Ice floe ahead! But an ice floe with an igloo on it? I’ve never seen anything like it in my life! I’ve heard about it already. In stories that the elders told around the campfire, that there are probably other peoples in the far north. People who live in the rough snowy lands and not only survive there, but even live there. I’m not going to be afraid of this new adventure, am I? No, as leader of the Ulaf Clan I will try to get in contact with the strangers.
Imperial Settlers can be found in my personal top 3 board games. When Portal Games announced last year that Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North would be a new spin-off of the already well-known game principle, I was of course immediately hooked. But could the new spin-off replace my beloved board game? And what exactly are the differences between the two games? Answers to these questions can be found in the following review of Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North.
Have fun reading!
Imperial Settlers the fourth – Empires of the North
It is now the fourth game from Ignacy Trzewiczek in which I build an empire or a dystopian city. If you take away everything that makes up Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North, I still have the same basic principle as in 51st State. I have a bunch of cards and I try to play them, so that in the end I am the one at the table with the most points. In doing so, I expand my empire with new locations that provide me with more resources or other actions.
But anyone who now thinks that Ignacy is using the same game idea for the fourth time to make a quick buck is mistaken. Although I would certainly expect Ignacy to do it. After all, at his first Neuroshima Hex, he simply removed two of the four factions due to poor sales. Then he rewrapped the game and released it as a new two-player edition. It sold very well in Poland afterwards. But in Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North, there is one small spicy detail: Ignacy is no longer the only game designer. Joanna Kijanka is now also on board and has given the game a different, a little better direction.
Brave New World
Before I explain what’s new in Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North, I’d like to say what’s all the same. Don’t panic, it’s not really that much. But still, as an old Imperial Settlers veteran, I felt right at home in the new board game.
At the beginning of each round we draw cards. Then it is each player’s turn to either play a card or activate a previously played card. We do this until both players have passed and the next round starts again.
Here we draw again 5 cards from our faction deck or clan deck and … Wait a minute, draw five cards? But I remembered it differently! Yes, that’s right! This is one of the changes in Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North. The drafting phase from the previous one is no longer there. There is no longer a normal deck of cards and no special faction deck, only my clan deck, and I draw five cards from that deck at the beginning of a new round. And of these cards I can keep up to five cards if I pay for them with my workers. Which is no problem, I have five workers in my empire at the start. It only becomes a problem when I need these workers to execute my actions.
And already I have to think at the beginning which cards I want to have. In detail: What cards I really, really want. Do I have to do without a card because I need one worker to be able to execute an action? So I have to decide and weigh up at the beginning of my round. I like that. It’s an improvement over Imperial Settlers, where my card hand was very random. But still, I have the same thrill in Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North as I do in card drafting. The perceived dilemma is even worse. Before, I could blame the failure in a game on my luck in card drafting. Now I’m in some ways responsible for it myself.
A slimming diet
However, the elimination of card drafting, i.e. the alternate selection of cards, is not the only thing I have to part with in Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North. There is no more production phase. And it has not been replaced by anything. No, it’s just gone. Sure, I still get resources, but not as usual. Now, in order to get resources, I have to do an extra action on it. For this purpose, there are two clan disks that I can use in addition to the classic actions. The classic actions were building a location card or performing a card action.
But back to the clan disks. I can now, while it’s my turn, use one of my two clan disks. I place it on the randomly assembled action circle. Here I now have the possibility to produce resources as an action. But only at one location and not at all three locations, which are already available to me at game start. I can also add a new worker to my clan. Drawing cards is also available to me, as well as building a location card without spending the necessary materials. And then there is sailing. But I will come to that later in detail.
The choice of actions is not so easy. Because I not only have two actions, I actually have four. Each of the action discs can be used to select the action of an adjacent action too, if I pay for it with food. That makes it a bit tricky for me, because I want to use the actions during a round. But as mentioned before, I need a food, which I can replace with gold in the usual way. I also have to be able to take advantage of the action. Because it’s no use for me if I only have the build as an adjacent action, but I can’t build anything because I don’t have a card anymore.
So the action circle is a small but smart change. Which looks quite simple at first sight. But if I really want to master the game, I have to understand the wheel and be able to use it wisely.
On a great journey
There is an action on the action circle, which I have not yet described in detail. This is sailing. A new action, which did not exist in the previous one. If I choose this action, I equip one of my ships and go on a long journey. I place one of my two ships on an extra tableau. This is then evaluated in an extra phase of the round.
Depending on where the journey is to go and what my people are supposed to do there, I have to give them a fish for provisions or an axe. The axe is needed to conquer the far or near islands. These are then locations that I can place in my empire. If I don’t give the boys and girls an axe, they only plunder the islands, which gives me one-time resources. However, these resources are only become available after the action phase, which means I can only use them in the next round. So I have to plan again.
This is also the only time the axe is really needed. Destroying enemy locations is a thing of the past. I can only deactivate one enemy location for one round. So the fighting Imperial Settlers have become a bit more peaceful.
At the moment the best Imperial Settlers is Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North
The first time I played Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North, it was strange. It looked like my old favorite game, but it felt strange. The missing card drafting, the common deck and also the missing production phase made me skeptical after reading the rules. But the changes were not disturbing. Rather, they are very useful. Card drafting makes sense when I know the cards. Now I only have my clan deck and do not have to keep an eye on the common deck as well. This makes the game much more beginner-friendly.
Shifting production to the action phase makes the game feel tighter and quicker. I no longer have to wait for my opponent to collect his resources, it’s simply part of the flow of the game. The fact that I can now also save resources and plan a round in advance is just the logical consequence of the game mechanics. Finally one of the biggest weaknesses of 51st State and Imperial Settlers has been eliminated. There were games where I had many resources in one round and just couldn’t use them. That was always frustrating for me.
Because as a player I only have my clan deck, I can bring the game to the table quickly. I explain the rules in no time. After the explanation I press one of the decks into the hand of my fellow players and that’s it. Each deck has its own difficulty level. So a new player gets a simple deck from me while I try out a difficult deck. New clan decks are also announced. Because I don’t have to consider a common deck like the previous one, new clans, factions or races can be published faster. So there is always something to discover. And since Portal Games does not want to provide a historically correct simulation with Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North, the Egyptians will also move to the far north.
Cracks in the ice floe
Of course I have to put the rose-colored glasses aside. If you had the first version of Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North on the table like I did, you might wonder why it was not noticed that the ships that belong to a clan are not clearly recognizable. The only thing I recommend is the FAQ linked below.
I also find it a pity that there is not so much for me to discover while playing. When playing Imperial Settlers, there was always something to discover by mixing common cards and faction cards. Cards could lead to new synergies that I’ve never seen before. An engine that felt very slow at the beginning of the round was able to build up a tremendous momentum towards the end of the game, which ended in a massive landslide of victory points.
I don’t have that anymore in Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North. Sure, I explore the clan deck here as well, but once I discover the basic idea here, the discovery part loses momentum. And the clan deck also loses its appeal after a few games. But as I wrote above, expansions can be developed faster and are already announced. And yes, that’s of course just the luxury problem of a veteran player.
Also the structure of the manual is sometimes a bit confusing. If I search for a specific rule, I don’t always find it at first go. Especially important little things are usually explained in a subordinate clause. Here I would like to refer to the FAQ again.
Imperial Settlers Forever
Of course, I also have to ask myself the question: What happens to my beloved Imperial Settlers now that the spin of is in the house? Probably the game won’t be on the table so often anymore. Even before Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North, the game was too rare on the table for my taste. It’s one of the few games where Jasmine just doesn’t see any land. It was also difficult to make the game with all the expansions attractive to new players. Here the new part is clearly better positioned. Nevertheless, I will not give up my Imperial Settlers, even if only Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North will be on the table in the future. There is still far too much to discover and explore in the game.
The game has made the right decisions with its basic principle, which has been around since 51st State. Things have been simplified without appearing too primitive or lapidary. Here I recognize the evolution of the game mechanics. Joanna Kijanka and Ignacy Trzewiczek have taken working parts from the former games and used them here in a clever way. When playing Imperial Settlers, for example, I was annoyed that it was over after five rounds.
That didn’t really give me a feeling of building something up, it seemed quite hectic. Especially when I still had no engine running in round three and time was running out. In Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North, the two designers changed it and now the first one to reach 25 points triggers the end of the game. An element I know from 51st State. The trick: Even if I initiate the end, I should be sure that I still get enough victory points to win the game.
So Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North also falls into the category of evolved games for me this year. For me, this includes games that have already existed in another form. Other well-known representatives are for example Orléans Stories but also Marco Polo II, just to name two board games. What Marco Polo II achieved, is also achieved by Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North: to further develop a well-known game idea consistently and well.
Alone on the road
As a last point I would like to mention the solo mode. Everyone who knows me a little bit closer knows: I don’t really like solo games or the solo mode. Before I really play a board game alone, I prefer to sit in front of my Xbox. Or I watch a movie/series, even a book is supposed to come up for me occasionally. But Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North also brings me to the gaming table alone. Instead of simply introducing a dummy player, I face various scenarios in solo mode. I find the scenarios in an extra booklet. The basic principle is simple, within a defined round limit, I have to collect the necessary victory points. It goes without saying that the scenarios vary.
The interesting thing is that the individual scenarios play out differently due to the different clans. Where I have no problem with one clan in the first scenario, this can become impossible with another clan. Again, I have a discovery process and it is fun to try out the different scenarios and find the right clan for the scenario. Besides that I get to know the clans better, which helps me when playing against other players.
So at the end of the day, there’s only one thing I can say: Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North is simply fun and continues the well-known game principle of its previous games in an exciting way. And before I start going into raptures that the game has an inlay in which all components fit perfectly, I’d better stop. By the way, all expansions released so far have their place and everything fits into one box.
Should I mention that the…
Der Link zur englischen FAQ: https://portalgames.blob.core.windows.net/empire-of-the-north/eotn_faq_en.pdf