Designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek
Published by Portal Games (2014)
1 - 4 Players / 45 - 90 minutes
Review by Jack Eddy
I was apprehensive about Imperial Settlers. While the cute, cartoony artwork and reputation as a great asymmetric game drew me in, something about the vast array of cards in front of me made me wary. You see, I really love civilization builders, but I like the physicality of tokens, of real pieces, representing my grand design. Somehow cards just, well, fall flat. Turns out, I’m just a big dummy. Imperial Settlers feels like a board game in spite of 95% of the action happening on cards. And more importantly, it’s also one of the most fun civilization building games I’ve played in ages.
(not) United Nations:
To start out, each player chooses one of four great and iconic nations; Japan, Rome, Egypt, and Barbaria.... Barbariana...Barbary Coast? The United Barbarian Horde (UBH)! Anyway, there are four different factions to choose from, each with it’s own deck of building cards and unique loadout of resource production every turn. At the beginning of the game the factions will closely resemble one another, but as their settlement expands, the asymmetry becomes much more apparent.
Like all self respecting board games, players gain resources to spend on things that let them gain more resources, to hopefully get points; but Imperial Settlers does it with a satisfying Rube Goldbergian flair. As players alternate actions to build, resolve card effects, trade in resources, or “raze” (destroy) the cards in their own hands or even in an opponent’s field, you get the sense that you are managing a vast contraption, with each step being one in a long sequence resulting in your victory. This is helped by each individual action being relatively simple. Nothing comes at too high of a cost, nothing is out of reach. You will find yourself wishing you had more resources to do everything, but as long as you aren’t greedy, you’ll have what you need to do almost anything.
New faction and common cards are drawn at the beginning of each round (for the love of god use the common deck draft rules in the back of the rulebook!). Once in play, each card is a building that either has an ongoing effect, grants the player an action they can use, or produces stuff (usually resources, points or cards), The common cards have a wide variety of effects while the faction cards tend to synergize with one another and steer a player toward the strengths of their nation. As your nation becomes more expansive, you’ll become more selective and critical about what to build at any given moment, using the common buildings as a way to augment or enhance your faction’s viable strategies. Most of the faction buildings require you to sacrifice a common building which you’ve already put into play, so again, you are being selective about what part of your machine you are willing to trim.
Some people just want to watch the world burn:
Razing is one of the few, but important, nuggets of player interactivity in the game. Some buildings produce swords, which can used to raze buildings to gain the rewards shown in the upper right of the card. With few exceptions, only common cards in your own hand or your opponent’s field can be razed. The cost to raze your own is cheap at only one sword, but inevitably, you’ll find yourself in a situation with two or more swords and your opponent’s buildings will be a bit more tempting. Destroy the right building, and that perfectly syncopated chain of events your friend was falling may prematurely collapse like oh-so-many dominoes. This may seem overly harsh in what is otherwise a friendly engine building eurogame, but razing opponents is expensive and common buildings are never so vital that losing one is more than an annoyance. You even get to flip the card to use it to build one of their faction buildings; and adorably, they get one wood for their building getting destroyed, presumably from the wreckage.
What’s to love?:
What I really like about Imperial Settlers is that in spite of the well defined factions, the path forward never quite feels obvious. Each round, save maybe the first, I feel like there are many branching opportunities that I won’t see the full consequence until I follow through. I love that. It adds mystery and suspense right up until the end. Speaking of the well defined factions, I like that the synergies make for broader rather than specific strategies; it leaves room to mitigate luck but leaning into whatever you draw into.
I also like the spartan design. (Wait, why aren’t the Greeks a playable faction?). In a tight five rounds with simple actions, it’s easy to teach and understand the game so that everyone is ready to rock within the first handful of actions. Even the cards have a simplistic yet versatile design, begging you to indulge as you consume every part of the buffalo. Every faction building has a banner at the bottom allowing you to “Make a Deal!”. Instead of building it, you can flip it around, tuck it under your player board with just that banner showing, and begin producing those resources each turn. The raze reward on common buildings is just as vital to your strategy as the effect of building it. Every card, whether it enters play or is used for some effect has value to you; it helps keep the decks small and manageable, and reduces the risk of disappointment as you draw cards each turn.
Room to Grow:
I should also mention that this game presents the opportunity for limited deck construction. The base set does not have extra cards, but there are a few expansions at this point that allow you to swap out cards to further define each faction’s strategy.Honestly, I think this was a costly mistake either by the designer or publisher, as many gamers don’t want to deal with the TCG/LCG hassle of building decks. Fortunately, this is entirely optional and the game is completely solid on it’s own.
On the other hand, the game is designed such that it’s exceptionally easy to envision new factions and what their cool powers would be. Already Portal Games has released an Atlanteans set, and an Aztec set is just on the horizon, having had a limited european release at Essen Spiel 2016. I don’t want it to sound like there isn’t more than enough game in the base set, but the option to add new and interesting factions without upsetting the balance or the fundamental rules of the base set is exciting.
It’s really a strange beast. For some, the limited player interactivity and luck of card draw may be a turnoff. For others, the looming threat of attack will be enough to avoid the game. But I feel like Imperial Settler’s really threads the needle, making an engine building euro game with just enough interactivity to make you care about what your opponent is doing, while softening the impact of each costly monkey wrench that they throw at you.
Imperial Settlers is a civilization game with a smirk. From its cute characters to the secret box ninja (yeah, I found you!) to the consolation wood you get when your neighbor blows up your building, the game oozes charm and levity rarely found in this genre. Best of all, you are rewarded for smart and strategic play but the path to victory never feels too obvious. I really like Imperial Settlers, in spite of it’s entire dependence on cards, it really feels like you are building a vast and powerful empire in a short amount of time; and for that, I highly recommend you check it out.