Gaming: One of the benefits of working at a game company for a significant number of years was the pretty much ever-present availability of a lunchtime game. At TSR or WotC I could almost always count on being able to set up a game on a “safe” table somewhere in a little-used conference room or an out-of-the-way corner, and rounding up half a dozen of my coworkers to knock down big games that might require 10 or 20 hours of playtime one lunch-hour at a time. It’s a highly civilized habit that would improve many workplaces, I suspect. Anyway, one of our perennial favorites, a game we dusted off and played at least once a year or so, was the old SPI “Empires of the Middle Ages.”
“Empires” is interesting for a number of reasons. First, the mapboard was cleverly designed for its day and age (hexes were pretty much the standard in the mid-80s). Second, it’s a game that’s about managing decline and catastrophe. It’s very common for all the players to wind up in worse positions at the end of the game than they held at the beginning, because they’re constantly savaged by negative events such as Leader Dies Heirless, Epidemic, Outbreak of Heresy, and obnoxious NPCs called magnates who appear at random and attack everything around them. Finally, the basic resolution system is tilted toward stagnation; the average ruler taking an average action has something close to a 50% failure rate, so you spend many turns not getting anything done at all. With that description, you might wonder why anybody plays “Empires of the Middle Ages” at all. Well, there are a couple of reasons: The game is enough of an opponent that you don’t feel compelled to constantly screw with the other players, so in a way it’s an early peek at a cooperative us-against-the-AI game. Secondly, there is a wonderful dose of schadenfreude to be savored in watching your neighbor’s kingdoms fall into pieces, and plenty of gallows humor when you learn, over and over again, that things can always get worse.
The resolution system of “Empires” is pretty interesting: Your base effectiveness for any action is your leader’s personal stature, which can be 1, 2, 3, 5, or 9. Your leader is rated for Combat, Administration, and Diplomacy. You can take one of five basic actions each turn: Conquest, Pillage, Rule, Fortify, or Diplomacy. Each of those different actions is based on one of your leader stats. So if you want to conquer or pillage something, you’ll use your leader’s Combat status, but if you want to try ruling or fortifying a territory, you use Administration. You modify your active stat based on various conditions like the overall social state rating of the province (is it a wealthy little center of civilization, or a miserable forgotten backwater?) and things like language, religion, and other situational modifiers. Then you flip a Year Card and compare the result to your modified effectiveness. A typical result on the card might read something like “C 3+, -1 SS 5-“ which would mean you achieve a Conquest result if your effectiveness was 3 or better, and the area you launched the attack from takes a -1 hit on its Social State if your effectiveness was 5 or less. The card-based resolution system encodes a ton of information in a pretty efficient little presentation.
Anyway, the big lesson I learned about playing “Empires of the Middle Ages” over the years was simply this: Play to your strengths. If you have a 5-1-2 in Combat, Administration, Diplomacy, you should NEVER bother with taking actions that don’t use your combat stature, no matter how much you think the game situation calls for administering or diplomacy. The success chances are just miserable if you’re trying to do things with a value of 1 or 2 instead of 5, so you ride your best score as long as you can. I think that lesson might apply to a number of other board games—if you’re good at some particular type of action, you should do that over and over again and take what the game gives you.
One more note… the Decision Games version of “Empires” that appeared in 2004 isn’t quite the same game. The mapboard is more appealing, but it turns out that it’s easier to record province social state on a sliding track (as in the original game) than to keep hunting for the right social state chit over and over again. The new buildings introduced in their advanced rules are generally not balanced well, and the scenarios award them to some positions but not others with no VP handicap adjustment. Finally, the event deck is filled with minor leaders that almost never match up with the player who draws one. Pick up this version if you can’t find the original SPI game or if your SPI copy wears out, and be prepared to do some significant marking up to improve the play.
Politics/Current Events: I like Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan for vice president. Ryan is one of the most interesting politicians in the country for one simple reason: The man had the guts to say what he thinks needs to be done, and put it in writing. *Nobody* else has dared to provide a detailed plan of what they would do with tax rates and entitlements to improve the fiscal footing of the country—everyone else sticks to empty platitudes. You might think that Ryan is gravely mistaken about which steps are necessary, but at least you know what specific steps he’s proposing. Maybe, just maybe, we can actually have a serious conversation about the “third rail” issues like Medicare and Social Security in this election. Whether you think the Republicans are right or wrong, it’s clear to me that NOTHING can happen, one way or the other, until the conversation at least begins. Ryan’s budget is a place to start. Now I’d like to see what the Democrats’ counter-plan looks like, so we can compare and contrast. As voters, we should *insist* that the Democrats tell us what they would do differently from Ryan instead of simply telling us that his plan is wrong.