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In the Shadow of the Emperor» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Initial Review - 2-player rss

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John McKelvy
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Burlington
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Overview
ITSOTE portrays the power struggles between families in medieval Germany. The goal of the game is to use cardplay and area control (in a very abstract sense) to gain power (victory points.) This is very much a Euro game and not at all "Ameritrashy." I asked for this for Xmas because a) I like multiplayer games and have been getting more comfortable with euros, and b) I have a huge interest in the history of medieval Germany. I've visited five of the seven electorates depicted in the game, and actually lived in the city of Mainz. I would have purchased this simply as a memento. Fortunately, the game has a lot going for it.

This review is not a detailed breakdown of rules; others have provided that far more completely than I could. Nonethless:


Summary of gameplay

- The game starts with players having a roughly equal amount of assets on the board.

A typical turn then goes as follows:

1) Players purchase action cards and execute them. These allow players to manipulate their nobles, knights, cities, and other assets.

2) Players determine control of electorates. Power points are summed for each player in an electorate as follows:
- Married Noble: two power points
- Knights: One power Point
- Single Noble: one power point
- City: one power point.

The player with the most power points then (usually) controls the electorate; the emperor's choice breaks ties.

3) Voting for Emperor
Players vote to determine the emperor from a choice of two players (current emperor and challenger)
- Each electorate gets a vote
- The King of Bohemia gets an additional vote
- A number of action cards can add or remove votes from the election

4) Aging & inheritance
- Nobles who are "aged 45" are removed from the board.
- Depending on the actions cards bought earlier, each player gains a new single noble, a victory point, or higher income.

5) Income
- Each calculates income, which is based on the number of cities one controls and a few other factors.

6) Rinse and repeat.

Components
In general, the components are functional and attractive. The artists chose a fairly soft pastel color palette, which may/may not be to your taste. I thought it was (with one exception) fine. One significant gripe: the cardboard tiles in green and yellow are very difficult for me to distinguish - I suffer from red-green color blindness. It would have been simple for the designer to increase the contrast here or choose an obviously different color - say, black or white.

In the plus column, the graphic design and iconography are generally very strong. For the first round of my first game, the symbols on the board and cards made no sense whatsoever - I had a strong case of "RFTG-itis." On about the third round, everything clicked. Don't worry about the icons and cards - they become second nature very quickly.

Theme?
The nominal theme of this game has been discussed above. However, it is a very thin veneer over the abstract mechanics. For example, the area-control mechanic is totally a-historic. In reality, electorates generally passed from father to son (or nephews, in the case of the spiritual electorates) via inheritance. Here, the mechanic of control is very abstract: pack the region with your own assets, called "power points" (nobles, knights, and cities). Whoever controls the highest total of power points, shown by towers on the components, wins the electorate.

There are, however, some nice thematic touches, mostly concerning a faction's nobles. The nobles age, and normally last 4 turns before expiring of natural causes. Also, a noble can be single or married. This matters because only bachelors can control the spiritual electorates (IE, the archbishoprics of Mainz, Cologne, and Trier).

Mechanics
Very solid with opportunities for multiple strategies. This game is well designed. The heart of this game is the choice of action cards. Each player starting with the emperor, chooses cards to play that confer various advantages. Players may do things like Place a noble onto the board, move a noble from one electorate to another, place a city, promote a knight to the ranks of the nobility, marry a noble to increase his power points, etc. All of the many actions available are useful and can be played in tactically interesting ways. One can adopt an elections-based strategy: choose the actions that confer advantages in imperial elections. (The player who controls the emperor gains numerous privileges in game.) OR, one can try to maximize short-term victory points.

What makes the game tick are the methods in which actions are limited. Firstly, each player is constrained by income: it costs money to buy and play each card. Secondly, the number of cards of each type are limited. Therefore, a player needs to both budget his income AND try to predict what actions will be available on his turn. This can result in a lot of AP, but can also be a lot of fun.

This game has perfect information. Each player knows what actions remain to be played and the current status of each electorate. There are no randomization mechanics whatsoever (other than the initial selection of the emperor.) A two-player game, therefore, becomes a contest to see who can better calculate a short-term and long-term strategy for gaining the most points. As others have written, "chesslike" is a pretty good description. There is only chaos in the sense that there are far more opportunities for actions than actions that you can afford to make. Combined with the skin-deep theme, this is almost-but-not-quite an abstract.

I have not played 4-player yet. I predict that more players will make the game more chaotic (although not random). For certain styles of players, this will introduce more diplomatic gameplay and less calculation-overhead. Also, in 2-player the Emperor has a lot of advantages, and the other player can feel blocked and powerless during the game. I don't know if more gameplay will minimize this or point out a significant imbalance.

Verdict
Excellent for those seeking an abstract, tactical game with interesting decisions. Will frustrate those who dislike lots of calculation and prediction. Personally, I like it as a two-player game but cannot wait to get it to the table with four, as I hope that four players will add in a bit of unpredictably that the two-player game lacks.
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Eugene
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I played my first 4p game of ItSotE just last week. It left me very impressed, a very Wallace-styled game without any of the trademark Wallace loose ends. That the game would succeed as a 2p comes as a bit of a surprise.
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Manchuwok
Canada
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I haven't play it, but the consensus has always seemed to be that it's virtually unplayable with 3, let alone two. That idea may need revisiting.
 
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Fritz Mulnar
Germany
Berlin
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some electorates are removed from play in the two player game, and some action cards in the three and two player game.
 
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A.J. Sansom
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Saint Charles
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I find the game very playable (and even fun) with only two players. We make the following changes from the normal four player game:

1) Remove 2 electorates from play (1 religious and 1 secular)
2) The non-emperor player puts out a 35 year old elector instead of a 45 year old
3) Any ties of power in a electorate result in the elector spot being vacated instead of having the emperor break the tie (the only tie that the emperor breaks now is a tie in the emperor election)

With these, I've had great success with the game and am looking forward to playing again (hopefully soon!).
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Elizabeth Freiheit
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That's good to know. My copy of this game has been sitting waiting in vain for there to be 4 people at my table. Usually there's only 2 or over 5...Maybe I'll finally be able to give this a try...
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Chris Rohloff
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Recently received this game in a trade here on bgg and played it last weekend for the first time.
We played the 2-player version and after a few rounds really got into it. I liked the chess-like nature of it.

I would enjoy playing this as a 2-player again. But look forward to trying it with more players.
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