Dreams of Dreams of Empire:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Running a wargame publishing firm requires many things, and among the very most important is a loose connection with reality. All of that energy and focus could be applied far more profitably to something far more profitable.
One of my less realistic goals at Avalanche Press, one which is likely to actually come to fruition, is a massive game of world-wide conflict in the age of Napoleon (and slightly before and after). I designed one of these a very long time ago, when I was still in college, using a popular Napoleonic strategic game as its base. I mapped the Americas and India and East Asia and Africa . . . and then someone else published a game just like it, which no one bought or played, and then did a computer version, which everyone bought and played.
The smart thing to do at that point would have been to punt. I of course chose to try again with a different game system, one far easier to play. It’s a principle Dr. Christopher Cummins taught me. A game has three dimensions: size, familiarity of topic and ease of play. You must have at least two of those bases covered. If it’s huge, it must be familiar and easy to play. If the topic’s obscure, it must be reasonably-sized and easy to play. And so on.
Soldier Emperor, which Rob Markham designed and we published in the early years of this century, meets all three of those though it’s pushing the size thing. A couple years later we added Indian Empires but fumbled the first edition’s marketing by giving it a stupid title and then not following up with a third game. They both fell out of print for some years, and then we brought both back in new editions, and now it’s time for the third game: Dreams of Empire.
Soldier Emperor covers the Napoleonic era in Europe, and Indian Empires a longer stretch of time (including all of the Napoleonic era) in the Indian subcontinent plus some adjoining areas like the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. The third game, Dreams of Empire, includes a map to connect those two (with Persia and the Central Asian khanates) and another with East Asia (from Manchuria on down to Siam). It adjoins the Indian Empires map on the top and right edges, with the Persia map adjoining it on the left.
Dreams of Empire can be played by itself, together with Indian Empires, or with all three games together. Strategy is similar to Soldier Emperor, in that you have one immensely powerful Great Power (Qing China) and a bunch of others (Vietnam, Siam, Burma) who can’t cooperate very effectively to oppose the monster. The Qing edge isn’t as massive as it appears at first; the Qianlong Emperor is usually fighting on his own account, not that of “China,” so the Empire’s massive resources are only available in very precise circumstances. To share the burden is to share the glory.
My world-spanning goal is to follow Dreams of Empire with at least two more games covering North and South America, respectively, and maybe a sixth game based on the struggles of the West African empires in the 18th Century. We can probably convince people to play a game about the American Revolution or the War of 1812, and just maybe about the wars of Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martín. The Last Days of the Songhai Empire is a way tougher sell, one of those “I’d like to see” titles that means exactly that (they want to see it; they don’t necessarily want to buy it).
The idea is to create a linked game playable by a half-dozen or so people, each of them taking on multiple roles. Physically it should be large but manageable (the separate games don’t have to be set up actually adjacent to each other, or even in the same room). You could play it with two dozen people each controlling one power, or two really, really dedicated people each playing half of them. No one will actually do that (but if they wanted to, they could); the goal is to give every player multiple military and diplomatic challenges. If you play the Austrians in Europe, who are usually going to be on the defensive against the French, you might also get to play the belligerent Burmese advancing on both Assam and Siam.
Everyone gets to attack, somewhere, and everyone has to defend. Thanks to the pretty simple game engine behind Soldier Emperor, it’s not hard to keep up with multiple positions. While the Austrian and Prussian players are fending off the French colossus in Germany, they can also be on the offensive with the Mahratta Confederacy or slugging it out with the Vietnamese for control of the Khmer Kingdoms.
There’s also the “game you already know how to play” angle we like to create with our series games. Each of the games uses the same rules with the same essential strategic principles in action, so you can play all of them one by one without having to learn new stuff all over again.
Despite the common rules set, geography and other factors mean that each of the games plays a little differently than the others. Soldier Emperor has larger armies, and as such is more forgiving of mistakes. Indian Empires requires adroit diplomacy (no one more than the Nizam of Hyderabad). Dream of Empires is a mix of those; the Qing player can afford to lose a lot more than any of his or her potential enemies. The other powers have more strategic depth than the poor Nizam but can be extinguished if things go really wrong.
Dreams of Empire began as an expansion set rather than a complete stand-alone game, and it shows its origins. It certainly plays better together with Indian Empires than either game does on its own; while Manchu banner armies are unlikely to come pouring over the Himalayas, the addition of an aggressive Burmese state on the right flank and a potentially aggressive Persia on the left totally changes strategic thinking for the British player and for the Indian Kingdoms players to a lesser extent. And then there’s the addition of Qing China as a player: China held a monopoly on world tea production (India and Ceylon did not yet grow tea) and by the 1790’s, one-tenth of the British crown’s tax revenue and 90 percent of the politically-omnipotent British East India Company’s business came from the tea trade. The British player is going to have to deal with the Qing player.
When all three games are combined, the British and sometimes the French might at times shuffle fleets and armies between the European and Asian maps. The Russians also have an open back door, where they’re unlikely to see enemy armies marching on Moscow but they can expand in areas their European rivals can’t easily reach. What was once a secure flank for the Ottoman Empire (the right-side edge of the map) now contains a virulent enemy (Persia).
Dreams of Empire is an unusual game. It’s not hard to play, and if you’ve played Soldier Emperor, then you already know how. The setting is wildly different, and there just aren’t many games on the Burma-Siam Wars. There’s a reason for that, but if you’re one of the few who want something they haven’t seen before, this is for you.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.