Is That an Imperium in Your Pocket?
Ah, how to capture the vastness of space within the meager centimeters of one’s own pocket? How to distill the heady essence of discovery, growth, technological innovation, and war into a slim package? How to run an empire without the nitpicky details of running an empire?
Short answer: you don’t.
There are a few significant things going on in Pocket Imperium’s favor, whether or not it actually captures the feel of a 4X game, that most expansive of genres that promises exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination. Most of the time, I’m inclined to give space games a free pass when it comes to not quite hitting such a lofty mark. Not every game set in space needs to embrace every aspect of the genre, especially when the formula is so broad, so complicated. Then again, that’s exactly what Pocket Imperium proposes to do, right on the face of it. Each round sees everyone programming their actions by laying out cards that announce what their diminutive empire will be getting up to for the next little while, and those actions are — you may have guessed it — expand, exterminate, and explore. The exploitation, if you’re wondering, is the phase where you collect your points.
True, none of these feel particularly evocative of the 4X formula. Words are rejiggered in order to squeeze them into suiting Pocket Imperium’s play space. Exploration is just a fancy-pants way of saying that you’re moving your fleets around, while expansion means you’re building new ships. Exterminate does sometimes mean you’ll be exterminating someone, though perhaps that’s because there wasn’t much wiggle room around the word exterminate.
But never mind all that, because kicking up a fuss over the proper definition of a 4X game is a bit like complaining about a Western not containing enough horses, or that the mobsters in a gangland flick didn’t whack anybody at a toll booth. Pocket Imperium may not quite fit into the clothes it claims to wear, but there still might be a perfectly compelling game underneath that borrowed dinner jacket. For one thing, how cool is it that your actions become more or less powerful depending on how many other players chose them? If you picked Expand at the right time, you could be rewarded with three ships, all ready to be placed into your empire. Pick it when one of your neighbors is thinking the same thing — or, worse, both neighbors — and the action’s effect diminishes down to two ships, or even just one. The same goes for the other actions as well, pitching imperial management as one of going against the grain, surprising your opponents with unexpected moves, and more than a little guesswork.
There’s also the fact that everything is delightfully straightforward. Perhaps even to a fault, but we’ll get to that later. Want to earn points? It’s as easy as capturing planets in the same sector. Want to nab points when your opponent is choosing which sector to score? Wrestle some planets under your control in her chosen sector. Want to double your points? Capture the hotly-contested central super-planet. Even the battles couldn’t be more straightforward without mimicking checkers. Move in an attacking fleet and both sides lose ships one at a time until only one side is left standing.
As I said, there are some good ideas rattling around Pocket Imperium’s headspace. The way each action loses power as they appear on the table in greater numbers gives you real opportunities for clever plays or dramatic flops. The simple goals and battles mean that nothing is ever hidden, ever surprising, ever unexpected, freeing you up to focus on the strategic positioning of your fleets.
On the other hand, nothing is ever hidden, ever surprising, or ever unexpected in Pocket Imperium. Other than the occasional unexpectedly powerful action selection or perhaps a rare multi-directional attack on a key planet, this is the board game equivalent of a dish consisting of a raw potato and a single McDonald’s packet of ketchup. In general, each side soon settles into a numbing rhythm of shipbuilding and ship-losing. Even the stars themselves are symmetrical in this universe, each sector providing precisely four points. Since every scoring round allows each player to choose a single sector to earn points from, possibly handing points to anyone squatting alongside them, this means that scores tend to be tightly clustered. The singular opportunity to leap ahead comes in the form of the plus-sized planet in the center, which allows its owner to select two sectors rather than one. In general, this puts a glaring target on its owner’s back that’s all but impossible to ignore. Those multi-directional attacks I mentioned earlier? Without exception, the only place worth launching them is here, leading to repeated invasions of the same spot. Worse, when everyone needs ships and attacks at the same time, choosing when each action will take place feels more like fumbling in the dark than hatching dastardly plots against your enemies.
In a word, it’s bland. Without intrigue, the action system becomes a pointless crapshoot. Without asymmetry, the wartime aspects feel like mixing oil and water rather than setting fire to something. And then it goes on and on and on, refusing to end.
Summed up, Pocket Imperium manages a few good ideas only to assemble them in the stuffiest possible way, like having your fascinating sociology professor over for dinner only to realize that he’s got a one-track mind for sociology. Who would have thought?
In space, no one can hear you yawn.