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Empires of the Void II: First Take Game Review

Fly the sloop, frogman

Justin continues his journey through the family of 4X games with this review of the 2018 entry Empires of the Void II, published by Red Raven Games!

Disclosure: Meeple Mountain received a free copy of this product in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. This review is not intended to be an endorsement.

I’ve been on a hunt to play as many games from the purported “4X Family” on BoardGameGeek as possible. Over the last three years, I’ve added quite a few 4X plays to my arsenal, and when an opportunity arose to grab a review copy of Empires of the Void II (2018, Red Raven Games), I scooped one up.

First, let’s talk 4X. This family was created on BGG based on the idea that many large-scale adventure/exploration games feature a bunch of the same elements. First, you’ll eXplore a mostly undiscovered map, featuring a “fog of war” or maybe face-down tiles that need to be touched by a player’s civilization members, a spaceship, etc. to be discovered. Area control elements enter play as players eXpand their presence on the map as it is revealed.

eXploitation takes place as player factions do their best to make use of the map’s natural resources…and in some of the 4X games I’ve tried recently, this is where engine building really shines. Finally, conflict leads to players attempting to eXterminate each other and possibly the locals who currently possess a given territory, as everyone tries to make a land grab for the map’s best spaces. Extermination usually leads to major consequences for the loser of these combat scenarios.

The 4X family of games has struggled with one X in particular with recent designs: the X representing extermination. Generally speaking, modern gamers don’t like to lose their stuff. That means that combat—no matter how it is administered, be it secret cardplay, completely deterministic public information, or straight up dice chucking—used to lead to one player losing units in battle. Nowadays, it feels like the games in this category give players an opportunity to cut their losses by retreating, or the design is based around a total absence of unit losses, with defeated units teleporting out of a danger zone to neighboring strongholds.

Empires of the Void II was published six years ago, but it feels like a game that was released earlier this year. That’s because the dice-driven combat mechanics lead to pain points in a variety of areas, ultimately driving combat to something resembling a slap fight instead of anything truly devastating.

While this is a typically solid production from Red Raven and its all-everything designer, developer, artist and storyteller Ryan Laukat (Sleeping Gods, Above and Below, Eight-Minute Empire: Legends), Empires of the Void II struggles to stand out in a somewhat crowded field. This review highlights my single play; read on for my “hot take” of that experience.

There’s That Frog Guy Again

Empires of the Void II supports 2-5 players as they romp across a galaxy of roughly a dozen small (uninhabited) and large (inhabited) planets on a massive map.

This is one of those active player / follow games, like Race for the Galaxy and Puerto Rico. Managing a pool of assets including soldier units (Starfarers), ships (including cool minis representing “Worldships”, and cardboard tokens representing small vessels known as Star Sloops), as well as standard items like resources, credits, bases and technologies, each player’s goal is to score the most points over a series of turns. Some of the images here were familiar faces from other Laukat designs; I swear that the man must love frogs, because the same frog guy that was in Mega Land, Above and Below, and Near and Far makes an appearance as the Eehg civilization here in Empires of the Void II.

Scoring takes place twice during the game—once when a score card is revealed about halfway through a draw deck of action cards, and once again at the end of play. (In a much-appreciated nod to the chaotic back-and-forth nature of how area control and private milestone scoring works, players can choose to score themselves at any time up to and including the round when the score card is revealed.)

On a turn, the active player chooses an action—Move & Attack, Card Action/Diplomacy, Recruit, Research & Build, or a refresh action called Scavenge. I love how easy the actions are to teach; there aren’t too many edge-case rules here. Other players then have a choice: follow the main action, or pay a resource (“command”, typically used to move units around the map) to take a different action. Players can also choose to refresh during another player’s turn for free, which provides valuable income and a refresh of command plus cards in hand up to the hand limit.

Empires of the Void II, like all other Laukat games I have tried, is very straightforward in terms of taking actions and understanding the win conditions. Much appreciated. This left Empires of the Void II in a place that all five players agreed with by the end of the game—if you had to pick a “Baby’s First 4X” title, Empires of the Void II would be it in a landslide.

There’s a big map, but in the base game variant, all planets are face-up, so there’s not much in the way of discovery here (for better and for worse, since this is certainly valuable information). Getting money early on isn’t too hard—while there is no market to sell resources for cash, the income mechanic mixed with card actions and an initial seed of cash on each action space provided a nice boost to the first few rounds. Recruiting a couple extra Starfarers and placing the first building or two is easy to do, helping the game avoid a slow start.

And combat is even friendlier than that. Over the course of our three-hour, five-player game, no player ever lost a single unit. That’s because whether you are fighting other players for a territory grab or simply to gain a victory point for each combat victory, the consequences are anything but dire.

During combat, each player rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to the dice showing on as many as three of their units in a combat location (usually 4-6 dice). No matter how many dice a player rolls, they only get to keep their highest single-die result. That means that no matter how overwhelming a force you bring into a combat, if you roll a series of ones and twos and your opponent rolls a single six, they are going to have a major advantage when computing total combat strength.

Added to the die roll are the power ratings of each unit, as well as the value of one power card from each player’s hand. So, you can control combat a little, but for most of our game, the die roll usually determined the victor. Like it or not, the system plays fast, even if our players thought it was strange to lose combat so often when having the tactical advantage prior to the die roll step.

For casual players looking to go as far from deterministic, Voidfall-style combat as possible, Empires of the Void II is a fit. You could run around for most of the game and not fight anyone if you want. The game’s influence mechanic allows players to use political influence to score points and gain allies with inhabited planets. The Euro-style efficiency player could run around the galaxy trading with a merchant ship and orbiting small planets to gather resources, to help build technologies while getting buildings off their player mat.

Empires of the Void II definitely has the sandbox feel, and one player was adamant that he was going to buy a copy of this game to play with his adult siblings, both of whom love sci-fi movies and TV shows but don’t play a lot of games. That felt on point.

For other 4X players, Empires of the Void II is a harder recommendation, particularly those seeking a deeper and more strategic experience.

Random is Right

I haven’t talked much yet about the Power Deck, the series of multi-use cards that each player uses almost every turn to do something—take card actions, trigger planetary events, add to combat strength, or even trigger rewards based on the active player’s actions.

This deck is the game clock. I’ve mentioned how the game scores: when the Power Deck runs out, players finish the current round (not turn, but round, where everyone gets one chance to be the active player and choose that turn’s actions), then play one more complete round where everyone gets to select an action during their turn.

This deck is tricky. The power cards have a value between one and four. So, right off the bat, we have an issue when it comes to combat—what if a player is regularly able to draw value-3 and value-4 power cards? Big advantage when both rolling well and playing a powerful card.

But that advantage extends to how technologies are added to the player board. Technologies each cost one of the game’s three resources (artifacts, metal, lifeforms) but also cost a certain amount of power, and you have to spend a card to pay for techs.

It’s just categorically better to have high-value power cards in hand to pay for these. This is random. The hand limit is three cards. What if—such as during my play—I am regularly dealt cards with a value of one or two? Paying for a four-power tech on one of my turns cost me all three of my hand cards (a one, a one, and a two). But now I don’t have any cards for a combat action. And the player right next to me is licking their chops.

More issues with the cards: Some of the cards are pick-up-and-deliver mission cards. Go to planet X, then drop off the cargo at planet Y, to get some credits and a couple points. Great idea, and I love pick-up-and-deliver mechanics in sci-fi and combat games like Wasteland Express Delivery Service.

But during setup, the planets of Empires of the Void II are placed randomly, with mission cards that name specific planets. That meant that for one of the guys at my table, he had the chance to score two different delivery cards by traveling to an adjacent planet. Had the map been seeded with a system that puts pick up and delivery locations as far as possible away from each other, I’d be OK with this. For example, if the board had recessed locations such as P1, P2, etc., then planets were placed on top of these location names, the cards could ask a player to travel from coordinates P1 to P8 to drop off said cargo.

As it is, deliveries might come off as completely unfair to others who drew delivery cards that ask a player to travel across the entire map. Yes, the card will always have value even if the delivery requirement is ridiculous; in the case of one delivery card I had, I knew I would never travel that far during the game so I just decided to burn it as a combat card in a fight I was going to win anyway. Fine. But I would prefer the increased points and resources from a delivery bounty in a game where scoring can be pretty tight.

One last bit around the cards: the cards don’t really force juicy decisions in the way my favorite multi-use card games do. For example, the value-one power cards—most of them have a really crappy reward if played for its main card action, and they are essentially worthless in combat. I haven’t studied all the one-power cards to be sure of these, but the ones I handled were garbage.

But some of the three- and four-value cards are really something, and even if they are harder to achieve, they almost always felt like they would be worthwhile.

Plus, high-value power cards provide a significant boost to dice mitigation when combat rolls don’t work out, or when you want to pay for two or three technologies with the same power card. Empires of the Void II would be really juicy if the card balance was inverted—you could burn this card for one power, but the card action is incredible. I’m not sure if I should dump this thing or keep it around!!

For the Highly Strategic 4X Gamer, Look Elsewhere

When Empires of the Void II was released, the 4X category was a little lighter than it is today. Heck, I would argue that Empires of the Void II isn’t even going for 4X with its rule set. At a maximum, it’s a 3X because there is literally no extermination possible during the game.

Now that I’m a few products into my 4X journey, I think I land more in the space of a mix between the combat in Scythe and Voidfall. Even 4X-adjacent games like La Famiglia: The Great Mafia War work well for me, because like those other two games, combat is mostly deterministic, with a hint of surprise that can tilt a battle in one direction or the other. (That’s not the case in Voidfall, where combat is completely deterministic, but as I noted in my Into the Voidfall series, I wish combat had the occasional surprise.)

As it is, the combat in Empires of the Void II is somewhat chaotic. I lost a number of fights in my first play with a solid unit advantage, because I rolled poorly and/or didn’t have the right mix of Power Cards in hand. That didn’t feel good.

Eclipse: Second Dawn for the Galaxy (and to a certain extent, Scythe, thanks to the objective cards) is more interesting to me from an exploration perspective, although some of that might change when using the Explore Mode in Empires of the Void II. In this variant, inhabited planet tiles are flipped face-down during setup and only flip when someone lands on a new planet. Strategy gamers should use this variant from the jump. I love the discovery moments that come from moving ships into new hexes in Eclipse, but those moments are absent in the Empires of the Void II design without the use of Explore Mode.

I think some of my issues with Empires of the Void II go away with a shorter playtime. The game’s rules are light fare, but the playtime suggests a nearly Voidfall-adjacent experience. Our five-player game took just over three hours (with all players joining after watching a teach video to prepare). For what’s going on in Empires of the Void II, that’s too long, particularly when considering that so many of the actions here are straightforward, particularly the refresh, recruit, and build/research actions.

I was also surprised to see the table’s emotional reaction to the end-game trigger. There was some initial excitement—”sweet, this is the last round!”—before everyone realized the truth. As the second player in turn order, I took the last card from the draw deck, so that meant I finished my turn, then three more players became the active player (with everyone getting a chance to follow), then we played another full round with five players taking five main actions with everyone else getting to follow.

In other words, after the game was “over”, each player took eight more actions over a 45-minute “ending.”

I’m guessing that three, maybe four players, is the optimal player count for Empires of the Void II, but I really liked the crowds created by having five human players navigating the galaxy. I really loved the flavor text on the cards. Like other Laukat games, one can tell that there’s a real world and a backstory guiding the action here. One highlight came when a player had to smuggle cargo to another planet…and that cargo was an alien being. It was fun to fight in some areas to create influence opportunities in other areas. And love it or hate it, dice chucking combat means there will be some funny moments when a player’s overwhelming force still loses to a tiny, one-die, minimal power opponent.

Empires of the Void II is interesting, but ultimately not my preferred cup of 4X tea. I’ll continue to explore the galaxy of 4X games hoping to find my perfect fit!

  • Fair - Will play if suggested.

Empires of the Void II details

About the author

Justin Bell

Love my family, love games, love food, love naps. If you're in Chicago, let's meet up and roll some dice!

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