Casino Empire is the first management strategy game from Sierra Attractions, the developer of the popular Hoyle card, board, and casino games. It's a game in which you must manage one of eight Las Vegas-style casinos and draw in as many gamblers as possible by decorating the exterior with neon signs and fireworks and by filling the interior with different casino games and amenities like restaurants and gambling rooms. It's like Infogrames' remarkably successful RollerCoaster Tycoon, only in a casino, and unfortunately, it's not nearly as polished or complete, and the developer's inexperience with creating this sort of game is pretty obvious. Casino Empire lacks a lot of features that you'd expect from any good management game, though it still manages to be enjoyable at times.
At a glance, Casino Empire looks extremely promising. You'll probably be intrigued by the game's colorful appearance, its huge casino areas that you can fill with slot machines and card tables, and what appears to be a conventional management game interface. The game has an event ticker at the top of the screen that will bring important issues to your attention, and it has various buttons and icons at the bottom and edges of the screen--including icons that let you zoom your view of your casino in and out--to pull up various information menus, as you might expect. Just like in RollerCoaster Tycoon, you'll have various objectives, like earning a certain amount of money, getting a certain approval rating for your casino, or attracting a certain number of guests--or some combination of these and other goals. In order to maximize your cash flow and casino rating, you need to attract lots of new customers (represented by tiny figures that pace the floor) and keep your current ones happy by making sure you build restaurants, restrooms, and bars for them, and you can even keep track of your customers' current moods individually. At all times, you'll be competing with two other rival casinos that may send spies to your casino to rough up your dealers or dump garbage on the floor, so you'll need to hire security staff to keep the peace, as well as various other staffers like custodians, waitresses, and dealers.
Unfortunately, the game's interface lacks a lot features that you'd expect from a game of this sort. For instance, though you can check on your guests' current moods, you can't lock the camera onto any of them, or onto any of your casino employees, so you can't tell whether their needs are being fulfilled unless you constantly scroll the screen to follow them. You also can't give your guests orders or suggestions on where to go, and since they're quite stupid, they'll angrily leave your casino in disgust after repeatedly complaining that they weren't able to find a restroom, even though they'll pass right by three of them on the way out. You also can't snap your camera onto any important events from the ticker, including when saboteurs from rival casinos are causing trouble. When you've built up an extremely large, bustling casino, it's next to impossible to locate each individual vandal because you can't quickly snap the camera onto either the event or the vandal--instead, when you're being attacked, Casino Empire turns into a very slow game of cat and mouse in which you must manually direct your tiny guards to seek out each tiny, hard-to-see saboteur. Casino Empire also lacks a minimap feature that could have been used to jump quickly about the map. Some of the game's eight different casinos are huge (relative to the tiny patrons and staff, anyway), and scrolling continuously from one end to another doesn't cut it--the best you can do is zoom out your view and scroll, which takes an unnecessarily long time.
Though you'll occasionally come across some really problematic situations in which you're either under attack by an unmanageably large mob of saboteurs or in which you're running out of money much faster than you can earn it, you can still manage to complete the game's single-player campaign without too much difficulty. That's because aside from the occasional difficulty, Casino Empire is an extremely straightforward, even simplistic game in which you can win practically every scenario by building some games, buying up some advertising, waiting for your existing games to make more money, then repeating the process. In fact, you'll find that once you reach a certain plateau level of hotel rating, clientele, and income, you can literally sit back and twiddle your thumbs until you win. Casino Empire isn't a deep or even challenging strategy game by any means, but there's certainly something relaxing about having a bustling, colorful casino full of happy patrons and bright, flashing slot-machine lights while the money keeps rolling in.
Casino Empire doesn't look spectacular, though it does sound a bit better than it looks. You can fill out huge casino lots that can look extremely active, thanks to Casino Empire's simple, colorful graphics, but the game's plain-looking card tables, slot machines, decorations, and patrons that would have looked a lot better had they been more detailed. Fortunately, Casino Empire features fairly decent voice acting. Your employees and patrons will make short, occasionally witty remarks when you click on them, and you'll also meet celebrity patrons and new casino bosses that hire you on at the beginning of each of the game's eight missions--they have more-interesting voices that spoof well-known celebrities like Bill Cosby, Siegfried & Roy, and Regis Philbin, and they're good for a laugh or two. The game also has good ambient, jazzy background music that's fitting for a casino, and though it also has a soundtrack consisting of songs licensed from Vegas mainstays like the Brian Setzer Orchestra, these tracks are few and far between, and you'll be able to access them only later on in the game's missions. The game also has a free-form sandbox mode that helps extend the game's replay value somewhat, though it's still tough to justify the $40 retail price.
Casino Empire was based on an idea with a lot of promise, and it's a shame that the game doesn't really realize that potential because of gaps in its design--like its incomplete interface and its overly simple, straightforward gameplay--and because of its less-than-impressive graphics and sound. However, if you're more interested in the relaxing sights and sounds of Las Vegas than you are in playing a highly challenging strategy game, you might want to take a gamble with Casino Empire.