Spacium: The Enspacening
Gary Dworetsky’s Imperium: The Contention just might be one of the most unfortunate titles ever to appear on my table. By which I mean its title is atrocious. First of all, there is now a moratorium on using “imperium” in any more game titles. Sorry. I declared it. No more imperia. Second, there has never in the history of contentions been a contention that deserved the definite article. And don’t tell me I need to read the fluff at the beginning of the rulebook to understand the meaning behind The Contention. It’s a space game. Space empires, space bugs, space mafia, space humans. Can we fast-forward through the exposition already?
Color me surprised, because Imperium: The Contention is entirely happy to fast-forward through not only the exposition, but also through the extra hours that distend most games about space empires. Pare away the fat, leave nothing but muscle and spiked appendages and laser cannons. If that were the only thing going for it, it might be enough. Instead, Imperium has become one of my favorite rapid-fire space games in a very short amount of time.
For the sake of everybody’s time, I’m going to assume you know the gist. There are a bunch of space empires trying to become the biggest space empire of them all. There’s something about a ritual war of ascension, a void scepter, a big contest called the contention — ohhhhh — but I think we can all agree that nothing here is going to blow any minds. Cool? Cool.
With that out of the way, we can talk about what makes this such a special game. And it is one hundred percent, absolutely, without a doubt how simple it is.
Here’s the deal. At the beginning, everybody has a homeworld equidistant from the imperial capital. Your task is to expand outward, exploring sectors for colonization and conquest, eventually brushing up against rival empires and atomizing them with powerful beams of weaponized light. There are two ways to win: either you gain enough renown that everybody is shamed into bending the knee, or else you colonize enough planets that the contest is hopeless and everybody falls in line.
On one level, Imperium feels like something you might have played years and years ago. Turns are wickedly straightforward. Income, cards from a deck, moving ships around, spending a once-per-turn action point to colonize a planet or extract additional resources. The entire game is played out on a grid of planet cards, tarot-sized, which around the midgame become entirely insufficient for fanning out your burgeoning fleets. The result is a cataclysm of information: cards stacked atop cards, cards splayed slightly to indicate fleet sizes, the carefully-laid grid of planet gone skewampus, even smaller token ship cards (or, in the deluxe edition, miniature plastic ships) adding even more noise to the signal. It’s the sort of game that someone new to games might glance at with all the timidity of sighting the sun. Ah, ha ha. Wow. That’s a lot. Not for me, thanks. For those actually playing the game, somewhere around its second turn the static resolves into an image. A heat map, almost. Threats over there; an unsecured border world here; an opportunity to burn a rival colony world for extra renown next door. It’s still an imperfect image, but that’s part of the charm. Can legibility be overrated? Imperium makes a strong case.
Perhaps its visual noise doesn’t matter because everything feels distinct. And I mean that. Every single thing on the map has its own distinct texture. Colony worlds might be barren planets or fortified rocks, shipyards for churning out units or factory planets that attract nearby carrion hunters. The ships, man, the ships, they’re textured like stucco or corduroy or sandstone. You can tell their function at a glance thanks to a robust but instinctive set of keywords. Here’s the ship that contributes strength to battles far away. Here’s the ship that’s a mobile spawn point. Another fleet might be immune to special actions, or deal suicide damage when destroyed, or damage every enemy unit in battle. Many of these are tried and tested effects, but that doesn’t mean they don’t pull their weight. In some cases, a power might carry various import depending on who’s facing it. An empire with one or two ultra-powerful ships isn’t too worried about being locked down by a tractor beam. The bugs? Yeah, they care. They care because their whole thing is spreading out, swarming, attacking four worlds a pop and not worrying if they’re defeated three times. Lock those cockroaches down and they squirm.
Again, I really can’t emphasize enough how simple the whole thing is. Despite the noise. Despite those many keywords. Its play is broken into discrete chunks for moving, manufacturing, sabotage, battle, and none of them are too heady. Diplomacy? Sure, but it’s all above-table. There are no formal rules, no special alliance cards, nothing like that. Which makes the game all the richer. It’s all about persuading everybody to see a target on somebody else’s back. There simply isn’t time for anything more complicated than that.
Or maybe what makes Imperium: The Contention so special is its duration.
How many space games let you play with five people in about an hour? This one. That’s pretty much it. Over the years, I’ve seen a dozen games try to compress the entire 4X experience into a slenderer frame. There are always concessions. Essential tidbits get stripped out.
The same is true here, but Dworetsky seems to have realized that some essential tidbits are more essential than others. Where most space empire games start slow, this one launches like a rocket. There’s one turn, maybe two, where you’re harvesting resources and passing on building. That’s it. By the second or third turn, you’re popping out starships and exploring the void. One turn after that, you’ll be having border tensions with your neighbors. One more and you’re probably in a hot war somewhere.
It helps that turns are lightning fast and that Imperium does scale without actually requiring a hundred moving pieces. At most, a big empire has five or six colonies. Maybe ten ships. A few techs or agents bestowing special powers. The occasional ability card dropped onto a rival. The arena is small, and it loses some of the building momentum that makes other space empire games into events of such epic proportions. But it also trims away so many spare minutes — hours, even — and does away with the downtime, and the fiddly battles, and so many other love handles that when burned off it turns out nobody really misses. Border tensions and diplomacy and posturing and big clashes aren’t the only good ingredients in space empire games. But in the thick of a crisis, with a rival fleet coming in hot and my toehold on the capital world slipping, I’m hard-pressed to remember what the missing good ingredients are.
Look. I get it. I love long games. And yes, Imperium: The Contention cools off some of that broil. More and more, though, designers are learning how to capture the same thrills in trimmer packages. So many of the things I look forward to in an epic space game have made the transition to this considerably less-epic space game. The exploration isn’t as involved, the border tensions aren’t as tense, and the tech tree, well, where’s the tech tree? Imperium offers a few tech cards and calls it good. But it works. There’s no need for four currencies. Here, the only currencies are manufacturing credits, and those cover everything tangible. Other than that, you’re digging into your deck and leveraging social cachet.
And in the event you don’t like what’s in your deck…
Maybe the best thing about Imperium: The Contention is the deck construction.
I mean that. The “maybe” part, because I haven’t done more than root through the extra cards to see what’s in there. But I appreciate Dworetsky’s approach. Imperium comes with six pre-built empires, each with its own ships and tactics and techs and agents. More importantly, each empire also has its own deficiencies. Expensive ships, or too few options for disrupting opponents, or a serious lack of manufacturing capability. That’s where the extra cards come in.
Every deck is thirty cards deep. That’s it. In theory, it’s possible to run through an entire deck in a single play, although I have yet to see that happen. More often, your deck operates as a possibility space for the shape your empire might take during play. If something didn’t work last time, you swap it out for something else. More cheap mercenary ships, perhaps? Less reliance on getting the proper engine running? More sabotage?
What I really appreciate, though, is that I don’t have to touch that stuff. Because as much as it tickles the nerd portion of my brain that it’s there, the portion of my life that featured hours of poring over individual cards to construct the perfect deck is long past. Oh, sure, maybe Dworetsky could have made one last modern concession to the way I like to play games. A card market, say. But honestly? Imperium: The Contention doesn’t need it. The starting decks are good enough. Or close enough that it’s a trivial proposition to swap in a card or two.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m gaga for this thing. This isn’t to say it’s a perfect game. It’s cluttered, and some of the rules are fuzzy, and the space empire archetypes are as tired as they ever were. And yes, it does lose some of the genre’s charm by being pruned so close to the trunk. On the whole, it’s very Kickstarter passion project.
But it also shows that the genre can be compressed without shaving off too much of its original headspace. It captures the highs and lows of managing a space empire thrust into crisis, of sighting a fleet bearing down on your position and whipping up a solution, of jockeying for position among the stars. Before playing Imperium: The Contention, I had no idea who this Gary Dworetsky fellow was, apart from being on the team designing Slay the Spire: The Board Game. Now that I’ve seen what he’s capable of, I can’t wait to see what else he has to show us.