Dale Yu: Review of Empyreal – Spells and Steam

Empyreal – Spells and Steam

  • Designer: Trey Chambers
  • Publisher: Level 99 Games
  • Players: 2-6
  • Age: 10+
  • Time: 60-75 min 
  • Times played: 4, with review copy from Level99 Games

So… I’m not normally one for super thematic games.  From the rules – “The first thing that sets Empyreal apart is the setting. Level 99 has set the game in the rich Indines world of BattleCON and Argent fame. This has allowed us to build a deep lore for the various companies and characters in the game. The second strength of Empyreal is the unique mechanics. By customizing and building your engine (pun intended) in a myriad of different ways, Empyreal allows you to try many different combos and execute a unique strategy in each play, and this really sets itself apart from most other train games which mostly focus on only route building and/or pick-up and deliver. This builds into the third strength, replayability. In true Level 99 fashion, there are many ways to play and many different parts of the game to explore so that each play will be very different from the last.”

 

I have been enthralled by an earlier Level 99 Release, Millennium Blades, and the success of that game with my local group really had me interested in giving this one a try.  Also, my love of most rail games made me look at this one with interest.

 

In this game, each player takes control of a company and ranges across the continent of Indines while connecting towns and building a vibrant trade network. You use your company’s unique advantages to outbuild the competition and secure supply lines for rare resources. You will also research new spells as you go to enhance your abilities and powers.

Each player gets a player board for their company, and a captain from that Company.  The very top of the board has a succinct player aid as well as a track to keep your mana supply.  Below this are spaces for your specialists – (Left to Right: Captain, Engineer, Surveyor, Station Master). The bulk of the board is saved for your Railyard – three rows of five spaces where you can put train cars, and it is these train cards where you get your special abilities.  Above this area is your Conductor path, a single file line with one space per column of your railyard and an “end of the line” space to the right.  A pawn is placed on this track to show the position of your Conductor.  There is custom vac tray for each player that holds all the bits in their color that they will need. 

 

The continent itself is made up of modular terrain boards, so it should be different each time you play – you will use a different number of boards based on player count.  The boards have a mishmash of the six different terrain types as well as a city on each board.  A goods marker of matching color is placed on each non-city, non-wasteland terrain hex.  A demand marker is placed on each city, which could have 2, 3 or 4 demands on it.   The rest of the setup involves making a market of six spellcar tiles and a market of specialist tiles.  These are each stored on a custom plastic tray.  If you are playing an advanced game, you can also put out Award tiles which give end game bonuses based on endgame state.  Each player then places one of their trains on an unoccupied hex of their starting color and a second train on an unoccupied hex adjacent to the first.  

Turns are taken clockwise from the Start Player. The order of each turn is summarized at the top of your player board – First, you may Activate Specialists. Then, you must choose a main action: Administrate or Move+Activate. When your Conductor reaches the End of the Line you may Deliver, then you must move your Conductor back to Start. Continue until a player collects the required number of Demand Tiles: 6 for 2-3 players, 5 for 4 players, and 4 for 5 or more players. Once that happens, start the Game End and determine the winner!

 

SPECIALISTS

 

At the start of the game, you only have one specialist, your Captain.  Each captain has their own unique special ability, and you can choose to use it – and then you flip the Captain tile over. You cannot use this ability again until you refresh your board.

The other three specialists can be gained in the run of play, and each works a little differently. The Engineer is like the Captain, its power can be used and it is flipped over; only to become available again when your board refreshes.  Surveyors have much more powerful actions, but they can only be used once per game – they are permanently flipped over when their action is used. Finally, Station Masters have ongoing effects that never expire.   In general, you can only have one of each type on your board.   You are not obligated to use the actions each turn.

MAIN ACTION – ADMINISTRATE

 

The Administrate action allows you to take three actions: Reclaim Mana, Refresh your Captain and Engineer, and Gain Spellcar. They can be done in any order.   When you reclaim Mana, you take all of your used Mana and place it back on your board.  You start the game with a pool of 5 Mana, but you can earn more in the course of the game.  When you refresh, you flip over your Captain and Engineer tiles to the active side.  When you gain a Spellcar, you take any unchosen car from the market.   If there are ever only two cars in the market, those two are discarded and a new market of six tiles is made from the supply.

MAIN ACTION – MOVE and ACTIVATE

The Move+Activate action allows you to move your Conductor between one to four spaces on the track and then you Activate Spellcars in the column where your Conductor stops.  It costs 0/1/3/6 Mana to move 1/2/3/4 spaces.  When you spend Mana, you push the required amount off your player board onto the table.  Keep the Mana stones close by though, as you will put them back on your board when you Administrate.  When you stop movement, you can activate any or all cars in that column.  It will cost you 0/1/3 Mana to activate 1/2/3 spellcars.  You can choose which cars to activate and you can choose the order in which you activate them.  Note that some cars also have a specific activation cost which must be paid in addition.  The powers of the spellcars varies – many allow you to Build Track while others have unique effects, like letting you swap positions of Spellcars, or move a Good on the map.   Careful planning of the placement of your cars can lead to synergistic combos or efficient work given beneficial sequential timing of actions.

 

While I won’t talk about all the actions, let me explain the Build Track action in a little more detail.  Though it’s called “Build Track”, you don’t actually place track on the board, but instead you add trains to the map.  Normally, these trains are placed in an adjacent hex of a color specified by the action.  Adjacent here means directly next to any other train of yours.  However, if you have enough Mana, you can skip over Wastelands, cities or hexes with an Opponent’s train in them.  Thus, as the game progresses, your cars will likely be disconnected on the board – but you need to remember than any adjacent actions refer to any hexes which are adjacent to any of your trains.

 

If your conductor is at the End of the Line, you cannot activate any spellcars. Instead, you have the chance to make a delivery and then you upgrade your company.  Delivery sounds complex at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s simple.  First, you must have a train on the board adjacent to a city.  Then you pick up goods tiles from any matching color hex on the board where you have a train, and then deliver those goods to the city (i.e. put off to the side of your board).  Each city has demand markers for 2, 3 or 4 goods; take a demand marker that you qualify for based on the number of goods you were able to deliver.  (You are allowed to take a lower value demand tile; i.e. take a 2-demand tile even if you delivered 4 goods).  Keep the delivered goods near your board, you will need them for scoring. The thing that you have to remember is that in Empyreal, your network doesn’t have to be physically adjacent on the board – you can take goods from anywhere your trains happen to be!

You have three options to upgrade your company.  First, you can take any two spellcars from the market and add them to your railyard.  You can also take a specialist and refresh your captain/Engineer.  Finally, you can choose to add a Mana gem to your pool and then reclaim all your Mana.  You only get one of these three choices.  They are graphically represented in the box found at the End of the Line.

 

END OF GAME

The game continues until one player has picked up the requisite number of demand markers.  At that point, the current round is finished so that all players have had an equal number of turns.  Then, there is one more special round, played in reverse turn order, where players can make one final delivery, if able.

 

The game then moves into scoring – and scoring is surprisingly simple.

1 VP per good delivered

VP on the demand tiles collected

If playing the advanced games, VPs based on your position on the objective tiles

 

The player with the most points wins!

 

My thoughts on the game

 

Well, after a few plays, I’ll say that the game grew on me with each successive play.  At first, my feelings were lukewarm at best – some of that was due to a very slow learning game; we played in a noisy convention room, none of us had played the game before, and frankly, the ruleset as laid out isn’t great.  The game really needs a player reference, and while a user-generated one is now available on BGG, this was not something that we had access to in our first few plays.  

 

The amount of iconography in the game is fairly substantial – on the back cover of the rulebook, there is a quick reference showing 42 separate icons and their titles.  If you can’t remember what an icon stands for, you can grab the back cover of the rules and figure it out.  However, if you can’t figure out what the icon actually does, then you have to dive into the rulebook to find it.  Beware, a few of the actual rules are hidden – and while I do believe everything is in the rulebook – you might have to look around to find stuff.  Once you play a few games, it all makes sense, and you won’t need the rules much; but for those first few plays, we were spending a few minutes here and there trying to figure out what exactly we were allowed/supposed to do.  For me, that’s a frustrating first experience, and one that nearly prevented me from playing the game again.  I am glad that I continued to give the game a chance, and I think that now that I am familiar with how everything works, it’s a solid game.  Sadly, now it is the Coronavirus that prevents me from playing it – because I can’t get a group together in one place to play it.

 

The game itself is surprisingly simple once you get the hang of it.  While the rulebook is thick – the actual “rules” only take up 6 pages of the rules!   Either work on your engine (spellcars, etc) or move your Conductor around to use some wicked abilities and improve your position on the map.  With each turn, there is definitely important decisions to be made.  On the map, you are in a constant battle with your opponents over unclaimed resources.  You should always keep an eye on what the opponents are doing and when they might be able to steal resources from you.  As you are building your own “network”, trying to figure out when it is safe to wait on a particular resource in order to get a higher valued demand token is super important.  To complicate things, you’ll likely be working on more than one type of resource at a time, so you’ll constant be juggling your attention between those things.  And, of course, at the start of each turn, you’ll have to figure out whether you’re going to be working on the board or be adding nice spellcars to your player board.  

 

There is a neat puzzle in figuring out how to configure your engine.  The conductor always moves left to right, and you have to spend a turn at the End of the Line to get your conductor back to the start – so you would ideally like to have your action combos set up in left to right order.  It costs a fair amount of mana to power multiple cars in a column, so I have sometimes found that it is useful to set up two or three different combos, and depending on what I need, I can freely power one of the combos on a conductor pass.  Trying to maximize what you can do (which will take some mana), is a fun and challenging puzzle – this is maybe the part of the game I like the most.  And, of course, depending on the cars available and the order in which they come up, each game will present you with a different puzzle to solve. 

 

Turns move quickly once you decide what to do, and I think that the game feels a bit short for what you are trying to accomplish.  What I mean by that is that there never feel like there are enough turns in the game to do everything, so you really have to figure out what you want to do and get that done before the game end is triggered.  I’ll admit that I haven’t ever counted the number of turns in one of my games, but I definitely felt like I tried to do too much in my first two games, and I had a much better plan in place for the next two – where I specifically limited myself in terms of what I was trying to do.   I think the game is well designed though to end when it does because we’ve never had a runaway engine.  Just as you are maximizing what your engine can do, the game seems to end.  It’s a well balanced thing, and that feeling of never having enough turns only adds to the tension and the importance of not wasting a turn in the course of the game.

 

I have a copy of the deluxe version, and it is a sight to see.  It comes in a gigantic cube – the same size that my beloved Suburbia Collectors Edition comes in.  The cube is filled to the top with custom vac trays which are used to store everything (as well as display some of the bits during play).  The deluxe goods are a pleasure to hold/manipulate, and once you figure out that the pink bits are white on the board, everything is beautiful to look at.  I personally am not much of a parakeet, so the rest of the molded bits didn’t sway me to love the game any more, but man, some of my fellow gamers just fell all over themselves due to the production quality.  The unique city markers and the way they hold up the demand markers smme to be universally loved by everyone but me – so while I don’t necessarily appreciate it myself, I think the high quality of the components should be mentioned.  Also, I don’t really give a whit about the backstory and the theming that runs through this series of games, but again, for the people that care about that kind of thing – it was appreciated.

I mentioned earlier that the rules are a bit of a mishmash, but if you can get through them (and maybe print up the player reference), you’ll get through it.  I do wish that the reference had been done by the publisher because that’s something that should be in the box.  We didn’t know about it (nor have any way to print one out in our first game), and that would have really helped out in our first game.  I also wish that the captains had their special abilities spelled out better.  The cards for them are pretty big, and I think there is room for more text on them – but the decision appears to be made to have streamlined cards with more room for art over playability.  It’s fine, and I can see merit in that decision, I would have preferred the other way though.

 

Also, be sure to know that this game is a serious table hog.  Our first four player game at the convention barely fit on what I think was a standard 8ft table.  We had the board in the center and each of our player boards had to go on the outer corners.   Be sure to lay everything out as a test run at home to make sure you have enough room!

 

The game has the seemingly endless variation that Level 99 Games seem to always offer.  With the different captains, random map, random specialists, oodles of different spellcars, etc – it is likely impossible to ever play the same game that anyone else has played.  Though, in the end, some of that variation is just an illusion – as many of the variations are small – the overall game will be the same, you will just have to adapt to the different abilities available to you each game.   

 

While this will never supplant Millenium Blades as my favorite L99 game, it is a surprisingly accessible mid-range game once you figure out how to play it.  Because of that, I wonder if I’ll end up playing this one more often – because while I love MB, it’s hard sometimes to get a group of my gamers to agree to play a 2-4 hour game.  And… the learning curve for MB can definitely be daunting whereas just about anyone get the basics of Empyreal in a few minutes.  For those looking for a simpler game with a huge box and blinged out bits, this one could be a find for you.

 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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