Way back in 2004, we released a game we called Soldier Raj. That wasn’t a very good name, but the idea was to create a brand identity with Soldier Emperor and Soldier Kings, with all such games having “Soldier” in their title.
The game played well, and it was beautiful to look upon, but it never sold that well. And now that we’ve released a new edition called Indian Empires, it’s pretty clear why. We never really decided what it was: a stand-alone game or an expansion set for Soldier Emperor. This was evident when I went through all the accumulated rules questions and answers. There weren’t a lot of them, but they had one theme running through them: confusion between rules meant for India alone, Europe alone, or the combined game. And I had to admit that at times the rules for two different games did kind of trip over each other.
The rules needed a thorough re-write anyway to bring them into line with Soldier Emperor’s second edition, so that problem was pretty easy to fix: Indian Empires is a stand-alone game. There are no rules for Soldier Emperor included in the rulebook; this time it’s all about India. You don’t have to worry about allocating money and manpower between the two maps (which are in many ways two different worlds). And you don’t have to worry about synchronizing the seasons between the two games (in Europe, winter brings a halt to campaigning, while in India it’s summer that’s the slow season).
India is plenty for one game. Without the unnecessary Euro-centric rules text, it’s a lot easier to see that Indian Empires isn’t a particularly complicated game to play, but does require some subtle strategies. The armies of Indian Empires are a good bit smaller than those deployed in Europe, and that leaves much less margin for error. The empires themselves are smaller, for the most part, so you’re not going to be able to rebuild huge forces in a single turn, like the bigger major powers of Soldier Emperor can do. You have to pick your battles even more carefully than in Soldier Emperor, which means that card play, diplomacy and bald-faced lying are even more important on the subcontinent.
You can still play Soldier Emperor and Indian Empires together, and they’re a lot of fun combined. We moved all of the linking rules to Dreams of Empire (including options to play all three games together), and that provided to chance to include a linking map and some extra pieces, and to extend the Indian Empires playing area to the north and west, so we could do more with the Afghans (who were briefly a major power in this era) and the Sikhs.
Like its siblings Soldier Kings and Soldier Emperor, Indian Empires is a game of intrigue and backstabbing with a military-economic element, too. Each player (up to five of them in Indian Empires) moves and fights with armies and fleets, but it’s through card play that you can suborn enemy armies and leaders, raise additional troops, bring plague and storm and a hunger for fresh mangoes (yes, really) upon your enemies, and similar things. The play of cards – which can happen at any time, not just in a separate phase of the game – drives the action.
The map is divided into provinces, each represented by a box connected to other areas by route. Armies can move along these routes, and move faster if they have a general with them. The provinces are rated for their fortification value (representing local garrison forces as well as actual fortifications), money value (how much money they produce), manpower value (the recruits and labor they produce) and if they are a port.
Capturing those provinces is the point of the game: they yield not only additional resources for your war effort, they give you victory points. Get enough of those, and you win the game. Your opponents will be trying to stop you through diplomacy, card play, and use of their fleets and armies. While your armies are besieging rich enemy provinces, your enemies are stirring up your other neighbors against you and pointing out all the lands your army can’t defend at the same time as it’s trying to conquer some other place.
Though play is pretty simple, I’ve always been impressed at the way it shows rather than tells of the great tragedy of Indian history: the inability to unite in the face of foreign colonialists. The five major powers in the game include two European colonial empires (Britain and France) and three indigenous kingdoms (Mysore, Hyderabad and the Mahratta Confederacy). United, the three Indian powers can throw the Europeans into the Bay of Bengal. But it’s very difficult to win the game that way: there can’t be three winners. So even if they manage to unite temporarily, they will fall out at some point. Exactly as it happened in the real world.
And as the game also shows, the British can’t conquer India with British troops – it takes half a year just to get a newly-recruited European army transported to the waters off India, let alone actually do anything with it. The British are going to be dependent on locally-raised East India Company forces, Indian allies and Indian mercenaries. The French are even more dependent on allies and mercenaries. It’s Indian manpower that will subjugate India. Exactly as it happened in the real world.
While Britain and France are short of manpower, they do have something the Indian kingdoms lack: sea power. While much of India lies out of reach of European fleets, it’s going to be difficult for the Indian powers to defend their coastal regions given the mobility that sea power gives to the colonialists. Only the Mahrattas have a fleet, and it’s not much of one. Mysore and Hyderabad have no navy at all. Mysore at least has a very good army, on par with those of the Europeans (it was trained on European lines, and featured rockets along with new-model muskets and cannon). The Mahrattas have a much larger if less efficient army, but it’s hampered by factionalism within the Confederacy. Hyderabad . . . needs to pay close attention to its diplomacy.
I was disappointed with Soldier Raj: we gave it outstanding Terry Strickland art on the map and playing pieces, and then finished it off with black-and-white player aids. It was a little clunky with the combined rules – one of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” things. With its unusual topic it sold slowly with relatively small numbers when our publishing model at the time required many more sales per game.
Indian Empires allowed us to fix all that: it has full-color playing aids and clean one-game-only rules, and with our print-on-demand process we can afford to do a special game every now and then that we just really like. I like this game a lot, and if you’ve read this far you probably will too.
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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.