Whatever your personal views on what your favourite Eurogames are there seems to be a small and select group of Euros that almost all AT fans seem to give the thumbs-up and turn to whenever they want a slice of fast playing, easily taught, minimally random gaming action. Railroad Tycoon, Shogun, Ra, Tigris & Euphrates and Settlers would probably be at the top of most of our lists. But my personal favourite Euro doesn't seem to have arrived on the radar of most AT fans as yet. That game is Imperial and here's why you should try it.
I like this game so much that it has the dubious distinction of being the only game to date that I've seen fit to review twice. My original review was over on that other boardgaming site. This one is more tailored to a specific explanation of why it holds promise for the audience attracted by this particular boardgaming site.
Since I'm a lazy Englishman I thought I might as well start by copying and pasting a modified version of what I'd written in my previous review. I wrote it, so it's mine to abuse and repeat as I wish, after all, and it's not like anyone's going to read this bit in any case - if you're really interested you'll already have read the rules online, or should do. But before I do I should point out that although fairly simple, Imperial has that mechanics-divorced-from-reality thing that's so common to Eurogames which, coupled with its highly unusual nature, make this one an absolute bitch to teach. New players will need to play at least one full game of this before everything clicks in to place - one turn, or even one spin round the rondel aren't really enough.
There are six European countries on the board, each of which is divided into five provinces. Each province can hold a factory. Each country also has a number of bonds available which rise in value from £2 million to £25 million and each bond offers returns to the investor with the percentage paid back decreasing as the value of the bonds increases. Each bond can only be owned by one player at a time, although one player may own multiple bonds in a country. At the start of the game you can either deal out some cheap bonds to the players as outlined in the standard rules (which is crap) or use the optional rule that gives the players a starting bank and allows them to buy bonds of their choice (which is what you should do). The player who has put the most capital into a country is able to control the government of that country and decides what actions it takes in the game. Aside from the home nations with their provinces there are also sea spaces and neutral spaces on the board and these are the only spaces you can actually conquer and own.
Starting with Austro-Hungary play proceeds with each of the nations in turn taking an action. An action in this case is moving a marker from that nation from one to three spaces round the rondel, a circle in the top corner of the board divided into segments, each one labeled with a different type of action. A country can build a new factory, produce units at its factories for free, move its units, import units into the country at a cost to the treasury or it can "invest" or "tax" which we'll return to shortly. The controlling player can move more than three spaces by paying £2 million per extra space and having chosen what action to take he then executes the results of that action on the board. The idea of the rondel is to limit the number of times in sequence a country can take a given action - this is particularly important in regards to the "tax" action as we'll see.
Most of the actions revolve around the production and movement of units. There are two types - ships which go on ocean spaces and armies which go on land spaces. Combat and conquest are very simple - if you move into a space occupied by a unit from another country then they can either destroy each other on a 1:1 basis (i.e. 3 units will beat 2 units with 1 unit remaining) or co-exist peacefully if the owning players agree or, of course, if the same player controls both units. If you move into an unoccupied neutral sea or land space then you conquer it and mark it for your country with a tax chip, which can only be removed if someone else manages to be the sole country with units in that space (making it easier to conquer a space at the start of the game than later on). Placing units in non-neutral territories stops the owning player using any factories in that space and stops them using the rail network which allows unlimited movement within their own country. If you get three enemy armies in an opposing factory space you can destroy the factory.
Finally then we return to the two other actions on the rondel. "Invest" pays out interest on the bonds owned by players in the country that lands on that space and is the central way for players to make money in the game. One player will also hold the investor card - when the invest space is either landed on or passed over the holder of that card is allowed to buy available bonds in nations as is any player who currently does not control a nation. "Tax" pays money into the countries treasury based on the number of factories and tax chips it owns and, critically, advances the country along the "power bar" at the bottom of the board, one space for every million of tax collected above five. The game ends when one country hits the "25" space on the power bar - players tot up the value of the bonds they have for each nation and then multiply it by a factor depending on that nations' position on the power bar - x5 for the 25 space, then x4 for the preceding five spaces and so on, all the way down to x0 for the first five. Then add your cash in hand to the total and the highest total wins the game.
Imperial takes around two hours to play. It puports to work with 2-6 players and, like a lot of games which claim to support a wide range of player numbers, has a sweet spot within that range which in this case is 3-5. Unlike many games with a wide range of player numbers though it does work pretty well with both two and six, although with two it becomes a game of pure analysis and is thus not going to satisfy most of the AT crowd. The game becomes increasingly cutthroat and dynamic as you add more and more players which is, for the most part, a good thing. But when you hit six it can become a little too dynamic and cutthroat and one or two players can get badly sidelined, especially if they're at a lower experience level than the rest of the group.
This leads me nicely on to the biggest problem with the game, and that's downtime. It's possible for one player to end up being in control of several countries at once, even in games with higher player numbers. That means everyone else has to wait to take their one-country turn while that player hogs most of the playtime. This isn't a massive issue because country-turns in Imperial don't usually take very long since the differentials in the game are of such magnitude that they push analysis-paralysis prone players so far to the other side of their comfort zone that they're able to relax and play from the hip. But it can become a problem when one player gets stuck without control of any countries. They still have to wait until someone hits the investor space on the rondel before they can have a hope of buying bonds and getting control but even then, since they get to go after the "official" investor with the card, it can be difficult for them to buy a meaningful share. Without control they have less influence on the board which can translate into less income and can spin into a vicious circle whereby they just can't get into the game. It's actually possible to assume this position deliberately and still win if you min/max the economic engine behind the game but I view this as being a fault - the game is much more fun when everyone can pitch in and blow chunks out of each other.
I love the wooden pieces that come with this. Anyone who thinks you need to have plastic to be characterful should see the fanatasic little wooden cannons, ships and factories used in Imperial. I found the blue used for French units and the black used for German units to be a bit hard to distinguish, but that's probably only because I favour playing in lightless, smoke filled rooms when I'm too drunk to see properly. Nearly all the components are double sided with English text on one side and German on the other. This turns out to actually be rather pointless because this is one of the very few games where the information on the game components is sparse enough for it to have gotten away with being language-independent and I'd rather they'd done that, had single-sided board and cards and shaved a few quid off the price. I've found players often have their components the wrong way up without even realising. Everything is sturdy and well produced - even the paper money, which is often an area of weakness in game production.
I've seen fans of this game attach the "beginner" label to people who've played less than twenty times. I add this not as a sop to elitism but as evidence of the potential longevity of this title. It's a deep game with a lot to explore and so should have the potential to see the table time and time again. If this were not enough it offers an official in-the-rules variant without the investor card which changes the game enough to give it a whole new lease of life, provided you like the way those rules play. Which, considering it ups the level of analysis in the game for Clearclaw to like it, probably won't apply to us.
Imperial is a game which pokes its grubby tendrils into almost every facet of competetive game playing that you can imagine - this is another of the many things that make it so unique and so enjoyable. Want to crunch the numbers and do a mathematical analysis? Sure, you can do that if that's your thing - this is a game without random elements after all - and it'll buy you a big advantage if you do. But, it's not necessary either to be competitive or to enjoy the game. You'll hear a lot of people say that this is primarily an economic game, and so it is, but that implies that the game revolves entirely around mathematical analysis, making it of no interest to AT gamers. Happily this is largely untrue.
For starters the maths behind this is mind-bogglingly obtuse, not least because there are two levels of game going on here - the economic impacts the military in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways and vice versa. Clearclaw says he can do it, but I've not known anyone else make that claim. That makes precise analysis difficult in the first place. The game then pulls the old-but-still-clever trick of attaching values to items in the game beyond the obvious ones printed on the components. A £9,000,000 bond in Germany will cost you £9,000,000 whatever you do, but it's actual worth is dependent on how many bonds in Germany you already own, how many other players own bonds in Germany, how those bonds are distributed, where Germany is on the rondel and, most importantly, how well Germany is doing in the game which might render the bond worthless or make it a game-winner. A military unit is worth $1,000,000 but a military unit in the right place at the right time can potentially make you a huge chunk of money. This muddies the waters to the extent where black and white mathematical analysis of the probibilities becomes impossible and the game is much the better for it and yet it still encourages and rewards pretty much whatever level of analysis you want to put into it.
And of course getting a military unit to be in the right place at the right time is a skill in itself. This is where the game begins to show why it might be of interest to the AT crowd. Whilst no wargame of grand strategic maneuver it nevertheless rewards skillful build up and placement of units, especially if you can tie your movement with the position of potential enemy nations on the rondel, allowing you a chance to attack in strength before they can produce or maneuver to defend themselves. I've lost several games of this because I bought into a strong-looking country which was about to be eviscerated in a military pincer-movement that I'd failed to spot. Timing can also be very important when it comes to making investments since the position of the investor card can determine whether it's an enemy or a friend who'll be making the next investment, and indeed what bonds may or may not be available when it's your turn to invest.
Probably the most interesting thing about this game from our point of view though is that the open nature of controlling countries and units creates a dynamic between the players which is unusual and highly engaging. Even though directly loaning money or swapping bonds is forbidden, this is certainly a game in which you can make and break deals - the rules explicity mention this as being permitted - and in which furious vendettas and bitter feuds can erupt, simmer and eventually find a blissful and gory resolution. Indeed the fact that you can not only wipe out the units of your hated opponent but positively cripple him by buying out control of his territories from under him just adds to the spice and delight of pulling off such a move: the 1:1 elimination non-random combat mechanic is not the only thing this game shares with Diplomacy. The two-tiered nature of the game also lends itself to some very cunning psychological manipulation, such as dressing up a country you control by a small margin and which you're about to shaft with another country you control to look like a valuable investment in the hope that some other poor schmuk will buy into it and waste their cash.
However, the particular genius of this game is its uncanny, chameloeon-like ability to mould itself to suit the play style of whatever group has gathered to play it. You can win by analysing the hell out of it. You can also win by negotiating or by clever strategic maneuver, although the analysis player will probably have a small advantage. What's truly unique about this game is that it allows fans of all the play styles to play together, at the same board and all have a good time and all, ultimately, have a chance of winning depenedent on their skill at their favoured discipline. It manages this because of the manner in which the various mechanics in this split-level game interlock into a satisfying whole, with aspects of each affecting the others. This also means that to truly succeed at Imperial you need to be someone who not only has a measure of all the skills that the game requires, but has a sharp enough mind to properly put each one into operation exactly when it's required. I am not that someone, but there's no denying that Imperial is very much a "gamers' game".
Whatever approach you take to playing Imperial, it's going to hurt your head. The way in which it's various mechanincs interlock create so many possibilities that trying to work through them all is a pretty daunting task. If you take the analysis approach you've got cash, military operations, country control and the positions of the investor card and the countries on the rondel to worry about. If you're negotiating or taking the military route you need to remember that who controls what is not fixed, so you've got to try and factor the likely economic outcomes in the short term into your decision making. Attempting to tie all three together will probably make your brain try and escape through your ears.
But for all that this is still a loud, raucous, in-your face experience that elicits worried teeth-sucking and whoops of delight from the players in equal measure. Even if you're not playing up the psychological warfare implicit in the game it's hard not to get suckered in by the social aspects of the experience. I can't imagine even the most analysis-oriented group playing this in complete silence, heads bowed low over the board.
As in all the best games there's a big fat dose of tension and uncertanty in the mix here. Because the values of given moves are never obvious in the wider context of the game there's always the chance someone else is going to buy out your best country from under you, or that someone is going to suddenly invade you for no apparant reason or that someone is going to skip an investor space with their country and deny you some much-needed income from your bonds. Without a random mechanic, there's not any short term excitment on offer, but the long term uncertanties pretty much make up for that. Where it does fall down is in the endgame - the likely winner can usually be spotted one trip around the rondel before the end actually arrives. It's a shame that what ought to be the most thrilling part of the game is often the least, but tense sprints for the line do sometimes happen and boy, but they're a rollercoaster ride when they come up.
One thing that surprised me about this game is a lack of narrative. The ingredients all seem to be there - it has a faux-historical theme about the first world war, supported to the point that the game actually includes a little historical data booklet, it has a map and units to move around and the players are actively portrayed as international financiers cynically buying war bonds in countries and trying to turn a profit. But whilst this has a lot more theme than the average Euro, the narrative element falls flat - I can't write session reports for Imperial because I can't remember the game in enough detail the day after, whereas for a game such as Twilight Imperium or Arkham Horror I usually can. This seems to partly be down to the fact that the game is so chaotic, with control of countries flip-flopping all over the place, weaving who-did-what into a consistant narrative is very difficult. I think the other reason is that the theme - bankers supporting the economies of warring countries to the point of dictating military strategy - is both breathtakingly cynical and, unless you subscribe to the most dystopian of conspiracy theories, difficult to buy in to.
Imperial is original enough to make finding comparison games a difficult task. This is an important point to emphasise because the uniqueness of the title is a big part of its appeal. It is, at heart, a kind of civilisation game but one in which the traditional approach of using armies to build an economy to build bigger armies is subverted into using an econonmy to build armies to build a bigger economy. Since the broad genre to which it belongs is the home of a lot of long and complex games, while Imperial is clearly designed to appeal to those who value easier to learn titles of intermediate length, finding comparison games becomes even more difficult.
If you like the idea of the Rondel mechanism, but think that Imperial sounds too deep or analysis-heavy for your tastes then you could check out another game by the same designer, Antike. This is a more straightforward civilisation building title set in the meditteranian during the time of the wars between the Greek city-states. I've never played it, but the majority of people who have played both it and Imperial find Imperial to be the better game.
If you want a game which focusses on more traditional civilisation building tropes such as negotiation, trading and combat but still remains entirely manageable in terms of rules and play time then check out Mare Nostrum. MN is one of my favourite games - certainly the equal of Imperial in terms of the entertainment I've derived from it. The two are different enough to warrant owning and playing both in my opinion, but if you came here looking for a streamlined civ game instead of an economics game with combat bolted on, it should go down a treat for you.
My final selection for a comparitor is an odd one, Through the Ages. It's an odd choice because it's longer and more complicated than Imperial and, lacking a map, has only a tiny proportion of the direct confrontation that abounds in Imperial. However, taking a step back both are analysis-heavy civilisation games which derive much of their appeal from the players having to careful balance a large number of different factors which interact with each other in complex and surprising ways.
I should mention that I've seen other people compare this to the 18XX games and Princes of the Reniessance. But since I know jack shit about either, I can't do much but flag up the names for your perusal and move on.
I've characterised Imperial as being a game with a lot of broad appeal. That isn't strictly true - originally this would not have been a game I would recommend either to those who favour casual, light games or to those who like a broad dose of random excitement in their games. But then I taught this to two friends from London who loved it, in spite of the fact they owned not a single game between them and were both borderline gambling addicts. There's something about its unusual, crazy, topsy-turvey nature that seems to appeal to gamers of all stripes. In retrospect perhaps it's just those who like carefully structured, ordered, low conflict games who ought to steer clear of this.
Imperial is not problem free. The biggest one is the potential downtime issue, which we've already discussed - it can't be entirely right when you can win at a game after taking virtually no turns which is possible, if unlikely, in Imperial. The lack of narrative also disappoints, especially since the game appears to promise a lot in this area on first play, so while this is a game you'll likely still be playing years from now, it's not a game where you'll still be reminicising about this or that fantastic session years from now. But these are fairly minor glitches: ultimately Imperial is a unique game which seamlessly blends the unlikely bedfellows of heavy-duty analysis with screaming chaos and thereby fills the unique niche of being a non-random, perfect information game with a ton of Ameritrash appeal. In my personal five-star rating system this gets 5/5 - a top ten title and a definate keeper.