Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta’s Imperial Struggle is a challenging game. In two senses, really. As a successor to the famous Twilight Struggle, it has significant boots to fill. As a meditation on the colonization of the wide world for the sake of empire — well, that’s a taller order in 2020 than in 2005, for better and for worse. It’s the sort of game that might easily spark a hundred think-pieces.
For my part, those dual challenges, heritage and setting, are the clearest lenses for framing what Matthews and Gupta have accomplished.
In one sense, the setting of Imperial Struggle requires little introduction. One player commands Britain, the other France. Unlike its twentieth-century predecessor, the game’s map doesn’t represent the entire world, but major swaths are present: Europe, India, North America, the Caribbean. Enough to launch a timeless empire. For the next few centuries, anyway.
Here’s where our assumptions kick in. We’ve been playing games about colonizing far-off lands since at least Catan, and likely before. Before zombies or pirates or whatever this year’s zeitgeist, games were long dominated by that particular European glee for regarding the world as a charcuterie laid out for the taking. All these lands ready to absorb settlers and dispense natural resources, with natives duly erased and atrocities carefully bleached.
To the undiscerning eye, Imperial Struggle seems to commit those same sins, if only because the first few turns reveal it as eminently playable. This is no message game, oriented to make its players feel guilty for committing some ludic crime. Instead, it’s something one could envision being played in a tournament like its predecessor, a game meant to be mastered over a hundred plays, not begrudgingly but with enthusiasm and expectancy. Shouldn’t an act as dehumanizing as colonialism be dreary?
Let me propose another way of approaching it. Famously, Jason Matthews framed expectations of Twilight Struggle in his design notes, casting it as a deliberately flawed piece of historiography. There were two concessions, both intentional. The first was that Twilight Struggle needed to be playable first and foremost; that unless it succeeded as a game, it hadn’t succeeded at all. “We use the term ‘game’ advisedly,” he wrote. “Twilight Struggle does not reach beyond its means. Wherever there were compromises to make between realism and playability, we sided with playability. We want to evoke the feel of the Cold War, we hope people get a few insights they didn’t possess, but we have no pretensions that a game of this scope or length could pretend to be a simulation.”
The second concession was similar but more loaded. Rather than portraying history as “Just the facts, ma’am,” Gupta and Matthews elected to present the Cold War as its actors viewed it, Red Scare and Domino Theory and Containment — the whole sack of cats. Delving into a foreign paradigm, especially across decades or centuries, is an endeavor historians yearn to accomplish even while acknowledging that it isn’t fully possible, like learning a language filled with vocabulary no dictionary can define. Still, that imposing goal is shared by both Struggles: to visit a paradigm in a way that’s both approachable and carefully aligned with the biases of its time. In other words, to make a game that honors its history by narrowing its philosophical focus down to the same myopia that blinkered its statesmen. History through partiality, rather than independence from it.
Whether it succeeds is a much bigger question.
If Twilight Struggle is known for any one mechanism, it’s the game’s cards and their battery of decisions between playing them for actions or for their printed events — or both, if you’ve been unlucky enough to draw a handful of cards shaded your opponent’s color. Imperial Struggle also features events, but they’ve been submerged one or two layers down. In their place is an action selection system that revolves around picking investment tiles in alternation. This is tied to the action system itself. There are three currencies to deal with: economic for shifting market spaces toward your side, political for special spaces that lend support to wars or tiles for bonuses, and military for deploying fleets, seizing forts, and improving your army.
Even at its most basic, this system offers plenty of layers to explore. Each tile provides two currencies, one major and the other minor. It’s designed with balance in mind, jettisoning the possibility of Twilight Struggle’s crummy hands. Nor does it stop there; weaker tiles award upgrades to your army and windows for playing event cards, while stronger tiles are all about the actions they afford on the map. It’s also more measured, especially when you begin to consider what to deny your opponent as a round progresses. And because you can take on debt or spend treaty points for extra currency, there’s a lot you can accomplish very quickly. If that sounds a little too freewheeling, especially considering the sprawl of the map, fear not, Gupta and Matthews are careful to keep your aspirations in check. Each tile’s minor action can only be spent on one purchase, while major actions are best spent within a single theater unless you’re willing to pay extra.
And, of course, there are the events, without which Imperial Struggle would barely show its pedigree. These, however, are both looser and more conditional than those in Twilight Struggle. Looser, because they play with the history more freely. Every event can benefit either France or Britain, and many present separate outcomes depending on which side you’re playing, much like in the COIN Series. The rub is that they’re also highly conditional. Not only do you need an investment tile that permits an event (and shows the same major currency as the card you’re playing), but your events also grow more powerful if you meet particular conditions. Want to make an alliance with the natives? Make sure to pick the “Mercantilism” keyword on one of your ministry cards at the start of the round. Hope to charge interest on your opponent’s loans? Ensure you have less debt than them first. As a consequence, events are rarer but more impactful, providing surprising swings at unexpected moments — but only if you can actually trigger them.
In much the same way that the actions happening above the map are multilayered, so too are the undertakings of the empires upon its surface. At its most basic level, the map depicts interconnected spaces, each tied to its own form of currency. Their position matters, both allowing access to other spaces and sometimes offering protection or allowing daisy-chains of multiple conquests within a single turn. They also matter in the more abstract sense, as factories for generating points. But in order to understand how that works, we first need to talk about war and peace.
Think of Imperial Struggle’s structure like this: most of the time, you’re at peace. But when you’re at peace, you’re preparing for war. Then the war arrives, and it’s all about gaining position in the ensuing peace. Back and forth it reverberates, peace and then war and then peace and then war, always marching through the same tragedies, far more inevitable than Twilight Struggle’s game-halting nuclear holocaust. Each peace turn awards points for control of theaters and for cornering markets for desirable goods; serviceable, and worthy of an entire essay of their own, but highly abstract. Wars are more concrete. They award points as well, plus territory gained from the defeated party. Most crucially, both war and peace exist to sustain the other.
This is one of the spots where Imperial Struggle reveals the paradigm of its actors — and the rotten breath behind the lofty words they uttered to justify their endeavors. At times the game settles into a rhythm reminiscent of the past few decades of eurogame design. On one turn it might be sugar, tobacco, and furs that the folks in Europe are craving, so you play economic actions to plant your flag on markets in North America and the Caribbean, spend to “unflag” spaces controlled by your rival, and use military actions to deploy fleets and forts to make it harder to unseat your own gains. On the next peace turn maybe it’ll be spice and cotton, taking you to India instead. Regardless of what’s all the rage back home, you’re effectively playing the same game of colonization you’ve played a dozen times before.
Although only for the moment! Because war lingers in the back of your mind, always present, always demanding investments and forts and political alliances. Certain spaces are marked with little pips. These communicate which war they add their strength to, one more consideration among many. Wars themselves are brisk but forgettable only at your own risk, more about preparations than the moment when your army tokens are flipped face-up and your relative strengths are compared. The longest portion of any war is when you decide what to claim as spoils. That’s the grim apparatus again, feeding back into itself as it prepares for yet another round of horrific peace.
“Horrific” describes Imperial Struggle’s peacetimes as well as its clashes of steel and gunpowder, although these are viewed at the same sky-high remove that marked its predecessor. A few commentators have noted certain absences in the game’s design, whether slavery or indigenous mistreatment or other atrocities. Not so. These are present and accounted for. In fact, they’re present alongside entire ranks of atrocities, so many that they begin to blur together, seemingly omitted because they’re enshrined in their proper pantheon of crimes against mankind. The Atlantic Slave Trade is a tile that discounts half of the cost of a naval squadron. This may seem minute on its own. When measured against its brethren, it’s one horror among many. There are also cornered markets that will cause mass starvation, letters of legalized theft, Indians and not-Indians whipped into a frenzy for promises that will surely not be kept, settlers turned against their masters for advantage in a game of kings, intrigues subtle and bloody. And that’s before the event cards have been given their say, encouraging a famine in Ireland to weaken the Jacobites, manipulating slave uprisings, spilling conflict markers onto the map that represent fresh hells of their own. You will undertake genocide or other repressions a half-dozen times in a single round, pillaging the globe so thoroughly that official outbreaks of war mark the few instances when Europeans kill each other in earnest rather than grinding everybody else underfoot.
Again, this is deliberate. So too is the vantage from which you view such events, snug in your cabinet offices while others do the red work of forging an empire. If you refuse to look too closely at what transpires elsewhere, well, so did others, in their time. In our time, too.
Meanwhile, Imperial Struggle’s loop between peace and war are the framework, and it’s a sturdy one, allowing contests that grow deeper and more interesting with familiarity. Surefire strategies may be developed in time, as they were with its predecessor. For now, however, there is so much to plumb that it’s easy to understand the call of the undiscovered horizon, the easy plunder, the righteous struggle, and never mind the double-edged bite of each of those phrases. Does Imperial Struggle capture the paradigm of its people? In fragment, yes. Properly seizing a market, preparing for war, deploying ships at precisely the right place — these are genuine thrills. All the better that they serve the long-term goal of defeating a foe who would undoubtedly crush you if you ever faltered. When those are the stakes, or at least your perception of them, any number of atrocities can be swallowed.
Should a game about such ragged history be a delight to engage with? No less than the pleasure of studying history, I wager. Anyway, one’s stomach for such things is variable. My own stomach is ironclad in this regard, and it’s to Gupta and Matthews’ credit that they view their topic from a wide angle without shying away from its ugliness.
If anything, Imperial Struggle very nearly functions as a proof for why colonialism is the topic de jure of the European school of game design. There’s a parallel to be drawn between the steady tick of victory points and the gradual theft of labor, resources, and land undertaken by the game’s empires, an abstraction that acknowledges the fruit of labor while laughingly discarding the laborers who planted and picked that fruit in the first place. Imperial Struggle holds its gaze. Here is a game that’s a joy to play, with a colonial setting, that refuses to flinch at that setting’s abuses or paper over its stains. Others may do so better in the future. For now, Imperial Struggle demonstrates that colonial games with European protagonists can face of the twin challenges of being exemplars of their craft without recusing themselves from the darker aspects of their history.
A complimentary copy was provided.