Imperium Classics is the granola of deck building games. Further more, Imperium Classics is the “fruits of the forest” granola cereal killer of a breakfast of deck building games, that demand you see it through with little or no mercy. Crunchy and occasionally overwhelming, with hints of fruity sharpness. Imperium has a need for you to stop for a minute and chew energetically in the hope that you’ll be able to digest it. It’s the deck builder that you think in the long term will be good for you if you can just persevere and keep chewing for that little bit longer. In all fairness while the first bowl will be a hard slog, and you may need to change spoons halfway through, ultimately this is the type of deck builder your civilisation itch has been looking to help it get thoroughly scratched.
Imperium Classics contains all these click moments. You can try to wade through the rules in order to get an understanding of what is in store for you, but the reality is that until you set up and and ready to go, the rulebook will be some kind of unintelligible molasses where you feel you’re lost at sea. Once you’ve set up and start playing, you realise that you’ve stepped into some kind of infernal machine, where the cogs start to align as you play through, and you’ll have these moments where you let out a little gasp as all of a sudden ‘breaking through’ makes sense for the first time. There’s so many little bits of this as the game reveals itself to you as you play for the first time, but don’t expect to be fully in control of what Imperium offers even half way through your first session. This is a Buckle and Turczi special. So while Nigel wants you to almost experience the civilisation you’ve chosen in an interesting woven story, David is determined to make sure that the weave itself is complicated and layered and makes you think. Only someone like David Turczi could take the Roll and Write genre and turn into something that needed a calculator and so its only fair that when They got their hands on deck building, it was going to make other deck builders a feel potentially a bit less adequate and embarrassed.
Yes, it is a deck builder, but it’s a deck builder where the same action cards are shared between players. While you’ll have access to the main market in order to build your way to victory, every civilisation will also have their own deck that they will draw from as the game progresses. Look on this as the development of the civilisation as time progress and you’ll get the rough idea. You’ll end up using cards that are then discarded into a ‘history deck’ that tells the story of your endeavours as you progress. Due to the asymmetrical nature of the different decks, there’s often a ‘Root Effect’ where you’ll probably need to stick to one type of deck to get used to it, as starting with a new nation with different requirements can add a chunk of time to how long it will stay on the table. It adds a large amount of replay ability straight out of the box and it also allows the players to set their own level of difficulty to see if they can triumph regardless of who they start with. Imperium demands that you sample it several times before you put in back on the shelf for a rest and it does a good job of making its argument for not leaving the table in the first place.
The main actions are where you’ll be building your infrastructure and resources for the future. You’ll want to take actions based on the five cards in your hand that you can play, or maybe you’ll forgo that completely, discard your hand and pick up one of the cards from the market instead. At all times you’ll need to keep an eye in the amount if unrest occurring across the entire table, for when there in no unrest in the deck, the game staggers to a sudden and unexpected conclusion which can lay to rest all of the competing civilisation’s plans. What’s the most interesting in Imperium is that it is using the draw deck as an analogy for time itself. In the beginning you’ll be wanting to burn through your deck as much as you can in order to move your Faction from being Barbaric, to Civilised. For it is at that point when you can really develop and move things forward for you to victory as developing your last development card will also trigger the final game scoring and your potential victory. At that point you’ll watch everyone clear their bowls and see if anyone wants a granola refill while watching Rome burn.
There’s certain parts of Imperium Classics that get on my wick. The rulebook seems to want to sneer at you slightly with it’s pages of icons, and you’ll spend a lot of time feeling cool and refreshed as you find yourself flicking back and forwards between the pages trying to remember what the icons mean again for the third time in quick succession. The set up and tear down can take a reasonable amount of time to organise cards and set everything out. The fact you have asymmetrical powers for some of the factions might mean that some of them simply might not see the light of day due to how differently they play from the norm. You sometimes feel it’s trying to be too clever for its own good and the story is interrupted where an excellent build up in a game is suddenly ruined because the Unrest deck decided to ruin everything for everyone.
But, and it’s as big a but as the chair I’m sitting on needs to contend with, Imperium is trying to do something different and trying to expand the depth and breadth of the genre it sits in. You can’t help but what to play it again after you’ve finished. It sometimes stumbles in what it does and what it is which is a perfect analogy for the civilisations it tries to copy. And there are those who might roll their eyes at how it’s just a diet version of all of these bigger, more fiddly and altogether map based civilisation games. For me however, it beckons me with a fascination of the story and struggle it is trying to tell through the medium of deck building. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and shelf space and maybe my second favourite breakfast bowl. Proceed with caution, but miss out on playing it at your peril. Imperium Classics is going to a game that time is going to tell on and I think history will treat it very well.
David and Nigel appeared on the podcast recently to chat about the Imperium Development. https://werenotwizards.fireside.fm/s6imperium
You can find out more about the Game on the Osprey Games website https://ospreypublishing.com/imperium-classics
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This review is based on the final retail version of the game provided to us by the designer and publisher. We were not paid for this review. We give a general overview of the gameplay and so not all of the mechanical aspects of the game may be mentioned. The is a first thoughts piece which will contain some preliminary musings.