Grand strategy games always have the potential to really sink their claws into you, sending your mind racing as you consider each move and its repercussions. It’s the Civilization and Total War series that do this best for me – and many others I’m sure – and mentioning both of these games is fitting when Oriental Empires is essentially a combination of the two.
Different factions vie for control in Ancient China, leaning on both diplomacy and war to grow in this PC turn-based strategy game. You’ll start with just one settlement and from there it is up to you how to expand with the easiest option being to build more cities. Of course, it’s not that simple or you’d be able dominate with ease.
There are a number of checks within Oriental Empires to make sure you don’t grow beyond your means. The most notable are income and population. The higher your population the more farms you can and need to have, the bigger the armies you can raise, and the more tax income you’ll get. That income is used to build structures within your city like military buildings, markets, mines and docks. However, almost every building has an upkeep cost per turn alongside your military units, so if you don’t have enough money coming in then you can’t raise a military or your population may get upset.
The population is split into peasants and nobles with both having different interests. If either group becomes discontent they may rebel with bandit armies forming in peasant groups, while a noble rebellion could be a full blown civil war. To keep these in check you need authority which is earned through exploring, researching certain things, and winning wars. The more authority you have the less likely a rebellion is to break out and the bigger your empire can get, but even if everything is running smoothly you have to watch out for outside forces.
There are a number of factions who have different interests, but their main goal is always to be the most dominant group through either cultural or military means. I did find that the AI seemed to like to test limits when a new faction was introduced, with small armies attacking settlements. If your settlement is attacked you can repel the antagonists without declaring war on the faction, because all you’re doing is protecting yourself. After that you may have an audience with the faction leader where agreements can be made to keep the peace, allow for armies to pass through borders or ally with each other in a war. If you want to try your luck, you could demand the other faction leader recognise you as Emperor, but you need a lot of power for that.
In my first successful run of Oriental Empires, I made the decision to focus my faction on trade, using the natural resources to create items others would want. It’s a tough start especially when there are two bigger factions at war on your doorstep, but by allowing them to both pass through my territories peacefully my trades were unhindered. Oriental Empires doesn’t let peace reign in your world forever though and you have to be constantly wary.
At one point one of these warring factions began moving its entire army into my territory. It didn’t pillage anything at the time and moved away when it was attacked from the east, but it felt like the game was warning me what could happen if an army of my own wasn’t present. Soon after a new faction made itself known to the west and declared war on me. Luckily for me, all the tough early years of trade had paid off and research had allowed for a trained army of swordsmen, archers, cavalry, and siege weapons. My army marched, took every city of the enemy, sacked them, and wiped the faction out of the game. This in turn led to me having a much bigger empire and what turned out to be the biggest standing army. The earlier threat hadn’t been forgotten, so I attacked the faction to the east and captured its cities too.
The thing is that a lot of this felt like luck since the majority of AI armies consisted of peasant warriors who could not really stand up to a trained army. It could have been that the other factions were so consumed with war that the money wasn’t there for research. This was on normal difficulty, so I was expecting a bit more of a fight.
You can control each unit group when you enter into battle, and this is where the Total War inspirations show their face. You can send units to different parts of the terrain, like putting archers on a hillside to fire down at the enemy, while soldiers march forward to fight head on, while cavalry can target the enemy archers or attack from behind. The way the map is set out allows for a number of strategies, and you can also view battles you’re not involved in, giving you a look at how rivals conduct battle as well as see the size of their armies.
The presentation of Oriental Empires is very good with the terrain changing as farms and roads are built upon them. Rivers may flood which can block an army from marching through a part of the map, but floods and other natural disasters can also disrupt your farms and cut your productivity. As cities grow you’ll see buildings pop up within, walls getting bigger and stronger as technology is researched, and military units being distinctive from one another.
The thing with Oriental Empires is that you need to be pretty patient to learn its many systems, and some can be a bit harder to grasp than others. How to quell insurrections isn’t as obvious as it could be, while trading was a lot of trial and error mixed with a heap of luck. There are some hints and tutorials, but some systems require a bit of more explanation.
Oriental Empires is a very well made strategy game that allows you to get through a campaign in a few hours instead of having saves that span days, though that is an option as well if you wish. Despite its smaller scope focusing on Ancient China instead of the globe, the stakes actually feel higher due to the limited resources and high number of factions fighting for them. While some of the systems require a lot of getting used to Oriental Empires is well worth persevering with.