Oriental Empires is a Turn-based 4X game released on PC. The game is developed by Shining Pixel Studio and published by Iceberg Interactive.
When you first get into a grand campaign in Oriental Empires, you may initially feel like this is just a cheap Civilization clone with a different theme painted over it. However, upon choosing your faction and entering the game proper, you’ll come to realise that this game has its own ideas for the 4X genre. Where Civilization aims mainly to bring the 4X genre to a wider audience, Oriental Empires will appeal to fans of the more complex elements of the genre.
Welcome to The Orient
Step forth as a great military or economical mind in the warring states period of China and put forth your claim to become the great Son of Heaven. Whether you subscribe to Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Zhuge Liang’s balanced mastery or Sima Yi’s dedication to achieve his vision regardless of who is stepped upon, it’s time to write your own book on strategy.
On a basic level, Oriental Empires is very similar to Civilization. However, after a few turns it will quickly become apparent that there are many differences that add a level of depth while maintaining simple enough core mechanics that you don’t need to read a novel before you’re able to play.
Turns are completed simultaneously which can come with unexpected outcomes. The game map is hex-based and there is no mini-map in sight. Instead you can zoom all the way out to get a birds-eye view on the world which can allow you to more accurately plan moves in advance.
Oriental Empires has a user interface that belies its complexity. It’s rare to play a game that manages to execute its UI in such a way that everything is laid out in an intuitive manner while also giving comprehensive control.
In terms of your empire as a whole, there are six buttons on the right side of the screen that will give access to almost everything you require. You’ll be able to enter diplomacy with opposing empires where you can make demands, deals or simply deal death by declaring war.
There’s also research and technology which is split into four separate categories; Power, Craft, Thought and Knowledge. You are able to execute one research in each category simultaneously. Some research requires multiple categories such as Light Chariot which requires research from the Power and Knowledge tree – These are shown down the right side of each research category.
This menu also allows you to issue edicts to your population which can provide temporary and permanent effects. Often this means taking a few turns of negative output for a mostly positive permanent upgrade. You can also – and will most likely need to – have multiple edicts actioned at once. However, edicts can also come with cancellation effects which tend to be negative or are unable to be canceled at all.
You are also able to access the financial screen which shows your expenses for the last two turns and the game as a whole. This can be useful in figuring out where you can either cut some costs or push extra resource to ensure you’re not sitting on money that could be used for expansion – which in turn can bring in more money.
Your empire overview is also shown here where you can review your faction boons and banes, see how close you are to the four victory types and where your culture and authority points come from. To put it simply, culture aids in expansion by boosting income and authority limits expansion by creating unrest if you exceed your authority in number of settlements. This screen does allow you to automate certain parts of your empire if it’s all becoming too much to manage.
Lastly, there is a simple leaderboard that can help you pick your targets or who you may want to ally with based on various different scores such as military strength or number of settlements.
On the left side of the screen is an overview of all of your settlements, units and notifications for events and updates on your and other empires. This allows you to, at a glance, ensure you have enacted everything you intended to for each settlement and unit as shown by icons depicting actions being performed this turn.
This is where most of your early game will be spent. It’s imperative that you learn good balance in how you utilise your city’s workforce. Population is the backbone of your empire and will dictate everything from how many farms you can have (which dictates food and in turn growth), building and clearing forests.
Within each city you’ll want to strike a balance where you continue to grow at a steady rate but don’t expand so rapidly that you ignore farming. Whenever population hasn’t been assigned to building or clearing, they will automatically be assigned to the number of farms you have. If you don’t have enough farms for your whole population, you’ll get less food when your entire population is doing nothing. But spend too much of your population building enough farms means you won’t have the food required. Couple this in with enemy armies razing farms and it becomes a much more difficult task than it initially seems.
Within cities, you can also see individual stats for various aspects of that city: Finance, Food, Unrest and Labour. This is an alternate version of the Finance Screen previously mentioned showing exactly where each individual resource comes from. In regards to unrest, this can be something shown to be suppressed by your army, meaning moving said army can cause rebellion in your city.
At the top of the screen are two buttons, one for building and upgrading buildings and another for units. Initially you won’t have many options here until you’ve completed some research, but as your options expand, you’ll have to give each city a purpose as there’s limited space to build.
There are four types of unit in Oriental Empires; Infantry, Cavalry, Chariot and Artillery. Three of these units create a sort of triangle with Artillery being separated from the triangle. In essence, Cavalry beats Chariots and Chariots beat Infantry. Infantry can beat both Cavalry and Chariots if equipped with polearms.
Battles are entirely automated and have no player input during their execution. The role of the player in battles is choosing the battle plans prior to moving into the one-hex battle range. These instructions include ambush, harass and many more.
Ambush allows you to hide in a forest waiting for the prime opportunity to strike the enemy from the rear, whereas harass has your units set to ranged preference where they will attempt to stay out of enemy range and continue to peck at them.
Having chosen your battle plans prior to the fight, when you move within a hex space of an enemy unit, battle will commence. This can lead to strategies such as using a weak militia unit to hold an enemy army in place until you can move your stronger noble units in to assist. Due to the fact that everything is pre-planned and turns are simultaneous, you need to be careful about when you engage or the enemy can use similar tactics on you.
Oriental Empires has character units who act as the generals of your army and provide bonuses in the form of Qi and Ren. Qi helps units in combat and will provide a boost to the fighting ability of any units in battle with that character. In battles, Ren provides a boost to unit morale. However, perhaps more important outside of battle, Ren lowers unrest. Characters also add their own personal Authority to the faction total. This can be a bit of a double-edged sword as they are able to die and if you are relying on authority they have built up, can cause revolt when lost.
Characters units can also aid in preventing units defecting from your army. If an army is primarily made up of cheaper Militia units, they are more prone to defecting than a Noble-made army. However, Character units can entirely negate an army defecting by leading said army.
Mastering The Art of War
There are a whole slew of gameplay mechanics in Oriental Empires and I couldn’t really point at any single one and call them bad. There are some that could be called tedious, such as having to build roads to create trade routes or keeping on top of the multiple edicts you can enact, but they all play into the grand feel of the game and aren’t out of place.
While I’m a fan of the hands-off combat and the way it’s resolved, it can sometimes lead to a frustrating circle of chasing the enemy out of your land, stopping short of entering their land, only for the process to repeat ad-infinitum.
Due to the way certain mechanics, such as trade routes, population and combat play into each other along with faction differences, the game plays different enough during each play-through that you’ll want to continue playing after your first campaign.
One striking point where I would like to criticise the game is lack of options. Beyond choosing difficulty, turn limit, research rate and a handful of other options, choice is very limited. Graphical options are limited to six pre-sets and the ability to turn grass on or off. Luckily you are also able to choose resolution. This coupled with a lack of bindable keys is one of the only major disappointments the game has to offer.
When Three Kingdoms Become One
I’ve loved my time spent with Oriental Empires and the only sour patches on this experience have been the aforementioned lack of options. However, I’m yet to see a diplomacy system which works in any 4X game and the AI at least has the sense to surrender when they’re severely outmatched. As is often the case, diplomacy in Oriental Empires sees the AI offer ridiculous deals that nobody would ever agree to more often than not.
The real strength of Oriental Empires is that, while overall there’s a complex game at a glance, the complexity breaks down into multiple systems which pair into each other well. Each system being a simple choice between the two, with complexity arising when they begin to affect each other. This neatly ties itself thematically to the game as a sort of Yin and Yang representation of mechanics.
Overall, if you’re looking for the next step up from Civilisation or just want to play a good 4X game, Oriental Empires is definitely worth consideration.