Gamer’s Notebook – Imperial Struggle

Imperial Struggle
Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews
GMT Games

When games are announced I get nothing more than a mild twinge of excitement. Most don’t even achieve that. If the period, subject and scale are right, I file it away, knowing it will be years before I see it. By then, my tastes might have changed. Nowadays, I fear postage charges, spiralling prices and Covid mean I will only ever see it in the Cloud. And since my game buying days are largely over, I do not Kickstart or P500 anything.

Time passes. The game you have mentally stored away is now imminent. First Kids are shamelessly cooing about their new arrival. I get interested. If it is a Butterfield, an Eklund or a Wehrle, or even a Feld or Sivel, it cranks up a notch. But a new game from the designers of Twilight Struggle, well that’s a bit special. Decks are cleared, hands are rubbed. And if the subject is 18th century global warfare, manic gibbering ensues.

So the overview is as follows. I have played nine games of Imperial Struggle, nearly ten. I have taught two or three times on top of that. Regular readers will know this number alone means I like it. But the twist is that every game has been played on Vassal. No need to explain why. The game therefore inherits a glaze of… slowness and fiddliness that I expect will improve on the table. Please bear this in mind throughout. It does also mean that I can’t give you an accurate read on playlength, but I can assure you that at least three games will be needed to climb the learning curve. We have been taking an hour per turn, most often concluding in two longish sessions. And finally, a tip of the hat to Joel Toppen for his excellent Vassal module.

Imperial Struggle takes us to the 18th century and the global struggle between Britain and France. Historical, military undertones, actual wars, area control, two player, GMT. I don’t think it surprising that many are talking Imperial Struggle in as the next Twilight Struggle (TS). The publisher, on the back of their biggest hit, would be very keen for a repeat performance. Gamers, who somehow kept it at the top of the BGG rankings – Bohemian Rhapsody style – would doubtless be the same. Me, I really like Twilight Struggle, but I don’t love it.

For me, it definitely isn’t TS 2.0. You can spot the lineage, and there are common ideas, even a familial likeness. But almost everything has changed and in doing so we have a longer, more complex and fiddlier game system. Given the chance and my reluctance to describe mechanisms, I would skip outlining the differences, but my editor has asked for ‘something’. So, because the fee is generous, I will comply. I will keep it top level and concise (cough).

If we regard TS as a Card Driven Game, then IS moves us to Tile Driven. You will still play cards but they are infrequent and conditional upon, and supplemental to, the actions granted by a Tile. Tiles deliver a mix of market, military or diplomatic actions, while some allow army improvement and play of that event card. Events are rarely subtle, and some are very sweeping, sometimes adding a considerable, historic Take That element. This can be swingy, but for reasons explained below, this is not really a major issue.

Overarching the card play are two chosen Ministry Cards, representing elements of government policy, zeitgeist and society, that grant special actions and traits. The latter are the country’s stance – mercantilism, finance, governance, style etc – and often add bonus strengths to your event cards. They rotate as history unfolds and as the game turns advance. Effortless design for effect. Clever.

As with TS, the game is mainly concerned with control of spaces and, by extension, areas. The spaces might be forts, commodity markets, local/minor allies or naval presence. They can also be diplomatic in nature, conferring military support in wars or gaining prestige at European courts – all powers are accessible, and there are no historical pairings nor emnities after setup. Neatly, and importantly, controlling certain alliance boxes and box combinations gains you a reusable bonus. These permit additional and cheap local actions – stirring up the natives – or considerable benefits in the form of alliances and funds. Indeed, most spaces are connected in some way and encourage some go-like positional play, to affect market strength or the chance to secure enemy holdings after a successful war. A lot to take on board, but ultimately satisfying. Please feel free to try my Baltic Trade opening gambit.

The spaces change ownership in familiar TS fashion. A space is either enemy, neutral or friendly controlled. Most spaces, or flags, wins the area. A market is shifted by financial actions, a court/alliance space by diplomacy. Military actions mix it up all over the place, building forts and ships, improving armies, deploying squadrons and fighting small wars. The big wars are another sub game entirely.

There are four wars and we plan for each in sequence  – no future time travel or ‘piling on’ are allowed. We each start with four basic armies in the four theatres of each war. Four clearly being The Number. Not Five. Certainly not Three. The armies are hidden and known only to you, but we know the broad range of values. These units can also be improved through the Tiles and you can also deploy crack troops and commanders to tip the balance. Finally you look at the war modifiers for each theatre, such as squadrons on station or Hessian and Sardinian allies, and do a rough add up and assessment of your pension plan.

You then enter the feedback nature of the game. You review the wars and the map and your strategy, adjusting future play accordingly, and the game comes sharply into focus: the wars partially drive your choices and need to be reconciled with peacetime developments. Lots of planning and adjustment here. Come the actual war, armies are flipped and modifiers totalled. There are no dice, which I question slightly, because I always do. Campaigning may cost extra money whether you like it or not.  If one side wins, the bigger the margin, the better the rewards. VPs and possibly vital contested territory can be up for grabs as Spoils of War.

And that is broadly it. The rest is detail, and don’t expect it every time.

I have to say the rules are not the best. As usual with GMT games, it is probably in there somewhere but exactly where is a different ballgame. A good test, not unique to this game, is often the glossary. I looked up Control, a very important concept and definition, and it is not in the glossary. Neither is Protected. Quite a fair few other key words not there either. After a while I track them down and all is well. But I seriously do not know how this gets from designers through developer and playtesters to print. Really, I don’t. Not a single person had this problem? Nobody mentioned it? Nobody needed to know exactly what Unflagging or Shift or Isolated mean and where to bloody find them? Living Rules are current and available on line.

Related to the rules are the exception mechanisms – where a rule is taken on board, and understood, and then we encounter an exception which generates missed application, queries, time drag, and simulates, perhaps, very little. These design choices add length and opacity to the rules, and worsen playability. I think you know my view here. Almost all heavier games I play these days are a level of complexity, or detail, or chrome, or fudge higher than they need to be. Some are two levels higher. Decent developer work can help here, but we so seldom see it.

In my mind, IS is considerably more fiddly and less intuitive than TS; there are certainly more involved rules, individually and overall. This may really be just a mismatch between my taste for lean and mean downsized elegance, and the publisher issuing the game they (and presumably their customers) want. As I said after game one, I look forward to IS v2.0 where the system is stripped back to basics and the chromatic stuff is reconsidered. The blurb says, “It aims to honor its spiritual ancestor, Twilight Struggle, by pushing further in the direction of simple rules and playable systems.” For me, IS has completely failed in this regard and in so doing, travelled back in the other direction.

So how does a turn work? We are shown nine Investment Tiles. Each side will use four, alternating, with one left over unused to conclude the turn. These chits provide up to four actions in the three categories – military, economics, diplomacy – and, as previously discussed, may allow one event card to be played. The country with the initiative (behind in the game, simple catch up mech) can choose to go first or second. Going second allows a potentially powerful last action, where you might be able to tip an area or market, or secure an alliance, but it will be from a choice of two – usually weaker – tiles. The tiles may not even have the action you need. Going first guarantees the prime early picks, which will usually both bring up to four actions in one category.

These actions are then used, and we quickly encounter one of the smarter parts of the game – National Debt. Let’s say you need to perform a major diplomatic push in Europe. Talking to two countries could easily soak up your four actions. You can increase actions of the same type by incurring debt. This could, occasionally, let you spend around eight actions or more. There is always an overall debt limit, and there are various ways that high debt will bite you – event cards, trade costs and wars can push you over the limit and so incur VP losses.

We are now mainly considering strategic decisions. Looking at the gorgeous map for guidance, you are basically changing control of spaces, to win the regions, to get VPs at turn end. You are also founding, contesting and protecting overseas markets to gain dominance in the trade contest. And in a low key, non-warlike fashion, you are backing up all this with navies and forts with a eagle eye on the coming conflict. Key spaces can be fought over: secured, removed, secured again, neutralised, and finally settle to alignment or neutrality.

This device, flagging, is a fundamental feature of the game when you can only, say, access one vital fishery or plantation, or more likely a naval base. I call it ‘to and fro’ and… it grates a little. It is not unique. Academy’s 17xx games are fond of it, Triumph & Tragedy handles it well until an area is hotly contested, and my beloved Quartermaster General often has a ton of activity in the Med.  In micro form it can be a blur of control markers, taking time, but the macro result can be that we spend a whole turn with very little change. Swings and roundabouts. Several times we have played a full turn and one player is a single VP ahead. Once, we were perfectly tied. Balanced, yes, but also strangely deflating. As a gamer who likes the Big Risky Play, this is incremental Small Stuff.

When we have used all the action chits, it is the end of the turn and we ‘score the peace’. VPs are awarded for all four regions (if VP rewards are available) and the trade/commodity contest is also assessed for VPs. If I have played well, I might ‘win’ the peace by having more VPs than my opponent. If I have won pretty much everything that turn in style, I can win the game outright, or if I have taken a 25 point lead, I also win immediately.

After the peace, the turn chart may show a global war (Four!). These are spread out across the six peace turns, each one with those subsidiary wars/theatres. If we have a conflict listed, it is now resolved, working through the various forces and modifiers. Typically wars affect Europe, colonies and ongoing issues such as the Jacobites. Increasingly, the American theatre is crucial. Again, if you win all theatres in style, you can claim the game immediately (not at all easy), but normally there will a share of the spoils and vague VP equilibrium. 

And that is that. For us the game has been ending after turn three or four with a VP victory, retirement or abandonment (because we got things wrong). In one game, still underway, we are about to fight the Seven Years War for the first time. I feel that common experience with the game will keep the scores balanced and so tend to longer games, but we shall see.

Finally, we come to the big picture issue with Imperial Struggle. I will qualify this by saying I get chaos, I was the first to publish on it, I embrace it, and I may well be playing IS’s implementation of it. Fine. Ignore what follows. To me, the ‘peace’ system VPs and the trade VPs make little game sense, even allowing for chaos. There is no reason offered for the variances, no foresight, no historical continuity or story arc, and few legacy effects that are present, or hinted at, by Ministry Cards. The Caribbean could be vital for two turns, then irrelevant, but in the next game it could be high scoring all game. We have to guess and react. Also, in one game turn we were contesting all four geographical areas for three VPs total. I can just about see a rationale, it just feels odd, like treading water. Okay, regional relevance changes over time,  so one ends up doing some longer term stuff, like forging alliances, indicating a more intense peace perhaps. Next turn, new VP chits arrive at random. In terms of narrative, legacy and connected time periods, we simply aren’t there – a stranglehold on India would surely have ongoing effects, and be worth sustaining or contesting, rather than lapsing into irrelevance. Here we have little game planning when you feel some would be appropriate.

It is worse for Trade. The three commodities being contested and scored this turn may come back next turn, or in the future, or they may not. Those remembering Modern Art and Showbiz may be raising their eyebrows. There are no trend indicators or residual benefits, so you invest time and action points to secure Cotton markets because they have VPs this turn. You might win, lose or draw. But Cotton may never score again, even with a monopoly – unlikely, yes, but possible*. So, opportunism and short term strategy is the main driver and we follow the trade chits when they appear. No foresight. Reactive. Chaotic. I get it. Still feels odd.

*There are six different trade markets. Three are randomly activated each turn, the others do not score. Six peaces, six different draws from the full selection. The appearance of a market in turn one will score and add to your control total, but it does happen that Spices, say, don’t reappear. We have gone three further turns seeing Non Repeating Cotton and a fourth is a 50% shot. So the maths is what are the chances of a turn one commodity not appearing again, appearing once, appearing twice etc. I leave that to you!

The structure of peace and war turns compounds this odd feeling, because here we seem to have too much foresight. Peace-war. Peace-Peace-war. Peace-War. Peace-War. Peace. We know exactly when the wars are coming and what the VPs might be, we can know which commander will be present, we know the impact of these wars down to the last Gibraltar and can even look ahead to the American War of Independence for details of how to win it. George III would have been ecstatic. Interestingly, we see some connectivity between wars where victories in one can affect later positions. I don’t know what the design decision is here, but I can guess at game play over history. As usual, I shouldn’t complain just because it is not how I might handle it.

Good news. The game really grows on you. If you get through the first two or three games, where realistically you are still learning, you will start to see progress. It develops slowly from practice and rote towards subtlety and enjoyment. Your decisions speed up. You know you need diplomacy points now, you know where they are going to be used (that stubborn Prussian minister) and what the benefits are. No diplomacy action chits left? Plan B kicks in. All good. Nicely structured and interesting ludic, dual level decisions. Event and Ministry cards add volume and more chaos, and can be devastating at the right/wrong time.

The even better news is that the game has some depth. After the first outing you think, mmmm, I didn’t actually use my fleets at all. Or, cornering all the fish in America was perhaps overkill. By game three you are balancing plays, experimenting and realising the value of isolation, uprisings, local advantage, trade deals, forts and protective fleets. By game four or five you actually have a strategy and make it happen. At heart, the game is a simple area control exercise, with added trade and actual wars. But the area control is just a small part of the jigsaw.

For me, the conclusion is almost all positive. The period is fascinating, the game system largely works, and I would say the game is well balanced with necessary mercy rules. It is a game that models winning a peace (not an easy design feat), allows you to get a feel for domestic and foreign policies, conveys global concerns and shows just how vital finance was in this era. Is it flavoursome? Yes, to a point. Apart from cards and the War Counters, I don’t feel much different playing France than I do Britain. My ships don’t have names, for starters. Nevertheless, I can buy into the abstracted historical challenges and I think the map, and the regions and issues included, are spot on. For me, Imperial Struggle is a really strong game and a bold, brave project, but still Ozeki, not yet Yokozuna.

Mike Siggins