Enhanced Review: Uprising Curse of the Last Emperor & Expansion
Designers: Cornelius Cremin, Pawel Mazur, Dirk Sommer
Artists: Igor Desic, Bartek Fedyczak, Dirk Sommer
Year Published: 2021
Uprising: Curse of the Last Emperor is a strategically challenging and fully cooperative board game for 1 to 4 players set in a deeply immersive post-apocalyptic dark fantasy setting. As the known world is about to end, the players take over the role of a great hero to lead their faction through these dark times.
Uprising is a 4X cooperative game played against two asymmetric enemy factions controlled by the game itself: Chaos and the Empire. Explore the wasteland, expand your dominion, exploit the resources of the liberated territories, and exterminate the Legions and Hordes around you.
Every game tells a completely different story due to a modular board, asymmetric factions and a huge variety of different events. The game ends after four chapters. If you have not collected more victory points than Chaos and the Empire, the world will truly end.
I cannot really say that I have ever felt compelled to review the same game twice…until now!
The bottom line is that when I first reviewed Uprising : Curse of the Last Emperor (referred to as Uprising for short from now on) I was rather pressed for time, and in retrospect, I did not feel like I did an adequate job of presenting this game, its strengths and its weaknesses.
But for all basic intents and purposes, the game is mostly strengths. Indeed, part of the reason I am feeling the inexplicable drive to review this game again derives from the fact that I just experienced Uprising jumping straight up to the #4 spot on my favorite games of all time (see my Top 10 of 2022 list) after just being out for a short span of a year or so!
So here I am talking about it again.
Uprising is a 4x game, which for the uninitiated refers to a genre of play that is characterized by Exploiting, Expanding, Exploring and Exterminating. This particular style of play is second only to my favorite genre, which is the Dungeon Crawl, but in all honesty, it is a very close race, and I might actually just have more 4x games than Dungeon Crawls in my collection if that says anything.
The story revolves around a sadistic Emperor who, in an attempt to seal an evil gate of monsters, unwittingly dies in the process of sealing the rift into the netherworld. While he was indeed successful in closing the breach, his use of enchantment unfortunately left a cataclysmic wave of waste upon the land and his death resulted in a power vacuum that has led to a revolt among the former slave populations of the land.
To make matters worse, even though the emperor’s dark evocation had indeed closed the portals to the netherworld, it seems that it had done nothing to subdue the waves of undead and monsters that were already in the land, on the outskirts of civilization.
It is in this setting that you find yourself, one of the formerly enslaved and battered races that finds themselves pinched between a collapsed Empire that is working to do all that it can to retain its power and the hordes of Chaos, the unquelled monsters who were not able to be driven back to the Netherworld.
What makes Uprising different than most other 4x games out there is that this one is fully and exclusively cooperative. This is useful for me for a variety of reasons, because there are times where I have difficulty pulling out games like Twilight Imperium and Eclipse simply because I have players that are adverse to competitive games in my midst. And this happens quite a bit more than you or I might like to think!
Uprising starts with a typical setup with each player choosing a Faction, each of which has their own asymmetrical abilities, unlockable Feats (cards and abilities), Heroes and Units. The base game has “just” 4 factions (hint, get the Expansion for another 4, it will be worth it!).
Perhaps one of the biggest selling points of Uprising was the fact that they chose to use plastic standees instead of the much more expensive and typical miniatures for this type of game (or instead of cheaper cardboard standees that can break and degrade over time). The use of plastic standees really strikes a great balance between aesthetics and price, making the game much more financially viable for people who don’t have a fortune to waste. After all, in the grand scheme of things, it’s all about the gameplay and as I often say, it doesn’t matter if it has all of the best minis in the world if it misses the central point of being a good game…
And thankfully Uprising more than manages to live up to my expectations on a gameplay level. And then some!
After choosing your Faction, you then proceed to set up the board, which uses the traditional hex / tile based layout for most 4x games. Some tiles will be an ice entrenched, uninhabitable areas that you can only travel thru, while others will be unexplored (though habitable) territories that you will just have to venture into yourself if you want to expand (and survive!).
Now I need to take some time to talk about the game’s turn structure, and from this perspective Uprising has probably the most intuitive and streamlined experience that I have seen in a big-box 4x title. And this largely owes to both to the efficient and detailed sideboards as well as the central board layout design, inscribed with various stats for various situations.
The first point is the side board which, amazingly, somehow manages to capture to essence of the entire game structure all in a handy and accessible location. No need to page thru the game manual for the most part once you are familiar with the rules, though you may need to occasionally look up the odd thing or two. 90% of the time you will just need to slide the round turn tracker token down the board and follow the progression thru the following stages (and note that there is even more sub detail under each heading , describing what to do for each of these on the board) :
-Refresh Phase. All previously used items in your possession are refreshed. Draw and stage new Market and Quest cards that become available.
-Events Phase. The game is played in 4 rounds. Each round you draw a new Event Card, which usually spawns all sorts of baddies, but there are occasional benefits, too…
-Build Phase. Spend resources to build new units, and fortify your Havens with walls and towers if you need more defensive ability.
-Actions Phase. Each player has 8 action points (AP) and takes turn using one AP at a time until each player has none remaining. Actions include moving their Hero, trading, Commanding your attack units onto an adjacent hex, Exploring, Building a Haven, Buying an Item at the Market, or Questing
-Nemesis Phase. Now it’s the enemies’ turn to attack. Both The Empire and Chaos forces will move and strike in their initiative order.
-Production Phase. If you have any surviving Havens, you generate resources based on the number of Havens you have and any particular bonuses the Haven is on due to the type of terrain it is on.
-Scoring Phase. Player Factions (as well as the Empire and Chaos) calculate their score for the round, and move their points up accordingly.
-Repeat until 4 rounds are complete.
If Chaos or the Empire has more Victory Points (VPs) at the end of the game than ALL players, the game is lost. That is right, you cannot leave a single player behind in score, virtually everyone needs to score more than both Chaos and the Empire.
Now let’s go into a bit more detail about how the game functions with some of the inner workings.
Combat : There are six different colors of dice available, each with varying quantities and strengths of symbols. White, Blue, Red, Orange, Purple and Black. They can have blank sides, Skulls, Shields or Lightning Bolts.
Each player Faction unit has different numbers and color of dice they use (as well as costs to produce and Hero-related strengths). Usually as soon as a player and enemy faction come into contact, combat immediately ensues, which in typical 4x fashion, employs a dice-chucking festival and Uprising is no different than the rest in this department. Be ready to perhaps order another set of dice, because there will be tons of these flying through the course of your game!
Skulls usually do one point of damage (kills one of your units per each Skull if rolled by an enemy, or reduces the Enemy threat level by 1 until they die at zero threat if you happen to score a hit on them).
Shields usually cancel one Skull and reduce damage.
Lightning Bolts either let you (or the enemy) activate a God Power or cancel one shield. However, if you (or the Empire) is ever on a hex with a Curse from Chaos, you will find that you cannot use your God Power—only Chaos can!
And combat will always persist until one of the two opposing factions is defeated—there is no retreating. Your Hero will fortunately always stay alive to rally troops for another day, but your units are ultimately the ones who perish.
The type of terrain you are on when initiating a fight can play a major role in the outcome, too. Some types of land will give certain units an advantage over their enemy, so it is important to plan accordingly!
Questing is done when using an AP on your turn, and you have an opportunity to do a sort of skill check that is based on the number and type of skill dice your particular hero employs. Each Faction has two heroes to chose from , each with varied Feat Cards and dice they specialize in. So when a players undertake a quest, they roll all the dice from their pool, and succeed by getting a certain number of Skulls, Lightning Bolts and / or Shields. Success means you can generally claim 1 to 3 rewards if you succeed in getting a certain number of symbols (though sometimes you even “earn” negative rewards so be mindful of the quest you undertake!)
And I must admit to having made a big mistake in my initial assessment of this game in this regard : It is very easy to overlook the importance of skill dice and what Hero you select. Each Hero may seem too similar to the all the others in the game at first, but the reality is that the differences between what each Hero can hope to achieve are anything but subtle once you have a lot of plays under your belt, especially with regards to Quests and Items. And this misunderstanding can lead to a lot of losses until you figure out the rhyme and reason for the inner workings of the game.
So now that we have talked about a few of the most immediately prominent components to what you can do on your turn, let’s talk about my overall sentiments. There is way too much to talk about when talking about the game structure and all that can transpire and all the idiosyncrasies, but there are still some major takeaways from the experience that can be summarized.
Now here is my quick and easy summary of what is good about Uprising from my last review
) Top-of-the-line production quality
2) Acrylic Standees instead of minis that jack up the price
3) Fully cooperative game instead of the usual competitive game for 4x’s
4) It’s not a space themed game for once (not that that is a bad thing, but hey, this is fresh…)
5) Excellent rule book quality
6) Brutally challenging enemies and decisions to make
7) Wow, great inserts…and everything stores nicely.
8) A great assortment of player factions to use (4 in base game, 8 with expansion) with unique abilities and heroes.
9)Great aesthetics and components, especially nice touches with adding towers and walls to your havens (bases) and multi-leveled Imperial garrisons.
Now for the fine details…
First of all, there are a lot of options for things to do when it is your turn. One of such features are the Druid Power cards, and each round players will flip one of 4 randomly selected Druid cards over. This Druidic power is now available, and what this means is that whenever you roll a lightning bolt when in battle, you can activate this Druidic God power (sometimes once per round within the fight, sometimes just once per combat, these vary significantly). And these powers are insanely helpful…
But enemies have their own special powers, too, that they can unveil whenever they roll Lightning Bolts. While you may start the game off facing relatively few foes, this will quickly change. Worse, whenever they pop up, they have immediately devastating effects. None of these are trivial, trust me, everyone will instantly feel the pain. And it generally only cascades from there…
Initially, one could be fooled into thinking the player factions are too similar. This conclusion would be wrong. They all have radically different strengths and play styles, even though they all technically use mere “dice”.
There is also a ton of strategy involved. Again, much more than one might initially realize. One might be tempted to think that it is best to simply stay focused on fighting Chaos and Enemy hordes given the warlike theme of the game, but rushing out to meet your foe with blazing guns and saddles quite often does not go as you planned. And I am not just talking about the randomness of dice, but rather how easy it is to get into the myopic mindset of being so intent on crushing your foes that you overlook Quests and Items. And you do need to be constantly aware of what enters the playing area, which can be difficult given how sprawled and out-of-reach things can be from players at times.
But being aware of every option is vital. Moreover, I appreciate how not only do you need to focus on the items and Quests that are available but also HOW to really use these items with cunning maximization of timing and effect. And timing really is everything, because if you try to wait too long, those items and Quests won’t be there during the next round…
Along those lines, it is also so easy to go trigger happy with exploration, as it can and often does provide valuable resources to keep you in the game. But it also really pushes a fine line in expecting players to restrain themselves, because exploration can often make things worse in bringing out new Hordes and Imperial troops against you…
Thankfully, Chaos and the Empire are also mutual enemies, and will fight each other. So one player will take control of each respective enemy faction and see who survives, and while it is possible to get them to kill each other, it is Important to note that enemies still get huge amounts of VPs for killing each other…so while luring opposition into battles with each other may temporarily give you some breathing room, this is not a viable long term strategy at all…
Lastly, there are many ways to both do damage and mitigate casualties…you may just have to look carefully to see the opportunities that are present…
Turns may take a long time. And while analysis paralysis may play a part for some people, we find the downtime is more likely associated with making informed decisions and gathering as much info as you can before you commit to an action. It can be a lot to factor in all of the Items in the Market, the Quests that are available, gauging enemy strengths and abilities, terrain effects and yada, yada yada.
Difficulty : When I say this, we are most definitely guilty of being masochists, because we play two degrees higher than normal difficulty, not just at Nightmare level but at Apocalyptic level. And let me tell you, this is crazy insane level of madness. But we love every moment of it.
But regardless of the level of difficulty you chose, some enemy abilities reaaaaally hit hard. And fast. Players may find themselves utterly helpless very quickly, sometimes because of luck, but equally as much because a lack of hindsight or proper attention. Regardless of the root cause, the game can be very punishing!
Normal difficulty isn’t so bad for us, though I have heard otherwise from other players. Given what we have experienced with Nightmare and Apocalyptic difficulties, going back a few rungs on the difficulty scale feels a bit easy (in terms of upping our win/loss ratios), but your results and experience may differ significantly from ours.
One thing that can kinda seem like a downer is when you take a look at the board map after playing the game. The appearance of the board at the end of the game can startlingly look very similar when you started the game in terms of player logistics.
In fact, it may “seem” from gauging a “before” and “after” picture that not a lot transpired. Now this could not be farther from the truth in some respects, as many battles will have transpired, but you most likely will end the game with just as sparse a collection of troops as you started with.
And often times, many tiles will be left unexplored simply because you never got around to venturing out of your strongholds, being focused solely on staying alive. It may even seem like you didn’t move at all just by looking at the end game finale. It becomes quite clear that this is one game where you cannot in fact do everything. Sacrifices will need to be make. And this is okay in the end, but there needs to be a sort of inner reconciliation with this aspect for me on many levels! You will absolutely not be able to check off all of your personal mission objectives for this one!
The game box itself, as stated earlier, stores materials nicely—everything that is needed for the base game fits perfectly. However, the expansion content (which adds 4 new player factions and some new high level boss encounters) does not. It does leave me wishing that perhaps there had been a more efficient design that could accommodate all of the extras, but alas, I must be resigned to having two boxes for this game on my shelf for now.
And speaking of the box, this is a game where I cannot just leave it by the side of the table to reach for components as I play. Every inch of table space is needed, you simply cannot play this game without a large playing space! And we use a 4×6 table, and could probably use a few more inches per side just for this game!
With a player limit of 5 units per hex, the game itself can usually contain these, but when you start adding skeletons, hordes, imperial legions, curses and strongholds to the hexes, it does leave me wishing the acrylic standees could be a wee tiny bit smaller to accommodate all of the units that may be present in a battle. Things can get cluttered, but at least with the standees being of a more vertical orientation, it is thankfully easier than it could potentially be to place and remove them as needed.
The game does take a long time. Expect 3-4 hours minimum, longer if you play with a full player count.
Final Score :
Now, I will not say this game is for everyone. Nor is it quite perfect, but the imperfections for me are only relatively minor details in the grand scheme of things.
But for the 4X enthusiast, I will again say this is essential. Especially for those who are playing with others who are adverse to competitive games.
There is a reason that this game has shot straight up into my favorite games of all time, managing to rival the best 4x games in my collection. As a result, we find this game hitting the table many more times per year than say TI, which is still a spectacular experience only sullied by the amount of time commitment it entails.
My final score remains unchanged from earlier this year. Easy 9.5 / 10 !
After reading Jazz’s review, if this sounds like a game for you at the time of this posting Uprising Curse of the Last Emperor isn’t available to all of us yet but it was successfully KICKSTARTED on September 10th of 2020 by 3,358
backers pledging $324,441
of their $40,000 goal
Check it out HERE.
Find out more at BGG.
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Jazz Paladin- Reviewer