Hex Empire, unfortunately, is not about an ancient land of witches turning each other into mules and spiders. The name refers to hexagons, the traditional battleground of the pen-and-paper wargamer. Hexagons tile well, you see, and they look nice with doodles of rivers and mountain ranges between them. They are pointy, but not so much that you need to wear goggles while working with them, like you do with squares or triangles. Dash them with pepper, and they taste good on a hamburger bun. Hexagons are winners.
This is a good game for fans of Risk and Dice Wars, for strategists who like to compare numbers but dislike the fuddy-duddiness of unit weaknesses and initiative and terrain bonuses. In other words, it's a casual turn-based strategy war game, pitting you against three computer-controlled armies in a battle for dominion over a randomly-generated plot of land.
Your objective is to capture the capital cities of your enemies. The map is littered with smaller cities and coastal ports, and generally speaking, it is a good idea to control as many of these as possible. At the end of each turn, each city in your territory will generate a unit 10 soldiers strong, while ports and the rest of your occupied land add soldiers to your cities randomly.
There is only one unit type, though for easy reference, it changes appearance depending on its strength. Your main restriction is that you can only move five units per turn, though you will quickly find yourself with more than five groups of soldiers. It's up to you whether you spend your precious five turns consolidating weaker units into more intimidating ones, or pushing the battlefront forward. Though it may seem restrictive, these are the choices that make Hex Empire interesting.
The other factor is morale. Winning or losing battles directly affects the strength of your army, so much that a losing battle can be reversed sometimes through a series of demoralizing surgical strikes. A unit's maximum physical strength is always 99, but in a battle between two maxed-out squads, the more courageous one will always win.
Replayability comes from the random map layouts. If you find a particularly fun one, you can write down its ID number and revisit it freely. The downside is that awkward maps are common, granting unfair advantages to some factions and mucking things up with large bodies of water. Just hit the randomize button again if the first map is too weird.
Analysis: Hex Empire occupies a comfortable spot between the simplicity of Risk and the number crunching of the Avalon Hill-style board games that inspired this whole soldiers-on-hexagons thing. You do have to pay attention to the numbers, and even add them together occasionally, but moving a squadron just comes down to two mouse clicks.
The five-move restriction, and the way your fighting units degrade quickly in battle, forces you to strategize instead of simply expanding as quickly as possible. The further and faster you push, the more likely you are to end up with a shattered and cowardly front line, ripe for a counter-attack. Real strength in this game comes from an almost chess-like approach, with units constantly guarding and reinforcing each other. There's a distinct and relaxing drumbeat to it, once you get the feel.
Could it use more variety? Possibly. Should it have multiplayer? Definitely. Do the rules governing the ups and downs of morale seem capricious? Sure. But Hex Empire lets you jump right into battle without much fuss, and offers enough tactical depth to be addictive even after several wars have ended. A bit of a treat, really.