Soul of the Empire is an asymmetrical area control strategy game for 2 to 4 players from Chara Games. The 1st century Roman Empire struggles to maintain order in an empire beset by internal revolt, external pressure, and a new cult that seems to win by losing. In this game, each player will take the role of the Roman Faction, a Coalition of nations putting pressure on Rome’s borders, the Jewish Faction that wants everyone else to leave their land, or a Christian Faction seeking to spread their message throughout the empire. The theme drives the game mechanics providing one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I have had in a while. This is a first impressions review.
I am in love with this game.
Early Kickstarter Fulfilment
My very first impression of, not so much the game but the company, was when Chara Games announced the fulfilment of the Kickstarter campaign several months in advance of the promised date. This meant that a game that was expected for early 2019 arrived in time for Christmas 2018. Talk about underpromising and over-delivering.
Unboxing the game reveals high-quality components, unique meeples (thanks to successfully funded stretch goals), a board that contains a colourful map of the Roman Empire divided into different regions and territories, and a full-colour rules book that is, on-the-whole, very clear. I found one or two small typos in the rulebook, but nothing unforgivable. More importantly, the rules for this medium-heavy game are quite comprehensive, and we felt we got a good grasp on them as we progressed through our first play. We store our games vertically, and it’s nice to see this option has been taken into consideration on the box art which, incidentally, is beautiful.
Many games have a lovely theme which is completely incidental to gameplay. Not so Soul of the Empire. The theme drives much of the mechanics, as I’ll explain in a moment. The game is set in a particular period of history – 54 AD to be precise – and the different powers and motivation of each of the factions drive their abilities and goals in-game, giving the game a special air or authenticity.
The theme is evident right from set up. It is set in the Roman Empire, and the red meeples of the Empire’s army dominate the board. But bands of barbarians (the Coalition Faction) hover ominously on the Empire’s borders. The Jewish Faction is concentrated in its homeland and clearly determined to ward off opponents. Meanwhile, Christians barely appear at all on the board, having been driven underground, with a handful of meeples held in a special reserve.
Despite the considerable differences in size and disposition of the pieces, the game maintains balance through the canny use of unique game mechanics.
There are two ways to win the game – by completing special victory conditions, or by scoring points. This is where theme becomes so significant. The theme drives the game’s asymmetry, and conflict is built-in. This is no mind-your-own-business euro, and you can’t win without conflict. For example, the special victory condition for the Jewish Faction is to hold sole occupancy of their territory. But the Christian Faction needs to have at least one unit in Jerusalem (the Jewish Faction’s capital), Rome and Germania, and win 18 converts. And the Coalition Faction needs sole occupancy of Rome and Italia to meet its win condition. Meanwhile, Rome is trying to lock everyone up.
Alternatively, players can try to become the first faction to score 7 points by acquiring objective cards throughout the game. But 3 of the factions share these cards and may want the same one, and there are ways to stop another faction getting a card if it’s important enough to you.
The Coalition Faction doesn’t gain points from these cards (although it can interact with them a little). Instead, there are objective markers on the board they are after, and if they have sole occupancy of a region at the end of their turn, they also score a point. Imagine hoards of barbarians moving across the countryside, burning and pillaging and then moving onto the next place.
I have to say, I love the mechanics of this game. Each turn, players have a certain number of actions, the number of which is determined by a roll of 5 dice at the end of the previous turn (there are mechanical reasons for this that I won’t go into, but it works). The length of either a set or straight rolled determines the number of actions players can take and, in some cases, the size of that action (they can do some rerolls). For example, one of the actions is to recruit more units – that costs a dice, and the number of units you can recruit is equal to the number of the dice you rolled. Roll a 1, and you can only recruit 1 unit, roll a 6 and you can recruit 6. Likewise, you can move one unit per territory for each pip on a dice you assign to movement. (You can assign more dice to these actions, and that’s all part of the tactics.) What all of this means is that you never know how many actions you’ll be able to take in your turn. Your plans could easily be upended.
Combat is straightforward and reminiscent of Scythe (although better, I think). Tally the number of units in a territory, play a numbered combat card, and your combat score is the sum of those who numbers. Usually, the larger number wins, but some cards have text that changes things up.
More interestingly, and this is where the theme comes in again, when Christians are fighting the Roman or Jewish Faction, the lowest number wins. If the Christian Faction wins a conflict, enemy units are converted into Christians. The Christian Factions needs to be bold and take on the enemy even when the odds are against them because their numbers are small and it’s only through their capture or death that enough units can be recycled into the game for them to achieve victory. Frankly, I find this an inspired mechanic, and true to the church that grew under intense persecution in the first few centuries.
Each of the Factions, except for the Coalition, have power cards that give certain unique abilities. These cards must be reserved with dice from the Faction’s pool, which reduces the number of dice the player will have for the next turn. The Coalition Faction doesn’t have its own power cards but can plunder another player’s cards if they win a battle. There seems to be an opportunity cost to everything.
While it’s not a simple game, Soul of the Empire is not unnecessarily complex and on first blush, the theme really does drive the game objectives and the mechanics. Actions are meaningful and the unique dice mechanic brings a level of both unpredictability and tactical decision making. The different win conditions also add strategic decision making, although I have to play a few more times to see how deep that goes.
We played the two player version of Soul of the Empire, which means each player controls two Factions, with the rules modified slightly to accommodate this. As new players trying to get our heads around this deep and asymmetric game, this proved quite challenging, but a whole lot of fun once we got into the swing of it. I think the two-player option might add strategic depth as you use the two factions in complementary ways, but will have to play the three or four player version before I can compare. In the three player version, you play with only three of the Factions. While it would still be an excellent game, I imagine it could lose some of its character. Still, I’d like to try that, just to see what it’s like.
I’ll be interested to see how Soul of the Empire sits with me after a few plays. I imagine it will remain high on my list for some time to come. I love the theme and the mechanics of the game (in case you couldn’t tell), and the quality of the components is a pleasure.