Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Review: In the Shadow of the Emperor

Political intrigue in the Germanic courts of the late middle ages. Families vie for influence and power as they seek to out maneuver one another in the shadow of the Roman Emperor. Of course I'm talking about In the Shadow of the Emperor, a new strategy game from Hans im Glük and Rio Grande Games.

This is basically an area control game, but it's a very deep and very unique one. Players represent competing family dynasties who seek to place their aristocrats in places of influence and thus alter the political climate in their favor.

Inside the box you'll find a delicious selection of bits. The game board is a high quality, full color board that has been carefully and thoughtfully designed. This is a relatively complicated game but each area of the board is decorated with clear, easy to read and understand icons that help alleviate much of the complexity. Along with the game board are several wooden markers, several sturdy cardboard tiles, and a selection of full color cards, all of which share the same consistent and clear iconography. At first glance it may look relatively complex but play a round and soon everything will make perfect sense. It helps that the rule book is well written with clear full-color photos and lots of examples. This game is really not very hard to learn.

The basic object of the game is to collect victory points. Victory points are rewarded for a variety of different things but the common theme here is political power. Any time you do something that shifts the balance of political power in your favor you can expect to be rewarded with victory points.

As I mentioned above, this is basically an area control game. The board depicts seven political areas called "electorates". Electorates are populated by aristocrats, knights, and cities. Each of these elements exert a certain amount of influence over the electorate and whoever controls the majority of the influence in the electorate will get to choose the elector from among his aristocrats in that area. Each elector has the power to elect the emperor. Control enough electoral votes and you will get to help choose the next emperor. Controlling the emperor yields victory points and certain other benefits, such as the ability to break ties in electorates when they are selecting an elector. But you don't actually need to be the emperor to score, merely casting your vote for the winning party during an imperial election is enough to score you a victory point. Sometimes it's good enough to be influencing things from behind the scenes, as opposed to actually sitting on the throne.

The heart of this game is the action phase. This is where most of the work gets done. On each turn, players receive an income based upon the current political climate. During the action phase, players spend their income in order to take action cards. Each action card grants the player some action (such as placing or moving an aristocrat) or some special power (such as an additional imperial vote for that round's election). The players' actions are limited both by the limited number of action cards and the amount of wealth they have to spend. It's a system that works very well and allows for an amazing amount of tactics. A big part of this game is out-maneuvering your opponents by choosing the appropriate actions at the appropriate times.

One of the most important action cards available is the rival card. When a player chooses the rival card, his action phase is over for that round but his dynasty produces a rival to the imperial throne.

After all players have finished their action phase an election occurs. First players determine who controls each electorate. This is done by adding up influence in the electorate. If a new family controls the electorate then that player gets to promote one of his barons or couples to the elector's seat and he scores two victory points. Ties are broken by the reigning emperor. Then each player determines how many electoral votes they control and an election for emperor takes place. The rival and the reigning emperor each vote for themselves and the other two players cast their lots either for the emperor or the rival. If you vote for the victor then you will be awarded victory points.

This process repeats itself over five rounds. At the end of the fifth round the game ends, players reveal their victory points and whoever has the most wins the game.

One of the most interesting mechanics in the game has to do with the aristocrats. Aristocrats are represented by square cardboard tiles and they come in two flavors: unmarried barons (worth one influence point) on one side and couples on the other (worth two). Furthermore, the orientation of each of these tiles indicates the aristocrat's age: 15, 25, 35, or 45. At the beginning of each round, all of the aristocrat tiles on the board are rotated, causing them to age. Any aristocrats that start the aging phase at 45 will die and be removed from the board. Death is the only way that aristocrats can be removed from the board and this tends to contribute heavily to the constantly shifting political landscape that makes this game so interesting. Furthermore, it's cheaper to add barons to the board than it is couples (naturally) but once a baron is on the board, he may be married off, effectively doubling his influence in his electorate.

One other fascinating mechanic is how the game models procreation. Each action card taken during the action phase is colored either blue or pink. After the aging phase, players check which cards they took during the last round. If they have more blue cards than pink cards, they begat a son and may place a 15 year old baron anywhere on the board. Otherwise, they begat a daughter and must either marry her off to another player's baron (earning the proud parents a victory point, and the happy groom a second influence point), or ship her off to a convent (earning the parents some gold that can be used to buy actions later). It's an interesting little device that simulates how aristocratic families would form diplomatic alliances by marrying their daughters.

There are so many interesting things going on in this game that I don't really have time to go into them all. Suffice it to say that the tactical and strategic options are many and that all of the parts come together beautifully to create an extremely well balanced whole. There is no luck in this game, no "hidden knowledge". Players know exactly what their options are at all times but deciding which option to choose can be deliciously difficult.

One word of caution. Although it is possible to play this game with two players, it really should be played with four (or at least three) players in order to get the full experience.

If you like deep strategy games with varied avenues to success and non-obvious strategies then this would be an excellent choice. This is a very good game indeed.


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