Review: Circle Empires – Lather, Rinse, Repeat

When I was young, one of my favorite games was Age of Mythology. I spent weeks playing the main campaign and loved every second of it. RTS games as a genre work because they are a constant stream of tough decisions the player has to make, with heavy amounts of risk and reward. Going into Circle Empires, I expected something similar but on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, I only got what I wanted for the first few hours of the game, and then it became a slog.

Circle Empires is a 2D RTS roguelike developed by Luminous and published by Iceberg Interactive. In the game, you take control of a small empire in a world where there are only flat, circular mountain tops. The general gameplay loop has you collecting resources with your workers, using those resources to spawn units and then attacking nearby circles in order to conquer them and expand your empire. The larger your empire, the more resources you have and the more units you can have.

This is the game map. It remains pretty much the same in every game.

When I first started the game, playing on the lower difficulties, it was quite fun. Slowly and methodically taking over nearby circles is a surprisingly calming experience. The process of choosing which units to invest in, where to send them, which circle to attack, and even whether or not to claim a circle, was an engaging one. The first few games, wherein I learned how to play the game, were genuinely interesting because it seemed like there was a lot of depth to the game. The fact that the game had no dedicated tutorial meant I had to figure things out on my own which was quite exciting. As I slowly played more of the game and had to deal with the higher difficulties, I became increasingly aware of how repetitive Circle Empires is and how little variety it actually has.

When I first opened up the game, it seemed like there was a lot I could do. Every time you start a new campaign you can choose one of 18 leaders. You only get three at the start and you will have to unlock the rest by beating a campaign either with a certain leader or on a specific difficulty.  You can then choose between three game modes. In Monster Hunt you are tasked with finding and killing a tough boss and it is the closest thing the game has to a story mode. In Full Conquest, you need to take over all of the circles on the map. Finally, in Imperial Conflict, you have to compete with some AI empires to take over the entire map. So essentially, there are really only two modes.

You can choose your difficulty and map size (except in Monster Hunt where the map size is predetermined), with the ability to unlock higher difficulties and two more map sizes. I was pretty happy when I saw that you can save and load anytime you want. It meant that I could play a few campaigns at the same time and just move between them or return to previous campaigns.

Spending 3+ hours on a single game is ridiculous. 

It may seem like there is a lot to do in the game from this description, but the truth is that there isn’t. There is no real difference between the three modes because aside from your objective you are still doing the exact same thing. You start in the same circle and raise your army the exact same way. Most likely, the tactics you will use for each mode will end up being pretty much the same as well. The leaders allow you to start with different bonuses and sometimes even different units, but the overall gameplay does not change (except for one leader whereby you are unable to buy new units). After you unlock all of the leaders and beat Monster Hunt mode there is no reason to continue playing unless you truly enjoy it or want to go after the achievements.

You start every game by placing down a warehouse which is where your workers bring your resources and that will allow you to spawn units. For some bizarre reason, the game gives your enemies a head start by forcing you to place the warehouse manually. After this, your workers will start collecting resources. There are three resources in the game: wood, food and gold. Only one of these is not tied to luck, as you can generate gold at a steady pace by building a bank. Unfortunately, you can only build one bank per circle, so making a useful amount of gold on a small board is nearly impossible. The other resources spawn on a random basis and most circles do not have all of the types of resources you will need. Your next step is to create your army and when you feel like you have a strong enough force you will attack one of the two to four adjacent enemy circles and conquer it. Once you conquer a circle you will automatically get a new warehouse and a guard tower. This process then repeats itself for every circle you will claim, which means that unless you find every step of this loop somewhat enjoyable, you will get bored.

All of the monster hunts are basically the same. The monsters just get tougher and the map gets bigger.

Most units and some structures gain XP through actions. Attack units gain XP by attacking anything, workers gain it by doing pretty much anything including attacking and warehouses gain it by collecting resources from workers. The issue, of course, is that most of your units will likely die before getting to a high enough level to be useful. A good way to circumnavigate this problem would have been to give the player the ability to spawn training dummies your units could attack and thus gain XP at the expense of some resources. Unfortunately, even though you can randomly find some of these dummies in the game, you cannot spawn them. Once workers level up to level two you can craft two new buildings: a camp that allows you to spawn monsters and mushrooms, and a shrine that allows you to buy extra lives for your units and shamans. You can also buy some towers (that cannot level up) and walls to protect your circle.

Another way the game botches unit progression is by having the only available upgrades for units be very costly and only buffing your unit’s damage or defense by a small percentage. These general upgrades are so expensive and worthless that in most games I waited until the late stages to get them all together, rather than waste time at the beginning of the game.

Enemy circles come in a limited amount of types and terrains, though the terrains barely actually matter to the gameplay. The water terrain is an exception because it slows down regular units but not water creatures, such as Merfolk. Choosing which circle to attack depends on how powerful they are (nicely shown as a number), what type of enemy they are (some are easier than others) and what resources you will receive. For example, some circles have special mushrooms that when destroyed give you a friendly monster. I usually focused on getting these first to add free units to my army.

Every game then boils down to the same series of events. Start the game, spawn some soldiers and workers, wait around until you have enough resources to create an army, then attack a nearby circle. Depending on how powerful your enemies are you may go back to twiddling your thumbs while you slowly acquire more resources and eventually you will beat the game. At some point, I realized that the best way to play the game was just to spawn hundreds of cheap goblins and rush through the entire thing.

The entire point of the game is to fill up your treasury by winning, which means there is no substantial reward for playing the game.

It should be noted that the only difference when it comes to the difficulty is how powerful and aggressive enemies are. This is only part of the reason why I do not recommend the higher difficulties. The main reason is that it always feels like you win due to luck and not skill. Furthermore, playing on the larger maps or defensively leads to a game that takes hours to finish. So the only way to play on higher difficulties is to constantly restart until you have a good beginning. It does not help that the only way to properly upgrade your units is hoping they survive when you decide to attack or by buying the ludicrously expensive upgrades. The fact that any time you try to attack a circle you automatically begin an all-out war with that circle means that you should only attack if you are confident you can win. If you can’t conquer a circle on your first try then the only thing you are doing is losing a large number of your soldiers while leveling up your enemy’s troops and making it harder on yourself to conquer it on a second try.

Circle Empires had a lot of potential, but it quickly became boring, tedious and simply repetitive. It feels like a watered down version of a proper RTS that thinks that simply having the minimal amount of RTS mechanics is enough without properly allowing players to develop an array of different strategies. It thinks that higher numbers make the game harder when it just makes it more annoying. It thinks that having procedurally generated levels excuses it from having proper variety. It lacks a proper story mode and instead has you doing the same process in a map that does not change visually with only roughly two or three pieces of music. Long story short, I am unable to recommend that you get this game unless you really like the RTS genre and are in dire need for one.

Ofir reviewed Circle Empires on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.

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