There’s a sense of displaced familiarity that comes with sitting around the digital play space of Tabletop Simulator. It’s like déjà vu, but not quite. Yes, there’s a table and game components and other players, but there’s also a sense of non-belonging, a nagging voice in your head that says this is not how board games are meant to be played. It’s not your dining room table or the fold-out card table crammed into the living room. It feels…off. Once game designer Trey Chambers begins to recite the rules of Empyreal: Spells and Steam, however, my worries dissipate.
It feels like any other game night (albeit with a few technical difficulties sprinkled in), and soon I’m eagerly examining my player board and plotting my first move. My captain’s special ability lets me utilize the otherwise unworkable wasteland tiles, so I develop a plan around that.
“I had this idea for a customizeable rondel,” Chambers tells me after the game. “I had been playing around with it for a long time and [Level 99 President] Brad [Talton Jr.] said ‘Why don’t you design a game around it?'”
The rondel he’s referring to is the method of action selection in Empyreal. Your pawn moves in a straight line, much like the train routes you build on the main board, and you can’t re-use old actions until you’ve used the last action in your row. You can always spend precious mana to skip over unappealing actions, but the resource is hard to come by and might be better spent on other things. The spaces on the rondel can be customized and augmented, represented by adding train cars to your personal tableau.
“Adding the different train cars to you tableau, that was actually the last thing we added to the game,” Chambers explains. “I was actually developing that mechanic for a different game.”
In some ways, Empyreal is a standard route-building, pick-up-and-deliver game. But a single round of play convinced me that, taken as a whole, it’s anything but standard. The variable player powers in particular help the game stand apart from the pack.
“I like train games, but there are no train games out there that I really love,” says Chambers. “And so I was like ‘maybe I should design a train game I love.’ So I designed a train game with all kinds of special powers.”
I spot a few tantalizing wastelands tiles not far from a city wanting some yellow resources. Luckily I’ve built some trains on nearby desert tiles, and so I activate my captain’s special ability and plant a new train down on the wasteland. This places me adjacent to the yellow city, so the next time my pawn reaches the end of the rondel I can make some weighty deliveries.
Behind all of Chambers’ games is the philosophy that each play should feel fresh and new. “The number one thing I focus on in all my designs is replayability,” he explains. “I want to play a game that doesn’t get old after 10 plays, because so many games out there do. That’s the main thing I focus on when I’m designing games. How can I make this interesting after 50 plays?”
At the end of the game, I find that my focus was too narrow. Yes, I utilized my captain’s powers, but that alone is not enough in a game of Empyreal. Savvy use of the various specialist cards and train cars is an important element that I failed to grasp. This oversight has landed me in last place, but I take no umbrage with the result. Instead, I am immediately thinking about how I can improve my play for the next go, which I am greatly looking forward to.
Empyreal is nearing the end of its Kickstarter campaign, one that has been extremely successful, and Chambers could not be more relieved. “Once it funds, I don’t stress any more,” he says. “But until then, I’m watching it like a hawk, like ‘Is anyone gonna buy my game? Is anyone even gonna support this design?'”
Luckily Chambers need not worry on that front. There are still a few days left in the campaign, but Empyreal met its funding goal in just over a single day. After one play, I can say that it deserves every dollar it’s earned. I’m eagerly awaiting the release later this year, and so should anyone with a passing interest in train games.