Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North – Shallow Waters

  • Designers: Joanna Kijanka and Ignacy Trzewiczek
  • Artist: Roman Kucharski
  • Publisher: Portal Games
  • Release Date: July 2019

Luke: Imperial Settlers; what can be said about this empire-sized tableau-building game that hasn’t already been said?

Phil: That you’re not a big fan of it?

Luke: I certainly gave it my best, buying every expansion that came out for a few years, but when it comes down to it, Ignacy’s popular series asked too much of the average player for my taste.

Phil: It’s honestly a game that, to me, doesn’t know what audience it wants to appeal to. It’s loose and relaxed mechanically but suggests you deck-build, yet how you can build your decks is pretty limited. It feels like a euro game most of the time, but you can attack your opponent’s buildings for resources. Except some expansions encourage players to work together, building off each other’s actions.

Luke: It’s a bit of a hodge-podge of ideas, and I know some people who love it dearly from that flexibility, but I just didn’t feel like the core of the game did much to keep me at the table.

Phil: And then Empires of the North sailed from the distant horizon, a game that promised to be a little lighter and less punishing. Certainly an appealing idea… in theory.

Luke: Empires of the North is a similar beast to the original game in a few ways; they use most of the same resources, players are still building up their civilization until a capstone is reached, and there’s a solo mode that’s fairly popular.

Phil: Yet the changes are pretty substantial. Gone is deck-building in the favor of each faction having 2 personalized, contained 30-card decks, each with their own nuances and playstyles. No longer are there public buildings to select from; players play with their own deck of cards for the whole game.

And there’s very little in the form of player interaction, positive or negative, outside of some expansion factions that we haven’t played with.

Luke: Empires embraces the euro end of the spectrum, and that’s good thing, servicing the game design in a big way.

Phil: We could discuss the multiplayer format, but we can’t say that we’d recommend it; really, this game shines best when it’s played solo.

Luke: In the base game box, there are a collection of scenarios to be experienced, each with their own themes, slight rules changes, and focuses that make for a different game experience each time you play. Couple that with the 6 decks in the base box and you’ve got a ton of replayability.

Phil: And there are more on the way, including some recently released PnP scenarios, including a Game of Thrones-inspired set-up where you’re defending the Wall from hoards of Frost Giants.

Luke: After choosing your starting set-up, players will gain income and draw cards at the start of each round. How many you keep is determined by how many workers you’d like to spend, 1 per card. Unlike Imperial Settlers, workers are set aside, and at the end of the round, you get them all back.

Then, 5 tokens are shuffled randomly, with one being pulled to determine an event specific to your scenario. These can be good or bad, depending on how difficult your chosen situation is.

Phil: Players can either play cards in front of them, take actions that their tableau provides, or spend an action token.

Cards are played as usual, with players paying resources to put them in play. They either provide passive buffs, such as additional income, or abilities that often require an additional cost.

Luke: Action points are the interesting wrinkle in the game design; players spend their tokens on an action wheel randomly assembled at the start of the game. Then, that same action token can be used a 2nd time, but only on actions adjacent to where your token was originally placed.

Phil: The actions are:

  • Explore: Draw a card from your personal deck.
  • Populate: Add a worker to your resource pool.
  • Construct: Build a card for free.
  • Harvest: Gain the resources from a single income card.
  • Sail: Send a boat to the sailing queue (more on that later).

Some cards instants that can only played when a player takes a specific action from this wheel, giving them a 1-time buff that fits that factions style.

Luke: Once you’ve done as much as you can, you choose which islands you send your boats to, assuming you took the Sail action. Each island will either give you free resources or an action that you can use on future turns, assuming you have the axe to spend to conquer it. Some islands are closer, meaning they are easier to use, whereas others are distant and require you to spend a fish to feed yourself during the long journey.

Phil: At the end of the round, each action space with your token on it gets flipped to its more expensive side, requiring you to pay extra resources to use it in the following round. Additionally, any actions that were previously flipped and have no tokens on it get flipped back to its less expensive side.

Luke: This continues for 4 rounds, after which you’ll calculate your score and see whether or not you reached the threshold required by the scenario to win.

Phil: It all sounds rather… mechanical when explained.

Luke: That’s not by accident. Depending on the scenario, the game can feel kind of automatic, with certain factions requiring you to play a certain way and scenarios requiring you to do other things in a particular manner.

Phil: I’ve also found that once you’ve played a faction a couple of times, there’s not too much of a reason to go back and play them again.

Luke: I hate to say it, but without the deck-building, each faction feels flat and uninvolved.

Phil: I don’t know that it’s the deck-building so much as it’s just a simpler game in general, too simple for our tastes.

Luke: I do think there is something here for people who just want a light solo activity to partake in, but I struggled to revisit this for the sake of the review. That being said, there’s a ton of content being pumped into the game as-is, so if you’re the kind of person to enjoy this title, you’ll be well supported for a while.

Verdict: Empires of the North is a lighter, simpler, younger brother to the original, for better or worse. The factions feel diverse, but without much reason to revisit each, the game loses its charm after a few plays. With new scenarios and new factions being introduced regularly, though, this may be the game for you, given you’re drawn in by the base experience.

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