Imperial Settlers is a reimplementation of 51st State. 51st State had an improved version, called The New Era, not long ago. This time round Imperial Settlers is a major revamp giving it a different setting in the process.
Imperial Settlers is a card tableau game, like Race For The Galaxy, San Juan, London and Gosu. Every round you start with a card drafting and card drawing phase, followed by a resource production phase. Then players take turns performing actions. You can spend resources to construct buildings, which is basically playing a card into your tableau. You can establish a business contract, which is turning a card into a contract which produces one resource every round. You can raze an opponent's building, or even one of your own. You will salvage some resources when you do this. You can also pay resources to make use of special actions on some buildings. The game revolves around producing resources, using them to construct buildings which in turn produce more resources or do other fancy things, and ultimately scoring victory points. The buildings themselves will be worth points at game end too. At the end of every round, all resources are discarded unless you have specific warehouses to store them. The game ends after five rounds.
Each player plays different civilisation, and each civilisation has its own deck of faction-specific cards. There is a generic deck which every player can draw from too.
The artwork is beautiful and of the cute type. The top left section of a card shows the building materials required to construct the building. The coloured vertical bar at the lower left indicates the building type. Some buildings give benefits depending on how many other buildings of the same type exist in your tableau. The blue horizontal bar at the bottom means the card can become a contract, and will give you one resource at the start of every round.
This is my tableau. The faction board in the centre shows the basic resources I get to collect at the start of every round, and also what type of resource I can store in my warehouse at the end of the round. The cards tucked at the top are my currently active contracts, which produce resources every round. Cards on the left of the faction board are faction-specific buildings, and cards on the right are generic buildings. Generic buildings can be razed by your opponents, but faction-specific buildings are safe. The recommended way to organise your buildings is to place production buildings in the top row, and action buildings in the bottom row. Action buildings let you spend resources to perform special actions.
These are some of my action buildings. When you make use of them, you place the action cost payments here to remind yourself how many times you have used the building. Usually you can use a building at most twice per round.
This one in the centre is a generic building. The section at the top right indicates that it can be razed, and you will gain one victory point (star icon) and one wood if you do so.
I played two games with Allen back to back, trying out all four factions in the game. The game plays very smoothly. I have played 51st State before and quite like it, so I can't help comparing Imperial Settlers to it when I played. Imperial Settlers is cleaner and easier to teach. Many aspects are familiar. In the early game you want to improve your production capacity. Every round you start with a bunch of resources, and you need to puzzle out how to make the most of them in the current round. Player interaction is low. You are mostly trying to figure out the synergies among your own cards. You need to plan how to build up your empire. Razing your opponent's buildings is possible, and in fact there is not much he can do to prevent it, but this doesn't happen frequently. Buildings getting razed seems to be just something you have to accept will happen once in a while. You do have a defense token which can make it slightly harder for your opponent to raze one of your buildings, but it is difficult to completely protect every building. Well, it's actually impossible.
In our second game I played the Egyptians. I had a horrible start. I had drawn so many cards but still had not constructed a single building. Needless to say my production capacity was very low. I was quite clueless at playing the Egyptians. Thankfully later on I found that they had some nifty card combos, and I managed to catch up a little. I still lost, but at least not as badly as I had expected.
My humble Egyptian empire.
I can't help comparing Imperial Settlers to 51st State. Imperial Settlers is more polished and easier to learn. If we put them side by side, I can immediately see the shortcomings of 51st State. However I like the old dog more. 51st State uses many icons, which players will struggle with for some time until they are familiar with the game. The card drafting mechanism is not as straightforward. One thing which Ignacy Trzewiczek set out to do when designing Imperial Settlers was to remove the max-3 restriction in 51st State. In 51st State, a scoring card may score at most three times, after which you will need to convert it to another scoring building if you want to continue to use the same location to score points. You can keep at most three loot items. You can have at most three contracts. In Imperial Settlers these restrictions have been mostly removed. I personally don't have a problem with the max-3 restriction. To me it's a challenge. It forces you to plan ahead for the obsolescence of your cards. I forces you to plan to adapt before you are hampered by the limit. You cannot be complacent with your scoring buildings and you need to stay nimble. Your card tableau needs to be dynamic.
In Imperial Settlers there is dynamism in your card tableau too, but it is implemented in a different way. Sometimes you want to raze your own buildings to gain resources. Sometimes in order to construct a powerful building, you need to sacrifice an existing building. This forces you to plan ahead which weaker building to use as a stepping stone to that stronger building. This razing-your-own-buildings business may take a little getting used to. I think it's a good thing. I like paradigm shifts.
I don't particularly like or dislike the post-apocalyptic setting of 51st State, so I'm not liking it more because of the setting. Imperial Settlers is definitely cuter and prettier.
One thing I don't like about Imperial Settlers is the fixed number of rounds. In 51st State the end game is triggered by one player reaching a target VP number. So things are more dynamic in 51st State. You need to watch where everyone is on the scoring track, and also gauge how quickly everyone is scoring. You need to estimate whether the game will go for one more round or not, and act accordingly. In Imperial Settlers every time you construct a building you already know how many times you will get to use it. This deterministic feeling bugs me a little.
Many aspects of these two games are similar. Imperial Settlers gives more character to each faction. In 51st State only the base production and the starting contact cards differ. In Imperial Settlers you have a whole deck of faction-specific cards. Imperial Settlers is more accessible, and I think more people will like it than 51st State. So I shall just be contented and call myself a hipster, and proclaim that I liked Imperial Settlers before it was Imperial Settlers.