dice. All things added, an army led by a good fighting hero will hands down defeat a similar but incompetently led force.
There's also a ton of stuff you can do to change the outcome of the game outside these major fights. Most of this is done by heroes; the game has a TON of special abilities the heroes can use, from assassination to bounty hunting to sabotage to repairing units. Some of the most interesting of these are the research abilities. A hero with the required skill, that is sitting at a stronghold with a research building built, can spend action points to attempt to research a card from a special set that isn't part of any deck. These cards can be Tactical cards, weapons, or genetic augmentations. The last two are items that are added to your normal hand, but the tactical cards go to a separate hand that can only be used in battle. In any case, they all add a lot to your capabilities, so each deck should have a couple research buildings and heroes to enhance your military strategy.
The way the strategic movement on the board works is very natural. Different tiles have different movement costs, and this also impacts how far ahead of your bases your armies can be while still being in supply radius. Stray too far, and your movement rate and combat abilities will drop quite a bit. Enemy units can also affect this. You may think your supply radium extends to where you want to go, but a well placed unit (say, in the only valley between two high mountain ranges) might block your supply lines and catch your advance units with your pants down.
All in all, a typical game of Armageddon Empires will take at most 3 or 4 hours. This is not a long game. As mentioned, this has no grand campaign, either, so it's a good thing that all these random elements make for an eminently replayable game. Think of it, again, like a good board game. Noone would accept a 30-hour game of Twilight Imperium or Game of Thrones, and those games don't need it. If you enjoy the game you have enough to sink your teeth into with deckbuilding alone. Adding the extremely randomized board conditions and the card hands themselves, and you're looking at months of playing around with it before you can say you've explored all the game has to offer.
That doesn't mean the game is perfect. Beyond the interface issues presented before, the card game mechanics might be a bit offputting if you're a novice. The deckbuilder is a bit overwhelming at first, especially since the game's limits are a bit too flexible. I would prefer it to be a bit more straightforward to build an optimal deck, but with varying card limits, varying points costs per card, and varying deck sizes, the card system lacks a bit the simplicity of, say, Magic the Gathering, where decks can only be 60 cards and you can only have 4 of each. As an avid card player, I found myself thinking that if this game came in actual cardboard, inside boosters and starters, I wouldn't play it. It's too convoluted, too gimmicky, the kind of stuff the card game designers I talk to say they designed when they first got into the business. As a support system for a computer strategy game, though, this isn't a problem. Tinker around with the default decks for a while, try your hand at building one from scratch, and after you fail horribly a few times you'll get the hang of it. But you will most certainly be having tremendous fun doing it.