The original Imperial Settlers released back in 2014, it had players race to conquer new lands, juggling economy, expansion and land capture in a race to glory. Empires of The North launched last year, and while it’s set in the same universe, and players share similar goals, its more than strong enough to stand alone. It’s also surprisingly easy to learn, something that the size of the box might not infer.
And that’s because, by all intents and purposes, Empires of the North is a more streamlined version of the original, with players only competing with each other directly at a few points in time. Where Imperial Settlers‘ turns were more complex — and allowed plenty of sabotage — Empires of the North streamlines your actions to the civilization you’ve built and the five instructed actions. It’s also quite peaceful, razing is basically out, and the rewards for exploring new lands vastly outweighs using the currency for exploration to instead hamper other players’ progress.
The real competition comes in the race for those elusive foreign lands, be that razing or actually settling the land. Each player, of which there can be four in the game, can sail two (or three, if you pick that tribe) ships out to claim or raze foreign lands and — much like any good queuing system — it’s a case of first-come, first-served.
But, it’s not just about razing and claiming lands, no. As with many games, you can score points through almost any action – even just stockpiling resources, or recruiting loads of new workers, can lead to victory. Take that into consideration alongside the fact that turns do not run for a finite time – and those with ample resources and buildings can keep performing actions for as long as they can afford it – and it is clear that not only is Empires of the North fast and dynamic… but it’s also incredibly flexible.
So, let’s get down to how it plays.
In Empires of the North up to four players (and, there is a solo mode) take on the role of a civilization and must gain as many victory points as possible in order to win. You can gain those victory points through almost anything you do, but the easiest way to rack them up is through sailing across the ocean and claiming new land.
Claiming land is a key tactic, and the heart of the game because that land then becomes a part of your territory — which is otherwise made up of fields and buildings. Those fields and buildings are integral to how each turn works, because if you had adequate resources (or the right buildings) then you can activate a building as an action — which greatly adds to the 2-4 actions you can otherwise do.
Each civilization has its own deck and is built around a certain playstyle — however, we didn’t find any of them to be too heavily tailored as to drag gameplay into a linear form. Examples of the tailored decks include raiders, who gain an extra ship and can gain the axes used for claiming land more often, or a mercantile nation who start with a building which allows for deft stockpiling.
With their civilization and deck claimed, each player receives two (or three, in the case of the cheeky raiders) ships which can later be used for sailing to new lands. There’s a card for spent workers, and you’ll also get two action tokens. Players will then form a starting hand, a discard pile, and set up their ‘starting’ fields — which are preset. Resources will be doled out based on the starting cards, and then play can commence.
That said, there are a few trackers out in the shared-player area… the middle of the table. A tracker shows how many points people have racked up before final scoring begins, five small tiles form a circle showing actions available, and there’s the star of the show: the exploration board. The exploration board has two lanes of islands and an area in the middle where boats line up to raid/claim lands.
Empires of the North also comes with a generous amount of tokens, beside the pieces which I mentioned earlier there are meeples for workers, gold, axes, food, fish, fruit, minerals and wood. Lots of stuff. These are as robust as you might hope — handy as they’ll see good use.
So, with everything set up the game can begin. Play is similar to a round of poker — actions are taken in sequence around the table until everybody has passed. So, you might end up with two actions in the first round, but another person might run for 7 or 8. Although this sounds somewhat unbalanced, there is a cost to almost all actions, so it is rare for players to have extended, meaningful rounds for the entire duration of the game.
Once everybody has passed, the sailing phase resolves, with any ships able to raid either of the three nearby islands (the top being the deck, which is raided blind), and any ships with a fish resource on them also able to raid the three furthest. IF a player has also popped an axe token down then they can claim the land as their own — adding it to their own buildings.
But, I’ve skipped over something, so let’s wind back a moment. There are five clan actions, I mentioned them earlier, a circle formed of the five smaller tokens: Sail, Harvest, Construct, Populate and Explore. On your turn you can place one of your tokens on the appropriate piece to activate the action on it – and you can, at that point also play certain cards from your hands which are flagged as corresponding to it. You can use both of your tokens in any given round, and once that’s done you can spend a fruit resource in order to flip the token and play one of the two tile actions adjacent to it.
This is an incredible way of making sure that every player can perform (at least two) up to four actions on their turn, and the activation of in-hand cards in synch with that is fantastic… however, my favourite bit about it is that as you rack up the plays you can place these tiles in different orders. Does Jared keep flipping from Construct to Populate in EVERY game? Stuff him… During set up move those tiles to be further away from each other.
Empires of the North is an incredibly flexible game where you can butt heads with other players but never debilitate them. Despite its variable-length turns, it’s a game which feels fast and engaging, and it’s definitely a game that I intend to return to many a time in future.
You can buy Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North now from Amazon.