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IMPERIAL

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Eggertspiele/Rio Grande Games, 2-6 players, ages 12 and up, about 2-3 hours; $59.99)

 

As the saying goes: “Borrow a dollar and the bank owns you, borrow a million dollars and you own the bank!” If you change “bank” to “nation”, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what is going on in Imperial, the newest design from Mac Gerdts.

Imperial charts the fortunes of the major European powers as they existed before World War I. Austria-Hungary, Italy, France, England, Germany and Russia are represented here. The game comes with lots of wooden pieces representing factories (used for all countries) and color-coded armies, fleets, tax chips and markers for each nation in the game, money, bonds for each Great Power, an Investor card and an historical booklet as well as a mounted mapboard, reminiscent of the old Diplomacy boards, as it depicts pre-1914 Europe. Also found on the board is the standard scoring track on the perimeter but more importantly, a “Counting chart”, “Tax chart” and the rondel.

All powers place a marker on the starting positions on the Counting chart, Tax chart and rondel and all begin with two factories (placed in designated positions in their home territories). The bonds of each nation are placed by that nation’s treasury. Players get some money to start (the amount differing based on the number of players) and a starting supply of bonds are distributed. (Distribution varies. In the standard game, the flags of the Great Powers are randomly distributed thus determining who has purchased the first bonds of the game. In a variant for experienced players, players begin with a bigger bankroll and, in turn, have a chance toimperial purchase bonds in any or all of the Great Powers.) Money used to purchase bonds of a country go into that nation’s treasury. Funds there are kept separate from a player’s.

The player who has purchased the highest value of the bonds of a country is considered to control that government and will make the moves of that nation as long as he maintains control. Turn order is fixed with Austria-Hungary going first (followed by Italy, France, England, Germany and Russia). The Investor card is given to the player sitting to the left of the player holding the Austria-Hungary flag. (If play begins with the Austria-Hungary flag not in play, then the player left of the holder of the flag of Italy receives the Investor card.) Moves of a nation are chosen using the rondel.

As in Antike, Gerdts’ previous design (and featured in the Winter 2006 GA REPORT), actions are determined by a rondel. The pawn of a country circles the rondel and, upon landing on a space (or passing it in the case of the Investor space), a nation performs specified actions. There are 8 spaces on the rondel presenting 6 possible actions which include Factory, Production (2 of these), Import, Maneuver (2 of these), Investor and Taxation. (A nation’s token moves in a clockwise manner around the rondel and may move ahead up to three spaces for free. Up to three move spaces may be moved on the same turn for a fee of $2 million per space.) How a nation takes advantage of these actions, thereby benefiting their investors, is the crux of the game.

The six actions include:

Factory – For a cost of $5 million, a nation may build a factory (to produce fleets or armies on subsequent turns) on an available area in its home territory.

Production – Active factories of a nation produce one military unit (a fleet or army, depending on type of factory) at no cost.

Import – A nation may purchase up to three military units at a cost of $1 million each.

Maneuver – This action is done in three parts.

First, all fleets of a nation may move into an adjacent sea zone. If moving into a zone occupied by another nation’s fleets, a battle may ensue (if at least one of the nations declares it). Battles are decided on a one to one basis, that is, equal numbers of fleets are removed until only one nation’s fleets remain in the area.

Now, armies may move to an adjacent region. Armies may also be transported by ships (in a convoy) as in Diplomacy, “hopping” from ship to ship until reaching a land zone. (Armies also benefit from “railroad transport” which, in effect, allows any army to move for free anywhere within the home zones of a nation – as long as a zone is not blocked by an enemy force entering that zone – and THEN make its regular move.) Army battles are resolved on the same 1 to 1 basis as fleets. In addition, three armies in an enemy zone containing a factory can DESTROY the factory. Those armies and the factory are then removed from the board.imperial2

The final phase of Maneuver is placing tax chips. A tax chip is placed in any newly occupied land or sea region outside of the home areas of any of the Great Powers (and, of course, neutral Switzerland). More on these later.

Investor – This action enables you to flex some economic muscle and also consists of several phases. First, interest is paid. Each player owning bonds of that particular power gets paid the interest specified on the bond from that nation’s treasury. (If not enough money is in the treasury, the player who currently controls that nation’s government must pay out the shortfall!) Phase 2 activates the Investor card. The player with the Investor card gets $2 million from the bank and may now invest by buying or upgrading a bond in ANY nation. Phase 3 allows any player who does NOT control any nation to now purchase a bond in any nation. After phase 3, bond distribution is checked to see if control of a nation has changed (causing a shift in who determines a power’s moves) and ownership of the Investor card shifts, clockwise, to the next player.

Taxation – Time to replenish the treasury. A nation receives $2 million for each factory (not occupied by an enemy power) plus $1 million for each tax chip they have placed on the board. The total is charted on the tax chart track. If the total rises, the player who controls the government can expect to receive a monetary bonus for his good work. But it’s not all getting money, there are payouts too. Nations have to pay their “soldiers” to the tune of $1 million for each army and fleet in action (deducted from its tax revenue). Finally, power points are awarded to the nation (as shown on the Tax chart) and plotted on the Counting chart. Once any nation has reached 25 power points, the game ends and we score.

Victory Points are calculated based on a simple formula. As a nation accrues power points, its “credit factor” increases. Players multiply the interest paid to them by their bonds by the credit factor of the nation (a factor from 0 to 5). For example, a player having bonds paying interest of $5 million in a country with a credit factor of 3 would score 15 Victory Points for those holdings. To those totals is added a player’s cash on hand with each million equivalent to 1 VP. The player with the highest total score is victorious!

The role of the investor in this game is an unusual one so it may take a little longer to wrap your brain around it but that’s what makes Imperial so interesting and different. Players do not represent countries in the standard sense. They only control a country if, as INVESTORS, they have the greatest investment in it. Just as a smart investor on Wall Street will diversify his portfolio so, too, will the smart player in Imperial diversify, be flexible and invest in several countries so the vagaries of fortune as empires wax and wane will not decimate his interests. Here too, you need to evaluate carefully. If you spread your investments too thin, you will find that you will be unable to claim control of a Major Power, leaving you to the whims and mercies of other players as they direct a power’s fortunes. It is true that no control of a nation can pay investment benefits and can be a path to victory but that path is like a tightrope. You might make it to the other side successfully but that takes a very good sense of balance as one false step can send you crashing down! (As a matter of fact, the problem of being without control of a nation and, because of that, being strapped for funds, has been addressed with a variant from the designer himself. He suggests that if a player has no flag, he may, each time the Investor card is triggered, either invest in a nation of his choice as usual OR take 1 million cash from the bank. This way, the power-less player is assured of at least some positive cash flow leaving him in a less vulnerable position. Yet another variant is offered in the game as well where the Investor card is simply not used at all!)

When directing a power, you find yourself searching for the best avenues to exploit your growth. Unlike standard wargames (or even Gerdt’s own Antike which tends to slide into a wargame framework as players attempt to get that final Victory card for the win), a declaration of war against another power is only one of several possibilities to pursue and not, necessarily, the best or most advantageous. In fact, you have to resist the temptation to play this as a wargame since building armies and fleets impacts negatively on a power’s tax revenue. For this reason, official and unofficial alliances tend to spring up as players poise to spread influence without incurring enmity which can hinder growth and progress for both antagonists (especially if players have significant investments in these particular powers), making a sense of “statesmanship” nearly as important as economic savvy in investments.

Turn of the 20th century politics is turned on its head as the powers behind the throne call the shots and maneuver empires, an unusual and fascinating perspective cleverly combining economic power with Imperial ambitions. While the game certainly works with the rules as written, suggested variants allow players to suit the game to their tastes, keeping the character of the game intact without losing the thrill of international power politics. Recommended. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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