Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North is a game designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek and published by Portal Games (among other board game companies). It’s based in the universe that Imperial Settlers, a game previously designed by Trzewiczek, takes place in, however, we will not be referring back to the original game. This review will treat Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North as a standalone game, because while the two games are similar, Empires of the North is different mechanically, making it it’s own, independent game.
There are 5 main resources (wood, fruit, fish, stone, sheep), which are represented by small wooden tokens. You can use these resources for a variety of things, like sending your clanmates off to pillage a distant island, building mead halls and banks to expand your empire, and reinvigorating your clan to take that extra action you so desperately needed. And the sheep… well, the sheep are just mainly used for victory points. All of these components can be easily divided into a tray that comes with the game, making everything easily accessible and organized. On top of these 5 resources, there are three other tokens in this game (people, raze tokens, and gold coins), which are not considered to be resources but are placed in the same area as them. The tokens themselves are really easy to tell apart, with each one being a unique shape and color.
There are three main factions (the Scotsmen, the Inuit, and the Vikings), each one with two different clans (decks). This means that there are 6 completely different decks in the base game, with an additional two if you get the Japanese Islands expansion! Each one has it’s own special powers and abilities, giving the game huge points in terms of replayability. It’s not too difficult to figure out the best strategy for gaining victory points with a certain clan, though it’s helpful to go through all of the cards before you begin the game to make sure you actually know what you’re doing, and that you don’t accidentally discard a card in the first few rounds that would’ve given you a ton of victory points.
The decks themselves are distinctive, each one having a different color and a (very adorable) person illustrated on them. However, the colors on the score markers don’t match those on the backs of the decks, and the illustrations don’t necessarily match the illustrations on the back of the cards, meaning that there’s a lot of guessing and eye-squinting at the start of the game. The ship tokens have the same problem, where they have no color markings. Once again players are forced to examine their chosen deck of cards and try their best to match it to one of the ships. You could just randomly assign score markers and ships to players, but that’s not how it’s supposed to be! Certain score markers and certain ships are supposed to go with each clan, and the fact that it’s not clear what goes with what just adds more time to the setup. The Japanese Islands expansion does fix this problem, though, making the background for the boats and the score markers the same color as the back of the cards.
The action markers are four different colors, and while they also don’t match with the 6-8 deck colors, it doesn’t really affect the game. Eventually players will get used to being represented by two different colors, and since the action markers are for a different function it’s not that big of a deal. Overall, these little issues don’t generally affect the gameplay of Empires of the North, it’s just annoying at the start of the game when you don’t know what markers are yours.
The components are of pretty good quality, and the artwork is very nice to look at. Since this game also has variety between players and the cards of each deck, more effort had to be put into the game, and I applaud the artists and designers. All of the tokens are quite easy to pick up, move around, and keep organized, so you won’t have any big messes (unless you’re playing with someone who cannot keep a tidy play area – we’ve all been there).
The game is made up of rounds, which are structured into four main phases (Lookout, Action, Expedition, and Cleanup), with the possibility of some extra phases depending on the decks being played with. Players will go through these phases, playing until one of them has reached 25 points, at which point the final round will start.
The first phase is the Lookout phase, where each player will draw 4 cards, and choose which ones to keep by spending workers. In Empires of the North, instead of spending workers like you would any other resource, returning it to the tray from whence they came, players instead place spent workers on the designated platform, where they can be recovered later on (in contrast to the resources lost to the tray, some of which may be trapped there until the next game). Truly, people are the most special of all. This means that players have to plan their actions in advance, especially if they have a clan where they have a lot of options to spend their workers. Even if you have a ton of cards and actions, you still need people to perform the action.
After the Lookout phase is the Action phase, which is where most of the game will take place. Players go in clockwise order, each taking an action until they decide to pass. Actions can vary from using a locations action to using one of the action tokens, building a brand new location, raiding an opponent’s location to stop them from getting even more victory points, and performing one of the five actions located on the action tiles (Populate, Explore, Construct, Harvest, and Sail). Populate allows you to add a new person to your clan; Explore allows you to “venture into the wild” and draw a new card (which you keep for free); Construct allows you to build a new location for free; Harvest allows you to get more resources from one field location in your empire; and Sail allows players to travel to distant or not so distant islands. You can perform two actions this way for free, but to perform additional actions you must tempt your clanmates with some fruit, spending said token and exhausting your action token. You may only exhaust each action token once.
During the Expedition phase, players who have boats ready to set sail will choose one of the Nearby or Distant Islands to either pillage or conquer. Pillaging an island will give you immediate benefits in the form of victory points or resources, while conquering an island will integrate it into your clan, with the action on the island becoming available to the clan leader.
Finally, the Cleanup phase occurs. During the Cleanup phase, players basically reset everything. All of the cards become unexhausted, spent workers come back into the players supply, any leftover island cards get discarded, and the next round begins.
The action tiles are a bigger part of the game than one would originally expect, but with the large amount of cards that are directly or indirectly related to the action tiles, it makes sense. For clans that give benefits to sailing or stockpiling resources, players are going to be using the action tiles a lot more. Each action is simple enough that it doesn’t take a massive amount of time to perform, but there are enough actions that players may be subjected to analysis paralysis. Overall, though, all of the actions are simple, quick, and easy to understand, and the variety not only with the decks but the action tiles (since they can be rearranged from game to game) definitely adds to the replayability of the game.
Players go through these phases, collecting cards, performing actions, pillaging and conquering islands, to build an engine that will ultimately carry them to victory. And, overall, this works! Empires of the North was a lot of fun to play- it’s fun to play with different clans, it’s fun to collect the little resources, and it’s fun to strategize how to best destroy your competition (or really just beat them by getting the most victory points the fastest). The art is pleasing to look at, and, aside from the color differences, it makes different symbols distinct and easy to tell apart. The tray included with the game is a big bonus, especially to people who may not have designated component trays. It saves space and it saves time, especially at the end of the game when you’re putting everything away. While the actions are all relatively simple, there is a good amount you can choose from, and action order does matter in some cases. Players have to strategize in order to get the most victory points in the quickest amount of time, and while players can still be subjected to the randomness of their draw this isn’t a game that’s based on a lot of luck. Another positive for the game was that players got through most of their deck by the end of the game. Personally, when there’s still the majority of the deck left in a card game, I feel disappointed because there were all those amazing cards in there that I simply couldn’t get to, and while future replays may remedy that situation it’s always nice to know that you (most likely) haven’t missed out on an awesome card.
So, if you or your friends are looking for a fun, relatively simple engine builder with adorable artwork and a variety of options, strategies, and actions, I would definitely recommend Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North.