Since a large slice of our 51st State review deals with comparisons to Imperial Settlers, we decided to bring an older review home to roost (RIP egmr) in CBQ where it’ll be fed well and taken for walks. It’s reproduced exactly as it first appeared here.
There is a man smiling on the box art of Imperial Settlers. He has a red tunic, a smile and a jolly moustache. He’s carrying a spade over his shoulder, no doubt to plant an apple tree. And he’s walking his dog. The dog is also smiling. The village in the distance behind them appears quaint and inviting. But there’s a darker truth that lurks beneath the jolly little smiling man’s moustache. This isn’t a scene from that animated version of Heidi you saw as a kid that fills you with warm nostalgia when you think about it. Oh no, this is Old Yeller, and you are the dog. And the man in red is leading you to the other side of the meadow, and the spade has a singular purpose – to dig your grave.
But you don’t know this yet, so while you’re still bounding across the meadow, happy to be alive, let’s start by talking about that artwork. It’s genuinely delightful, almost like a charming cartoon version of your old Playmobil sets. Little Barbarians hiding behind trees, cute Romans Legionnaires marching forth, adorable Egyptians huddled around the Sphinx and cheery Japanese surrounded by pink blossoms. These are the four basic Factions that come with the base game, each with their own deck of winsomely illustrated cards, and then an additional deck of Common cards which are buildings and locations available to all four factions. The goal? To build your own little empire, generating resources to fuel your own little engine to aid your chosen faction to the most victory points, and with it global domination! Well, localised domination anyway.
Aside from the decks, there are tokens that represent the various resources, a score board and double-sided player faction boards that provide a choice of gender. It certainly appears to be a compact game, but be warned – empires start sprawling across the table fairly quickly. The only criticism I have with the components is the size of the text on the cards – it’s far too small and though it hasn’t proved a major issue in the multiple games I’ve had, prepare for eye strain. Otherwise, the components are all top notch, the iconography is clear and the rulebook is concise and well-written. Though I will say you must be thorough in your reading of it, as certain critical rules popped up in illogical spots. But one of Imperial Settlers’ strengths is that once you know how to play, you’ll more than likely never reach for the rulebook again.
Setup is simple: after choosing a faction each player takes their Faction deck and player board, tokens are grouped where everyone can reach and the scoreboard is setup with the round counter on Round 1. Each player then draws two cards from their faction deck and two cards from the common deck. Each round consists of three phases: draw cards, produce resources and perform actions – a typical round will play out like this:
Lookout Phase – each player draws a card from their Faction deck, and then the first player will draw cards equal to the number of players plus one from the Common deck and place them face up where everyone can see. The first player will select one card into his hand, and then the second player and so forth, with the unselected card being discarded. Then the last player will draw the same number of cards, and selection occurs in reverse order.
Production Phase – each player’s faction board allows them to draw certain resources from the pool, only the different factions produce different goods. Any locations that have been built that produce goods will do so during this phase, as will any Deals made (which we’ll come to in a bit).
Action Phase – each player, in clockwise order, will perform one action. Multiple actions will occur during the course of a round, but always in consecutive player order. Actions can be played until all players have passed. What are the available actions?
- Build a location from your hand. Simply pay the resources listed in the top left corner, and place the location adjacent to your board – on the left if it’s a Faction card, on the right if it’s a Common. There are three types of locations: Production, Feature or Action. Production locations provide resources immediately upon building, and then resources ongoing in each Production phase. Feature locations provide a once off bonus on being built, and Action locations each have an ability that can be activated.
- Make a Deal. Pay one food token, and place the card in the Deal section of your player board. You receive the resource listed immediately, and ongoing in the Production phase.
- Raze a location. Pay one raze token to raze a card from your hand provided that card has a raze resource listed in the top right corner. Discard the card and collect the resource(s) listed. Alternatively, pay two raze tokens to raze an opponent’s location. Receive the resources listed, and your opponent flips the location face down and takes one wood token from the resource pool. Note that aside from the Japanese, only Common cards can be razed.
- Activate an Action location. Action locations have an ability that costs a certain number of resources. For example, you could pay one wood token to take one gold token (gold is a wildcard of sorts that can be used as wood, stone or food), or pay two worker tokens for a victory point. These locations can only be activated once, unless stated otherwise.
- Defend. As a free action, players can place one Defence token onto a location, which increases the Raze cost by one.
- Lastly, you can spend two workers token to take a stone/wood/food token, or to draw a card from either deck.
photo by bgg user Tycjan
Players will generally pass once they cannot perform any further legal actions. Any tokens that have not been used are placed back in the resource pool, except that each Faction can store an unlimited number of a particular resource type. So the Egyptians for example can store gold – any gold not used during the course of a round can therefore be stored and used in the next round. The game consists of five rounds, and after the last round players total any victory points listed on their locations (common locations are worth one point, faction locations worth two) in addition to those earned during the game. Highest points value win with ties being split by number of resources remaining.
The key to victory is in generating resources as quickly as possible, finding synergies in-between your Faction cards and Common cards, and knowing which of your cards multiple uses should be effected and when. It certainly helps to know what your particular faction are more suited toward, but you can never be sure which cards you’ll be drawing, and so implementing a strategy early on is no easy undertaking. You’ll be surprised at how quickly round five arrives, and in every game I’ve played thus far, I’m always left lamenting the lack of just one last round. But this is precisely how it should be – the stakes would only be lowered by the addition of another round. An important note on resources – Imperial Settlers is not a generous game. It’s the equivalent of a ravenous Sunday late evening hunger being greeted by a fridge with only one egg and a piece of cheese of questionable origin. Every decision carries a tremendous weight of consequence, which does mean that a string of only a few poor decisions will very quickly doom your civilisation to failure.
What’s not to like? Razing opponent locations is the type of mechanic that only works with a certain group of players. If you want full control of your destiny, there is little as infuriating as having spent three rounds building what you were hoping would be a victory point engine, only to have an opponent burn that little engine that could to the ground. Personally, I find this mechanic to be indispensable to the game. Not only does it provide valuable alternatives to generating resources without having to discard potentially powerful locations, but it also provides a means of balancing for a runaway leader. It’s very clear at a quick glance which player is likely to win, and said player can find themselves at war with their neighbours easily. This would seem to indicate that in games of three or more, players could gang up against the leader, but in reality this is unlikely to happen due to the high value proposition of every decision. In any event, the game has a variant that prevents players from attacking each other, so if you or your group prefer to play without tempers flaring, you can certainly do so.
Drawing cards from a deck always provides an element of randomness, but does this mean that it’s possible to play a game where every card draw goes against your strategy? I did experience one game in which I couldn’t draw a location with a Feature ability for the life of me, and I did end up losing that game. Was it my fault for not adapting my strategy quickly enough and for not using resources to draw cards more frequently? Or was it an indication of a flaw in the game’s balancing? I’m inclined to say the former, but I haven’t played enough to say that with any certainty.
And speaking of balance, are the different factions on an equal playing field? This is also a difficult question to answer without at least a dozen plays. The Roman and Barbarian factions are the two more basic factions in that they don’t have additional rules, but they’re also decks that adapt faster and provide a wider variety of ways in which to acquire resources. Played well I don’t see them at this stage as being inferior. The Egyptians have a few cards that use a special token, and these locations are incredibly powerful. But they’re also less likely to be drawn. The Japanese can use workers as Samurai which provides an additional level of protection against razing, but they’re also the only faction whose Faction locations can be razed. Lastly, later turns do increase in length as you produce more and more resources, and depending on how early you pass in a round, you can be left sitting for quite some time as you wait for the rest of the players to finish their actions.
What’s to love? Imperial Settlers provides the Civilisation game experience with half the rules and half the playing time of most Civ-styled games. The asymmetrical factions provide a ton of replayability and a variety of strategies with which to approach winning the game. It scales very well, and there’s even a solo variant if you’re so inclined. Figuring out new and interesting ways in which faction cards can combine with common cards is highly satisfying, and as you’re all probably sick of hearing by now, I adore games that allow cards to be utilised in a number of different ways. There’s already an expansion out for the game entitled Why Can’t We Be Friends that ensures player interaction is no longer just of the confrontational variety, and a second expansion Atlanteans will be available soon, which introduces another unique faction with a completely original playstyle. It’s fair to assume that expansions will continue to be released at decent intervals, which means the game should keep its value in your collection for years to come.
Imperial Settlers was designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek and is published by Portal games for one to four players, with a play time of around 30 minutes per player. Deceptively deep and treacherously two-faced, it’s a design devoid of excess and as tight as the strings on Roger Federer’s racket. Easy to pick up but difficult to master, it also receives the thumbs up from Mrs Boardly Speaking. At least, I assume the way in which she gleefully cackled after hammering me in our last game is indicative of a thumbs up. Come to think of it, I think she and the jolly man in red might be kindred spirits.