Having significant, strategic decisions is critical for a turn-based strategy game. Players want a cause to pause, to weigh options, take advantage of modifiers. They want to explore in the best direction, expand into enemy territory, find and exploit weaknesses, and exterminate with few casualties. Players want choices and consequences with emotional weight, that stir the imagination and further the game narrative. The opposite is rote clicking through turns, waiting for something interesting to happen.
Shadow Empire is a unique sandbox of deep simulation in which you, the player, can immerse yourself and make strategic decisions for planetary conquest.
Shadow Empire is a sci-fi strategy wargame designed and developed by Victor Reijkersz of VR Designs and published by Slitherine Group. VR Designs has a long-standing collaboration with the Group (especially with the Matrix Games branch) in making detailed, turn-based wargames.
This article is an in-depth, day-one Shadow Empire review. I describe Shadow Empire’s game features and player experience so that you know what to expect.
First, I will start by talking about the game setup, planet generation, and setting. Next, I’ll describe terrain, logistics, resources, and trade. I’ll explain the military units and combat resolution. Then, I’ll cover Cabinet personnel, Factions, and Regime Profile. Finally, I’ll describe how it all ties into the Tech Tree, Regime Feats, and Stratagems.
Whew. That’s a lot, I know. That’s the point, this game has a lot of features and game mechanics. It feels to me like I’m just scratching the surface though. My hope is that by touching on the core elements you’ll get a sense of how it all synergizes. …Also, how freakin’ cool this game is.
In addition, I’ll explain how to go about learning the game and provide my impressions of the sound, graphics, and performance.
VR Designs is known for the Decisive Campaigns series and Advanced Tactics Gold. Unfortunately, this is my first experience with VR Designs so I’m unable to compare Shadow Empire with the earlier titles in any depth. The preview copy of the manual states that combat in Shadow Empire is similar to those games. So there’s that if you are familiar with either game.
Obviously, Decisive Campaigns has a historical, World War 2 setting. Looking at screenshots, I can discern a distinct resemblance in the map and interface between those games and Shadow Empire.
As I understand, Advanced Tactics Gold is more of a sandbox wargame with the means to provide many types of gaming experiences. I know that TortugaPower has years of experience with VR Designs games and is quite keen on Advanced Tactics Gold. Check out the TortugaPower channel on YouTube if you’d like to see the game in action.
I would guess that Shadow Empire derives from a blend of the earlier games. A showcase of Victor Reijkersz’s design and development experience and creative drive.
One of the neatest and geekiest features of Shadow Empire is planet generation. Planets are procedurally generated based on real, hard-core Astrobiology.
After clicking the Start New Game button you’ll select a Planetary Class from eight different types and sizes. There are planets that feature mostly desert, lava, or ancient jungles, for example. You can choose to play on a moon.
The next window is Generation Settings. You can choose to have a Quick Planet generation or a Detailed Planet generation. You also set the fog of war, tech level, story modules, and game difficulty.
I recommend the Detailed Planet generation. Assuming you selected this option, you’ll step through a series of windows to generate the planet. The steps are as follows:
On each window, you can click the Re-Roll button to get the types of features you prefer.
Next, is the Colonization window, which shows the planet population and economy before the Dissolution War. The game lists a brief timeline of historic events for the sake of story flavor and immersion.
The Apocalypse window displays the number of survivors and the population makeup. Another timeline lists the events after the Dissolution War to the present. Like the previous screens, this is all procedurally generated and different each time.
The final bit of game setup is the chance to customize your regime name and heraldry symbol and colors. Entering a favorite name and choosing favorite colors allows you to feel more invested in the new empire, to some degree.
The Dissolution War is an apocalyptic event that sets the stage for Shadow Empire. The events of the War are different in each game. They usually include high tech mining companies evacuating, reformist forces storming the planetary senate, nuclear fallout, and extremely virulent disease. The star lanes are destroyed leaving the planet isolated.
Now, hundreds of years later, societal bonds begin to form out of the savage, Mad Max remnants of the War. Land and resources are claimed by major and minor regimes. You are the Supreme Commander of a small, handful-of-hexes nation with a city, militia, and one or more government Councils.
The interface sounds, Council member responses, and unit movement sounds are basic but serviceable.
The in-game music consists of wordless female vocals, tight snare drums, and dramatic, synth string swells. The music matches the mysterious and other-worldly game setting and mood. I did not notice any abrupt track transitions or fluctuations in sound volume. The music stays in the background and creates an atmosphere. There is not a lot of music and it can be repetitive. That being the case, I think the developer managed to do quite a lot with so few music tracks.
Would more music be nice? Sure. More variety of music would improve the experience.
Shadow Empire is a game of world dominance. Throughout the game, you’ll continually expand your borders and uncover hexes with small cities, resources, and hex perks (like “goodie huts”); traveling raiders, slavers, and nomads; minor and major regime borders.
At the start of the game, it’s important to secure the area around your city; the first four hexes to be exact, to lower the danger level. You’ll move your militia outward to explore the nearby landscape.
Every hex is a specific landscape type with temperature, rainfall, and radiation levels. The landscape modifies the troop’s Action Points (AP). Also, each unit reads the landscape based on their Recon and Zone of Control (ZOC) points. Their Scavenge and Stack points vary too. All of this simulation makes each hex matter and provides realism.
Now, it’s easy to just move your units on the map and not really be concerned with landscape penalty modifiers too much. The distance a unit can move is highlighted. You just left-click on the unit and right-click to the new location. However, you’ll certainly notice less movement in sandy, mountainous, or forest hexes. Likewise, units move farther on dirt roads, sealed roads, and rail.
If you want to get deeper though—if you’re a grognard or a gamer that wants to take his or her wargaming to the next level—understanding the landscape modifiers and using them to your advantage during movement and battle adds strategic depth.
As your units explore the map and work to hold positions they will require supplies. They need fuel, food, ammo, and replacement troops. The farther from the main city they get, the fewer supplies they receive.
You’ll notice on the bottom left corner of each unit a rectangle of color that designates the degree to which their supplies are being met. If that color reaches black, for example, the unit is not getting supplies and troops may die soon.
To get a sense of how much supplies are getting where Shadow Empire has a logistics overlay that shows the percentage of supplies on each hex. A logistics system adds another level of realistic strategy to be mindful of.
If you want to mount an offensive against another regime’s army that’s 12 or so hexes from your main city, you’ll want to construct a truck station five hexes out so that you can extend your reach.
As you’d expect, your Logistics Network benefits from dirt or sealed roads, and by constructing rail lines. You can also construct a Supple Base, Rail Station, and Maglev Station.
Having an excellent Logistics Network is only helpful if there are enough resources to distribute. Resources are scarce on a bombed-out shell of a planet. To obtain and maintain adequate supplies, the Regime mines and scavenges metal and rare metals, drills oil, and grows food in domed, agricultural facilities. The buildings constructed for these efforts are constructed by you for the government, or they are built by private industry.
Another means of getting resources is from trade with nomadic traders. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for traders to show up, you just need to click the Trade button. You can buy resources at the current price point (all simulated under the hood with the other regimes in the game), provided you have the Credits. You can also sell the surplus.
At the start of a default game, your military Order of Battle (OOB) consists of a Strategic HQ (SHQ) unit above militia battalions and an infantry brigade. As your regime progresses in size and technology, you can raise new formations with new model types.
Each unit has data statistics to understand their relative power and current state. This data includes Troop Quality, Action Points, and Readiness; Morale, Experience, Entrenchment, and Supplies. Also, the experience and proximity of the commander provides an HQ Power value. As you can imagine, this data is critical when deciding where to move troops on the map, and whether to attack with ranged artillery first or to go all-in.
The unit stats are readily available in the lower-left when clicking on a unit.
With a unit selected, you’ll see the troops in that unit.
By clicking on a troop you’ll see the other important statistics needed to make military decisions. Each troop has its own hit points, offensive and defensive power, attacks per round, and upkeep value.
If your Recon level is high, you’ll be able to see much of the same information for enemy units. It’s important to get units with high Recon in place so that you can know your enemy and act accordingly.
The Eternity Guru has been embedded with 1st Geochron Armoured Battalion for weeks now. The Guru’s presence inspires the war-weary troops responding to Free Folk marauders encroaching at the outer edge of the zone.
Sending the Eternity Guru proved to be a fortuitous decision. See, the Guru is of the Syndic League, one of the two factions pressing their agenda. The other faction is the Humanist School, who express their empathy by demanding that I raise the average soldier morale. Thus, the Eternity Guru was assigned to one of the units in the field. Both factions approved of that decision.
Unfortunately, the Guru’s powers are not enough to help the troops besieging the small Free Folk settlement of Dark Vale. The marauders are well-entrenched and ready for whatever we throw at them. So be it. Our militia is surrounding the settlement and has plenty of artillery to throw. We can wait. We won’t win the hearts and minds of these Free Folk, I’m afraid, but we will expand our Empire and fight for dominance against the other regimes of the planet, Zeraro Lumus.
Combat occurs when you move a unit onto an enemy unit. At that point, a window displays the nearby forces eligible to attack. Your estimated offensive mods and the defensive mods of your enemy—to the degree of your reconnaissance—displays. Also, the odds of winning are provided.
If the odds are too low (even 6:1 odds are low if the enemy is entrenched and ready) you can back off and make a ranged attack with your artillery, which is less likely to get return fire.
When you click the Attack button, you watch as ten rounds of combat occur. The results show the number of killed and retreated troops.
The following is the detailed, text version of the Dark Vale battle results.
To assist you with leading your Regime is a Secretary and a Cabinet. The Cabinet consists of an Advisor, SHQ Commander, and Council Directors. Each member is a simulated individual with statistics, skills, faction leanings, and personality (!). Check out the character sheet for Tim Porthos, the Director of my Economic Council:
Apparently, Tim’s ambitious (80) with lots of Willpower (53). He has a high Prospecting skill (44) and a 6th Sense (51) about things. I particularly like his Capacity Level (CAP) (IV), which designates his capability to learn and be a good leader.
When a new Council is created, you choose from available recruits. Choose wisely. However, if you are unhappy with a Council member you can call them up and relieve them of their duties, if necessary.
I should attach my Advisor, Simba to the Staff Council perhaps to help Christy with her low Suitability score.
You can also swap personnel for more suitable positions. There are actually two places to compare personnel. One is the Personnel Overview screen on the Reports window. The other is the Leaders tab on the Management screen.
Keep an eye on the Relation score for each of the members of your Cabinet. If they are unhappy with you they’ll act out and not execute on your Decisions.
On most turns, there are Decisions for you to make. Making Decisions is one of the main things you’ll do each turn, the other being troop movement.
When you make Decisions you’ll consider the preferences and recommendations of your Cabinet members and consider their Relation scores. You’ll also consider the repercussions a decision will have on the Factions and Regime Profile.
Factions are movements in your regime that align with certain ideologies. For example, in my current game, there are the Syndic League and Humanist School factions. The factions vie for dominance in Parliament. They will place Demands on you. If you accept and fulfill a Demand you’ll get positive bonuses. Fail to meet the Demand and you’ll feel the wrath of declining modifiers. The pain is real.
The Regime Profile designates the regime’s Politics, Society, and Psychology stance. The Regime Profile Overview screen depicts the scores best for the sake of illustration; however, you’ll be looking at the abbreviated depiction of the scores on the left side of your window throughout the game.
Raising the value of a Profile value suppresses the value of another. For example, Democracy suppresses Autocracy value. Autocracy suppresses Meritocracy. Meritocracy suppresses Democracy. (Look for the gray arrows in the figure above.)
The Shadow Empire map doesn’t have the fidelity and color of a game like Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War. However, the map tiles are comparable to other wargame titles and they are easy to read. You may have to look twice to determine the direction of an escarpment, but you can readily make out mountains, sand, and forest.
Shadow Empire does not have the interface and art of an Amplitude Studios game. Instead, it has simpler, retro-futurist, hand-drawn art. The artwork sets a stark, maybe Eastern European, Cold War-era mood.
I’m not about to go into detail regarding the GUI. Suffice to say, I have no major complaints. At first, you’ll fumble for the game mode buttons, like Inspect, Move, and Hide Units. It’s best to learn the keyboard shortcuts.
You might ask, “What is the purpose of the Factions and Regime Profile? Why do I need to choose the best recruits and keep my Cabinet members happy?” The answer has to do with the Tech Tree, Regime Feats, and Stratagems.
The Tech Tree unlocks new technologies based on the discovery and research efforts of your Councils. For example, having a good Economics Council Director is important in the early game to discover and research Basic Tech.
Here’ s a very small part of the tech tree:
The small, blue “Ec” next to some technologies stands for Economic Council.
The Regime advances from discovering Solar Power and Automatic Rifles to Laser Rifles and Robotic Soldiers.
Regime Feats correspond to the Regime Profile. Raising a Profile (e.g., Commerce) value unlocks new tiers with positive bonuses and increases the chances for special units and Stratagems.
Remember, the Decisions you make raise or lower Regime Profile values. So trying to keep a certain Regime Profile elevated while making Decisions that relate to the motivations of your Cabinet, Factions, Militia, and Cults creates continual tension. This is why you will take most Decisions seriously.
Stratagem cards add intrigue, diplomacy, and significant events to the game. They are special ploys you can play on your Zone, HQ, military, or another Regime. Unlocking cards and card packs and then executing them feels somewhat godlike.
Rather than turning over a random card, you select the card event that most benefits your regime at the time. Playing a Stratagem card costs Fate Points (FP) or Political Points (PP), which are points that represent your personal intervention and accumulation of power. In some cases, playing a Stratagem requires an additional skill roll.
For example, you might play a Send Spy card on a neighboring zone. The Stratagem costs 5 PP to play. You’ll also need to make a Covert Ops. skill roll. If successful, your recon value for the neighboring zone increases, removing the fog of war. That’s a huge benefit when trying to size up an enemy.
Shadow Empire ran well on my laptop, which is hardly state-of-the-art. I have the following specs:
Intel Core i7-77000HQ CPU @ 2.8 GHz
8 GB RAM
GeForce GTX 1050 video card
Late-game turn AI did not seem to take longer.
As you can see, there is a lot to this game. You may be wary of starting a game with so many moving parts and complexity. Shadow Empire does not have a tutorial. It’s true. At least, I haven’t seen one yet. Don’t worry though. Thankfully, Shadow Empire does have resources to help learn the core features and esoteric details.
For starters, Shadow Empire has a large manual with a great description of the game universe and an explanation of all aspects of gameplay. My review copy has 222 pages and there are still placeholder sections and missing screenshots, so the final version will be longer. Maybe you don’t want to sit down and read the expletive manual? That’s fine.
At the top of the screen is the word, “Advice.” At the beginning of each round, you’ll receive advice regarding issues in your nation. The advice is specific to your current game and provides buttons that lead to instructions for carrying out corrective actions if you need. Better, right?
How about in-game Help Topics? On the reports screen is a Help tab. There, you’ll find information about the planet you created, a Stratagem Encyclopedia, and Help Topics. It’s worth getting a cup of coffee and scrolling through these topics.
Finally, there are some key YouTube playlists worth watching. The first is DasTactic’s Unclassified Planet play-through; very detailed, highly recommended.
The second is Grey Wolf’s Learn to Grog series.
Shadow Empire has a great deal of complexity and strategic depth, but it’s approachable. You don’t need to know everything to start playing. True, your first game won’t be the most efficient or successful campaign, but you’ll learn a lot and have fun, even as your offensive to overrun another regime’s city fails. In time, you’ll learn the finer details and grok the game mechanics.
The military grand strategy brushing up against science-fiction themes intrigues me. There are mysteries, strange encounters to uncover. If this game garners enough interest to warrant an expansion or DLC, I would like to see more mysteries, more alien life-forms, and more sci-fi soap-opera, yet still congruent with the current, hard-science realism.
Due to procedural generation, artificial intelligence, and overall complexity, the game is immersive and has extreme replay-ability. New stories emerge organically from the game systems and your actions.
I’m happy to report that Shadow Empire is engaging with many strategic decisions to consider, like deciding which units to move where on the map, which buildings to construct when, or deciding how to placate the failing approval of a Council member. You will have a hard time pulling yourself away from the computer. It’s quite gratifying to roleplay the part of a Supreme Commander in a strange, sci-fi world, building your empire one turn at a time.
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Developer: VR Designs
Publisher: Slitherine Group
Release State: Released
Release Date: June 4, 2020
Current Price: $39.99 on Slitherine Store
Review Version: v1.00
Review Platform: Windows 10 PC
If you’d like to read more about Shadow Empire, check out the feature article: Shadow Empire: Sci-Fi Strategy Sandbox
Thanks for reading this Shadow Empire Review! I’m hesitant to add review ratings. If I were to use Tom Chick’s rubric at Quarter to Three, I’d give Shadow Empire a 5/5, I loved the game.
Special thanks to Slitherine Group for letting me play the review version of Shadow Empire. Without that chance, I would not be able to write this article for you.
If you want to purchase Shadow Empire you can do so at the Slitherine store.
I see that DasTactic has just started a Tips and Tricks series on Shadow Empire. You may want to save that to your Watch Later list.
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