Empire of the Dead caught my attention online about half a year ago, when the seed of starting a lunchtime gaming club for the school that I work in was just beginning to germinate. I knew I wanted something with multiple layers of depth, but then I also wanted clean, accessible and modifiable (and they say I teach English…) for a fifty minute time frame.
I looked at my background in gaming and painting, short as it is, to see what I could run with – video games were staple, but didn’t offer real community. Board games were ideal, but didn’t permit massive numbers to sustain the fetal club. The old reliables: Warhammer, 40K and even Lord of the Rings were runners, but too deep too fast to be an anchor just yet. Although, that said, Mines of Moria got a decent airing as a gateway option. Dreadfleet? We haven’t got the aeons needed! I began to collect Malifaux at the time, intrigued by the fantastic character miniatures and card mechanic – without really having an opponent to try it on. This system seemed feasible, but needed support. I tried the rules, collected two factions and got ready. Knowing nobody who played, I promptly emailed Wyrd for club and organisational advice, then a month after no response, did so again. Nobody replied at all. I began to have misgivings of promoting a company product where the company didn’t have the decency to reply to some very simple questions. Please don’t take this to be my blaspheming against such a wonderful game that I deeply enjoy from the little experience I’ve had of it (read: forced on gamer friends to try out with me), but there would come a time where interested students would take the next step, and if that was Wyrd directly, they may become disenchanted and abandon the hobby before it had a chance to truly take root.
Then it happened…West Wind Productions produced something eerily similar in its Victorian Gothic Steam Punkiness that had an even simpler premise, an even more accessible rule mechanic and the scope to be as broad and successful as any system this side of Nottingham. It could be played within minutes by beginners, and the time frame for a faction scuffle was easily completed in forty-five minutes. The artwork was evocative and for students of history and/or literature – very familiar indeed. I promptly bought a book and got down to the nitty-gritty of figuring out if it was worth investment for the club.
In a word, it really was – and is, a fantastic system. I tend to eschew the games that I find -if not plain difficult – then cumbersome for my students, as experience has taught me that it really needs to hook a young mind early if it is to be sustainable as an activity. Empire hits that target pretty neatly. The system is based (so far) on four to six main factions – Lycaon Werewolves, Gentlemen of a few types, Holy Orders and Nosferatu Vampires. They a principally based on skirmish battles, with plenty of room to improve and expand. The models are nicely sculpted – some more than others, frankly, but the character is still there. It is clear when on the table who is a vampire thrall and who is a gentleman – and the box starter sets are priced quite fairly to pick up a group and start gaming directly. My own squad of Holy Orders (I called them the Sanctus Volvo, but that’s just the kind of geek I am) were my first purchase along with some Nosferatu for the school. After they were all painted up, I got in a few test games between gaming students, and before the week was over, the room was crowded with interested spectators. I split the models and began four players – two to a faction and rotated as quickly as possible. I knew I had a tiger by the tail, and the opportunity to truly create a community in the room, and I was loathe to let any interested party disperse before rolling the die twice. Out of those primary players, easily eighty percent remain as the resident experts and moderators. Over fifty percent of those rock their own factions now. What game has ever achieved something so easily?
The action revolves around a single dice – a D10 to determine wounds and damage – even the traditional leadership statistic of ‘Bravado’ is given this easily remembered rule to overcome fear etc. The real game-play is not to be found in exhibition, but those games are the easiest pick-ups to be found at a lunch-break. Characters are activated one at a time, and each character is customisable within the rules of their faction (what weapons they may use etc.) The real draw is the league. The rule book promotes league play as primary, and rightly so – because accumulating credits and recruiting MVPs and Mercenaries provides the depth of play that constantly challenges your faction. The assortment of weapons that your team can be modified with is unbelievable, and when playing a foe of similar strength, a genuine sense of tension and suspense is felt with each character choice. What I like about the game, is that the losing player in a league can still beat the top player in the right scenario. Rolling for Day and Night at the start of each skirmish lends a sense of trepidation if you’re playing supernatural or human alike, as the bonuses conferred could completely alter your game-play – but not to make it unplayably one-sided. I witnessed just recently a group of Holy Order brothers kicking three shades of snot out of Nosferatu who were invading their monastery. The monks held the upper hand until the Graf (Lead Vamp) used his power of influence to turn day to night. Suddenly the monks were on the retreat to their holy ground in order to gain that last bonus in a very different type of battle. There have been pains taken to balance the factions out, and it is up to the players in the game to provide their own advantages – whether it is through use of firearms, melee weapons, Arcane powers or Influence points. Each player has an ability that the other can counter – it only comes down to outfitting your crew and adequate preparation. This makes three-player plus games pretty frenetic and fast too.
Terrain is not supplied for this system yet, but anything will do for 28mm scale. And although terrain adds all sorts of new options like “wait and shoot” commands that snap activate on enemy models that come into model pov sight and ‘hide’, you really don’t need an inordinate amount like say, Infinity requires. I have been using some of my GW stuff like the Garden of Morr and Chapel etc. and they work fine, really what suits this game best are walls and hills. The theme may cry out for Olde London Towne, but most of our battles have been isolated hamlets and ruins to date! This was how we discovered one other aspect that lends itself to Empire – modifying the rules. There is a wonderful option for including an angry “mob” of villagers (not in Empire, but locatable in the Vampire Wars section of West Wind’s website). These play a great role in some scenarios, affecting play and reward alike, but we discovered that if we use the fifth faction – Zombie Victorians as their own mob controlled by a third player, we created an ‘infected’ feel to proceedings. We have had great fun having zombie mobs harangue movement, line of sight and when they incur a wound on any player model, turn that wounded character in the next round. Players start taking ranged weapons seriously and hiding in Holy ground mighty fast with the undead multiplying around them!
Not to sound overly gushy, there are some less positive considerations too. The rulebook recycles a lot of the art, although there are some splendid representations of Victorian stereotype present. The introductory story is a well-written narrative along the lines of Bram Stoker’s Dracula journal style, but from this first-person perspective doesn’t expose the purpose of the various factions to adequately capture the essence or drive of the supernatural groups – this was a style choice, but I think it leaves more to the reader to elucidate on in their own faction games. Aside from the odd grammatical error, the book is solid. It does a great job of collecting the reference material on one or two pages, but then hides these pages apart in the book. If it had a detailed faction list beside the weapon choice list in order to modify the roll cleanly, then it’d be perfect. What I did to compensate for this was copy and laminate the relevant pages and create a template for players to fill in their new stats before a game for quick reference. This works a treat, and allows what I think is crucial in the league game – open list transparency. I usually dislike this guideline in other systems, but Empire lends itself to this if only in league, in order that the lower outfits with less money to spend augmenting their arsenal can strategise accordingly, otherwise it could be a washout.
The models are on a par with Malifaux, and the sculpts are tight. My only issue within them is the similarity of gentlemen and monks. True, humans look like humans, but the president could have a readily identifiable hat with a ‘p’ on it, right? Well, not quite but you get my point. As an opponent of Gentlemen regularly, I find myself asking many times ‘and which one is your secretary? was he not the vice-president?’ Aside from that, I have to say I really like the character-rich persona of the pieces – it lends itself to creating background fluff. The mercenaries that can be hired and retained in-game are amazing, ranging from Mr. Chops the Demon Butcher to Hide, Holmes and Watson, Man-Ape and even a Deathlight grim reaper. These are wonderfully realised pieces, and only let down by the absence of their stats for play in either the book or their own packaging. Recently, West Wind released a downloadable ‘Gentlemen and Jackanapes” PDF that rectifies this-but you do have to search for it. The focus on a small number of factions to begin this system with was a wise one. While it leaves you with a desire for more variety, this is clearly a system in its infancy and ready for further development – and accordingly West Wind are releasing more models and carriages in next month.
All in all, Empire of the Dead is a fantastic line that permits huge expansion with minimal effort. The D10 for everything doesn’t simplify or reduce game-play at all – rather enhances the speed at which decisions are reached. To boot, West Wind are a dream to talk to! Site communication is professional and informative and Wendy on the phone has been very good to our fledgling group in supplying advertising posters and genuine club-support to help foster our group. I cannot praise her, or the company highly enough for their invaluable service beyond the amazing product itself. If my review hasn’t rambled you to an early doze, then I hope it has enticed you to try it out – let me know how you got on, or if you disagree with me on anything! I think that this system has legs, and is both an easy pick-up and built for lengthy league play – and wonderfully enough, three and four-way play-off scenarios click along at a much faster pace than I’ve previously had the pleasure to experience – which suits the purposes of the club perfectly in order to get as many lads playing as possible, and also introduce new gamers to the fracas. I’m not given to reviewing too much on this blog, but if I were to venture a score, it’d be an 8/10. I think that there are places for this system to grow, and am looking forward to see that development take place soon.
Next post should analyse Dreadball. Following backing the successful Kickstarter campaign, I’ve eagerly awaited introducing this to the school club, and I’ll be letting you know just how it is working out as another game built on league focus.