Uprising: Curse of the Last Emperor | Case Study (Kickstarter)
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Uprising: Curse of the Last Emperor is one of the only cooperative 4X games around, or at least so I hear. 1-4 players control formerly enslaved fantasy factions against two asymmetric enemy factions—the Empire and Chaos.
Each player starts on their own hex with a Haven. Throughout the game, players will spawn Units, Explore other hexes around the relatively small board, place additional Havens to gather more resources per Chapter, buy Items, attempt Quests, and Command Units to fight Skeletons, Garrisons, Legions, and Hordes. Skeletons and Hordes constitute the Chaos faction while Garrisons and Legions constitute the Empire faction. Skeletons and Garrisons are placed by Exploring hexes and are much weaker than Hordes and Legions.
Hordes & Legions: Movement & Threat
Hordes and Legions are Uprising’s biggest threat. The Hordes spawn on the outside hexes of the board while the Legions spawn at the Capital in the very center hex of the board. Already this creates an intense and interesting situation for players where enemies flank both sides, but the best part of this configuration is that the Hordes and Legions follow simple yet fleshed out movement rules that players can take advantage of. Both Legions and Hordes prioritize adjacent Havens, enemies, then empty hexes in that order. Legions are the most straightforward where they choose a Haven to target and must move toward it. Hordes, on the other hand, don’t have to move toward the Capital, they just can’t move away from the Capital. These restrictions open the door for players to strategically place their Havens and Units to either bait a Horde into a defended Haven or send them off to intercept a Legion.
Each Horde or Legion spawns with Threat which determines both their combat dice and health. This dual-purpose Threat mechanic definitely provides a satisfying snowball effect against the Horde or Legion. Uprising’s combat is also interesting in that once combat begins, it doesn’t end until one side is completely dead.
Game Length, Board Size, & Variety
Uprising suggests to play 2 Chapters on your first play, and 3 or 4 Chapters thereafter. However, my buddies and I decided to end 3 of our 4 plays at Chapter 2 because the game is very lengthy. You’re looking at roughly an hour or possibly more per Chapter for a 3-player game. There’s really nothing you can do about the length either because each decision is significant: you must plan ahead for your current and future turns which hexes to Explore, enemies to battle, Feats to use, Items to buy, and Quests to attempt, and you must consider each possible scenario if you hope to turn the tide in your favor. Our group played on Tabletop Simulator so that may have extended the game time, but it's most likely negligible because the publisher set up a good amount of automation.
The Empire’s Legions and Chaos’ Hordes are brutal. The board is relatively small and tight, especially with the Legions and Hordes after us. The small board limits options but also reduces analysis paralysis and forces choices that result in bigger impacts on the game.
I was surprised by how different each play can be. Some plays resulted in huge Garrison problems. Another play resulted in a pretty bad Skeleton problem that would’ve spawned more Hordes if we played past Chapter 2. Sometimes we knocked out the starting Hordes, sometimes we influenced them to battle against Legions, sometimes they completely screwed our only Seatowers at the very beginning by placing Curses. Uprising appears to provide a good amount of variety and I can only hope to see what kind of player factions, Items, Quests, Legions, Hordes, and hexes will be in the full game.
Overall, Uprising is a tough, strategic game but still very digestible, with a fantastic rulebook to boot. However, as my gaming group and I found out the hard way, Uprising is one of those games where the enemy can be across the board from you in Victory Points even when you and your cooperative buddies played a perfect or near perfect game. I didn't think luck played a huge role at first and I certainly gave it the benefit of the doubt, but the luck does in fact determine the entire game.
Combat & Dice
Uprising’s combat is a satisfying, intense, and often frustrating dice fest. Uprising comprises six different dice colors each with their own distribution of Skulls (damage), Shields, and Bolts (activate special power or ignore Shield). While the Items, Quests, and Feats can mitigate luck greatly, it’s absolutely possible for an enemy to wipe your entire Unit squad even when you have a clear advantage. In one playthrough, I was almost wiped by two measly Skeletons because they kept rolling Bolts to spawn more Skeletons.
Most of the time however, you won't have a clear advantage. The Legions and Hordes were designed to be stacked against the players from the very beginning. Not to mention Garrisons are much more akin to Legions than they are to Skeletons. You can prepare as much as you possibly can with different Items, Quests, and Feats but the game is so insanely stacked against you that you must continuously roll lucky if you want a chance at winning. Since combat loops until one side dies, a single unlucky roll can snowball you into oblivion not just for the combat but for the rest of the game.
In one playthrough, the Lich Queen rolled a Bolt twice in a row, resulting in her and Oda gaining 2 Threat. This combat luck ruined our chances of dealing with them in the first Chapter, so we decided to attempt a Quest to move the Lich Queen away from us. Thankfully we succeeded with the help of some useful Items and Feats. We also decided to keep hexes around Oda completely empty so he’d head straight to the Capital. The Empire would receive the Victory Points for taking him out, but we didn’t have a choice. Actually, that was our strategy for Oda from the very beginning because of how insanely powerful and stacked against us he is, but the additional Threat certainly didn’t help.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the combat strategy of forcing the Empire and Chaos to fight each other. Honestly the game wouldn’t work otherwise since you have to weaken enemies one way or another when Threat reaches a certain level, if luck is against you, or if there are enough Legions and Hordes on the board—at least one of these conditions will always be fulfilled at any given moment. It’s simply not fun to see luck wipe your Units then watch the Horde or Legion wipe your Havens from the board without a chance to send the enemies elsewhere or weaken them. In fact, if we didn’t draw or successfully complete the Quest to move the Lich Queen (which requires rolling dice, mind you), then the Lich Queen would’ve completely wiped AND Cursed all three Havens of one of our players.
If I were to play Uprising again, I'd think about house ruling Legions and Hordes so they're less stacked against the players. Another suggestion would be to have more dice guarantee something, at least for players. Currently only one of the six dice colors guarantee at least something useful and it’s an extremely rare color to roll (black), even completely non-existent for many player factions.
If a player ends up in combat and is prepared with Items and Feats but the Legion or Horde wipes the player anyway without taking damage… I wouldn’t blame them if they were done with the game. I've watched myself and my teammates roll blanks against a Legion or Horde and get completely wiped. The game is too demanding and the length is too long to justify that much extreme disparity in combat (and Quests to a lesser extent). In its current state, Uprising is overwhelmingly demoralizing and frustrating. Even though the game might allow players to come back and still win in the end if you're nothing but lucky for the rest of the game, it’s not fun (nor particularly fair) for anyone at the table to witness an extremely unlucky yet impactful roll.
I’m certainly not against the dice, but I think the extreme disparity needs to be managed in some way. I understand and enjoy how damage is almost inevitable and I actually loved deciding which of my Units would take the hit. Each Unit has their own pros and cons, including combat phases, dice, cost, and terrain interactions. I understand how you must weigh your options and play it safe if you’re planning on confronting a Legion or Horde this Chapter. I like how the game can feel overwhelming on a tight board where a variety of actions can change your odds, like buying Items, completing Quests, and using Feats. Uprising is by no means a bad game—it has a very solid foundation—but Nemesis Games must revisit the game for it to be fair and enjoyable.
Overall, Uprising: Curse of the Last Emperor has a solid foundation but Nemesis Games must make adjustments. Every system in the game exists for a reason. The Items and Quests aren’t tacked on since you need them to stand a chance. Uprising has a deep strategy that players must plan out ahead of time and a satisfying luck mitigation system in its Items, Feats, Quests, dice distributions, and even the terrain on the hexes. I enjoyed the intensity of the back-and-forth dice combat and the strategy of deciding which Unit dies, but the possible extreme outcomes occurred too many times for me to ignore. I’m okay with losing Units and progress but Uprising doesn’t feel fair since the game is so insanely stacked against you that you must continuously roll lucky if you want a chance at winning. My buddies and I actually played a perfect game outside of a single mistake I made and not even they were on the same side of the board's Victory Point tracker as the Empire and Chaos, so Uprising determines your chances of winning entirely by luck and nothing else.
I should probably clarify that playing a perfect game is possible since the board is tight/small, so we were able to strategize which action to take when without missing some hard to notice or obscure move or strategy.
I’m looking forward to what changes Nemesis Games may make to the game.If you enjoyed this case study on Uprising: Curse of the Last Emperor, please consider joining my newsletter for digests of future articles and How to Disappear in Games board game and Kickstarter announcements. I upload some of my board game playthroughs on the How to Disappear in Games - TTS Gameplay Archive YouTube channel. I also upload video game case studies on the Corvus YouTube channel. Here’s my Twitter, Facebook, and Discord.