06th Jun2018

‘Empires of the Void II’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that Empires of the Void II from Ryan Laukat and Red Raven Games is a sequel, but what might be a bit of a surprise is just how long it’s been since the original game launched in 2012. It’s also entirely possible that the original game passed you by entirely because it predates the much more popular Red Raven games like Above and Below, Islebound and one of my favourite games of 2017; Near and Far.

However, don’t let a lack of familiarity (or even an active dislike) of the first game sway your opinion about Empires of the Void II because it follows the same improvement curve that all Red Raven games seem to. It literally takes everything that the company have learned from making their other games, improves the mechanics, ups the component quality and increases the accessibility without compromising on depth.

At first glance Empires of the Void II looks a lot like a 4X (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate) game, except that the extermination element is handled with a lighter touch than peer games such as Twilight Imperium IV, for example. There’s a slight euro game feel to the game that comes from the action selection system and there are also elements of area control that relate to the scoring.

Like all Ryan Laukat games, there’s an element of freeform narrative that runs through Empires of the Void II, which in this case comes from a mix of seeded card decks that relate specifically to the planets in play. On that note, the game uses a large board that features several random elements including the location of the large planets and which of them have already been taken over by a nearly unbeatable alien force called The Sarkeen Regency.

The Sarkeen Regency feature more or less based on player count – in a five player game, they simply don’t exist, but at any lower player count they could occupy as many as six planets, which serves as a mechanism for making the game world smaller in order to force competition among the human players. Every planet that is not occupied by The Sarkeen(ians) has its own native population, each of whom can be allied with or taken control of.

The difference between influence and control is one of the most interesting things about Empires of the Void II, because there are clear benefits for controlling planets and different benefits for being allied to the native populace. The nirvana, of course, is to have both control and influence. Unfortunately, taking control will always wipe out any influence that you already have (after all, you are now invading) and has an uncertain outcome, whilst influence can be gained even on planets controlled by other players.

Both control and influence will score points during the various scoring phases in the game, but both offer very different benefits beside from that. Influence allows players to take the ally card, each of which comes with a specific passive benefit. It also allows that player to recruit alien forces to add to their own, some of whom are quite powerful.

Control is more literal – that planet becomes yours by force of arms. As a result, you’ll be able to build structures on that planet as well as do battle there should you wish to stop another player from spreading further. If you do happen to be able to place influence on a planet you control after you’ve conquered it, then you can gain access to both these sets of advantages – which is very powerful. Smaller (uninhabited) planets can be controlled but not influenced, although taking control only causes a fight if another player is already in control.

All of this (and more) is achieved using a simple action selection system that includes a follow mechanic to minimise downtime. Most actions must be paid for using command points, which can be refreshed either as a primary action (not great) or at any time instead of taking the follow action behind the primary player. There are five basic actions to choose from, which include; Move and Attack, Research and Build, Card Action or Diplomacy, Recruit and finally, Scavenge. Most of these are self-explanatory really, so I won’t replicate the manual by going into too much detail, but I will describe a few features in brief to provide a flavour of how the game plays.

Moving, for example, costs one command point for each space moved, so it is limited only by available command points. Building is a simple case of paying money as indicated by your player board and then picking up and placing the building card you’ve chosen on either your world ship (effectively your on board mobile HQ) or on a planet that you control. Recruit allows players to add either their own Starfarers or units from allied races to their army, which increases your overall combat strength.

On that note, combat in Empires of the Void II is quick and simple, with enough uncertainty in most cases to make it worth considering very carefully when you do it. Whilst losing only really costs you a turn, that loss can be a big deal when all your opponents are moving closer towards scoring objectives, placing influence or building, for example.

Actual combat is achieved by rolling a number of dice equal to the symbols shown on all your units in the combat. You then take the highest die rolled (hoping for a six) and add it to the default attack value on all units the stack, then add the power shown on one of your cards (which you must play when attacking.) Compare the total of these to the defenders total calculated the same way and the highest wins. Defending human players may choose to play a card or not, but if attacking a non-player race, a card is drawn randomly for them by another player.

This mechanism makes it fairly difficult for one player to become especially more powerful than the others, even though investing in military might will increase their reach, reduce their chances of losing assets and enable them to retain control. There is always more combat when more players are involved, but because of The Sarkeen Regency, it will still come up two or three times in even a two player game.

As players work through actions and use up their command points, the need to refresh will inevitably arise. When the Scavenge action is taken then the current player will receive income, replenish their action points and draw cards from a shared deck up to their hand limit. Players can hold two cards initially, but this can be expanded as buildings are moved from the player board.

What is perhaps more important here is that seeded in the draw deck will be event cards, which are usually resolved immediately as soon as they are drawn (or straight after combat, if drawn on behalf of a defending non-player faction.) These event cards are randomised and relate only to the planets currently in play, so as I mentioned earlier, they act as a kind of narrative and really bring the game world to life.

Events might provide quest style opportunities to gain influence or other benefits (for example through trade, or rescuing a planet under attack) or they may have negative consequences such as one that unleashes a terrible plague, or another that spawns a space beast. The deck also contains a scoring card, which is randomly placed somewhere around halfway down the deck. This, plus colonisation cards that the players start with (and draw from a separate, Empire deck) causes players to score the board state immediately.

Once the deck of event and power cards is completely exhausted, the players usually finish the current round of turns plus one more complete round, at which point the game ends and final scoring takes place. The player who has accumulated the most victory points over the course of the game wins.

And that, friends, is Empires of the Void II. As I said earlier, the game feels a little bit euro-ish in its implementation and yet it also delivers the feel of a space opera with all of the trappings very nicely. I don’t really have any major criticism of it at all, although I do have a few minor ones which are just greedy or lazy, really.

Firstly, the setup time is rather long, largely because of the deck and board customisation, but also because there are just a lot of pieces to consider. Individually bagging components by player race and planet really helps, but it’s still a fair slog. In direct contrast to that, I’d also like to have more randomised planets and more event cards per planet – Empires of the Void II is a fantastic game and once you play it, you’ll just want to dive in again and again. As a result, the same configurations and especially the same events will begin to occur.

Ryan Laukat and Red Raven Games have pulled another blinder with Empires of the Void II and I would be surprised if it wasn’t among my top ten games of this year. The only possible caveat there is that my group runs out of steam for the reasons I mentioned just above. That said, let’s not end this review on a negative – this is a fast paced, highly interactive space simulation with excellent inbuilt storytelling features and little or no downtime. It is referred to often as heavy, but that’s probably only because it looks it, in terms of complexity, it is at most midweight, which means it can be played by almost anyone who has a good teacher and the willingness to learn.

****½  4.5/5

A copy of Empires of the Void II was provided by Red Raven games for review purposes. The game is out now and you can find out more via https://redravengames.squarespace.com/

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