We tend to become very good at classifying stuff. It’s the easiest way to filter out things we assume we won’t like. Gamers are no different from everyone else. We all have some kind of mechanic or theme that we normally remove from our field of vision. Maybe you had a bad experience with it at some point, or maybe you just have a fundamental problem with it. For me, I’m not really a fan of stock games. It’s not so much that I don’t like them. (I consider Acquire to be one of the best games ever designed.) No, my real problem with stock games is that I’m terrible at them. Something about learning to manipulate investment eludes me, which is an unfortunate handicap to have in life.
Well, Imperial is a game about investments. And no, I’m not very good at it. But Imperial has the added bonus of being a military/diplomacy game as well, and that’s another genre where I do not excel. And yet I find myself fascinated by this game. Imperial manages to avoid the worst excesses of both genres, using one aspect to temper the other. On a broader level, I’m just impressed at how the game works. There are times when a game’s design overcomes any frustration it might give you, and you just marvel and appreciate the intricacies of playing it. Imperial is one of those games.
You play an investor, a wealthy millionaire who is buying up bonds in the great European powers at the beginning of the 20th Century. These powers each have their own military needs and their own treasuries. The player who controls the most shares in a country is the one who will take that countries actions. So if I have six shares in Germany, and you have eight, then you will be the one who decides what Germany will do on its turn. The actions are metered out through what is called a “rondel.” It’s a circle on the board with different actions printed on different spaces. When a country takes an action, it moves clockwise on the rondel to the action space it wants, up to three spaces. You can also spend a little extra money to push it further, if that’s what you’re after. The actions may build military units for the country, or send them to attack the many neutral territories in the area. You can also bump it around to pay out interest to the many investors in that nation, and then tax the people to pay your military and gain a little income. Your tax is important, because it determines how much power that nation has. If you bring in a lot of tax, your country will be more powerful, and your shares will be worth more at the end of the game.
Obviously I’m simplifying a lot there. There are a ton of nuances that will be meaningless if you haven’t played. But really, it’s not a complicated game at all. The various actions of buying units, moving them, fighting them, buying shares, taxing, and collecting income are all handled in an abstracted way. They make sense without being burdensome. That simplicity works its way through the whole game, and learning the game is almost entirely a matter of plumbing the depths rather than fighting rules. Not that learning the game is a simple matter, but the rules step aside and let everyone play how they want.
I feel like investment games are determined largely by decisions made early in the game, and I’m not good at gauging those decisions. But a huge chunk of Imperial is wrapped up in the military aspect. If someone is pulling in stacks of cash and reaping the rewards of a well-run country, it’s not always difficult to mount a military assault on that person. This is where the diplomacy comes in, because those assaults are often a result of alliances and agreements. If you know what you’re doing, it’s possible to send in the troops and smack down a country. If you hit hard enough, it can be difficult to recover. The action on the board also serves to impart an immediacy to the investments. It’s not just money floating out there, but it’s tanks and boats and alliances giving a face to what you’re doing. It’s a great visual representation of the somewhat impersonal nature of stocks and bonds.
But it’s important to remember that this isn’t a wargame. You can conquer territory all you want, but if you aren’t investing wisely, you will lose. The investing serves to reign in the more groupthink-y tendencies that come from diplomatic games. Alliances will develop, but they tend to be more about how the stocks get distributed. If you have a lot of money in Russia, you might not mind so much if they are close to overrunning Austria. You can also get in situations where you will control two countries, and that opens whole new ways to game the system. And then if someone clearly doesn’t know how to run the country, it’s not tough for the guy in second place to invest in a big bond and take the lead, and therefore take control of that countries actions.
The coolest thing is that neither aspect of the game overpowers the other. The action on the board never overtakes the investment portion, but it keeps it from being a purely calculating exercise. You have wars to run after all. And because those two aspects pull back and forth at each other, there’s a remarkable durability to the design. You can poke and prod at it, but odds are you won’t find a way to send the game into the abyss. That ability to experiment is what really sets the game apart, because great strategy isn’t obvious here. The strategies of your opponents can be buried under ulterior motives and other investments, but when you see them make their move you will kick yourself for not seeing it earlier. And of course, you look back at the end of a session and think of a million little things you should or shouldn’t have done.
That subtlety tends to make the game a little opaque for my tastes. I’ve lost a number of times, and I even won once. But I couldn’t really tell you how I did either of those things, at least not in a long-term strategic sense. Oh, I can see what tactical moves I made that hurt or helped me, but how I got myself in that situation is beyond me. I’m sure that there are many experts who could set me right, but quite frankly I’m intimidated by the level of strategy that can be sunk into the game. But those are aspects that go away with experiences. I’ve played five or six games of Imperial. No doubt when I hit fifty I’ll be well-versed in the ins and outs. But the net effect of that depth and opacity can create a game that is sometimes easier to admire than it is to enjoy.
But the game is so easy to admire that I really don’t have much to complain about. I may be in over my head, but I have been fascinated and engaged every time I’ve played. Designer Mac Gerdts made a razor-sharp game, one that can be enjoyed by the accountant and the warmonger, with both of them at the same table. And besides that, it’s just impressive to see the whole thing work. There is pleasure in watching excellence, and Imperial provides plenty of that.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.