Everybody knows the Great Wall was built to prevent the barbarian hordes from plundering the imperial garden’s strawberries, and thank goodness Imperial Harvest isn’t too caught up in politically-motivated historical propaganda to deny the obvious. One side wants royal strawberries, the other side wants royal strawberries; there ain’t enough royal strawberries for the both of ’em.
Cue one of the weirdest gaming experiences I’ve had this year. And I’ve played Zimby Mojo.
Imperial Harvest’s oddness isn’t so much due to the game itself. In a lot of ways, it feels perfectly regular. You’ve got a modular map of the imperial gardens, complete with various layouts of hedges, bridges, and the placement of starting camps. There are monsters prowling the waterways, characters with different abilities — all sorts of boxes are getting marked on my personal checklist of gaming greatness, in short.
Then the game goes and focuses on having your characters race around plucking strawberries. These have got to be seriously great strawberries. Mind-blowingly good. Life-changingly good. To me, a strawberry is worth a point when plucked, another if I’m holding it at the end of the game, and two more if I manage to deposit it at my strawberry camp. After about ten minutes of this, the disconnect between the grim seriousness of my characters — the skin-changer who mauls his enemies, the sorceress who seizes control of their brains — and the fact that all this violence is being performed in the name of some hybrid accessory fruits starts to take its toll. What are we doing to ourselves, I think. You can have the damn strawberries. This isn’t worth fighting about.
But that’s just what I tell myself. In reality, I pass my turn so as to move one of the hydras into position to chow down on my opponent’s monk. He was hauling two strawberries in his satchel. Suck it, I think, the monk losing his grasp on his precious fruits. He probably also gargles uncomfortably while the hydra performs an amateur tracheotomy. I don’t care. It’s all about the strawberries.
The thing about Imperial Harvest is that it might not be a good game, but it’s not a terrible one either. For one thing, it’s deathly serious about its strawberry picking, which is darkly amusing in its own right. To facilitate this grim harvest, moving around your three heroes is easy enough. Basically, two of them move each turn, while the one that didn’t get a shot must move next turn. Around the map they go, searching for
berries accessory fruits like violent little Pac-Men. Gobble gobble, snatching up strawberries. Eventually the ones within easy reach run dry, and that’s when the claws come out.
For the most part, your guys have straightforward abilities. Stand near enough to hear the bard’s gentle plucking (of his mandolin’s strings, not the strawberries) and you’ll get an extra move. Push friendlies and enemies alike with the sorceress’s charm, or move diagonally with the monk. It’s basic stuff. But for every simple move, there’s something more enticing. The barbarian, for example, can chop through hedges permanently, creating easier avenues of approach for the rest of your crew, while the monk can do the reverse, planting new hedges right in front of an approaching would-be murderer. Not that death is ever more than a setback, as your guys pop back into existence right back at base camp.
The result is a game that’s nearly as surprisingly pleasant as it is brief. Twenty minutes isn’t so bad. At least Imperial Harvest knows it shouldn’t overstay its welcome. There’s talk of character classes and team drafting in the rulebook, though the odds that you’ll stick around long enough to delve into those options are even slimmer than the box’s offerings for either. Sure, there are a few neutral characters, and you might even get around to swapping in a puppeteer for that boring old bard, or seeing whether the minotaur’s “master of the labyrinth” ability is really as frustrating as it sounds. But this isn’t exactly the sort of game that will have you busting it out for yet another play, yet another chance at team optimization.
All in all, Imperial Harvest is a slender oddity of a game: not bad enough to hate on, not good enough to bother with. Just a weird premise, a few okay ideas, and a whole lot of opportunities to raise a single eyebrow as you watch this thing unfold on your table for a few minutes before it disappears back into its box to rest.