Welcome! This article is an introduction to Shadow Empire, a turn-based sci-fi wargame. I describe many of the game’s features and mechanics, along with my take on why the game is so engaging and truly special.
Shadow Empire is a new 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.
Like most wargames, you move military units around a hex map. That map is a distant planet the game procedurally generates based on your choices. The planet depicts the remnants of a broken society after an apocalyptic war.
You roleplay as the supreme ruler of a regime, managing the military, government, and economy. Turn-by-turn you’ll expand and exploit your way toward world domination.
The Slitherine website describes the gameplay experience as follows:
• Turn-based Strategy
• Planetary Exploration and Conquest
• Hardcore Military Simulation
• Deep management of your Empire and Economy
• Many Stratagems, Stories and Decisions combined with a roleplaying angle
• A Sandbox and Procedural experience that invites to play the game as you want
This article describes the features and mechanics that produce such a gameplay experience.
Shadow Empire is a blend of many genres: military wargame, 4X, turn-based strategy, colony simulator, RPG, management sim, and grand strategy.
I describe Shadow Empire as a turn-based, grand strategy wargame.
I use the term “wargame” instead of “game” because Shadow Empire is firmly in the tradition of military wargames, both tabletop and digital.
Most gamers associate the grand strategy genre with titles by Paradox Interactive. Games like Crusader Kings 2, Hearts of Iron, and Stellaris, for example. These games are large and complex with deep simulation. Players manage the many aspects of an empire, like economy, diplomacy, and war.
Shadow Empire is much the same as these grand strategy titles. In fact, Shadow Empire blends the themes of all those games mentioned too. (Take a minute to let that sink in.) However, the difference is that Paradox games are all real-time. Shadow Empire, on the other hand, is turn-based.
The fact that it’s turn-based might be one of the reasons I like it so much. I can understand why Paradox games are real-time, but I have always wished they were turn-based. I certainly pause them enough.
Most wargames take place in historical time periods here on Earth. Shadow Empire, however, takes place on a distant planet in the far future. It’s science-fiction, but with an emphasis on realism. I don’t know if it would be considered “hard science fiction” necessarily, but you get the idea.
I found the universe/backstory provided in the game manual fascinating. It describes how the super-rich families and oligarchies that end up owning Earth come together in a grand feudal system. The solar system is colonized and there is war in space. Warp drives discovered by the Terran Empire allow for space voyages to other systems. There’s the Galactic Republic and something called the Shadow.
I’m not about to give specifics on any of this; you’ll have to wait to read it yourself. I know much of it may sound cliche the way I describe it in broad strokes here. Nonetheless, I found the specifics of the timeline engrossing, unlike other fantasy and sci-fi backstories I’ve read over the years.
The introduction music: a mix of high, ethereal, wordless female vocals, grounded ethnic drumming, and electronic percussion downbeats and synthesizer. Perfect for setting the mood.
Now, the real setting for the game happens after all that space drama. The planet thrived with a large population. An apocalyptic event called the “Dissolution War” destroyed the star lanes and the population, and changed the planet.
Again, from the Slitherine website:
It is the year 8200. It has been several hundred years since the Dissolution War destroyed humankind. You and your people are rising out of the ashes and rediscovering technology and the concept of civilization.
Thus, the next chapter in the space drama unfolds at your fingertips.
Some modern pop culture references might be Dune, Mad Max, and Starship Troopers. Sounds cool, right? We’re just getting started.
The game setup is wonderfully detailed but fairly quick. If you choose to step through the detailed generation of the planet—and I recommend doing so—you’ll be able to customize your game in nine steps, plus three questions. That being said, if you want to immediately jump into an entirely random planet you can.
1. First, you choose the Planetary Class. Ice desert, tropical, or lava world? A moon? There are eight types plus something called “Unclassified,” a random selection of the existing planet types or something else altogether.
2. Second, you get various Generation Settings. Select a detailed planet generation or a fast random world. You can also control the fog of war, tech level, story modules, and game difficulty.
3. Third, you decide on the Planetology. Shadow Empire procedurally generates a planet for you. The planet details include the tilt, gravity, average temperature, and map size. If you don’t like it, you can choose to re-roll. In fact, you can re-roll each of these steps until step 8.
4. Next, is the Geology. This includes the percentage of mountains, plains, and oceans; average rainfall, wind speed, and seasonal temperatures.
Each game is one save file. It’s easy to have multiple games running at a time.
Choose the one you’re in the mood for!
5. The Biosphere is next. The amount of oxygen and CO2 in the atmosphere, for example. Organisms, plants, and animal species.
6. The next step is Colonization. How many people were there before the war? This screen shows the population and the economies of the people (e.g., agriculture, mining, services). Also, what I appreciate is the brief timeline of historic events. This isn’t the procedurally generated saga of Legends Mode in Dwarf Fortress, but it adds flavor.
7. Now that everything has been built it’s time for…Apocalypse. This screen displays the number of survivors and the population makeup. A new timeline of events lists events from the time after the apocalypse to now.
8. The final screen displays the resulting planet. It includes all the information as the previous screens, but with some differences. This is the last time the RE-ROLL button is available. Click START GAME.
9. On the next screen, you get to Customize Regime Name & Heraldry symbol and colors. Create a Seth Class planet and name your regime “House Atreides” if you want.
On the following three (3) screens you’ll answer multiple-choice questions that lay the foundation for your Regime Profile.
Each turn your cabinet has decisions for you to make. Your decisions typically alter your Regime Profile in some way.
A Regime Profile represents the regime’s Politics, Society, Psychology value groups. Each group consists of three ideologies that counter each other. For example, Democracy, Autocracy, and Meritocracy represent the regime’s political stance.
Raising the value of one suppresses the value of another. For example, Democracy will suppress the Autocracy value. Autocracy suppresses Meritocracy. Meritocracy suppresses Democracy. (Look for the gray arrows in the figure above.)
In addition to the three main Profile groups, there are also Militia, Cult, and Corporation relation values.
What’s interesting is that Profiles change as you play. You’ll make decisions based on three main factors:
You may find that Profiles you thought you wanted, change toward a Profile closer to your own personal worldview. This may also suggest you are not role-playing enough.
You’ll be challenged to raise the value of one ideology from each Profile group. Doing so unlocks regime Feats, which provide certain Stratagem cards and units.
Shadow Empires uses Stratagems, which are cards you play on your HQ, zone, or a nearby major or minor regime. New turns unlock Stratagem Packs based on regime progression. While I would not call Shadow Empire a card game, cards are certainly one of the mechanics.
Using cards in strategy wargames is not unusual. The Decisive Campaigns series from VR Designs has cards.
Volko Ruhnke’s COIN Series of board games released by GMT Games is an obvious example. In those games, a player turns a card over each turn, revealing new events and controlling faction turn order.
In Shadow Empire, the Stratagem cards are a means to make events happen. Rather than turning over a random card, you select the card event that most benefits your regime at the time. Unlocking card packs and executing them feels somewhat godlike, as you can imagine.
Playing a Stratagem card costs Fate Points (FP) or Political Points (PP), which are points that represent your personal interventions and accumulation of power. In some cases, playing a Stratagem requires an additional skill roll.
For example, you might play a Send Spy card to send to 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.
There are regiment, battalion, brigade, and militia formations. Each is made of models of tanks, motorcycles, machine guns, buggies, and artillery, to name just a few.
You can change the unit depiction to NATO iconography, which you may prefer if you’re an avid wargammer.
As you discover and research new technologies, you’ll be able to upgrade troops and raise formations of new model types.
Movement and combat are influenced by terrain modifiers. Each unit has action points to designate movement range. Highlighted tiles make it easy to determine how far a unit can move.
Combat resolution takes into account unit stats such as entrenchment, morale, readiness, and supply (also factors like Leadership skills and Posture Stratagems). If an enemy unit has a strong entrenchment score, for example, it’s best to encircle the unit and bombard them with artillery first.
The nearby city of Groundsnow Regime was overrun by raiders. I was offered a chance to create a federation if I could deal with the problem.
I held a siege on Groundsnow city. It took a lot of artillery bombardment to ware them down; they were well dug in.
Eventually, I did free the city and the Tirania Federation was formed.
A fantastic feature of Shadow Empire is the handling of logistics. With a click of a button you can see the logistics network in your zone, along with colors and percentages to convey the current state.
To improve logistics you can construct roads, truck supply, or railroad stations. The lower-left corner of each unit displays a color to designate its current supply, which is handy.
TIP: Press 6 to see the supply range with colored hexes.
In Shadow Empire, logistics is important. Luckily, the designer made managing logistics intuitive.
Your government consists of Councils such as an Economic Council and Military Research Council. The Councils are led by Council Directors. The Council Directors, along with your Advisors and Strategic Headquarters (SHQ) Commanders make up your Cabinet.
Each Cabinet member is a character with a full character sheet. They each have stats, skills, personality, and favored profiles and faction. You’ll need to be mindful of all these when making decisions.
TIP: Need a little help? There is an Advice button to alert you of things you might want to address.
Your Cabinet are members of Factions. The Factions lean toward specific Profiles, some of which may run counter to your Profile goals.
For example, in my first game I had the following Factions:
The PU aligned with my starting Profile. The SES wanted to participate in the Council, which was fine with me. I figured a small bit of tension would benefit roleplay. Now, I didn’t care for JWA and I gave them a hard time. At some point, I refused to appoint candidates for JWA. Thus, the following emergent event happened:
Mike Oroifield, Commander of the 1st MG Infantry Brigade and member of JWA, made bad decisions and embarrassed himself three times. Each time, I reprimanded him instead of backing him up.
Mike’s opinion of me lowered to nearly zero. I relieved him of duty. Then, it was zero.
What did he do? The bastard mobilized a rebel operation against me!
The uprising did not last long.
Throughout the game, you’ll manage resources and supplies for the zone. These are things like food, energy, and oil; ammunition, industrial points, and metal; colonists and recruits.
Regarding trade, if you have too much you can sell, and if you need more you can buy. The prices fluctuate over time according to market demand. I appreciate how intuitive this mechanic is implemented.
Certain hexes have resources to scavenge or mine, or simply gain by having in your zone. This makes exploration and occasional wars important for sustaining and growing the Regime.
You’ll need resources to raise and maintain military formations, construct city assets (which also produce certain resources), and have enough Credits to pay for government administration costs and the various wants and needs of factions.
When you click the Next Turn/Round button, two months (in Earth time) pass. During that time the AI regimes make their moves.
Next, a Vidcom displays important messages. One message is your Word Score status. The Word Score designates the degree to which others feel you have kept your promises.
Occasionally, your Cabinet will come to you with demands. You can choose whether or not to accept the challenge of meeting those demands in the required number of rounds. Doing so improves your Word Score. However, failing to meet those demands has negative repercussions throughout your regime.
The Word Score impacts your relations with Cabinet members and their Factions. Take on only what you think you can successfully achieve.
The Empire Dashboard allows you to monitor your current Word Score, along with other stats, such as Bureaucratic Points (BP). You’ll use BP to take actions managing your government and research.
There is a lot to Shadow Empire. Obviously, I can’t capture it all here. I just want to give an idea of some of the features and what to expect.
I have not mentioned anything about bonuses and feats, viewing turn history or statistics; colonization, the workshop, and replacing troops; order modes or map layers, free people, and taxation; loyalty, unrest, artifacts, cults, and sects. There is so much to immerse yourself in.
Shadow Empire is a sci-fi strategy sandbox. Different every time with a myriad of strategic choices and stories to tell.
What impresses me is that it all works well together. All these mechanics shift and move together to create tension and release. Emergent stories form from the computational strands of simulation and the strategic choices you make every turn.
Despite the complexity and lack of tutorial (at this point), I did not feel overwhelmed. Sure, I had to take the time to look around at all the tabs and buttons. There are plenty of finer details I don’t understand yet, but that’s okay; I’ll learn as I go.
What I’m saying is that this game is approachable. The systems make sense to me. If you haven’t discerned yet, I’m quite taken with Shadow Empire.
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Related Article: Shadow Empire Review: Deep Simulation for Strategic Decisions
If you are intrigued and want to see the game in action, I recommend watching the videos below. These videos helped me learn game mechanics and related strategies.
DasTactic’s Medusa Let’s Play is a chance to see a Medusa World with large alien lifeforms.
Check out TortugaPower’s Shadow Empire Preview series. Start with his Preview Stream.
Check out Grey Hunter’s Learn to Grog guides to Shadow Empire. Start at Part 1.
Finally, eXplorminate showcased a Lava Planet.
What’s neat is that each of the YouTuber’s above approach the game differently and show off different features. They do a great job. These videos have been my evening, science-fiction soap operas. My work-out on the treadmill jam.
Thanks for reading this Shadow Empire feature!
Special thanks go to Slitherine Group for letting me play the First Impressions version of Shadow Empire. Without that chance I would not be able to write this article for you.
If you’d like to hear an interview with the designer, Victor Reijkersz, listen to Episode 52 of the Single Malt Strategy podcast.
If you like the content here at Emergent Mage, please bookmark the site and share it with a friend. I appreciate it!
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