Urban Empire Review – Deck of Cards
Urban Empire20th January, 2016
Politics has always been a funny game. You have to look at huge swathes of data, managing whatever you’re in charge of, but also manage public perception. Strategy and management simulation games focus on the former almost ideally and you can find yourself buried in data. Urban Empire looks to reduce this while promoting the public perception, and the internal conflicts, that come with politics. Take on the mantle of a powerful family, each of them successive mayors of a growing city in continental Europe across the past two centuries of real history.
Manipulate, cajole and blackmail your way into staying in power in this city-building political simulator; pave your way through world wars, famines, recessions and global financial booms and busts as you grow, learn and advance.
What immediately makes Urban Empire compelling isn’t so much the city management but the political intrigue. While not as cut-throat as House of Cards or as detailed or well-developed as Democracy, Urban Empire is compelling. It’s the backdrop of your family dynasty and the real life events that helps the game to stay as interesting. Will your family be a champion for the poor, a hero for equality? Maybe you’ll stick to keeping in vested interests, a social hierarchy and attempting to keep the lower class in place.
The use of real life events, big or small will define your city and you. Will you promote a nationalist ideology with cinemas, restricting freedoms of speech and expression? Equality and more rights are wanted, will you go along the slow path by first decriminalising homosexuality? Eventually you could promote full equality. Urban Empire features hundreds upon hundreds of events. Some you’ll encounter in every campaign, others only based on previous interactions and the personal stats your decisions give you.
Sometimes the simplicity of rounding you down into a base area doesn’t go so well. Optimist or Pessimist, Populist or Traditionalist, it doesn’t really allow for the real grey areas that come into real decisions. Furthermore, the effect it has on the multitude of parties within the game, which will inevitably be voting on whether to keep you in as mayor, is almost irreversible. Ideally to make a party support you, you’d put forward an edict or law that they favour. While this does work to a small extent and increase your favour, the negative effects of your day-to-day business seems to be considerably higher than these can counter. I could simply be playing it wrong, but there seems to be a balancing issue somewhere.
This also applies to the way the council works and political parties are structured. A campaign is divided into five eras, from the Industrial Revolution to the fifth, the ‘Fragmentation of Values’ (modern era). The problem is that as you advance through these eras, the list of parties grow in line with the population. Where it’s an issue is the number of seats stay the same. It’s perplexing to have a huge city have the same 61 seats it had when it was a tiny village. It also leads to a mess of up to nine parties fighting over the same seats in elections, making some unimportant at best. Only you need to then dig into the menus of the game to find out which parties have more voting power and who to work on, directly impacting the laws set forward in the past.
Where the politics works out to be most interesting is in the aforementioned cajoling and blackmailing. You can use your personal funds to spy on parties which unlocks blackmailing opportunities for future votes. Build up and use your political acumen to do the same thing. Most of all, ensure the laws you pass direct the population to vote for the party you’re more interested in. Maybe one of the right wing, less liberal parties has been a thorn in your side, time to push the population towards the left and hopefully, in future votes, the parties that agree with you will win more seats.
The permutations of politics is always interesting, managing both public perception as well as the behind-the-scenes conflicts. Spending your goodwill to push through a particular bill may be the thing that either makes or breaks you. There’s little doubt that watching a close vote tick forward is incredibly gripping, the closest I won was a 31-30 margin, I was glued to the screen. What happens to be the key problem is that if you save up your political prestige to call in favours or overturn a decision, then you’re effectively untouchable.
Mayoral elections are outright not a factor for the first half of any campaign. Taking control of the Kilgannon family proved to be my most challenging campaign. The regular political parties had it out for us, as the upstart working class family acting above their station and I was doing pretty damn poorly in the city-building aspect, having to go cap-in-hand to the emperor a few times for a cash influx. Even using 20 prestige each time, I still had enough by the time it came to mayoral elections to outright overturn the decision the one time I was voted out. It’s not impossible, but if you at least keep one aspect right, you’re not going to lose at Urban Empire.
Urban Empire suffers from a fairly major problem in that it doesn’t seem to want to tell you anything. The standard tutorial will have you moving the camera, building a district (though never explicitly telling you what the minimum or maximum district size is, or the shape it’s allowed to be in) and placing down special buildings. Then it just leaves you to figure it out yourself. Sometimes holding the cursor over an option will show you what it does, other times it doesn’t. Trial and error through multiple games, or ideally a wiki, is the only way to actually know what your actions will lead to and it’s a major problem with the game.
It spreads towards the city building aspect. While it’s not too bad, giving you a fair amount of control in placing down special buildings, sorting out the density and the infrastructure of a particular district, as well as sorting zoning out so you don’t have a messy miss-match of a city, it doesn’t give you enough information when you have issues. You can go into the many menus to find out what the employment rate is like, the happiness and needs of people, but I’ve still yet to learn why many of the companies in a city will be almost permanently bankrupt when there are zero needs indicated on the little bars at the top of the screen.
Possibly the only aspect you can really control in city building is placing down key buildings. Clinics improve health, schools improve education, parks for entertainment and churches give happiness. Each of these buildings have specific area of effects and easy to place down, showing you exactly where they cover. The zones you create and place these in also have options for improving infrastructure, moving from minor paths to actual roads, increasing traffic management. Get electricity, sewer systems and gas infrastructure, spreading everything across your city. It all comes with costs and benefits that are labelled, though the financial benefits are nearly always hidden.
Eventually you’re just repeating yourself, never truly being progressive or even proactive. Reactivity is the name of the game with Urban Empire. You know the way history led, and the game is quite adamant in taking you down that path. One time I was in favour of social rights, giving votes to women, the traditionalist parties overruled the vote and kept things the same. Ten minutes later, the same vote comes up again from out of nowhere and is passed blindly. The only real differences in a game comes with your personal family choices and relations with the other families, everything else is history on rails.
While the stories you can create with each family are interesting, there’s just too little explained in Urban Empire to make the game fun. That’s the critical problem, I’ve lost a few days in the game and it’s been a little entertaining, more interesting than anything else, to see how things could differ. The problem is, Urban Empire never wants to let the story differ in any meaningful way and it never explains enough to make the city-building entertaining.
Urban Empire isn’t a bad game for certain, though its flaws stop it from being worth the asking price. Compounding the limited variety is the fact that there are only four families to play as and three maps in the campaign. The scenarios on offer set fixed objectives, but there are only three of them. There’s little doubt that it can be interesting, even compelling when the votes are taking place. Overall, it’s more of a budget title that can keep your interest, and it’s worth playing for that, but it’s limited at best.
Copy provided by publisher.
Urban Empire aims to offer an interesting mix of political intrigue with city-building creativity and management. However, it doesn't give anywhere near enough information or allow enough freedom to make it as compelling as the idea could have been.
- Offers a range of events to craft your own family history within the game.
- Political votes add a level of intrigue and some very compelling moments as the votes come in.
- Events across family don’t expand across to the world as originally indicated, making the game too rigid.
- It doesn’t explain almost everything to even a small level of detail, leaving too much to trial and error.
- The mechanics of the game, particularly political prestige, mean it's incredibly difficult to lose.