Imperial Struggle: First Impressions

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Review

              #Imperial Struggle is a two player only game released in 2020 by GMT games and designed by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews. If the title combined with the publisher and the designers rings a bell with you, then there is a good reason for that. That designer duo and GMT published the famous #Twilight Struggle all the way back in 2005. Twilight struggle was the number 1 game on BGG for quite some time, and it is still highly ranked and highly regarded. Imperial Struggle is a bit of a reimagining of some parts of that system transported to another time and with different protagonists. Now, that being said, I have zero experience with Twilight Struggle, I have never played it, I haven’t even read the rulebook. So, I will be making no gameplay comparisons with TS. Obviously, I will also be unable to tell you which I prefer, or if I think that one is better than another.

Look Ma.... All this great land, there for me to take.

                Imperial Struggle is set in the years between 1697 and 1789. This was a period of great confusion and rivalry between France and England. During that time Britain and France and were both in the mad intoxicating rush to claim the world for their own. Their rivalry was played out in the new world, in India, and in the Caribbean. Often these rivalries were played out in competing for differing markets and trying to corner the market. But it was equally often played out with musket and canon. Britain and France threw their supports to one side or another of even the pettiest foreign squabbles in an attempt to damage their rivals. In fact, that is why the American revolutionists were able to win their revolution. The reason that France was so willing to come to American aid is because they saw it as a chance to materially damage the British interests and British markets. And, they saw it as repayment for what they had lost in India at the hands of the private armies of the EIC. This tumultuous period of history is supremely interesting, and this is the period that Imperial Struggle attempts to explore. To explore this huge a span of history full of so many complications is a tall order, at best. Does Imperial Struggle come even close to being able to capture some of the sweep of this history? Necessarily, if it manages to capture some of this, it must leave a bunch of stuff out. It must, necessarily, abstract a fair amount of history. It must, necessarily, leave a bunch of stuff out. That being said, I do think that Imperial Struggle does feel like it does a decent job at capturing some of the scope and complexity of what that age looked like, to the British and to the French.

                This does mean that there are periods of cultural dislocation or over abstraction. I spent all but 4 of my childhood years in the USA. The textbooks that I used in school glorified General Washington and his leadership in the American Revolution. Many of them hugely downplayed the role played by France in actually winning the revolution. In this game George Washington is a fairly incidental counter that can come out. The whole American War of Independence, in this game, is only an incidental sideshow. It is only important in how it boosts, or harms the position of France or of England. This is true, not only for the American Revolution, but is also true for all sorts of other localized conflicts. It could be the War of Spanish Succession, or the Carnatic Wars, or the Jacobite Rebellion, or any number of other localized conflicts.

                Of course, there is also the not insignificant fact that this game asks the players to engage in specific colonialism. There is no reckoning of the cost to the indigenous peoples all so that fat cats in Europe could corner the market on furs in the New World or spices in India. Of course, colonialism is an ugly blot on world history and the world is still suffering the ramifications of that to this day. Some people will be uncomfortable or unwilling to play a game that has colonialism so central to its very existence. I, personally, don’t have any real problems with the colonialism as portrayed in this game. This is game that is specifically exploring the historical frictions that France and England had during that time, from the perspective of France and England. France and England didn’t count the cost to others in trying to gain dominance. France and England were not preoccupied by moral concerns. This is, of course, extremely troubling. And, certainly, it is something that is indefensible. However, I do find it a valuable to consider the position of France and England, especially in relation to the many conflicts of that century.  

                Naturally, I cannot speak to the hearts and desires of the designers. I know that they like that period of history. And, I know that they are pretty passionate about England and France during that time. But I don’t know that they defend the atrocities committed in the name of empire. I don’t know if they designed this game to glorify colonialism or not. I don’t know if they are admirers of colonialism or not. But I do know that this game doesn’t shrink from showing the sheer dehumanizing callousness and indifference that is, perhaps, the greatest evil of colonialism. It also shows how much mercantilism is the heart of empire, is the heart of colonialism.

 

                At its heart Imperial Struggle is a game of global tug of war. The game is not expressed in terms of conquest, rather there is a VP track at the lower right-hand corner of the board. The tracker starts at 15 victory points and the actions of the two players push and pull that victory point tracker one way or the other at the end of each game turn. If the tracker reaches 30 points, that signals an automatic victory for the French. If the tracker reaches 0, that signals an automatic win for the British. Of course, this is not the only way that the game can be won or lost. But I do feel like it nicely encapsulates what the game is trying to do. This is a game of incrementally trying to one up your opponent rather than trying to beat them in a game of global domination.

This is the victory point track at the beginning of the game.

                These victory points do come from having majority control in the various spheres of influence. Or, you can win VP’s by having the side you prefer winning in some war or other. Every turn, the global market demands 3 of 6 available types of goods. Victory points can also be had by producing the most of one or more of these goods. Let us examine each of these in slightly more detail.

                There are four spheres of influence. Each turn each sphere has a randomly selected bonus for winning that sphere. The bonus may include victory points and/or other bonuses. They may also include conditions, such as you have to have a majority rule of 2 instead of a simple majority rule. The bonuses are clean and easy to read. Generally speaking, figuring out who has the most influence in a sphere is also easy. It is basically a simple sum of your various flags and squadrons in that sphere versus that of your opponent. If you win that sphere, and if you fulfil the conditions of the bonus (if any), you can claim the bonus.

It is super easy to see what the different spheres are. In fact, I love the whole design of the board.

                The game consists of one or more “peace” turns punctuated by war turns. There is a maximum of four war turns. Each war turn is named after the most prominent conflict of that period. These are: 1 The War of Spanish Succession, 2 The War of Austrian Succession, 3 Seven Years War, and, finally, 4 The American War of Independence. In each of these war turns; 4 conflicts must be resolved. There is a conflict in each sphere of influence. The outcome of these conflicts is determined by the strength you have secretly committed to each theater, plus the forts and/or squadrons you have in the in the specific sphere in question. Then the winner, depending on the margin with which he/she won, will claim some reward which depends on the importance of the conflict of in question.

The "game turn track" shows that there are a maximum of 6 peace turns and 4 war turns. 

               Lastly, you can win victory points by cornering the goods which the world demands. Each peace turn the world randomly chooses three goods that will be in demand that turn. The options include: furs, spice, fish, tobacco, sugar, and cotton. Cornering the market is simple. If you control more of the places that produce fur than your opponent does, than you have cornered the market. If you have cornered the market on something that is in demand, then you can claim a juicy reward.

The table here demonstrates the various rewards for the various goods that are in global demand at that time. Three of the tiles that you can see on top of the board will be flipped, those are the goods that will be in demand. 

                I have discussed how to gain points, but I haven’t really discussed how the game is played. These points that I have mentioned are mere broad stroke aims in your gameplay. Each peace turn consists of each player taking turns selecting a chit, from an open display. These chits grant various action points or abilities. You choose a chit, and then you spend the points that they give you. There are several different kinds of action points. Some of them can be used to place forts. Some of them can be used to place influence in various centers, others to commit strength to an upcoming theater of war….. Any unused points are lost. Some of these chits also give you the ability to play cards from your hands. These cards are more or less useful, but can be devastating if played well.

                I think the card-play is an important part of this game, but I don’t think that it is as huge a part of the game. I certainly don’t think that it is as big a part of the game as I hear that it is in Twilight Struggle. You get comparatively few cards in the course of the game, and you are limited in what you can play.

                The game ends when someone gets the VP tracker all the way to one end of the track or the other. Alternatively, the game ends when someone ends if someone manages to win in all 4 spheres of influence and corners the markets on all three demanded commodities. Or, if the game goes the distance, it will end after the 6th peace turn, the winner being determined by which side of center the VP marker is on.

                I am over 1700 words into the review, and there are gameplay aspects I haven’t touched on yet. I haven’t mentioned debt and how that works. I have studiously ignored the role of treaty points. I haven’t touched the ministry cards and their keywords which influence the cards you can play. I have neglected to mention the role of sowing conflict in your opponent’s strong holdings, or the importance of alliances in Europe….. Suffice it to say that this is a complicated game. And, I believe it is also a deep game, those two things don't always go together. Anyways, any attempt of mine to teach the the game in a brief forum post will, ultimately, not be that helpful.

 

                I have droned on for quite some time, and I have yet to get to the Brian’s Battery portion of my first impressions. If you have read thus far, you probably deserve some sort of reward, unfortunately, I have non to offer.

Components +

The components are great. The punchboards are cleanly cut and made from good quality cardboard. The cards are the typical heavy GMT cardstock. It is just a good solid component quality. Of course, if you need miniatures, resin markers, and little metal flags, then you will be disappointed. This game is mostly a map, counters, and chits. But if you don’t mind that form factor, then this does have great production values.

Art/Presentation +

I find this to be a beautiful game. I especially love how the board is laid out, the four spheres of influence are clearly and artistically delineated. The cards mostly have historic paintings or drawings as illustrations, so that is a nice thematic touch. The chits value clarity over stunning art, but even they are quite nice. I also have to mention the box, the box is a deep, lovely, and true purple. I think that strong colors like that are underutilized on game boxes, and I very happy to see it hear, especially on a game from GMT. It pairs quite nicely with my copy of #Pax Pamir (Second Edition).

Readability +-

It is fairly easy to read the board state. It is easy to tell who controls what. Everything is clearly marked and easy to discern. BUT, a bunch of stuff depends on numbers. And, it can get a little tedious needing to count who has what. The difference between 12 and 13 flags is small enough that you can’t tell it at a glance, instead you need to count all the flags, and then, if you are like me, you must need recount them to make sure that you counted right. So, that part is a little annoying, but I am not sure how to combat that.

The new world at the start of the game. It is easy to see what possesions are French and which are English. And it isn't too hard to count them, there aren't that many. By the end of the game however, there are a lot more flags out on the board, and they will need to be counted.

Box/storage solution +

You get the typical GMT 3-inch-thick box. You get a very shallow well, just deep enough for the two decks of cards. You get several bags for the more numerous counters. And you get a GMT counter tray for the rest of the counters. It’s not fancy, but it works very well. It expedites, slightly, the setup process, and it also works well in gameplay.

Rulebooks/Player aids ++

I suppose your milage may vary with GMT rulebooks, but I love them. They are clearly laid out and easy to both learn the game and to look up stuff later. This is essential in a game this heavy. If it would have a rulebook like Gaia Project, or something like that, then that would be a total nightmare. There are also clearly laid out player aids that can help you through the various steps of a peace, or a war, turn.

Setup –

Setup us is a long fiddly affair. There is no way to disguise that. There are a lot of prizes to be set out on the board, and a lot of flags to set on the board. I suppose that as you become more familiar with it, it would go a bit faster, but it will still be a fiddly affair.

Table space –

This is a two-player game. But, don’t think of Lost Cities or Jaipur. This is a game that takes up a lot of room. The main map is 22x34 inches, in addition, each player has a player aid and a player board that are probably 8.5x11 inches. And, there is a war display that that takes up another 8.5x11 inches or so. Add to that the counter tray that you want to have available during the game… You get a game that takes up a fair amount of room.

Here it is, set up on a 6 foot table. I have a comfortable amount of room.... but, it does fill it up.

Solo Suitability –

This game is for two players, no more no less. On BGG there are some fan-made solo bots, but really this is a two-player game. I have not gotten a chance to play it two players. I have played it, exclusively solo playing both sides. There is some hidden information you have to pretend not to know, but really, I find it quite playable, playing both sides. That being said, there are a lot of people that that wouldn’t work for. As long as you are willing to try and make the best decisions for both sides, without considering the hidden information that you know, I believe that it can be a rewarding experience.

Gameplay +

I feel a little weird putting this into these impressions, considering that I have only played this solo. However, with that caveat, this is a brilliant game. I love the push and pull. I love the variety of theatres and markets that you are wrestling for. I love the way the different action points work. I love the different options you have in front of you.

Thematic integration +

This may be a plus or a minus for you. This is a game that deals with the grand strategic considerations dealt with by the statesmen and business magnates of the time. This means that you are pushing squadrons and influence around, without even regarding the human cost that that entails. Is that something that you want to play? Only you can answer that question. But that being said, it does flesh out that theme quite well.

Look at these squadrons, ready to be deployed wherever they can protect business interests the most affectively.

 

Further considerations

This is a long and heavy 2 player only game. The niche that that occupies is not very ample. There are several other highly regarded heavy 2 player games that will be running competition for the attention of the average player. Some highly regarded examples would include #War of the Ring: Second Edition and #Twilight Struggle. Both of these games look to be lighter than #Imperial Struggle. You will have to decide for yourself if you have room in your collection for game with such restrictive parameters. Of course, you can plan to play it in “god” mode as I have elected to play it. Only you can determine if that sort of play is worth it for you or not.

I spent some time in the beginning talking about the theme, and I am not done with that yet. This is a game which explicitly has the players growing empires. With our modern sensibilities we are still coming to know the full human and cultural cost of empire. We recognize that the way that L’Ancien Régime and the British Empire grew their reach was deeply wrong. I hope that we recognize that we, ourselves, have not yet passed the epoch of empire building. Our empires have morphed, they have less to do physical holdings land. But they still have a lot to do with influence, with policing and aiding regimes that help or hinder us. And we, ourselves, in our way, tend to inadvertently contribute to the repetition of many of the abuses perpetrated by the above-named empires.

One must ask about the morality of playing such a game when our human condition is still such as it is. I, personally, find it to be a personally valuable exercise. I find it helpful to remind myself that, in the same way the European thirst for furs or spices led to the expansionistic abuses of the empires of that age, in the same way my thirst for tech items or cheap foodstuffs I may also be contributing to the abuses that are made in the name of business to this day.

 

Summing it all up

Imperial Struggle, I believe, is a masterpiece of game design. It does not apologize for the many difficulties it puts in your way. Difficulties come in the form of: long gameplay, restrictive player count, the rules and play complexity, the potentially problematic theme, and the head-to-head competition inherent in this game. It is most definitely NOT a multiplayer solitaire game. I respect it for not trying to sugarcoat these things. Whether or not these things are dealbreakers for you or not… I cannot say. But, I will say that this is a masterful exploration of the period and the players of that period. This is a game that I am proud to have in my collection, even if I only get to play it solo. This is a game that I really hope to be able to play with someone else at some point. This is a game that I don’t expect to play often, but, I expect will stay in my collection for a very long time. Based on my first impressions formed in 1.5 solo plays, I give this game a 9/10.

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Imperial Struggle