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Review: Conquest of the Empire (Classic variant)

Posted by Denny Koch on September 22, 2010

Game: Conquest of the Empire

Publisher: Eagle Games
Published in: 2005
Designers: Larry Harris

Era: Ancients; Roman Civil War
Game Type: board game / area movement / plastic miniatures (2-6 players)
Contents: 3 mounted game boards, 2 marker sheets, 1 rulebook (CoTE classic variant, 11 pages), 1 rulebook CoTE II (17 pages), 1 set of playing cards (only used in the CotE II variant), 8 dice, 396 plastic miniatures, 75 plastic coins


HFC Game-O-Meter: E


Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 9
Rules: 6
Playability:
8
Replay Value:
7.5

Overall Rating: 8

PRO Fantastic presentation, high heft factor, great multiplayer experience, very thematic…
CONTRA …somewhat static and too long with 2 players, rules wording not always clear

Introduction

After our extensive playing sessions of Julius Caesar by Columbia Games and watching the first season of HBO’s “Rome”, we were in the mood for another Ancients game dealing with the Roman Empire.

Conquest of the Empire is a true eye-catcher

Since we are currently re-writing our old reviews in our operation  “review reset“, this was the perfect chance to bring one of our other Ancients games back to the gaming table and to play it with a fresh perspective.

We had to choose between Imperium Romanum II, SPQR, and Conquest of the Empire (CotE). CotE is a “light wargame” from the Axis & Allies family, so it was perfectly suited for being played again for a few weekends without the major time investment Imperium Romanum II would have demanded from us. In addition, we already had some extensive (German) reviews for both Conquest variants, which were written some years ago – so we decided to bring Conquest of the Empire back to our gaming table and to review it again.

The Conquest of the Empire box contains two game variants: The “Classic” game variant which is based on the old Conquest of the Empire game  from the MB Gamemaster Series (published 1984), and a new variant called “Conquest of the Empire II” which has not much to do with the original game and which introduces politics, intrigue, and diplomacy. It is next to impossible to play the CotE II variant with 2 players (which isn’t mentioned anywhere on the game box, btw!), so we decided to play and review the classic variant first (before forcing a third player to re-play the CotE II variant with us ;)).

Conquest of the Empire Classic is somewhat similar to Axis & Allies but not so static, allowing more different strategies and more maneuvering. The map depicts the Mediterranean (as it does in Julius Caesar by GC) and the game takes place in the Roman Civil War, but on a somewhat more abstract level than the CG game because each player is just “one Caesar” and his forces, fighting other (unnamed) Caesars.

The game can be played with 2-6 players and utilizes area movement, supported by naval movement,  building streets and capitals for more protection and faster movement. Battles are fought with special combat dice showing specific symbols.

Graphic Presentation

The map. Click to enlarge!

The graphic presentation is fantastic. The mounted map consists of three parts and requires a large table. The artwork is great, the area from the Mediterranean, central Europa, up to Britannia and the East is drawn in a geomorphic fashion showing mountains, hills, and other geographical features that don’t play any role in the game mechanics, though. The game design is very “Roman” and antique with lots of Roman chrome, for example creatures from the Roman mythology in the Mediterranean sea, or illustrations of Roman gods, busts, or statues. The font in which the map text is printed is somewhat playful but fits perfectly to the overall topic.

The game box contains an incredible amount of stuff and is one of the heaviest game boxes in our collection. First, there are six sets of plastic miniatures (color-coded, one set for each player, in one of six plain colors which ask for re-painting), which are divided into leaders, infantry, cavalry, galleys, and catapults. The miniatures are very detailed, you can even discover small details on the soldiers’ uniforms, and you can actually move the arms of the catapults. The legion markers (which are used to mark your captured territories) are printed with Roman legion insignia and even the golden and silver plastic coins (the currency to recruit your troops, build your streets and cities) are designed in a Roman fashion with a portrait of an Emperor.

The dice are plain ugly

There is absolutely nothing to complain about the game presentation; it is certainly one of the best looking games of its kind. If you are into painting plastic miniatures, you will have even more fun with the game because the figures are so detailed (check out the image galleries on boardgamegeek where players posted images of their painted miniatures).

We have only one minor complaint: the dice are amazingly ugly, showing black symbols on orange ground. The symbols are horrible and cannot be told apart from a distance, especially the galley and catapult symbols are very similar (and similarly ugly). Often you can’t recognize the symbols your opponent just rolled, and you even have to take a closer look to tell your own symbols apart. A clearer design would have been really helpful, or at least a different coloring for each symbol.

Rules

The 12-page Classic variant rulebook is designed in the same artistic Roman fashion as the entire game. The rules are supplemented by several illustrations. It is available for free download from the Eagles Games website (PDF).

The illustrated rulebook

The overall structure is comprehensive and it is possible to move hand over hand along the rules while playing your first game.  Despite the fact that the rules and mechanics are quite simple, there are some problems with the rules. The CotE classic variant is a very easy game and understood within minutes if the rules are explained to you by another player.

But if you are an unexperienced player without much wargaming experience, you will face some problematic and ambiguous wording if you want to learn the game by yourself by reading the rulebook – wordings which can even lead to serious misunderstandings and wrong rules interpretations.

This is a known problem, though, so that Eagle games published a collection of FAQs (available here for free download, PDF) and corrected some of the most common misunderstandings in their official forum. Without these information, unexperienced players are in grave danger of getting rules completely wrong. Since this is a very “light wargame”, there is a good chance that new and unexperienced players will buy and play it. In the “old” HFC, we got so many rules questions and cries for help, that we even published a comprehensive  (German) HFC FAQ based on all these questions and all questions we collected in various forums all over the internet.

One example for poor wording is the “road movement” which is ambiguously written. Some rules are entirely missing in the rulebook, for example the fact that an enemy galley in a sea zone prohibits movement across a straight, except when the galley’s owner explicitly allows the straight movement. This information can only be found in the official FAQ or in forum discussions.

The rules are not very long, but in practice, they cause unnecessary questions which cannot be answered without consulting the internet. The consequence is that the game appears to be much more difficult than it actually is – in fact, it is extremely simple and works fine once you figured out how to play it.

Apart from the poor wording and missing rules, the Classic variant  is very straightforward, easy, and uncomplicated.

Playability

A large map for your legions

The objective in CotE Classic is simple: eliminate the opposing Caesars.

Each player has one Caesar miniature which represents the leader of their armies. The leader has special advantages and abilities in combat, but the player is out of the game if the figure is eliminated, so you must always weigh up whether you want to use the leadership bonus in combat or whether you want to hide your Caesar on a remote island, protected by as many troops as possible.

While hunting for the opposing Caesars, players capture provinces. Provinces provide income (represented by gold and silver plastic coins) which then can be spent for recruiting more troops. The more provinces you own, the more income you receive and the more combat units can be built.

After setup where players place their Caesar, a fortification, their generals, and five infantry units into their home provinces, play commences in a given order dictated by ownership of certain home provinces: 1. Macedonia, 2. Galatia, 3. Mesopotamia, 4. Egyptus, 5. Numidia, 6. Hispania or Italia. If you are playing a two-player-game, one player must choose Egypt, the other player must choose Hispania as their home provinces, you cannot choose freely among all available home provinces, unless you are playing a 6-player-game.

The game then follows a Sequence of Play:

Players take entire turns and do not conduct the actions of each phase together: each player has to finish all phases of the Sequence of Play before the next player starts their turn.

1. Movement Phase.

Rome, a province conquered by the "green" Caesar, is threatened by "red" legions

The first player moves land and sea units. Land units can move from one province (=area on the game board) to an adjacent area, but only as long as they have a general with them. Units without a general cannot move. Since each player only has 4 generals and a Caesar (who actually is an additional general), the question of where to move them becomes quite important. If a general is killed in battle, the opponent can decide whether to remove the general from the game or keep him for ransom (and exchange him later for coins or one of his own captured generals, so it is entirely up to the players how they bargain for their captured generals).

Land units combined with at least one general form a “legion” which can consist of up to 7 land units. Infantry can spend one Movement Point (=move to an adjacent province or move along a road), while cavalry units can spend two Movement Points if they are accompanied by a general. It is not possible to capture a province by “blitzing through”, though – which means a unit has to remain there until the end of the turn in order to capture the province, so cavalry units cannot be used to capture two provinces in one turn.

If a legion enters a province containing enemy units, they must fight (except when the area contains only a single leader without combat units – the leader is sacked immediately then without combat).

Galleys can conduct Sea Movement. They have 2 Movement Points and move from  a sea zones to adjacent sea zones or from a sea zone to a coast within the same sea zone – they are always considered to be “off-shore” or “on-shore”. They can also transport up to 7 land units plus an unlimited number of leaders via amphibious movement. In contrast to the Julius Caesar block game, galleys can freely move through sea zones containing enemy galleys and even end their movement there – combat is voluntary.

Land units can conduct amphibious assaults from sea when they are shipped onto a coast of an enemy occupied province.

2. Combat Phase

After all movement is done, land units which are in the same provinces as enemy land units must fight. Galleys may fight galleys within the same sea zone.

Green Caesar, marching towards Rome

At the start of a land combat, both players form “combat groups” from all land units within the province (defender first). This combat group will fight in the next battle round while the remaining units form a reserve for future battle rounds. A combat group consists of 1-5 land units plus one additional unit per participating general. Catapults never have to be placed in a combat group but add their combat strength from the “reserve” position. Galleys on shore which brought land units into the province never count for land combat purposes and don’t participate in the ensuing combat.

After both players formed their combat groups, both players roll one combat dice per combat unit. The dice show symbols for infantry, cavalry, catapult, galley and blank areas). The result doesn’t show which unit was hit but which unit scored a hit. So, if you have two infantry units in your combat group and roll one infantry symbol, one of your infantries scored a hit. The opponent decides which unit from his combat group is taken as a casualty but only combat units can be chosen, not generals and units in reserve can never be chosen as casualties. If the defender has a fortified city in the province, he can roll two additional combat dice.

After casualties are removed, a new combat round begins. Both players form new combat groups from all remaining units in the province or can decide to retreat from the province (defender first). Retreat is punished by pursuit fire which may be conducted by the remaining player if he has any cavalry units in the province. If all combat units are destroyed, lone Caesars and generals are captured. Lone galleys on the beach are destroyed. If a player loses their Caesar, they are out of the game immediately and the player who killed the Caesar gets all his income, land, and units.

The winner now controls the province and adds the income value to his income total shown on the income track.

3. Tribute Phase

The phasing player collects income provided by the number of provinces and cities in his possession and takes the appropriate amount of coins from the treasury. Gold coins are worth 10 tributes, and silver coins are worth 5.

4. Destroy cities

Since cities provide additional income, sometimes players want to avoid losing them to an enemy. Cities which are under immediate threat by enemy forces can be destroyed in this phase by removing them from the board.

5. Recruit new units

The phasing player can buy new units, cities, fortifications, and roads. The prices are printed on the backside of the rulebook. Twice during the game, these prices rise due to inflation. Players can only buy what is left in their force pool which means if all units are on the board, they cannot buy more units.

6. Place new units

Land units must be placed in the home province; if the province is enemy-occupied, no more units can be placed until the province is liberated. Galleys can be placed on any coast of the home province. New cities can be placed in any province currently under control. Roads can be built by connecting adjacent provinces and allow for fast movement between cities as long as the cities are connected by an uninterrupted chain of roads.

These soldiers, trapped on board of their galley, will drown soon...

In this phase, players can negotiate and ransom their captured leaders.

Once a player conducted all six phases, the next player becomes the phasing player. The only victory condition of the game is to be the last remaining Caesar on the board. In a multiplayer game, players can end a game by unanimously declaring one player the one and only true Caesar, emperor of the Roman Empire!

The basic rules are very simple, but the mechanics require  nice hard decision-making. Infantry is the cheapest unit type and has the highest hit probability during combat with 1/3. Cavalry is more expensive and hits less in combat, but they are more flexible because they can move two areas instead of one. Catapults are very expensive, but they can add their combat strength from the reserve position during combat without being part of a combat group.

An important tactical aspect is that legions can only move if they have at least one general with them. Generals are rare, and so the number of legions which can be moved during a single turn is limited by the number of generals in play. New units can only be recruited in the home province which must be kept in mind when fighting in far regions where they are stuck without a general who could move them to the front. Mobility can be enhanced by road movement and sea transport.

Thus is not sufficient to capture all provinces on the map – you must actually eliminate the opposing Caesar miniatures and be the owner of the last Caesar remaining on the board. Capturing and ransoming enemy generals can also play an important role in your overall strategy – the fewer generals an opponent has, the fewer legions can be moved in a given turn against your own troops.

Overall, the Classic variant is very easy to learn and a great introduction to wargames for beginners who don’t have much experience yet.

The game isn’t complex, the mechanics work fine and  game turns are fast-going because movement options are limited by the number of generals on board, so no player is bothered by downtime (in contrast to Axis & Allies where all units can move during a game turn). The problematic rules wording can slow down the first game, but once the game is mastered, the playability is great and not too long-winded.

A game can be played on an afternoon – if you keep in mind that the game deals with the Roman Civil War and the objective is to kill the opposing Caesars and not to capture territories, engross yourself into politics, and manage your Empire. The designers themselves recommend that” players should prioritize the hunt for the opposing Caesars” before capturing countries in order to do the historical background justice.

Red troops, threatening the Strait of Gibraltar

Replay Value

The game is dynamic and offers much opportunity for experimenting with various strategies. You are forced to make decisions regarding recruitment of units and where to attack when with your limited number of generals. A game turn doesn’t take too long because movement options are limited, so that the game is entertaining and without downtime for the other players. The game is strategically challenging while offering quick and simple gameplay, so it is perfectly suited to be placed on the gaming table from time to time when you are in a Roman mood (and don’t want to struggle with complex consims like Imperium Romanum II) or when you are visited by unexperienced gamers who are interested in a light wargame. They will certainly be impressed by the awesome artwork and you can lure them into more complex games later ;).

CotE is a perfect game for multiplayer meetings and becomes better the more players participate in it. Players can form temporary alliances and allow other players to use their straits, so the replay value is certainly higher when playing with a large number of players.

With 2 players, the replayability is somewhat reduced by a lack of variation. Players always have to choose between Hispania and Egypt as their starting provinces and games can become very long because both players have to capture empty territories which lie between their home provinces. Most of the time, they won’t even meet on the battlefield because the map is large enough that empty provinces can be captured while the other player is occupied on the other end of the map. The gameplay with 2 players is more static than in a multiplayer game and we recommend playing the game with as much players as possible to get the highest replay value.

Creativity

CotE Classic isn’t a new game and it doesn’t have sensational new ideas, either. The original game was part of the Gamemaster Series by MB (together with Samurai Swords/Shogun or Axis & Allies). The mechanics and the Sequence of play are very traditional and classic: Movement – Combat – Buy new units. This isn’t a problem, though, because many players like this type of games. The fantastic artworks and overall quality of the game components are a nice bonus.

Not a very innovative game, but one with some nice mechanics (for example amphibious assaults and sea movement) which are even deeper and which offer more possibilities than for example Julius Caesar where sea movement rules are much simpler.

Collecting tribute and spending it on more troops... you can never have enough troops...!

Simulation Value

Well, CotE Classic isn’t a complex consim, but a fun wargame and doesn’t want to be more than an entertaining multiplayer strategy board game with a Roman topic.

Some historical elements (galleys, infantry, catapults) are included in the game, but the game doesn’t depict a specific historical battle or era but uses the Roman Civil war as an overall background. The unit scale is abstract, a unit doesn’t represent a certain amount of soldiers, ships or catapults and the mechanics are not deep enough to accurately portray warfare in the Roman Empire.

The other variant contained in the game box, CotE II, has a slightly higher simulation value because it takes more aspects of life and warfare in ancient Rome into account, but Classic is perfectly suited for a funny multiplayer gaming evening without having any simulative claim where players just want to enjoy a game with a Roman look and feel.

Solitaire Factor

Next to none. You could certainly play the game solitaire, but since you are forced to hunt the opposing Caesar, this could turn out to be very boring – you will have to protect and hide your Caesars from yourself and you will constantly take provinces from one side and re-take them with the other side.

In our opinion, CotE is a classic multiplayer game which becomes better the more players are participating. Even playing it with two players provides for a quite long opening phase where players occupy all empty provinces on the map without much fighting. If you play with more players, the forces will clash earlier in the game, so that the game becomes more dynamic. Forging secret alliances with other players is part of the fun  then an aspect which is completely missing when playing solitaire or with two players.

CotE is a close relative of Axis & Allies

Can be compared to…

CotE is the remake of the classic Conquest of the Empire by MP (1984). Similarities to other games from this series (Axis & Allies, Samurai Swords/Shogun) are obvious.

Compared to other Gamemaster games, CotE has certainly more in common with Samurai Swords than with Axis & Allies because the basic game mechanics are more dynamic and alliances are more important. If you know one or all Gamemaster games, you won’t have any problems getting into CotE Classic. However, the Axis & Allies or Samurai Swords rules have a much better wording and fewer “black holes” you have to fill by consulting FAQs and forums.

Denny Koch’s Conclusion

Visually, CotE certainly is a very impressive game which can be compared to the great artworks known from games by Fantasy Flight Games. You are overwhelmed by high quality components, large map boards and tons of stuff when you open the game box for the first time.

The “black holes” in the rulebook are less enjoyable. I remember when we played the game for the first time (many years ago 😉 ), that we were stopped cold by a rules question we couldn’t solve on our own. We had to post it in a forum before we could continue our game. There are some crucial aspects not mentioned in the rulebook or at least ambiguously written, so that a FAQ is required if you want to get the game right.

Once you understood and learned the game, it is elegant in its simplicity and works great. The playability is very good and the game is entertaining and enjoyable because of the artworks and simple mechanics, while still offering some strategic planning. We were never bored during a game and game balance is not an issue here. We had many games where the advantage shifted from one player to the other and back again over the course of a game. You can never be sure who will win the game in the end (most often, a player mistake or a small oversight leads to a Caesar’s untimely death).

My Caesar, trapped in Britannia! Witness the last minutes of his life...

In our last game, I decided to send my Caesar to Britannia, together with some of his body guards, because I thought an island was a great defensive position. It would have been… if I hadn’t failed in positioning a galley in the North Sea. I felt safe because I had an invincible fleet in the Strait of Gibraltar, so that my opponent couldn’t send his ships into the Atlantic. But Andreas managed to distract me with irrelevant attacks somewhere in the deep woods of Germany and attacks on Rome, and suddenly a small legion, consisting of no more than 4 infantry, crossed the North Sea  strait and invaded Britannia… where Caesar and his honor guard were killed then. When I saw that Andreas had managed to sneak into Belgium, I hastily sent my galleys into the Atlantic to block the straight, but I couldn’t reach the North Sea in time. One galley, sent together with Caesar when I moved him to Britannia in the first place, would have been sufficient to block the invasion and would have forced my opponent to march with a much larger legion or  to defeat my monstrous fleets in the Mediterranean in a sea battle first. A small oversight that eventually caused my defeat.

The game objective (hunting opposing Caesars) is an interesting alternative to the usual capturing of territories. On the other hand, there’s always the question of how good this game works if players concentrate on capturing provinces while securing their Caesars behind walls of combat units instead of hunting Caesars Games certainly could become very long  this way but if you are playing with more players (3-6), this wouldn’t be much of a problem. Players could easily forge a temporary alliance to flush a walled Caesar out of his province.

But 2-player-games are always in danger of becoming too static – if neither player makes a serious mistake (as I did in Britannia) or actively send their Caesar into battle, there is the chance that they capture and re-capture provinces for a long time without making much progress in reaching the enemy’s Caesar. The designers ask players to play in a “hunt the Caesar”-style rather than in a “I will capture all provinces and become rich”-style, but this requires an opponent who keeps to it and is not really a good design decision.

If you are playing against players who enjoy hunting your Caesar and who use him as a general (as he was intended to, the historical Caesar liked to “lead from the front” as well), the game is dynamic, entertaining and without downtime for the opponents (I always felt that downtime in Axis & Allies was much more of a problem, especially when playing the Russians, building endless infantry stacks in Karelia).

The rules are simple, the Sequence of Play is logical, and the fact that you always need a general to move your legions  provides for interesting strategic options and leads to some hard decisions of how to manage your Empire, where to move and where to attack when. Strategy and planning in advance are required, despite the fact that the game is very easy and the mechanics are extremely straightforward. Strategically, the game isn’t shallow but offers enough depth and challenge to keep it interesting or to be a nice alternative to the more complex and totally different CotE II variant.

This game is a table eater.

CotE Classic is a ‘fun wargame’ with impressing artwork and visual design, perfect for a multiplayer evening where you want to play a strategy board game with your friends or family while having a beer. It’s not a consim, that’s for sure, but certainly one of the easiest games in our collection, but that’s fine – the game lives up to the claim to be a fun wargame.

If you are an experienced wargamer looking for a wargaming depicting warfare in the Roman Civil war, together with some historical claim, you should look elsewhere (Julius Caesar by Columbia Games at least offers a more detailed experience because leaders and units are identified by their names or historical designation) or even try out hex-based consims likes SPQR or Imperium Romanum II – the ultimate Roman monster game experience.

If you are looking for a good 2-player-wargame game about the Roman Civil War which isn’t overly complex, I would rather recommend the Julius Caesar block game by Columbia Games because CotE was definitely designed with 3-6 players in mind. You could play it, of course, and you would certainly enjoy it, but there is always the danger that a 2-player-game becomes static. This won’t happen all  the time (you could actually  play many cool games without any problems), but it could happen.

I recommend the game to gaming groups or families who enjoy appealing strategy board games. I also think CotE Classic is perfectly suited for beginners who are interested in a light wargame (you could even try it out if you are a Euro gamer who wants to learn an attractive strategy board game), but don’t forget to download the official FAQ first!

Once you found a large enough table to lay out the opulent map, your gaming group will certainly enjoy hunting enemy Caesars in Ancient Rome while drinking a beer or Roman red wine 😉 But don’t forget – the more players, the more fun!

Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 9
Rules:
6
Playability:
8
Replay Value:
7.5

Overall Rating: 8

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