Saturday, 24 July 2010

In the Shadow of the Emperor

In the Shadow of the Emperor was a half impulse buy, i.e. I only broke half a rule about buying games that I had set for myself. It was on sale, and it is considered by some to be a hidden gem that never received the attention it deserved. So I decided to give it a shot.

The Game

The game is about politics in the Holy Roman Empire (i.e roughly modern-day Germany and some surrounding regions). You manage a family of aristocrats, guiding them through a few generations, as they compete to get elected to powerful positions - to become an Elector of one of the seven Electorates (~provinces), and even to become elected Emperor of the HRE.

The game is played over 5 rounds only. The core of the game is the elections. Every round there are elections at the 7 Electorates, to determine whether a new Elector will take power, or the old Elector will stay. Who takes power is determined by presence in the Electorate - aristocrats, knights, cities controlled. After the elections at the Electorates, they may be another election for the Emperor's position, if a challenger has stepped forward to demand an election. Everything else in the game is to help you work towards success at the elections.

The game board. The track on the left is for tracking money. The track at the top tracks the round and shows the bonus for the current emperor. The 3 regions in the middle are religious Electorates (diocese), and only unmarried aristocrats can become Elector. The 4 regions at the bottom can have single or married Electors.

One important aspect of the game is aging. Your aristocrats will grow old and die, and you need to make sure you give birth to enough sons (or adopt) to maintain a big healthy family. Whether you get a son or a daughter every round is determined by a gamey mechanism - the types of actions you take in the previous round. Most actions that you take are represented by a pink or a blue card. If you have taken more blue than pink, you get a boy, else a girl. Getting a son means you have one more aristocrat on the board. If you get a daughter, you can try to marry her off to another player. She joins the other family and gives 1 more vote in Electorate elections. But you get 1VP for the successful marriage proposal. If you are refused, or if you don't want to bother trying, your daughter becomes a nun and you earn $1. Talk about selling off your daughter...

The actions are the main activities you do. Each action type is limited. Once all the cards of an action have been taken, that action is not available anymore. There is a lot of variety in the actions - making an aristocrat younger, bringing in a new young aristocrat, bringing in a knight, claiming a city, marrying your son and a foreign princess, moving an aristocrat (or couple) to another Electorate, promoting a knight to a baron, deny an Electorate votes for the Emperor, giving extra votes to an Electorate, and even challenging the current Emperor for his throne. All these actions affect how you compete in the elections. The actions have different costs, so you need to spend your money wisely.

Some of the action cards. Top left: One single bachelor gets married, i.e. strength becomes 2. Top right: Claim a city. Bottom left: Move an aristocrat to another Electorate. Bottom right: hey... why did I take two exact same cards to use as examples?! Idiot...

There are many different ways to score victory points in the game. Becoming an Elector of an Electorate gives 2VP. Successfully marrying off a daughter gives 1VP. One action card gives 2VP. Claiming cities give VPs. One Electorate's special power is 1VP. The Emperor gains VP depending on the round. Supporters of the winner in an election for Emperor get 1VP. When playing the game you need to be aware of all of these. VPs are hard to come by and you need to make use of every opportunity, not only to earn VPs, but also to deny others of them.

The Play

We randomly assigned Han to be the Emperor at the start of the game. Throughout the game, every round someone challenged the Emperor. We thought no harm trying. In hindsight, it may not be such a good idea, because if you know you can't win, you are basically giving 1VP to the bystander who will naturally support the winner. I was kingmaker most of the game, as in most of the time it was Han the Emperor vs Afif the challenger or vice versa, and I had enough votes to decide who won. I only tried to become Emperor once, but was unsuccessful. I focused my effort in getting my aristocrats onto the board, neglecting city building, which meant I had less cash. I had so many aristocrats that I ran out of aristocrat tokens. I gave them good healthcare (i.e. rotate anti-clockwise to make them younger) so they stayed alive longer. However, towards later game I had a whole bunch of them dying together, suddenly making my presence much weaker.

Throughout the game I have been selecting mostly the pink actions, so I have been getting daughters every round. In contrast, Han has been choosing the blue actions, and I think he had sons every round. Just like in real life. I have two daughters, and him two sons.

Han (yellow) and Afif (red) having a fierce fight over Mainz Diocese. Han's strength is 4 (a couple gives 2, knight 1, city 1). Afif's strength is 6 (1 couple giving 2, 2 bachelors giving a total of 2, city 1, knight 1).

Both Afif and Han claimed cities earlier, and they had more money, which allowed more flexibility in taking actions. Cities also helped in Electorate level elections.

By the final round, I knew I was pretty screwed, due to my loss of momentum. Also I have not been Emperor even once. When the final scores were revealed, I did come in last, but did not do as bad as I had thought. I had 23pts. Afif had 26pts, Han 25pts. It was quite a close game. Every single VP counts!

The Thoughts

In the Shadow of the Emperor is very much an area majority game. I also realise that it is a perfect information game. Well, except for the victory points (and I think it is better that the VP is hidden). So if you spend time to calculate the repercussions of your moves and those of your opponents', the game is quite deterministic, and it can drag if everyone tries to analyse every possible move and all the implications.

The players have a wide range of choices. So the game feels quite open. There are many things you can do, some beneficial for short-term, some long term. One thing I like is all the actions are very thematic. You can boil everything down to simple area majority competition, but all the actions that you can do in the game are associated to something realistic. You do feel like you are pulling the strings and helping your clan fight for supremacy.

It is also a manipulation game - you need to manipulate your opponents. Try to appear weak. Try to make someone else appear strong. Sow mistrust. It can even become a negotiation game if you try to make deals with your opponents. You can lie, beg, threaten, make promises, break promises. These are not explicitly encouraged nor disallowed by the rules, so it's up to you how you want to play.

I find that I generally don't enjoy area majority games, so I am biased against In the Shadow of the Emperor. But I appreciate how thematic the game is and how everything ties together. There are a lot of little rules to remember, e.g. in the many different action cards. Every Electorate also gives some benefit to the player controlling it. I joked that the game has as many exceptions as Ameritrash games. Overall, I find that everything ties together quite well.

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