After playing The Princes of Machu Picchu at Boardgamecafe.net, I mentioned that I had not tried Mac Gerdts' Imperial. That was almost like blasphemy. Everyone said it is his best game. Thus I soon had an opportunity to play this game, tutored by a legion of sharks.
There are six major countries on the board - UK is red, France is blue, Germany is grey, Italy is green, Austria-Hungary is yellow and Russia is purple. Any land territory or sea zone beyond the borders of these six countries are up for grabs. Players do not directly control the six major countries. Instead, they invest in them. Each country sells bonds, and players buy bonds. Whoever has invested the most in a country controls the country. If another player surpasses the current controller in amount invested, he becomes the new controller. We had 6 players. Our game started with every player holding bonds of two different countries, and every player being the controller of one country. The board is quite empty at the start of the game. The major countries only have a few factories each. The brown ones produce armies, and the light blue ones naval fleets. In this photo only France (at the time controlled by Jeff) had recruited some mercenaries, getting ready for some early game conquests. Most other nations went for factory construction first.
Those two thick cards on the left are the Italian and German bonds. The numbers in the middle of the cards (4M and 9M) are the prices of the bonds. The numbers at the bottom (2M and 4M) are the dividends you get paid when the country decides to give dividends. The big numbers at the top are victory point multipliers used at game-end. Every country will have a base victory point value at game-end depending on how well it does. The more you have invested in the country, the higher your multiplier. That German flag on the right means I am currently the controller of Germany.
Every round, every major country gets to perform one action, and this is of course decided by the controlling player. The action mechanism is the well-known Mac Gerdts rondel mechanism. Actions are listed on a rondel and every country has a pawn on the rondel. To execute the action you want, you need to advance the pawn to the corresponding action space. If it is within 3 spaces away, advancing is free. Any further than that, you (the player, not the country) need to pay. So there is a form of restriction, and this mechanism also creates a cyclical nature in country actions.
The actions are: build one factory, build armies and fleets, recruit mercenaries, move armies and fleets, tax, and pay dividends. Combat is very straight-forward. No cards, no dice. It's just a one-for-one trade. You kill one of mine, I kill one of yours. Sea battles are optional. If both parties agree, fleets can coexist. That's mainly because fleets also act as transports. Capturing a sea zones or minor country allows you to place a control marker. These markers give you income when you do taxing. You can never place control markers in the homeland of another major country. When you occupy the homeland of another major country, you will temporarily disable any factory you occupy. If you want to, you can spend three units to permanently destroy a factory, but that's rather expensive.
When a country taxes, it receives income based on the number of factories and control markers it has on the board. However during tax time, the country also needs to pay the wages of all soldiers, both the army and the navy. When a country taxes, its reputation improves. When one country hits 25 reputation points, the game ends. The bonds of each country held by players will be worth some victory points at game-end, depending on the country reputation. Cash in hand is also worth victory points. Highest scorer wins.
That track at the bottom is the reputation track. Austria-Hungary (yellow) is now leading.
One other important country action is paying dividends. This is when money flows from country to player. Dividend payouts are done from smallest to largest shareholder. If a country doesn't have enough cash to fully pay its investors, some investors won't get the full amount they are entitled to. In fact the largest shareholder needs to pay the shortage. So if you are controlling a country it doesn't mean you can easily milk it dry disregarding the smaller investors. If you are a majority shareholder, you need to balance between transferring money to your personal coffers and leaving enough money for the country to compete effectively. If the country does poorly, the bonds you hold will be worth fewer VP's at game end.
In the game we played, I started off controlling Germany (grey). My investments were focused on Germany and Italy (green). I invested a little in Austria-Hungary (yellow) and Russia (purple). There was once when I inadvertently became controller of Italy (this photo). I didn't mean to take over. I just thought Heng ran the country quite well and it was good investment.
There were six of us: Jeff, Heng, Kareem, Ivan, Vence and I. I think only Vence and I were new to the game. The rest were veterans. Throughout most of the game I kept muttering: I still have no idea what I'm doing. I understood the rules. It was the strategy that eluded me. I think the genre of shareholding games is my Achilles' heel. I can appreciate the strategic depth. It is just that when I play, I struggle to separate the welfare of the player and that of the company (or the country). I feel like I have multiple personality disorder. In Imperial you need to remember that victory belongs to the investor and not the country. You are a businessman and not a patriot. As I observed how we played, I found that Vence and I (the newbies) had a hard time putting down our patriotism. She backed UK while I rooted for Germany. Old dogs like Jeff and Ivan toyed France like a golden goose and made a handsome fortune from it. They didn't ruin France. Not at all. Jeff just manipulated France's fortunes deftly so that his profits was maximised. France was his tool. He was not a servant of France. France became quite rich, and both Ivan and Jeff, being the largest shareholders, were laughing all the way to the bank.
You do want "your" country to do well. When you are a majority shareholder, the country's reputation level will significantly affect your end-game score. It is just that you must never forget your ultimate objective is your own wealth, and not the country's standing. I find this quite a challenge (because I suck at these games!). The strategies are subtle and indirect. This is what makes Imperial so delicious.
The game mechanisms are mostly simple. However I was quite amazed at how much the veterans could make out of these basic rules. At first I thought it was rather pointless to invade another major country's homeland, since you couldn't place any control marker and you couldn't make money from it. However, this happened anyway in our game. You can see in this photo that Italy (green) has invaded Austria-Hungary (yellow) and has disabled a naval factory (light blue). Austria-Hungary is now temporarily unable to produce fleets, and because of this Italy has a free rein in the Mediterranean Sea.
There is another example. I had thought it was too expensive to destroy another country's factory. It costs 3 armies. And then this happened in our game too. It turned out to be worthwhile because it set back the victim's expansion significantly. Yet another interesting observation was how some country controllers sent their troops to die just before payday, i.e. the tax action. Dead troops mean you save money. You don't need to pay dead soldiers in this game. Mutual destruction is actually a win-win situation for the shareholders of both the warring countries. This is such a mean game! Send the soldiers to die, and the politicians and businessmen shake hands and congratulate one another.
The round markers are the control markers.
Italy (green) is almost at 25 reputation points. The others are scrambling to catch up as much as possible before the game ends.
What I struggle with is how to tell whether a country is doing well, and whether things are looking up for a country. When you evaluate a country, it should not be based on whether the country will be growing stronger. It should be based on the Return On Investment. An already strong country may not give you much opportunity to make money. A humble country may have plenty of space for growth. Another thing to think about is the intentions of the current controller. If he is mostly done with milking the country, he may not be putting in much more effort to grow the country. Heng's mantra for Imperial is: invest wisely. A country's bonds can be held by multiple players. This creates interesting dynamics and complex relationships between players due to vested interests. Sometimes you collaborate, sometimes you compete.
Imperial is a game with much strategic depth. It is complex not because of heavy rules or meticulous planning required. It is complex because of the intricate network of vested interests among players. The relationships between players are constantly changing as they grow their investment portfolios. If you are into this kind of shareholding games (e.g. 18XX games), you should try this. I'm rather weak at this type of games, so I still don't fully grasp Imperial. I think it is best with the full complement of players. This is when the network of vested interests is most complex and thus most intriguing. We played using some variants, which injected a little more money, and allowed more flexibility in buying bonds. This made the game more dynamic. Countries changed hands slightly more easily.