Theme and What is it?
Escalation is an expansion that requires the base game, Eminent Domain. In these games, players take the role of emperor and use their tactical brilliance to expand their influence throughout the galaxy.
In all Eminent Domain games, empires choose between peacefully settling or aggressively attacking to expand their domain. Some will stockpile supplies and send out colony ships to settle nearby worlds. Others will stockpile warships and attack worlds to bring them under their imperial flag. Escalation emphasizes the differences between these tactics with new types of worlds and technologies.
Civilized planets can band together with intricate peace treaties gaining influence as they abstain from ship combat. Hostile planets cannot even be settled but constantly contribute to conquests. The addition of a fleet technology tile allows warlike players to take advantage of new classes of warships: destroyers and battlecruisers.
In Eminent Domain, the active player first has the option to play one card from their hand for its printed action effect. Basic cards have very simple actions like taking a fighter, producing or selling a resource, attacking a planet, settling a colony, or remove cards from the game. Later players will have access to cards they have researched with powerful game deciding action effects.
After taking an action or passing the option, the active player chooses one of the basic role cards from the center and plays it for its role effect. The player can then boost their role by playing additional cards with the same role symbol on it from their hand. The active player benefits from all Leader: benefits on the role they choose.
Each other player then has the option to follow that role by playing cards from their hand with the matching symbol to take the same role effect for themselves minus any leader specific benefits. If another player does not want to or cannot follow the role, they can instead dissent and draw a card.
I have been a fan of Eminent Domain since my first play when I taught myself from a board game club library. My regular deck building players were instantly taken with it as well. After a few dozen plays of the base game, our interest started to wane as some strategies require less luck in surveying while others were more luck heavy but hugely rewarding. I still highly recommend the base game as it is, but Escalation fixed EVERYTHING!
I am not sure I can recommend playing Eminent Domain for the very first time including Escalation. But within 2-3 plays of the base game you should buy and mix this in. It will make the game hold up for hundreds of plays with many drastically different strategies coming out as front runners.
Game Build Quality
The Escalation expansion comes in a very conveniently sized box. It features new fleet tiles, new technology cards, extra basic cards to allow a 5th player, and enhances the use of the fighter tokens from the base game. There are also new start planet options which often dictate a complete change in starting game decisions. For your first games with Escalation, I recommend sticking to the original starting planets until everyone gets used to the new options.
Eminent domain basic cards feature the key symbols for their role with no actual artwork. The planet cards have illustrations unique to the world type: fertile, advanced, metallic, prestige, and utopian. The perfection that is Escalation is rooted deeply in the Technology cards. It is only fitting that this is also where the artwork shines the most.
Each technology card has artwork depicting what the name suggests. Some of them are particularly interesting. What would you expect the artwork on Specialized Production to look like? I would think just a whole bunch of the same thing and machinery suggesting heavy efficiency. Instead, it features a tour group being shown a field of trees growing upside down out of the ceiling. Excellent.
The new things that make the Escalation expansion shine are additional research cards and world effects. The new research options bolster every possible distinct style of play and keeps them all viable. My favorite part of these new options are the ability to use technology cards to play around my opponent’s strategy.
The feature of all Eminent Domain games that keeps it coming out at game days is the strategic choices offered by the follow or dissent mechanic. Getting extra role phases by following opponents when it is not their turn can help a player get ahead of the others. But following also means they have spent some of their cards and didn’t get to draw from dissent. More roles taken means less cards played. Finding the balance for skilled play is incredibly satisfying.
Age Range & Weight
10+ is fair for the age to understand how to play. But maybe a few more years would be advisable if intending to play very competitively. That does make this a great game for teaching strategy since it is easily accessible but so deep at the same time.
The weight of the game is hard to explain. On one hand, the basic cards and flow of the game is very simple. But on the other, the depth of play comes from the technology cards and each set of planets has different technology options that have a huge impact on winning. A new player can experience information overload after being told that every technology card is available to players meeting the planetary requirements.
I recommend teaching the game by warning players that the 3 research cost tier 1 technology cards will be used mostly for their two role symbols. And telling them to take a look at the 5 research cost tier 2 cards early in the game to pick a few that they think will be worth playing towards. Limiting the choices and planning ahead makes the first game easier.
There is one final strategic feature I have not mentioned. I wanted to save it for the conclusion. At the end of each turn, players may discard or retain any remaining cards in their hand before drawing to their hand limit. There are also planets that increase the default hand limit. This gives more than just control over what the next hand might focus on, but also controls shuffle timing. I cannot overstate how much room for growth this leaves players as they get more skillful with the game.
This game gives the ability to hold cards from turn to turn, predict other players choices to follow at good times, and explore dozens of distinct strategies in the possible technology combinations. Eminent Domain: Escalation scores an exceptionally high rating from me. The depth of skill and possibilities is extremely appealing to players who enjoy the battle of wits in their games.
Teaching the game is not too difficult for beginners to get used to the options and flow. The stacks of research options is more intimidating to most new players than it should be. A good guide can help them to get past that initial option overload and appreciate the wonderful deck building experience. Escalation takes the Eminent Domain experience and perfects it by enhancing all the different paths to victory.