Imperial Settlers Empires of the North is a brand new game, featuring hand management and city building, from Portal Games. Not to be confused as an expansion for Imperial Settlers this is a standalone game which features similarities but not the exact same gameplay. Designed by Joanna Kijanka and Ignacy Trzewiczek, the game sees 1 – 4 players spend around an hour slowly growing fields, their empire and sailing to islands. However, featuring Scotsmen, Inuits and Vikings does the game manage to do something better? Let’s find out!
To setup the game players first take the score tracker, expedition board and action tiles from the box. Placing them at the center of the table, the five action tiles sections are randomly put together to form a circle – the side upwards depending on if you are playing solo or not. The way the box is designed the component tray is simply lifted out and put within reach. While there are three civilizations each comes with two unique decks, totalling 6 playable clans. Each player takes their own unique deck. Three cards in each deck have a lighter backing indicating them as the starting or basic fields. Players gain the resources indicated on them, as they do when any field is built. Players shuffle their deck, draw 5 cards and choose 3 to keep. Finally, everyone takes the boats for their clan, returning unused faction components to the box.
Imperial Settlers Empires of the North is played in rounds. Each round has the same 4 stages. At the start of a round is the Lookout phase. This sees every player draw 4 cards from their deck, spending a worker per card kept. Note, whenever a worker is spent it is placed on a clan tile and is returned to the player before the start of the next round. Purchased cards go into the player’s hand, with the rest discarded into a personal discard pile.
Next up is the Action phase. This is the bulk of the game, seeing each player taking an action at a time until they pass. At this point, as an action, players can build a card from their hand if there is a resource cost in the top left. Resources (apples, stone, wood, fish and sheep) are returned to the general pool when spent unlike workers. Instead a player could choose to activate one of the cards in their empire that has an Action written on it. These range from spending resources to gain victory points to spending workers to unexhaust other action cards. Commonly underused is the ability to spend Raze tokens to raid an opponent. This exhausts one of their action cards – ideal for disrupting well made point engine empire.
The last action option is to play a clan action pawn to one of the 5 action tiles. Note that this does not block the action tile for other players or yourself. This can be done to gain resources from a field via Harvest or see a player add a building to their empire for free with Construct. Explore allows the player to draw a card from their deck, while Populate instantly gains them an extra worker. The final action Sail see the player add one of their boats to the back of the expedition queue – assigning a fish and raze token to the boat if they wish.
There is a bit of a combo to be done, as some cards will says one of these clan actions – such as “Sail to play”. Choosing the Sail action in this example the player could play one card with this requirement. Some of these cards will be fields that can be harvested, with the rest being boost cards – small instant benefits. To make the choice a little more interesting players can on future turns spend an apple to move one clan action pawn to an adjacent action tile – costing an apple resource. This can only be done once per clan action pawn but it still opens up cascading choices.
When all players have passed the round moves onto the Expedition phase, seeing the sailed boats come into play. In the order they were sailed, working down the queue, the boats may venture to nearby or distant islands, and conquer or pillage them. If the boat has nothing assigned to it the boat can only pillage nearby locations. If it has a fish the distant island become available to them. If a raze token is assigned the islands available to them can be conquered, added to their empire, instead of just pillaged for goods.
Then, everyone’s favourite phase, clean up, occurs with workers and clan action pawns returned before the new round begins. The game continues until one player has reached 25 points during the action phase. The game then ends when the current round has finished. At this point players gain 1 bonus point for each card they have built in their empire (including conquered islands), 1 point per gold and 1 point per 2 resource tokens. Whomever has the most points at this stage wins!
There is something rather exciting and intriguing playing with and against each clan for the first few times. While some the excitement ebbs away it is replaced with strategy as each clan does things slightly differently. Some will see a plethora of cards spilling across the table while others have sleak engines to be pulled off. Some will see resource types relatively abundant, while others will struggle to even gain apples. With many combos and tricks to learn there is depth in each clan to be found and enjoyed.
While there is a ranking system for the different clans, and there is a difference between the top and bottom of the rankings, those ranked 1-5 are about the same. While the top two clans for difficulty are more complex those whom are immersed in the hobby shouldn’t have too much problem picking them up – even in the very first game they play. Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North is almost streamlined to the extent the easiest clans allow the game to be a next step from entry level games.
Compounding the logic that Portal Games is targeting new and current gamers alike is the way the rulebook is written. It includes a number of little notes about how it differs from Imperial Settlers for fans of that game. These aren’t distracting though and are clearly labeled. Whilst it has this the rulebook is very well laid out, plus it steps through even common terms – not assuming that people understand them. This cuts away what could have been a little learning curve and makes playing with anyone easier.
While the game ends when someone reaches 25 points, like Scythe’s stars, this doesn’t guarantee that player the victory. Due to the different ways to play each clan one player may be shooting up the leaderboard gaining victory points left, right and center. Another player may be gaining a constant flow of gold, seeing them jump the leader during the final point scoring phase. Due to this is makes it hard to know 100% how each player is doing, with noone written off, until the final scores are calculated.
Production wise there are a lot of positives. There is the same fun styled artwork as seen in Imperial Settlers, with plenty of unique card artwork. From tied up vikings to a statue of Thor’s Hammer, though some chilly igloos, each adds character – even if the link to the card effect isn’t always obvious. The boards are of decent thickness and continue the artwork style across the components. Nicely the wooden tokens for resources and workers perfectly match the icons of them on the cards, again giving a consistency across the title.
Imperial Settlers Empires of the North has taken a game (Imperial Settlers) that I somewhat enjoyed and has taken off the rough edges. Slightly easier to explain, with less small rules to remember, the game flows much more smoothly even at the full player count. There is still the ability to get lost down the rabbit hole of potential chain reactions on a turn. Yet, the amount of choice is never daunting. The game doesn’t outstayed its welcome, allowing players to do a bit of everything across the game. Still it gives meaningful choices each round of what to and not to do. For me there is no need to go back to the original and that is why Empires of the North has earnt its space on my gaming shelf!
[Editor’s Note: Imperial Settlers Empires of the North was provided to us by Asmodee for review purposes.The game it is currently available from local board game stores, find your local store here]