Updated: Jul 19, 2020
There is pretty much an entire genre of games where the players are noblemen or courtiers jockeying for position to win the favour of the king and be chosen as his successor. Movie Empire fits right in with that genre but it transposes it from the Middle Ages to the modern movie industry. Instead of courtiers currying favour with a king, players are ambitious movie producers vying to succeed the retiring studio boss at MGM. No, not that MGM. Here it stands for Mister Grumpy Movies: any resemblance to any Hollywood studio is, I am sure, purely coincidental. :-)
Movie Empire is designed by Karsten Schulmann with art by Allan Ohr. The theme is jocular, as is evident from the amusing spoof movie and actor names on the cards, but this is a medium weight euro game. It runs for 10 rounds, each of which is divided into four ‘phases’: a ‘grumpy’ phase, a ‘working’ phase, the premiere phase and an upkeep phase. The ‘grumpy’ phase is essentially an event card that will have an effect or place a limitation on play in the following round. The working phase uses worker placement and set collection mechanics as players deploy their production assistants to different locations to buy scripts, cast actors, shoot the movie and ready it for its premiere. It’s this phase that makes up the meat of the game. When players have produced a movie in the working phase and readied it for premiere, the short premiere phase determines into which market (US, Europe or China) the film is released. This affects the bonus that the player receives (cash, victory points or an extra production card) but it may also determine Oscar-style awards which deliver further end-game victory point bonuses.
The rules also involve various ‘black dossier’ options for upping the impact of actions that sabotage or simply spread gossip about other players (scoring positive or negative 'sympathy' from the hard-to-please Mr Grumpy). While these are bang on target in our post-Weinstein ‘Me Too’ age, they do weigh down a game that already involves a lot of moving parts. The draft rules we played with had these elements separately marked out, suggesting they should be treated as optional. This is sound advice. You'll enjoy Movie Empire all the more if you reserve the more aggressive ‘take that’ experience till you've already familiarised yourselves with all the other elements of the game. It’s a big plus that the game allows for both styles of play.
We had a lot of fun playing Movie Empire. The game captures the Hollywood theme well and it makes good use of humour. Some of the iconography on the 'grumpy phase' event cards is a little opaque, but the text translation in the rulebook is crystal clear. We just had a few gripes about some of the terms used in the game: we felt there was a disconnect from the theme, for example, to see references to ‘publishing’ a movie rather than, say, ‘releasing’ it. The version we played was a pre-production preview prototype so it may well be that this will change in the finished version. We also wondered whether it might be better to replace the generic ‘victory points’ with something more game specific like 'fame' or 'critical acclaim'. Of course, cynics would argue that the movie industry is one where everything comes down to the bottom line and box office receipts, but if money were the principal measure of achievement in Movie Empire, it would be a somewhat different game.