Shadow Empire is part Civilization, Part-Crusader Kings 2 wrapped in a post-apocalyptic war game25 May 2020 2
Everything’s hanging by a thread. The Second Strathiclaw Guard’s division has just been ambushed in the jungles north of the heavily fortified Great Road. The road itself, one of the few radiation free zones in the western hemisphere, has become a twisted mire of artillery, fortifications, and hungry men for 6 months.
Even the Animus priests, recently elevated to an accepted position within the state, can do little to lift the flagging spirits of the militia. Back home in Strathiclaw the governor’s idiotic attempt to silence discontented workers by ‘removing’ some of their leaders has backfired. There is nothing to do now but send in the Security Forces. The factories must run.
It will upset the people, and the corporation, but my hands are tied. At least our research division has managed to figure out padding for our soldiers’ enviro-suits. Anything to slow the flow of casualties from the frontline and the irradiated jungles that border it.
At least I have my secretary, she’s been an invaluable asset in trying to wrangle the two factions that are vying for control over my government. If the trade unionists get their way, we might have to end this war. Oh… never mind. She just raised a rebellion in the lake district. It’s hard being supreme overlord of Strathiclaw.
Shadow Empire, the new 4x game coming out on June 4th from Matrix Games/Slitherine, is turning out to be a wonderful, unique beast. It smashes together some of the more traditional 4x gameplay staples: exploration, technological research, interstate diplomacy and all the other things you would expect from Civilization or Alpha Centauri. Then add a hardcore helping of wargaming, with Crusader Kings II’s interpersonal relations and it becomes somehow greater than the sum of all of those parts.
One of the things I really appreciate about strategy gaming, and in particular wargaming, is the possibility of creating emergent narratives. The ebb and flow of battlefields and the lot of the soldiers under my command are front and center. I’ll never forget the dashing action of an armoured cruiser that took on a raider squadron in Rule the Waves 2, for example. Shadow Empire goes out of its way to help build interesting narratives into the gameplay, including the above, which happened to be my second game during my time with the preview.
If this were just another 4x, it would already be notable for its world generation. You go through several steps adding more detail to your plant’s shape, atmosphere, flora and fauna, and all the rest, before a cataclysm occurs, reducing the world to an apocalypse state that begins the game. It makes for incredibly different battlegrounds. The jungles and radiation of one world are replaced by lava flows in another, and zero water, oxygen, or natural plants, on another. There seems to be a lot of potential, though I wish you could opt into fine tweaking things. I wanted Dune-like Sandworms on a desert planet, and got close, but just not epic enough.
The gameplay itself, mixing a traditional hexagon map with Crusader Kings II-like decision trees and conversations is compelling enough. You move units, colonize cities, uncover special hexes, build on resources, all the usual stuff. The underlying mechanics take a second to sort out, but there are dozens of info screens with literally every bit of info you could ever want. It takes some learning, but by your second game things will be flowing a lot smoother. It won’t be easy, that’s for sure, but you’ll understand more. There could be a few more pop ups, and I think there needs to be a refinement of what information is ready at a glance.
The wargaming aspect is tried and true, lifting a lot from Advanced Tactics: Gold, but with a lot of quality of life improvements that I felt the previous game needed. Resupply through regional commands is much better, and the development of new unit templates is more automated, again an improvement. This is a real wargame though, and supply, command and control, and morale are king over technology and numbers, though those are important too. You’ll be making a lot of interesting decisions about resource management, building logistics networks, and the positioning of units.
Overall I love the sound design. The music is appropriately Blade Runner/classic Sci-fi fare. I could do without the voice acknowledgement of your underlings. Seeing a young woman answer with the voice of The Dark Knight’s Batman was a little jarring, but it's all randomly assigned voices. The visuals I’m a bit on the fence about. The map is easy to read, but the graphical representation of individuals, cards, and special events are seemingly made in the style of a mid-90’s adventure game. I’m ok with it, because it feels appropriate for a game setting like this, but I’m sure some will be turned off.
The final aspect that I want to touch on are the stratagem cards. Your different government agencies generate points for you that can generate stratagem cards. These cards allow you to do some basic diplomatic things, but also include some interesting and unique decisions that can alter the state of your empire. Powerful strategy cards require fate points. These can be really powerful, like giving a rousing speech that improves flagging morale, acquiring new resources, or other beneficial developments. Fate points generate incredibly slowly though, and the only real way to get more is to play negative stratagems.
These can dramatically destabilize things, but the benefit of fate points can sometimes be worth it. In dark moments, I’ve thought about playing the card that grants 4 fate points but at the cost of a catastrophic collapse in the dome that covers a random city in your empire.
I’ve really been enjoying my time with the game, and I’m sure anyone who wants to experience a 4x game with detailed wargaming systems, engaging world generation, and deep interpersonal RPG-like interactions, should keep an eye out for Shadow Empire when it releases in a couple of weeks.