Impressive space Fleets have been constructed to explore, settle, and conquer the universe. But before Freedom of Trade could be established Warfare Technologies were under development and a Military Campaign began. Will Defense Contracts and Peace Treaties be enough to stop this Tour de Force or will Elite Squadrons bring about a Natural Order in Double Time? Stay tuned for the next installment of Eminent Domain: Escalation!
How It Plays
In the wake of games that followed Dominion there was a trend towards innovating and tweaking the concepts of deck building to stand out from the crowd. Eminent Domain did an excellent job of incorporating deck building rather than making a game that was strictly another deck builder. It was pitched to me as a cross between Dominion, Race For The Galaxy, and Glory To Rome which isn’t that far off. I wasn’t around when we first reviewed the game but you can see FutureWolfie and FarmerLenny’s take on it here. Escalation is the first expansion for Eminent Domain and offers players even more options with which to settle and conquer the galaxy. I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the base game and dive right in to what’s new.
Expandig Warfare: Amassing a Fleet
One of the major themes in Escalation is the emphasis on Warfare so let’s start with something that puzzled a lot of people when they first opened up their copy of Eminent Domain: the ships. Look at all these cool ships, those big ones must be really powerful! Oh wait, they all do the same thing? It’s almost like it was released with an expansion in mind. Well it’s here now and Escalation finally let’s you manage your own Fleet by distinguishing between the ships and giving them an expanded role. Let me introduce you to Fighters (small), Destroyers (medium), and Battle Cruisers (big). Fighters work just like the standard ships in the base game, you collect them using Warfare and various technology cards and then spend them to conquer planets. But now you have the option to upgrade your Fighters into Destroyers (3 for 1) and Destroyers into a Battle Cruiser (2 for 1) through new Fleet actions. You start off with a Basic Fleet and can later upgrade to an Advanced Fleet for a better exchange rate and improved abilities. So what can you do with these fancy upgraded ships? First off there are new planets that can only be conquered by spending a Destroyer or Battle Cruiser. Then there are the new technology cards that allow you to spend ships instead of research symbols to acquire. Fighters are used for level 1 technologies, Destroyers for level 2, and a Battle Cruiser for level 3. More on those new planets and technology cards in a minute. Finally, as long as you have a Battle Cruiser in your Fleet (of which you can have only one) you are granted a passive ability that reduced all Warfare costs. If you manage to hold on to your Battle Cruiser until the end of the game you’ll be rewarded with 2 victory points for having such an impressive ship.
New Technology: Diversity and Learning through force
Now that you’ve built up a Fleet it’s time to put it to work. You’ll be able to intimidate some scientists into working for you or perhaps you’re trading ships in exchange for the latest research. However you want to explain it, all the new technology cards introduced in Escalation come with an alternate cost that can be paid in ships instead of science (light bulbs). Level 1 techs can be paid for with 3 Fighters, Level 2 with 2 Destroyers, and Level 3 with a Battle Cruiser.
Included among these new technology cards are another set that mirror the requirements of the originals: 1 planet/2 planets/3 planets for each of Fertile, Advanced, and Metallic. These techs expand on some of the ideas from the original game and line up with the themes of the three planet types: Produce and Colonize for Fertile, Consume and Research for Advanced, as well as Warfare and Explore for Metallic. Then there are two new types of requirements. The first are the Double Time techs which can only be obtained by having a specific planet type and a second of a different type. There are also the Diverse technologies that require one planet of all three basic types.
With the expanded emphasis on Warfare, a good number of the new cards encourage Warfare either directly or through the use of ships. The standard role icons on several techs have been replaced with a resource or ship icon. These cards may be discarded in order to use the good as if it were on a planet or ship as if it were in the Fleet. There are also permanent techs that provide a replenishing ship slots. These slots come with and hold a ship of a given type, if this ship is spent then it will get refilled at the beginning of the following turn. Along with technologies that let you spend ships for points or to boost various actions there are also more aggressive cards that allow you to interfere with your opponents’ empires. You’ll be able to conquer planets from other players’ tableaus, destroy a permanent technology, or return points to the supply. But while these attacks are nasty they will still leave the victim with some reparations for their loss in the form of points. If your opponent is investing heavily into Warfare there are also several technologies specifically designed to benefit from their aggressive ways. Each planet type has a Peace Treaty tech that lets you collect a point every time you dissent the Warfare role.
New Planets: Turns out the galaxy is bigger than we thought
Time to take your fleet out for a spin, there are new worlds to explore! At the beginning of the game you are given your choice between two start worlds, one from the base game and one from Escalation. Unlike those in the base game, the new start worlds offer one or two icons to give you a boost right from the start. But there’s a draw back so that you won’t always pick the new ones. First up there are the Prestige planets that provide one icon and a wild resources slot but don’t count towards requirements for research. Then there are the more expensive planets that provide two icons at the steep cost of 5 colonies or fighters.
Escalation also comes with new planets to be mixed into the planet deck that continue the themes introduced on the new technologies. There are Civilized planets that are so hard to conquer that they require a Battlecruiser instead of Fighters. These planets are far easier to settle and provide the same benefit as the Peace Treaty technology when they are added to your tableau. On the other extreme are Hostile planets that can not be settled at all, they instead can only be conquered with a Destroyer. These planets provide a replenishing fighter slot. Last up are the Bustling planets that can be settled like normal or conquered with a Destroyer and provide an action that can be used instead of one from a card.
Scenarios: A healthy dose of asymmetry
Escalation also offers an entirely new way to setup your games of Eminent Domain by using Scenarios. They are optional so you may decide to play with Scenarios or stick to the standard game. When playing with Scenarios each player is given a card that presents them with a unique starting position including a home world, an advanced technology, and a specific distribution of role cards. Each scenario gives the player a jump start and allows them to focus on a specific strategy much faster than they would normally be able to.
There are also some extras that are added in Escalation including role cards for a fifth player, rules for an extra turn so that everyone gets one last chance to do something once the end has been triggered, and errata cards that rebalance some of the weaker technologies from the base game.
Should You Annex This Expansion?
I mentioned earlier that my view wasn’t represented in the original review of Eminent Domain so I’ll start off with a quick synopsis of my experience with the base game. I quite like Eminent Domain’s mechanic mishmash though perhaps not as much as the games that it drew inspiration from. Race for the Galaxy and Dominion are two of my favorite games and are much more focused than Eminent Domain because they are distilled down to the basics of their respective mechanics (Tableau Building/Role Selection and Deck Building respectively). I enjoy Glory to Rome (the other major inspiration) as well but don’t have enough experience with it to make a decent comparison.
Eminent Domain was a game that I immediately liked but found to be far less intuitive than I was expecting considering my experience with the lineage of games leading up to it. It’s not that I didn’t understand what to do but it was more a matter of learning how to execute a strategy efficiently. Learning how to balance your deck is far more difficult than in traditional deck building games because the role that you want to perform may not lead to a desirable distribution. Conceptually you will get better at doing the actions that you perform frequently as your deck fills up with those roles but it can be challenging to remain balanced or switch gears. Likewise expanding your tableau is not as straightforward as other tableau builders because you are at the whim of when the correct role cards show up in order to perform them. Compare this to more readily available roles and controllable economy of many Role Selection and Tableau-builders. But the challenge in Eminent Domain is learning how to operate within the constraints of what your deck makes available for you to use. Learning how to shape it through the roles that you select versus the ones that you try to follow. The mechanics that were borrowed intertwine elegantly in Eminent Domain even if the strategy appears to be unintuitive. Building your deck is just as important as building your tableau, it’s a very well executed dynamic and one that plays out very differently than it’s predecessors.
Packing too much into the game?
Eminent Domain can be a moderately overwhelming experience at first due to the sheer number of technology cards that are involved. You can build your strategy around one or more technologies or simply pick up the ones that best suit your tableau as it develops. Either way it’s important to be familiar with what’s available and the three stacks of technology cards present the players with a lot of information all at once. Fortunately the technologies are grouped by the roles that are associate with each planet type. Understanding this with some in game experience makes it easier to focus strategies around the available technologies without needing to remember the specifics of each card. However when I learned that Escalation was effectively doubling the number of technologies in play I was concerned that there would be far too many options available to the players. It was indeed overwhelming on my first couple of plays, instead of having one stack of cards to look through when you research for the first time you’ll now have two. There aren’t very many new options available in the first tier but once you advance to the second tier along with the new diverse technologies and you’ll soon have an abundance of directions to pursue. This could present a significant barrier for new players and I would highly discourage anyone from throwing this expansion at players that aren’t experienced with the base game for fear of information overload.
However there are a number of reason why having twice as many technologies represents a significant improvement for Eminent Domain. First of all, just like in the base game the technologies fit into the themes and roles represented by the planet types. If you’re already familiar with the strategies that you would pursue with a given starting planet type it shouldn’t be hard to incorporate the new technologies into your strategy. In fact it should make it even easier to pursue a given strategy by giving you more options. There are two main things that the new technologies allow beyond what the base game had to offer: more flexibility and an emphasis on Warfare (both utilizing and countering it).
The flexibility comes into play by giving you more options to focus on a given role or approach strategies without needing to pursue certain roles at all. You can now research without even needing a single Research card in your deck. Likewise there are many ways to supplement a consume engine without needing to settle or attack a lot of planets. The Double Time and Diversified technology cards also allow players to settle planets of different types without falling behind in the technology race. I was often frustrated to see my opponent jump to the second tier of techs when I was stuck at the first tier just because my planets didn’t match. This isn’t the case any more and it allows for much more interesting tableau development in the early game. In fact the wealth of options available through the abundance of technologies ensure that you will be far less like to see standard openings. This is further enforced through the use of Scenarios but I’ll come back to talking about those.
The cost of War(fare)
The emphasis on Warfare takes a role that was often at odds with most of the other roles (asides from Explore) and more naturally integrates it into the game. This is almost entirely due to the expanded role that ships play in the expansion. Players that pursue Warfare no longer have to bloat their deck with undesired Research cards in order to have access to technology and players without any Warfare cards have better access to ships through the new technology cards. On the other hand the divide between Warfare and the other roles is more clearly defined through the Peace Treaty powers that can be obtained through Research and Colonizing. Committing to Warfare is more flexible and profitable then ever but also allows other players to take advantage of your strategy beyond simply dissenting your inevitable Warfare calls. Seeing someone pursue Warfare has a much larger impact on the game then simply how often Colonize and Warfare will be called to aid in bringing more planets into play.
A number of the new technology cards also provide direct interaction but the reparations prevent them from being overly punishing when used often. With the inclusion of Peace Treaties they provide players emphasizing Warfare a tool to strike back. Most of the aggressive technology cards are more disruptive than anything as they won’t actually deny an opponent that many points. Because of this it’s very important to pay attention to what your opponent is doing so that you have time to adjust your plans. There aren’t very many interactive technologies but they definitely weren’t just thrown into the game to appease players that want to be able to mess with their opponents. They generally represent opportunities that can be taken advantage of when the conditions are right and thus must be weighed and taken into account in every game regardless of whether they get used.
Varied openings and the drastic impact of Scenarios
I’ve already talked about how the new technologies allow for more varied openings but Escalation adds several new ways to shake up the beginning of the game. The inclusion of new starting planets is an excellent way to give players more options right from the beginning of the game. Both types of planets emphasize new strategies that can lead to significantly new ways to start off your game. The prestige start worlds challenge players to delay researching until they have several planets in play and the expensive start worlds give a substantial boost to following roles if you can commit the extra effort it takes to get them into play. Both emphasize a play style that isn’t represented in the base game which means more options for the players.
But perhaps the biggest wrinkle that Escalation throws into Eminent Domain are the Scenarios. Simply put Scenarios take a game that could be explained as the sum of it’s various influences and really gives it an identity. Deck builders are infamous for making players overcome their initial deck which is made up of junky cards that you intend to replace. Eminent Domain doesn’t strictly do this but it does give players a little bit of everything which generally is not what you want. Over the course of the game you’ll work to build your deck to emphasize certain roles based on your planets and key technologies. What if you simply started with a pivotal technology and a more favorable distribution of roles? Instead of having to get through the initial part of the game where you struggle to shape your deck you can now simply jump ahead to what you’ve hopefully been working towards (but often don’t succeed at).
Scenarios let you experience that game of Eminent Domain that you always wanted to try but couldn’t quite pull off. They give you a tailored deck that would normally require a lot of work to set up. It can be a really fun opportunity for players that have a hard time with the deck building aspect of Eminent Domain or have always wanted to design a deck to take advantage of certain technologies. I’m not saying that some players don’t enjoy the challenge of building these decks on their own over the first dozen turns but for a lot of people Scenarios will add a lot of fun while cutting out some of the work. They’re thematic and offer unique experiences and an incredible amount of variety due to the large number of Scenarios included. They’ll lead to shorter and more focused games if that’s something that you’ve always hoped for.
I can see a couple potential negative aspects to Scenarios. Since they’re asymmetrical it’s quite possible that some of them are weaker or stronger than the others. In the games I’ve played so far I’ve found them to be well balanced but I could see how some might provide a faster start or be easier to abuse than others. I have no problem removing the problematic Scenarios if I ever run into them so I don’t foresee this being a significant downside. Another issue is that Scenarios can heavily influence your strategy which could be a turn off for someone that wants to be able to choose whichever path they’d like in any given game. Eminent Domain already encourages you into certain strategies based on your start world and your first several explorations but Scenarios are much more focused by giving you and Technology and pre-constructed deck. Again, this is not something that bothers me because I think you are still given a wide range of options even from the narrowed starting point that Scenarios present. In fact I like the idea of being handed a new strategy that I may not have tried out yet and would be unlikely to pursue in a more open system. Since you have the option to give back your Scenario and pick another one if you don’t like what you were dealt I don’t see a big problem with that aspect either.
Synthesize it for us!
Escalations is an essential expansion for anyone that enjoys Eminent Domain and wants to increase the options available to them during the game. It can be an overwhelming prospect at first to include so many new technologies but the learning curve isn’t as steep as it might seem and after several plays you’ll easily integrate them into your expanding strategies. The emphasis on Warfare is extremely well integrated into the game and allows for new and more flexible games alongside the new planets and technologies. And the icing on the cake are the Scenarios that really move Eminent Domain forward and present a completely new and exciting way to play the game.