One of my formative gaming experiences with my first game group in Chicago almost 10 years ago was the card-driven engine builder Imperial Settlers (2014, Portal Games). A couple of my friends in the city absolutely loved this game so it was frequently out on a table during one of our game nights. The copy that I owned was passed around between three different people in our group.
Designer Ignacy Trzewiczek (Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game, Batman: Everybody Lies) turned Imperial Settlers into its own cottage industry. Imperial Settlers has become a 20+ expansion bonanza, keeping fans of the incredible combo-driven card play coming back again and again.
There are so many expansions for this game that my colleague David McMillan wrote not just one, but a whopping five articles about the base game and its expansions, then he reviewed Imperial Settlers: Roll & Write a couple of years later. (You can imagine our shock that Imperial Settlers doesn’t have a dice game version, but the night is young.)
During Gen Con 2022, I spoke with the team at Portal and I thought it would be cool to round out the set by taking a look at Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North, a 2019 standalone game based in the same Imperial Settlers universe. 30-card faction decks, pink meeples, cute illustrations and food tokens that still elicit the same table debates—are those apples, or tomatoes??—are a part of the Imperial Settlers experience.
Empires of the North still looks like home. Does it feel like it?
Take to the Seas
Empires of the North is similar to the base game in one very important area: turns are snappy, at least until they are not.
In Empires of the North, players play until someone reaches the 25-point mark, triggering the end game. Additional points come from cards played into your tableau—unlike the base game, every card here is worth exactly one point—in addition to leftover resources, with a small sweetener for leftover gold coins.
During the game, you’ve still got a Lookout phase (where players draw cards to determine which ones to keep) and an Action phase, with Action cards that can be tapped, Buildings that can be Razed, and Fields that can be Harvested.
Some of this is standard fare for those who have played the base game, and if you want to see how Imperial Settlers plays, read David’s excellent rules overviews using the links above. Where Empires of the North differs from the base game is in only one major area: the Expedition board.
This time around, players will gather a sizable amount of their resources not from production bonuses and “Deal” cards, but from sending boats to a board that allows players to gather resources and/or conquer islands. Depending on which of the six new factions you select to play Empires of the North, the Expedition board might be the most exciting—or most ignored—action in any of the Imperial Settlers games. No matter your view, eventually you have to send out ships to gather resources to fuel your engine.
The Expedition Board is there for a reason: resources feel much tighter in Empires of the North than in the base game.
I JUST WANT ONE STONE!!
Resources are often so tight in Empires of the North that you’ll need to use the action wheel to solve all the world’s problems.
The action wheel is composed of five action tiles that are randomly assigned and built into a circle. These five actions are activated when a player uses one of their two action tokens. A couple of these actions are quite simple: Explore lets a player draw one card from their faction (Clan) deck, while Populate lets a player add one worker from the general supply.
Harvest lets you pick a single Field from your card tableau to gain the resources on that card. In many cases, you are talking about getting a single stone, maybe two wood, from the supply. Due to the lack of production on most cards, you’ll sometimes have to use the Construct action from the wheel because it bypasses the building cost requirement for a single card from your hand.
Before we talk about the fifth action, we have to address the lack of resource production as the reason why some players will love Empires of the North versus the base game: Empires of the North is so much tighter. Even though Imperial Settlers’ base game seems to have final rounds so massive that it’s just fun to watch your neighbor gather like 20 resources during the production phase, Empires of the North feels different.
I have had rounds of Empires of the North where I basically threw the round to gather a scant three wood resources and a food, just to be ready for the next round. There is no trade action, which is clearly a move to tighten the experience for those who thought the base game was a little too loose in finding creative ways to scrounge together the stuff you needed to build cards.
Again, that means some players find this to be the better game in the Imperial Settlers series. Me? I already want to go back and play the base game, to remember what that last round looked like, exhausting a dozen different cards to get more actions to get more stuff or score a bunch of points.
The fifth action on the wheel is the Sail action, where you can send one of your two starting boats on an Expedition to either Pillage an island card for resources, or Conquer an island card to take the card into your tableau and grant your Clan an additional action in future rounds.
You’ll be able to gather more stuff by exploring the new world; taking the Sail action earlier in the round allows for a player to get a leg up on the choice of island cards when the Action phase is over. Or, at least, you would think that was true, until you realize that a few factions have ways to break the Expedition turn order and get to islands before you can.
Assuming your engine needs a kick in the pants, you’ll activate the Sail action using your action pawns regularly. Here’s what intrigued me about the Expedition phase during each of my plays: one would think that a tight card market would lead to some island cards being significantly better than other cards. But most of the island cards feel “samey.” When a player resolves their ship tokens, they have a choice of any face-up island card, or simply top-decking a card to determine its worth as a target of pillage or being conquered.
Nine times out of ten, it doesn’t really seem to matter—you’ll be getting a wood, maybe a point, maybe a fish (new to the Imperial Settlers series in my experience, which basically serves as food for your ships). Sometimes, it ends up being two wood, a point, and a sheep; regardless, it turns the Expedition sequence into something that doesn’t carry that much weight.
Do You Love Combos?
I’m a huge fan of Imperial Settlers, so my hopes were maybe a little too high in the case of Empires of the North.
Empires of the North is good, and with a decent number of Clan options in the box, there’s plenty of game here. The rhythm of play and my feel for the language in this series made entry quite easy. Also, the solo in Empires of the North is a big upgrade over the average solo of the base game.
But Empires of the North is just different enough to help steer me back to the base game. I was surprised how frustrating resource gathering was for me with Empires of the North; after the initial setup, you are going to lean hard on the hope that you deal yourself some cards that kick your engine into gear. When you don’t draw those cards—and, look, even the base game has this issue—you are going to be in for some games where you never draw the cards you need to be successful.
In my second play of Empires of the North, I selected the Ulaf Clan, which needs to Conquer islands to be most successful. Sadly, I didn’t draw my first Guardhouse card until the fourth round of the game; the Guardhouse grants two Raze tokens when built, and Raze tokens are required to Conquer any island.
Knowing that there is no other way to get Raze tokens (they are not a resource, which means they cannot be replaced with the wild gold resources) AND that I couldn’t trade, it made the game pretty miserable. At one point, another player was direct: “Why are you so far behind, bro?”
So Empires of the North doesn’t fix the problems of having a sweet deck that could lead to great combos if the cards are drawn in the right order. Every so often, you’ll get hosed, so just accept that. Having one of your Buildings razed is also a possibility in Empires of the North, just like the base game, but here you can’t defend the Buildings at all. If a player goes before you, they are going to raze your “spend three different resources for three points” Building each round.
Again, you’re gonna get hosed. Just accept it.
If you can get past some of these issues, there’s a fun game here. I almost think Empires of the North is better for players who don’t know the Imperial Settlers base game, but I’m really not sure who this game is for. I’m only a few games in with Empires of the North, and this already has me excited to play the base game once again.
A note about the production—the rules, the box insert, the card stock, the artwork—all of it is solid. For about $40, you are getting a healthy set of bits in a mid-weight engine building package. Gamers who are newer to the hobby will feel right at home here and the solo really extends the life of the product.
I’m glad I got to get back on the bike with this gaming universe, even if I only liked Empires of the North, instead of loving it. I can’t wait to revisit base Imperial Settlers to remember why the original is such a classic.