It’s all a bit political.
Urban Empire, from ReBorn Games and Kalypso Media, is a new city building game, or city ruling game, which stands out from the competition by adding a healthy dose of politics and ensuring that the player actually takes on the role of Mayor, rather than an omnipotent God that has complete power over everything. However, does having to ask permission before making improvements to your town make Urban Empire more fun than your average city building game?
Gameplay in Urban Empire takes place across five eras, running from 1820 to 2020, and before getting going, the player has to choose a ruling family to play as. Each of the available characters offer different traits, but they have little noticeable effect on the actual game. As the eras pass, the family grows and heirs step into the power seat, and the players main goal is to keep their chosen family in power across the course of the 200 years. For the first couple of eras, there is not too much threat of losing power as the Emperor has your back and keeps your family in place. However, after this elections take place and keeping the city happy, or pulling in a few political favours, will be key to remaining as Mayor.
For the actual city building side, players don’t have that much control. They begin by measuring out a district, which can be a test itself as the game doesn’t communicate very well what actual classes as a valid district shape or size. The district, once made, is automatically divided up into businesses, industry and housing. Roads are laid without input from the player, and most improvements to the district are similarly placed without the player. There are a few major improvements that can be placed by the player, but often these come with specific rules for placement that are just not well explained.
While the overall control of the city planning may not be with the player for the most part, there is no denying that the cities look really nice as they evolve. The player is given a choice of areas in which to build their city at the very start of the game, with each area offering a different back drop to the city and various challenges. These back drops look gorgeous and frame the city as it grows and comes to life. The building models are all great, fitting into the various eras of the game, and are varied enough to keep it interesting.
An extensive tech tree provides the player with some control over what becomes available in their city. It takes time to research the different aspects, but once they are complete, they can lead to new buildings, improvements for districts, and edicts which can be proposed to the city council.
It is the city council that plays the largest part in the game, as the player doesn’t have total control over the city, but must rather submit everything to the council for approval. Everything from a new improvement like street lighting, child labour laws and taxing must be set to vote before being allowed. This is where the game really slows down, as the player must submit the proposal and then wait for the vote to take place. There are a few things to do while waiting for the vote, but there is still a lot of waiting.
There are different political parties to deal with in the city council, and the player will have to convince these parties to back their proposals in order to get enough votes to have them allowed. Sometimes it may take a simple chat with a particular party, or maybe taking the leader out for dinner. Or it may take some slightly tougher tactics, or even a spot of blackmail further down the line. Either way, the player will make all of their political moves before the vote and will be able to see an approximation of which way the vote will swing at all times, letting them know which parties to concentrate their efforts on. It’s quite interesting, and certainly becomes more complex as the eras change, but as it all happens with clicks on a menu and the occasional pop up explaining the result, it is not the most dynamic system.
The real problem with Urban Empire, as some players will enjoy the hands off city building and the political too and fro, is that there is so little explanation and the player is often left to trial and error to work out what is going on. Even from the very beginning, it took me longer than it should to set my first district due to being told it was invalid, and dropping in the train station was frustratingly impossible without a quick look on the forums for help. Even once you get the basics under control, it can be really difficult to understand the mechanics behind the city running, and how decisions will affect things like happiness or income. There is just not enough information for the player, or explanation as to how the player should interpret the information that is given.
Urban Empire is a niche game. More political sim than city builder, the game suffers from a lack of information and far too much waiting around to appeal to the larger gaming market. Players who like to work out how to play a game and get the most from it will find themselves well served here, but city building fans will find the lack of depth and control too much to overcome. Urban Empire looks great and has a lovely historically accurate feel, but quickly reveals itself as an average game aimed at a very specific audience.