My first dabble into tabletop gaming was in 6th grade when I stumbled upon a deck of cards laying on the front counter of a KB Toy store while my mom was Christmas shopping for my brothers. It was an oddity. What was a deck of cards doing in a toy store? Magic: The Gathering? Was it a deck of card tricks? I'd never heard of it. I didn't have any friends that played it so I don't know what compelled me to spend my $10, twelve year old fortune on that deck, but I did. Aside from the actual cards, the box contained a small pamphlet explaining how to play. And thus began my rocky relationship with games that have simple rules but cards that complicate them.
This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier in the month. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thoughts video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.
Magic: The Gathering might seem an odd place to start a discussion of Imperial Settlers. They are incredibly different games, but they share a common principle. A basic explanation of the rules, while enough to play, is just the beginning to understanding either game. Sure, the rulebooks will explain how to play these games, but these games come alive though the cards. Individual cards have the potential to introduce new rules or break fundamental ones. They may fit archetypes defined by the rulebook, but it's the text and icons on the cards that truly dictate how the game is played.
Death by 1000 Paper Cuts
I don't know whether or not Magic: The Gathering was the first game to introduce the concept of game altering cards, but it was the first one I played. I still enjoy playing Magic, though I rarely play any more. What it showed me more than anything else, is that a game like this can be done well. At it's best, games of this ilk are exciting and engrossing. Every card play is anticipated and can shape the landscape of the game state. Players are always on their toes as their grasp on the lead is challenged with every drop of a card. Your hand is becomes a varied arsenal and choosing the wrong weapon for the occasion can mean very bad things. Choose wisely, however, and the feeling of reading your opponent and the landscape of game state correctly leads to a satisfaction like no other.
Done poorly and games like these can become exercises in book keeping and cross referencing. Every card play becomes a scavenger hunt for other cards already in the field for conditional triggers. Valuable mental space is dedicated to simply making sure that the rules of the cards are being followed rather than planning your winning strategy. All momentum is sucked away by a vortex of tedium as every card played introduces yet another rule to remember and sets of a cascading series of events that further compound the problem. In other words, you get something like Sentinels of the Multiverse. I kid, I kid. Sort of.
It's a fine line to tread and one that Imperial Settlers narrowly manages to walk. Imperial Settlers smartly decides to start small in scope. So small, in fact, that after the first round first time players will often question how much they will be able to accomplish over the course of the game. Imperial Settlers slowly unfolds over the course of its five rounds. The meager first round tableau of cards that make up your village slowly evolves into a table space-destroying mega civilization. Not only does this feed directly into my love of games that allow you to appreciate your growth over the course of its play time, it serves to minimize the constant referencing that game like this can often fall victim to. Since the amount of cards in play never gets too large until late in the game, the potential for such folly is avoided though it does veer close to the line at game end. It's blunt instrument to solving the "fiddly problem," but it works.
A Faction for All Seasons
So if games get so often bogged down in the minutiae that game altering cards introduce, why do they so often try to employ them? Empowerment. Plain and simple. Being able to literally mold the rules to your liking with a simple play of a card is empowering. Games, since childhood, were always about learning and following the rules. Imperial Settlers is about finding any way to bend and make the rules work in your favor in a way that will lead you to victory.
Additionally, Imperial Settlers utilizes its rules busting cards to differentiate each player faction from one another. The Romans' goals and turn to turn plays will look radically different from the Japanese player's, assuming both players are competent. The beauty of the design is that factions' playstyles are never explicitly defined. The cards themselves inform the player that the Romans should be building as many Roman buildings as possible, that making deals is a good idea of you're the Japanese and that the Barbarians are a walking mass of pestilence.
The Roll of a Die, The Flip of a Card
Randomness in a card game is inevitable. It's to be expected. I can be done well, but it can also be done poorly. Having victory or defeat defined by sheer luck of the draw is neither satisfying nor exciting. Just the right amount of luck and satisfaction can be achieved by playing the odds and excitement is formed by overcoming them. My first few plays of Imperial Settlers was leading me to believe that it fell victim to luck of the draw. Games in which I won by 40 points were followed by games in which I lost by 40 points. Victory was seemingly defined by the player who just happened to draw the best cards. And then something strange happened. I got better.
I caught onto the fact that there were many ways to draw cards in addition to the ones gained during the Lookout Phase and I pounced on it. Watchtowers were coveted above all else. An early deal that lead to more drawn cards was music to my ears. I looked for every way possible to draw cards and I started winning. I started winning big. I don't mean to brag. I only mean to highlight the fact there the luck of the draw can be overcome. By drawing more and more cards, you can take luck by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. So instead of hoping for a specific card for the entire game, you can focus on the fistful of cards you have in your hand. The game shifts from wishful thinking to tactical execution. The moment I realized this is the moment I fell in love with Imperial Settlers.
The playing field became my playground, my ever growing hand of cards my toys. Every time my turn came around I could execute the plan I had been hatching on my opponents' turns. I was able to see the hooks hidden within the buildings that called out to be paired with just the right card in my hand. My stone churning empire became perfect fuel for my pair of Sculptor's Workshops. I was seeing into the matrix and it was glorious.
Imperial Settlers managed to crawl out from under the foul first impressions that I had of it and serves as a perfect example as to why I've taken a long term approach to reviewing games here on the Bottom Shelf. Ordinarily, I would have played a half dozen games or so and cast Imperial Settlers off as nothing more than a silly diversion. But forcing myself play more and get a deeper understanding of what's going on beneath the surface allowed me to experience one of the best games I have played in quite some time. It's not often when I can recall specific cards by their names or list various strategies and card combinations for specific factions, but that's exactly what's happened to me with Imperial Settlers. And the fact that the game has already received some impressive expansions ensures that I will continue to enjoy it for years to come.