Empyreal is a small game in all of its parts except for the ones you see. Not content with the cards-on-cards extravagance of Millennium Blades, Level99’s D. Brad Talton Jr has produced a box, and a game product inside of it, that tries its very best to evoke an immersive, fully formed fictional world experience. It’s set in L99’s Indines world, and perhaps people invested in that fiction will get more out of it. But when I open up Empyreal’s cardboard cube box and start to play, I see a game in the lineage of more modest productions–niche train games with little more than a paper map and some cubes.
This dissonance, between the lavish production and the more modest gameplay, is something I can’t fully escape. It sits, uninvited, in my mind throughout each play. The overproduction doesn’t directly impede the game, however. While I sort of wish the terrain textures were simpler, for example, I never get them confused. While the train pieces don’t need to be little plastic minis (I’d actually prefer cubes), I can understand why they made that artistic choice.
The bottom line is that Empyreal presents itself like it’s going to be an Event Game: the kind of game that takes up an entire afternoon and inspires retellings and rivalries. It’s not that kind of game, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
So what kind of game is Empyreal? If you’ve played a cube rails game you understand the inspiration, but designer Trey Chambers has leaned into a customizable rondel mechanism to drive much of the action. I don’t know why we don’t see this used more often, but it’s a fantastic way to implement engine building into a game. Jaffee’s Crusaders had upgradable personal rondels, but Empyreal takes it to the next level with a smorgasbord of action spaces available to purchase.
It sort of feels like a deckbuilder, where you start with a basic template and build up your repertoire over time. However, because it’s all face up on the table you have a lot more control over how you utilize your new toys. Fittingly, with greater control comes greater responsibility.
Empyreal is largely a race, and from the very beginning you can feel the weight of each move you make. The game ends only after a few bonus tokens are taken, and you’re definitely trying to take a token each time you loop around your rondel. This creates a tension: you want to build up a strong rondel and trigger tons of actions each turn but you also want to race through to score as much as possible. The solution is to make a lean engine–one without fat where every play has purpose.
Of course that’s the solution to any game. A play without purpose is, by definition, wasted. But some games disguise waste better than others. If you take one too many action cards in Dominion the consequence of that decision can be (literally) lost in the shuffle. Empyreal makes you feel your blunders.
The flip side is that you also get immediately rewarded for smart play. Select the right tiles, put them in the right places, and you can tumble into a series of great moves as you make your way around the rondel again. While Empyreal looks like a game that might bank on strong powers and large swings, it’s actually fairly constrained. The wildest you’ll ever get is when you acquire your once per game specialist power, and even then each player is constrained to one and you can typically see it coming at least a turn ahead.
I suppose I should explain how the game works. Through the rondel you will place and manipulate your train routes on the board in order to deliver goods. Though, I really shouldn’t say “route” because while trains do need to be placed adjacent to others, they do not need to form a contiguous route in order to deliver goods, because these are magic trains. Of course, the defining feature of a train is that it’s constrained to a track so I prefer to think of them as train-shaped teleportation machines. If anyone’s going to be fine with trains being squeezed into places they don’t seem to belong, it’s board gamers. I swear if it wasn’t for this hobby I wouldn’t have thought more than five seconds about trains in the last few years.
Mobility, then, is key. Contiguous route-building is unnecessary for your goal of delivering goods, so circumventing the requirement to construct contiguously can be powerful indeed. You’re delivering to the various cities scattered throughout the map, and you can only deliver to a city if you’ve got a train next to it. Ideally you’d like to be adjacent to each city and then place your trains directly on each resource you’d like to deliver. You can’t do that, so anything that allows you to skip spaces or jump across the map is gold.
The map is where players collide in passive-aggressive and sometimes straight aggressive ways. Once a resource is delivered it’s gone from the map, so snagging what you want before anyone else can swoop in and steal it quickly becomes essential.
I love how priorities shift over time. In the beginning of the game you’re in your own little world, setting up a little train system designed to deliver to the city you started next to. Soon you’re side-eyeing the person sitting across from you as they start to encroach upon “your” territory. By the ⅔ mark you’re in full desperation mode as you survey the entire map to see what opportunities remain. Resources get scarce by the end, and often the person who prepared for that eventuality the soonest is in the best position to win.
I also love how nearly every decision in Empyreal feels difficult. Strolling along playing each action on your custom rondel feels nice, but you’re never going to deliver enough resources to succeed. You want to skip spaces. Skipping costs mana. You want to stack up multiple actions on the same space, but activating them all also costs mana. Delivering tons of goods at the end of the rondel-line feels great, but is it worth taking fewer, better deliveries or more, smaller deliveries?
Once you deliver goods and loop back around to the start of the rondel you get a big reward. Isn’t it like a great game that at the moment you get your best new toy it’s the result of your most difficult decision? You can either gain a mana and refresh any spent, gain two new rondel actions, or gain a powerful advisor ability. You want all three, but you can’t have them. It’s agonizing. Somewhere off in the distance a game designer chuckles.
Despite its sometimes intimidating visual presence, Empyreal is actually a pretty short game. I’ve played in a clean 90 minutes with a table full of newcomers. With experienced players I’ve no doubt that play time could be squeezed down to 45 minutes or less. This benefits Empyreal as a largely strategic (rather than tactical) game, where you’re trying to quickly build and cash in a singular strategy. Of course, other people will always get in your way, necessitating tactical maneuvering, but whoever can execute a strong top-down strategy best will probably come out ahead.
Strategic games engage my tinkerer’s mind. The best allow me to choose a path, explore it, fail, and learn from that failure before trying again. Each attempted strategy imparts knowledge and understanding of not only which paths are best, but how to navigate tactically within them. Repeated play is rewarded, and shorter games are easier to play repeatedly. At the end of this journey is mastery.
Does Empyreal reward mastery with a continuingly engaging experience? I don’t know; I’m not there yet. But I suspect it does. The good thing about Level99’s enthusiastic production is that it allows for tons of rondel action tokens, advisors, and end of game bonuses to make each game different. The core is the same but your tools change shape each game. If all of this delicious variability was fit into a more modest package Empyreal would feel whole. As it is you have to dig a bit to find its small-game core.