Dreams of Empire:
Cast of Characters
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
With Dreams of Empire, we take the world of Soldier Emperor into South-East and East Asia, a region of rich history and violent conflict, but one rarely if ever explored in historical wargames. Dreams of Empire can be played alone, played with Indian Empires, or played with both Indian Empires and Soldier Emperor.
As a stand-alone game, Dreams of Empire has four Major Powers available to be played by players in most scenarios: Burma, Siam, Viet Nam and Qing China. In other scenarios, the Dzunghar Khanate and Nepal take on the roles of Major Powers. Plus there are outside interlopers: the British and French coming over the sea, and the Russians marching over land.
Dreams of Empire resembles Indian Empires in its scenario structure, with many scenario based on actual conflicts, but no embracing campaign scenario of its own – that’s played out as part of the combined game. South and East Asia remained at war for most of this period, but not in a constant, defined struggle analogous to that between revolutionary France and the royal states of Europe. While Asian military technology had fallen behind that of Europe, at least on land it’s not yet so far behind that an Asian army can’t stand up to a European one – all of these armies wield muskets and cannon (and, except for the Chinese, elephants). At sea, however, it’s a different story and the Asians have nothing as capable as European sailing warships. By the middle of the 19th Century rifled muskets and cannon, steam power and mass production would create a vast gap in capabilities. In the time of Dream of Empires, that’s not yet true.
Because of the lengthy period covered by Dreams of Empire, goals and alliances are not always consistent over the entire time frame. Let’s have a look at the great powers as seen in the game.
In 1800, China’s economic output matched that of Europe – all of Europe, combined. Her population exceeded Europe’s. That gave the empire unmatched military potential, and during this period it had a ruler determined to use that force to expand his power. The Qianlong Emperor ruled for 61 years, conducting his “Ten Great Campaigns” to conquer neighboring regions, most notably in Central Asia. Not all of his wars proved successful – the Burmese and Vietnamese fought off his armies – and China weakened in his declining years as widespread corruption took hold. But even in those latter years China remains the most powerful state on the map.
Qing China is easily the most powerful Great Power in Dreams of Empire, and rivals France and Russia for that title in the full combined game. The Chinese can’t project that power like the European states can, but they are well-nigh invulnerable in their own country. You’ll see why it took twin epidemics of opium addiction and religious fanaticism to bring down the empire.
You don’t hear much about the Dzunghars these days. The last of the great Mongol steppe empires, the Dzunghar khans ruled a vast stretch of what today is Xinjiang. The Qianlong Emperor’s armies conquered the empire in 1755, and on his direct order began a systematic genocide that wiped out at least 80 percent of the Dzunghar population, slaughtering upwards of a half-million people.
Pressed by the Chinese on one side and the Russians on the other, with their fellow Buddhists the Tibetans unable to offer much help, the Dzunghars are in a desperate position with their survival quite literally at stake.
Burma’s Toungoo Dynasty fell in 1752 after years of decline, leaving the country divided into rival kingdoms. Alaungpaya, a village chief, organized an army and set out to establish his own dynasty. By 1759 he had re-unified the country, defeated both the French and the British and launched a war of conquest against Siam. Then, at age 45, he dropped dead. After a brief reign by his older son, his second son Hsinbyushin, “The Lord of the White Elephant,” resumed the kingdom’s warring ways, invading Siam and burning the capital, fighting off repeated Chinese invasions and conquering Laos. Burma remained at war for much of the rest of the century, fighting the Siamese again and conquering smaller neighboring kingdoms. They also invaded Assam in neighboring India, finally falling before a large-scale British invasion.
In game terms, the Burmese are surrounded by both enemies and potential conquests, with strong armies and usually good leadership.
Surrounded by enemies and coveted by European colonialists, Siam managed to fight off all of them and restore the kingdom following the brutal sack of the capital in 1767. In addition to repeated wars with Burma, the Siamese also sparred with Vietnam over the Khmer kingdoms and tried to expand into the Malay states to the south.
Despite its defeat in 1767, Siam recovered quickly and is a powerful state in the game. They are a match for their ancient Burmese rivals and best of all they do not share a common border with Qing China. Like all of the Asian powers their great weakness is sea power, allowing the French and particularly the British to project power where they will.
Viet Nam’s Tay Son Dynasty faced Siamese invasions in 1778 and 1785, suffering grievous losses in the first war but managing to fight off the invaders in the second. The Qing came calling in 1788, but the Vietnamese managed to defeat them in a bloody-five day battle that resulted in the Vietnamese accepting tributary status but the Chinese withdrawing from their country.
Caught between two powerful predatory neighbors, and with the French sailing offshore to offer their “help,” Viet Nam is in a precarious position in the game. Diplomacy may be necessary.
The Kingdom of Nepal and its tough mountain warriors, the Gurkhas, were very aggressive during the 18th century – at the end of this period of Nepalese history, they fight the British East India Company in one of the scenarios of Indian Empires. Nepalese armies conquered Tibet, provoking intervention by the Qing Chinese who ejected the Gurkhas and in one of history’s great ironies installed the Dalai Lama as Tibet’s secular ruler in Lhasa. Not all Tibetans took to Chinese overlordship easily, and in 1771 through 1776 the Qing launched another genocidal campaign, this time against the Jinchaun Tibetans in what today is northwestern Sichuan.
Nepal, caught between two much greater powers, eventually abandoned its pretentions to rule Tibet and sought British protection against the Chinese. In the game they may need to take a similar course; as tough as their Gurkha armies may be, they are vastly outnumbered by their enemies.
And those are the powers of Dreams of Empire. The game played by itself is probably best with four players, but it’s even better when combined with Indian Empires to bring all of Asia into play. The triple combined game is even better, with each player except France and Britain leading a different empire on a different continent (or sub-continent). Or you can play with a dozen players, which might be even more fun.
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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.