When I first saw the trailer for Urban Empire, I was impressed. I love games such as Civilization, Cities: Skylines, Democracy 3 and Crusader Kings (although I admit I’ve not played the latter one properly yet, and this is probably why the universe is in political turmoil) and I was eager to play a fusion of the two genres. Plus, with the Trump Inauguration careening the world into a new age, I felt it was apt to give Urban Empire a play. Boy, was this an experience I won’t forget, though probably not for the reasons you might think.
Booting the game up, I was greeted first by the wonderful audio and the stunning artwork of the main opening screen. There wasn’t a tutorial option, so I just had to open up into a new game. After several screens where I chose my leading dynasty and map, I was eventually asked if I wanted to turn on the tutorial, which I did. It then went on to explain the basic mechanics of game – making districts within your town with different specialisations, growing your town from a small, single-district plot of land around your town hall to a thriving, specialised city bustling with life. Each district can have several upgrades to it, such as running water, gas streetlights, etc. These affect how the districts function as well as the lives of your citizens, ultimately influencing several metrics such as how much money a particular district pulls in and how likely the citizens of that district are to vote you in to power as their mayor.
In order to implement any semblance of change in your town, you’ll need acquire every politician’s favourite thing – money. You can get your hands on this all-corrupting resource in one of two ways – from your own personal funds, accumulated from a turn-based stipend each month and granted by the city council, or by using the city’s funds directly. As well as this, each turn, research into a new technology is advanced, slowly making the game more complicated over time – as if it wasn’t complicated enough already. This review may come across as a bit disjoint because it’s so hard to cover everything logically when everything affects everything else!
Politically, there start a few parties, scattered over the liberal/conservative and left/right axes. In my game, I started with a conservative-left party, a centrist party, and a liberal-right party. Over time, these evolved into a much more complicated network of seven different parties, not only defined on the two-dimensional grid, but also by their very diverse ideologies (the Communist party wanted very different things to the Freedom party, despite both lying at centre left). My own political affiliations lie in the liberal left, so this is how I tried to play the game. And this is why I’ll remember this game for a long time – in a nutshell, it made me critically analyse my own political views and ultimately left me with a lot to think about. To pass anything in the council, you have to win votes, and my hard-line policy of “What I want to pass will pass, regardless of what it takes to pass it” ultimately ended up being my downfall. I was consistently hated by all parties, especially those that aligned with my views on things such as women’s rights, the death penalty etc. I realised how hard it is to build a “perfect society” when you don’t have infinite resources and time, and when people don’t share your views. As a result, I came out with a newfound respect for politicians, even those that I oppose.
My main criticism of the game would be that I wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing wrong when things started to go south – though in hindsight, I guess this reflects the nature of politics itself. During the tutorial, I was taught to use Pleading, Demands or Threats to gain political favour for my policies so they would pass. However, the concept of Goodwill – the currency of politics, the ultimate measure of how much a party likes you – was never properly explained, and so I was left wondering why all the parties hated me and why I was having a hard time doing anything. Then again, like anything, it was a learning experience, and once I started to take things slower and start thinking more strategically, I quickly was able to partly rectify my past mistakes from a previous life. I say this because the game plays out in 5 distinct “ages”, where you play successive members in your chosen dynastic line, assuming you get voted in at the start of every term.
Random events are the last major gameplay component to discuss, and these can take the form of anything from a worker’s union strike to your character falling in love (or, in my character’s case, marrying out of convenience). Many of these events also have an impact on your political workings, and some even require council voting, causing your carefully calculated plans to go off the rails once more.
Overall, my main praise of the game would be how much it made me question myself and what the impacts of my views are on wider society. While the gameplay can feel tedious at times, sometimes even boring while waiting for that political clock to tick over, at other times it feels like the perfect blend of city-builder and political machine. It definitely felt like I was playing two games at once, and with each clearly affecting the other, but not in a way that was easy to understand, I’m not sure that either was better for it. However, this is the first attempt at this style that I’ve seen, and I have to praise it for how it combined both genres, albeit a bit obscure at times. With a bit of polish and maybe a more in-depth tutorial or guide, Urban Empire could really shine.
Or maybe it was just because I’ve not played Crusader Kings that I was getting hated by my government and people. We’ll never know.