Nico Solitander
Finland
Helsinki
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Prologue: Let me start by saying that while playing the odd wargame from time to time, I am not a wargamer by any standard. But sometimes (such as whenever the new GMT P500 list is up) I wish I were. Then I wish I had the patience to read through 20 pages of rules and pages upon pages of addendum; I wish I had 5 days to play a game; I wish I could smoke a pipe and go "Hmmm" in a baritone voice when my opponent makes a move; I wish we had History Channel; and I wish I had friends with beard; but then something like Imperial comes along and reminds me why eurogames are hard to beat. Importantly, it is a game that takes us back to what Georges Clemenceau already knew: War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men - and wargames are too serious a matter to entrust to wargamers alone. So, instead of reviewing the game as a wargame or through the history of WW1, I will resume my economist-self and review Imperial by its thematic corner-stone concepts - “Imperialism” and “War Bonds”. For me what makes a thematic game is the possibility of understanding the mechanics and even underlying strategies through its theme. And this is also what makes Imperial one of the most thematic games ever.


Me at the ConsimWorld Expo in 2013

About the designer: The game is designed by Walther 'Mac' Gerdts, the German whose father invented the Food Circle, the son became a game designer and introduced the "Rondel" into a large number of his designs: Antike, Imperial, Hamburgum, Navegador, and Antike Duellum. The rondel basically dictates what actions you take in the game, and moving clockwise on it you will only reach a certain number of actions each turn. It’s a simple yet very clever action selection tool and it has for a reason become Gerdt’s signature design element.


The Rondel, Gerdt's signature design element


What the box says:
"Europe in the age of imperialism. International investors try to achieve the greatest influence in Europe. With their bonds, they control the politics of the six imperial nations: Austria Hungary, Italy, France, Great Britain, the German Empire, and Russia. The nations erect factories, build fleets, and deploy armies. The investors watch as their nations expand, wage wars, levy taxes, and collect the proceeds. Since the European nations are under the shifting influence of different investors, new strategic alliances and conflicts arise between them again and again! Each player represents an international investor. Only he who succeeds in increasing his capital and gaining influence in the most powerful European nations will win the imperial competition. Imperial is a varied strategy game without the luck of dice or cards. Two to six players, from about twelve years and up, take on the role of imperial investors. The duration of the game is about two to three hours."

Reviewer provided translation:
"Eurogames in an age where they can beat wargames in their theme turf. You take the role of international capitalists, who shift allegiance and sacrifice soldier blood for a sniff of the silver dollar. Only he who succeeds in suckin' in and suckin' dry the most governments will win the imperial competition. Imperial is a pure economic game without the luck of dice or cards, dressed up as a wargame of Grand strategy. Two and six players make the game virtually unplayable. The duration of the game is about 1,5 hours more than anticipated."

Art, components, rules: The in-game art is very Risk-like and more functional than good-looking. On the map, I think the Benelux countries are too small as often you cannot fit the armies inside the borders. The components (the troops and factories) are very nice wooden pieces but combining their quite "big" size with some of the smaller areas on the map it can be very fiddly to move pieces around without knocking other pieces over. The paper money I could also do without but that's easily replaceable. The rules are quite clearly written, even though I think it would be good to have included some more examples in the rulebook itself even though the included Example-Turn booklet is very good and informative.

Backstory and its effect on gameplay: I will not spend time rehashing the rules, but rather I will concentrate on the theme's backstory and make some comments on how this connects to gameplay and strategy. The game is set in the early stages of WW1, where the players act as international investors. In the setting of eurogames, the editors at PD-Verlag and eggertspiele should get kudos for keeping the WW1-setting as I think most eurogamers are fed up with playing medieval or renaissance merchants in velvet and satin pantaloons. Certainly it tends to eat on the credibility of acting ruthlessly, as is needed in Imperial. Probably Diplomacy helped the theme's cause, and apparently PD wanted to be spared litigation from Winsome Games, so they skipped the railroad barons - the other favourite theme of investor games. Yet I think many of us are thankful that we were spared a WW2-setting, even the most callous investor would feel slightly awkward to be put in the shoes of IBM investing in the Third Reich factories, hence why they jumped to 2030 in the follow-up to Imperial. Rumor has it that the playtesters felt much more comfortable to f**** over African governments playing as the Chinese.



Visual representation of where in the games' role system pyramid Imperial situate


Now, that's just the backstory for the visual representation of the political space, the real backstory (=theme) is not the waging of war, but the bankrolling of war. The use of war bonds, to be more precise. As previously stated, I'm not a wargamer, but I am an economist, and understanding some basics about war bonds will help you avoid making the rookie mistakes (ie. looking at the map and assume it's to be played like Risk): War bonds are a form of debt security, that national governments (in the game; Austria-Hungary, the German Empire, France, Italy, Russia and Great Britain) release to the public and institutional investors (the role of the player) in order to finance wars. The holders of the bonds (the players) are thus lenders, and the issuers (the governments) are borrowers; sometimes when reading the rules some people get the understanding that the players issue the bonds - as the rules state "The players are investors who grant bonds to these nations". But this means that you grant a loan (paying the price of the bond to the government's coffer), and receive the bond certificate as proof of this loan - the governments also pay interest and usually have to repay the principal at a later date (called the maturity of the bond). In the game the interest is fixed, and the interval of when interest is paid is triggered by the investor-space in the rondel. In theory, in the game the value of the bond fluctuates (increases when governments fare well), but in practice this is not triggered until the end of the game when counting the victory points – and the value of the bond rises depending on how many areas are taxed by a nation. Thus the maturity of the bond is also the same as the length of the game.

Historically war bonds were also an important political, propagandistic tool to make the general population feel part of the war, but this aspect is not in the game. I think, however, it is a good choice to strip the imperialism of Imperial from its link to nationalism, as even if that link historically is very strong, it would alienate too many potential players. War bonds were already used in the US Civil War to a limited extent, but during WW1 they became a very important way of financing the war for most of the governments, hence the good fit of the theme. War bonds came in many different denominations in order to make them sellable to as many people as possible, independent of social class - in the game each bond comes in 8 different denominations (from 2M to 25M). In real life, they usually have a yield (meaning the interest paid divided with the face value of the bond) that is lower than for ordinary government bonds. In the picture below you can see an advert for a real Russian WW1 war bond which had a nominal yield of 5.5%.


Adverts for actual war bonds of (clockwise) Austria-Hungary, the German Empire, France, Italy, Russia and Great Britain (adverts not included in the game)


In the game, however, the nominal yield of a war bond is between 32% and 50%, which are extremely high yields that you would not find outside so-called 'junk bonds' that carry very high risks for the investor (for example, currently the Greek government bonds have a yield of around 19%). So the yield is quite unthematic, but this is nitpicking. What the game does capture, however, is that the main contributors to war bonds during WW1 were not the general population but institutional investors and large corporations. In Imperial you take the role of powerful (wealthy) international investors/speculators who pledge allegiance to no one except the Mighty Moolah, but who wield immense political power behind the scenes. Think Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, the Rothschilds, or Georg Wilhelm von Siemens. In the game the biggest lenders hold the most power over the borrowers (governments), meaning that the biggest investor has the governments by the balls and can dictate its action and politics. This is, of course, nothing new in board games, as there are many investor-driven games where you don't pledge allegiance to one corporation (the 18xx-series, Chicago Express etc.), and the biggest shareholder dictates action, but combined with what the bonds are used for (funding wars), it is where Imperial gets interesting and grabs my attention.


Thoughts on Gameplay: Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism


In the black: the good
One of the interesting, yet contentious, aspects of the game is that you cannot sell the bonds, instead you accrue financial profit from the yield of the war bonds. Every time a nation’s pawn lands or passes over the Investor Space on the rondel, all players who have bought bonds of that nation are paid interest from the national coffer. A large part of the early/mid stage of the game revolves around trying to pace the triggering of the investor phase, and the player who controls government has to be careful that there are sufficient funds in the national coffer when the phase is triggered, otherwise it will prove a costly affair. So, the main source of income for the players is the interest of the bonds, but imperiums are not built on profit - but on the circuit of capital accumulation. Translated from economic theory what does this mean? It means that capital (in this case the interest you receive) in its search for growth can transform from one form of capital to another: alternately taking the form of financial capital (in the game: liquid deposits, war bonds), commodity capital (tradable products) or production capital (in the game, armament factories) .


Rare image of Lenin selling Russian war bonds (1918)


5 out of 6 actions of the rondel are clearly situated within the circuit of capital accumulation and the mutation of capital from one form to another: Production of Arms, Taxation, Building of Arms Factories, Investing, and Import of Arms – while the seventh, Movement is a means to an end. The Movement phase is often (but not always) connected to military conquest and war, but it follows the logic of imperialism which entails "the subordination of the use of violence to the rational and continuous pursuit of profit" (ref. Dictionary of Human Geography). It is important to realize that Imperial is a game that simulates capitalism – a very particular stage of capitalism, what VI Lenin (yes that Lenin – who largely built his theory on what transpired in WW1) referred to as the Highest Stage of Capitalism, namely: Imperialism. The sooner you realize that imperialism is not a military concept – but a political economic theory the faster you will grasp how to play this game. A common dictionary definition will mislead you and make you think in military terms, as e.g. Merriam Webster will you believe that “the policy or practice of extending a state's rule over other territories”. So let’s instead look at what Marxist theory has to say about imperialism, starting with Bukharin ; "imperialism [is defined] as the policy of finance capital", and moving on to Lenin:

“..a definition of imperialism ... will include the following five of its basic features:

(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life [Comment: in the game this translates to both the concentration of production capital to a few nations, and to the concentration of financial capital to 2-6 capitalists]
(2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy; [Comment: in the game this translates to the primacy that the financial capital [war bonds] has – and how that capital mutates into industrial capital (factories)]
(3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; [see 2, also the importance of not holding national allegiance based on one bond]
(4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, [Comment: the concentration of power not to the nations that wage the war but to 2-6 capitalists who act as creditors]
(5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. [Comment: well yes, that’s what the game is about]


What this emphasizes, is that everything is about keeping the eyes off the geocentric ball and on the formation/transformation of capital. Wars are waged but they are often there as a way of “dressing the bride”, showing off the power of a nation to other investors so that they feel they must get a share of the success by buying bonds, leading to the nation’s coffer filling with new investment that you as an investor can indirectly use (even though your economy is separate from the government you control), by triggering the investment phase (draining the financial capital of the nation to be paid out as interest), for your own benefit– which more often than not is not aligned with the best of that nation. The most satisfying moments often comes when playing with newbies, wherein you suck them into investing in a country whose government is in your pocket by showcasing some aggressive military conquest– and then you promptly proceed to emptying the coffers of that very same nation by paying out interest leaving no money for further arms or factories. You finalise the deed by just moving on with your financial capital to the next nation - without ever looking back. Another favorite sleight of hand is using your control of one government to protect your capital invested in another country, again by drawing the former country to the brink of bankruptcy. Imperialism at its prime!


How Imperial should be played

In the latter part of the game, Taxation rises to the most important action as that will ultimately trigger the end-game but I will leave a more indepth analysis of that to my Keynsian Strategy article!


In the red: The bad

Theme-wise, I think it would have been a good fit if the players could take loans (bank credits) – now they only act as creditors to the government (through the buying of bonds). Personally I think that any economic game that takes itself seriously in simulating capitalism needs to have this aspect. Another downside related to theme, is that you cannot sell the bonds you acquire: the dressing of the bride and sleight of hand could have been even more intriguing with this aspect included (c.f. 18xx).

If we are to discuss drawbacks based on what is actually in the game, then I think the playing time is a bit long for what you get in complexity. A game of Imperial can easily clock in at three hours with four players if there is at least one newbie or alternatively someone prone to analysis paralysis (AP). Such a long playing time would be passable for a war game or an economic engine with 18xx complexity, but for an economic game that is, in fact, less complex than its exterior suggests (c.f. Power Grid) it's starting to push it. The playing time is also linked to the propensity of analysis paralysis that the game invites, wherein every decision seems more complex than it really is. This can become agonizing when playing with inexperienced players or players prone to over-analyzing. This means that I would not suggest the game for a group of five, let alone six players. The fact that the game is more tactical than strategic also means that the downtime can seldom be used effectively to plan ahead - as by the time it's your turn again you might have lost control of the government you were planning the next move for. This results, at least for me, in illogical in-game decisions wherein I sometimes wrestle control of a government from the most AP-prone player just to get the ball rolling again despite it not being the optimal investment decision. For me this means that the game has a very narrow sweet-spot, namely four players – it is unplayable with 2 and 6, fairly uninteresting with 3, and with 5 players it is highly dependent on the experience of the players.

Something could also be said about the fairly simplistic 1:1 battles, but I think it is OK because the game is NOT about the battles. Also I know of players who prefer to play without the Investor-card rule, as one of the effects of using the investor space is that the person with the Investor card can invest in a war bond of his choice, and then pass on the card to the next player - but I think it adds an element of calculation and foresight which adds to the complexity, a complexity which is needed to justify the long playtime. The inclusion of the Swiss Investor in the 2nd edition has also basically erased the issue with players who have no government to control.

Tit for Tat
The comparisons to the other Rondel games are inevitable but for me Imperial is the Highest Form of not only Capitalism but the rondel games - it's both the theme and the execution that works great. I traded away Antike, soon after getting Imperial. The other point of comparison is the 18xx series, which has many games which validate a long play time better than Imperial does - yet I find myself playing Imperial a lot more often than 18xx-games not least because it is easier to find a group willing to play it and it is so much easier to explain.



Historical review of Imperial from Philadelphia Inquirer: "A quiet little game"


Final verdict: Potential players should not be scared of Imperial thinking that it is a mathematical exercise - it is not, most capitalists are very bad at math (court documents show Bernie Madoff didn't know the difference between linear and nonlinear-models) it is, as the name suggests, an exercise in Imperialism in the Marxian-sense, which ensures a great opportunity to understand capitalism as a practice and theory. It has in my opinion one of the best themes ever in the "Euro-category" of boardgaming and it has a fairly good economic engine running behind it even if it is not as good as some of the engines running behind the better 18xx-games. It is an extremely rewarding game that has risen to my All Time 10 best games-list.

Star cheat-sheet
Randomness
Strategy
Tactics
Brainburn
Rules
Theme
Interaction
Gatewayability
Analysisparalysis proness
Confrontation
Fun factor
Replayablity
  • [+] Dice rolls
Fred Heis
United Kingdom
Stockport
Cheshire
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Amazingly thoughtful and insightful review Nico. Articulate and intelligent with outstanding presentation - my friend you've got the job!
Big fan of Imperial and you've really done it justice.
8 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Asgeir Jonsson
Iceland
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Great review ! I agreee with you the gameplay and the theming in this game makes this an instant classic, should be a top ten on BGG.
2 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Ron
Austria
Vienna
flag msg tools
“It's all in the mind.” ― George Harrison
badge
Devoted Follower of the Most Holy Church of the Evil Bob. Possessed and down the road to become chaotic, evil & naughty. All hail the Evil Bob and his Stargate.
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Very impressive review, Nico! One of the best I've read in some time!
And I agree, a great game too meeple
4 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
G. Gambill
United States
Shawnee on Delaware
Pennsylvania
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Wonderful review. I agree with your points about this game (which is a favorite of mine). I think Navegadoris the best rondel design because all spaces on the rondel are useful throughout the entire game, and even in the endgame. Contrast that with my main complaint about Imperial which is, in the end, the game really becomes about repeating the taxation and invest actions until someone wins.

As a side note, I LOVE your use of historical images and photoshop in this review. Very entertaining and thematic for your review. Well done!
5 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Matt Mehlhoff
United States
Rosemount
Minnesota
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Excellent review! I will note that the war bond posters are very cool but the country order you have in the caption is wrong. Also, in the "In the black" paragraph you state that the government pays interest when landing on or passing the investor space but that is incorrect, they only pay out when LANDING on the space, not just passing over.

Loved the review!
5 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Carsten Loehn
Germany
Kleinostheim
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
Nice original review. I agree on most of the points, but not on the tactic/strategy aspect. Though I read very often that it is about tactics, I feel it is much more strategic then most people think. If you play it the tactical way (it is your turn and try to find the best move) you will usually lose, unless you see the impact of your move on your opponents moves and maybe the whole game. And for me that is very strategic. But I have to admit you need a lot of games to get into that depth. AP is also not that high in my opinion.
1 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Dan Edwards
United States
Shoreline
Washington
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Great review. Well done and clever. Makes me want to check out the game.

I would, however, like to point out that Wargamers are not serious, ponderous individuals.

We just smell that way.
6 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Gabriele Pezzato
Italy
Padova
PD
flag msg tools
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Excellent review and spectacular use of images.

As for the drawback of the game being too long, I've read somewhere that you could reduce the playing time without compromising the experience just by making the nations start on "5" (or even "10") on the scoring track. Have someone tried this solution and can comment on it?
3 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Noel
United States
Unspecified
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Is this WWI themed? I thought it was 19th century.
4 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Nicholas Coelho
United States
Seattle
Washington
flag msg tools
designer
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
My favorite game of all time. My high school buds and I play this every year and despite all of the new games we will try out, this is the one that always has us talking and discussing throughout the night.

Analysis paralysis can be a problem for people who REALLY, really want to win the game but don't know how.

I win about 70% of the games I play of Imperial, and I promise you it is not through tactical play or through mathematical calculation, although timing the investor card and watching a few players' finances at certain points can play a big role. An overall strategic vision and a gauging of other players more often than not leads me to victory, even when I don't anticipate it.

Even if your country is not doing well, there is a delicate skill in playing off of other players perceived actions(through their currently owned bonds and play style) that can leave you with a strong basket of bonds in the final round up. In most of the games I win, I am not the majority holder in the x5 country, but rather my x3-x5 grouping of bonds catapults me past the others who spent some of their cash betting on losers.

Effing brilliant game.
1 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Albert Jones
msg tools
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Personally, I really liked your start rating system:
Star cheat-sheet
Randomness
Strategy
Tactics
Brainburn
Rules
Theme
Interaction
Gatewayability
Spouseliness
Analysisparalysis proness
Confrontation
Fun factor
Replayablity

I haven't seen that one before, but it answers a lot of questions very quickly! any objections to my borrowing it wholesale?
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Nico Solitander
Finland
Helsinki
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Ldayjones wrote:
Personally, I really liked your start rating system:
Star cheat-sheet
Randomness
Strategy
Tactics
Brainburn
Rules
Theme
Interaction
Gatewayability
Spouseliness
Analysisparalysis proness
Confrontation
Fun factor
Replayablity

I haven't seen that one before, but it answers a lot of questions very quickly! any objections to my borrowing it wholesale?


Go for it - everything I come up with is without TM/C and for the commons to use

2 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Rob Scovell
New Zealand
flag msg tools
mbmbmb
Trying to find your Keynesian strategy post. Did you post it?

I love your review, and I love Imperial.
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Greece
Nea Moudania
Ελλάδα
flag msg tools
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Propably you sold me the game!

Great review thanks a lot!

meeple

 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Mark
United States
Poughkeepsie
New York
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Fantastic review! Once again played the game just last night, which was a depressing event given the politics of the moment. When I read your:

nsolitander wrote:
“..we must give a definition of imperialism that will include the following five of its basic features:

(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life
(2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy;
(3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance;
(4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves,
(5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.


I couldn't help but have one of those "history repeating itself" moments. Oligarchs? Check. Hollowing out of governments? Check. Corporate capital dictating government decisions? Check.

All that said, this is a wonderful game, and your review is the clearest articulation that I've read for why I like it. I have to admit, I repeatedly get sucked into playing this as a war game, and forgetting that capital has no ego investment in anything beyond whatever it takes to accrue more capital. This is a value system that I abhor...vulture capitalism at its finest... which is partially what makes me like the game so much. It forces me to think in ways that don't come naturally. I rarely play the game well, but always enjoy the game. That's a rarity.
6 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Front Page | Welcome | Contact | Privacy Policy | Terms of Service | Advertise | Support BGG | Feeds RSS
Geekdo, BoardGameGeek, the Geekdo logo, and the BoardGameGeek logo are trademarks of BoardGameGeek, LLC.