Thank you for checking review #125 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
An overview of Empyreal: Spells & Steam
Empyreal: Spells & Steam is a board game designed by Trey Chambers that is published by Level 99 Games. The box state it plays 2-6 players and has a playtime of 30-75 minutes.
The industrial age has come at last to the World of Indines! Use your ingenuity and the skill of your team of technomancers to cross the continent of Indines while connecting towns and building a vibrant trade network. Research new spells as you carve a path through the many treacherous terrains of the continent, using your company’s unique advantages to outbuild the competition and secure supply lines for rare resources.
In Empyreal: Spells & Steam, technomancers use mana to build rails, and the amount of mana crystals required to cast a spell varies by terrain and by the potency of the spell. Mana crystals must recharge after being used, so your choice of when and where to use each spell will be critical to determining the efficiency of your construction engine.
The towns you choose to connect to your network will provide critical resources, and the value of these resources changes over time. Some become more valuable as they become more connected, while others become less valuable as their abundance increases. Thus, you need to be wary of what your competitors are building into their trade networks and adapt your strategies accordingly to maximize the value of your stock portfolio.
Reaching new cities first gives you additional benefits, and being the first to bridge the continent provides you with a sizable commission from your backers. However, those who build first are more at the mercy of changing markets. Time your construction projects to maximize your profits and the flow of mana.
—description from the publisher
This box and its contents simply scream intentional design. What I mean here is that this game provides a comprehensive package. The components are all great in quality, even with just the retail version of the game. Even more than that, though, is that the game comes with storage items for everything that are both functional for packing the game away and keeping things accessible during the game. A lot of time and effort went into making this game, and it shows from the time you first open up that box.
Gameplay is extremely simple (and the rules are done rather well!). You either move your conductor pawn and activate train cars at the space it stops, or you Administrate to replenish your supplies and expand your train car choices. Easy. Simple. Most of what you are doing involves placing trains on the map, typically adjacent to trains you already have on the map and going onto the terrain type pictured on the train car being used. There are exceptions, of course, and those are the trickier parts to get the hang of, but by and large this game can be taught in a matter of minutes, dealing with what train cars and specialists do as they are revealed.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the elephant in the room for the game: iconography. Sometimes iconography works well and a game is intuitive in how it flows once you understand what you see. Other times you need to have a reference guide at hand at all times in the game to understand what you are looking at. I’ve played games on both ends of the spectrum, and Empyreal: Spells & Steam falls more on the intuitive side. Yes, there are specialists that I still need to look up, but that is one time per game, at the time when considering which to take, and after that I don’t need to look back to remember what they do. The train cars? During the second play I was only looking up a select few to ensure what I thought it “said” was accurate and, in all but one case, I was correct. Some folks have made a big deal over the lack of text on the components, but I have found it to be something more helpful than harmful as the icons can be parsed quickly to see what something does, rather than needing to read text spelling it all out.
The game felt like it was sort of on rails during the first play. It felt limiting and restricted to a sheer race of laying down a pattern to connect the most hexes of a color to a specific city for delivery. But as the game hit the table more, I started to see more “advanced” concepts shining through, such as the Transfers, which open up the map faster. After all, your trains don’t need to be connected to be considered “connected”. It’s magic, right? Suddenly the map became more aggressive as you wanted to close in on an opponent, not just to have a chance to steal their goods but to be able to efficiently leapfrog their train and cut down on the number of cars you need to place to reach a specific location. Dropping Wasteland onto the map to clear out goods became a viable strategy. Taking train cars that provided free transfers suddenly felt as powerful, or moreso, than something that might offer a variety of terrain type placements. That isn’t even considering specialists.
And those specialists are the stars of the show. They are the toppings for the ice cream that makes it feel like you are doing more than just eating vanilla ice cream. They add asymmetry for the players and allow you to break the ordinary rules in ways big and small – depending on the specialist type. Some help you get your own engine running faster or more efficiently, while others might help you to slow down an opponents’ plans. This asymmetry is the heart of Empyreal, and is what sets it apart from the other train-based games in the genre. Not only is it the distinguishing trademark, but it also helps open the door for…
Near infinite replay value. This is something that seems like a strong point for both the designer and the publisher in question, meaning their pairing is always going to produce something that plays out differently every time it hits the table. With each company having a different player board of train cars, including a special train car on each of them, plus various conductors to mix-and-match would be enough. Shoot, the varied train car abilities would be enough by itself. Then you add in the specialists, with three types and taking one of each type over the course of the game. And the slightly-modular map layout. There is room for small variants, such as having mixed Demand Tiles on the cities or having players be able to draft specialists. All of these combine to provide a very different experience every single time you play the game.
One of the worst things you can make a player do is to have to turn back to the rulebook mid-game. This is the one aspect where I wish they had included a separate printout for the various items with iconography. Don’t get me wrong, everything is clear as can be in the book. But having a single sheet with the train cars, and then one for each of the three specialist types, would make the process of cross-checking or verifying abilities a little easier.
Call me crazy, but I almost wish the tiles for the map were smaller, so you could mix-and-match for a greater terrain variety from play-to-play. Yes, sometimes it might mean there is a cluster of 4 Forest areas together relatively close to the Green Town, but that would just mean you need to decide whether or not to try and focus there to be first to deliver that, or perhaps to spoil the opponents’ plans and deliver using 2 of those even faster, or ignore it completely and set up your own engine. I get that the map tiles are probably mostly balanced with the size, but I do wonder how it might change things with smaller tiles…
The solo mode is forced inside the expansion. And honestly, having played it via a friend’s copy of the expansion, there is no need for it to be an exclusive piece of the game that costs $40-50 more to obtain. Huge miss for the solo gaming market here, as it is already a costly game. To have to increase that cost by another 50% roughly to play it solo is going to keep others away from what is definitely a fun solitaire experience.
This game has been one of the most anticipated games to be released, with it making my list back in 2018 of games I was excited for. I’m an outspoken fan of Level 99 Games as a company, and equally a fan of Trey Chambers as a designer. Everything about Empyreal: Spells & Steam sounded like it would place it squarely within my wheelhouse and, better yet, be one only a few games from Level 99 Games that my wife might be willing to play. It took a long time for this one to deliver its goods, but it finally arrived and we’ve been able to get in some plays of the game (and I’ve even dabbled with the solo mode that comes in the expansion and, well, at some point I’ll be reviewing the expansion and covering that in greater detail but let’s just say I enjoy this one solo as well).
And this game isn’t what I expected. Not in a bad way, mind you. But when you hear “train game” you either think of Ticket to Ride, or you think of 18XX. I was expecting something about in the middle of those two, but truth be told it is more akin to a fantasy flavor of Age of Steam, a game I played for the first time only weeks before my first plays of Empyreal. And I can’t help but see a lot of great things in both of those games: they support a wide range of player counts, they have built-in variability (AoS with maps, Empyreal with combinations of abilities, train cars, etc.), they involve building routes to deliver goods on the map to locations seeking those goods. And, truth be told, I think both could easily co-exist in my collection. AoS would likely appeal more to my wife and her desire for pick-up-and-deliver games of a moderate weight. Empyreal appeals to me with its asymmetric play and special powers. Neither one is inherently worse, they are just different. Kind of like how I enjoy both brats and hot dogs – one doesn’t replace the other, and there will be times I might want one over the other.
And for me, that game will be Empyreal. It is completely my jam when it comes to games, all fanboy considerations aside. The components, which is nothing more than sheer chrome to me, are absolutely delightful and look wonderful. I have the retail edition and don’t feel like I’m missing anything by not having the Deluxe Upgrade – much like I’m fine playing games with the cardboard money tokens instead of paying extra for metal coins. Empyreal has proven to be a game that opens up with repeated plays, possessing a multitude of strategies to pursue that you only grasp after a few plays and realize the benefit that something like a Wasteland Transfer can provide even at its “high” cost. The game can be as cutthroat or as friendly as you want it to be, especially as certain specialists or train cars enter in the mix. Especially at two players, where there is enough room to kind of spread out in some of the map, although eventually you’re likely to fight over resource tokens on the map.
If you’ve always wanted a game with something a little more than the random route-fulfillment of Ticket to Ride but aren’t entranced with the economic ideas contained within many of the other train games, this might be one to check out. It is a pure route builder, with your routes being represented by trains placed on the map, that is focused on delivering goods in certain quantities to cities demanding said goods. Because it has a strong, narrow focus with relatively fast turns, the gameplay is quick to flow and the player engines (pun intended) accelerate tremendously as the game chugs along. This makes it an easy game to teach, and a relatively fast game to play. I think we clock in at under an hour with two, and with more plays this will probably drop down to around the 20 minutes per player mark for the two of us. It feels like a game I can teach to almost anyone – some won’t be enamoured with the game, but I do believe that most will find enjoyment in the game with its smooth, solid gameplay and player-friendly play time.
This game is one I plan to keep in my collection for a long, long time. It has a very tall box, making it stand out on the shelf, but I forgive that because of the high quality of the storage system that comes with the game. It is nice having a game that can play as few as one (with expansion) and as many as six (with just the base game) or eight (with the two extra factions from the expansion) and isn’t a heavy, or light, game to teach and play. It isn’t often that I find a 2020 release so soon in the year that I fall in love with, but Empyreal: Spells & Steam delivered on everything I hoped it could be. Trey Chambers and the Level 99 Games team did it again here, and even if you haven’t loved any of their other games this one is worth checking out. If my wife can enjoy one of their games, so can you!