It isn’t exactly writer’s block – I mean, I can still write emails, witty Tweets, and even work on other board game reviews. But whatever it was… well, is… I’m finding it darn near impossible to write coherently about Imperium: Classics and Imperium: Legends. (I have, no kidding, had a nearly blank Google Doc open on my laptop for two days – taunting me with its white expanse of nothingness.)
It’s not the game(s), either – I’d count myself as a big fan of both boxes of this wonderful game system. I’ve certainly played it enough – two times with 3 players and nine times using the well-thought-out solo system.
I think the problem – ok, MY problem – is that the game system is a tasty amalgam of game design ideas. It’s not New Shimmer (“New Shimmer is both a floor wax and a dessert topping!”) but it packs in the game mechanics: deckbuilding, resource management, tableau building, asymmetric factions, multiple game timers, keywords to differentiate similar actions… whew, I’m exhausted just typing all of that into the review.
Let me try a different way to describe the game – using theme as the anchor. Each player is leading an ancient civilization from barbarian nation to sophisticated empire, working to achieve the most Progress (victory points) in a variety of ways, often dependent on the unique structure of their civilization’s multiple card decks as well as the cards they have drafted from the market.
How Imperium Works
Without going into excruciating detail (which I’d be happy to do if I were teaching you the game in person, but which I find to be an interminable bore in board game reviews), here are the basic concepts that undergird this game system.
Each player has a deck of cards that represent their civilization: leaders, accomplishments, technologies, territories, potential unrest, etc. They are (usually!) divided into the following piles for play purposes:
- Your power card – which is your base civilization card (and will also act as the top of your stack of cards placed into your history)
- Power cards are double-sided with different powers… you can choose either side at the start of the game and are locked in for the rest of the game.
- Your accession card – this is the card that marks the difference between the barbarian phase of your civilization and the empire phase.
- Your nation deck – which sits on top of your accession card and drips a new card into your draw deck each time you need to shuffle it.
- Your development cards – which are cards that are purchased once you’ve become an empire to add powers and scoring to your deck.
- A state card – which lets everyone at the table know whether you are barbarian or empire… and serves as a nifty place to hold your action & exhaustion markers.
- Your draw deck – your initial deck of cards… plus all the other cards that come your way!
Note: I say “usually” because certain civilizations “break” the rules – some have additional cards added to their tableau to begin the game, some don’t have an accession card or a nation deck… or even development cards.
As well, you start the game with a little bit of the three resources in the game (marked with cardboard counters):
- Both of these are used to power various action cards and some scoring cards
- This is a fancy name for victory points – but it’s important to note that some civilizations have development cards that cost Progress
The center of the board contains a strip of cardboard that shows where all the cards in the common market are placed.
- Civilized cards – which are primarily used once your civilization is an empire
- Uncivilized cards – a rich variety of cards with powers that (mostly) work at any point in your growth
- Regions – locations that can provide resources for your civilization as well as places to garrison (hide) cards you aren’t needing in your deck
- The Common deck – which, in addition to the card types listed above, also include Tributaries… smaller nation states that can assist you in building up your civilization
- Unrest – the “Curse” cards of the game system – they both clog up your deck and lower your Progress score
- If the market runs out of Unrest cards, the game immediately ends via Collapse… and the civilization with the fewest Unrest cards wins.
- Fame – a set of cards awarding great power and many Progress points – leading up to the King of Kings card
- When the King of Kings card is activated, the end of the game is triggered.
- There is also a place for exiled cards – and there are some civilizations and cards that get cards out of the exiled pile.
A Player Turn
Each turn, a player can choose one of three ways to complete their turn:
- Activate – the most common turn type, where they take up to three action and use up to five exhaust abilities
- Innovate – where a player discards their entire hand and then break through to obtain a civilized, uncivilized, region or tributary card
- Don’t worry – I’ll explain the keyword lingo (aka “break through”) in just a minute… suffice it to say that a breakthrough is the least problematic way to get a card from the market
- Revolt – similar to Trains, where you spend a turn returning all of the Unrest cards in your hand to the Unrest pile in the market
- Following that choice, a player does their “clean up”
- Adding a progress point to a face-up card in the market
- Clearing their action & exhaustion tokens
- Discarding any number of cards
- This is important – you don’t have to hang onto cards if doing so will keep you from getting the cards you need out of your deck.
- Refilling their hand to five cards
- If refilling their hand means they need to reshuffle, barbarian players add the top card of their nation deck to the discard pile and then shuffle
- If they add their ascension card, they flip over their state card to Empire
- Empire players can purchase any development card in their stack on a reshuffle, spending materials, population, and possibly Progress in order to put that card in their discard pile.
- If refilling their hand means they need to reshuffle, barbarian players add the top card of their nation deck to the discard pile and then shuffle
Types of Cards
In addition to the card types mentioned above, many cards have extra symbols to denote their particular role in the game:
- Some cards are marked with Barbarian or Empire symbols, which tell you that they can only be played while your civilization is in that mode.
- Some cards have a sword emblem, which designates them as an attack (and thus other cards can be used to block or mitigate that attack).
- Cards with an infinity symbol can be played into your tableau (the game system calls them “pinned”) – while cards without an infinity symbol head off to your discard pile once played.
- Some cards have victory points on them – either a specific amount or some kind of formula for obtaining points based on their location at the end of the game or other things you’ve accomplished (number of cards in your deck, amount of materials, other cards with certain symbols, etc.).
There are a number of keywords on the cards that have to be learned (and, sometimes, re-learned)…
- There are two ways get Civilized, Uncivilized, Tributary, and Region cards from the market – each with its own keyword.
- Break Through For – allows you to take cards from the market into your hand without also taking an Unrest card… and additionally enables you to flip cards from the common deck until you find the correct type of card you’re looking for
- Acquire – allows you to take a visible card (and the Unrest card it is paired with) into your hand
- Cards move in a variety of ways – each of which has a keyword.
- Pinned cards can be abandoned – in other words, sent to your discard pile.
- Pinned cards can also be recalled – in this case, they are returned to your hand.
- Cards in the market can be exiled – unless they have a token on them (which keeps them safe from being sent to the Great Beyond).
- Cards can be put into your history – where they no longer are a part of your draw deck but still count for scoring at the end of the game.
After all players have had a turn, the Solstice occurs. Some pinned cards have Solstice powers and/or penalties which must be resolved before the next round of turns begin.
And Then It Ends
Imperium can end in a variety of ways:
- Once the main common deck is empty
- When one player manages to purchase all of their development cards
- When one player triggers the King of Kings card at the bottom of the Fame deck
- Or some other oddball ending scenarios involving the Vikings, the Arthurians, or the Utopians
Once the end of the game is triggered, the current round is finished and one final round of turns is played (including resolving Solstice instructions).
Then you count points and the player with the most wins. (Tied players share the victory – which, although I know is not everyone’s favorite way to resolve a tied game, makes complete sense in the context of the wildly asymmetric civilization decks that use resources in vastly different kinds of ways.)
As I noted earlier, there’s another way for the game to end – with the collapse of all civilizations when the Unrest deck runs out. The game ends immediately and the player with the least number of Unrest cards wins. In case of a tie following a Collapse, a normal scoring occurs between the tied players to determine the winner.
Last minute note: someone (way to go, hutchies!) on BGG has created a scoring app for Imperium. I haven’t used it yet, but it looks like a great way to ease some of the scoring burden of the game.
Mark Has Thoughts…
It’s going to take a few plays of this game to move on from concentration on your civilization to keeping an eye on the whole table… but once you reach that point, you’ll quickly find that this is not “multiplayer solitaire”. (An aside: I hate that description of most games that it is applied to – in the vast majority of instances, players just haven’t figured out what they need to pay attention to in order to thwart their opponents.) In Imperium, you’ll want to avoid actions that give “aid and comfort” to your enemies – unless, of course, they help you do something wonderful. As well, it’s important to track how opponents are doing on collecting materials and people – if they’re already awash in materials, it doesn’t hurt to give them some more. On the other hand, if they don’t have much to work with, why make it easier on them?
One of the early mistakes we made when playing was over-fulfilling the victory point payoff of certain cards. A number of cards in the game provide Progress (aka “victory points”) based on how much you have of something – 1 vp for every 10 cards, 2 vp for each tributary, etc. The game caps the points you can get from this kind of cards at 10 victory points each – so if you’re going to receive 1 vp for every 2 materials, you don’t need to bank 30-40 materials.
Another early mistake is forgetting the option to Innovate – dumping a substandard hand to grab a particularly important card from the market not only gets you the card you need/want/desire as if it was the One Ring itself… but it also increase the spin of your deck, allowing you to more quickly get your higher value nation cards into play. (Note: some civilizations don’t want to advance as quickly – so, in the words of Hill Street Blues, “Be careful out there.”)
Because of the asymmetric nature of the various civilizations and the variable nature of the market row, you cannot assume that a particular strategy (rushing the Fame deck, spinning your deck quickly, conquering regions, etc.) will work each time you play. In some cases, strategies that were brilliant with one civilization will be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole with a different civilization. (Note: this is one of the selling points of the game system to me… you cannot “auto-pilot” your way through these decks to victory.)
The rule we missed the most often should be easy to remember – not only because it’s a simple action (at the end of your turn, put a Progress token [aka victory point] on one of the cards in the market), but because it is a way to influence your opponent’s decisions about which card to take or exile. It’s not a rulebook issue – it’s clearly stated in the rules and on the back cover of the rulebooks in the summary. I have no idea why this particular memory hole happened. (I would blame old age, but both of my sons did it as well and they are 20 and 16 years old.)
One of the things that caused me to put the Imperium boxes on my birthday list was the promise of a robust solo play system – and David Turczi (who is specifically credited on the cover of the solo play rulebook) delivered.
Each civilization has its own AI set of tables. Five slots are set up and numbered (with provided cardboard counters).The die included in the game (only used for solo play) is rolled and that eliminates one of the slots (or doesn’t – sixes are not a friendly roll in solo play)… and then the remaining cards are revealed and dealt with in order.
Impressively, each AI civilization retains a good bit of its character… for example, Egypt accumulates materials in the early going, uses them to attract hordes of population, and then, if conditions are right, converts those masses into Progress.
In the meantime, the player civilization is running by the exact same rules as the multiplayer game – allowing you to learn the ins and outs of the various decks as well as consider different tactical and strategic decisions.
There is also a simple way to vary the difficulty of solo play… and even a campaign mode in the solo rulebook.
My only complaints about solo play? Putting the charts for resolving the AI behavior in the rulebook rather than providing them as large cards. Thankfully, a BGG user (props to DocZagreus!) has taken it upon themselves to fix this problem and posted files that do just that. The other issue is that the Qin charts needed to be changed – and the files I just linked to have the changes needed!
Those Pesky Questions Everyone Asks
Q: How long does it take to play?
I don’t have the greatest sample size, but both of our three player games came in at about 90 minutes… while my multiple solo plays run somewhere between 65-80 minutes.
Q: I read on the ‘Geek that it’s not good for four players – what do you think?
First, remember that just because somebody wrote something on BGG and someone else said “yeah, me too!” doesn’t mean that God inscribed it on stone tablets and sent it down with Gaming Moses to reveal to the rest of us.
Second, as I noted earlier, I haven’t played Imperium with four players. My guess, with players who don’t dither (friends don’t let friends play this kind of game with people who have AP), the playing time will end up slightly over 2 hours. I think there’s enough interesting stuff going on to warrant that, but your mileage may vary.
Q: Really, how different are the boxes? Isn’t this just an expansion that gives you the same set of common cards?
Actually, no. Both boxes contain eight different civilizations… and the common card pools share some similarities but have major differences:
- The 8 Fame cards, 11 Tributaries, and 14 Regions are unique to each box.
- OK, almost – there is literally ONE Region card that is a duplicate in resources and powers… but it has a different name & different art.
- The Civilized decks share 10 cards – but have 5 cards that are unique to each box.
- The Uncivilized decks share 11 cards – but have another 11 cards that are unique to each box.
The rule books (both multiplayer and solo) are identical in each box – and cover both boxes worth of material. They also include instructions for playing civilizations from different boxes against each other… which primarily means you have to look for Tributary cards with the same name as civs in play and replace them with a random Tributary from the other box.
Q: Do the sleeved cards fit in the organizers that came as part of the game?
I am the wrong person to ask about sleeving cards – but I did some poking about on BGG and it looks like the original insert is not conducive to premium level sleeves.
Q: What’s the one add-on thingee you’d love for the Imperium system?
Well, besides the aforementioned printed solo cards (which I’ve already taken care of) and an expansion with more civilizations (which I have no control over), I think a GeekBit set of resource tokens would be awesome. Just sayin’.
While I wish that there didn’t have to be errata for a game so new out of the gate, I appreciate the hard work of the designers and Osprey Games to keep up with those issues.
And with that out of the way, I’ll go on to gush about how much I’m enjoying Imperium. I like the odd but compelling artistic design, I think the iconography makes sense once you’ve spent a little time with it, and I find the decisions challenging and interesting. I also applaud the inclusion in the rulebook of summaries and difficulty ratings for each of the decks. (I don’t care how much of a gamer you are – your first game should not be with the more difficult decks. Seriously, you have nothing to prove.)
The Imperium game system is shaping up to be one of my top finds of 2021… I’ve reached 11 plays in just over 3 weeks, even with each play taking 60 minutes plus. I find myself wanting to jump into another game as I’ve been trying to write this review – because, as much as I enjoy writing for the Opinionated Gamers, I love playing a really good game. (Plus, I need to figure what tactical errors I made with the Greeks the last time I played… a pitiful showing.)
Finally (in an unsolicited plug), the high quality of the solo system makes me doubly excited about the impending release of Undaunted: Reinforcements from Osprey Games!
Thoughts From Other Opinionated Gamers
Alan How: I’ve only played half a dozen times and several times I’ve had to re-learn the terminology as Mark says. There’s a lot going on and you have great choices to make each time you play, while the different civs require you to concentrate on different aspects of play. I’d agree with Mark on timings which match my experience.
From a gaming perspective I’m delighted that Nigel and David teamed up, which seems to have opened the door for Nigel to Mindclash opportunities with Voidfall the next cooperation between the two designers. I can’t wait!
Dan Blum: I’ve only played once so I don’t have a lot to say about the game – it’s definitely not a game you’re going to “get” on the first play. However, it’s certainly interesting and I would like to play again.
I will say that our three-player game was rather longer than Mark’s estimate, but of course the first game is going to be longer. Some of the extra length was due to the rulebook, which has all the rules, but could stand to be somewhat better organized.
The one thing that gives me pause is that the designers have already had to make a major change to the rules (free-play cards can only be used once per turn) due to game-breaking issues found by players. That doesn’t say great things about the playtesting process.
Mark replies: Dan is correct about the free play problem – it is possible with some civilizations to reduce your deck to such a small size that a “free play” card you played early in the turn could reappear due to a method of drawing cards. The limit makes sense but I do wish they’d put it in the original rulebook.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it!… Mark Jackson, Alan How
I like it… Dan Blum
Not for me…