First, a disclaimer. I have written the review for both games and will be honest; there is no difference in the core mechanics section. If you are looking to understand the differences, I recommend you scroll down to the second half of the review.
How Does It Play?
Imperium Legends is a civilisation, deck-building card game. 1-4 players will develop their chosen nation, in many cases taking them from ‘Barbarian’ to ‘Empire’. You will purchase cards from a common market. Build your individual player decks by acquiring nation and development cards from your own personal stock. Along the way, you will be looking to accumulate Victory Points.
Setup – Easier Than It First Sounds
You start with quite an involved setup, which seems daunting. But, once you know what you're doing, you can be up and going in about 5 minutes. Take one of eight nations and lay its state (and power) card in front of you. You then sort an initial draw deck and separate nation and development decks. You also set up the common market. Individual decks for the region; uncivilised and civilised cards, based on player count; the main commons deck of tributary cards, combined with the surplus of other three card types; a fame deck; and a supply of unrest cards. Deal out a common market of two common cards and one each of the other three types. All bar the region cards come with an unrest card beneath them. Finally, you draw a hand of 5 cards each.
Turn By Turn
In most cases, your turn will use three actions to play three cards from your hand. Some cards will stay in front of you to form a tableau. Certain cards can be exhausted 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. These either go to your history, 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. A key aspect is the generation of resources. Resources are used to power certain card effects. In particular, Conquest or Advance cards 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. These clog your deck and count for minus 2VP, unless you dispose of them before game end. 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 in Imperium Legends 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 typically 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. Usually, these are the source of greater powers and more VP. Interestingly, when you are Barbarians you cannot play certain cards with a crown on them. This includes everything in the civilised stock. 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. Also, 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, Glory Glory!
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 either of 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 Imperium Legends end? Well, it varies a little based on nations playing. 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?
Can Something Be More Unique?
However, in the Imperium Legends box, there are four nations that are truly very different. The Atlanteans start as an Empire, but have no Glory card. Instead, they develop Myths and Legends paid for by sinking regions. The Olmecs have a number of Stone Mask cards, which act almost like another currency. These are used to power the Olmec alternatives to more common cards in other nations.
And then there are the other two which are more unique/out there. The Arthurians stay Barbarian throughout the game. They can access their development deck from the outset as Quests, such as the hunt for the Grail. Pivotal to their mechanics are knight cards. A bit like the Stone Masks, these are ‘currency’ to access quests. Meanwhile, the Utopians are attempting to reach Shangri-la. They have no nation or development deck and are pursuing a series of journeys. Spending VP while carefully managing the pace of play to avoid too much unrest.
I said of Classics that it was masterful design, and if anything this is more so.
After a few plays, there is real satisfaction in managing your tableau and deck. Choose carefully from the market and work out the optimum method to cycle your draw deck and progress your nation’s strategy. Potentially become an Empire – or sometimes just not. And then there's the challenge of moving on to a different nation. From the subtly different, to the drastically alternative.
Player interaction does vary, just like Classics. Almost regardless of nation, there is some competition in the market. And this can be targeted to deny an opponent of something they want. Some nations have more attack cards, while with other nation combinations there is a bit more multiplayer solitaire.
Something To Be Savoured
Criticism is the same as Classics. The game drags in the later stages a bit and I can see that happening with higher player counts. We have continued to stick to solo and 2-player. Unless we are playing a new nation with radical differences, it plays to about 90 minutes.
However, the richness of the experience continues to justify the time. If anything I am enjoying this more each time I play it. I do feel like I am getting under the skin of the mechanics, and I have really enjoyed the different nations offered in Legends. My 9-year-old daughter enjoys it too, and is beating me at it regularly. Though I have yet to introduce her to the ‘crazy four’.
The solo bot in Imperium Legends is equally if not more effective than Classics. The more I play using the solo mechanics, the more impressed I am with how the bot retains the asymmetry of the different nations.
The quality of the artwork, by Mihajlo Dimitrievski, remains outstandingly high. It continues to add to the thematic presence of the game. He has an absolutely gorgeous style that 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. Instead, I have sleeved it. The sad part is that there are so many cards I have gone for penny sleeves and they aren’t ideal either.