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Subject: A Brief Look at Imperial rss

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Huzonfirst
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I really enjoyed Antike the one time I played it and the early word was that Imperial was even better. Thankfully, I was not misled by the lure of Rondel technology and my first play of the game was a big success. Lots of folks have stated they had problems getting their heads around the “you’re not a country, you’re an investor” mechanic, but it clicked with me right away. I focused on making money, particularly on picking up bonuses for raising tax levels and this philosophy served me well. Just as in Antike, the rondel is an important element of the game. In fact, it’s even more important here since you can’t always predict a nation’s actions by its motives (since it could soon be displaying an “Under New Management” sign in the window), so narrowing its choices down through its position on the Big Wheel is vital. The Investor card seems like an artificial addition at first glance, but it does its job admirably, keeping the game dynamic, but not chaotic. With only one action a turn, the game has a very good pace, with little downtime. It isn’t a short game, but it was engrossing throughout and never dragged. This is unquestionably one of the highlights of 2006 for me.

A lot of Imperial’s fans have compared it to its older brother and many have claimed it to be a deeper game than Antike. I’m uncertain how I feel about that. In my game of Antike, I found I had to work a lot harder and really concentrate to come close to optimizing my actions. The gameplay in Imperial, on the other hand, seemed a lot clearer to me. Based on sheer effort, then, Antike feels “deeper” (whatever the hell that means) than Imperial. I suspect, though, that this is more of a personal impression than a factual one. I just don’t play many wargames these days, even light ones like Antike. The tactics of that game weren’t unfathomable, but I did have to work to get the hang of them. Imperial’s clearer map play seemed easier to me (it more closely resembled Diplomacy, a game I have played a good deal of), but when you combine it with the share management issues and trying to make the most of situations where a player owns multiple countries, you probably have deeper strategies. I’m not accustomed to quickly grasping such involved games, but I shan’t look a gift design in the mouth. Maybe the key is that Imperial, at it’s heart, is a financial game and therefore contains concepts that I’m very familiar with. Approaching it as a military game (which is what it appears to be, on the surface) probably leads to less positive results.

My only concern about the game is in the endplay. The person who gets to use the Investor card last probably makes a nice profit from investing as much of his cash as he can (since there’s little mystery about what the game-ending values of the bonds will be). The player stuck with the card at the end of the game probably has a nice pile of cash that he’d no doubt prefer to invest. Certainly you can plan your play to try to maximize the chances that you’ll get one last chance to invest, but the Investment card has to stop somewhere, so the last players to use it will have a nice little edge over the ones who haven’t invested in a while. It’s not clear to me that this is fair. If you play without the Investor card, this isn’t an issue, but it really did seem to work very well in our game, as countries changed hands with some regularity, but not too frequently. I’m wondering about a possible variant where everyone gets to buy or increase one bond after the game ends. You’d start with the player with the Investment card and work your way around the board. I’m not sure this is necessary, but I do want to keep it in mind for future games.

One of the things I really like about Imperial is that it has a very cynical feel about it without any rules that make this obvious. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t try to keep control of the same country throughout the game, but it soon becomes clear that shifting ownership to take advantage of events is preferable. If you own multiple nations, you can focus on one and drain the treasury of the other. Raise the tax base of a country as much as possible (to take advantage of the bonus), but don’t worry if you can’t defend your holdings (particularly if your investment isn’t that great). Sacrifice military units just to reduce your operating expenses. Opportunities to act like some Machiavellian power broker come up almost every turn. You really do feel like a bunch of puppeteers making these mighty nations dance at your whim. To me, this just enhances the mercenary nature of the game.

It all adds up to a great gaming experience. Imperial is unquestionably one of my favorites from last year and I can't wait to try it out again.

Update
I got to play Imperial again a couple of weeks ago. I was looking forward to it, since I really felt I had a pretty good grasp of the strategy. And the way the game started did nothing to diminish my confidence. The initial distribution of shares left me in control of Great Britain and I began aggressively. I built a new factory, produced, occupied new territory, and then produced again. Other players had taken profits, but England was poised to capture considerable territory in the northwest.

Then, I panicked. The plan was to grab yet more territory, then tax and get the benefit of all those juicy new acquisitions. I was afraid, though, that I might lose control of the country. Being without a nation didn’t bother me, but I didn’t want to let someone else get the profit from Great Britain’s rapid movement up the tax chart. If everything broke wrong, the player to my left could conceivably become the majority investor and, with no money myself, I wouldn’t be able to regain control before he could tax. So I made the conservative play and moved to the tax space myself, skipping over the maneuver space.

I was aware that this might be a mistake when I made it, but figured that even if it was, I’d be able to quickly recover. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The loss of tempo proved to be absolutely fatal. Germany produced and I suddenly had to worry about fleets from the east. France was being bled dry by its owner, but Italy soon filled the vacuum and moved into the Atlantic herself. It didn’t seem possible that that one lost move could have been so important, but it changed the whole complexion of the game. And my position never recovered. It was complicated by the fact that the other nations I invested in steadfastly refused to visit the Investor space, leaving me cash poor the entire game. With England bottled up, I could get no income from that source. So I was pretty much a non-factor throughout.

There’s no way I blame the game for that frustrating result, as the mistake was mine. And it was still interesting seeing how the rest of the game played out. But it did make me aware that Imperial might be a bit on the fragile side. If one critical move can have such an effect, counting on your opponents’ plays (quite necessary in an investment game) can be fraught with uncertainty. It won’t dampen my enthusiasm for the game, but it did cause it to drop ever so slightly in my estimation. And next game, I’ll be sure not to be quite so conservative.
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Richard Young
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Larry Levy wrote:
Update
I got to play Imperial again a couple of weeks ago...The initial distribution of shares left me in control of Great Britain and I began aggressively. I built a new factory, produced, occupied new territory, and then produced again. Other players had taken profits, but England was poised to capture considerable territory in the northwest.

Then, I panicked. The plan was to grab yet more territory, then tax and get the benefit of all those juicy new acquisitions. I was afraid, though, that I might lose control of the country. Being without a nation didn’t bother me, but I didn’t want to let someone else get the profit from Great Britain’s rapid movement up the tax chart. If everything broke wrong, the player to my left could conceivably become the majority investor and, with no money myself, I wouldn’t be able to regain control before he could tax. So I made the conservative play and moved to the tax space myself, skipping over the maneuver space.

I was aware that this might be a mistake when I made it, but figured that even if it was, I’d be able to quickly recover. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The loss of tempo proved to be absolutely fatal. Germany produced and I suddenly had to worry about fleets from the east. France was being bled dry by its owner, but Italy soon filled the vacuum and moved into the Atlantic herself. It didn’t seem possible that that one lost move could have been so important, but it changed the whole complexion of the game. And my position never recovered. It was complicated by the fact that the other nations I invested in steadfastly refused to visit the Investor space, leaving me cash poor the entire game. With England bottled up, I could get no income from that source. So I was pretty much a non-factor throughout.

There’s no way I blame the game for that frustrating result, as the mistake was mine. And it was still interesting seeing how the rest of the game played out. But it did make me aware that Imperial might be a bit on the fragile side. If one critical move can have such an effect, counting on your opponents’ plays (quite necessary in an investment game) can be fraught with uncertainty. It won’t dampen my enthusiasm for the game, but it did cause it to drop ever so slightly in my estimation. And next game, I’ll be sure not to be quite so conservative.


Great session report Larry, but I'm left wondering if you're being overly hard on yourself and, as a result, the game. The kind of decision you were faced with and your analysis of it points out what I think makes this game a great one. Nearly every round you have to be ready and willing to take chances or capitalize on the "mistakes" of others. You have to be "in" this game at all times. No "cruise control" and "call me when it's my turn" here. For a game that plays out as briskly as it does it manages to pack a lot of heft into a near Euro-ish time frame.

I'm also left wondering what would have happened if you had chosen the other course you were contemplating. What you feared might also very well have occurred and you'd be giving us essentially the same report. So much in this game depends on the other players' playing styles, reactions to events and ability to analyze on the fly. A game where everything you do is fraught with possible peril is what attracts me and I'm reminded of such "unforgiving" games as 1830, Age of Steam or Revolution: The Dutch Revolt. I don't think of what you uncovered as "fragility" but perhaps we have different terms for the same thing.

Would it be fair to say you would prefer a game where you can recover from a major mistake? I'm not sure that the turning point you described was necessarily the key one in the game, but if we accept that it was then what is the lesson regarding the game itself? I think it shows the game's robustness as a vehicle for the true matching of wits. This game has quickly made it onto my short list and kudos for this thread and discussion!
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Huzonfirst
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Thanks for the compassionate words, Richard. But in retrospect, and following a post mortem discussion of the play, I'm pretty sure it was a mistake. I would have lost England only as an absolute worst case. I made the conservative play (not unusual for me, I'm a pretty risk-averse individual), but this was ultra-conservative. The surprising thing was the ramifications. I never dreamed the situation could change that quickly. Now I know, but it makes me wonder if other seemingly innocuous moves in future games could play out in a similar fashion. That's why I say the game may be fragile, particularly since you may be counting on opponents to make the right play and those choices may be harder to visualize than I had first thought.

Despite a surface similarity to Diplomacy, I didn't think the gameplay of Imperial was all that close to the older game. But this situation is exactly the kind of thing that happens all the time in Dip. A brief loss of tempo or a wrong guess can completely change the course of events in that game. If this proves to be the case in Imperial as well, it only means that I'll have to concentrate just as much on the boardplay as I do on the investment side of things. This is all good, just unexpected. I still think it's a great game and this realization might make it even better. As long as I don't wind up on the business side of those mistakes too often!
 
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Bruno Valerio
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Even so, your "mistake" doesn't necessarily mean the game is fragile.

If we were to follow that line of though every game would be fragile since victories are often achieved because mistakes are made by other players.

The game is very well balanced, i've seen lot's of victories in a lot of different ways.

In a game like Imperial with a lot of player interaction a mistake is bound to leave to some sort of advantage by the opposing players. In my book that doesn't make it any more fragile than any other game, you just have to think it through... yes we all make mistakes... and after all only one can be the winner.

That's why it is a wonderful game.

There is that saying, "learn from your mistakes", and that is what makes me come back to a game... the idea that i have still something to learn about it.

In my case a LOT to learn about it.


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Tony Chen
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Quote:
Based on sheer effort, then, Antike feels “deeper” (whatever the hell that means) than Imperial.


You haven't even scratched the depth of Imperial. Sorry.

Quote:
I built a new factory, produced, occupied new territory, and then produced again. Other players had taken profits, but England was poised to capture considerable territory in the northwest.


Did you skip investor? That was probably what cost you the game, not the other stuff. If it was a 3-4 player game, I highly recommend choosing investor as your first action. If it's a 5-6 player and you really must factory, (in general) choose production and investor as the next two actions. "Never" skip investor. (There are exceptions, but I won't get into that.)

Taxing bonus is an important part of the game, but it's only one of the many factors. Read my review for more details.

Also, if you want to build up England, it's a good idea to import fleets into the sea shared with Germany in the opening round. By the same logic, build a fleet factory there instead of an army one first.

Multiplayer Imperial can be fragile, but your strategy is also less than robust. I'd take the loss as something to learn from than a weakness of the game design. If anything, having an assumed optimal strategy fail miserably is a sign of a strong game. If one could figure Imperial out so easily I'd consider that to be fragile.
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