Ever since I discovered computer wargames, I could not go back to my previous favorite genre, which is 4X. Often 4X games are too simple and give little attention to warfare if any. Shadow Empire’s ambition is to combine the empire-building of 4X games with the combat and political machination of the Decisive Campaign series. And it works!
Your goal is to conquer a randomized planet with a randomized ecology in a randomized system. At the start of the game, you are given a choice to choose how detailed you want your planet to be up to last rock! Even so, you can only have control over your planet by re-rolling the settings that will be your home planet. All of these settings will affect your playthrough, from resource locations to movements and fatigue of your troops based on the terrain and wind speed. The details here are insane! The biosphere of your planet will also determine how toxic the air levels will be and how it will affect other lifeforms, including the level of vegetation.
Ok, enough about boring rock science! From a wargamer’s point of view, this game ticks many boxes. You are given control of the regime’s military – yes, you are a regime dictator. Starting with your Supreme Head Quarters at your base, you have command and control over your army’s Order of Battle. You are tasked, not only with protecting your regime but also to find nearby resources to rebuild your colonies and increase your military strength. The military size range from the brigade, corps, and army level. Something unseen in most 4X games.
Shadow Empire is not an easy game. Your neighbors are mostly hostile, and you may be even thrown into a war in your first turn, simply because you didn’t pay protection money to the local raiders. Army organization and supply lines are as important here as in any other wargame. Your units will run out of supply if they drift too far from the roads and rail lines. There is a whole logistical mini-game here. From building rail stations, truck stations to supply bases at strategic points, you are responsible for anything and everything related to your military’s wellbeing.
Now, let’s get down to politics and intrigue. At the start of your turn, you as God-Emperor of your regime will have advisors seeking your decisions on important matters of governance, military preparation, budget for zoning, and funding allocation for research. Your choice will cost your political points but will benefit your governance and military posture. Points allocated to Politics, Society, and Psychology will unlock Stratergem cards to aid your regime. These cards can then be used to find resources, send spies to other factions, increase tariffs, or even guarantee the protection of your neighbors. Since Stratagem cards generation is random, you don’t have much control over this, leading to higher replayability.
However, the most significant impact of politics is on your relationship with your advisor or heads of departments. They will like or dislike you based on your decisions, which, in turn, will have an impact on the options they present to you. They can also get a cult following. So be careful when they ask to have their own little army for “protection” This happened to me.
Keeping the game interesting is the random events occurring in your regime, which requires your attention to solve. But the options presented may have both positive and negative implications in the same decision, rendering more thoughts in your decision. These aren’t just comparing stats but also possible consequences like revolts, and are not easily made as they are in Paradox games. One example was a military leader forced to enlist local librarians into the military. I ended reprimanding him and reversing the order, keeping my subordinates in check and preventing a revolt from the town. Phew!
Shadow Empire has many levels of a fog of war, which are essential in a wargame. At the start, you can determine if you have info on the planet before or after colonization, and whether or not you’ll retain the intelligence when the game starts. It may be a tad confusing to some, but others would appreciate the granularity of this in a 4X wargame.
Speaking of the fog of war, when it comes down to land movements and combat, your recon level will determine how much info you know about the enemy, and sending troops right next to an enemy tile will not give you much info if you have low recon. Only more time or surrounding the enemy will gather intel on their composition and strength.
Most of the maps will be unknown to you, and the forces inhabiting your surroundings are as alien to you as if they were their namesake. Oh yeah, slavery is a thing in Shadow Empire. You can buy them from traders to increase your population at the cost of your meritocracy, taking a hit. But then again, you are God emperor of a regime after all.
Now, you may be wondering why I have been tip-toeing sheepishly over combat. The reason is it’s not much different from other wargames. Shadow Empire takes its cues in combat from the Decisive Campaigns series. You can stack units together in one hex and order a ranged or regular attack on the enemy position, and it will tell you the odds of winning. As the combat progresses, you can view the order of the units as they enter the battle and if they surrendered, retreated, or were defeated by intuitive icons. If only other wargames could have this simple but effective representation.
Your units aren’t dumb either, even when you order them to assault an enemy against odds. They will attempt their assault and fall back without losing any men. So you don’t have to worry too much about your strategic military mistakes having any lasting effect on your troops.
Ultimately, I feel my review may not do justice to this titan of a game. There are so many mechanics and intricacies that I would think any further writing may turn my review into a guide and bore all of you to sleep! Don’t take it the wrong way, but this game will take up a considerable chunk of your time just to learn what’s what. It’s like the Gary Grigsby of 4X. You are free to name any other 4X game that is as deep as Shadow Empire.
For me, Shadow Empire is a long overdue hybrid 4X Wargame I had been waiting for these past years. And it’s going to be a contender for the wargame of the year in my book.