Empires of the North - First Impressions


Now that Trent's publicizing my logged plays page everywhere, some of you noticed that I already got a play in for this game!

To be honest, I've been hesitant to do a write-up on this because I couldn't quite put my finger on how I feel about this game. I thought about getting a solo session in before I do it justice, but I think it's fine since it's not a full review after all. So here are my first impressions after one 2p game with my wife, where we played as the factions with the lowest complexity (as recommended by the rulebook).

1. Pre-Game Experience

(+) Charming theme and presentation - It's cute, and I mean that in a good way. Just about everything inside the box has a charm about it, from the unique resource tokens to all of the unique card art across the 6 different factions. Many of the illustrations have the type of humor that I tend to like using in my own art too.

(+) Great insert - Of all of the games I own, the ones with the best insert so far are this game, #Atlantis Rising (second edition), and #Camel Up (second edition). Easy access to all components, finger slots for pulling out the tray that holds all resources, and labels to help you figure out how to put everything back. This all means short setup and teardown time.

(-) Rulebook - It's laid out pretty well, but it's definitely not the best I've seen. I feel like it tried to present all of the info in the most streamlined way with as few pages, but in the process lost out on the details that would be helpful. For example:

  • Each faction has a unique faction marker (used for keeping track of VP's) and ship token (used for the sailing action). The rulebook doesn't have a "key" that shows which belong to which faction. These tokens have a unique art, and in the case of the ship token, a unique shape as well, but it's just one little detail that would've been helpful (this key was later provided in the online FAQ).
  • I felt confused on its usage of terminologies like location and field for referencing different card types, and also felt that the terminology wasn't the most intuitive (they weren't used consistently either, as mentioned in the FAQ), so whenever it used those words throughout the rulebook, it was slightly difficult to follow. And perhaps its just a nature of a card-driven game with lots of unique cards, but there's a need for additional clarity on its abilities sometimes. This is also provided in their FAQ, which I referenced a few times throughout the play.

(+/-) The Teach - I personally had a harder time teaching this in comparison to a game like #Viticulture: Essential Edition. Empires of the North is definitely on the simpler side when it comes to its gameplay, but I think the nuances of the card usage added to its difficulty to teach (which was still quite easy). This was one game that I didn't test out ahead of time before teaching my wife, so I'm sure that added to it as well.

2. The Game - Each round is broken up into 4 phases: Lookout, Action, Expedition, Cleanup

  • Lookout - Get additional cards into your hand
  • Action - Play or activate cards to get resources and convert them into points. Set off your ships on a sail to pillage/conquer islands
  • Expedition - Resolve your ships that went sailing
  • Cleanup - Un-exhaust all activated cards, get your workers back, etc. 

The Highs

  • Fast turns and great combos - The majority of your gameplay time is spent on the Action phase, where you have a choice of 4 different actions. It's a quick back and forth between you and your opponent where you're improving your engine and maximizing your resources by chaining your actions so that you can extend the number of turns without passing this phase. The action wheel at the center is the crux of your strategy because placing your action pawn in one of these tiles grants you more powerful moves (e.g. constructing a card without paying the cost). The catch is that you only have two pawns that can each be used twice at most. If you place a pawn on one of the actions, you can use it again in a later turn by moving it to and activating an adjacent tile by spending one food token. It's an elegant touch that presents you with an interesting decision space. I do think it falls apart in terms of thematic connection though, which I don't mind. The combos build up fairly quickly so this phase will get longer and longer with each round. With experience and knowledge of the cards, I can imagine finishing this game in an hour after 4-5 rounds.
  • I especially like how rewarding it is to pillage or conquer an island. 
  • I always love variable player powers and Empires offers 6 flavors! We tried out the factions with the lowest complexity so I'm looking forward to seeing how the other factions will change up the game. In line with this, I could definitely see why others have commented that the game feels like it's "on rails," where it seems to put players on a set path in strategy. I can't disagree with that at all, but I also feel like just as players typically make a decision in the beginning of the game on which strategy they will go for, Empires would have players making this decision in their choice of faction.
  • I have a feeling that Empires will be a great solo game, likely even better than multiplayer.

The Middle

  • This game currently falls in the same category as my first impression of #Architects of the West Kingdom, where it wasn't love at first sight. They're both a race to the finish line with little tension where you're mostly focused on building up your combos, gaining resources, and scoring VP. Except, I like Architects a lot more in this area because it gives you what to aim for. Architects awards VP's for contributing to the construction of the cathedral or building structures by gaining a specific set of resources, which is often challenging and unique in its teeter-tottering of the virtue track. For Empires of the North, the main method of gaining VP's is by activating card abilities and conquering islands. It's less about accomplishing difficult tasks, but more about triggering the right card abilities in order and building up your engine with the right cards. Granted, there are some cards in the deck that seem to reward big points. For example, my clan's deck is heavily focused on expedition, and has cards that reward you lots of points based on the number of islands you've conquered. It also has cards with permanent features like giving you a VP every time you pillage an island. To sum it all up, Empires is a lot more focused on engine-building and achieving a consistent flow of VP's, while Architects is better at giving you sense of accomplishment that's more grounded in reality (due to difficulty, lots of points, and because the type of structure built affects your virtue positively or negatively).

The Low

  • Very low interaction. The game does offer a way to interact with your opponent. The primary way is by using raze tokens, which can be spent to exhaust one card in your opponent's empire so that it throws off their combos. The game doesn't encourage this usage all that much though because unless you're playing as the clan I played as, raze tokens are harder to generate and they're valuable resources for conquering islands that reward you lots of resources or great powers if constructed. I never used these to ruin my wife's combos because I don't like mean plays especially when it's a 2p game. 
  • Tied to the first point is that this game seems to be best played with 2p. You're presented with so many choices in the number of actions that you're mostly focused on your own tableau the whole time, and having AP prone players will bump up the gameplay time too much. I think the Action phase will last way too long at higher player counts.
  • Thematic ties. The game definitely has thematic ties because it has players expanding their empire, collecting resources, pillaging and conquering islands, etc. My issue is that in the end, despite all of the really nice illustrations, it felt like it all disappears into thin air sometimes. I found myself focusing mostly on building the right combos and paying attention to the effects of the cards that the cards/buildings became just one piece of the puzzle I'm putting together, instead of feeling like a "structure" that I've added onto my empire. I asked my wife for her thoughts after the game, and while she liked the game and had fun, one of her comments was that she wished it had a board, or some building components like in Catan or Viticulture. She likes to have a sense of progression and accomplishment when she looks at the board state, and for Empires, she felt like it was just a lot of cards in front of her. This also made me wonder if tableau builders may not be the right fit for us, but I thought of two exceptions. (1) #Wingspan is also low in interaction, but I like its satisfying chain-building and how it lays out three engines to focus on: food, eggs, bird cards. This brings organization that helps players focus on tuning their engine and even having the leisure to enjoy the fine details of the art and flavor text, whereas Empires relies on the players to come up with their own method of establishing order. (2) #Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization is another example. The cards feel like actual structures because you have to spend workers to build them. They can also be upgraded to a more advanced structure to improve production. There are also religious buildings that provide "smiles" to increase contentment among your workers instead of them stirring up a riot, and many other examples.

To be clear, I like the game, but I didn't love it. I'm still very interested in exploring the other factions and see if it changes my opinions. And just as I ended up loving Architects for its solo play after my first impressions, I'm hoping the same will happen to Empires too!

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Premium User11 months ago

I definitely agree with your negatives, although the low player interaction is at least a neutral for us, and maybe slightly positive, since my wife really doesn't enjoy direct conflict.

And yeah the thematic ties are weak. The theme and art are fun, but I never find myself thinking about my actions through the lens of the theme, but rather through the lens of "how many resources/points/etc. will this get me, and what's my next move?" I don't really know what they could have done differently to make it not feel that way, though. Maybe some others with game design experience can chime in on that. Maybe some games are just like that. To me it's not a true negative, more of a neutral, but definitely could have been a positive if it were stronger.

To me this one is a pretty pure engine builder. The ramp-up is pretty fast, and the fact that in each round you do as many actions as you're able means that you're activating almost every card each round, which is pretty satisfying in its own right. I don't know that I agree with the "on rails" sentiment, though I've only played a few times. You have to be thoughtful about what locations you build and activate in what order, as that has effects on your engine.

Overall I really like the game, but I definitely see how those negatives you mentioned would bring the game down a bit for some people.

For a more thematic tableau builder with high player interaction, check out #Oceans ;)

Owner11 months ago

I'm really glad the game worked out for the two of you! And it might seem negative but I tend to scrutinize the game a lot to see where my feelings are coming from haha. My wife likes Empires so I'm glad and that we'll get to keep exploring it more. It shows how tastes in games can differ so much because when I asked her about comparing this game to Viticulture, she basically said of course you can't compare the two, because Viticulture still remains her absolute #1, which I imagine is quite different for your wife. 

And yes, I agree with you about the positive and negative I mentioned, I think it's heavily based on my personal preferences and the way I feel about this style of play is consistent with Architects too, so that's interesting. In terms of "on rails" comment, I'm not sure what exactly is the full definition of that term but I understand it as something that makes the character feel highly focused from taking a certain strategical path. Which, now that I think about it, is basically the whole point of variable player powers so I might be off there. 

LOL you're like the equivalent of Phillip Millman to Baseball Highlights 2045 xD

I wanted to show you this by the way, I had a quick conversation with Dominic, the owner of North Star Games, on my reddit post today:

Premium User11 months ago

Ha! That is awesome! He knows who I am! lol

And about the "on rails" term - in my understanding, it means that the game dictates what you should do on each turn - there aren't any meaningful decisions. So if there was one obvious best choice every turn, or only one  choice every turn, then the game would be "on rails." To me this one doesn't feel like that. Yes, you are trying to get as many cards down and activate as you possible can, but the order in which you do those things definitely matters. I can see how it would feel a little more restricted than other games, though.

Owner11 months ago

With that definition, then yes, I agree with you that Empires doesn't fall under that. Have you been able to try out most of the factions already? I'm curious how different they play!

(I was secretly hoping that Dominic would send a promo your way but I'm sure they get a lot of love from fans already lol)

Premium User11 months ago

Haha well thank you for thinking of me. And nope not yet! I think I've played with...4 of the 8? That sounds right.

Owner11 months ago

Nice, was one of them from the expansion too?

Premium User11 months ago

Nope, I haven't played any of those yet. I wanted to use all of the base game decks first!

11 months ago

I bought this one used, played it three times (1 solo, 1 2P and 1 3P) and sold it again (at a profit no less!)

I wasn't an Imperial Settlers person and have never played it. At this point I probably never will. My main positives were much like you, endearing art, good component quality and a great insert. Overall presentation was very good. I really liked the ideas of the game, especially the rondel. What I didn't like was playing the game. I never felt like I had a plan or a need for one. Why wouldn't I just put out ever card I could? If that's the game, that's not a game I want to play. Good art and components couldn't save this one for me.

Owner11 months ago

Nice, did you end up buying something else after selling the game?

I think a part of why I think it's better for solo is because you end up with so many cards in front of you and I'd hate to take long turns just to maximize everything. So I tried my best to make what I feel are decent moves at a relatively fast pace. It was hard to fully enjoy the strategy when there's so much going on.

How many different factions did you get to play as by the way? I'm curious how the different playing styles will affect my feeling about the game, especially for multiplayer. For solo at least, I could imagine this being a good puzzle game.

11 months ago

I did buy something else at some point, but I can't remember exactly what it was. I think my next game after this was #Paladins of the West Kingdom

Out of the three games I played two different factions. The difference was that they had a different focus. I was playing the easier ones so I'm sure the more complex ones are probably more interesting but if the simpler ones didn't grab me I'm not going to do the complex one.

I think it could be a good solo game, but at this point there's so much stuff to set up I think I'd rather solo something simple like #Sagrada or #Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale or if I want something a little more complex, #Viticulture: Essential Edition

Supporter11 months ago

Thanks for the first impressions! I’ve heard quite a few people say that they like it best solo, so I’m curious to see what you think after you try it solo. I really can’t wait to give it a try myself!

Supporter11 months ago

So, I'm assuming that is what you picked for your GAW prize. Is that right? 

Owner11 months ago

About a week left on your copy haha. Will let you know as soon as I get to try it out.

Supporter11 months ago

Sounds pretty good for a first play. I hope it grows on you even more. 

Owner11 months ago

Hope so, I'll probably tackle a solo session this week!

Supporter11 months ago


11 months ago

I played #51st State: Master Set with some friends, basically a post-apocalyptic version of this game, and I can see your issues. Low interaction, very card driven, basically an efficiency puzzle where the other player can just reach over occasionally and mess with your stuff a little. I almost felt like I was just pressing a button to make my engine go a couple times by the end of the game. 

I had not put together to connect with this and TTA, but I can definitely see it. Card-driven, engine building but TTA has the added bonus of high player interaction with aggressions, wars, the card assembly line, and the event cards. It is a little more interesting in my book. 

Owner11 months ago

It's a weird comparison that I made with TTA since it's a completely different game for a different audience, but I just wanted to get my feelings across about the thematic connections, because for example, I feel way more accomplished when I manage to expand my cellar's storage in Viticulture. There's a feeling of progression because you have few components of an engine that you're constantly trying to improve (storage, vine type & quality, workers), whereas I feel like Empires' engine is made up of many different parts that you don't get to invest on as much. It feels more like a combo-builder than an engine-builder in my opinion.

In the end, I think it's more telling about my personal preferences. I appreciate thematic ties in mechanics, feeling of progression, and especially like elegance in games. So a game like Wingspan would be a much better comparison and a game that I enjoy playing more.

11 months ago

I am tracking with you. I too like to be able to look at my tableau or the board and see how much I have built and expanded and be proud of that! With just cards it is hard. I think even with Wingspan I had more of that than with 51st State. You can filling something and working towards an end goal i guess?

Owner11 months ago

I guess so?? I think part of it could be that since Wingspan gives you a confined space to work with + the three rows for each engine, I think it makes it (1) easier to compare the board state across all players and (2) you have to be think more about honing in on your engine and making it as efficient instead of cluttering it up. And really, triggering the chain of combos as you go along the columns is quite satisfying.

11 months ago

Maybe it is a clarity issue? wingspan is very clear that when you select this row, you get to do these things. With Empires, you have select a single card right?

Owner11 months ago

Ah that's true too. A turn in Wingspan involves taking one action that triggers a combo chain. In Empires you take one action per turn that is a part of the chain you're trying to create. This makes it easier to watch the other player in Wingspan, whereas for Empires, my wife and I basically had our heads down throughout the Action phase doing quick exchanges of "now I'll do this. Done." "Okay, I'm going to do this and this". And it also makes it easier to remember where your engine is currently at and how you want to improve it. Currently, I feel like both Wingspan and Empires are quite similar in strategy complexity but Wingspan is lower in learning complexity. Basically, Wingspan is the more elegant game that I prefer despite the variability of the different factions available in Empires.

Edit: In terms of having our heads down, it really wasn't bad for the first 2 rounds or so, but becomes exceedingly more difficult to pay attention to others once you have 15-20 cards in front of you in the later rounds.

11 months ago

I think that is a good way of putting it. It feels like the engine has to be pushed along, while with Wingspan it kinda just hums along. Personal preference i guess!

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Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North
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