Review – Imperium: Legends
|Nigel Buckle, David Turczi
|Card Game, Civilization
Imperium: Legends integrates with Imperium: Classics. To see a different reviewer’s perspective on Imperium: Classics, click here.
Brainwashed by fifteen years of exclusively playing Magic: the Gathering, my favorite games are still strategy card games like Race for the Galaxy, Innovation, Dominion, and It’s a Wonderful World. Imperium: Legends, and its sibling Imperium: Classics, fit right into that territory. At a glance, it looks like an attempt to combine a faction-based civilization card game like Imperial Settlers with deckbuilding, but certainly with its own twists. But how does this game compare?
For any advanced strategy game, there’s an investment required in learning the game. This investment usually comes up in two different forms: the difficulty in learning the rules, and the fluidity of the gameplay once the rules are understood. Of course, these two things are symbiotic, and I find the best games keep both the game fluid and the rules simple by having one or two central mechanisms that define the game. For example, Innovation works because at its core you are just constantly comparing icons with your opponent, and likewise Dominion works because you can quickly internalize the state of the victory point race as it happens, and otherwise you are simply playing and buying cards. These games keep the rulebooks simple by moving the game almost entirely to the text on the cards themselves, with the central mechanisms being relatively simple.
Imperium’s rulebook pretends to follow in this line of thinking, but fails miserably. After 27 setup steps, the main rules area is extremely short, which feels great!… But it’s because so many primary mechanisms are buried as keywords. You can’t easily play this game the first few times through without constantly checking the rulebook. Some of the main concepts, like “break through” and “history” should have been part of a preamble section on “fundamental concepts”. (There is such a preamble, but it literally just lists the keywords without defining them!) Furthermore, simply writing out what some keywords do on the card itself, along with the keyword, similar to the parenthetical, italicized text often used in Magic: the Gathering, would have gone such a long way. There are also just some flat out errors (e.g. a “15” icon on the Card Breakdown that’s never defined), poor terminology (why is “Taking an Action” not just “Playing a Card”?), and several pieces of errata already (including an egregious omission that ruins the solo mode). This frustration with the rulebook seems corroborated by the fact that the BGG entry for Imperium: Classics already has 280 entries, and Imperium: Legends has another 77.
Ok, enough about the rulebook. I knew this game would be an investment. Once all the rules are chewed and rechewed and finally swallowed and ingested, if the game is smooth, then this is not a big deal; the rules will follow intuitively as we play. But remember, these things are symbiotic, and while the rulebook could just be organized better, it would still feel off simply because the gameplay lacks cohesion. When I am playing a strategy game like this, I want to be able to intuit the general game state from my gut, so that I can concentrate on playing against other people instead of engaging with the game while my opponent either watches or engages the game separately by himself. I play games like this to be clever and do interesting things like form combos and build engines, but I also want to do them against an opponent vying to do the same. When I get mad because my plans are foiled by an opponent outthinking me, that’s when I can’t wait to play again.
I don’t know how I could ever get to the point where I am playing Imperium: Legends from my gut. And it’s only marginally because of the asymmetry of the factions – that is certainly a feature, not a bug. But there are too many piles of cards doing too many different things, that it just feels… messy. Perhaps more importantly, the scoring is so completely obtuse that the only way I could possibly know who’s winning at a glance would be if we were playing on an app version of the game that constantly calculated scores for us. And before you get to the scoring, there’s the opacity of the “lines of play”. I need to get these cards to get these cards to get these cards, but I have no direction on which cards I need and why and how they will be helpful. Compare to a game like Through the Ages (one of Imperium’s direct competitors), where many of the cards are focused entirely on icons, yet those are meaningful and powerful, and there is a very clear flow to the game as the cards in one central deck move slide the game along in a clear fashion. Instead, Imperium’s unnecessary complexity muddies things too much, and this is further blurred by each faction having its own goals and considerable rules exceptions. I even went so far as to see if there were tips in the rulebook for playing as my faction, but the summary of the faction was a bunch of rhetorical questions, rather than advice or explanation.
But okay, let’s keep playing and digging. If someone asked me what the focus of this game actually is, I would tell them it’s the emphasis on forcing deck shuffles as often as possible to ramp up to the endgame and put better cards out. I actually think this is a great core concept. “Reshuffle counts” have been used in other games like Viscounts of the West Kingdom, but not to this extent. As someone who is an avid Star Realms player and views a considerable chunk of the strategy centered around when you can delay, or expedite, a “deck flip”, I liked this concept. I also think it’s really clever to see the ways the game lets you tinker with it, by garrisoning cards, putting them in your history, abandoning them, the tension with unrest cards, and so on. There’s quite a bit of deck manipulation going on here. However, there’s simply too much else going on with it. The market is constantly changing, which would be okay in a simpler game, but it becomes difficult to plan for your turn. And a key part of the problem is that even with all of the unnecessary keywords, the game has too much text. Again, almost all of the other games I’ve mentioned in this review accomplish most of the heavy lifting with really clear iconography, so that the amount of text on the table is minimal. Furthermore, development cards are all face up and ready to be looked through at the beginning of the game, along with your hand of five cards, the five or so different cards in the market, and the power cards of each nation. That’s already an overwhelming amount of information on turn one, considering the uniqueness of each card, and I’m not about to worry about my opponents’ development cards at that point.
This brings me to my next complaint, which is that not only is the game too long, it is too multiplayer solitaire. I see that complaint leveraged often against games like Dominion and Race for the Galaxy, but the difference there is that the clarity of the game state makes both games an interesting race to the end as players pivot around each other. There are certainly small ways to interact in Imperium: you can make people discard or return cards in their tableau to their hands (which is worse than it sounds, since it will require an action to play again), and you are vying for the same market cards and having to “sweeten the pot” on certain cards each turn. And Imperium is likewise a race, just like those games. However, the opacity of Imperium’s scoring and general gameplay means that we’re both awkwardly trying to decide if we’re running a marathon or a sprint, because no player knows where the finish line is, or even which direction it is in.
I was talking to a friend recently about why neither of us were terribly impressed with Wingspan or Terraforming Mars, and he said neither had enough “crunch per minute”. Other games either make the lengthy, crunchy decisions simultaneous (like Isle of Skye’s bidding phase, or Race for the Galaxy’s action phases), or they give you ample reason to stay invested in your opponents’ turn. Imperium’s emphasis on asymmetry and lack of a central focused mechanism makes it nigh impossible to follow your opponent’s plans anywhere near their level. There was never an “Oh, nice, I see what you did there,” because I couldn’t possibly see it.
An alternative to multiplayer solitaire, of course, is regular solitaire with its zero downtime, and co-designer David Turczi is well-known for his focus on solo modes. By the way: play this game solo before you teach it, or you’ll regret it. Towards the end of my first solitaire game, things started to finally click together, and I began to understand the purpose of each card type. It is fun to see what your nation is up to and how its various cards work together. With repeated plays and memorizing what’s in your faction’s deck (there aren’t that many cards in the nation decks), you can plan quite a bit far in advance and really pull off some amazing combos. This is further ramped up by the fact that acquired cards go straight to your hand, though the fun of that is heavily stifled by the limit of 3 actions (card plays) per turn. I’m so used to Race for the Galaxy, Dominion, and Star Realms where drawing 10 cards in one turn and then playing them all is perfectly normal, so I chafed somewhat at that limitation, though it makes sense with the gameplay.
Strangely enough, I find this game far better without other people, but even further than that: I think it would be better without a bot. The AI doesn’t really “play” its opposing faction, but uses that deck to programmatically adjust the game state: to acquire cards from the market, to occasionally mess with your tableau, and to race its advancement through its nation deck against yours. At the end, you win if you have more points among all your cards than they do. Scoring is already incredibly cumbersome, and now you’ve got to do it twice by yourself. Furthermore, actually taking the bot’s turn is incredibly tedious, literally requiring you to consult one of two different charts over and over. Playing my own faction felt like homework until I got the hang of it, at which point it became somewhat fun, but playing the bot’s turn feels like the worst kind of homework – busywork. A simple algorithm for adjusting the market between the player turns, especially something the player could cleverly manipulate to their advantage, would be more fun. If the game is that noninteractive anyway, I would rather just spend the entire time messing with my own faction and racking up a ridiculous high score, and then players can be graded against a scale for victory points, rather than competing against the bot.
I’m usually pretty loud and adamant about my disdain for cooperative board games, and I’ve said many times I’d rather just play a video game than play a board game by myself (I recognize that many, many people feel differently). Yet my conclusion here is that other people, even artificial ones, actively make this game worse than it is. For solitaire board games with a heck of a lot of patience, this could probably keep them occupied for a long, long while. There are some great concepts in here that I hope to see iterated on in future designs, and I would consider revisiting the game in app form as a 2p game against a “real” AI. In the meantime, there are many other great card games I’d rather play.
The Bottom Line
Extremely patient solitaire gamers might find something to like here, but there are much better options for everyone else.