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Game review: A House Divided, Rise of Empires offer epic adventures

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A House Divided, from Mayfair Games, is a two-player strategic war game set in the U.S. Civil War. One player takes on the role of the Union while the other plays the Confederacy.

Players start the game with militia units, infantry and cavalry that have a combat rating of “1.” On a player's turn he or she rolls a dice and depending on the number rolled, the player will get that number of marches for the turn, though players are guaranteed at least two marches each turn, even if a “1” is rolled.

Marches allow players to move stacked units from city to city along the game board. Infantry units move one city, while cavalry move two cities. Players may also move two cities along railroad lines, though they must control both ends of the line. (You cannot rail into a battle). Players may also move along rivers. Marches may also be spent to fortify units that do not move.

Next, units that moved into a city with an opposing unit engage in combat. During combat, pieces are lined up opposite each other. The defender fires his units first and must roll a dice for each unit, scoring a hit if the roll is equal to or less than his combat rating. Once the defender fires, the attacker returns fire. Hit units are flipped over to their damaged side, and a second hit destroys them. After battle, successful, surviving units may be upgraded to veterans or crack units, increasing their combat rating.

Cities add points to a player's logistical ability, and the more cities he or she controls, the larger the army he or she can field. If the player has more points than units, he or she may recruit new militia units and place them on the board.

The Union player wins only if he or she can capture seven key cities in the Confederacy, while the Confederate player can win if he or she captures Washington, D.C., if ever he or she can field a larger army than the Union player, or if he or she manages to survive from July 1961 until June 1865. Additionally, the game boasts many optional and advanced rules to further simulate the historical scenario.

A House Divided is one of those rare gems — a highly strategic war game that is very easy to learn and to play. Though there is a considerable amount of luck in the dice rolls for marches and in combat, the game nevertheless manages to present many tough strategic choices throughout. The Union player must be careful as he or she brings a greater force to bear on the south not to let Confederate units slip through into the north, wreaking havoc and stealing points. The Confederate player must constantly look for avenues of attack, and frequently must take big risks to prevent the Union advance.

A very fun game that succeeds beautifully in bringing the Civil War to the table, A House Divided is also a wonderful way to introduce young people to this important chapter in American history.

A House Divided plays in about two to three hours and is recommended for ages 12 and up.

Rise of Empires

In Rise of Empires, also from Mayfair Games, two to five players attempt to gain the most victory points and build the world's greatest civilization. The game board is a map of the Mediterranean Sea and Europe, with other sections displaying the Americas and Asia. The game plays out in three historical eras, with each era boasting two turns, an “A” turn and a “B” turn.

The heart of the game is the action display. During each era's turn, each player places one of their action discs next to an action on the action display, allowing them to take that action. Players can choose from things like taking a progress tile, which allows players certain actions or advantages, taking a territory tile or a city tile, each of which can offer persistent bonuses in different ways. Players can also take an empire tile, which allows players to field armies (cubes) and attack other players, and more.

Empire tiles contain instructions for combat. Essentially, they state how many of your cubes you must give up in order to destroy a larger number of enemy cubes. Whoever has the most cubes in a region controls it and will get whatever bonuses that region provides — gold, food and victory points. If players share the region, they must split the bonus.

During the “B” turn, players must take the same actions they took during the “A” turn, but this time they remove their action discs from the action display. The leftmost discs may be removed for free, but if any discs are left of the disc a player wants to use, he or she must pay a cost in gold or resources. This “A”/“B” turn dynamic means that players must plan for both turns at the beginning of each era.

At the end of each era, some of the tiles must be returned or can be kept if the player is willing to pay one gold for each tile. The game ends after the “B” turn of Era III, and more victory points are awarded for various resources and gold. Whoever has the most victory points wins the game.

Rise of Empires is a fun, fairly straight-forward game once players are familiar with its nuances, though there is a bit of a learning curve here. The rule book includes a helpful example of play. The real innovation here is the action display, and the “A”/“B” turn to each era. Players must carefully consider each action in the “A” turn, because it will lock down their strategy for the “B” turn as well. It is a clever mechanism that forces players to think long-term, and it is the sort of device that prolific designer Martin Wallace is known for.

Though there are aspects of a war game here, this is better classified as a civilization building game where combat is important but not necessarily decisive. A heavily Euro-style board game, Rise of Empires creates some real competition and player interaction.

Rise of Empires plays in about three hours and is recommended for ages 12 and up.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com