Japanese Islands is an expansion to the popular card game, Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North from Portal Games. Empires of the North represents the latest game in a journey that started with the first iteration of 51st State. That journey has progressed to Imperial Settlers, and then back to 51st State with the release of the Master Set. This latest version mixes the best of these games, with some new, improved, 100% amazing parts.
The Core of the Game
Empires of the North is a one to four player hand management, tableau/engine building game which its successors are known and loved for. However, instead of shared card decks, players take on the role of a different faction, each of which comes with their own variable deck of cards, specific to that particular faction. Gone are the shared/common cards in favour of these faction specific decks, which are more thematically linked to how the particular faction plays. The core game comes with six different pre-constructed decks that can be played with straight out of the box.
Players will harvest resources which can be used to build location cards, action cards and one time event cards. Resources and workers are also used to activate action cards and gain bonuses. There is also a circular action selection/worker placement wheel that clan action markers can be placed upon to perform various actions such as gather, sail, construct and recruit. Ships are a new addition to Empires of the North and players can conquer or plunder nearby and distant islands. Plundering islands grants the player resources/points and conquering islands are added to a player's tableau and can be activated/used on future turns.
Each of the factions plays differently and is generally better at one particular facet of the game than an other. Players will take it turns until they either cannot or chose not to perform any additional actions. At which point the round ends. Play continues until one player reaches 25 victory points. If you want to know more about Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North then you can check out a review of the core game here.
The New Clans On The Block
Japanese Islands contains two new factions; Saikoro Clan and the Umineko Clan as well as eight Nearby Islands and six Distant Islands. The Umineko Clan has a difficulty level of eight and is on par with the Roman Islands expansion. The Saikoro Clan has a difficulty level of nine and is mechanically not that hard to play, but offers more interaction with your fellow opponents meaning it is hard to learn how to play well and efficiently with this clan.
Its All About The Trade
The Saikoro Clan is all about deals and trading. Many of their cards allow you to use an opponents buildings, often refreshing it, if it has previously been exhausted. Other cards allow you to exchange one of your resources with one of theirs, as well as simply giving them a resource from the supply for a bonus or reward. The Saikoro Clan is very dependant on the timing of what your opponents are doing. You want to ensure that you are giving them resources they don't need or using their buildings after they have passed. Mechanically they play relatively easily, but when to activate which buildings and how the card actions interact with your opponents is where the difficulty comes in. They have a steep learning curve but they are super fun to play once you have them figured out.
Storing Up The Goods
The Umineko Clan actually add two new phases in to their turn sequence. A storage phase and a docking phase. Various cards in their deck have a "storage" effect which is activated after the lookout phase. Depending on the number and type of good on card will activate various actions and abilities. There are also a couple of cards that allow you to perform the storage effect during the main action phase. After the Storage Phase the Docking Phase occurs.
Each card with a dock symbol is activated. This allows you to assign goods from the general supply according to the left most resource of the Nearby or Distant island cards. Transport Actions allow you to move goods from one card to another giving you the flexibility of having the right goods on the right cards and manipulating the location of the resources based on your needs. The Umineko Clan are super fun to play with and can create some interesting combos and chains.
I really like how Portal Games are introducing new ways to gain resources and perform actions based on the core framework of the base game. The core game was fantastic and each new expansion released adds new levers to pull and new buttons to press. Both of these new factions are great fun to play but I did find the Saikoro Clan not the best at solo. The Saikor clan is a more interactive deck and you don't get that with feeling with a solo game. Very small niggle, but one that would not stop me recommending this expansion.