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Subject: The Wheel Turns Again: A Look at Imperius (a Space-Biff! review) rss

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Daniel Thurot
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Salt Lake City
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The Wheel Turns Again: A Look at Imperius

Remember Solstice? It would be forgivable if you didn’t, since it’s one of the few games I’ve featured for Best Week that nobody actually played.

But here’s the thing. Imperius — which is Solstice but with some significant polish, expanded artwork, and a way more generic name — is coming to Kickstarter tomorrow, and I want to tell you why it should be the target of your latest machinations.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The ruling family of a galactic empire is undergoing major restructuring, and a bunch of noble houses have their eyes and aspirations on the throne. Unfortunately, planting their leather-clad buttocks on the royal rocker won’t be determined by a round of musical chairs. Instead, they’ll have to engage in a bunch of backstabbing, intrigue, and wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels scheming to claim their birthright.

Business as usual for interstellar empires, right? Well, what sets Imperius apart (and Solstice before it) is that it doesn’t waste your time getting to the good stuff. It reads like the fluff for what will be a five-hour game with a few huge battles at the end, then instead veers into some very interesting territory. It’s fast, hard-hitting, and lets you get up to no good within about thirty seconds of setup. From the very first draft of the first hand of cards—

Now just hold on and let me get to the twist.

Yes, this is a card drafting game. But it’s unlike any card drafting game you’ve played before. Unless you played Solstice, in which case you’re one of five people who are already fully aware how solid this thing is.

Here’s how it works. Before you on the table are some imperial worlds, each of which is just begging to be brought under your thumb. In order to secure their loyalty, you need agents. Ambassadors and assassins, which are basically the same thing but with different uses for their pointy ends. Fragile nobles and hardy commanders, maybe the odd elder with their own peculiar set of connections, perhaps some manipulation of galactic events. All are essential tools within the rucksack of the galactic spokesman.

The twist, though, is that some of these agents are already in your employ, while the others belong to your rival houses. And when you draft your hand, the very same hand you’ll be deploying onto planets in order to bring them to heel, you’ll be picking from everyone’s pool of available talent. Picture any other drafting game, except that in addition to the cards that will benefit you, you’re also selecting cards that can only be used by your enemies.

Yeah. It’s nuts.

That’s what makes Imperius unique. What makes it shine is that you’re never without options, even when the game conspires to make it feel like you’re drowning. Once everyone has picked their hand, the last undrafted cards are the first wave sent to each planet. The game has already been afoot since that first selection, but this is the moment it comes alive, everyone leaning forward to inspect the lay of the land. Here’s one house’s elder, her ability worthless since she wasn’t deployed by her kin, but adding considerable influence all the same. Over there lies an assassin, unlikely to find any success unless prey is dangled right in front of him. And, ah, here’s an event, usable by anyone smart enough to take advantage of its presence. Take it all in, because these are the first tidbits of information that a shrewd house will be able to leverage into victory.

From there, Imperius becomes a game of information brokerage, subtle manipulation, and undercutting your competition in the cleverest possible ways. One by one, everyone sends a card down onto the various planets, then another, until everyone’s pool of agents has been deployed. It’s an escalating series of feints, baits, and closing jaws, culminating in a final crescendo when each planet’s cards are revealed, ordered, and resolved.

Essential to the process is the fact that each world can house two hidden cards, nuggets of concealed information that might hide something benign or an agent with an acid-tipped kindjal. You’re free to play cards either face-up or -down until a world hits its limit, and it’s tempting to always conceal those first couple cards. That’s the thing about Imperius, though, because the obvious move isn’t often the smart one. That enemy noble you’re holding? Go ahead and send it to a planet as loudly as possible, effectively drawing any would-be assassins away from your own noble that you hope to secret away somewhere else. Want to try to get a particular player to leave a high-value world alone? Deploy his royal guard to some forgotten backwater and watch as he scrambles to control sand while you’re securing a garden world. Want to prompt a bidding war that neither side will likely win? Dispatch competing commanders to a place where you’re already secretly the strongest house.

If this sounds tricky, it’s meant to be. At times, all these machinations seem perplexing. Your cards aren’t your own, you have limited information on each planet, and the fact that everybody is hatching their own plots at the same time can give it a certain hazy vagueness, as though nothing in the galaxy is stable. It isn’t uncommon for first-timers to throw their hands into the air and declare themselves too soft-bellied to continue.

Such is the devious nature of imperial politics. Imperius revels in the mistake, the error, the flub, with nearly every misstep somehow benefiting an opponent. But rather than being capricious, this is a game of tightly-coiled control among the randomness of an uncaring universe. It’s about steering the stable course through a churning sea, about knowing what information to make public and what to keep secret, about cracking a smile at a precisely timed moment, about dangling bait in front of a predator because you’ve got a pistol hidden behind your back.

And then, with all its assassinations and scoring effects and failed conquests done with, you shuffle everything back together and give it another try. For such an unforgiving game, Imperius doesn’t mind giving you multiple chances to catch up. It’s nice like that.

As I wrote when I reviewed Solstice, between its juicy glimmers of concealed information and the way it forces everyone to work with woefully hostile hands, this is very nearly a perfect short-form game. The same goes for Imperius but doubly so. It’s prettier, more streamlined, and somehow hits even harder. It’s anvil-light and feather-heavy at the same time, and makes for one of the most devious half hours of any game night.

This review was originally published at Space-Biff!, so if you like what you see, please head over there for more.

Also, I suppose I ought to plug my Geeklist of reviews:

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