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There are games made by development teams numbering in the hundreds, with multi-million dollar budgets, and cutting edge graphics. These gam...

Shadow Empire Shadow Empire

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

Shadow Empire

There are games made by development teams numbering in the hundreds, with multi-million dollar budgets, and cutting edge graphics. These games are usually good fun, and feature impressive visuals and audio, professional writing and celebrity voice actors. Many are also largely forgotten within months or even weeks of release. Why? At their core, many of these games are rudimentary and derivative. They look and sound great, but at the end of the day they aren't all that interesting to play. Then there are games made by ambitious one or two person development studios. Games that push the boundaries of creativity and aren't afraid to not only ask "What if?" but to go ahead and make it a reality. Passion projects that would never get the green light from corporate. 

So what is Shadow Empire? It's a game that asks: What if you took a hardcore hex-and-counter wargame, set it in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi world, added on detailed economic and logistics modeling, and threw in some Crusader Kings elements just for fun. It's a game with a research tree you would expect from a 4-X title, story elements you would expect from an RPG, and detailed budget allocation decisions you would expect from a city builder. It's a game that seriously has a lot going on, and will take some real effort from the player to put all the pieces in order. The game sports a hefty 350(!) page manual, to give you some idea of just how detailed this experience is going to be.

Now, at this point you're probably either thinking this game sounds amazing, or this game sounds terrifying. If you are in the latter camp, don't run off just yet, it's not all that scary. Shadow Empire (SE) is kind enough to let you start off small, and forgives you for ignoring many of the mechanics for at least a few dozen turns. That's because you start with very little in this game, and must work to accumulate the means to have much more than that. SE, like many other 4-X style strategy games, starts you off with one city, and a small military force. The world around you is a mystery to be explored and eventually conquered, but that world is a hostile one. The game gives off a vibe reminiscent of the classic Mad Max wasteland where there's no telling what might out there. It's a world of roaming bandits, weird religious cults, and the occasional battlemech. Check out my preview AAR for a detailed look at how the early game goes - Part 1 and Part 2. That run at the game came to a halt because of updates breaking my save files, but also because I realized I had done a very poor job of building  up my economy, having splurged all my excess resources on unnecessary military units early on. A bit more study of the manual was required to recognize and correct my mistakes. 

This is the thing about Shadow Empire which will either draw you in or push you away. The game has layers like an onion, layers which you won't even expect to find until you get there. On the surface you see a wargame. In some wargames you might be expected to build some roads to extend your logistical network and keep your units in supply. Okay, that's not too crazy, we can handle that. However, just building roads isn't enough, you also need to build transport hubs, truck stations, and supply bases. You'll likely need to micro-manage even further by tweaking how much supply is sent down a given road. If you're planning an offensive to the west, you can't afford to be sending precious supplies down the eastern road to some unit just sitting there idling. Now, what are these supplies we are sending  the troops? Just some generic "supply" points? Oh no, we are talking food and ammo and replacements. That food is coming from your farms, farms which are consuming water and require workers to operate, workers who have a morale level that can drop if things are going poorly at the front. This is a game that tracks and models far more than you might guess from a first glance. 

Like many wargames, your units in SE are organized into a detailed order of battle. Unlike many wargames, here you have a great deal of control over what that hierarchy looks like. It isn't enough to just put all of your units into one big army, because that will make you inflexible and limit your options. Having mid-level headquarters units allows you to have greater control over where and how supplies are doled out. It also allows you to apply "stratagems" to your formations, which can give them massive bonuses to different types of combat, but usually at a cost. For example, giving a boost to attack while lowering defensive values. You wouldn't want all your units weak on defense at the same time, you would want to stick that modifier on your blitzkrieg style formation out on the flank, while another formation holds the line in the middle. Your offensive formation can also be led by a character with a higher skill level at, you guessed it, offensive combat and leading motorized units. In fact, you will be staffing numerous positions in your military and government with characters. Characters who all have fully fleshed out RPG style stats, skills, and experience levels. On top of that, these characters all have opinions, they have factions that they belong to, perhaps even a cult. Every decision you make will influence how they feel about you, based on all of these things, and of course, how much you are paying them. 

The stratagems I mentioned above are made up of dozens of different "cards" that you can play to take a wide variety of actions. The stratagems are split up into several categories, like warfare, diplomacy, and bureaucracy. I found this to be a neat way of giving the player tons of additional options, without further complicated the game with more and more menus and buttons. It also limits your choices on any given turn, and rewards you for investing in a given facet of government, by giving you more of these cards to play over time. So, for example, if you want to conduct some diplomacy with a neighbor, you'll need to play a stratagem. You can't just open up the diplomacy menu and pick an option, you need the relevant card for what you want to do. Things like improving relations, asking for an alliance, or offering scientific cooperation. To get more of these cards, you'll want to form a foreign relations council, give it an adequate budget, select a leader from your pool of characters, and then wait for them to get back to you. This is just one of eight different councils you can form, each of which performs multiple tasks critical to your nation, and each of which needs a budget and leader. 

Now, so far I've described how the game has a ton of mechanics and details bordering on being a bureaucracy simulator. It is that to some extent, but it's a wargame and bureaucracy simulator set in a wild sci-fi world with a detailed back story. It's a world where you might stumble upon a super computer powered AI that your science team is scared to activate, or you might have a cult within your empire that asks you to help fund their very own super computer AI. You might think, why would I want to give funding to these fanatics? Oh look, my best general and most effective administrator are both members of the cult. Well, that complicates things a bit. Also, the cult is offering to give you free stratagems that boost your military formations by supplying them with priests who boost morale. There's no up front cost to doing so, and I can't imagine there would be long term consequences to such actions down the road! As you explore the world, you'll often come across relics from the past golden age of humanity. Facilities that can boost your economy, and machines of war which can single-handedly turn the tide of a conflict in the early game. What caused the end of that golden age anyway? I'll let you read the 15 page long backstory in the manual, but let's just say it involves mind controlling nano-machines motivated by the vengeance of a long dead emperor. This is the "shadow" in Shadow Empire. The shadow may be present on your world in any given game, and it might not be. How would you know?

Shadow Empire is an extremely ambitious project. One that may be too much for some players to enjoy, but I know others will revel in it. It's got everything you would expect from a hardcore wargame. I didn't go into too much detail about this, but it's all there. Endless stats, morale and combat ratings, flanking attacks, entrenchment, artillery support, and so on. The designer is the man behind the Decisive Campaigns series, after all. It's got detailed management layers and research trees for days, stuff that will pique the interest of any 4-X fans. Adding flavor to all of that is the fully fleshed out setting and detailed characters which wouldn't be out of place in a Paradox grand strategy game. The developer has made clear that he is dedicated to this game, and will continue to improve it after release. It's a game that requires some real commitment from the player as well, to get the full experience. I would be lying if I told you that I had even come close to mastering the game after a dozen hours of play. I was just beginning to understand the basics of all the different systems. However, the entire time I was playing, I didn't feel like I was wrestling with the interface, I was immersing myself in an engrossing experience, one where I was learning how to lead a small city-state in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Oh, and did I forget to mention, this game has a variety of nightmarish alien monsters that might show up and attack you? Yeah, it has that too.

Shadow Empire, developed by VR Designs, is available directly from Slitherine and looks to arriving on Steam at some future date.

- Joe Beard


Here's a link to Part 1 in case you missed it. The Kingdom of Graykeep has already plunged head first into a new age of progr...

Shadow Empire Preview: The Graykeep AAR Part 2 Shadow Empire Preview: The Graykeep AAR Part 2

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

Shadow Empire

The Kingdom of Graykeep has already plunged head first into a new age of progress, rapidly expanding its borders out from admittedly modest beginnings. As king, I have many decisions to make that will shape our future, but I am assisted by numerous advisors and staff. I plan to continue recruiting additional bureaucrats and using them to head new councils like one focused on foreign affairs, and another in charge of military research. The more funding we can provide to these councils, the more able they will be to provide me with stratagems, cards which I can play, at the cost of political points, to do things like improve diplomatic ties with a hostile neighbor, or change the tactics of individual military HQ's. Below you can see the world as we know it right now. There is much that is unknown to us, but we know that there is opportunity out in that darkness that exceeds the dangers.

Militarily, our situation is stable but still requiring my full attention. We face two points of contact with non-aligned rebel forces, and are being pressed by a minor power that has no respect for our expansion. Previously, I was able to secure basic diplomatic contact with my neighbors to the north, west, and south, and we all agreed to fix the borders in their current state. While future conflict is almost certainly still on the table, I feel comfortable enough to concentrate my forces to the east, where we have numerous active enemies, and several small towns up for grabs.

Amania (dark blue) makes a fatal error. Going beyond occupying the nominally unclaimed territory between us, they send their soldiers behind my lines, cutting off the bulk of my forces from supply just as we finish off the last of the rebels in the area. This will not stand! I have no choice but declare my first war. I had hoped to avoid this inevitability for as long as possible, at least until we had established a more robust economy, capable of replacing the losses we were sure to take. Fortunately, most of my forces still consist of militia, units which are able to replenish themselves without input from my government. On the downside, these forces are weak in terms of firepower. Our enemy appears to have two units of mechanized walkers to our single walker, but overall we have much greater numbers. 

First things first, I have my troopers breakthrough and take back control of the road leading back to Hawking, our capital. This will ensure my forces aren't soon starved for supplies. Then we begin working on turning the tables against the Amanians by cutting off a couple of their units and eliminating pockets one by one. Alas, the major power to the north, Zelaria, chooses this as an opportune time to shake us down for money. Their leader threatens war if we do not pay tribute. With their forces stationed on the border, immediately ready to attack my army from the rear if they so choose, I decide to pay the tribute that is demanded, and avoid a two front war. I've read that those never go well. 

Although it stings to lose a large portion of our hard earned cash, it will hopefully buy us time to deal with one enemy before facing another. My forces pounce on Amania forces and press them back. Unfortunately, their walkers are just as formidable as our lone steel beast, able to turn back entire companies of militia riflemen on their own. Our greater numbers soon tell, however, and we are able to isolate and defeat them piecemeal. The next turn, I notice that our borders in that area show only non-aligned rebel forces. Whether we have defeated them entirely, or if their rear was overrun by rebels, is unclear. The only thing that matters is that our front is secure and our forces can continue to advance and liberate more towns in the area. I order the expansion of our road network so that our supplies can flow to the front. With the foreign affairs situation relatively stable for the moment, more attention can be paid to internal matters. 

One matter , for example, is whether or not we should interact with an ancient AI computer found in some deep ruins back in Hawking. The machine predates all of our known histories and could give us some interesting revelations. It could cause us problems as well. In the spirit of boldness, I direct our scientists to turn it on and see what happens. The AI gives us a lengthy lecture on ethics, and then supplies the knowledge needed for us to produce more effective firearms. The ethics we take into consideration, the firearms we prepare for production.

Production, however, requires resources, and my advisors point out to me that we won't be able to build any of the nice new things they have been researching until we secure our own supplies of them. Namely, metal. Our militia army is fine for now, but if we want to build anything better, we need metal. Our dirt roads are fine for now, but if we want to build railroads, we need metal. If we want to expand our industrial base, again, metal. To that end I stop by the economic council meeting and direct them devote the vast majority of their funding to prospecting for resource deposits. The more passive approach I've taken so far has not yielded any results. I have the military continue to explore and bring more territory into our kingdom, hopefully increases the chances we will strike metal.

In the meantime I've begun buying metal on the limited open market. We have an excess of funds at the moment, since we aren't building much of anything (need metal!) and so buying it outright will get things moving for now.  I quickly learn that buying too much of one resource causes the price to sky rocket for a time, and vice versa, selling a large amount of food, something we have quite a lot of, causes its price to plummet. As a result, the amount of metal we can acquire at any one time is limited, but useful for finishing some construction projects we started long ago but never had the resources to complete.

There is one nice economic development, the first private construction pops up near the agricultural domes we built early on. A town to support the workers pops up on its own accord, and begins paying taxes. An excellent development indeed! 

Another internal matter comes across my desk. This one is a bit of a touchy subject. The Church of Syndic, by far the most popular cult within my kingdom, requests a hefty donation from the state to fund their ultimate project. They want to create some sort of super computer to solve all of our problems. Such cults are fairly common on our world, though each has its own objectives. Quite a few of my own staff are Syndic sympathizers, and they would be quite upset with me if I refuse, not to mention the church itself being cross with me. They point out that they have donated multiple priests to augment my forces by strengthening their resolve, at no cost at all to the state. In the back of my mind, I am wary of using such priests in our forces, I can't help but think that seeding too many of them among the companies might lead to some sort of insurrection. That said, they do greatly benefit the troops they accompany. 

I decide it is in the best interest of keeping everyone happy to make the hefty donation. That's money we could have used to buy more metal and other resources, but a kingdom is more than just buildings and roads, it must have a happy populace as well. Zelaria, our most powerful neighbor, is at it again with the demands for tribute. I can see their forces build up along our border at times, making everyone nervous. I tell them to shove off this time and the next. Not only because our forces now stand ready to repel any invasion, but also because I don't have that kind of money to spare at the moment.

Our investment in prospecting efforts finally pays off! A metal deposit is found in the southern region of the kingdom. Now I just need to order the construction of a metal mine and we will be in business! No more shortages, no more buying at exorbitant prices on the open market! We can really make some progress with a steady flow of materials. Oh, what's this? My construction chief is telling me that the site is too far away and outside of our logistics network. Apparently building such a facility in the middle of nowhere with no way to transport workers and construction equipment to the site is a problem. Ah, well, that makes sense. I consult the writings of my father (the game manual) and realize that I have indeed been neglecting the logistical side of things. Simply building dirt roads is not enough it seems. I order the construction of some transportation centers to get trucks on the road and supplies moving. Once again I'm forced to buy metal on the market to speed up the process. 

In the meantime, I look out across my kingdom. We have expanded further than I ever expected by this point. So far out in fact that our units can't be supplied and we begin losing contact with a few of them completely. Logistics really are important it seems! Being a king in this world is far more involved than simply ordering armies around. It requires management of trade, diplomacy, logistics, personal relationships, and more, in far greater detail than one might ever suspect. It looks like I've still got a lot to learn, but things are going quite well in the Kingdom of Graykeep. For now...

Shadow Empire is coming out soon from Slitherine Games. Stay tuned for more coverage of this fascinating title!

- Joe Beard

Day breaks over the kingdom of Graykeep. Well, calling it a kingdom would be a generous statement. Once...long ago, before the Dissoluti...

Shadow Empire Preview: The Graykeep AAR Part 1 Shadow Empire Preview: The Graykeep AAR Part 1

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

Shadow Empire

Day breaks over the kingdom of Graykeep. Well, calling it a kingdom would be a generous statement. Once...long ago, before the Dissolution War, it truly was a magnificent place known around the system. Or so the records and traditions passed down to me by my father say. Truth be told, no one can say for sure what the kingdom was like, or even how long it has been since those glory days. The darkness of endless war and devastation ruined our world, and all of the others known to man during the Dissolution War. A complete loss in communication and trade with other worlds, a regression of technology, and a total breakdown in society has left little standing in the ashes. My family line and a few thousand loyal followers have clung to each other in the city of Hawking and its surrounding villages for centuries, holding out against famine and raiders alike. Now, on the day of my coronation, as I take my deceased father's place, we are poised on the edge of a new era.

Our resource situation, after years of progress and setbacks, has finally become stable enough to support a small standing army of militia, including vehicles for some units. These forces are divided up into several smaller battalions and one, relatively, powerful offensive brigade. We know little about the world around us, only that there are green prairies to our east, a desert to the west, and mountains in between. Ancient roads, now reduced to dirt paths and traveled only by the occasional merchant, still exist and will serve as our means to resupply the troops we send afield. We do not know how far these roads extend, and will likely need to invest in building new ones as we go. 

When it comes to neighbors, we do know the names of several similar city states like ourselves, but no one is certain where their capitals lay or what their exact dispositions are towards us. The little news we have received indicates that other places are in a similar situation as us, able to field small forces to defend their territory and perhaps expand. In the gaps are roving bands of militia, holding onto whatever they can, but without any proper government. Something is in the air, a feeling of tension as if a spring were coiled, we are not the only ones ready for action. 

Our goal is to take back what was once ours, and return civilization to this planet. We will do so by force if needed, by diplomacy when possible. This objective will require us to find new resources and invest them in new infrastructure. To that end I direct my secretary to form an economic council and appoint a promising young staffer to lead it. This council will focus on finding resources and developing new technologies to exploit them. There are many other councils that will need to be formed as we go, using some of our political resources, but each one added gives us many new avenues for improvements.

Our initial ventures afield go as expected. Troops are sent down the known roads and link up our capital with several nearby villages, adding to the kingdom right away. We also stumble across the wreckage of an advanced vessel from the Galactic Republic days. Somehow, despite the centuries of time that have passed, this wreck remained hidden in a ravine and was never picked over by scavengers. Studying it will greatly help our research efforts as we work to recreate the more advanced technology of old.

As we also expected, before too long our troops begin to push up against the forces of our neighbors, who also seem to be on the move. There are no official borders established between us, as they are as much in the dark as we are. Not looking to immediately get in a fight, I pull my forces back to hold onto the towns we have found, and secure the precious advanced wreckage. In the south, our troopers do not encounter any opposing forces and continue on, locating additional villages to bring into the fold. While adding all of this additional population is the goal of our mission, it also means that we have many more mouths to feed. I decide to invest in a domed farm right outside Hawking, where water is plentiful. I also direct our work crews to start their first infrastructure project by building a short new road out to a village that we have discovered. Hopefully this will be the first step towards a globe spanning network centered around our kingdom of Graykeep.

Over the next few months, we bide our time, investing in new government councils while getting a better view of the big picture. We now have a rough idea of the forces facing us from the west, as they continue to encroach on our territory but do not yet attack. Our scouts, initially skittish, reporting the potential foes to be overwhelming in numbers, but cooler heads have prevailed and now we see that their forces in similar to our own, and we have reinforcements we can bring to bear if needed. The troops we sent south find some working automated machine gun bunkers from the Republic days and bring them online. Unfortunately, these units cannot be moved easily, and we do not yet have to means to redeploy them.

As most of our forces are currently occupied with staring down the neighboring army, I decide to invest in an independent company of buggies that can serve as fast scouts to continue exploring the unknown territory around our kingdom.

Over recent months we have tried to sneak a spy into the lands of Limehead, which have learned is the name of the nation to our west. Their forces have not retreated from the border, and I would like to know what lies beyond their lines.The first two attempts to send over a spy fail, but on the third try they are successful, we expect reports to filter back soon. Our scout company of fast buggies is almost complete, and will move out shortly.

We did get some more good news from our soldiers to the south, after some more poking around in the ruins, they recovered a fully functioning mechanized walker from the Galactic Republic era. Our rudimentary militia, equipped with only basic weapons like rifles, machine guns, and RPG's, will be happy to have this war machine bringing its additional firepower to bear. Knowing that we have so many neighbors around, and hoping for better options to interact with them, I decide to form a foreign affairs council. This will generate more stratagems for us to use in diplomacy.

The Emperor of Limehead, apparently tiring of the ongoing situation between our forces, requests that we formally recognize the current lines as the legitimate border between our nations. With the information reported by our spy, I can now see that there is mostly only mountains and desert out there, and so I decide that peace would be prudent at this time. The lands to our east seem far more promising and hospitable. Recognizing the border improves relations between us and Limehead, so I feel safe to remove the bulk of my forces from that area and send them up the road to the northeast. Our first foray into that area encountered numerous groups of unaligned militia and it is likely we will need to fight to take the resources in that area.

Tragedy strikes the scout company we sent into the wilderness to our east where no roads existed. They find a couple of villages, but upon entering one they were ambushed by the local militia forces and nearly wiped out! Of course, this will not stand. I divert some of my troops to secure those villages and the nearby sea. We will need to begin a large road project here if we want to truly control this area. Sending my forces so far into the countryside with no road for logistics is a bad combination. Running low on supplies renders even the best troops vulnerable and useless.

To the northeast, things get hot but go our way as our better equipped army is able to crush several units of unaligned militia. I've begun to consider these forces rebels more than anything else. They should know by now that these lands belong to Graykeep and standing against us is futile. There is another minor kingdom here as well, and we are able to gets eyes on their capital. Like with Limehead, we choose to respect their borders for now so that they will not molest our advances east. After breaking through the rebel lines and driving away most of their forces, we send the battle walker forward to quickly capture a couple more villages. Nothing quite like seeing such powerful ancient technology bearing our banners to bring people into the fold. 

Some of the rebel forces refuse to retreat, and are pounded by our artillery, infantry, and the battle walker. With so much firepower on our side, coming from multiple angles, we are able to inflict heavy casualties while sustaining almost none ourselves. Our forces grow confident with each victory, and kingdom of Graykeep continues to expand under my watch. At home, some new technologies and ideas are discovered, giving us new options and improving the efficiency of my government. I decide to form multiple councils focused on research and development so that we may maintain an advantage over our rivals. I suspect that the going is about to get a lot tougher.

This article is the first in an AAR series I'm doing as a way to preview the upcoming Shadow Empire. This game has really grabbed my attention with its fascinating premise and deep gameplay. It is from creator of Advanced Tactics Gold and the Decisive Campaigns series. At a glance, Shadow Empire bears some resemblance to those games, and does use a similar combat system. But. This game has so much going on that really sets it apart. The manual includes a dozen pages of back story giving context to the setting and the goes on for another 160 pages detailing all of the various systems and mechanics driving this game. It's a lot to take in, and I'm learning as I go. That's why I choose to do this AAR, to chronicle a game so you can get an idea of what it is like, and to give me time to really sink my teeth into the gameplay and the fun setting. I think this game certainly bears a close look from all wargamers and strategy fans. More to come soon!

- Joe Beard