Han was back in KL for one day on Sat 16 Aug 2008, so we met up for some gaming. Two of Han's friends, Goh and Lim, were able to join, so we decided to play Galactic Emperor, a multiplayer conflict game set in space. It is not often that we have 4 players, so we used the opportunity to play something that needs more players to be good.
Galactic Emperor was a new game. In fact Han only opened the game that day. He had preordered it, and it had arrived in KL before he got back. I had downloaded the rules before but had only read part of it. Han assigned me the task of reading the rules before his two other friends arrived, so that I could be the rule explainer afterwards.
We only started game explaining at about 3:30pm. At first I was worried we might not be able to finish the game, but surprisingly we managed to finish at about 5:30pm. No wonder some people call this a short version of Twilight Imperium. I have not played that so I cannot comment on whether this is an appropriate description (other than the game length).
Galactic Emperor is about building a space empire. You discover and claim new planets, produce food and resources, develop new technologies, build a space fleet, and maybe you go to war. It has a Puerto Rico structure - the role selection mechanism. Players take turns to select a role, and every time a role is selected, all players can do actions associated with that role, but the player who chose that role enjoys some special priviledges. There is a twist. The Emperor (i.e. Governor in Puerto Rico) can decide the direction of play, clockwise or anti-clockwise.
To win, you collect victory points. The main way of doing this is by controlling planets. Victory points from controlling planets are awarded only when the Regent role is selected, so they are not necessarily awarded every round. There are other ways of gaining victory points, but they are minor compared to being in control of planets. E.g. you do gain 1VP if you win a battle and destroy an enemy control marker (called "empire" in this game).
At the start of the game everyone is racing to discover new planets and to claim them. Some planets produce food, which is consumed by other planets in order to produce metals and energy (food, metal and energy are the 3 types of resources in the game). As you produce resources and earn money, you use them to research technologies that give you special advantages in certain situations, and to do your military build-up. As the military capabilities build up, there is a tension of who will make the first move. In a multi-player conflict game, there is a danger of the players engaging in warfare earlier losing out to the players who preserve their strength to be used on whoever survived the early war. 渔人得利. In warfare, your ultimate goal is to conquer planets, because these are what give you victory points. Of course each conquest also gives 1VP. So war is just the means to an end. Of course, sometimes it's fun to attack just for the sake of revenge, or even just for the hell of it. Sometimes when you get really worked up, who cares about victory points.
So, the game progresses from initial exploration and planet grabbing, to the eventual military showdown. At one stage of the game, the sun at the centre of the board will go supernova, and become a black hole. This adds a twist to the game. Spaceships can actually enter the blackhole, and then on the next turn these ships can teleport to anywhere (except a home planet) and even enjoy an attack bonus if they attack an enemy fleet. This obviously encourages warfare.
In our game, I was assigned to be the first emperor, and I actually stayed emperor until game end. There were some attempts to wrest the throne but from me, but they were just half-hearted efforts. Since Han is the most experienced among my opponents, I kept the game flow in the other direction most of the time, to make him the last in turn order. However with a game structure similar to Puerto Rico", it actually doesn't make too big a difference. In the early game I focused on getting cool technologies, choosing the Scientist role so that I get a 1 energy discount, i.e. I could afford to buy more expensive technologies. After a few rounds on military build-up, the attacks started. I think Han was the first to strike, successfully attacking and conquering one of my outposts. I retaliated and successfully wiped out both Han's and my own fleets. Oops... too trigger happy. Goh swooped in and also took one of my outer planets. From then on things went downhill for me. Everyone continued the military build-up, and soon the stakes were so high that nobody dared to make a move. I had both Goh's and Han's fleets near me, but although having the technology to give me die roll +1 when attacking, I didn't dare to make any attacks, fearing becoming the victim of the 3rd player, even if I were successful in my attack. So I was rather stuck. I dared not attack, and yet I had no other means of reclaiming "my" planets or expanding to more planets. Most of the galaxy had been explored and planets claimed. Eventually Han ended the game by triggering scoring and exhausting the pool of victory point chips. Guess who won. The guy who was never involved in any battle - Lim. I had thought it would be Han or Goh, because both of them gained ground during the war with me. Lim had been expansive and was not as consersative as Goh, so he did have a sizeable empire. I, of course, came in dead last.
I thought the game was just so-so (being last may have made me a little biased... heh heh...). There are some small innovations. However I found the overall package to be nothing new. Nothing that really makes it a significant improvement over other multplayer conflict games. Viktory II is a similar type of game, and, to me, is better. Also, maybe I am getting a bit tired of the Puerto Rico structure, having seen it in San Juan and Race for the Galaxy too. I don't think using this structure is particularly interesting, or necessary, or thematic, in this game. I still feel the game has the turtling problem - players still tend to build-up, play defensively, and try to avoid getting into wars. And often the ones to get into the early wars will suffer. I think this is a common problem with multiplayer conflict games. However I think Viktory II handles this better and encourages attacking / discourages turtling better. Nexus Ops is also a more interesting and better multiplayer conflict game to me. So, in summary, I'd say nothing new.