Empires: Builder Expansion Review

Today's review is of an expansion for a game with a different name - Empires: Builder Expansion. This is the expansion for Age of Empires III, and I'm going to assume that you're familiar with the base game. If not, I recommend checking out my Age of Empires III review. (In case you're curious why the names don't match, Age of Empires III was renamed to be Empires at some point. I'm not entirely sure why. And, officially, it was known as Glenn Drover's Age of Empires III and is now known as Glenn Drover's Empires.)

The Builder Expansion adds five main things: builder specialists, pieces for a sixth player, new buildings (including "Spoils of War" buildings), National Advantages, and the ability to buy Victory Points. So, let's dig in...

First are the new builder specialists. These specialists can help you in two ways: they can be used to buy a capital building for $5 less than normal, or they can be sent to the new world to increase the value of the location where they are present (add 4 Victory Points for 1st place and 2 Victory Points for second place). I really like these new builders, and I think that they add an interesting element to the game without being overpowered. They give you flexibility with your strategies, as they can be helpful when focusing on money and buildings, but can be just as useful if you're only worried about the new world. However, they are quite perilous in the new world, as a few well placed soldiers can completely de-rail your strategy if you appear to have too much of an advantage in the new world. The one thing that I dislike about the builders is that you aren't able to collect them in the same way as other specialists. For any other specialist, there is a location where you can place a worker and then the next round you will gain that specialist. With the builder, you have to place your worker in the "Buy a Specialist for $5" space; the builder is free in this space, but he can be blocked by another player wanting a second copy of one of the other specialists. I would have preferred if the builder was given his own place on the board (possibly as a piece the size of a capital building that you set next to the specialist track to create a place for him.)

The new builders
The next thing that the Builder expansion adds are the pieces for a sixth player. And, well, it's about time. I have never understood why the base game only came with pieces for 5 players. The board was very obviously setup for six players - there was a sixth spot on the turn order track, on the initiative track, and 11 places on the colonist dock (which is how many you need in six players). Why did it take so long to release this? Either way, I am happy that my copy can now be played with six players. Aside from being able to play the game with more friends now, it's also interesting how much more stressful a sixth player causes decisions to be. In a full six player game, when deciding between two different places for your colonist, you can almost guarantee that whichever place you want to go will not be available by the time everyone else has taken their turn, and so you have to pick the one that you really want.

The third addition are new buildings, and specifically, new "Spoils of War" buildings. Spoils of War buildings are collected in the capital building track, but do not cost any money. They give you one time bonuses like two extra trade goods, a merchant ship, $5, or specialists for the next turn. I think that the Spoils of War buildings add an interesting new element to the game. Generally, in the base game, you can tell which building someone might be taking. And, if they are on the capital building track, you assume that they are going to buy something. However, with the new Spoils of War buildings, you don't know if they're going to buy something, or simply collect a Spoils of War. And, this can completely throw off your plans if you are in one of the later positions on the capital building track. After all - you might have placed there assuming that you would be able to collect a Spoils of War, but the players in front of you decide that they want it. Then, you are left without being able to collect anything, unless you actually had the money for a building. I thought this was interesting. Some of the other buildings also added a neat new twist - such as the Mayflower, which allows you to use your merchant ships to transport colonists to the new world.  Overall, I was happy with the new buildings.

Asymmetric starting positions!
The addition that I may have been the most excited about was the addition of National Advantages. Essentially, these are a way of providing an asymmetric starting position, which I am a huge fan of. Each Nationality has two powers, and the player using that Nationality gets to select one of the roles for the game. Most of the powers mirror Age I buildings - things like +1 Captain, Soldier, Missionary, or Merchant per turn. However, there are a few that are more creative - like +1 coin from every other player per turn. The powers are nice, as they make it less critical to have the first choice of Capital Buildings in the first age.  Unfortunately, when using them, the powers really dictate your starting strategy, even if that wasn't a strategy that you normally would want to implement. Plus, if you combine powers with a sixth player, the game can get very, very crowded (with powers and six players, you are potentially adding 12 extra workers to be placed every turn, and only opening up 3 more places for these workers). We tried this - and the Discovery box was essentially always full. I like both of the new additions, but will probably not use both of them at the same time again. Also, I wish that the powers had been a bit more creative, instead of mirroring existing buildings - but I'm not really sure what those other powers would look like.

The last major change that the Builders expansion added was the ability to buy Victory Points. At the end of Age I, you can buy them for $1 per VP, at the end of Age 2 they are $3 per VP, and at the end of Age III, they are $10 per VP. This really adds a completely different viable strategy to the game. Now, suddenly, you can focus on getting as much money as possible and turning it into Victory Points. I watched as one of my opponents sent two merchants to the new world almost every turn in Age I (his Nationality gave him one per turn, and he often got the merchant specialist position) - collecting $10 per turn. At the end of Age I, he traded in all of his money and collected 40 Victory Points. That's an amazing Age I score! Of course, he was doing this at the cost of having capital buildings to help him in the following Ages. Overall, he did not quite win (he came in second), but he proved that this strategy has a great potential for victory!

The one other thing that I will mention (as a con) about this expansion is that the rules aren't especially clear, so you'll want to have the FAQ handy. As an example, the rules don't even tell you how to gain a builder specialist, and the entire expansion is named after him!  Another one I was annoyed by was that one of the National Advantages has been completely changed from what is printed on the card.  Here's a link to the FAQ on BoardGameGeek. You're welcome.

Overall, I give Empires: Builder Expansion an 8.5/10. I think that it is a solid expansion that adds some freshness to one of my favorite games. Though I might not play with every additional element in every game, I will probably continue mixing and matching different elements of the game as I continue playing it.

If you like worker placement games like Glenn Drover's Empires, you might also check out Caylus, Kingdom of Solomon, and Pillars of the Earth.

I would like to thank Eagle/Gryphon Games for providing me with a review copy of Empires: Builder Expansion.


  1. Dang it, Josh! Now you've gone and made me want to pick this up!

    I had absolutely no interest in extending AoEIII to a 6-player games (it's already too long with 5), but the other stuff in this expansion sounds really cool. Maybe I'll test the waters with my group and see how many of them are interested in getting AOEIII back out...

  2. Well, AoE3 is my favorite worker placement game, so, really, any excuse to bust it out and play it again is a good thing!

  3. Really want this game, but can't find it. Suppose to be reprinted this year, but who knows when? Nice review - expansion actually sounds worth it - and I'm the kind of gamer who thinks most expansions aren't.

    Also, they changed the name to 'Empires' because there was much confusion between this board game and the computer game of the same name which inspired it, but really doesn't play anything like it. :-)

  4. You might have luck trading for a copy of it - that's how I replaced my base set after I lost my original copy a while back. Was able to snag a copy in one of the recent math trades on BGG, and was quite excited to do it!

  5. I think the name change had more to do with not wanting to pay for the license anymore, especially when I don't really know that it did a lot for them in the first place.