Imperius Review

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Imperious Board Game Review

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There Will Be Games
Spiceless. Dune is a setting I am somewhat under-versed in. I've seen the Lynch movie and loved it. I'm working on the book at time of writing, in large part because I wanted to evaluate Imperius as fairly as possible. Grant Rodiek has published several interesting design diaries outlining his love of the source material and how it informed his design process, so I felt it was necessary in order to establish context. Yet after several plays I've found that this preparation was not necessary and, in fact, might have hurt my opinion of the game.

I'm conflicted on this one. I hope that writing this review will help me solidify my thoughts on it. Sorry reader, this one's more for me than you. I hope you find it useful.

Imperius isn't a drafting game as much as it's a location grabber that's fueled by a draft. And what a draft it is. Every player's house cards are shuffled into a single deck which is dealt, not quite completely, out to everyone. You can take other houses' crucial pieces, as can they. Once everyone's drafted 4 cards and rejected a 5th, said rejects are dealt out randomly to the planets to seed them with a bit of info.

This is without question the best part of Imperius. I love this draft. Truly. I've never played another game that promised to be so conniving, so devious. Pulling your opponents' cards and setting them up for catastrophic failure while securing your own destiny is an incredible premise. Unfortunately I do not love what follows, and what follows is the true meat of the game.

In turn order each player deploys one card to a planet. I won't get into the rules in detail as there are exceptions but, crucially, cards can be deployed face down up until a point. This means the first half of every deployment phase is a scramble to hide information on planets before other people can. You then throw face up cards around in attempts to react to each other, likely fail, and the planets are scored.

When I first played Imperius I thought this was brilliant. I schemed, tried to set up assassinations, squirreled my noble away on some interstellar backwater, and hoped against hope that my machinations would come through. Typically they did not, at least not entirely, and that was great! Failure is often more entertaining than success in games. However, over several plays I began to see seams and eventually the entire game fell apart.

Games began to become homogenous regardless of faction or players' choices because the cards, frankly, are uninteresting. 3 of them just score points, 1 kills nobles, 1 of them stops your noble from dying, and 1 is an elder with either a large number or contextual effect. Add in 4 events that are randomly seeded from a stack of cards during setup and that's all you have to work with. They're mildly asymmetrical to suggest at house specialities, but not so dramatically so that their effects are truly felt beyond scoring slightly more or less for identical actions.

This homogeneity eventually seeps into all facets of Imperius. Enemy nobles are played face up like chum in the water or onto a planet with another noble to neuter them. Assassins go where nobles might be, as do guards. Scoring cards just follow your other cards as you need their numbers to fire them. The grand reveals promised by the draft simply never come to pass. Either the cards manage to yield points or they don't. It crossed from exciting and unknown to simply disappointing over my plays and never recovered. My players consistently expressed that this felt like a piece of a grander game. I agreed.

It also didn't evoke Dune, and that wasn't just my opinion. Players familiar with the setting told me that they, too, felt nothing. It needed direct interaction. True asymmetry. Trade. Betrayal. Resource scarcity. Literal and metaphorical spice. The most damning line came from someone who was completely unfamiliar with Dune: "This is kind of interesting, but I wouldn't call it fun. Is the book like that?" I winced.

I'm not mad about Imperius. I don't even think it's a bad game. I'm just disappointed. I respect the core mechanical decisions that Grant has assembled here but at the end of the day it just isn't a game that I want to play.
There Will Be Games Imperious Board Game Review
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Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #292980 25 Feb 2019 09:54
I think this needed some more development. As you say, the machinations one should feel are largely missing, and I think a big part of that is how much control is removed from the players. There are multiple levels of filtering out decisions and while only one is huge, the combination is killer.

1. Since the entire deck isn't dealt, it's possible your faction's cards (the only ones that can score you points) aren't even in play. All you can do is try to keep other factions from scoring.

2. But you have no way of knowing at this point that your cards aren't in play, since it's a draft. Only afterwards will you know that you never had much of a chance. You have no idea what's "out there" so you have little information to make decisions with.

3. Then, each planet is seeded with one of the rejected cards from the draft. This means that one of the five cards allowed for a planet is chosen at random from the cards nobody wanted. So before any players have put a card down some decisions are affected without any real input.

4. This is the biggest one. Each planet can have two face-down cards deployed to it. A planet can only have five cards on it, and one comes from the rejects (see #3) so half the cards on a planet are unknowns. You only know who played it, but because you don't know what cards are in the mix and because a player can draft any faction's cards, this gives you no information to work with. There is occasionally impetus to play a card face up even if you could play it face down, but those situations are rare.

5. A planet can only hold five cards, so it's possible to get locked out of a place and have to go elsewhere. If you're playing 5 players, this can happen before you've had a chance to put down a single card.

6. You have to play the cards you draft, so you can get in a situation where you're probably going to give someone else points even though you don't want to. Along with the other restrictions, towards the end of the placement round you may have no choice where to put the card.

So after all that it's really easy to feel like you have very little control over what happens -- because that's exactly the case. You can't really scheme, you can't really manipulate, because you don't have enough agency to formulate or enact a plan. Every single move is essentially "whatever makes the most sense at this actual moment".

I've only played twice, and perhaps with multiple plays some subtle and clever strategies start to emerge, but no one I played this with was wowed enough to make that happen. There are other things I'd rather do.

I backed based on the theme and the described gameplay, but it's a clunker, I fear. Thanks for this article, you've convinced me to put it in the trade pile.
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #292984 25 Feb 2019 10:12
I was told (by people I trust, even!) that the game got better with replays and revealed itself over time. I found the opposite to be true. If you've played it twice and gotten that impression I think it's safe to put it on the pile.

I didn't dig into all the rules in the interest of brevity but the cards not being completely dealt is a capital P Problem. While you are guaranteed to see all the cards because the played ones are shuffled and placed under the unplayed, that just means that if a house got shafted in the previous round their cards will be even more diluted among the players in the next. It's frustrating. If the cards were more impactful than just "get points or don't" it could have worked, but as it stands it just doesn't.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #292986 25 Feb 2019 10:15
I really dig this game.

I wouldn't agree Dave that it needed more development. This was originally self-published by Grant as Solstice, and then went through the rigors of Kolossal to update it. My impression is that Kolossal actually spends a tremendous amount of work/effort developing their games (as you likely can see with Western Legends).

You could of course say it needed to undergo perhaps stronger development or maybe under a different hand, but I think there's a real distinction there.

The main issue I see with the game is the random removal of a handful of cards and how that can unfairly impact a player. Overall, I'm willing to eat that flaw because I think it leads to interesting plays and a mix of cards that can present tilted results. It's not balanced, but it is interesting I'd say.

If it was up to me, I wish the game had just a sliver of more control. I think the central concept of struggling to ride the chaos like a bucking bull feels great. It gives me that Dune feel in theme (not setting) because it feels as though everything is tumbling out of control and you're grasping to hang on to whatever you can. When things align and you pull off a huge assassination or large scoring output, it feels devious and maniacal.

This game has grown on me with every play and I'm looking forward to my next.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #292987 25 Feb 2019 10:16
This game sounds like a hard pass for me. I haven't read the designer diaries, but it seems like this game started with mechanics and ended there, which nearly always results in a failure to express the setting. If the designer instead focuses on the setting first, appropriate mechanics will tend to follow naturally. That's why all the early Gale Force Nine games were so good. You can tell that they took their design cues directly from the source material.
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #292990 25 Feb 2019 10:35

charlest wrote: I really dig this game.

I wouldn't agree Dave that it needed more development. This was originally self-published by Grant as Solstice, and then went through the rigors of Kolossal to update it. My impression is that Kolossal actually spends a tremendous amount of work/effort developing their games (as you likely can see with Western Legends).

You could of course say it needed to undergo perhaps stronger development or maybe under a different hand, but I think there's a real distinction there.

The main issue I see with the game is the random removal of a handful of cards and how that can unfairly impact a player. Overall, I'm willing to eat that flaw because I think it leads to interesting plays and a mix of cards that can present tilted results. It's not balanced, but it is interesting I'd say.

If it was up to me, I wish the game had just a sliver of more control. I think the central concept of struggling to ride the chaos like a bucking bull feels great. It gives me that Dune feel in theme (not setting) because it feels as though everything is tumbling out of control and you're grasping to hang on to whatever you can. When things align and you pull off a huge assassination or large scoring output, it feels devious and maniacal.

This game has grown on me with every play and I'm looking forward to my next.


I think Imperius is very good at creating an illusion of control with its draft. It tricks you into thinking that you'll be able to engineer these amazing things, when in actuality you don't really have the means to ensure anything. 4p is the only good player count, but 3 actions is exactly enough to fill a planet after you play only 1 card to it and half of them will be face down. It's the worst kind of chaos - blind.

Speaking of, those face down cards. Why? Why are they there? I mean I see why, because wheels within wheels, but they just don't work. If anything I'd want to see that restricted to specific cards as a keyword, not just be able to do so freely. The game withholds all of its information until the last minute when all the facedown slots are taken, at which point you desperately flail and hope for the best. It went from frantic and fun to just irritating over the course of my plays.

It's frustrating because I really do think the draft here is amazing. It just needs to be attached to a better card game.
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #292991 25 Feb 2019 10:41

charlest wrote: I really dig this game.

I wouldn't agree Dave that it needed more development. This was originally self-published by Grant as Solstice, and then went through the rigors of Kolossal to update it. My impression is that Kolossal actually spends a tremendous amount of work/effort developing their games (as you likely can see with Western Legends).

You could of course say it needed to undergo perhaps stronger development or maybe under a different hand, but I think there's a real distinction there.


I don't know any of the inside baseball development info on the game and don't really care. I don't grade for effort. What I do know is, when we played it, everyone at the table felt like they were making more or less random decisions and then seeing what happened as a result. That can be fun, if the game leans into it and has a light theme and short playtime, but this is oh so serious and you're told you're manipulating wheels within wheels and nothing here bears that out. Every step along the way erodes the actual room for players to make informed decisions and enact a strategy. Not a single other player seemed eager to play it again (my two plays were with two different groups) and I only wanted more because I'm the one who bought it and wanted to see if it's worth keeping.

If more play can tease out some subtleties, then that's great, but I'd rather just pass it on and play something where I don't have to eventually find it worth playing.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #292996 25 Feb 2019 11:22

Legomancer wrote:

charlest wrote: I really dig this game.

I wouldn't agree Dave that it needed more development. This was originally self-published by Grant as Solstice, and then went through the rigors of Kolossal to update it. My impression is that Kolossal actually spends a tremendous amount of work/effort developing their games (as you likely can see with Western Legends).

You could of course say it needed to undergo perhaps stronger development or maybe under a different hand, but I think there's a real distinction there.


I don't know any of the inside baseball development info on the game and don't really care. I don't grade for effort. What I do know is, when we played it, everyone at the table felt like they were making more or less random decisions and then seeing what happened as a result. That can be fun, if the game leans into it and has a light theme and short playtime, but this is oh so serious and you're told you're manipulating wheels within wheels and nothing here bears that out. Every step along the way erodes the actual room for players to make informed decisions and enact a strategy. Not a single other player seemed eager to play it again (my two plays were with two different groups) and I only wanted more because I'm the one who bought it and wanted to see if it's worth keeping.

If more play can tease out some subtleties, then that's great, but I'd rather just pass it on and play something where I don't have to eventually find it worth playing.


I think that's fair. Maybe the distinction is irrelevant, but by and large the cloud around Kickstarter is the lack of development as a result of laziness or lack of commitment, which I don't think is the case here.

I'd be curious for those who have not enjoyed it, was there any table talk? We've done stuff like coordinate to screw people out of points (i.e. "I have Jeremy's Commander, can anyone help me nullify it by forcing a tie?"). It allows you to work around the limitations a bit and we've found it the primary tool for mitigating a lead.
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #292997 25 Feb 2019 11:28
We did not table talk.
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #292999 25 Feb 2019 11:32
We did, but we're all filthy liars so it only did so much.
n815e's Avatar
n815e replied the topic: #293061 26 Feb 2019 11:37
You lost me at loving the movie.