It’s time to fess up: until recently, I had never played a Ryan Laukat release. I know, I can feel your gasp reverberating through my keyboard. I’ve rectified that with both the largely hyped Near and Far and the lesser aggrandized Empires of the Void II. The former is for another day, but let’s take more than a moment to discover the latter together.
There’s a strong sense of story in Laukat’s work as the mechanisms are tightly interwoven with world-building – I know this because I’ve now played two of his games. Empires of the Void II is no stranger to a compelling premise as it has players fleeing an overwhelming invader and settling the far reaches of a war-torn galaxy. It offers a sandbox to adventure in, species to soothe or conquer, and planets to colonize or protect. In many ways it’s an intergalactic litmus test for the dark reaches of your brain matter.
The personality is buoyed by a system that is equal parts a 4x space civ-builder as well as a highly dramatic narrative adventure game. We’ve never seen this before and it’s pretty radical. It worms its way into the cracks between Twilight Imperium 4 and Merchants and Marauders, coming out the other side with its own genetic code.
Once upon a time you dressed so fine, like a crab flying through space and time, didn’t you?
Let’s talk about Laukat’s superb world building. This little slice of the void is known as ‘The Fringe’. Planets are randomly seeded on the board, each tied to a unique species full of flavor and mechanical weight. You can invade these civilizations with a traditional area control model as you fight off the natives and take their soil, or you can provide aid and support through engaging varied events that allow you to increase your political standing with the inhabitants.
The stark contrast between rolling over the occupants with a tank and winning their hearts and minds reverberates strongly. Both paths are legitimate foundations for strategic pursuit, but they afford different outcomes and alternate ways to score victory points. You can perhaps gain the locals as allies, recruiting their units to join your disparate forces and take advantage of their asymmetrical abilities. Or you can of course strip the planet of its resources as any good colonist would.
As the game evolves event cards fire off from a randomized pool. Each planet offers a narrative arc triggered by these cards. Color is injected as maybe your colony is hit with a vicious plague, one you can take and spread to others nearby. Other times pirates will show up and blockade the residents, affording you an opportunity to become their savior. All of these wonderful little bits of story create a sector full of life. As each tidbit pokes its head out of the ground and stares you in the eyes, it’s an opportunity beckoning involvement. The board soon fills with a criss-cross of such activity and the dynamic nature of populations and geo-political considerations arise.
It’s absolutely stellar.
You used to ride on a crystal shard with your diplomat, who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Like Near and Far, the best moments are when Grandpa Laukat is standing over the fire, his eyes wide and his voice thundering. As dice and card meet tongue and art, the magic happens and it’s enthralling.
But Empires of the Void II wants to be more than that. Evidenced by the Puerto Rico/Twilight Imperium-style action selection mechanism, this one’s reaching for grandeur. Unfortunately it occasionally stubs its toe and catches its hand in the drawer.
That main system of players choosing action and others following is the first moment of incongruence. It works to facilitate action and keep everyone involved, but it also lacks teeth. The player choosing the action typically receives no benefit besides dictating what everyone will currently do. Because everyone wants to perform a little bit of everything, those other actions will get chosen if you remain a little patient. The end result is a lack of oomph.
But it works well enough, even if I’d like the choice to be more significant. A larger egress is the movement system. This is the great lapse of this work and one which shifts the game in an awkward direction.
The problem is that movement grants a single atomized action. It’s direct and simple, but it provides a stunted incentive structure that restrains agency and fluidity of action. Instead of repositioning your smaller fleets and soldiers about the board, you go to your chunky worldship miniature and push it along a vector in space.
Your worldship is your mobile base, likely containing a stack of troops and possibly some infrastructure to boost your combat prowess. Since movement is limited to a single group, you’re not going to spend time transporting a troop or two with a smaller cruiser. No, you’re going to pick up that honkin’ behemoth and slam it into another planet with force.
This ingrained nature of players mobilizing single vessels feeds the adventure-focused aspects of the design. This worldship becomes your character and an extension of your personality. Those colonists and aliens you’ve scattered about are secondary, and the game shifts from a traditional area control prospect of holding ground to a race of sorts. Turns morph into this high velocity sprint of burning expensive fuel to break atmosphere and head down the well. Make friends or burn it all down, and then repeat the entire process again.
Despite this sort of straight-jacketing of strategic maneuvering, the game still manages to grip the heart. It overcomes that shortcoming by surrounding the adventure game with just enough interesting dials and nobs to fiddle with. This is seen in the civilization aspects such as upgrading your species tech system. The smattering of options and paths to explore on your asymmetrical player board are vital in grabbing attention as well as competing for victory.
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
This personalized miniature tech and upgrade system is captivating. You can build bases and academies that you plop down in the backyard of the incorrigible mantis-folk you befriended last turn, opening up additional actions or cards for your to draw. There’s a definite sense of momentum as you work to personalize your people’s developing history and make it your own.
When you break away from focusing on your personalized dashboard of an empire, you’ll hit and engage in those story elements to great satisfaction. Sometimes you’ll fight other players and get your ‘pew-pew’ on. You will see tactical gambits and events occur across multiple plays that provide shock and awe. In that gap between 4x and adventure, Empires of the Void II manages to make its home. It thrives just enough to bring you back to the table. Each play offers new options and vectors for exploration as the proceedings end just before your options begin to diminish or flare out.
Make your choice, commit to strategy, and kick up some dust.
How does it feel? To be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown