Crispy Gamer

Armageddon Empires (PC)

Do any of these words scare you off? Turn-based. Hexes. Supply. Cards. Dice. Indie. No? Still here? Okay, what do these words do for you? Post-apocalyptic. Mutants. Aliens. Rebellious sentient machines. Assassination. Pod Hovership air strike. Scouts riding T-Rexes. Cyborg Doom Canister. Filthy, cheating, no-good, enemy-loving dice...oh, wait, look at that string of rolls! Sweet!

But here's the operative word when it comes to Armageddon Empires: strategy. This small indie development is the most exciting honest-to-goodness strategy game from the last five years that doesn't have the word "civilization" in the title. Yeah, sure, it's got modest production values and it relies on plenty of old-school turn-based trappings. But most importantly, it's a slick game that offers an exciting, brainy and imaginative trip to the other side of the end of the world.

The setting is a randomly generated post-apocalyptic wasteland, which makes for a very brown map. But rest assured there are plenty of hidden goodies to make these dun hexes worth exploring, and the factions fighting to control them are anything but drab. You have a militant human Empire; a bunch of squishy, man-eating aliens; muscled, dino-riding mutants and sleek, ruthless cyborgs. Each side has its own unique armies, heroes and gameplay tweaks. It's a creative sci-fi mish-mash of Mad Max, Roadwar 2000, Fallout, and The Terminator, sprinkled liberally with nods to source material any geek would love, ranging from Half-Life to Jack Vance to H.P. Lovecraft to Gamma World to 50s B-movies.

At the most basic level, this is a turn-based strategy game along the lines of Panzer General, with the objective hex always being the enemy's HQ. But there's a lot more here than just moving around units and letting the math and dice determine who lives or dies. There's an economic system: Search for, establish and jealously protect resource locations on the map. There's a supply system: Use facilities and special units to extend your armies' effective range. There's a combat system: Match cards' defense and attack values, modified by special abilities and dictated by dice. There's a recon system: Use special scout units to see the map so your armies aren't fumbling around blindly. There's a research system: Scientists build faction-unique toys and tacticians create battle-changing tactics cards. There's a hero system: powerful named individuals will lead armies and tweak the rules. There are air strikes, subterfuge, prisoners and superweapons. There's a lot here, and it's nothing short of epic in scope.

The pacing is fluid and tense. With your fingers perched lightly on the WASD keys, it's easy to glide through the early turns, dice rolling along as you go. You're foraging among the ruins, saving up for the cards you want, sending out scouts to learn the lay of the land and dig up treasures. The turns pass, uneventful and safe. And then something happens. Maybe an enemy army appears on your border or you spot an assassin slinking into your base to try to assassinate your scientist. Maybe you spy the enemy base from a distance and now you have to keep him hemmed in. Maybe you find a particularly juicy neutral spot worth conquering. It's on.

The mid- and endgame stages of Armageddon Empires are dense with decisions and detail. Every army and hero has special abilities, and every card is rich with possibility. It's laid out like a board game, with information never more than a click or two away. This isn't a computer game hiding numbers under the hood. It's clear and articulate, with bald math made more interesting by the luck of the draw, those damn dice (oh, the betrayal!) and just the right amount of artwork and creativity.

Once you've played a match or two, you can't help but dig into the deck-building, where you'll have to brave a horrible interface that presents the cards in unsortable virtual piles. Fortunately, it's pretty easy to wrap your brain around each faction's cards. This is where the game's personality really starts to burble up. This is where you'll build your own story and come to know the dramatis personae. What's the best way to meet the aliens' voracious need for human flesh? Dare you build an alien deck without the Cyaeg Queen and a complement of her Xenopod Larvae? Which are your mutant dragons of choice? How much mileage can you get out of a Machine deck built around their considerable airpower? Can Imperial artillery behind a screen of cheap infantry win the day? It's a paradise for fans of collectible card games, and it's a primer for those who haven't yet discovered them. However, it's worth noting there's no collecting; all the cards are included in the game.

In addition to a better deck-building interface, Armageddon Empires could use a few more interface improvements. It's hard to get an overview of the map with the same tiny icons representing massive armies and lone scouts, each of which you'll have to click on to remind yourself whether it's already moved. To the developer's credit, the interface has come a long way since the game was released, and each patch has included a few welcome new features. Also, there's a free expansion in the works that will add new cards. This feels very much like a living game, evolving with feedback and still giving even after you've paid your $30.

There's no multiplayer support, which is a shame since this is exactly the sort of game that would benefit from human quirks and insight. But Armageddon Empires doesn't really suffer for it, thanks to an excellent artificial intelligence that plays by the rules. It can take full advantage of all the game's features and it's perfectly capable of surprising you. Thanks to the rules for stealth and recon, Armageddon Empires is rarely over until it's over. For a truly epic game, set up a huge map with all four factions present and carefully make your way across the wasteland. A high score list arranged by the name of the deck you used is plenty of incentive to try again and see if you can do better -- and, of course, there's always the desire to tweak and improve your favorite deck.

Armageddon Empires recalls those great turn-based games from QQP, or those boxed Steve Jackson games, or the best of board gaming and collectible card gaming. It's a shrewd formula of bits and pieces of gaming -- dice, cards, pieces on a board, ones and zeroes, what have you -- infused with vision and personality, equal parts smart design and geeky imagination. With a hard drive footprint of only 100 MB, here is a reminder that great things still come in small packages.

This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.