Every now and then a game comes along that causes a bit of a stir and gets the community all of a flap. Like a teenage boy seeing a girl at party and going all shy when she looks his way. Empire of the Dead is one of those games.
For those that aren’t in the know, Empire of the Dead – by West Wing Productions – is a Steampunk skirmish game set in the year of our Lord 1888. The discovery of a rare mineral called Infernium has given the world a self-perpetuating energy source and changed the course of history forever. However, the discovery of this flame red stone has coincided with the return of the world’s most ancient evils. Now, I’ll be honest here, beyond that the background gets a little vague. Whether by design or not, EotD doesn’t come out and say that Infernium is, essentially hell stuff and its discovery is the first sign of the Apocalypse. It just kinda hints at it.
That’s fine, but regular readers will know how I feel about fluff and how I like to know where I stand and what I’m fighting for. And, to be honest, as backgrounds go it’s cool and interesting and there’s plenty to get the imagination going without the detail that I search for in games. In fact, one of the best things about Empire of the Dead is that it isn’t Steampunk, or even Steampunk Horror. It’s called Steampunk because it’s easier to categorise it that way. Empire of the Dead is Steamfantasy. And it’s awesome.
The backdrop of a Victorian world where there is not only absolutely crazy technology but the Undead, Werewolves and Vampires is awesome. Blending genres is a tough thing to do and really only the Games Workshop have been successful in doing so but West Wind knock it out the park.
The other cool thing about the fluff and with it the factions is that only a select few really know what’s going on. The average person is utterly oblivious to the evils that lurk in the dark places of the world and it falls to the militant arm of the Church and Gentleman’s Clubs full of Alan Quartermain-esque adventurers who put their personal fortunes to good use travelling the world putting zombies and the like to the torch. Or in some cases advance the cause of evil for their own nefarious ends. West Wind do a great job of establishing a sense of peril without labouring the point. It’s established the premise, now it’s up to us as gamers to populate that world with tales of great deeds and bitter betrayals.
Moreover the backdrop allows for so many more cool factions to come out in time. The demonic being the most obvious (might have to beg West Wind to let me write that one) or even a faction of fallen angels. That would be awesome.
So having established the background is awesome let’s move on to the game itself.
The first thing I have to say is that, to my eternal gratitude, Empire of the Dead doesn’t have named characters in their factions. They have character classes and that’s it. You’re free to create your own warband, with their own names and back story. This is a huge massive awesome tick for me as too often games have the narrative in the faction rather than the game completely killing replay value and preventing hobyists like me from creating their own adventures.
And because it’s Steamfantasy the weapon options available when forming or developing your warband are just ace. Favourites include the pneumatic stake, the man portable gatling gun, the tesla projector and the steam exo-skeleton. Oh yes! A. Steam. Exo. Skeleton. Boom! It also steers clear of ‘magic’ opting for Arcane Lore instead. There’s an important difference as instead of it being hocus-pocus and all that Harry Potter, whispy beard nonsense it’s all based around faith, spirituality and heaven & hell. It’s about tapping into the powers of the great unknowable universe than cauldrons or ethereal winds.
There’s also a comprehensive campaign system that allows gamers to progress their warbands along quite nicely including skills and injuries. It has the scent of Mordheim about it in places but I say this for two reasons 1. to help you give you a flavour for the gaming experience and 2. Mordheim is an absolutely top game so Empire of the Dead is in good company. What separates EotD from its damned cousin is its ambition. Mordheim was set in a city, which was fine, but EotD is set wherever the hell you like. West Wind have gone to pains to make sure you can play your games in cities, the countryside, in the sewers, even – and I shit thee not – botanical gardens which also include rules for gribbly plants.
Picking up the game basics are very easy to grasp. You activate a bloke, move him, mang people, move on to the next bloke. Obviously I’m paraphrasing. This works really well for a skirmish game simply because each model is, although part of a team, fighting for themselves. They’re not part of an organised regiment with lots of armoured buddies around them. Forcing players to move, shoot/attack with each model before moving on to the next keeps you thinking about the bigger picture much more so than the traditional move, shoot, combat phases.
The stats themselves are what one would expect – movement, manging faces, shooting faces, preventing faces from being manged etc but why reinvent the wheel? The opposing roll mechanic works and people are familiar with it. Anything that means less time checking rules and more time playing is a win in my book. Combined with a streamlined phase system means the game has a good pace.
It still has all the rules like fighting over obstacles, snap fire and what happens when people lose their nerve and cheese it, but everything is clearly written and usually involves little more than a modifier so as long as you’ve downloaded the quick play sheet – which would be really handy if it came with the rules – it won’t disrupt play one jot.
But I can’t talk about the game without talking about the models too. At present starter sets for the Gentleman’s Club, Vampires, Werewolves, The Brotherhood as well as a box of Victorian Zombies. Retailing at £25 for 8 they’re pretty much in line with everyone else at the moment.
For single piece models they’re pretty damn good and capture the character of each of the factions extremely well. I got my hands on the Gentleman’s Club box and there’s actually a bonkers amount of detail on them. One of them is holding a pocket watch, another has a monocle and the chain attaching it to his smoking jacket is not only present but cleanly sculpted and cast. They’ve also got lots of nice little touches pointing at the age in which they live. One man has what looks like night vision goggles. Another has a satchel full of takes and a lump hammer.
I’ve only seen images of the other models in the range and they look pretty good and over time I’m sure more variations will be on the way to help you expand your warbands or start new factions.
Empire of the Dead is an awesome game and the book is beautifully presented. It’s got great background and a strong game mechanic allied with a robust campaign tool that gives the game genuine replay value which will only increase as more models become available. I could have done with a little more detail in the fluff but it by no means detracts from what I would say could be genre defining game. And it’s one of the few games I’ve reviewed that I actually want to keep playing and get The Chaps involved with.