Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North First Thoughts Review

Imperial Settlers Empire of the North Review First Thoughts

Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North is a stand-alone, spin-off game set in the “Imperial Settlers Universe”, and although it still hits all the major beats you’d expect from an Imperial Settlers game it has a different...rhythm.  

It’s like a new, collaborative song from a well known band, you instantly know its them but its different enough to make you second guess what you are hearing.  Kind of like when Ed Sheeran did a song with Justin Beeber.  Except Empires of the North isn’t utter bollocks, in fact, it’s rather good.

Steve and I were fortunate enough to get the opportunity to sit down with the big man himself, Ignacy Trzewiczek, during the UK Games Expo and try Empires of the North.  We did bump into Mike Barnes from Who Dares Rolls on the way to this meeting, which just proves that if something can go wrong: Mike Barnes.

Your fledgling empire is small and weak, and the North is vast and hard.  The only way to stay alive is to expand, pillaging settlements, conquering new lands and doing what you can to improve the land already under your control.  You’ll be carefully and skillfully building up your tableau each turn in order to provide resources at the right time in order to execute your plan.  However, there is more than a tableau building game here.  There is a Rather NiftyTM hand management system going on and a Rather NiftyTM worker placement element too.

Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North First Thoughts Review My Empire

Each turn, players will draw four new Clan Cards into their hand, these cards, for the most part are locations that you’ll be able to build within your empire, each of which will grant access to new abilities and resources.  You’ll also find in your unique Clan deck some Boost cards - which from the card backs you can see coming (another Nifty ThingTM), these Boost cards, as the name suggests boost your efficiency with an immediate one time payout, providing you meet the criteria of the card.  However, to add these cards to your actual hand of cards you’ll need to pay for them.  And you pay for them in the shape of workers.

Already, mere seconds into the game, let alone the round and you are making decisions which will significantly impact your engine.  You need workers (little pink male and female meeples) to activate the location cards in your empire, but you need to spend them to gain the cards which you can then build.  Already you’re in a bind.

Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North First Thoughts Review Steve Deep In Thought

And it doesn't stop there.  The next Nifty ThingTM is the Command Wheel, which in essence is a worker placement system with a twist.  There are five commands, arranged randomly into a circle each game, these commands will let you Harvest your fields, construct one of your cards for free, add more cards to your hand, add more workers to your pool and most importantly, to sail.  What is especially interesting about this though is that you only have two Command tokens.  However, you are able to reactivate them at the cost of paying one apple for each one, but, if you reactivate a token it can only move to one of it's adjacent commands and you can only reactivate each token once.

Further to this, you can use your Command tokens and your hand of cards and pre-established location cards in any order, mixing-and-matching these different "activations", I suppose you could call them, as you like.  The combination of the  three different intertwined mechanics creates a rather complex and altogether pleasant labyrinth of planning, choices and decisions.

Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North First Thoughts Review Bunch of Drunkards

One of the main actions of the game, and one that is thematically central to it, is the idea of expeditions.  One of the easiest ways to get resources and abilities is to sail over to a nearby island and pillage it.  Which is good in the short term (in the game, I'm a pretty staunch believer that pillaging is a Bad Thing), but you may want to conquer the island instead, adding it to your empire and thereby gaining the continual effects of the island.  But that requires the Raid token, and they are also good for stuffing your opponent.  And if you are going to sail off and conquer a land why not go to one of the Distant Lands which are by far the more bountiful.  But to do that you need fish and a Raid token.  Already this plan is expensive.

But it’ll be worth it.

If you get there first.

Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North First Thoughts Review Setting Sail

The Expedition board is a first-come-first-served affair, and the available islands are refreshed each round, meaning if you do plan to go, you need to plan quick and act fast.  But you can only sail by using an action on the Command Wheel.  Then you realise you also need to This and That, so if you’re going to sail you need an apple to reactivate your command token.  As you might be able to discern, Empires of the North is a wonderfully spun yet simple engine builder.

This notion of “plan quick and act fast” pretty much perfectly encapsulates Empires of the North for me.  Player turns are quick and snappy, you have just enough time between your turns to work out what the next step in your Grand Plan is, as this game rings with options.  You can pretty quickly work out what you need to do and there are multiple ways to do it  What you’ll spend your time doing mostly is devising the optimal route to that goal.

To coin another term, Empires of the North is a Two-Handed GameTM, with one hand you’re managing your hand of cards, with the other your triggering actions and commands and all the while you have one eye on the Expedition board and the other on your opponent’s empires.  There’s lots of little things going on, there’s lots of little choices to make but I never felt out of control or lost.

Yes, I rather enjoyed the ass whooping Steve dished out, and the more I think about this game, the more I want to play it again.

This review is based on a full demonstration during the UK Games Expo and was very close to the final version, as such the final product may look, smell, feel or play completely differently to that experienced.
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