To boldly go where… no games has gone before? Nah, the 4X genre (eXpand, eXplore, eXploit and eXterminate) has a fairly long history in boardgames, going from the originator of the genre, Stellar Conquest and later to Twilight Imperium to more recent faves like Eclipse, Space Empire 4X and now Hegemonic (yes, I know I’m missing a bunch and yes, I also know that 4X games are not only space games, although to me it feels like they have to be).
What makes 4x games so fascinating? I really believe that they are, in many ways, the ultimate expression of a game, be they boardgames or video games (and there are some great 4X video games out there). After all, there aren’t many games that let you shape an entire civilization, from birth to, perhaps unfortunately, death. The main issue I have with them is that they all seem to follow a specific pattern, one that might have been forged by one of the best computer games, namely Master of Orion. Does Hegemonic fall in this trap? Let’s find out, shall we.
Oh, and before we start, this is a rather long review so if you’d rather just skip ahead to what I think of the game…
In Hegemonic (Oliver Riley) published by Minion Games, 2 to 6 players are the heads of various human civilizations that are attempting to expand their empires amongst the stars. As such, they are trying to claim majorities in as many galaxies as possible, using various Industrial, Political or Military networks of bases (Complexes, Embassies or Outposts) placed on matching sector tiles. As the networks grow, they become more powerful and can be used to launch attacks or takeover bids against other networks, and this no matter what the type that is used to attack or defend.
At the end of each turn, each galaxy (a grouping of 5 sector tiles, delimited by a red border) is scored, with points awarded to the three players who have the greatest presence. The game ends when there are no more sectors to discover. One last scoring round is done and the player with the highest score wins.
The game comes with many components: a set of 10 Galaxy boards (including a Galactic Core board), a set of 15 Industrial Complexes, 9 Political Embassies and 12 Military Outposts in each of 6 player colors, various units in each player colors (Agents, Fleets and Quantum Gate pairs), 48 sector tiles, 6 home sector tiles, 1 score track, 36 action cards (6 per player), 54 technology cards, Caps tokens (money), player aid cards, leader cards, and some spectacular player boards.
This is an impressive production, with the extremely nice player boards (complete with small divots for your pieces to sit in!) to the nice plastic pieces and the nice color rulebook. A small caveat on the playing pieces: while the Industrial complexes and the Political Embassies work really well, the Military Outposts are a pain to pick up and place as they are very very small pyramidal shapes. I understand that they were made this way so as to be a different shapes than the circles and squares of the Industrial and Political, and that they needed to stack, but a little larger or some more protuberances on their sides would have made it easier to pick up.
The game looks really good when it is set up and will not fail to attract people when you’re playing(check out my time lapse video for more proof). The rulebook is fairly clear (there are some issue with organization, but nothing major).
Overall, a top notch production and well worth the price of admission.
Set up is actually pretty straightforward. Depending on the amount of players, take and place a number of Galaxy boards around the Galaxy Core board, making sure all Galaxies touch the Galaxy Core and at least one other Galaxy. Give each player a Player board, playing pieces, Home sector and the Action cards of his color. Shuffle and deal each player 5 Technology cards. Prepare the Sector tiles by selecting 8 tiles per players and shuffling them all together. Deal 2 Sector tiles to each player. Select a first player, giving them the Arbiter token. They will be the first player to place their Home Sector tile. The Home Sector can be placed in any vacant hex on any non-occupied Galaxy board. Proceeding clockwise, all players then proceed to place their Home Sector in the same way. The last player to place their Home Sector then proceeds to place one of the 2 Sectors they were dealt earlier in any vacant hex adjacent to their Home Sector, placing the other Sector in the Sector pool. Proceeding counter-clockwise, all the other players do the same. You are now ready to start the first round, but before we look at what goes on in a game round, let’s look at some components first.
The playing board is made up of Galaxies, each of which is made up of 5 empty hexes. As the game progresses, the players will place Sector tiles in each of these empty hexes and then, depending on the type of Sector tile, will place Complexes (square spaces), Embassies (circle spaces) or Outposts (triangular spaces) as they expand their reach through their Industrial, Political and Military networks. Each Sector tile has symbols for one, two or all of the different types of bases, each with a Range (in the small hex symbol) and Power (in the star-burst symbol). As a general rule, each Sector will have up to 3 different bases, with the total Power of all bases always equal to 3. Industrial Complexes will always have a Range of 1 and a Power of 1. A Political Embassy will have a Range and a Power rating of the same level, either 1, 2 or 3. The same is true of the Military Outpost, but their range is always 1 less than their power (ie, an Outpost with a Power of 1 will have a Range of 0). The Military Outpost are also different as they need to be stacked in order to gain their full Power/Range, but more on that later.
Note that any Sector tile that has an Embassy on it will also be in one of three color: green, purple or brown. These represent the territories of one of three alien races or Factions. They have no effect on the gameplay except that they allow the player who has an Embassy on one of them to claim the Power of all other Embassies that are on the same Faction to help in an attack or defense. This also allows the player to call other players who may have Embassies in these Factions to help as well. For example, Player A has an Embassy on a purple Faction worth 2 Powers. He also has two more Embassies on purple Factions, totaling 3 more Power. If he was to attack using any of these Embassies, he could claim 5 Power, and this no matter where those Embassies are located.
Similarly to Eclipse, players will have Player Boards, which hold their various bases and units that are not in play, each in their little divots. The red number below a base tells the player how much that base will cost to be deployed, while the yellow number above a unit tells the player how much CAP (capacity or money in Hegemonic) they will get during the Collection Phase (more on that later). The number in the divot tells the player how many CAPs they will be allowed to keep after the Arbitration phase. There is also information as to what Tech tier the player has in the various types (again, Industrial, Political or Military) as well as the cost/power of their various units. Very simply stated, the more of a type of bases is on the board, the cheaper or more powerful its corresponding unit.
Tech cards are dual use in the game: their top part represents different tech that the players can acquire during the game, giving their civilization an edge. They come in 3 flavors, again the familiar Industrial, Political and Military as well as 3 different Tiers, with each Tier being better/more powerful than the previous. The bottom of each card also contains 3 symbols, a yellow square, a blue circle and a red triangle, each with a value in it from 1 to 8. This part of the card will be used during conflict, to add to the power of your attack or defense.
The game round is broken down into 6 phases, namely Collection, Expansion, Action 1, Action 2, Action 3 and Arbitration.
During the Collection phase, all players get CAPs equal to the total of the highest uncovered yellow values on their 3 tracks (Industrial, Political and Military). As more bases are placed onto the board, the amount of Caps that the players receive at the start of every round will increase.
Next phase is Expansion, during which the players will draw one Sector tile to add to the Sector pool and then select one tile from said pool to add to the map. This Sector tile can go anywhere on the map, not just adjacent to the player’s position. Once this is done, the player can either draw a new Tech card from the top of the draw deck or the discard pile, or take a previously played Tech card back in their hand. Then they can either play a new Tech card (provided their Network Tech level is high enough or they have have in play a Tech card of the previous tier), paying its cost in Caps or discard a Tech card. The player should have 5 Tech cards in hand at the end of this phase.
Next comes 3 Action phases. Each player has a hand of Action cards, from which they will select one card representing what they want to do. At the start of each Action phase, the players secretly select one of the Action card, and once everyone has selected their card, they are revealed simultaneously.
The players then perform their actions based on the card number (1 to 4) and in the case where multiple players have selected the same number, starting with the player designated by the Arbiter (it can be the Arbiter if they were one of the tied player or anyone else). Once everyone has completed their action, the Action card is taken back into the player’s hand and a new card is selected again. This can be the same card as the previous one. This is repeated a total of 3 times, giving each players 3 sets of actions during these phases.
After all the Action phases are done, the Arbitration phase takes place. First, a new Arbiter is chosen, simply being the player with the most Caps in hand. If there is a tie, the current Arbiter chooses the new one, with the caveat that they can never break ties in their own favor. All players then discard any Caps above the smallest amount showing in the uncovered spaces. You’ll notice as you place more bases on the board, the less Caps you’ll be able to keep. It’s a simple catch-up mechanic that works quite well. Once this is done, all the Galaxies are scored, with 6 points given to the player who has the most power in the Galaxy, 3 for the player in 2nd place and 1 for the last player. If you’re the only player in a Galaxy, you get a bonus of 2 points.
Once scoring is done, you start again, from the Collection phase.
Action cards are what drives the game. Each card will grant the player two actions, chosen from the actions that are on the cards and will also have a number which will dictate when the player will be able to take their actions in the phase. The cards are:
- (1) Assault: allows you to destroy an enemy base using a different type of network; or gain 2 coins/get a Tech card;
- (2) Industrialize, Politicize or Martialize: allows you to grow that type of network/build a unit; or attempt a takeover (swap out an enemy base with one of your bases of the same type); or gain 2 coins/get a Tech card;
- (3) Subvert: allows you to attempt a takeover with a different type of network than the target base; or gain 2 coins/get a Tech card;
- (4) Discover: allows you to gain the lowest value provided by your Base track; draw to the Sector pool and add a new Sector to the game board; or cycle your tech card.
Note that the players will do 2 actions from their chosen Action card, and that this action can be the same action. Thus, you can do 2 Assaults from the same card, draw and place 2 Sector tiles, etc. Actions are performed in numerical order, so that all players who have played the Assault card (rank of 1), play in clockwise order, with the first player selected by the Arbiter, followed by all players who played a rank 2 card, etc, until all players have played.
Expanding or growing your network is fairly straightforward. This can only be done if the new Base location is within range of an already placed Base or if you have either a Fleet or an Agent present in the Sector. Multiple players can have a presence in the same Sector. Keep in mind that you can “chain” your expansion, building off newly placed bases. The cost for placing a base is the red value right below the base you are placing. A player can also purchase units (Quantum Gates, Agents or Fleets) during the Expansion phase, placing them at a base of that Network type.
Fleets and Agents are used to attack/taker over while Quantum Gates are shortcuts that allow Sectors to become adjacent to each other. Note that ANY units can use Quantum Gates, not just those of the player who built them.
Assault and Subvert actions work exactly in the same way but differ only in base cost (Subverting costs 2 Caps per Power level of the target while Assault only cost 1 Cap per Power level) and in result (Assault removes the target while Subvert swaps it out for an attacker’s base). This is the trickiest aspect of the game, with the way the attack/defense strength calculated differently depending on the type of network.
Industrial network gain their power from bases that are either in the same Sector or adjacent to their Sector, including Sectors that are connected by Quantum Gates.
Political network gain their power from the Agent that is present for the attack plus whatever all the Embassies that are on the same Faction (color) as the Embassy that is within range of the Agent which is used to Attack or the Embassy that is getting attacked.
Military network draw their power from the Fleets that is used to attack and from any Military Outposts that are within range, and this in either direction.
Once Attack power and Defense power have been calculated, each player will play, face down, one of their Tech card, add the value that is in the symbol matching the Network that is attacking/being attacked with the highest total win. A specific base can only be used to attack or contribute to an attack once per Action phase. Once the Tech card is played, the players will either discard the card and draw a new one or put it to the side, to be taken back in hand at the start of the next round.
The game ends at the end of the current round when all the hexes in all the Galaxy have been filled or there are no Sector tiles left in the draw pile. The Galaxies are scored one last time and player gain additional points based on the Tech they have, with Tier 1 giving the players 2 points, Tier 2 giving 4 points and Tier 3 giving the players 6 points. The player with the most VPs wins the game.
As an optional rule, players may also want to play with the Leader cards, which grant various powers to the players based on how long they’ve waited before using them. They add a very nice unique flavor, being all very different from each other. I would not recommend using them right away, but rather only when you have a good feel for the game and want to differentiate the players further.
I have to admit that I was really looking forward to Hegemonic. I had been hunting for a good 4X game that could be played in a manageable amount of time so that it could be brought to the table on a regular basis. Keeping options/information to a minimum would be great since it would mean that it wouldn’t take several games to get a handle on. Hegemonic promised to be, in a lot of ways, exactly what I was looking for: a short(ish) playing 4X game that didn’t overwhelm the player with information/options. Does it do what’s claimed on the tin? Well, partly.
For most people, a 4X game is usually defined as a game where you eXplore the galaxy to eXpand your empire and eXploit the planets your discover to gain new resources so you can build up your empire and gain new tech, all in the name of eXertminating your enemies. Part of the issue with the vast majority of 4X games out there is that since they involve exploring and exploiting, they are usually very long and somewhat luck-based. After all, you don’t know what is out there and bad luck of the draw means that you might not get many planets with good resources near you. That’s ok, since most of the time it will force you to go and attack your neighbours. The endgame in most 4X games is like Starcraft or other RTS: you build up both your tech and your forces in order to do some massive raids and destroy your enemy, and this is where Hegemonic differs the most.
Hegemonic is mostly about expansion: you want to get as many bases out there to make yourself more powerful, but also to gain as many victory points. You see, as stated in the rules overview, while most 4X games are either about taking specific points on the map and keeping them or wiping everyone out, Hegemonic is really a clever area-majority game. You want to be in as many Galaxy as possible and either be alone in there (which is the best) or at least have the most Power in that Galaxy. Wiping out people? incidental, which takes one X (eXterminate) out of the equation. Sure you can attack other players, but some of the time, especially in the end game, you might just want to get presence in galaxies where there is only one player since you’ll get second place automatically.
There isn’t much exploiting either as there is only one resource in the game, Caps, and that is used to do any and all purchases. Also, while there are Tech cards, there is no real tech tree, with players frantically researching different avenues to see how they can gain an edge against the other players.
With the eXploring aspect of the game being automatic, the game moves at a good clip, with the empty sectors filling in quite quickly. Add to this the fact that you choose from several Sector tiles when you do and you can place them anywhere on the map makes for a low-luck game and one where exploration is very dynamic. It is very hard to blame the draw of Sector tiles for a bad game, although I’m sure there are people out there who will try. Better to see the Sector Pool as an indication of what type of Network you might want to use to eXploit. I also love how the only limit to your eXpansion during a given turn is your Caps and not an arbitrary 1 base per turn or such rules. Again, it can make for some nice building explosions as all of a sudden a player is able to lay down a series of Outposts in a single turn.
Since expansion is limited by Caps and the more bases of different types you have on the board the more money you get, you end up with a nice little feedback loop that can still be exploited during a turn since you can easily gain money during your turn, but only from whichever track is at the lowest, encouraging the players to diversify, which in most cases the players won’t do. You see, because the strength of the different networks are calculated in a different way for each, players will tend to pick on area to expand at the expense of the others. I’m pretty sure this will change as players gain more experience in the game since it means that you have a very one dimensional economy and you might be stuck with the wrong Tech cards, which can make a huge difference.
What you have is a game that is really about building very strong networks of different types, taking advantage of what Sectors are available and where attacks are more out of opportunity than all out warfare. Perhaps the largest difference with other 4X games is that all Network types can attack, and that there is no real production of units. You are limited to either 3 Fleets or 3 Agents and, if you lose them, you can simply build them back up. I’ve seen many games where a player would lose bases to an attack, only to rebuild them right back on their turn, having simply lost an action instead of being crippled.
The rulebook, while not bad, has a tendency of making the game look harder than it is, especially when it comes to attacks, which is the most complex part of the game (the rest of the game is fairly straightforward). The complexity of the attacks does bring a new dimension to the game so that every new base placed on the map becomes part of a long term strategy that is not only about gaining more Caps, but also gaining a potential advantage over the other players. This of course means that the 2nd phase, the Exploration phase, is very important, much more than would appear at first. I really like the fact that, unlike in many other games, you get a choice between the newly flipped Sector and a small pool of other Sectors. This reduces greatly one of the only element of luck in the game. Allowing the player to place this Sector anywhere they wish to also gives the players another strategic choice. Want to use your Industrial network to attack deep into enemy territory? Place a Sector tile with an Industrial base on it next to an enemy base and built a Quantum Gate pair there, giving you an instant beach head.
The Action phase can also bring a healthy dose of bluffing and deal making, with players secretly selecting which action they want to perform. This is perhaps the greatest advantage of being the Arbiter, since you get to select who will go first among those who are tied in Action number. This is again a very simple rule, but with such deep implication.
There is so much to like in this game that I wish it would play maybe a little faster and that the game end would not be so abrupt. Sure, you know it coming (it’s really easy to see that the board is almost full) but I sometimes wish that it would go one more full round after, since the game seems to end just as the entire map is revealed and players have their Networks solidly in place.
All in all, it is a game I would strongly recommend if you like to see what else can be done in a 4X space. This is definitively different than most 4X games on the market and well worth a good look.