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Posted on Jan 27, 2008 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Empires in Arms – Game Review

By Larry Levandowski

Passed Inspection: Faithful recreation of Australian Design Group’s classic boardgame. Innovative PBEM features for multi-player games.

Failed Basic: Steep learning curve and no tutorial. Interface is not intuitive. Only one scenario.

In the mid-1980s, the Australian Design Group published Empires in Arms, a game of diplomacy and warfare in the Age of Napoleon. The board game is complex and a full game can take months for a well matched group of players to complete. EIA’s mix of diplomatic back-stabbing and military grand strategy made the game an instant classic. Despite the fact that EIA has long been out of print, the game continues to be popular with dedicated groups who meet regularly. Now, Matrix Games has published the PC version of this classic. The computer Empires in Arms is a faithful port, and except for some minor areas, fans of the original game will be delighted to see that the boardgame spirit is intact. Matrix has also given players innovative PBEM play, and this is great news for those who can only find a group over the internet. Players new to EIA will find a great strategy game, but the steep learning curve and quirky interface means that the game will take some time to master.

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Similar to the boardgame, EIA plays with any combination of seven human or AI gamers on a large region based map of early 1800′s Europe. Each player controls one of the major powers; Spain, France, England, Prussia, Austria, Russia or Turkey. Solitaire gamers can choose one or more of these major powers to play against the AI. If a willing group can be organized, the game also supports PBEM and hotseat play. Each turn is a month, with winter having supply and forage penalties. The basic units of the game are corps and fleets. These are loaded with strength points that can be managed and transferred between garrisons, and other corps. Some unique units like Cossacks, artillery corps, and guard units have special capabilities. Like many boardgames, there is no fog of war, so reviewing your opponent’s positions is a good idea before you hit the button to advance the turn.

There is only one scenario that comes out of the box, the January 1805 to 1815 scenario; that’s 130+ turns for those of you without a calculator. There is no editor, so this is it. Lack of different and shorter scenarios is a bit of a let down in an age when we wargamers normally have so many choices. But if you were going to pick a year for starting a Napoleonic campaign, 1805 is a pretty good one. The game starts with France and Britain at war, but otherwise is an open book. In PBEM games, players have an option to start their major power at war with any of the other powers. But out of the gate, William Pitt’s Third Coalition against Napoleon, still has to be built from the ground up.

Despite the seeming calm of the start date, early 1805 Europe is a powder keg waiting to blow. Napoleon, now Emperor, has a massive army that just needs a target. Does France try to use their pre-Trafalgar navy to invade Britain? Or, does France march an army into Spain, or go east for Austria or Prussia? What does Russia do? Sit on the sidelines, go for Turkey, or ally with England against France? The options for Russia, and in fact all of the major powers, are many and diverse. Empire in Arms’ highly charged diplomatic and military mix makes for great gaming excitement. There is high-stakes horse-trading and occasional back-stabbing in every turn.

The Matrix Games version of EIA keeps the boardgame phases intact; diplomacy, reinforcement, naval, ground and once every three turns an economic phase. Each player completes each phase in turn. To keep the diplomatic phase moving along, each player sets up automated responses to key diplomatic events. For example, as France, the player can configure his diplomatic responses to automatically accept a request for alliance from Spain. If Spain then requests an alliance, the virtual diplomats make it happen instantly. There is no “do you accept this treaty?” button. This is a more scripted, “hands off” approach to diplomacy than many computer players will be used to. The screens to define these responses can be fairly complex, and understanding the nuances of the choices takes some time. But once the response screens are mastered, the player quickly sees that they still have full control, and this functionality is really necessary to keep the game moving.

Unlike some grand strategy games where military units and combat are abstracted, EIA does a great job in giving the player enough detail so that the strategic situation of the period can be appreciated. A logistical tether is prominent, and the care and feeding of the troops is critical to success. While armies can subsist through forage, attrition, particularly in winter, is the bane of all ambition. Successful players quickly learn to build and maintain a working supply chain with guarded depots.

Combat occurs during either the ground or naval phase. Resolution is fairly complex for a grand strategy game, and the player has quite a bit of input. Combat can take several rounds with players selecting tactics along the way. Options like outflanking, withdraw, artillery bombardment and commitment of guard are all taken into play. For those who want even more depth, a configuration option is to allow combat to be resolved outside of the game engine. So real grognards can break out their miniatures and take the field on the table top.

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4 Comments

  1. Being a veteran of several EIA campaigns I think this review is fairly accurate.

    I’ve completed the grand campaign in the board game version many times and I was one of the first to buy the pc adaptation once it was published, -
    right now I’m on my third solitaire campaign. So I feel qualified for confirming the conclusions in the review.

    It’s true that the game has a steep learning curve. Heck, it takes a long time to learn playing the board game – even when there are veteran players
    around to answer the avalanche of questions that are sure to come.

    What struck me most about the pc adaptation is the enormous amount of errors. I haven’t encountered a piece of software needing updating more than
    when I first installed windows 98. That’s right. It’s that serious! Don’t even think of playing it without all the updates, or you will sorely regret it.

    Finally a positive note. I loved the original board game. I loved its complexity and its long perspective. I also loved the flexibility in the idea
    that players are not bound by fixed alliances like in WIF. I think that Matrix Games have succeeded in bringing one of the finest Grand Strategy games
    ever made to the pc. Kudos to them for taking on such an arduous task and then completing it.

    All said and done I’m glad that I bought the pc version of EIA, and I recommend it to all fans of the original board game and fans of Grand Strategy
    games anywhere – but PLEASE remember to download the updates.

  2. Well, even with the latest (and last – it is it) update, the software doesn’t work properly. There are bugs which are simply annoying (Britain and France are at peace in turn 2 while they didn’t make peace, moves you have to repeat until the damn thing works) and other which stop and crash the game (try to attack unescorted transport fleets in a port, for instance).

    It’s a bad port from a good boardgame. It’s not a saleable product, it’s badly done, obviously not sufficiently playtested. It’s a shame they did put it on the market, and the factg that they are keeping it on sale gives me a very serious trust question about the editor. My advice : play this excellent boardgame by email with a referee! Don’t buy the pc adaptation, it’s a waste of time and money.

    • So I found out before reading the reviews . Waste of money . The game is for overly patient people with money to waste .

  3. I loved the boardgame so I spent the 75 dollars (yes 75!) for this buggy piece of software. When my PC was stolen (including my back up files) Matrix games refused to provide new installation files although they knew I had bought the game because of the online receipt and records. “Buy a new copy” was their response.

    I would recommend people to stay clear of this product and the companys involved with it. But I heartily recommend the board game from Avalon Hill!

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