Age of Muskets Vol. 1: Tomb for an Empire Review
Players: 2-6, though there are also unofficial solitaire rules available here.
Time: Advertised as “10 minutes to 100 hours” and I would agree. There are some one-off intro battles that are short, a real campaign (there are many to choose from) ranges from several hours to several days.
Complexity: Intense! This is not a game to be learned and enjoyed in a casual evening, it will require a significant investment of time to master the rules.
Components: A large, pretty, two-part paper map of Spain, many full-color but hard to (neatly) separate chits, two rule books, extensive player aids and a detailed example of play. Also included are extensive designer notes, player notes regarding the factions involved, and historical background complete with a suggested supplemental reading list.
Theme: Early 19th century warfare. Great Britain tries to defend Spain and Portugal from French incursion in an era filled with sieges, forced marches and cavalry charges. The focus of the game is on logistics and troop movements at the operational level with supply and attrition playing critical roles.
Tomb for an Empire is the first installment in the Age of Muskets series, which is a wargame for history buffs or fans of nuanced historical gameplay. This first installment depicts over the course of 18 different campaigns the various aspects of Napoleon’s struggle for control of the Iberian Peninsula. Some campaigns are quite limited in scope or time, but the last 4 campaigns encompass the entire conflict either from 1808-1814 or starting at some later point. Each campaign is robustly re-playable, so unless you are the most voracious of gamers you will not exhaust the replay value here!
This is a complicated and challenging game to learn because there are a large number of specific rules that relate to the various aspects of the conflict. There are random events, weather, specific conditions for certain map locations, troops of various different nationalities, leaders, acronyms, and so on – this in addition to the core rules and the regular flow of play. The bad news is that it takes some time to get comfortable with all of this, but the good news is that the heart of the gameplay is not so hard and it is even moves pretty quickly once you are confident enough to get your nose out of the book.
A game turn lasts one month and most of the turn is devoted to activating and marching troops around using an interesting activation mechanic, though there is some administrative stuff before and after. Combat units are assigned to a headquarters, which in turn is commanded by a leader. Each headquarters receives action points every round based on skill of the commanding leader and also some luck. Then players bid action points and then add the skill of the leader and a die roll to determine which units will activate. The result is that a good leader will often be able to do more and with better timing than a weak leader – but nothing is guaranteed! Once activated you might want to blow up an occasional bridge or requisition supplies but most of what you will be doing with your units is marching them into position to lay sieges – or to relieve sieges. Barring that you maneuver in an effort to gain an advantage by forcing your opponent into an unfavorable position, one in which supplies run low and attrition does your work for you. Sieges were preferred over battles by commanders in this era because of the uncertainties of large-scale combat, and that is reflected in the game through the battle system and fog of war.
There are rules for minor combats at the campaign level but occasionally a major battle must take place (hopefully on terms of your choosing and not of your opponent’s!) and here the larger game pauses while a tactical battle is fought in a mini subgame. The battle system plays quickly and really gives you the feeling of a commander – choosing when and where to commit your reserves, when to bombard and when to send in the cavalry. Players must allocate their troops into a battle line and then choose a number (based on leader skill) of combat options which will determine which actions are available in battle. I really like that particular mechanic, as your decisions will vary widely depending on the composition of your force and the odds that you face. Will your battle plan be careful, or daring, or will you try to remain flexible and react to what your opponent does? Luck plays a role, but a poor deployment or botched plan will cost you at much as any die roll.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my own struggles learning this game. I made the mistake of diving right into the core rule book first (my normal approach) and several pages later I was demoralized and nothing was really clicking for me. After trying again and getting nowhere I turned to the rules governing the actual campaigns and several pages in discovered that there were introductory battles that used only a handful of rules and were clearly the place to start. I do wish this has been made clear at the start of either of the rule books! My advice on learning this game would be to first read the excellent designer notes and historical background to really set your mood and give you some perspective on the scope of this game. Then I’d turn to the introductory battles and read only the minimum rules needed to play through them. Follow this up by reading about the action phase and then setup and play through the detailed example of play. After that you will have some framework for the rest of the rules and reading should be much more productive. Naturally having someone else teach you the game would also work!
So who will enjoy this game? I’d recommend Tomb for an Empire for serious wargamers who are looking for detailed campaigns in the Napoleonic era. You will have to invest time in the game to enjoy it, but if you are willing to do that then you will find much to like here – both players stay active due to the bidding system and there is immense depth to be explored. There is a well supported VASSAL module as well which will allow you more flexibility in finding opponents and saving games as well. It’s also worth mentioning that TfaE has many scenarios that can play well with 3 or more players, and since coordination between allies was a major historical factor it can add an interesting dimension to the game to have limited communication between allied commanders.
Tomb for an Empire is an intense experience. I want to stress that this game is not likely to be enjoyed by the casual gamer, but it does a great job capturing the complexities of warfare in this era. Some interesting gameplay mechanics, epic theme and high replay value will provide you with much to sink your teeth into and will keep you chewing for some time to come!