Imperium Classics is a truly impressive creation and evidently a real labour of love. It is a civilisation deck-building card game in which 1-4 players will develop their chosen nation, in most cases taking them from ‘Barbarian’ to ‘Empire’. You will purchase cards from a common market and further build your individual player decks by acquiring nation and then development cards from your own personal stock. Along the way you will be looking to accumulate Victory Points; from your nation’s individual scoring criteria, high-value Fame cards and cards of other types some of which bring other scoring mechanisms.
Setup – Easier Than It First Sounds
You start with quite an involved set-up, which initially seems daunting, but once you know what you are doing you can be up and going in about 5 minutes. Choose one of the eight nations and lay its state (and power) card in front of you; you then sort its other cards into an initial draw deck and separate nation and development decks.
You also set up the common market, which requires some quick sorting of the different card types: individual decks for region, uncivilised and civilised cards with number of cards based on player count; a main commons deck of tributary cards combined with the surplus of other three card types; a fame deck, and a supply of unrest cards. Then you deal out a common market of two common cards and one each of the other three types; all bar region cards come with an unrest beneath them. Finally, you draw a hand of 5 cards each and you are ready to go.
A Turn’s The Thing
In most cases, your turn will use three actions to play three cards from your hand. Some cards – all regions and some others - will stay in front of you to form a tableau, and some of those can be exhausted (tapped) each turn for an additional effect. Other cards you will play for an effect and discard, while some might be removed after a single play, either to your history, where they will stay until game end scoring or to exile where they are generally off to the box lid for the rest of the game.
Effects are varied, but a key aspect is the generation of resources: materials and population, or progress tokens, which are VP but can also be used as either resource. The resources are used to power certain card effects and in particular Conquest or X cards will enable you to take cards from the market. Normally there is a cheap way to do this (acquire) and an expensive way (breakthrough); the cheap way means you bring an Unrest card with you too, which clog your deck and count for minus 2VP unless you dispose of them before game end. Also, too much unrest can trigger sudden game end – if the unrest supply is depleted then there is a Collapse: VP count for nothing and the player with the least unrest wins.
The other important card effect is drawing more cards. Why? Because when your draw deck is depleted, you reshuffle your discard, adding a face-down card from your nation deck. When the nation deck is gone you add your single, transitional accession card and swap from being Barbarian to Empire. From that point when the draw deck is cycled you start to access development cards, which usually are the source of greater powers and more VP. Interestingly when you are Barbarians you cannot play certain cards with a crown on them, which includes everything in the civilised stock, BUT when you are an empire a number of your opening cards, with battle axes can no longer be played.
So how do you manage cycling this deck if you are constantly adding to it? Well, I have already mentioned that some cards go into history or exile as a permanent method of removal. On top of that, all the region cards you play to your tableau can be garrisoned, which means you can place a card from your hand under them. This will then remain there unless the region itself ends up back in your discard.
Glory To Rome… Or Carthage… Or Athens…
That might happen as a result of an opponent’s attack card or by you playing a card called Glory, which most nations have access to. This allows you to put three of the region cards (and any garrisons) into your discard in exchange for a pick from the top two Fame cards. These are scarce and high scoring – Glory’s not the only way to get Fame, but it’s certainly the most prevalent.
So how does a game of Imperium Classics end? Well, it varies a little based on nations playing, but generally, if the Fame, Unrest or Main decks are depleted, or a nation exhausts their development deck then you complete that round, play one more and then it’s time for scoring. In almost all the games I have played Fame has triggered the game end as there are the fewest cards and they are so desirable.
Scoring is a pencil and paper affair as you look at your nation's scoring conditions and then the fixed and variable conditions for scoring on all the cards in your possession, except those un-drawn from the nation and development decks.
How Does It Play?
I don’t think I have written such an involved rules explanation – so fair to say it takes a bit of getting your head around to start with, and it is made harder initially by technical terms which seem unnecessarily oblique: acquire, breakthrough, abandon, exile and so on. BUT…
I think Imperium Classics is absolutely fantastic. Why? Well to start with the care with which the asymmetry of the 8 different nations has been designed blows me away. Sure, there are some common cards and functions – Conquest, X and Glory appear in most decks – but it’s just sufficient commonality to make swapping from one nation to another superficially familiar. However, in reality, they really do all play differently.
Partly that’s because every nation has different scoring conditions, but it’s more than that. The way their draw, nation and development decks are constructed, and the differing number of cards in each, makes a big difference. And the way in which they encourage you to acquire more regions or tributaries or (un)civilised cards has a knock-on effect on how they feel to play and what strategy is going to work. As does the speed at which you are encouraged/enabled to transition from Barbarian to Empire and the knock-on effect on what you can then play and how.
Every One Is Unique
Some nations are even more distinct. For example, in the Imperium Classics box, the Vikings never become an Empire, their accession card is the last in that deck and triggers game end. They also don’t have the history mechanic and in those circumstances, cards are exiled or just discarded. This makes a huge difference to the way you play them, but it’s not to their detriment and they recently hammered my Carthaginians earlier today. Should you go and buy the Legends box as well/instead then there are even more outré choices such as Arthurians and Utopians.
I honestly think it is a masterful design.
There is a real satisfaction after a few plays to managing your tableau and deck, choosing carefully from the market and working out how to cycle your growing draw deck to develop your nation and potentially become an empire. Player interaction does vary: regardless of nations there is certainly competition in the market and this can be targeted to deny an opponent of something they want. Some nations have more attack cards which offer some take that, while with different nation combinations there is a bit more multiplayer solitaire.
Something To Be Savoured.
There has been some criticism that Imperium Classics drags a little and I can see that happening with higher player counts. We have stuck to solo and 2-player, where there is a little bit of slow down in the late game and it plays to about 90 – 120 minutes. Nonetheless, the richness of the experience for me is more than worth the time spent. Worth noting too that while I have suggested that is it a bit oblique for the opening teach, my 9-year-old daughter has picked it up and now seems to keep on beating me rather convincingly. And on the subject of solo, there is a separate rulebook and a bot that has a common process but a different key card for each faction. It’s quite tough too and really cleverly designed.
And part of what really helps add to the play experience is the quality of the artwork, by Mihajlo Dimitrievski. He has an absolutely gorgeous cartoon style which wouldn’t seem out of place in the finest graphic novels. The only shame is that the cardstock on which it is printed is rather flimsy – I’d have happily paid a bit more for linen and instead am considering sleeving.
A Palpable Win
Imperium Classics is an impressive piece of design which creates an excellent, truly asymmetric civilisation deck-builder. In doing so it tries to genuinely incorporate the historical theme into the mechanics and does so with consistent elegance. It creates something thinky and nuanced if better suited to lower player counts, and it creates a game with massive replayability given the number of nations in the box. Sure it takes a little time to get used to, but it rewards that slight perseverance in spades. Its sumptuous art is a feast and at such a low price for the quality of the design it is an absolute treat - I can see the Legends box joining it on the shelf in the very near future.