Wot I Think: Urban Empire

Urban Empire [official site] is a city-building strategy game about politics and people rather than residential zones and monuments. Placing you as successive members of a dynasty, each acting as the mayor of a city developing against the backdrop of the previous two centuries of European history, it’s about votes and influence as well as taxation and construction. But how does this more personal and political approach to urban management work? Well, it’s unlikely to win the popular vote.

Contemporary strategy games are typically so obsessed with the minutiae of resource management and budget allocation that the business of leading, whether a town, a nation, or a galactic empire, often resembles the work of a lonely deskbound mathematician slaving away at facts and figures. Urban Empire attempts to place you in the role of a politician, cheerfully navigating webs of diplomatic intrigue, cajoling and backstabbing to preserve your rule, and – only if circumstances permit it – attending to the secondary task of actually improving the livelihoods of the citizens that have elected and/or tolerated you.

This focus on politics instead of city-scale bookkeeping isn’t entirely novel. In the past, genre heirlooms like Balance of Power and Shadow President have catered for players who prefer their turn-based strategy with a dash of Machiavelli. What is original about Reborn Interactive’s offering is the way all the scheming and negotiating, all the breakthroughs and the setbacks, are enmeshed with the personal histories of the members of the political dynasty we choose to play as during western Europe’s wild scramble towards the 21st century.

Yes, Crusader Kings II has done the whole line-of-succession thing before, but these were mostly emergent narratives projected by players gently prompted via shrewdly orchestrated sets of statistics. Here, instead, there are intimate, scripted stories. As an astute commenter observed in our preview of the game, Urban Empire should ideally play like a two-hundred-year long Show Me a Hero simulator.

To keep things personal Reborn wisely opts to restrict the scale of the project. The aim of the game is to build and expand a city that connects the capital of the newly-formed Austrian Empire to the Adriatic, then retain its mayorship for the next couple of centuries, from 1820 to 2020. There are three different starting locales to found your city on and four families to play as, each with their own particular leanings: the Shuyskys, for example, start out as typical 19th-century aesthetes, wealthy art patrons with little experience in politics, while the Kilgannons are a working class lot with strong ties to labour movements.

Initial choices made, the campaign tutorial starts laying out the basic principles of building and improving your city: designing districts, outfitting them with necessary infrastructure, and providing them with the various services like schools and churches needed to keep the population happy. What the tutorial also inevitably reveals is one of Urban Empire’s major flaws; a striking indecisiveness on how to divulge information. Early instructions oscillate wildly between handholding and obscurantism. At one step you’re being tested on your grasp of the (entirely typical) camera controls, at the next your planned expansion is blocked because of an “illegal district shape”, even though you’ve gone for that paragon of Euclidean respectability, the rectangle, and there’s no suggestion forthcoming on what would constitute a legal alternative.

It’s hard to discern whether it’s QA failure or willful obfuscation, but it’s an attitude that persists throughout the game. During your research (covering both technological and social advances) you’re usually presented with a number of choices on a specific focus for your current subject. Sometimes, letting the mouse pointer hover over each choice will show you their effects; sometimes it will show the effects of only one of them; sometimes you get nothing. More often than not you’re left to look for contextual clues in the accompanying text, which would be fine if these were consistently available: once, while researching gas I was asked to pick a model for our street lighting between the Anglosaxon, the Parisian, and the Viennese one, without any further clarification. With little or no information to base these decisions upon, a series of choices meant to provide some colour – not to mention a sense of agency – to Urban Empire’s relentless historical march, is rendered moot.

There’s dubious relief to be found in the growing realisation that the effects of these decisions are trivial anyway. Urban Empire’s numbers do not gel together quite as well as in other, more meticulously balanced strategy titles. There, a precarious tradeoff is taking place with every choice – you gain an advantage by sacrificing another, one that is crucially just as useful in general, only less so in your particular situation. Here, there are only two resources that count, prestige and money, and they hardly get in the way of one another, the former quietly accumulating for the rare occasions you might actually need it, the latter easily acquired by tax hikes – a strategy that members of the city council seem curiously happy to endorse, regardless of their political affiliations. Success in Urban Empire is mostly a matter of periodically raising taxes and following prompts and there’s little to challenge even the observant casual player, let alone genre veterans.

Just as well then, that Urban Empire is not intended as a hardcore strategy title but as historical family drama punctuated by the double-dealings, uneasy truces, and conspiracies animating its central stage: the city hall. If, as Sid Meier would have it, a game is “a series of interesting decisions” then most of what’s gamelike about Reborn’s title takes place there, during the voting sessions on whatever policies you want to enact and especially on the pleading, reasoning, and even downright blackmailing immediately preceding those.

Depending on your mayor’s family background and past performance you have a certain amount of goodwill with each political party which can be spent in an attempt to ensure a favourable outcome on particularly thorny issues. Watching the votes being counted on a crucial new policy or expansion proposal provides the game with its most gripping moments, especially in the early days when you’ve yet to grasp how to manipulate the council through use of the goodwill resource and some good old-fashioned opportunism. The secret is that, since the former tends to slowly revert to its initial value, you should be expending it periodically to push through policy changes that would otherwise be resisted. Say you have extra goodwill points with the right-leaning Moderate Party, it might be time to pass an edict on lowering the working day to ten hours. Is the liberal-minded Pacifist Party favourably inclined towards you currently? Take advantage of the opening to ban obscene comics.

On the surface Urban Empire seems to be taking its cues from titles like Civilization and Cities: Skylines but the way it deals with its central mechanic of council-chamber politicking most closely resembles the gleeful amorality of Reigns. In both games the optimal strategy requires you to navigate tensions between opposing factions, exploiting all while refraining from either alienating or getting too close to any single one of them. The problem is that while part of what makes Reigns so irresistibly addictive are its brutally high stakes, in Urban Empire there are none.

Being appointed by the emperor means your dynasty’s first hundred years of rule are completely hassle-free but, even after mayoral elections are introduced, it never feels like your suddenly accountable political career is genuinely threatened. In both of my – diametrically opposed, from a political standpoint – playthroughs, the council generously kept extending my rule. The hardline conservative von Pfilzens adopted for my second run, were, somehow, the toast of both the Communist and the Central Party, not just the traditional right-wing factions. Even on the couple of occasions I managed to screw up so badly to lose an election I was allowed to overrule the result using my effortlessly acquired heaps of prestige. To its detriment, Urban Empire makes it almost impossible to lose.

The personal stories of each dynasty member and the little subplots that develop as a result of bitter family rivalries and poorly thought-out romantic choices provide some interesting subplots, but these are few and far between and never seem organically connected to the broader historical narrative. Sure, the loss of both her mother and grandmother while giving birth has shaped Elena Sant’ Elias’s interest in obstetrics and pro-choice attitudes, but her city never feels much different from that of any other mayor in the same period. This is true even when you try to roleplay the characters as faithfully as possible.

Perhaps that is where Urban Empire’s greatest weakness lies. Reborn, rather than letting you fool around with imagined possibilities of the last two centuries of European history, seem stuck on reiterating that history. It’s a choice that, perhaps, explains the game’s other flaws – how its generosity allows you to flourish but obliterates the possibility of a challenge, how each playthrough feels almost identical, even with your city on a different location and ruled by a different family. Sadly, the core mechanics of the game do little to negate those flaws.

The pleasures of a focused strategy title like Civilization lie in juggling the numbers in just the right way to succeed. Those found in a freeform city-builder like Sim City come from unleashing your unbridled creativity on a blank canvas. By sticking on a rigidly deterministic (and, thus, politically questionable, however well-intentioned) reading of two centuries of European history, Urban Empire fails to tap either of those joys, revealing its incessant march towards the present is not an ongoing process actively shaped by individual players, but a foregone conclusion simply waiting to be ushered in.

Urban Empire is available now for Windows, via Steam.

35 Comments

  1. battles_atlas says:

    Shame, I was interested by the idea, whilst skeptical it could be delivered on.

  2. JaminBob says:

    Hmm, I get your point. But I’m still going to get this. I don’t have a problem with easy games, in fact they’re pretty much all I play these days.

    The real world is so stressful, what’s wrong with a little control?

    • Cinek says:

      I don’t know, it didn’t seem easy for me (and I’m a veteran of city building and strategy games). Rather it seems oddly frustrating with the lack of information, especially regarding political choices that I expected to be something that makes me think about every click rather than leave me puzzled about what I did and what effects it’s going to have rather than gaining or loosing some councilors support towards my vote.

  3. Mister_Donut says:

    I watched some of Quill18 playing this, and while the idea seems very interesting, the lack of information about choices was maddening. Watching him read out a dialogue and then just kinda click randomly and get some effect that felt completely unconnected to the choice was enough to put me off this completely. Maybe it’s because I mostly play Paradox titles where you get a clear message about the effect of your choices, but this game just seemed really random.

    This is probably why they made it so easy. If you were losing, you’d probably be even more frustrated than usual because you had no idea what you could have done better.

  4. jgf1123 says:

    Glad I didn’t pre-order. Thank you, RPS.

  5. Christo4 says:

    Maybe it would’ve been better to make it like an alien planet with an open end, or even in ancient rome or anything like that.
    I can see how being shoehorned into an end can be annoying.

  6. BluePencil says:

    Darn. I was keen to get this. But I was watching Quill18’s let’s play and it seemed to me that the political side was quite dull. Simply spending the one resource of “good will” didn’t seem very engaging to me. Along with this disappointed review, looks like I’ll not be buying it but I will have a look at the store page now and again to see what players think.

    • BluePencil says:

      Looking at the store page just now, seems like a lot of users are quite happy to review a strategy game with under two hours of play. Arseholes.

      • Sangrael says:

        It really only takes about 30 minutes to see what the game has to offer. Successive ages are just more of the same. Money is never an issue as long as you keep raising taxes, and that’s easy as long as you’re not randomly blowing goodwill by doing minimal upgrades each district vote. I was bored by an hour, but kept going hoping it would get better. It never changes, just new names for things. You get new things to put in your city that basically replicate old things since each age increases demand for services/goods, but they don’t really act differently that the earlier ones. There’s just no challenge, especially if you’re a strat gamer.

      • ScubaMonster says:

        If you want to refund a game you can’t hit the two hour limit so that’s not surprising. The reviews I read though were pointing out legitimate flaws.

      • ButteringSundays says:

        It is frustrating isn’t it? Steams 2-hour refunds definitely feed into this, as pointed out, but it IS tricky.

        Some games you can review in 2 hours and assess them spot-on – but I’ve played games for 20 hours before enough has ben revealed to me that I feel comfortable assessing the experience.

        As it happens I count NMS among the latter. It started to feel like people were buying the game just to play it for 20 minutes so they could refund and leave a humourously devistating review. But it’s a game that you haven’t experienced, barely at all, within even 8 hours. Whether you like it after that or not is another discussion entirely, but you still need that time to make an informed judgement.

        I guess it’s just another factor in the difficulty in providing a review system that needs to account for completely different experiences*.

        * Off topic but it’s amusing and relevant. People that write a review but WISH they could have left a neutral review. Folks that think so highly of their words that they don’t consider that not leaving a review would suffice.

        • Cinek says:

          I get your meaning, but I’m not sure if NMS is a good example. I have pretty much the same impressions after 15 hours that I had after 1:30. Yea, I’ve seen few things more, but they did not change my mind about the game at all. Once you figure out underlying algorithm well enough – there’s nothing new this game can offer.

          • Someoldguy says:

            It’s a tricky one. It took me 50 hours to be fairly confident I’d seen most of the planetary types NMS had to offer and experienced having to explore very harsh environments and deal with higher tier guardians, but you’re right that if the only thing that matters to you is the basic way the gameplay works, you’ve seen that pretty quickly.

  7. prudislav says:

    So the idea and basis is nice , but needs some heavy patching , mainly the lack of information stuff … which is definitely patchable …. will have to keep an eye on thi

    • Alexander Chatziioannou says:

      Sounds like the sensible thing to do. Urban Empire’s hands-off approach and gentle challenge could still be appreciated by people looking for a more leisurely experience, and are arguably deliberate design decisions on the part of the devs, but the lack of information must be amended to retain some semblance of meaningful agency for the player.

    • Cinek says:

      In deed. First bug fixes, then one or two big patches adding info to the screen, tuning difficulty and how stuff interacts, and it could be a very decent game.

  8. RabbitIslandHermit says:

    What struck me is that the parties’ support for you in Mayoral elections is mostly dependent on who the other candidate is. Which is annoying as all hell: I’ve created socialism in one city, the left-leaning parties should support me even if I’m running against a Kilgannon.

  9. melnificent says:

    Most politicians, no matter the party, are willing to push through tax hikes as it’s more money for them to spend on pet projects services. Our last council meeting I was the lone vote against a 4% increase for our precepts.

    • BluePencil says:

      Isn’t the 4% supposed to be so granny doesn’t lie in her own turds and piss for three days?

    • ButteringSundays says:

      Turns out a good society costs money!

      The problem with UK councils is that they’ve been starved of funding. Stuff costs money. Short term ‘cost saving’ from the leading party when really all they’re doing is hampering services. I bet your council is as shit as mine? Didn’t always used to be that way. Remember when leisure centres existed? Could you imagine a council investing in a leisure center that wasn’t entirely privatised? My council seems to spend most of its time finding commercial backers to slap advertising on our landmarks. Our council ‘pet projects’ are generally commercial events that generate money, not spend it.

      Personally I’m happy to pay more tax so grannies aren’t left in a pool of their own piss and that my bins get collected once a week. Unfortunately much of the electorate wants to have their cake and eat it to. “Lower taxes! Better services!” Is the warcry of the idiot.

      • Cinek says:

        Ok, let’s stop this flood of ideology right here and focus on a subject at hand: In reality parties don’t always support all tax rises, especially large hikes. And perhaps more importantly: high taxes tend to have a real consequences which are strangely lacking from the game.

        • RabbitIslandHermit says:

          Are there no consequences? I really have no idea. I assumed they had some relation to the RCI demand but it’s really hard to tell. I had problems with low residential demand late game and I don’t know what the problem is, tried reducing income taxes and that sort of seemed to help but maybe it was a placebo. I checked and I have very little unemployment so that’s not it.

          I guess I probably have to rezone residential as commercial/industry or something. Seems a bit arbitrary to me seeing AFAICT I have a labor shortage.

          • RabbitIslandHermit says:

            Or maybe it has something to do with my vehemently pro-family planning stance. I dunno, I wish there was a more transparent connection between cause and effect.

          • April March says:

            And in the game.

            Perhaps the grandest “and in the game” of all.

  10. Unsheep says:

    I’m certainly interested in the game and will get it later on, as it feels quite unique in what it offers. However I think the asking price is too steep; at this price-level I want something with a much bigger scope.

  11. noodlecake says:

    The one time I decide to not pirate a game to try it before I buy it. Played it for about a couple of hours and just started to get the impression that my libertarian hellhole full of cowboy businesses exploiting people and no workers rights or unions or welfare and super low taxes I was trying to build wasn’t really going to give me any real feedback about what was happening or have much effect on anything besides a few numbers being different.

    I’m not a game designer so I don’t really know how hard it would be to have more tangible feedback when trying to shape a city’s character with politics but I feel like they kind of missed the mark, and reading this review kind of clarifies it for me.

    I had to go and treat myself to Pit People so I didn’t end up having spent money and ended up with no games that I want to play out of it. Definitely happy with that purchase!

    • BluePencil says:

      Something I felt could make the politics more interesting, maybe, would be that individual councillors had their own personalities rather than just party affiliations. But this would then make each vote very much harder to understand.

      • Cinek says:

        On the other hand it’d create quite a deep mechanics, such as bribing individual councilors, or getting rid of those that are unusually problematic.

        In general though we need more feedback as for why things happen, what are the arguments of parties for voting this way or the other. In reality you have debates where councilors state their position, or at least you, as a mayor, can ask them. In this game though there’s nothing like that… so you can have party supporting Health Care rejecting the first clinic in your town made of 3 large districts and no clue why the hell it is the case (I guess: money, but it shouldn’t be something I have to guess).

  12. Einsammler says:

    This would be a great article to have screenshots with legible text.

  13. Captain Yesterday says:

    Just checked out the Steam store page, and they totally pull-quoted this article.

    “Urban Empire Is A Fascinating Political Citybuilder”
    Rock Paper Shotgun

    • noodlecake says:

      It wasn’t this article, it was the preview article which was just based on the trailer and bits of information found online. It was much more positive. It’s what sold me on buying the game in the first place. :P

  14. Pinkbeaver says:

    The review is waaaay too critical of this title.
    Yeah, the game is rushed in every department, but maybe the Author should just get over it?
    So much words used just to say: the game is easy, it is not like other games that i like and that it has problems. Like, really? Is this a steam review? Ok, so the Author maybe “just doesnt get it” but getting THAT superficial is unprofessional.
    (sorry for starting on such aggressive note, the review really got me going for some reason)

    I don’t see a single comment on early-middle game, or even middle game phase. Gameplay changes a bit when you ‘hold’ 10 or more districts with the potential of upgrading them in quite many ways (costly, risky but effective). This whole district upgrade system/interface, while quite unpolished (like everything in this game) is still handy, intuitive and extensive.
    Politics. Politics become a buffer between the player and the city, they are not personal at all. Maybe this approach is bit simplistic and can become a chore, but i like how it makes the player prioritize exact changes to be made – because waiting for the council vote takes time, and you can change only 1 district on 1 vote without dipping into personal funds. So, if the devs would make politics more complex, this would also add to the ‘chore factor’ making every district modification (new building, relocation, refocusing) a struggle. Just imagine a simcity-like game, where putting a new clinic for those sick little people, is impossible, or very hard. Ughh.

    I also like how the game makes a player plan in different ways. Several short term plans for those Council votes, long term – for your own ideas about the city, and ‘side’ plans for city necessities/infrastructure (yeah, trams subways and all that jazz too!). Oh and sometimes simplicity makes bureaucracy look realistic in this game – for instance: you have a road which is ALMOST overloaded (or even a bit), but when you suggest a modification nobody wants too vote for it. Only after the road is overloaded like hell, the friggin council accepts widening of the road. That’s like a central part of modern existence – government laziness.

    Also, i don’t get the argument(in the review and the comments) of unclear interface – like tech, edicts, consequences and stuff. Everything was rather clear for me apart from few obvious bugs and few misworded instructions. You get a nice colored graph for those political decisions, and see a cancel button under all council propositions. Effects of buildings/editcs are nicely pointed out. [A sidenote: i think we’ve got a bit spoiled by Paradox games in terms of eco-strategy interfaces, so don’t say the game has bad ui, it’s obviously competent enough to enjoy the game]
    I also enjoy the fact that info about social life situations (like persuading) is hidden. Some popups are broken, but i’m sure that the studio will iron it out in a few patches.
    Speaking about patches, they are badly needed. The game causes massive memory leaks with bigger/more populated cities, causing ctds and stuffies (at least on 8GB of good ram).

    Ok, so all in all the game has some problems, but you know at least it’s playable! ;) I’m ranting here so much, because i’m seeing some really solid and enjoyable mechanics in this game, and i’m sure that ‘Urban Empire: Special Edition 2018’ will be a very, very good (casual?) game. And ok, that’s a bit too optimistic of me, but the game is obviously pushed out of QA too fast by the producers and/or publishers, but the devs on the other hand, need some sweet sweet love for nice ideas/mechanics.

    • BluePencil says:

      Both the reviewer and you – Pinkbeaver – have played the game and I haven’t. But if I hadn’t read the review and only read Pinkbeaver’s comments on the game I’d definitely not buy Urban Empire!

      I actually find the things pointed out as being bad about the game in Pinkbeaver’s rebuttal more off-putting than the stuff in the review!

      • Pinkbeaver says:

        That’s why i’m not saying to buy the game asap. I bought it, knowing that it’s probably underdeveloped, and while i have some mixed feelings, i enjoyed it a lot more than this review would suggest.
        The thing i’m trying to say is: when playing this game, its easy to misread some design decisions as bad, wrong – but when you play a bit more, it all comes together nicely.
        Something like ‘it’s more than the sum of its parts’ would be adequate. Of course this view is subjective, but some people ought to find this game enjoyable.
        Maybe, making politics a selling point for the game, was a bad decision? When playing, they are just a means to an end, and not some cool sandbox-y powerplay. It really doesn’t concern me, i bought it for some sweet micromanagment-ecosim ‘action’, and i’m satisfied. (to a point of course, i’m considering putting it down for a month or two, waiting for patches)
        Urban Empire is certainly a strange game with a rocky start. But many of my favorite Eco-sims had a rocky start – Cities:Skylines, Children of the nile (and all tilted mill productions), Tropico-s. All of them having horrible optimization on release.
        [I’m not comparing Urban Empire to these games in terms of overall quality, just technical stuff on release. They are much better games i think]

  15. Pinga says:

    I have a dream that one day we will be able to actually see what’s going on in those thumbnail sized screenshots throughout the article. Maybe even read their texts.