Choice Amidst Chaos: Imperius
It isn’t reasonable to expect that you’ll master Grand Rodiek’s Imperius on the first play. Crud, I’ve written about it twice before — once as Solstice, again as a preview — and still I’m uncovering new tricks. For example, the “lose to Adam even when I’m ahead by ten points” trick.
Let me explain it for you. Then you too can be a professional Imperator.
For those who don’t know the first thing about Imperius, permit me to set the scene.
As a noble house warring for control of the empire, there are six units preoccupying your thoughts. Ambassadors and Commanders curry influence, Assassins stalk Nobles as they attempt to score heaps of points, Royal Guards keep their squishier friends secure, and Elders… well, for now we’ll just say that Elders are weird. The one commonality between these six units is that they’re deployed to planets, where they scrap over strength and favor and, hopefully, enough points to reign supreme.
But, like a hidden kindjal edged with a bite of acid, Imperius is a game with two surprises up its sleeve. First, not every card is played face-up, so you’re always working with imperfect information. And second, because Rodiek doubled down on that whole “imperfect information” idea until the very concept of information had shattered into a thousand milky-white fragments, you often don’t even have possession of your own cards. Instead, every round begins with a draft, everybody’s tools shuffled together and distributed at random and claimed carefully, often leaving you with a hodgepodge of options — some yours, some belonging to rival houses.
Sounds capricious, doesn’t it? Like many of Rodiek’s designs, Imperius is defiantly chaotic and boasts a learning curve that resembles a wall. First-timers will likely experience one blunder after another, have their soldiery reduced to flaccidity, and ultimately achieve a glorious reign in exile beyond the perimeter of the Hundred Worlds, head still spinning from the shellacking they received.
And then, exactly like Leto Atreides permitting a sandtrout onto his appendages and taking his first steps along the Golden Path, something happens. Something so strange, so out-of-body, that only Frank Herbert’s wankish later books can express it.
I create a field without self or center, a field where even death becomes only analogy. I desire no results.
—Children of Dune
Sounds grand, Frank. In other words, Imperius clicks with the sudden intimacy of a spice-fueled orgy. Yes, Dune is weird. But in that moment, the swirling eddies of probability take shape and the game begins to unfold its strategy in glimpses: the cards you passed clockwise during the draft, the leftovers that are first deployed to each planet, what your rivals place in concealment or into the open, drawing attention or deflecting it. A thousand shards of glass that, when viewed in motion, scatter-shot, reveal the shape of what’s to come.
Back to my ten-point lead on Adam.
Ten points is plenty in Imperius; the game ends at twenty, after all. More than that, a single turn and the dance would be concluded. There were only two problems. First, my previous turn had been a whopper, with nearly all my best agents making an appearance on fortuitous ground. Unfortunately, because not every card appears every round, this meant that the remainder of last round’s deck would make up the first handful of cards for this round, while everything else got shuffled onto the bottom. My probability of having any agents at all couldn’t even be calculated by a mentat. Okay, it wasn’t that bad. Fifty-fifty, maybe. The point is, most of my agents probably wouldn’t appear.
The second problem was Jessica. She was only two points behind me. Worse, she’d been using her Commander to seed planets with control tokens, which award points at the end of the game rather than right away. As it stood, she’d leapfrog over me for the win.
Unless I did something about it.
From my perspective, the draft was all about hampering Jessica. I claimed one of her best cards, took an event that would reveal one of her hidden troops, and lucked into a Commander of my own. If the deployment went my way, I would slap down a control token alongside one of hers, thus robbing either of us of any chance of claiming that planet. Even better, I might be able to force a casualty upon her, along with the negative point that went along with it. Wheels within wheels within wheels were spinning, my plan perfect in every way.
Except for the tiny detail that there were other wheels a-turning. And they weren’t even in the same neighborhood as my little gears.
While I plotted — and succeeded in robbing Jessica of a heap of points — Adam was setting his own intrigues into motion. Within the same held breath, he claimed Titanos, the highest-value planet in the game, and amassed sufficient strength on Petralux to erase one of his casualties. Oh, and he assassinated a noble. All at once. Not that he’d held all those cards in his hand. During the draft he’d observed them with all the foresight of a Guild Navigator. He saw his Assassin and passed it on, certain that nobody was interested in the guy in last place. When sure enough his Assassin appeared on a planet, all he had to do was secretly deploy the enemy noble he’d been holding, as easy as marching Harkonnens into a Fremen ambush.
My success was my undoing. Because I’d surpassed twenty points, the game was over. But I’d taken casualties, while Adam had carefully shed responsibility for his own dead. And while I’d been nullifying Jessica’s points, Adam had snaked some of his own. He won. By two measly pips of star-influence. My house heir was lain atop a spice-boil, hallucinating in the heat of the day.
In an era when so many games quickly shed their appeal, Imperius does the opposite. From obtuse beginnings it gradually achieves true prescience, becoming more involved with each play. It fills your hand with hostile agents, obscures your tabletop with invisible cards and half-understood plots, and snickers when you fail — and yet, somehow, still provides enough clues to make sense of the chaos. To make choices. To succeed.
As I wrote in my preview, this one is anvil-light and feather-heavy. Bask in the contradiction.