Space Empires

This article copyright 1997 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated March 24, 1997

Space Empires, 1981 from Mayfair Games, is one of those rare gems that is largely overlooked, both in its day and to this day.

The game came out in a mini-size format - not as small as the Metagaming microgames, but the next size larger. The components are therefore simple and cheap, but this doesn't mean it's a poor game. On the contrary, it's an excellent game, one of the few wargames that can be played by two, three, four, five, or six players, and works well at any level.

The game consists of a simple space map with twelve home star systems and maybe half that number minor systems. Each home system is labelled with a unique letter, from A through W, and all but two of them also have a number on the system. The lesser systems simply have the number "1" on each of them. The map also has the combat results table printed on it, and a concise listing of each race's special ability.

There is a slim rulebook, and a number of die-cut counters, and that's it. The counters are space ships, in twelve different colors. There are twelve different races in the game, each beginning with a different letter, corresponding to one of the home systems on the map. A race has a given number of counters, all of which are the same color, and have the race's letter and two numbers on them. The numbers are simply Combat Factor and Movement Factor. One of the races' counters are also uniquely numbered.

To start the game, take one ship of each color and mix them upside down. Each player chooses two ships to represent his home races. If there are any left over (that is, if playing with less than six players), the remaining ships are placed on their home systems to represent minor neutral races' resistance.

The game then goes in four stages:

  1. Production Phase: determine how much production value each player has by totally up the numbers on the systems they control;
  2. Building Phase: spend production points to build ships - excess points may be saved;
  3. Movement/Combat Phase: each race, in alphabetical order, moves as many ships as desired, then has combat with those which can fight;
  4. Victory Determination Phase: check to see if someone controls seven home systems - if so, the others have one turn in which to reduce him below that number, or the game is over, with the player with seven systems the winner.

Pretty straightforward, actually - there are rules for movement, combat, zones of control, doubled power if defending your home system, and so on. Nothing out of the ordinary in wargaming so far. The Combat Results Table is interesting in having 2-3 and 3-2 columns, and there are no Retreat results: everything is either a kill, an exchange, or remain in contact.

What gives the game a distinct flavor and high replay value is that each of the twelve races has a unique ability, power and speed of ships, and quantity of ships available. The "A" race, for example, has ten ships they can build, all of which have 6-5 value (6 combat factors, 5 movement points). Their special ability is a paralyzing ray: they can capture enemy ships unharmed and take them into their fleet. In game terms, this means that for each ship destroyed with an Eliminated result (not merely an Exchange), they can add one more ship to their stack. The "R" race has ranged weapons; the "V" race has lots of little ships, but can move and attack twice in a given turn, the "W" ships automatically win any attacks without rolling the die, but can be attacked normally; the "D" race can use a "warp" drive to teleport almost anywhere on the board, and so on.

While some of the powers are more useful than others, a race with such a power is then limited either in the counter mix, combat values, movement factors, location of home system, position in the alphabet (for order of movement) or some combination of the above. For example, the "W" race, which wins all attacks automatically, has only four ships it can build, moves last in the turn order, has slow-moving ships, and its home system is in the corner of the map - so it takes it forever to get out and conquer the other races. This means that all the races are roughly equal. They don't have to be exactly equal, because each player starts with two different races. You can mix races you control in a given stack of pieces, and when you conquer a system, you get to control any new ships built of that race.

The chose-two-different-races-randomly at start routine and the fact there are so many different strategies to use with each race give the game a high replay value.

The game's major flaw, as a multi-player game, is that some players will be out of the game early, while the game can continue a long time therafter. The best fix for this is to play for a given time period - say, two hours - and whoever controls the most races (with production points as a tie breaker) at that time wins. That, and have some quick two-player games available for those who are eliminated quickly to enjoy while the others finish up Space Empires.

While out of print, the game should still be available at conventions from used-game dealers, or in auctions. Pick one up if you like the idea of multi-player science fiction wargames - this is a good one.

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