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Empires of the Middle Ages
Review of the 2004 edition
4 Jan 2012

This is a look at a work produced by Decision Games, a direct re-make of an earlier version having the same title by SPI and released in 1980. Having lent a hand as an outside advisor on the work, this is not an easy commentary to write. On the other hand there were plenty of aspects that didn't end up as desired so there should be at least some kind of balance to the perspective. The inevitable two major questions are (1) how it compares with the original and (2) how well it succeeds on its own.

The good and best news is that the new version builds straight up. Although the graphical landscape has been altered, the original game is fully playable as it was originally conceived by SPI. Beyond this, Joseph Miranda has contributed many additions in the form of extra rules at the end of the forty-page instructions manual and which use many extra cards and counters and are more of a mixed bag.

The first things one notices about this version is the much larger box and map, both of which are more than twice as large as the original. Secondly the paper map more resembles what one thinks of as a map rather than the collection of rectangular registers Redmond Simonsen, art director at SPI at the time, created for the first edition. By the way, most of my influence on the final product was in ensuring that map connectivity matched the original – including the problem areas of Switzerland and Kiev – and also in getting the region shapes to match those they historically had. This more involved than you might imagine process revealed just how the original registers neatly solved a lot of problems associated with a traditional map representation. Not only were the aforementioned problem areas handled more smoothly by SPI's version, but the problem of tiny states like Venice were simultaneously solved as well. A Venice needs a certain minimum size to hold a whole set of potential counters. So just make it larger, right? Well and good, but the problem is that the larger a Venice needs to be, the larger everything else needs to be just to maintain proportion and pretty soon the map is quite large indeed. In fact one early version of the map in the current edition – fortunately since reduced – was too large for my average-sized table. But it was interesting to see that for all the criticism Mr. Simonsen received for his version of the map at the time, it was done for excellent reasons and is really a brilliant solution.

The map has come out well. Formerly each province had a track on which one marked the social state level. These are gone and instead players have various double counters indicate this. I was concerned that this might prove too fiddly, but in practice it works out simply because these levels usually don't change all that quickly.

Most other items are well done, with attractive counters and cards which are quite nicely realized. The box itself is made of somewhat thin cardboard compared to what has been coming out of Germany and its paper cover somewhat effectively glued onto it.

As already mentioned, the 1980 edition is still completely playable (some alterations to Dynastic Inheritance cards are needed). After that there is the matter of the additional rules. What direction should they have taken? Several directions were proposed, not just by the production team, but by the public, including:
box cover

  1. lower playing time
  2. more simulation, adding things like trade and shipping
  3. more map, extend across the Mediterranean and all the way to China
  4. more combat
  5. more flavor
  6. more balance
  7. fix rules and map errors
  8. more rules clarity

My primary wish was for (6 - balance), reasoning as follows. Playing any regular scenario is going to take at least four hours, probably more. If you play the seven centuries of the grand scenario, you're talking about thirty hours plus. Now I realize that a lot of players love to see this as a simulation and wouldn't be willing to countenance any well-meaning adjustments, but I suspect there is a much larger segment who would find the game fascinating, if only it wasn't necessary to face the prospect of playing for hour after hour with absolutely no chance to win. Moreover, there are some quite simple changes to make, some of which might not even bother most purists at all. In particular, the sole Missionary Fervor event card is much too good and a player is allowed to keep it indefinitely. (There are many ways this could be handled better, nor is this even historical.) On the other hand, the two Leader Dies Heirless event cards that affect every area in a player's empire are much too devastating most of the time, especially if drawn just before the end of play. (Would it have been so bad to have this event affect not the drawing player but the one holding the most victory points?) Well, at least the too-powerful Muslim raiders were fixed, though the too-powerful Syrian magnate was not. I also wished for (7 - fixes) and (8 - clarity) as anyone would, but it turned out that more of (3 - combat) and (4 - flavor) were the chief additions.

More Combat
In terms of adding combat, one of the longstanding critiques has been the essentially static nature of the situation. In fact the only moving piece on the board is the player's leader marker, which is not exactly flavor enough for the average war games fan. Where are the knights in armor, the archers, the warships, etc? So this version adds both army and fleet markers which are rather expensive to raise and maintain, but which can be shunted about the map and give some use to those funds which often otherwise go underutilized. It's still not clear whether these are cost effective, but players can decide that. What's more objectionable is the way these armies zip around the map and never go home. The feeling is more reminiscent of a Panzer division than a medieval force. Even more out of place are the fleets which now being able to affect places four sea areas away are completely anachronistic. We were told that they were given this power in order to simulate the "Norman invasion", not of England, but of Sicily. But as detailed elsewhere the so-called invasion was far from that, which is not surprising as the range given fleets in this edition are far from what they had during the period. In effect the empires are now permitted in some ways to behave as if it were at least 1939. But must every war game play like World War II?

More Flavor
In terms of flavor, a whole boatload came in with the new event cards. Where the original had just 56, there are now 118 more, many of them far more specific than the formerly generic "famine" or "outbreak of heresy". Coming in two new types, Provisional and Leader cards, they contain year ranges which indicate whether they should be included in the scenario being used. Players are to go through the deck and weed out the inapplicable ones before play, which is annoyingly fiddly, so it's not done and instead whenever one draws one that's out of range, one curses and draws a replacement. Even worse, if during the scenario the card's year has passed, it has not qualified, which means even more checking. Well, at least the board sports a game turn track this time around. The Leader cards, which add to the leader's effectiveness for just one endeavor, are further restricted by language group, which means one tends to acquire a lot of useless cards. Having such a small effect on play and yet adding so much fiddliness, you need to love flavor quite a lot to employ these cards, however handsome they are. Even worse is the effect on balance as some player may end up drawing only these sorts of things while others will draw truly useful stuff like the Missionary Fervor or Dynastic Inheritance. But these cards do include morsels as tasty as Roland, Alfred the Great, Otto I, Aethelred the Unready (helps administration by 1), the three antagonists of 1066, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard I, Saladin, the Black Prince, the Teutonic Knights, Janissaries, Friedrich Barbarossa, El Cid, Golden Horde, Silk Route, Robert Bruce (not "the Bruce"; the "the" must be lost in time), Henry V, Joan of Arc, Ferdinand and even (borrowing from Sierra Madre Games) a comet. So, flavor or fairness: the choice is yours and never has it been starker. One oddity: the otherwise color cards have their main image in monochrome. Why? Because back in medieval times everything was in black-and-white. Shame on us for not knowing that.

Other Card Issues
Card 126 is called Division of the Empire and happens to the player when drawn. If his empire has at least ten areas and his stature check results in a lesser leader, then the player loses all areas not of the leader's language. This rather draconian card could easily be completely unfair. Imagine drawing it near the start of the game before having the chance to build up a treasury, or just before the end and losing huge quantities of empire.

Missed Opportunities
To provide a reasonable experience over a great many hours, there needs to be a certain balance and ability for players to catch up. Even if a deterministic view of history is taken, which of us is content to play for hour upon hour holding just two or three measly areas while the other two players control vast empires which will never permit ours to come to its feet?

In that sense with a failure to re-design the Leader Dies Heirless events, a real opportunity was missed. Instead of striking the dominant player, it still, just like it did back in unenlightened 1980, strikes whoever happens to draw it, even if they should do so five times a playing. Is this a fair fight? Is this fun? Or would you rather the game at least tried a little to keep matters fun and interesting for all concerned?

The Dynastic Inheritance cards are similar. Two of them are extremely powerful. Draw and use one in the right situation and it could be a game winner. Few other cards can make such a boast. In the matter of event cards, is it too much to ask for a balanced deck? So that when a player draws a card he can expect a value to the card equivalent to that of his opponent? Yet what we find instead is that some cards, because of restrictions on who can use them, may be not only weak, but in fact entirely unusable.

Another issue regarding claims, dynastic inheritance and diplomatic ties is that the instructions are unclear in places. The new edition had to chance to fix this, but unfortunately failed to take it. In fact the instructions deserved a thorough going over in several places, but the mantra appears to have been "preserve the holy text" rather than "clarify and improve" so it just didn't happen. (Considering how harried the designers were in the waning days of SPI, I somehow doubt any of them considered the text anywhere near holy.)

The 1980 edition featured several map errors. Unfortunately, the new version has continued some of these and created a few others.

So What Have We Got
There are a great number of much smaller issues that can be mentioned. This product benefits from being a re-make of one that was already considerably ahead of its time. On the other hand, the new one does not attempt enough in continuing to look forward the way that the original did. For those who just need another set to play the original, this will do well. But for those who have never played, probably the time requirements, price tag and problems will overwhelm. This is not the worst of the re-makes of 1980s games, but hardly the best either. For the majority of players one can do better with games of more recent vintage and employing more up to date game design technology.

Created: 4 Jun 2010
Reviewing the Reviewer