I got the game, Urban Empire, as a Christmas present from bookahnerk. It released on January 20, so there was quite some aniticipation built up there. I had watched a few streams about the game and read a few articles from gaming websites (and a German gaming magazine), but I didn’t read too much about the game’s mechanics and how to actually play the game. I have played through the campaign once (with a time-victory, meaning I stayed mayor for all five time eras that the game has), so I figured it’s a good time to share my impressions with you now.
First things first: The developers stress that it’s a city-ruler, not a city-building game. And that part is certainly true! You plan city districts and choose the percentage of residential buildings, businesses and industry in that district plus you can add a few things like water, electricity or special buildings like a park (which adds a bonus to health) or a clinic and so on (each with a monthly cost associated, of course). Once you are done with one district proposal, your city council gets to vote. If the majority of them votes “no”, the district will not be built – you can try again and alter some of the settings, though. Or you just pay for the district out of your own pockets. As mayor of the city, you do get money every month and can use it for things like this or spying on political parties that are part of your government.
You can choose between four different families to rule as mayors throughout the five time eras that the campaign has. I chose the Kilgannons as my mayors. What I liked were some random events related to my chosen family that were happening in the first two eras. It was mostly about what my offspring did and I had to react or make a decision. E.g., I wanted to send my daughter to university but it was not possible yet in the fictional country of Swarelia, where my city is located, at the time. So I chose to send her abroad which made her upset. But these events made me bond with my mayor and his family. At some point, these events stopped and I was not given any more options or decisions on what to do with family members. I was not even told about any of my family members anymore. With every change of the era, a new offspring gets put into the mayor office. So with one era-change, there he was: some relative that I had never even heard of before but he was the new mayor now and I had no choice there. Maybe I am too used to roleplaying games where I can choose my character and customize them somewhat. Still, I would have really liked to hear about that person before and get to know at least a little bit about them before having to play as that character. Or better yet, with the change of the era, give me a decision which relative to choose as the next mayor!
During the first two eras, the city council can’t do anything to get rid of you. That is, they can’t vote you out! But they still do vote on almost every decision you make! Going completely broke would probably let you lose the game either way… I did get into huge debts twice, but both times, I asked in Vienna where I asked for more money and got it, so I could continue. In other words, I have no idea what has to happen in order to lose the game in the first two eras.
Other than placing districts, you also choose inventions. You do not research these inventions themselves, but merely research to have the inventions imported to your city (or so it said in the tutorial). Every research is tied to a certain era, although you can advance faster (or slower!) than the time eras (so you can research era 2 inventions even though you’re still in the first era time-wise). Researched inventions also unlock new issues/edicts and upgrades to your city. From time to time, political parties want you to start a vote on certain edicts and you can either agree or disagree with them. In either case, they do get voted on by the political parties afterwards. I would assume that my decision changes the “goodwill” of the political parties depending on whether they agree or disagree with the issue.
The goodwill shows whether political parties will favour me or not… and I can “spend” goodwill to plead with, demand or threaten a political party to agree with me on an issue (or to vote for me in the upcoming elections). I do not know what happens if you’re at the maximum of -10 goodwill. I was at that point quite often with several political parties at which point I always chose “threaten” to make them vote for me, because eh, there was nothing to lose. However, despite being at -10, I do not know what negative implications this had. I didn’t feel or notice any, at least. You can plead with, demand or threaten a political party once a month, so that’s what I did before elections took place. It was a close call sometimes, but with one exception, I always won the election. One time I didn’t win the election and I could click on “overrule” to stay mayor. You pay such an overruling with prestige points and I had gotten so many of them without spending any that it was no big deal. The result was that all political parties lost respect for me which means that they had less goodwill towards me. Which brings me back to the point of not knowing or not having felt any negative consequences of being at -10 goodwill.
Placing the districts was a fun part. Yes, I admit, I’m a fan of city-building! Once all districts were placed, there was nothing to further expand the city. Well, other than increasing the density of my districts depending on demand (e.g., reducing the residential areas in a district but increasing industry because we had a need for much more industry but not for residents), at least. I had a spot left where I could have placed another district, but the game told me the area is too small for a district. So I had two options: Destroy at least one neighbouring district to rebuild it a bit smaller, so I could probably squeeze in another district – or just let it be as it didn’t matter anyway. I had a surplus of income, residents were reasonably happy, security, environment, health etc. were all acceptable. So why change anything? I had gotten to that point at the beginning of the 4th era which means that for the rest of the game (era 4 and 5), I let the city council come up with issues or sometimes initiated a vote on issues or edicts myself because they improved the city or gave me some more income (depending on what was needed to balance it out again) and waited for the end of era 5 to get that time victory.
Two more features got unlocked in the later eras: Twin Cities which lets you choose a city and get some bonus in return. I chose Sydney which gives me +2 fun but it costs 50k. And Business Delegation which lets me send a delegation to a city for several months and gives me bonuses to a certain industry I choose.
You actually do have a lot of stats to look at. For example, which districts have how many middle class or working class residents. But to be honest, I did not have a reason to look at these stats. And believe me, I love stats! I just want a reason to pay attention to them and make decisions based on them!
I liked the first two eras of the game, but after that, it became “click click click, wait for votes, click click click, then threaten and demand with the political parties who would not vote for me until they would…” and nothing really mattered. I had positive income with my city and even if I didn’t do anything and didn’t change anything, all went well. I’ve never felt this indifferent about “winning” the game (with a time victory), because it was just so boring getting there. I basically sat it out with one exception: I did go through all my districts and upgrade the road networks and I think I got more income afterwards as transportation volume increased. But other than that, districts didn’t complain if they didn’t have gas, water or electricity. Everything worked well anyway which let me stay inactive for most parts.
My conclusion for now is that I cannot recommend the game for full price. For me, it doesn’t offer enough as it gets boring at some point. However, I still think it’s a great concept and the first two eras are fun and engaging! It’s a solid base and not a “lost cause” if you ask me, and maybe the developers will add features in the future that make the game more engaging and feel the effects of making – or not making – choices in the later eras.
TL;DR: Urban Empire is a city-ruler game with – in my opinion – great potential which is not (yet?) living up to it.