Monday, 14 November 2011

StuCon 1 - Imperial play test

It being my 41st birthday, rather than go sailing, as I did for my 40th, I decided instead on organising a board gaming weekend. The blueprint for this event was to rally as many folks as possible interested in board gaming to play a few of the longer, strategic board games we usually don't have time to play these days, due to work and family commitments. I've got a fair few of these, and am tired of seeing them gathering dust while shorter games get all the play time.

My original schedule was to play four games over two days, namely Twilight Imperium, Conquest of the Empire, Imperial and Shogun. Real life and the logistical practicalities of the event interfered, however, and in the end we only got two games away. I probably hoped for too much from the weekend - could we have got all of these played, I wonder? It would have required a concerted and dedicated effort from all involved, and possibly less Portuguese white port consumed on Friday night by my self and my brother Tom before the proceedings had even got underway. Still, much fun was had by those who did make it.

This post is mainly about the game of Imperial we played on the Saturday evening. Luckily, we were able to muster six players for this, which I didn't expect, but did ensure we had all the slots filled. The photos in this post, I should hasten to add, are not of our game. I was too focused on making sure it happened to snap any shots.

A game of Imperial in progress, showing the factories (brown) and ship yards (blue)

We had something of a false start with Imperial, as the rules translation from the German was not particularly clear, and led to plenty of confusion before the penny finally dropped, we voted to clear the board, and started over. The second time around the game played faster, and we were able to finish it in under three hours, which makes it playable of an evening if required. Now we've cracked the somewhat obscure wording of the rules, it ought to be easier to play in the future.

Imperial is a game about European power politics in the early 1900s. Part of the reason I decided to buy it was because it seemed to combine some of the characteristics of Diplomacy with Supremacy, two games I have played an awful lot in younger days, but which I think now show their age. Players use money to buy the bonds of the various European governments, with the player controlling the biggest share of any one country's national debt acting as its government. National treasuries are maintained by injections of cash from players acquiring bonds, and by taxing. Revenues come from functioning factories and from overseas bases. As the European board closely resembles the Diplomacy board, bases tend to be concentrated in the Balkans, Scandinavia, and the Low Countries (as well as North Africa and the Iberian peninsular). Powers cannot derive revenue from occupying other Powers' home territories, but they can close down or destroy factories/ship yards to weaken other Powers.

Note: we missed the fact that you can also tax sea zones, not just land zones, which means there is plenty of scope for an enlarged naval game.

A selection of Russian bonds
Winning is based on owning the bonds of the most highly-rated country. Countries are rated on a scale of 0-5 on the victory point track, based on how much tax they raise in the course of the game, and how often they tax. Thus, the winning country was Russia, despite the fact that it was probably less active in overseas ventures than, say, Italy or France. The key to winning as a player is to make sure you keep as much of your liquid cash invested in the bonds of the countries you think will be higher up the victory point track (3+) by the end of the game. This rewards maintaining a diversified portfolio of bonds, a strategy that also allows you to collect revenue from interest payments by Powers in the course of the game.

Thus, you could buy the bonds of the country you control to ensure nobody could take it off you, but then you would not have the money to buy more bonds from other Powers, or collect interest from them. I came second place in the end, with 63VPs, for a number of reasons:

  1. I tried to keep Russia's armed forces at a conservative size, because a large army/navy can eat into the revenue base and leave less money for interest pay-outs to you and your fellow bond holders;
  2. I tried not to get too bogged down in the ongoing conflict in the Balkans between Austria (Ric) and Italy (Ben), although I did intervene in Turkey when the Italians landed there and threatened the Black Sea area;
  3. I made sure I invested as much liquid cash as possible in bonds of at least four other Powers: apart from Russia (where I did not add to my starting holding and thus lost control over the government to Ben in the final round), I bought French, German, Italian and Austrian bonds.

Towards the end of the game I was generating a solid cash stream which I was then able to use to upgrade holdings, for example buying more Italian debt when it looked like Ben was taking control of the Mediterranean, and spreading my risk by purchasing German bonds as Germany's credit rating improved considerably mid-game (despite the Reich taking a pounding from France and Britain and getting involved in a hare-brained invasion of Italy which went badly wrong).

Manoj won because Manoj always wins, with 73VPs. I came second with 63VPs and Ben came third with 61VPs. The final round of the game became quite interesting, as the penny finally dropped around the table and a buying spree began in Russian bonds. Ben took control of Russia from me, and then lost control of it to Manoj in the final turn of the game, giving Manoj the chance to win. It was the only incidence of someone losing control of a country in the game: otherwise, it seemed investors tended to respect the authority of the incumbent governments in all cases, although I think the British government came quite close to falling (as well as nearly falling asleep!)

This is not an easy game to get your head around in the first sitting. You really need to play it with experienced players. Going at it from scratch, with six novices around the table, we were at sea for an hour before we began to understand some of its subtleties. It is hard to wean yourself of a couple of ideas:

  1. That losing control of a government is a bad thing - I think there is much to be said for studying the game and spending your investment pool wisely. Even if you have money for only the smaller bond denominations, you can still build up a diverse portfolio, allowing you to then increase holdings in some debt positions to take over a country later in the game. Manoj's ability to win in the final round with his Russian coup demonstrated how this could be done.
  2. That embarking on a program of world conquest is the only way to win the game - it isn't. I ran a very conservative foreign policy in Russia, focusing on keeping costs down and the army within conservative levels. A prudent fiscal policy eventually led other players to realise that Russia was a good game-winning bet, leading to a big injection of cash into the Russian treasury, and in turn allowing Russia to pay investors - including myself - some interest. Prior to that, Russia spent the first half of the game looking rather cash-strapped.

As another example, take France, which was played by Manoj throughout the game. France did not tax very much, relying on the fact that players were buying French bonds consistently - indeed, the French government at one point cancelled a dividend when the premier realised just how much debt had already been farmed out, and that his bonds would not be paying out in totality as a consequence.

Armies - they take money away from investors!
The real game is the bonds and the money. Running Powers is really a secondary game, but it is so easy to get distracted from the financial game by what is going on in the political game. We really only all woke up to  this in the last 40 minutes of play. Consequently, I think it would be great to play this again, with at least two or three experienced players round the table, in order to try out some of the other theories and tactics that are now going through my head. It would also be interesting to see how the taxation of sea zones changes the revenue base of some of the Powers.

Thanks to all for a good game and for your patience in giving this a second go when all seemed lost! I'd like to give this another shot before the rules evaporate from my mind, although I'm hoping this blog entry will help to serve as a reference point.

1 comment:

  1. My faith in the Manoj Always Wins principle has been shaken by a couple of runs through Mansions of Madness, so I'm pleased to see this fundamental axiom has been restored.