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Subject: Empires in Conflict, Worlds in the Balance rss

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Donald Wilbur III
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Imperium is a two player game of interstellar conflict pitting the fledging Terran forces against one of the provinces of a vast interstellar empire. While the game is 30 years old now it has some very modern features which are still impressive today. It is an asymmetrical war game, with the two sides featuring radically different ships, economics, and politics.

Imperium can be played as a single scenario or, more rewardingly as a campaign game where each war’s end creates the starting setup for the next one. Surprisingly I’ve never seen this feature in any other war game. Perhaps it was just too far ahead of it’s time.

The basic sequence of play goes something like this:
1) First Player Economics/Politics (In the beginning the first player is the Terrans)
2) First Player Move
3) First Player Combat
4) Second Player Reaction Move
5) Second Player Reaction Combat
6) First Player Move
7) First Player Combat
8) Second Player Economics/Politics
9) Second Player Move
10) Second Player Combat
11) First Player Reaction Move
12) First Player Reaction Combat
13) Second Player Move
14) Second Player Combat
15) Check for end of War

The economic/political phase of the game is very different for the two sides. The Imperium gets only small tribute from its possessions but has a budget granted by the empire. This budget can only be increased by making short term political sacrifices which may cause the Imperium to lose the current war, but such increases are generally permanent. The Imperium also has random imperial intervention events on a regular basis. Most of these events are beneficial or neutral, but a few are really disasterous. The Imperium also provides the Imperial player a reliable stream of free replacement ships.

The Terran player on the other hand derives all of their income from their worlds and outposts (worlds being especially crucial). They are immune from the arbitrary influence of politics and try to win by straightforward expansion.

The forces the two sides have available are radically different. Combat is potentially fought at two different ranges with two different kinds of weapons: missle and beam. The Imperial ships are generally well balanced with a good mix of beam and missle weapons. The Terran ships mostly concentrate on beam weapons, which is unfortunate since beam combat is much less likely to occur. To compensate they have built a couple of ships (Missle Boats and Strike Cruisers) that really entirely on missles. While this helps a bit, it also means that Terran forces don’t work together very well.

By and large the quality of small Terran ships is quite poor in comparison to their Imperial counterparts. The Terran big ships are somewhat better than those of the Imperium and the Imperial player must appeal to the Emperor for permission to build big ships but: a) the Imperium replaces lost big ships for free, and b) small ships are generally better than big ships.

With all this it would appear that the Terrans are at a big disadvantage vs the Imperium. But there are a couple of balancing factor:s the Terrans have MORE small ships than the Imperium and the Terran ships are cheaper and easier to maintain. This means that if the two sides have roughly equal positions the Imperium will have an early advantage, but if the Terrans can hang in there, they reach a point where THEY have the advantage. (But if they don’t strike while the iron is hot, this advantage will go back to the Imperium!)

Movement is done on a map that is both point-to-point and hex-grid. By far the most important movement is done by the point-to-point jump routes. When moving point-to-point, movement is nearly unlimited (with two important caveats). Not all ships can move off the jump routes (sublight movement). If they do they only move one hex per phase. Except for Monitors (big ships that can’t jump move) sublight movement is rarely useful.

Ships may move any number of jumps during their own turn. But if they encounter even a single armed enemy ship they must stop. In practice this means leaving sacrificial small ship stacks out to prevent the enemy from penetrating deep into your territory. The long term effect on play is that both sides tend to build up large forces until one side either has a big advantage and tries to push it, or decides to risk it all on a big battle.

The other caveat about movement is the Reaction phase. The player who has the turn takes a normal (unlimited) move and then the other player gets a “Reaction”. The reacting player can only move one stack and can’t move any ship in that stack more than 3 jumps. This feature breaks up the down-time of the play sequence.

Combat occurs on three different levels: ship-to-ship (the most common and arguably most important), planetary interaction, and ground combat. The ship to ship combat is simple and fun, if not in anyway realistic. The other two combat levels are somewhat lame in comparison, but essential for winning the game.

Combat uses a series of combat results tables. Ships at long range use the missle table, ships at short range use the more deadly beam table. All combat begins at long range and is randomly determined after that. Planetary interaction depends on the number of missles the attacker has and then the type of target being attacked.

Ground combat is carried out by ground troops of two types. Jump troops are generally more powerful than regular troops and have advantages landing on planets, but against pure regular troops they are attacked before they can retaliate..

Winning and losing individual wars is determined by the glory level. Glory goes up when the Imperial player conquers worlds and outposts. Glory is lost when the Terran player conquers worlds and outposts and when the Imperial player appeals to the Emperor. As the war drags on, the level of Glory required for a victory becomes narrower (higher for the Terrans, lower for the Imperium).

After a war has ended in a campaign there is a peace sequence. Long term peace causes both sides to lose many ships and other forces to attrition, but it also allows conquered worlds to switch sides. The terms of peace are, strangely enough, more severe for the winners than for the losers (one of the few rules I disagree with). I think the idea is to rebalance the situation. But the Imperium can often “lose” the war while gaining territory which is devastating for the Terrans.

Imperium is probably the best two player strategic space war game ever created. The campaign game is an epic battle for survival. The forces are asymmetrical yet carefully balanced. The strategies for winning must take into account the numerous economic and combat difference in the two sides.

While I believe the two sides are well balanced, it is much trickier to play the Terrans well. The advantages of the Imperium are more clearly obvious and the play of their forces is simpler and more generally aggressive. But the more obscure Terran advantages can become overwhelming if the Terrans are allowed to grow.

Overall Ratings:
Components: 7/10 nothing special, the map is cool tho.
Rules: 6/10 could be much clearer.
Complexity: more complex than Hammer of the Scots, less complex than Wilderness War.
Balance: 8/10 tho less experienced players will have a hard time with the Terrans.
Replay value: scenario 5/10 (why would you only play the scenario?) campaign 9/10
Luck: moderate – lots of dice rolling, but so much it tends to balance out. Terran players will curse the range roll, Imperial players will curse maintenance and appeal rolls.
Tactics: 7/10 the map has its tricks and traps and matching up in combat is not without its pitfalls.
Strategy: 9/10 knowing what to build, when to end wars, when to fight, when to conquer are all very difficult calculations.

Overall: 8/10

This is an excellent game. In many aspects way ahead of its time. It has some dated features (four pages of charts to roll on, poorly written rules) but after all these years I haven’t seen a better two player space war game.

(NOTE: Do not confuse this with the Avalanche Press game that followed!)
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Steven Johnson
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You might mention the sister game, Dark Nebula. Since it is balanced between the players, would it be a better intro game?
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Donald Wilbur III
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Dark Nebula is okay, but I wouldn't recommend it for the beginner. Our feeling was that it just wasn't as well designed as Imperium. It has some interesting twists tho so if you're an Imperium fan already I would recommend giving it a try. But I don't remember it being in any way superior to Imperium.
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M St
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gilesclone wrote:
Imperium can be played as a single scenario or, more rewardingly as a campaign game where each war’s end creates the starting setup for the next one. Surprisingly I’ve never seen this feature in any other war game. Perhaps it was just too far ahead of it’s time.


West End's Web and Starship has that feature. This is another excellent game, as good as Imperium, but is also a 3-player game, a constellation that is hard to pull off. Probably the best 3-player game I have seen.
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Jamie Slaughter
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gilesclone wrote:


This budget can only be increased by making short term political sacrifices which may cause the Imperium to lose the current war, but such increases are generally permanent.



This is not true...at least in the GDW version of the game I have. Under the Imperial Budget Increase table, it states that budget increases are good until the end of a war.
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Gerry Smit
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And I thought they were permanent. THough that's a 20-30 year old memory...

IIRC you can lose build permission during peace time, but it isn't an automatic thing.
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Jamie Slaughter
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You can lose permission to build certain ships provided youve already been allowed to build them in the first place, but monetary increases are available until the end of the current war.
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Cassandra Harbinger
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That's a big problem for the Imperium, because while the Terrans can increase their budgets by creating/occupying Worlds (8 Points) The Imperium gets 1 Point per World or Outpost. This was to balance the Imperial Budget.

I believe that Budget Increase from being on the Loyalist side (if they win) of a Civil War are permanent.
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Chris Hansen
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cassandraharbinger wrote:
That's a big problem for the Imperium, because while the Terrans can increase their budgets by creating/occupying Worlds (8 Points) The Imperium gets 1 Point per World or Outpost. This was to balance the Imperial Budget.

I believe that Budget Increase from being on the Loyalist side (if they win) of a Civil War are permanent.


Yes, in the games I've played, keeping the Terran player away from worlds is probably the main concern for the Imperials in the early going, and one that can be difficult to achieve against an experienced Terran player.

You are correct about the budget increase via Civil War. I think the confusion about the budget increases is due to the differences in the rules between the original Conflict Games/GDW version of the game where the increases on the appeals table were permanent, and the 2nd edition version of the game where they only lasted until the end of the war. But in both editions the Civil War increase is permanent.
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Steve
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Nomorebeef wrote:
gilesclone wrote:


This budget can only be increased by making short term political sacrifices which may cause the Imperium to lose the current war, but such increases are generally permanent.



This is not true...at least in the GDW version of the game I have. Under the Imperial Budget Increase table, it states that budget increases are good until the end of a war.

Yes, you are correct.

This change from the 1st Edition rules means that the Imperials are going to be poor forever. Civil Wars are rare. Placing OP is expensive and there are only 11 empty Planitary Surface Boxes that you can place them in (in "Imperial Space"). They are so poor that it takes their entire at start income to buy 1 BB and they need permission 1st anyway.

Many Terran players never buy any ship that has a Maint number larger than 1, these include Scouts, Mother Ships, Fighters, Missile Boats and Transports. They use their TR as sacrifical suicide ECM decoy ships to take hits at long range so their SC can live long enough to reach close range. This combined with their 40% more income at the start lets them control what ships the Imperials can fire at.

What this means is that many of the counters provided in the game will never be used. Worse than that, many of the ship types will not even ever see the light of a star.

If I had total control of it, I would provide 2 different designs for several of the ship types. Generally, you never have more than 5 of any of the larger types at a time. I would change some of the PDM into more troops. If I had more counters to play with I would expand the number of types of "System Ships" (they can't make jumps) from 2 to 6 by making medium and heavy sizes of both the current ones. I would arm some of the Ftr carrying ships and Transports. I would consider adding Orbiting Space Forts to replace much of the PDM's function.

Don't get me wrong. The game is a great game to buy. There are at least 3 complete sets of variant rules for it. There are several beautiful variant maps you can download. I love it as a game design kit. You can make your own ship designs almost without limit. I have made rule changes to make the bigger ships more survivable and therefore a great buy (instead of a terrible buy). Enjoy.
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Ichirou wrote:
cassandraharbinger wrote:
That's a big problem for the Imperium, because while the Terrans can increase their budgets by creating/occupying Worlds (8 Points) The Imperium gets 1 Point per World or Outpost. This was to balance the Imperial Budget.

I believe that Budget Increase from being on the Loyalist side (if they win) of a Civil War are permanent.


Yes, in the games I've played, keeping the Terran player away from worlds is probably the main concern for the Imperials in the early going, and one that can be difficult to achieve against an experienced Terran player.

You are correct about the budget increase via Civil War. I think the confusion about the budget increases is due to the differences in the rules between the original Conflict Games/GDW version of the game where the increases on the appeals table were permanent, and the 2nd edition version of the game where they only lasted until the end of the war. But in both editions the Civil War increase is permanent.
This is a HUGE difference between the rule sets. One basically puts a glass ceiling on the Imperial income, while the other places the onus on the Terrans to grow their economy to keep up! I can see how people's views as to game balance are quite different depending on which edition they are playing!
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