Thursday, October 24, 2013

Imperial, by Rio Grande Games: A Board Game Review

All right, all right, I know that this isn't really my usual sort of writing but I promise we'll get back to book reviews again next week. Although I'm increasingly worried that this blog is just becoming a collection of Kalpar's rants considering I went ahead and made a Klapperpedia entry as a break as well. I promise that this post actually has a point though. First of all I am going to actually be reviewing the board game Imperial, which I think is a really fun game, and I'm also going to be refuting this article which claimed Imperial is inherently broken and not worth your time. Is it worth my time to potentially start an internet flame war over a board game? I don't know...maybe?

A couple of months back I purchased a board game called Imperial, which is published by Rio Grande Games and was developed by Mac Gerdts. I had heard the game described as "Diplomacy, but it actually ends." And since my biggest issue with Diplomacy is that it never seems to end, I thought that this could be nothing but a good thing. And I guess I should start this review by stating my main issue with this article which is the assumption that Diplomacy is actually a good game. I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I know there have been tons of people who like it and it has this huge following and I've only played the damn game twice but it just sucks. I think the biggest issue I have with Diplomacy is that it very quickly grinds into a stalemate that can only be ended through concerted effort over a series of hours. In my (albeit very limited) experience, everyone settles into two or three roughly equal power blocs upon the first turn and then nothing proceeds to happen for the next six hours, at which point everyone gives up and goes home. Yes, there is a level of diplomatic intrigue and chances for backstabbing and conniving, but pretty much everyone is hesitant to start stabbing everyone in the back because then all six other powers are more likely to gang up on you and that's a fight that will end very quickly. It just seems to very quickly turn into a long, protracted stalemate where NOTHING HAPPENS and no end is in sight. The weird thing is, I have a friend who finds Diplomacy fun because it degenerates into people yelling at each other because nothing is happening on the board and he feeds off of that. I however have a much different opinion of fun.

To provide a brief overview of how Imperial works, you all play Swiss bankers who have invested in bonds in the great powers before World War I. If you hold the highest bond in a country you decide what actions it takes, which is determined by a roundel. Countries can raise armies and navies, build factories, levy taxes, conquer territory, and pay interest on its bonds. As a nation's economy grows its moves up on the power scale which signifies an overall increase in its economic strength making its bonds more valuable. During all of this the players are also buying bonds in other countries in the hopes that the countries they invest in will become economically strong and make their investment pay off. The game ends when a country reaches 25 on the power scale; the players count their cash and the relative value of their bonds and whoever's made the most money is the winner. It sounds really complicated but once you start playing it actually becomes really simple.

The important thing that my friends and I have realized, upon playing this game, is that this is not Risk and this is not Diplomacy. The objective is not complete military conquest of Europe, as fun as that may sound. Yes, some territorial expansion is necessary to build up your economy, and yes, you certainly can try to conquer the world, but there's an upper cap on the number of units you can field and it certainly isn't economically feasible. The objective it to make the most money out of your investments and leave an country (or sometimes countries) in a much stronger economic position. And maybe that sounds boring to people. I can understand how people might find that boring and uninteresting, but I think it's an excellent twist on an old and somewhat worn concept.

In addition, well-managed countries will reach 25 on the scale very quickly, adding a degree of urgency to the game and forcing you to decide what actions are going to give you the best benefits. Should I raise armies and increase my tax base through conquest, or should I focus on industrial development? Can I trust my neighbor not to invade and hamstring my economy? How badly do I want to spite this other person? Can I afford to spite them? All of these factors are going to influence your decisions and you actually have to consider opportunity cost rather than just "Who should I clobber next?". The simple fact of the matter is if you're going to try a conquer the world strategy you're most likely going to lose. Probably not badly, but you're going to be outclassed by players who understand this is a game about economic rather than military strategy.

I guess what really bothered me about the article was how offended the author got that someone took some basic ideas from Diplomacy and shook them up in new and interesting ways. Change can be good! Granted, not all change is good and some changes can be downright bad, (I'm looking at you, Special Edition Star Wars.) but I don't think Imperial deserves so much hate for (at least in my opinion) improving a highly frustrating game. And it's not like Diplomacy is the only game that's allowed to be about World War I Europe. It's like saying that a video game about World War II can never be made again after the first Call of Duty game or saying no movies about the Civil War could be made after Gettysburg. People who are interested in history are going to keep coming back to certain periods they like and want to interpret them in new and interesting ways. After all, Dungeons & Dragons got its start because Gary Gygax decided to change how Chainmail worked and Warhammer 40,000 exists because Games Workshop decided to try setting Warhammer in space. Taking inspiration from thing that have come before and changing them has been going on since the days of Shakespeare and probably before that too. To say that Imperial deserves to be trashed because it's a Diplomacy knock-off is a discredit to all sorts of works.

I guess if I had to sum up my main points is if you decide to play Imperial remember that you're not trying to conquer the world. This is not Risk, this is not Diplomacy. It may look like them superficially, but the objective isn't military domination. You're a Swiss banker who wants to make a return on their investment, so act like it! Put on a top hat and monocle! Twirl your mustache! Scoff at the working classes! But most importantly, HAVE FUN. And don't get all bent out of shape if someone takes inspiration from something you liked to make your own thing. After all, it means they liked that thing enough they wanted to make their own version.

- Kalpar


  1. great review, awaiting on this with 2030 expansion included from boardgameguru (should be any day now).
    have you played 2030 version?

    1. Not yet, no. It looks interesting and if I get the chance I'll try to pick it up. It looks like there will be more room for people to expand before coming into conflict which should change the game up a little.