Thursday, April 14, 2016

Board Game Review of Inca Empire

Inca Empire by Alan D. Ernstein, Published by Zman Games
3-4 players, 90-120 minutes

TL:DR Version
Inca Empire is a Euro style classic of expansion, exploitation, and empire building which weighs in heavy on time to play but genuinely feels like you’re building up an empire.  While you’re trying to win, there’s a hint of a cooperative element to see how far the Inca Empire can stretch.  Primary mechanics are Route Building, Empire Building, and Civilization Lite.


The Pitch
They say the Inca Empire wasn’t built in a day but rather two hours.  Two long, excruciating hours where that one jerk won’t stop connecting to all of your cities and garrisons like some Incan Coattail Riding Jerk Face who should just go off and do his own thing.  That jerk who places the gods wrath in your empire while his gets an easy path to glory… that jerk!
Welcome to Inca Empire, one of my favorite board games and that one jerk mentioned in the blurb above?  I’m usually that jerk.  Inca Empire is a game with a ton of bits and a long run up to the end game that feels satisfying every step of the way.  The goal of Inca Empire is, of course, points which is achieved primarily by both building and connecting to the most areas on the board.


The Play
Before I get too in depth, I have to explain a few components in the game.  The first is the map itself which is long and has a large number of regions which are, initially, unconquered.  Early in the game, conquering these regions allows cities and garrisons to be built and, more importantly, brings you the “labor” to accomplish this.  Try to ignore the social implications of conquered regions generating labor.
There is also a “Sun Board” which players put their Sun Cards which are helps or hindrances depending on placement.  Each section of this board shows two colors meaning those two players will be affected by that card.  These cards will flush away at the end of every scoring round but as the game winds towards its close, this can get to be a lot to keep track of.
The game has 4 main phases which, depending on the era (round) some may be skipped or even occur many times before a scoring happens.  Each round begins with Inca Phase where players gain a set number of Labor Tokens that era determines plus bonuses for their conquered regions as well as terraces.  At a certain point in the game, the players in 1st and 2nd must also give some Labor to plays in 3rd and 4th.  The Inca Phase will begin every Era. Each Era also ends with a Sapa Inca Phase where players gain points for each City, Temple, and Garrison they’re connected to along with a point  for every Terrace they’ve built.  All Sun Cards are also discarded and players may bank Labor Tokens equal to the number of tokens they’d gain in the next era, losing excesses.
The other two phases deserve a section all on their own and they are the Sun Phase and People Phase.  The Sun Phase is where those cards I mentioned before come in play.  You’ll begin this phase by determining turn order then, each player puts a Sun Card (face down) in a position that hasn’t had one placed yet.  Then, all are revealed and resolved.  These cards may be helpful such as giving you an extra road placement or they can hurt you by making cities cost more to establish.  The phase they influence can be found in a small icon in the middle left portion and of note here is these do NOT clear until a scoring phase.  So early in the game, these are only minor players but in the final era, you’ll contend with 4 of these.
The People Phase is where all the rest of your empire building occurs.  You’ll get, by default, 2 free roads as well as an action.  These actions are Conquering a Region, build an extra road, or build a City/Garrison/Temple/Terrace.  Terraces can be built anywhere but Garrisons and Cities can only be built on the marked spaces.  Temples can only be built on cities.  All of these features have a “built” point reward as well as a recurring “Connected To” point bonus scored during the Sapa Inca Phase.

Image Credit: BGG User ultreia

The game also has a couple mini expansions although one is annoying to setup and the other ends the game at a random time so I ignore both of these.
The Commentary
In general, I really enjoy this game for its strategy and almost Competitive Cooperative nature.  You see, how it plays best is when your goal is to not only build your empire but build it close enough to two other players.  Offering them just enough points to make them build close enough to connect but making sure you get the larger bulk sum between those other two players.  Being aggressive early in the game (boxing a player in) holds no real benefit since a card can bypass this and you’re wasting your time not building yourself up.
As much as I do love this game, there are a few major flaws that potential buyers should be aware of.  The first is the scoring.  Early in the game, it’s fairly easy to score and move on but the last 3 Eras become an increasingly tasking event.  Some players may find extended scoring phases, especially when they occur multiple times, a real turnoff.  The game also has little hidden information which means, since its VERY number crunchy, some players who are prone to AP will completely grind this game to a halt.  Finally, this game has a serious runaway leader problem.  If someone is far behind, the little aid they gain cannot be enough to catch the leader unless all other players focus on slowing them down at least before the midway point and even then it can seem like a Herculean task.

This review was written by David Sheppard, better known as Sheppy. Sheppy is an aspiring game designer/artist and gaming hobbyist located in Illinois. Some of his designs can be seen on the poorly maintained website www.twitchfactory.com and his Twitter handle is @TwitchFactory.