Brant Guillory, 2 December 2021
Sea Empire is a nifty little mobile game for the Android, that’s free through the Google Play Store. There’s a paid version that strips out the ads, but the gameplay is essentially the same. It is a light real-time strategy game set loosely in the 18th-century Caribbean, with a focus on trade and building. There is no combat. Yes, you read that right – there is no combat in this game.
Caribbean islands, fortresses, trade, and racing to beat the clock. Strategy without combat? Heresy! But oh, what fun to play…
But don’t let that stop you. It’s a challenging game with a lot of well-balanced interactions with resource acquisition, transport, building construction, ship construction, and money management. The player is given the basic mission to build fortresses on different islands. To build a fortress, one needs timber, stone, and steel. The catch is that to make steel, you need a foundry to convert iron to steel, and to build a foundry you need stone, timber, and money, and to get money you need a marketplace, and… well, you can see where this is going, right?
There are three resources on the islands: timber, stone, and iron. You gather them to build things, you can also gather them to sell to help pay for buildings or buy new ships. Ships come in three sizes with different costs and speeds, and all quite well-balanced. There are also some islands that are purely resource islands, on which no buildings can be constructed.
click images to enlarge
For buildings, there are a bunch. The first thing you have to build on any island is a Storehouse. Marketplaces allow you to sell goods. Shipyards – get this – build ships! A foundry lets you convert iron to steel, and the Miner’s House lets you speed up your resource production. Finally, the Fortress is the Big Mama on the island. Once you’ve got a fortress on the island, you can establish a storehouse on another island. What this means is that you can’t be building up several islands simultaneously.
Once a storehouse is built on an island, that island is yours, and no other “player” (really just the AI, since it’s a single-player game) can gather resources from it, or dock there. So at any one time, you’re building up one island, and no one else can molest it. When building on an island, the only requirements are the storehouse and the fortress. There’s no requirement to build a marketplace, shipyard, etc. unless the scenario specifies otherwise.
On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
The AI will play 1-2 opponents within the game, and while there’s no real difference between them in their aggressiveness or style of play, the game moves a bit too fast for you to have the time to exploit any differences, anyway. The instructions do note that the AI player(s) start with a boost in initial resources for game balance, as the AI is not as smart as the human opponent.
There are several ‘base’ maps that act as stand-alone scenarios, in which the player has the task to build “x” number of fortresses within the allotted time. There are three difficulty levels, but they vary only in the amount of time you have to complete the tasks. On the “easy” level, you will never fail to complete the task, unless you’re just not trying.
There is also a “random” map generator that allows you to specify the number of islands, AI players, ‘big resource’ islands, and fortresses to be completed, after which the game will build a map for you. It’s a nice feature for the one-off map you’d like to play, without replaying the same stock ones you’ve beaten already.
Where Sea Empire really shines, however, is the campaign of 12 linked scenarios. With an actual storyline, and missions that are much more just “build a bunch of fortresses”, the player can campaign across the Caribbean while building on the story. Missions including shipping boats full of steel back to the king, rescuing VIPs, harvesting mass quantities of stone, or building full villages on certain islands.
Not only that, but the missions are actually challenging, as you’ll be pressed to finish some of them in time, even on the ‘easy’ setting.
And don’t think you’re going to get away with just fighting your way through the story on the ‘easy’ setting, either, because in order to start any mission past #8, you have to have completed at least five of the lower-level ones on the ‘hard’ setting. So you’ve got a set of scenarios linked by a story, with a significant difficulty to keep you busy. And the final mission is a doozy, too – I had to play it a good 25 times or so before I finally cracked it. Those darn pirates kept messing up my steel supplies.
Pirates? I didn’t mention them already? Hmmm… seriously, though, what sort of Caribbean-based sailing game would be complete without pirates? They don’t attack your ships, though. They come in from the edge of the map, aimed at one of your islands. If you have a fortress on that island by the time they get there, the pirates have no effect. If not, they steal all of your money and steel. They’re not a direct threat to your play, but they are significant nuisance, especially on that last mission of the campaign.
Pocket-sized games usually suffer from either banal repetitiveness, or a poor interface that’s the result of overambitious game design. Sea Empire manages to navigate these twin dangers quite masterfully. The interface is a simple touchscreen interface that allows the player to easily control the action with very intuitive cues. But it has a nice depth of gameplay that allows for quick, thoughtful, and immersive play in nice-sized chunks. It’s not trying to cram Civilization on the phone, which is good, because it’s simple enough to easily grasp and still designed with the depth to make you think. The one’s definitely a keeper.
Thank you for visiting The Armchair Dragoons and spending some time with the Regiment of Strategy Gaming.
You can find the regiment’s social media on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and occasionally at a convention near you.
We also have our Patreon, where supporter can help us keep The Armchair Dragoons on the web, and on the podcast.
We welcome your feedback either in our discussion forum, or in the comment area below.