Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way first. Imperial Settlers is a beautiful game. It is replete with the most adorable art, and the most invitingly charming aesthetic. Don’t be fooled though. Despite its appearance, Imperial Settlers is a game that has all the whimsical levity of a Glasgow pub fight. This is not a game for the faint-hearted.
I know, I know – that’s not possible. Look at it – it’s so welcoming. Look how happy the man on the cover is, with his happy little spade and his cheerful beer belly. Look at the dog!
It’s a good dog, Bront. It’s a 13/10 doggo. And look at the town in which they live!
I want to go to there. But look a bit closer. See all the little peeps with their arms folded behind their back? That’s because they’re hiding knives. This is the Hunger Games, and you’ve been selected to represent your district.
Look, I need you to trust me here. Everything I show you is going to argue against the text of this review. Every single image will be impossibly cute. The art is so dramatically at odds with the aggression of the rule-set that it’s almost as if two boxes were mixed up. Somewhere out there is a family game for children where the cover art will give you nightmares. So just trust me, okay?
Imperial Settlers is a card drafting, civilization management game built on the idea of mutually assured destruction. You pick a civilization, grab their faction deck, and then spend the rest of the game watching the eyes of your opponents to see when they plan to betray you.
Your faction decks contain special buildings unique to you. A shared common deck contains locations available to everyone. You go through the setup process, drafting your cards from the shared supply, and then enter head-first into the most ruthless engine building game we’ve seen so far. Imperial Settlers is a game that has zero tolerance for inefficiency, and it will force that same mind-set upon you. You don’t win at Imperial Settlers, not really. You just survive.
One of the most remarkable things about Imperial Settlers is how beautifully it’s balanced – it’s a game where faction choice and faction deck creates a powerful asymmetry to gameplay, and yet no faction is notably better than the others. The Romans and the Barbarians are both relatively straightforward, but the way in which their different faction abilities interface with their civilization base resources creates a meaningfully different experience. The Egyptians and the Japanese are more complicated to play right, but offer rich rewards to those that master them. And yet, any faction can reasonably beat any other faction, if you know what you are doing.
Faction richness is supplemented by the common deck. This contains the more ‘basic’ buildings that will let you ramp up your engine to make use of the more powerful faction unique locations. For those playing the pleasingly robust solo game, there are also some ‘attack’ cards that create what is effectively a dummy player against which you are competing.
Mostly what cards give you are access to resources, and you’ll spend those resources to build more cards. Some of those cards will be features, buffing up your empire. Others will make available actions that allow you to convert one resource into something else. This isn’t necessarily an alchemical transmutation – sometimes what they let you do is turn raw resources into refined aggression. You take a piece of wood, and you fashion it into a club.
You still don’t believe me. I can tell it from your eyes. So let’s look at your battleground. You’re fighting in part over your ability to build the best empire, but also for victory points, which get tracked on the scoreboard:
There are only five rounds in the game, and every single one of them needs you to play at least as perfectly as your opponent. A misstep will be critical – don’t trip, or you’ll be like a horse in the Grand National. All that’s left will be to put you out of your misery. Every round, you pick up the resources your civilization produces. You gather them all up, and then you take turns to perform an action – spending resources, or buying and building locations. That little pool of food, stone, wood, people and raze tokens will be the budget you are desperately trying to sustain in the light of…
Oh yes, raze tokens. Didn’t I mention those? How silly of me. Yes, raze tokens. Tokens that are purely about destruction. Sometimes it’s self-inflicted. Other-times it’s aimed at your opponents. Raze tokens represent the spanners you’re going to attempt to throw into the works of everyone else around the table. And you get those spanners every single round.
We pick our faction, and that determines the resources we get at the start of each round. It also tells us which resource is bankable for us. Barbarians can bank people. Egyptians can bank gold (a wild resource). Japanese can bank food. And the Romans can bank raze tokens. Anything you have left at the end of the round, except for what’s in the bank, is gone.
Once you’ve got your starting cards, the game begins. Each round has four phases:
- Lookout, in which players acquire some new cards via a draft.
- Production, in which you get the resources your empire produces.
- Action, in which you take it in turns to perform actions, until everyone decides they’re done.
- Cleanup, in which you get rid of every resource you haven’t banked.
At the beginning of play, you’ll have seven cards – three will be faction cards, and four will be common cards.
To leverage these cards, you also begin with a tiny dribble of resources.
And to ease the job, you also have access to a base action you can use to turn some of your population into something more useful. Like Soylent Green.
You can only perform one action a time, although as many as you like within any given round. So, we might look at our five people, our raze token, and our defence token (we’ll get to that) and think ‘Well, we can’t build anything, right?’
What we need is infrastructure, and look here – a quarry seems like just the thing. It has however a punishingly unaffordable cost in the top left, taunting us. Why you got to be like that, cost?
We can’t afford the quarry – it needs stone and wood, and we have neither. But we have workers. The Barbarians are very worker heavy, which gives them a certain flexibility – we can trade two workers for any of wood, stone, food, or the draw of a card. That’s an action every faction shares. So, we spend two of our five…
In exchange for stone.
Then we spend two workers to get wood. You Hur hur hur. You can do this in a single turn, grouping together terrified workers into pairs and hurling them into their uncertain fate of resource grinder (something I didn’t realise until Fulminata in the comments kindly noted it). Now we have the resources we need to build a quarry when our turn comes around again. When it does, we spend those resources…
And then here’s where the genius of Imperial Settlers comes in – we instantly get the goods the card we just placed would produce. The quarry has a production of one stone – when we place it, and every subsequent round, we get that stone added to our resources. The building bonus is a thing we get when we place it and never again. In exchange for wood and stone, we just got two stone back.
This is what efficiency looks like in Imperial Settlers – trying to avoid too much leakage of resources as you ramp up your empire. Each card you build has to be weighed against its value – that quarry built in turn one is worth six stone over the course of the game. The quarry built in turn five is worth two. You need to take the long view, although you can’t neglect the short term. The effect of a quarry, as well as its production, is to turn wood into stone and that by itself may be critical.
When our turn comes around again, we realise that we’re still resource poor. So we consider more drastic measures…
We can’t build the brewer, but in the top right it has a ‘Raze to Claim’. We can spend our raze token to discard this card and gain the resources it lists. A wood and a food seems pretty good right about now, so that’s what we do.
The important thing is that while we’re doing this, so is everyone else. Everyone’s empire is growing here, and while it’s rarely important in turn one, it’s going to become incredibly important in turn two and beyond. That raze token we spent there can be turned against our opponents – we can use it to raze a card in our hand, or we can use it to raze a card in their civilization. Holy shit!
Imagine – we just built a quarry. It’s worth a cool six stone to us, and that’s going to be important. But imagine someone comes along and says ‘Nah, I’m going to raze it – I want the two stone it produces’. It costs them two tokens to do it, but they can. The absolute bastards can do it. Our defence token can be spent on a card to increase the raze cost by one, but if someone decides one of our buildings should go, there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
Where’s your whimsy now, Imperial Settlers? Oh, that’s right – YOU NEVER HAD ANY.
We can make use of the wood we got from razing our brewer to plant a ‘Primeval Forest’ – this is one of our faction buildings. Note it doesn’t have any ‘raze to claim’ information – faction buildings are immune from that. Unless you’re the Japanese, but they have other qualities to admire.
Now we’ve turned one wood into two wood! Like Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, you rub two gold coins together to make a third. Clever (and lucky) building actually generates resources, which we can leverage to accomplish great things, such as using our new found wood to build an armorer…
That gets us another raze token. And we can use that to raze another building in our hand.
This kind of system though is especially good at one thing – using up cards. Your resources are only as good as your ability to use them. Being able to replenish cards from your hand is incredibly important, because the more cards you have available the more intricate your engine can be. You need to be constantly weighing up whether to build something for its long term advantages, or razing it for its short term benefits. The watchtower, when razed, gives two new card draws. To build it would do the same, but that costs two wood and as such may not be an option. On the other hand, if you could build that in turn one it would be worth seven cards over the long term. Still, sometimes the prudent path is just not possible to follow .
You keep on going until you decide you’re done – the engine keeps on chugging, and if you ratchet it in exactly the right way it’ll give you more out than you put in. You build one more thing…
So much effort has gone into the aesthetic design here – look at the way the colour palettes and art choices reinforce layout. Why is the action on the bottom? That’s where its road connects! Why is it on the right? That’s where common cards go. How do we know that? Because the right hand side of the faction strip is a rich green, just like the card. See how the faction card merges with the muddy yellow of the left hand side. It’s all so nicely designed.
Being left with a single unit of food, we do the only sensible thing – spend it on making a deal. Every faction building along the bottom has a deal, which becomes a good it can produce. We spend one food, and then this is added to the resources we get at the start of each turn.
You didn’t see what that card would have let us do if we built it. It would let us spend one person to take a resource from an enemy. Yes – it’s not just in the raze mechanic that we find Imperial Settler’s mean-spirit. Many of the actions you can undertake have a certain violent malevolence too. Building that would have let us ramp up our empire while disadvantaging our opponent. We can’t afford it though, so instead it becomes a gold piece we get every turn. These are the decisions we take in Imperial Settlers – none of them are especially easy.
With that, we’re left with only a defence token, a gold piece, and a person. We can bank the person, and the defence and gold tokens will be replenished at the start of the next turn. When we can’t build any more, we say ‘pass’ and once everyone has done that the round is over. Clean-up removes all the resources we have left over, and we go through the next round.
Except if we’ve played the game well, we’ll start from a much stronger position…
Round one tends to result in players focusing on their own empire. It takes a minimum of two raze tokens to destroy an enemy’s building, and you usually won’t have that. If you’re playing the Romans though…
And get a +1 raze token building…
There’s nothing to stop you looking at your enemy’s engine and deciding ‘Time to be a bad guy!’. You throw your spanner in there, and if you pick your target well their entire apparatus might be torn down along with it.
Razing a location turns it into a foundation, and the player that is attacked gets a piece of wood as a consolation prize. ‘Hey buddy, here’s the rubble from that building your once had!’. Many faction buildings require you to sacrifice a common location before you can build them – foundations can fill that role, even if they don’t do anything else other than take up space.
As time goes by, you’ll find your empire growing.
Until you reach the last phase of the last turn, at which point victory points are counted and a winner is declared. Victory points are earned for each building you’ve got at the end (the ones still standing, anyway) and as a result of actions undertaken during play. In the usual style, the player with the most victory points at the end is the winner.
It really is a great game – a thoroughly enjoyable game that rewards genuine mastery and ruthlessly punishes mistakes It’s a game though that asks a lot of its players.
I’ve talked much about the aggressiveness of the game, but aside from the raze tokens and the occasional action it may not seem obvious as to why this might be. See, the thing about Imperial Settlers is that it a game that is only about engine building, and it needs players to understand their engine the same way a racing diver might. Acceleration is vital – you can’t have a bad round in Imperial Settlers and expect to be competitive. It just doesn’t work like that. The player that consistently makes the best use of their resources is going to win. Sure, there’s a luck element but it is much smaller than it is in many games like this. This is an inherently skilful game.
But it’s not just acceleration that’s important – it’s also vital to know when to switch gears. At the start you should be emphasising production. At the end you should be emphasising victory points. The exact point at which you should switch from one to the other is highly contextual and will evolve on the basis of ever adjusting ratios of investment. Like driving a car, you need to listen to the engine and obey its commands. If you switch gears too early, you’ll find yourself losing momentum. Your resources are the fuel you throw into the engine. If you end a round with a surplus like this…
It’s not just sub-optimal, it’s a mistake. Every single resource you don’t consume in a round is fuel your engine couldn’t use. You shouldn’t have been producing it – you wasted earlier resources to get that fuel, and now look – your car is on fire and there’s no way out. Everything you clear away at the clean-up is a testament to your incompetence. If you don’t have enough cards on which to spend your resources, that’s a mistake. If you have too few resources, that’s a mistake. If you don’t have ways to turn resources into victory points, that’s a mistake. You can cause problems with careless play very easily, and you only have yourself to blame. Well, sort of. You can also blame the absolute bastards that keep razing key elements of your infrastructure on a round by round basis.
It’s true that you can’t win the game if your engine breaks down, but it’s only true if all the other engines are puttering away with perfect efficiency. Your engine doesn’t have to be objectively good, it just has to be better than what everyone else has. And here’s where the viciousness comes in – that’s true of every engine around the table, and every single round the game gives you a bag of spanners and says ‘Go nuts!’. And then it layers a whole pile of special faction cards around getting more spanners. The Romans have a card that lets them turn a worker into a raze token, and another that lets you spend two workers to just remove an enemy building (including otherwise invulnerable faction buildings). The Egyptians can steal actions from other players, and reduce the cost of hostile raze actions down to one. The barbarians can just reach in and take a resource from another player, and can gain extra victory points from razing. The Japanese can invalidate enemy deals, or draw an enemy’s faction card and make deals from them. Every faction has a way to add new spanners to their toolkit. You don’t have to use them, it’s true. The expectation though is that you will. Even the supposed peaceful variant in the rules only removes the ability to raze buildings, and permits everything else.
This aggression though is why it’s such a skilful game – you can’t get by with knowing your own faction in and out. You need to know how every other faction around the table works, and how their engines ramp up. If you’re going to throw one of your limited spanners into the works, you’d best do it when it’s going to cause an actual problem. It’s a game for gear-heads in other words – those willing to learn the intricacies of each faction. The difference between a good player and a bad player is marked – on the order of dozens and dozens of victory points. You will be rewarded if you want to invest the time and energy in exploring the richness this game has to offer. Imperial Settlers is thoroughly recommended, if and only if you have the stomach for it.
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