Posted on July 11, 2008 by Flames
This is a review of the second edition of the game with the name altered from Crimson Empire, which the earlier edition was titled, due to a dispute with Lucasarts. Cursed Empire is a small, independent press game written by Chris Loizou and presented enthusiastically and comprehensively at many UK conventions. This is a weighty book and obviously a labour of love for the creator whose enthusiasm for the game is obvious and infectious. This makes me feel bad about criticizing the game given that it’s such an obvious and singular labour of love, but there are significant problems with it.
Cursed Empire’s adventures and story take place in a land called Thargos. A dark land that has suffered a great deal and which is torn apart by civil war. The characters in the game will tend to be chancers, adventurers and opportunists, doing what they can to get by and maybe, eventually, picking a side and helping shape the course of the conflicts and their eventual outcome. Cursed Empire is billed as a dark, gritty, medieval fantasy world but it seems to draw more inspiration from Greek, Roman and Alexandrian myth, particularly in the look and feel of the game which, coupled with a heavy dose of 1990s alternative culture results in a not-quite-dungeonpunk, semi-BDSM fantasy feel to the whole game. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
The game has a rich and detailed world setting, interesting magic systems and a great deal of enthusiasm behind it, but it suffers greatly from poor explanations of the game rules – particularly character creation – and some presentation mistakes.
The artwork is excellent and consistent. The cover(s) are by Rob Larson with interior artwork by Rik Martin and Amandine Labarre. This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems with it however. The excellent cover art creates great expectations of the interior and while the interior artwork is excellent it doesn’t quite manage to marry up to the expectations that the cover creates. There is an awkwardness and flatness to some of the interior artwork which is made worse by the lack of contrast. The interior works are almost all pencil/charcoal works and thus tend to a flattened grey, lacking contrast. This is made much worse than it might have been by the grey background on all the pages which tends to cause the interior artwork to get lost in the background. Weapon and equipment illustrations suffer this less, but they are pixelated, suggesting that they weren’t created/scanned at the right resolution and thus have become stretched.
As mentioned previously the pages are very grey and this causes both art and text to fade somewhat into the background, making the book something of an eyestrain to read under many conditions. Combined with the writing problems (next section) the two feed on each other to make a quite frustrating reading experience. There’s also quite a lot of wasted space on the page and the use of an unconventional and somewhat wide font, while countering the problems of reading the text a little, make you feel a little short changed on the amount of content.
Despite these flaws Cursed Empire presents a unified vision of its game world though, in the corebook at least, this is mostly presented in the form of characters and their equipment and it isn’t until supplements that you really get much of a vision of the world that they inhabit – save via the text.
The background and story sections are excellent, engaging and brimming with enthusiasm though some of the writing seems to present a much more ‘vanilla fantasy’ vision of the game than the artwork, body piercings and bondage armour might otherwise present. The inclusion of elves and dwarves also feels somewhat unnecessary and drags Cursed Empire dangerously close to being just another Fantasy Heartbreaker.
The big letdown comes with the rules themselves, they are not explained very well and remain deeply confusing even after a third read through and a second attempt at creating a character. The index is comprehensive but for the book/edition I had all the references seemed to be 1-2 pages off and I still couldn’t find an adequate explanation of ‘Mastering Weapons’. This is compensated for somewhat by an Exccel sheet character calculator on the website, but if you can’t easily make up a character from the book, that’s a problem.
As intimated above the rules are confusing and they are also complex. I think this may account for why many of Cursed Empire’s major enthusiasts are people that the author has managed to play with at conventions. By directly experiencing the game being run by its creator I am certain that many of the problems fade into the background and the confusing parts become obvious, but we can’t all have access to the game’s creator and a game should be judged on what it presents in the book.
The basic system is somewhere between Rolemaster and Basic Roleplaying, a percentile based system but one that also includes ranks and set difficulties. There are levels, but they are referred to as Caste Rank and aren’t quite so profoundly important as they might be in D&D or a similar game.
One truly inspired part of the game is its magic system, a method of combining runes to create new spells, a true ‘magic system’ rather than just a series of pre-made effects. This isn’t quite as free-wheeling as Mage 2nd Edition but is much more interesting and engaging than endless spell lists.
* Well realised dark fantasy look and feel.
* Creator’s enthusiasm and indomitable will to succeed and provide.
* Excellent website/forum/fan support.
* Poorly explained rules.
* Overuse of grey in presentation.
Review by James ‘Grim’ Desborough
Look for Cursed Empire eBooks at the Flames Rising RPGNow Shop.