Empires of Zidal Game Review

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The Basics:

  • For ages 9 and up (publisher suggests 12+)
  • For 2 to 4 players
  • Approximately 2 hours to complete

Geek Skills:

  • Active Listening & Communication
  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading
  • Pattern/Color Matching
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Risk vs. Reward
  • Hand/Resource Management

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Moderate
  • Adult – Easy

Theme & Narrative:

  • Build an empire from the ground up by carefully managing your population’s career choices

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek approved!
  • Parent Geek mixed!
  • Child Geek rejected!

Overview

Martin Scorsese said, “I love studying Ancient History and seeing how empires rise and fall, sowing the seeds of their own destruction.” But what path did empires take that led them to their ultimate demise? Did they become too decadent? Were they burdened with a faulty economy? Did they have poor political relationships both inside their own walls and without? All of these and more are possible causes that have led great nations to rise and fall. Now it’s your turn to create an empire. Build it wisely or it will surely crumble under its own hubris.

Empires of Zidal, designed by Lee Kress and published by Dog Breath Games LLC, is comprised of 152 Worker cards, 15 Building cards, 229 Resource tokens (in 7 different types), 90 Signet tokens (in 5 different types), 1 Score pad, 2 plastic trays (for all those tokens), and one big game board. The components are of excellent quality, as are the illustrations. It’s an impressive looking game that is sure to draw the eye.

Game Set Up

To set up the game, first place the game board in the middle of the playing area. The players will need a little bit of space between them and the game board to keep track of their tokens and cards.

Second,  place the 2 plastic trays on the designated spots located on the game board. Each tray cup should contain one token type. The top tray should contain only the Signet tokens. The bottom  tray (referred to as “the Earth”) should contain all of the Resource tokens.

Third, place 9 of each Resource type (except the “Silver Coin” Resource tokens) on the designated spot on the game board referred to as the Resource Market. When completed, numbers “12” through “4” should each have a Resource token with each row being comprised of one Resource token type.

Fourth, go through the cards and remove any that should not be used based on the number of players in the game. For example, if playing a 2-player game, you would remove all cards that list “3+”. All removed cards are placed back in the game box.

Fifth, shuffle the Building cards and deal them out evenly, face-up, to the Building Market location on the game board.

Sixth, give each player 1 “Ruby Prospector” Worker card, 1 “Sapphire Digger” Worker card, 1 “Emerald Dredger” Worker card, 1 “Topaz Excavator” Worker card, 1 “Amethyst Miner” Worker card, 2 “Silver Workers” Worker cards, and 2 “Children” cards. These represent the player’s starting population in their very small empire. These cards also create the player’s initial draw deck.

Seventh, place the remaining “Children” Worker cards in one of the locations in the Worker Market found on the game board. Shuffle the remaining Worker card and then deal 1 Worker card per player, face-down, to a temporary pile. Take the remaining Worker cards and deal them out to the Worker Market, face-up, in an even number of either 4 or 6 stacks (depending on the number of players).

Eighth, the dealer now takes the Worker cards in the temporary pile and selects 1. The remaining cards are then passed to the next player to turn order sequence. Once all the players have selected a Worker card, they must decide if they want to keep it or sell it for the Resource tokens. If the player decides to keep it, the card is added to their draw deck. If they decide to sell it, the player removes the card from the game and collects the Resources tokens listed as the Worker card’s training cost, as well as adding 1 “Child” Worker card to their draw deck. Each player should now have 10 cards in their draw deck. Have each player shuffle these cards and place them, face-down, in front of them. Leave room next to the draw deck for a discard pile.

Ninth, each player draws the top 5 cards from their draw deck to create their initial hand. Time to build an empire!

A Quick Look at Your Subjects and Various Real Estate

Empires of Zidal has two different card types. The first and most frequently played are the Worker cards. These cards represent your subjects who have selected a specific profession in one of six possible areas of labor. Specifically, Resource Collectors, Soldiers, Traders, Magic Users, Laborers, and Entertainment Workers. Each area has 7 different sub-types that provide specific bonuses and abilities to the player. Note that no one specific labor branch is better than the other, but each does provide something unique. The most common Worker card is the “Child” Worker card that represent a player’s young (and growing) population. “Child” Worker cards can become any other Worker card in the game.

Example of the 7 sub-types found in the magic trade

Example of the 7 sub-types found in the magic trade

The second and less frequently played are the Building cards. These represent the infrastructure of the player’s empire. Like the Worker cards, the Building cards are specifically focused on different areas of  labor. Unlike the Worker cards that are constantly shuffled and redrawn by the player during the game, Building cards are purchased, built, and remain in play for the duration of the game (or until removed). Think of them as semi-permanent resources that continue to provide their benefit without the need to draw them again.

From left to right: Worker card and Building card

From left to right: a Worker card and a Building card

  1. Name of worker or building
  2. Signet value at the end of the game
  3. Training/building cost
  4. Ability cost
  5. Ability
  6. Attack indicator
  7. Number of players (used during game set up)

Empire Building

Empires of Zidal is a deck-building card game that is played in turns with no set number of turns per game. On a player’s turn, they will complete a small number of sequential steps. These steps and the game rules are summarized here.

Step 1: Reduce All Active Duty Workers

Some of the Worker cards can go on “Active Duty”. When played, they are placed on an Active Duty track in front of the player, found on the edge of the game board. Depending on the Worker card’s current Active Duty track value, they will provide additional bonuses and abilities. Once the Worker card comes off the Active Duty track, it’s placed in the player’s discard pile.

Step 2: Play Cards and Use Market

This step allows the player to take several different actions. Each action can be taken as many times as the player likes and in any order as long as they have the ability to complete it.

Action 1: Play Workers

Some characters can be played for free and provide Resource tokens. All of the cards the player initially has in their hand, except the Child “Worker” card, provides Resource tokens. The player can play as many of these Workers as they like and collect the number of Resource tokens the cards state from the Earth tray. Collected Resource tokens are kept in front of the player and are referred to as the player’s Resource pool.

Some Workers require that Resource tokens be spent in order for abilities to be used. If the player can pay for the ability cost, the Resource tokens are taken from the player’s Resource pool and returned to the Earth tray.

Action 2: Train Workers

The top most cards in the Worker Market can be purchased if the player has a “Child” Worker card in their hand and can pay the training cost from their Resource pool. If they can, the “Child” Worker card is placed on the top of the “Child” Worker pile in the Worker Market and replaced with the Worker card that the player trained. This Worker card goes immediately into the player’s discard pile.

Action 3: Construct Buildings

Like the Worker Market, the top most Building cards can be purchased by the player by paying the building cost from their Resource pool. Unlike training workers, the player does not need a “Child” Worker card, but they can only purchase up to 3 Building cards per turn. A player might have a Worker card that reduces the building cost of the Building card. In which case, these should be played as an action along with the purchase of the Building card.

Once the Building card is built (purchased), it’s placed in front of the player, face-up, and can be immediately used. Building cards are not placed in the player’s discard pile and are considered always available until the player loses them.

Action 4: Use the Market

The Resource Market lists the cost to purchase and sell Resource tokens. The current purchase price is listed above the left most Resource token in each Resource type row. The player can spend the listed amount of “Silver” Resource tokens from their Resource pool and collect that specific Resource token from the market. The player can also sell their unwanted or unused Resource tokens by placing them on open spaces in the Resource type row, from right to left. The player collects a number of “Silver” Resource tokens equal to the space they just filled. Like a real market, if there is an abundant supply of a resource, the price is lower than what it would be if the resource was rare.

empiresofzidal_market

When a Resource type row is filled, players can no longer sell that particular Resource to the market for Silver. Likewise, if a specific Resource token type is not currently available from the Resource Market, it cannot be purchased by the player.

Step 3: Discard All Cards

Once the player has completed all their actions during step 2, they take all their cards (except any purchased Building cards and Worker cards on Active Duty) and place them in their discard pile, face-up.

Step 4: Add a Child

The player then takes 1 “Child” Worker card form the Worker market and adds it to the top of their discard pile. I guarantee that you and every player you enjoy this game with will forget this step more than once.

Step 5: Draw 5 New Cards

Finally, the player draws 5 new cards from their draw deck. If the player is unable to draw 5 new cards, the player should shuffle their discard pile to create a new draw deck.

This completest the player’s turn. The next player in turn order sequence now goes starting with step 1 noted above.

Continuing and Ending the Game

The game continues as listed above with Resources being traded and spent, Workers being trained and used, and Buildings being constructed and utilized. During the game, cards will allow the player to collect Signet tokens. These are kept by the player, but not added to the player’s Resource pool. The game ends when one or more Signet token types (military, market, magic, labor, or entertainment) are exhausted.

The players now take their cards and Signets and add them all together. Each Signet is worth 1 point and some cards will add more points or bonus points. Players should use the provided Score pad to help keep track of how much they have in total for each Signet type. The player with the most points wins the game. If there is a tie, the player who has the most Signets of any particular type is the winner.

There is more to this game than what we summarized here. The game is not overly complicated, but there is a lot going on with the cards. To learn more about Empires of Zidal and read the full rules, visit the game’s web page.

Prediction

One aspect of deck-building card games that I get pretty annoyed with is player familiarity with the game itself. For example, Dominion is played a lot and most of the players who are familiar with the game can quickly take their turn and build their deck “machine” on automatic pilot. It’s pretty impressive how quickly some of the players complete their turns. Their hands are a blur of activity as the rattle off their actions and buys while the rest of the players just look on with little interest.

For quick games, having this level of game comfort and familiarity is great, but it also creates a certain level of boredom. I know what must be done, can see how all my moves should be played, and the only choices I need to make are slight variations of what I would have added to my deck based on what the other players are doing. It all becomes rather “ho-hum” and feels like I am playing the game against myself instead of the other players. That’s why I am so greatly looking forward to Empire of Zidal. Not because the game is new (which is always exciting), but because players need to put a lot more thought into the game and their turn. The Workers and Buildings available are always randomized meaning players can’t just follow a tried-and-true formula. There is also the Resource Market that will be very interesting to utilize to cause harm and make a tidy little profit. The Workers are very diverse and I find it almost impossible to consider how best to build my deck prior to the game.

That is really neat, but it could also lead to a disaster. Some players do not like change and the additional level of thought and focus the game requires makes Empires of Zidal less of a casual game to play. I think the more experienced Parent Geeks will very much enjoy Empires of Zidal, especially those who have played deck-building games in the past and are looking for a fresh new take. I also think the Gamer Geeks are very much going to enjoy Empires of Zidal. There is a lot to think about, some very interesting combos and effects to attempt, and the game would appear to have multiple levels of strategy. As for the Child Geeks, I don’t see them enjoying this game very much. I predict only the most experienced and patient of our Child Geeks will be able to sit down, understand, and play a full game. Empires of Zidal would appear to be a very involved game with a lot of unknowns. That can be stressful for the Child Geeks who like to see challenges coming before they get smacked by them in the face.

To teach Empires of Zidal you will need to spend some time with the players going over the different cards. Like most deck-building games, the power of an individual card is not important. It how the player utilizes that card along with the others they have collected that counts. To that point, I suggest you let the players look through the cards, ask questions, and discuss some possible strategies. This will take longer than you want, but it’ll be worth it. Note that the game does require a lot of reading and math, which means this game is pretty much out-of-bounds for your younger Child Geeks.

And so, after teaching Empires of Zidal to my oldest Child Geek, I asked him his thoughts on the game to far.

“When I first saw this game, I thought it was going to be really complicated. But after you explained it to me, I don’t think it will be difficult to play.” ~ Liam (age 9)

Difficult to play? No, not really. The steps and actions a player can take are pretty straightforward and the cards are easy to read. But it’s knowing what actions to take and having a clear picture of both the short and long game that make this game less than easy. Let’s play the game and see if we are about to build an epic empire or the game will fall underneath its own weight.

Final Word

As predicted, only our most experienced and patient Child Geeks enjoyed Empires of Zidal. Our youngest Child Geek at age 9 (my son) who was able to understand, play, and complete the game. From there, it jumped to age 12 and above. Most of the Child Geeks were unable to keep track of what they were doing and how to go about determining the best course of action to take to win the game. While the game is easy to understand in regards to how it’s played, the learning curve is moderate due to the game’s many different actions and effects provided by the cards. The Child Geeks had difficulty following their own strategies and any tactics they might have attempted were never apparent to the observers. According to one Child Geek, “I understand how to play this game, but I don’t understand how to play this game.” Believe it or not, the Child Geek’s statement is exceedingly accurate. The game is easy to follow, but playing the game is not. The cards are random and many of our Child Geeks had a hard time piecing together how they could work as a group in their deck. According to my son, “What I really like about this game is that you are given a lot of choices.” Also true. But for the majority of Child Geeks, the amount to choose from was just too overwhelming. In the end, the majority of Child Geeks voted to reject Empires of Zidal.

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My little geek looks at his hand for the round trying to figure out the best actions to take

The Parent Geeks were a mixed bag. None of our Parent Geeks found the game to be difficult to understand and they all enjoyed how the decks were built. Two aspects of the game they did not enjoy was the fiddly nature of the Resource tokens and the length of the game play. Players will be dipping into and exchanging Resource tokens constantly. The novelty of using Resources quickly wore off and the Parent Geeks were sighing when they were making exchanges and getting bored between turns. This brings us to their second dislike which was the game’s overall length of play. Even our fastest groups couldn’t complete a game in less than an hour and a half. This was considered by a number of Parent Geeks to be a bit too long. According to one Parent Geek, “I really like this game, but I don’t like how much downtime you have between your turn.” Another Parent Geek said, “This game is exactly what I was looking for, but I don’t think I’ll be able to play it as often as I would like.” When all the votes were counted, the Parent Geeks both rejected and approved the game, giving it a mixed endorsement.

The Gamer Geeks played and loved Empires of Zidal. According to one Gamer Geek, “This game does a lot I like. The resource management, economic choices, building a deck, and even attacking other players! It really does have it all.” But not all the Gamer Geeks thought the game was perfect. Far from it, in fact. One Gamer Geek said, “This game feels like it was very well thought-out and well designed, but it also feels like it needs refinement. The turns are taking a bit longer than I would like and I am spending way too much time exchanging Resource tokens.” All the Gamer Geeks agreed on two important points. First, they all agreed that Empires of Zidal was a game worthy of their praise and approval. Second, the Gamer Geeks really hope that a 2nd edition of the game will be released that streamlines the game play.

I really like Empires of Zidal. I have played it over 10 times and watched it played several more and I have yet to see two games that played alike. The random placement of Workers and Buildings keeps the game exceedingly replayable without the players having to add or  remove different cards like they would in games like Dominion. This also means that players will need to explore different strategies and tactics each game since what worked last time won’t be available during the next game. I also liked the economic and resource management aspects of the game. There is just something about collecting, buying, and building that entertains me.

What I did not find entertaining was the constant need to go back to the Resource Earth tray. I have heard many describe this game as “fiddly” and “unnecessarily busy”. Both are correct, but neither of which made the game horrible to play. It did, however, make the game less enjoyable. What Empires of Zidal needs more than anything is streamlining. Still an excellent game and a lot of fun, but never expect to finish a game in less than an hour and get used to the idea of constantly forgetting to add children to your deck.

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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