02nd Sep2019

‘Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

empire-north-box

Whilst I haven’t played it myself, the Imperial Settlers line of games is partly responsible for the ongoing success of publisher Portal Games. Unofficially based on the classic PC strategy game Settlers, Imperial Settlers features cute little characters and a tight card drafting and empire building mechanic that has formed the basis of several other games. Whilst not a direct sequel nor an expansion, Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North takes place in the same universe and features a few similarities with its elder sibling.

The object of Empires of the North is to create the most powerful and glorious empire, with victory points being used as the common measure of success. The first player to 25 points will trigger an endgame sequence that differs slightly based on when it happens, and more often that not, they’ll win – although the other players may have an opportunity to catch them in a close game. Up to four players can enjoy the game, and there are six tribes in the base game (with an expansion already on the way) so there’s a lot of potential for different starting conditions.

Empires of the North is actually quite a table hog, despite being primarily a card game. Play is centred around a scoring track and an expedition board, and in front of each player will be their empire (the cards already placed face up,) their draw deck and discard pile, and their personal supply of resources, tokens and workers. From a humble beginning featuring three resource generating “field” cards, the players will each take turns to take an action and build out their empire. As with all Portal Games designs, there’s a bit more to it than that, however, and Empires of the North features several phases of play.

Bearing in mind that each tribe has their own unique deck in Empires of the North and there are no shared cards to draft from, this game is much more about optimising the cards you use and when, causing powerful combinations to go off as frequently as possible. The first decision that players will make for themselves happens during setup, when five cards will be drawn and two discarded. After that, the first phase of the game begins. This “Lookout Phase” has the players each draw four more cards, and for each one the players keep, they will place one of their five starting workers into the “Spent Workers” box of their colour.

Next is the Action Phase, during which the players will use their cards, workers resources and action pawns to do various things. The Action Phase is actually quite hard to describe, since there about a million actions spread across several different components. The most simple is building locations, which can be done by paying the cost shown on a card and then placing that card into your empire. Typically, a location built this way will cost a couple of resource tokens and will then provide a new action, an ongoing effect or an immediate bonus.

Players can also activate the actions on the cards in their empire, and they can Raid an opponent, which means that they will spend one raze token to exhaust (flip sideways) one of that opponents unused locations that has an action on it. The purpose of this being, of course, to disrupt their engine. Mainly, however, the actions you’ll take relate to a roundel in the centre of the board. This roundel is built at the beginning of the game and always features the same five actions, positioned in a random order.

Each player has two action pawns for use on the roundel, and may place their pawn on any space to begin with. The choices are Explore, Populate, Construct, Harvest and Sail. To make things even more confusing, some of these actions can be boosted when taken by playing a card at the same time, usually for an immediate benefit. Once a player has used both pawns, they may also then take an additional action per pawn by flipping the pawn to its exhausted side and paying one food. In this way, each player will have a maximum of four roundel actions per round of turns.

Whilst I won’t go into exhaustive detail about each of the roundel actions, there are five of them, including: Explore, Populate, Construct, Harvest and Sail. Explore allows the player to draw a single card and add it to their hand, Populate allows the player to take a worker meeple from the supply, Construct, which places a building into the players empire without the goods cost being paid, Harvest, which delivers goods from one of the fields in the players empire and Sail, which allows the player to send a boat onto the Expedition Board. A fish and/or a raze token may be added now (and only now) and I’ll explain why next.

In the third phase – Expedition – players will resolve their ship actions from top to bottom. Only ships with fish tokens on them can raid or conquer distant islands (cards on the right side) whilst any boat can visit those on the left. A raze token must be spent to conquer the island, adding its benefits to your empire, whilst any island can be pillaged for the goods it provides. With this in mind, a ship with both fish and a raze token on it can visit any island and take either pillage or conquer actions, whilst a boat with no fish or raze token could only pillage a nearby island. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds in practice, and basically all expeditions are fruitful, but conquering offers longer term benefits.

After all this, the players perform a classic clean up phase. The action pawns are taken from the roundel, any exhausted cards are turned right way up and ships are taken back to their owners. In general, it’s a fairly quick exercise that leads organically into the next Lookout phase, where players again draw four cards and repeat the process we’ve just been through. So far, this is all pretty standard stuff, but what really makes Empires of the North interesting is the six different clans and the way they play, each of which is quite different to the next.

Each empire is rated in terms of the complexity of its play style, with the straightforward Glenn Clan at the lowest end of the spectrum and the MacKinnon clan at the upper end. In between are the Ulaf, Panuk, Heidel and Nanurjuk clans and each is based on a real life group of people such as the Scot’s, the Inuits or the Vikings, to name the obvious ones. The Ulaf, for example, can gain access to one more boat than anyone else and have a tendency to focus on generating raze tokens so that they can perform Expeditions, whilst the Panuk’s have some very powerful card combinations that can create reliable income (of various kinds.)

I can’t say that I have played with every possible combination of clans at every player count, but having played a number of games with several different groups, I’d say that the clans are very balanced, with a good mix of those that can make a beginner player competitive, and some that challenge more experienced players to tackle higher risk for greater reward strategies. In all cases, the most important factor is that every clan is fun to play with, and there are no duds that will bore you or make you feel like you’re missing out.

Empires of the North is an enjoyable hand management and engine building game that offers a lot of content in the base game, that is sure to be supported in the future based on Portal Games track record. There’s already one expansion announced, and if the game is a success, I expect to see more. Whilst the overall weight is probably medium, there’s a little bit of complexity to overcome in relation to the flow, especially of the Action Phase, but it’s nothing that a quick demonstration round won’t overcome. The quality of the components, as always from Portal Games, is excellent and overall, I think Empires of the North is well worth a look.

**** 4/5

Empires of the North is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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