Classical Legends, Legendary Classics
A few years back, I took part in an impromptu discussion on how a civilization game might model the will of the people. The issue arose thanks to a question that’s always nagged at me: while civilization games usually cast the player as a near-absolute sovereign, what happens when their subjects diverge from the sovereign’s directives? It isn’t uncommon for soldiers to grow sick of war, farmers weary of farming, pioneers with the treaties that mark where they’re permitted to settle. Revolution and reform are as inherent to civilization as technology or warfare. So why is it that they’re so often rounded down to negative modifiers?
Imperium: Classics and Imperium: Legends, twin titles designed by Nigel Buckle and Dávid Turczi and published by Osprey Games, have an answer.
Think of your average civilization game. There’s a big map, a technology tree, maybe a selection of units and structures to build in your home territory. There’s also a menu of options. Now, not every option is available right away. You can’t leap across the map until somebody invents flight, for instance. But thanks to the genre’s sandbox nature, pretty much everything that’s possible within the current era is available to you. Building armies. Marching them off to war. Focusing on technology or infrastructure. Harvesting resources. Sprinting toward a second settlement. If something can be done, you can do it pretty much whenever you decide to.
As a deck-builder, Imperium doesn’t provide the same latitude. On a purely mechanical level, you’re only able to do what your hand of cards permits. I’ll give an example. Last night I was playing as the Mauryans from the Legends box. One of my goals was to settle a territory every turn — and only one. This is because my natural bonus earned a victory point the first time I added a territory to my kingdom. Adding two territories meant I was skipping the point that might have been awarded by delaying the second territory until the next turn. Of course, this wasn’t always possible. Sometimes I drew a hand that wasn’t suitable for such a steady rate of expansion. Once I drew an entire hand of territories. Yikes. So I played three of them, because most turns let you play three cards and I didn’t want my turn to only be thirty percent effective. Later I didn’t have any territories left in my deck because my Indian Elephants cards hadn’t appeared in a while, so I hadn’t been conquering new territories from the market. The limitations of the deck-building mechanism were already shaking up the usual civilization formula. I may have been the absolute sovereign of my kingdom, but nobody would be praising me as all-powerful anytime soon.
If all Imperium did was map a civilization game onto a hybrid deck-builder and tableau-builder, that would be a neat trick. But Imperium doesn’t stop there. It also forces you to contend with tangible unrest. Not merely a debuff. Not just a bit less that you can’t earn when collecting resources. Not a frowny face token on a city you didn’t plan to activate anyway. Literal cards called Unrest that sometimes creep into your deck. Crud, my deck last night started with two of them. Unrest is drawn into your hand like any other card. Unlike any other card, it’s there to hog up space and wait to be discarded. If you spend one of your precious actions and a few resources, you can get rid of it permanently. Congratulations, you just made a concession to whichever class of peasants finally realized that a lifetime of farming tubers deserves some gratitude. If you draw a hand so clogged with them that you can’t do anything, you can hold a revolt and toss out all of them instead of taking a regular turn. These aren’t attractive options, but they’re necessary. Especially since every Unrest is worth negative points at the end of the game.
But more than acting as dead cards, Unrest sometimes presents an opportunity. Not all of the time. One of the draws of Imperium is that each box contains eight unique factions. Where one faction dispels discontent with ease, another might need to settle for the occasional revolt. Fortunately, the Mauryans excel at handling Unrest. So much so that I barely noticed the things, and certainly never went out of my way to avoid picking them up. This was thanks to an early Mauryan card, the Arthashastra. Once this thing was in my tableau, I could discard any number of Unrest cards. For each, I would then choose between drawing a replacement or earning a victory point. The Mauryans had elevated Unrest from a recurring problem to a font of culture.
Wait, you might be asking, isn’t this a deck-builder? If all your cards are, well, yours, where does the actual “building” come in?
That’s a good question. It’s also the source of Imperium’s most interesting decisions. The quick answer is that everybody is working from two sources of cards. One is shared between players and represents a generic pool of ideas, territories, and conquerable minor nations. The other is your own pool, packed with unique offerings that guide your kingdom down particular avenues. But the quick answer doesn’t quite capture what makes these pools so interesting, so let’s take a look at the longer response.
First, your own cards. Everybody begins with a kingdom card and their own starting deck. They also begin as “barbarians,” a term the rules go out of the way to disclaim as a handy shorthand rather than a statement of value. As a barbarian, you’re at the whims of a stack of cards called your nation deck. Whenever it’s time to shuffle your discard, you also add the top card from your nation deck into your pool. Sometimes these cards are useful. Other times you might have added a mandatory Unrest card. In the case of the Mauryans, the Arthashastra was one of these cards. So were my Indian Elephants.
Eventually, though, your nation deck will run dry. This doesn’t mean you’re finished developing. Instead, your people shed their barbarian ways and become an empire. Now shuffling your deck doesn’t add a random card. Rather, you’re allowed to purchase something from your development pile. These cards are expensive but powerful, leading your empire through the final steps of the game. Since you’re unlikely to buy more than a couple before the final tally arrives, it’s best to think of these as final opportunities. The Mauryans, for example, might traverse two contrasting paths. Adopting Buddhism makes it cheaper to get rid of all the Unrest cards you’ve accumulated through endless conquest. Ashoka, on the other hand, grants you a valuable glory card but removes all your attack cards to your history pile, effectively wiping them out of the game except for scoring; later, Ashoka’s Edicts can automatically remove any lingering Unrest. As the Mauryans, your final act demands a reckoning with all that Unrest you’ve been profiting from, whether through the placation of religion or by rewriting your legal code.
The shared marketplace is simpler but no less important. It’s divided into four pools, one each for territories, basic civilization cards, empire cards, and everything mixed together. It’s a process that requires some setup, although not quite as much as it may sound. The real drawback is sorting all those stacks when the game is finished. That aside, this granularity ensures that a wide range of options is available from the get-go. At any given time, you’re looking at a reasonably even mixture of early and late-game cards, plus a few desirable nuggets that everybody will hope to steal out from under each other. This extends to the way you acquire cards. There are two methods for gaining something from the market, acquisitions and breakthroughs. The only difference is that acquisitions also put an extra Unrest card into your hand, while breakthroughs are more expensive but represent more careful incorporation. Even more cleverly, all of these cards tie into the status of your nation. The highest-value cards, both in terms of their victory points and their effects, are only usable by empires. Which means you’re free to conquer them in the game’s early stages, but you’ll need to either garrison them temporarily in one of your territories or suffer that card’s appearance for a few hands until you can utilize it.
The result of these two card pools is a sort of tug-of-war for your nation’s soul. Your unique cards are always trying to draw you back onto the path; the cards in the marketplace exist to serve those ends or help you break past your faction’s historical limitations to pursue other avenues or shore up weaknesses. Not every civilization has equal access. Nor should they. The Vikings love to fill everybody else’s deck with Unrest. They also can’t grow into an empire. Other factions are determined to become empires as quickly as possible, even to the point of yielding an early lead to their opponents. The ongoing negotiation between one’s unique cards and the broader offerings in the marketplace puts Imperium on middle ground claimed by very few civilization games. You’re playing “What’s it like to be this civilization?” and “What if the Scythians had conquered the seas?” with the same breath.
Of course, this doesn’t always work perfectly. Imperium’s advantages are mighty, but its core systems introduce their own problems, even omissions. In the absence of a map, there’s no such thing as geography. Without geography, there are no borders or nearby resources to contest. Without borders, there are no wars, at least none that aren’t so deeply abstracted that they don’t resemble their subject matter. In most cases, attack cards force your opponents to recall a territory to their hands. Maybe you’ll steal a point or some bricks. Such assaults rarely deliver much sting, yet apart from the cards in the marketplace or the race for points, they’re pretty much the only point of interaction between nations. Imperium squeezes its kingdoms and empires into adjacent bottles, communicating through taps and gestures rather than through the trade of goods or blows.
It’s also abnormally persnickety, and not only because the rulebook is written in a clinical alien language that spells out the rules without wholly communicating them. Most factions evade any real trouble, but a handful are different enough that they seem to occupy another game entirely. The most pronounced of these are the mythological nations from Legends, the Arthurians, Atlanteans, and Utopians, which offer approaches outside the usual formula such as pursuing quests or gradually building an empire only to sink it beneath the waves. These have more novelty than function, and come across as especially divorced from the points-generating race everybody else is running.
By far the biggest problem, though, is the downtime. Between the shifting marketplace, small icons and lines of text, copious draw effects, and the possibility of having your tableau altered in between rounds, turns tend to be heavy on information and difficult to plan in advance. Civilization games have always been lengthy affairs, but this doesn’t pair well with the relative isolation between Imperium’s nations. Waiting a few minutes to see whether a rival will exploit another opponent’s weak frontier in order to leapfrog into your under-defended backside tends to pluck the nerves. Waiting those same minutes for three opponents to tinker with private tableaux and barely even glance your direction is an invitation to wander into the kitchen. Before you ask, the solitaire mode is adequate, and sees you controlling an automated nation by checking its card icons against a nation-specific rubric. Personally, I’ll stick to two players, thanks.
The reason I’ll be returning to Imperium despite these weaknesses comes down to the clarity of its vision. You could say that its thesis is the inverse of the usual formula. Where most civilization games are fatefully external, focusing on landscapes and resources and armies, Imperium retreats inward. There are territories to annex, but they’re appendages. Peoples to subjugate, but with an offhandedness that belies the usual red-lipped gusto of conquest. Instead, it strolls through history as a sequence of internal struggles, an examination of how particular ideas or innovations or figures were assimilated seamlessly or with great friction. I adore how its most significant threat is the possibility of floundering beneath a rising tide of Unrest, or simply failing to merge competing initiatives in the form of cards that don’t quite synergize. Put another way, most civilization games are extroverts, ready to get rowdy with their pals. Imperium would rather spend the afternoon reading and maybe doing some organizing.
I know, I know. Faint praise. But I don’t mean it that way. Imperium may be imperfect, but it’s also a bold experiment in translation, and one that manages to evoke the spirit of a dozen nations. In its own way, I think it captures something unspoken about the empires that persist and those that collapse, an introspection that has less to do with flashy wonders and outlashings of masculine energy and more to do with the steady integration of ideas and peoples and even turmoil. Ambulating through history with Imperium requires a pace of its own, but it’s a stroll I’m happy to repeat.
A complimentary copy was provided.