To see a full playthrough of Imperial Settlers, click here.
What is this game about?
After playing so much 51st State recently, I knew it was time to give some attention its close relative, Imperial Settlers. Like 51st State, Imperial Settlers is a card-driven engine building game in which you maximize the use of your resources in order to build the most expansive empire you possibly can. The theme, however, is deceptively cute—while 51st State is set in a post-apocalyptic America, in Imperial Settlers you can play as adorably illustrated Romans, Barbarians, Egyptians, or Japanese as you vie for control of new land. Expansions have also added the ability to play as the Aztecs or Atlanteans.
In 51st State, all players draw entirely from a common deck of cards that represent the locations you can build, destroy, or make deals with. In Imperial Settlers, you work with a common deck and a faction deck. This gives the game some random elements, but also allows you to control your deck a bit better and to pursue specific strategies. Common location cards are also used as the foundations for faction locations, a mechanism which encourages you to develop properties in ways that were possible (but not required) in 51st State.
How does it play solo?
Like its cousin, Imperial Settlers has rules for playing against an AI player who acquires locations and attempts to raze yours. Although I thought that the rulebook explanation for AI attacks was not very clear, once I understood what to do I liked how they work. In 51st State, it can be confusing to figure out which of your locations need to be razed because there might be multiple symbols on the cards that match. In Imperial Settlers, it's much more obvious which specific combinations of card symbols will lead to a successful attack on your empire.
In fact, Imperial Settlers has much tighter rules in general, and that makes the game a lot more pleasant to play. There are only so many rounds in a game. Your goods tokens are used in more intuitive ways. The win conditions are a bit different because you only have to build enough faction locations to outnumber the common ones acquired by the AI—a choice that emphasizes how important it is to build, build, build. Of course, that choice turns victory points into a secondary concern in the base solo game, used only to calculate high scores.
The presence of victory points as a secondary factor, not a win condition, could have been a problem for Imperial Settlers. It's not that tough to win a basic solo game, and victory points don't motivate every gamer to keep striving for greater victories. All of this might have been a problem, but for one thing: Imperial Settlers has a campaign mode. It was released online for free, and it provides an ongoing challenge that makes the solo game shine.
Campaign mode is exciting and satisfying because it allows you to reap the rewards of skillful play over time. After each successive victory, your empire gains a province. Provinces bring rewards... but also upkeep costs. It's a delicate balance that adds a lot of drama to later games.
Campaign mode also gives meaning to your victory points. Your VPs from earlier games can be spent on achievements—upgrades that give you advantages in future ones. Victory points are also, however, part of the cost to keep provinces. If you want to purchase more exciting achievements, you will want to earn as many VP as possible during each game. Giving actual purpose to the VP I earned in Imperial Settlers really made it work for me. The thrill of getting a tangible reward for performing well made me care about my VP count in ways that I typically don't if I am just earning them to go for a high score.
I should also note that Imperial Settlers seems to be receiving plenty of ongoing support. It has seen several expansions since its 2014 release, including two new factions and several smaller packs that add fresh mechanics and include a couple of cards aimed at solo players.
Imperial Settlers is an excellent game. I like the theme of 51st State better, but the design of Imperial Settlers is tighter, and the Latin teacher in me loves any game in which you can play as the Romans. Each faction plays differently enough to keep things interesting, and there is enough randomness in Imperial Settlers to prevent it from being a pure puzzle in solo mode. This means that sometimes the cards are going to screw you over, but I'm generally okay with that in board games.
I'm also happy to see that Imperial Settlers continues to receive a healthy amount of support from Portal Games. To me, that indicates that this game will continue to stay alive and feel fresh for years to come, which makes it a good investment if you only want to own so many board games. I'd like to see Campaign Mode continue to receive interest and support as well, since that is what makes Imperial Settlers such a strong choice for solo players.
Do I recommend it?
Yes. The campaign mode is a necessity in my opinion, but with it, YES. If you like to build game engines and play around with card interactions, and if you can handle occasionally drawing a really bad hand of cards, this game is for you.
Overall Rating: 4 stars
5 stars – I love it!
4 stars – I really like it.
3 stars – I like it.
2 stars – It's okay.
1 star – Meh.