Between Twilight Imperium (FFG) and Eclipse (Lautapelit) you might think the market for 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) space games was pretty much sewn up. Thematically, Rise of an Emperor is following a well-travelled path but this is a game that feels and plays very differently from its epic predecessors.
With art by Javier Roa Gonzalez, the premise of Alberto Puertas' Rise of an Emperor is that, after a near-extinction-event war, rival 'houses' have established a peaceful hegemony over the Earth. The houses have maintained a delicate balance of power but the development of travel to distant solar systems has opened up new prospects for competition. In this game, the 2-4 players each control one of the 'Regent Houses' (think of these much like the dynastic houses in the Dune saga) and you'll be exploring planets, exploiting them for their resources, setting up colonies and subjugating any alien species you encounter. The colonies of other players can be invaded too... The idea is that you'll be accumulating victory points, with the winner ultimately anointed as Emperor.
Publisher 4Dados hasn't skimped on the cards in this game. Indeed you may initially feel overwhelmed with the sheer number of cards (770!), not to mention the plethora of tokens. The cards break down into a number of different types but you'll start the game building your faction by taking one of the seven Regent House decks (10 cards apiece) and then choosing two of the different 'path' decks of 20 cards to create your own tailored deck of 50 cards. Each of the 'paths' prioritises a different core strategy: science, religion, economics, politics, subterfuge, military. There are two decks for each path, so in a two-player game it would be possible for both players to choose the same sets of path cards.
You'll mostly be playing each round with a hand of eight cards drawn from your deck, but most cards have a cost in cash, technology or influence that has to paid before the card can be activated. In addition, many of the cards need to be 'developed': played face down to your player mat and only revealed when you've assigned over one or more turns the development points indicated on the card.
Rise of an Emperor combines hand management with worker placement style action selection. At the start of each round, players take turns to place out tokens to indicate the actions (three in all) that they plan to take. These can include taking specific resources (for example, the influence tokens you need in order to play one of your cards or accumulating more of the military might you may subsequently need in combat), taking a card from the Council display, exploring a planet (peeking at or flipping over one of the randomised planet tiles) and establishing a colony. As you explore strange new worlds, you'll encounter alien life forms and the ruins of long-dead civilisations, and you may discover valuable alien artefacts...
There are some exquisite subtleties too. The peace has been preserved through a treaty that limits the actions that any house can take. You can take actions that are illegal (in breach of the treaty) but you'll need to use subterfuge to cover up your crimes or clever legal ploys to legitimise them...
With so many options and combinations available for your initial deck creation, there's a huge amount to discover in Rise of an Emperor and no two games are ever likely to play out the same. Rise of an Emperor is on Kickstarter now. Click here to check it out. 4Dados is a Spanish publisher and it hasn't launched its campaign with the fanfare of publicity that you'd have expected from a US publishing house launching a comparable game. Don't let the quiet launch deter you, however. This is a game with a lot going for it and it's been priced very competitively!