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Designer Diary: Imperium Horizons

by David Turczi

History beckons…Part 1: Ancient History

Our story starts at the dawn of history, in the ancient mythical times of 2008. Deck building was the new invention, and Nigel Buckle – a fledgling designer with a sparkle in his eyes – decided to try his hand at the flavor of the day.

His love of history set to the theme of civilization building easily, but he didn’t find the spark of gameplay until he tried Core Worlds a few years later. This game combined tableau building with deck building, inspiring him to look at his original ideas again until they distilled into something quite unlike anything else on the market: a set of asymmetric decks, each with a built-in “private market” to ensure historical accuracy as to which developments each nation would eventually unlock: Egypt got their pyramids, Rome got their Senate. The passage of time, and the rise, stagnation, and possible fall of empires were represented in the game, when midway through play the civilization would turn from a barbarian kingdom to an empire.

It took a couple of years for Nigel to navigate the stormy waters of board game publishers, then the game spent a few years buried in a drawer until in 2018 NSKN Games asked one of its other designers – Dávid Turczi, who was quickly making a name for himself as a creator of solo modes – to look at the game to see what could be done. Dávid already knew Nigel, but for the story of that you need to read the designer diaries of our other game…

We spent the next year or so polishing the game, adding finesses with which players today are well familiar — progress on the market, the difference between garrisoning and history, exiling cards, solstice rounds, etc. — then eventually set out to create the solo mode. Dávid’s idea to model each opponent’s unique asymmetry by using their decks as the automa randomizer itself was quickly seized upon by Nigel, who then went on to create a unique chart for all 10-12 decks that existed at the time.

While we entertained ourselves by coming up with a few crazier decks (“What if this deck put population on the market?”, “What if there was a deck with pinned advance and conquer?”, “What if this deck tried to not go through its nation deck?”) real life and business caught up with us, and despite having found a great artist – The Mico, who was already a third of the way through our cards – NSKN realized it didn’t have the right plan to publish the game and returned the rights to Nigel, throwing the finished artwork in as a consolation prize.

We made a deal that day, a deal that Dávid has been jokingly calling the “new Lennon-McCartney agreement”: We’d finish the last few decks together, and Dávid would use his industry contacts to find a new publisher, then we’d release the game under both of our names.

Osprey Games signed the game about a month later. It happily took the Mico’s existing card art for the game and offered to raise our art budget significantly, which meant more unique card art, more historical research for small details, more of what made the games you have come to know as Imperium: Classics and Imperium: Legends special.

When Osprey signed us, we already had fourteen decks – originally intended to be used as stretch goals or something – which was too much for Osprey’s product line. It instead suggested a two-box approach, and we came up with two more civilizations – the Scythians and the Utopians – to round out both boxes to an even number.

Part 2: Whither Art Thou, Imperium?

While Classics and Legends were gearing up for release in 2021, Dávid was “forced” to play the game a bunch more times (or risk appearing to be a total moron when asked about the game) and realized he liked it a lot more than he remembered ever liking it while he was just working on it for work, so when the game opened with great sales, Dávid was already knocking on Nigel’s virtual door: “Okay, I get it! Now can we make more?” Luckily, Nigel (and Osprey) didn’t need much convincing, and we sat down to plan the future. We identified two “worthy” directions for expansion, then started the work.

The first direction was codenamed “Merchants”. The game had interaction in the market through progress placement and the timing of the game’s end, but beyond that most interactions were attacks from “negative” cards. This was perfectly acceptable for a game designed in 2011, but Eurogamers in 2021 were more prone to like peaceful engine building — or better yet, positive and tactical interaction instead of destructive ones — so we wanted to make a more friendly way to play the game, but without reducing the total interaction in the game…and even better still if we could increase it. The theme was obvious: trade routes. The Silk Road, Maritime Spice Road, Jade Trade, etc. – history is ripe with examples of multi-civilizational trade arrangements that defined the development of entire continents.

We worked through many iterations; we had trade routes in the middle that players could invest into by spending population to move along them, with them receiving yields at the end. When that was too complicated, we moved the trade routes onto “normal” cards.

We tried many combinations of what needs an action and what costs goods (playing them? trading with them? gaining profit?) until we ended up with what’s in the game now: It costs you an action to play a trade route, but you get the benefit immediately. Without the immediate benefit, nobody wanted to play them, and if we also removed the action cost, you could get way too many of them out too quickly. Additionally, each can be traded with only three times! Without that limitation, players never wanted to play strong trade routes since the opponent would be able to milk it numerous times until they had a spare action to resolve the card’s profit.

Using each other players’ routes provided the tactical interaction we sought — that is, you playing a card for your own reasons gives me new options — and the goods economy even managed to bring the feeling of positive interaction that is such a holy grail in heavy competitive Euros: I can either pay to benefit from my own set-up, or I can benefit from your set-up. The latter enriches both of us by a goods and speeds us both up. (I don’t need to play the trade route before trading, and you get the profit sooner.)

We now had the central mechanism for our “expansion”, but we’d been mostly testing with existing nations (to ensure backwards compatibility), and we needed to settle on which new civs to include. Our new mechanisms would work with any civ, but we wanted some to highlight the function, some to have cooler combos specifically honing on the trading systems. We didn’t know at this time yet where the boundaries of the module would be drawn, but as usual, history itself would provide the solution…

We identified the seven “most important” global trading nations of ancient times: the Neo-Persian Empire and Imperial China defined the Silk Road, then the former was conquered by the Arab Caliphate following the rise of Islam. The Arabs’ other main trading partner were the Sub-Saharan kingdoms of Africa; we picked the Wagadou (often called the Kingdom of Ghana, after their ruler) as they were the earliest one we know of, and we wanted to stick to the pre-medieval time window we’d set ourselves in Classics (with the Vikings deck ending in 1066 AD). Finally, to represent the traders of the sea, we picked the Aksumites and the Phoenicians, then we chose the Gupta of India, acting as a sort of link between the sea and the Silk Road.

After further research and consultation with historians and cultural consultants, we settled on the Tang Dynasty to represent Imperial China, and we picked the Sassanids to represent the Neo-Persian Empires when we read up on their unparalleled heavy cavalry. (We were eager to exploit the “knight” mechanism previously only lightly touched on by the Arthurian deck.) With the Arab Caliphate, we narrowed it down to the Abbasid dynasty, both to avoid the religious concerns of depicting some of the earlier rulers and to be able to highlight the founding of Baghdad and the cultural boom surrounding its age.

We ended up cutting the Phoenicians as we felt it wouldn’t add too much new to gameplay compared to Carthaginians and the many other Mediterranean nations we already had. We also cut our eighth idea, the Merovingian Kingdom of Charlemagne; we mostly wanted him for his knights, but with the Sassanids fulfilling that role and being a trading nation, we didn’t see the need.

After this, the list of six trading nations never changed again. Since these six nations were significantly influenced by their relation to one or two of the major trade routes, we decided to remove those trade routes from the list of available routes in the commons deck and move them into these decks specifically, while leaving the rest of the toolkit — the goods, the merchant cities, etc. — available for anyone to grab.

The second direction we picked was codenamed “New Horizons”, and it was fueled by our shared desire to move past the “usual” civilizations. Classics and Legends had six or so Mediterranean civilizations, yet only two from Asia and one from the Americas. We decided not to hide behind the excuse of “they’re more known” and instead shine our searchlight specifically on lesser known, non-European cultures. With the Merchants already returning to Asia with two decks (and charting new land by traveling to Sub-Saharan Africa), we turned our attention to the Americas.

The candidates we discussed were the Mayans, Incas, Iroquois, and Inuit. The Mayans’ concept was easy to come up with; as the inheritors of the Olmecs’ land and cultural foundations, it was natural to use the similar “masks driven” approach as we’d done before. The Incas and the Iroquois we had to take off the list because it would have been hard to look at their history without discussing their late-stage interaction with the colonial invaders, something that’s as far away from our pre-medieval time box as it can be.

Nigel had an innovative new idea for the Inuit deck: Life above the Arctic circle is defined by the seasons: the harsh cold winter, and the brief bloom of summer used to restock or move on. He proposed a new, custom nation-state card, replacing the barbarian/empire dichotomy we’ve had before, such that in summer you can play “empire” cards, whereas in winter you can play “barbarian” cards and your hand size is smaller.

While Nigel was busy with the Inuit, Dávid seeked help to learn more of the natives of the Americas. Some of you may be familiar with the great work Jason Perez does, and Dávid recalled how Jason had talked about his Taino heritage; the Taino being native Caribbeans fit the bill thematically, and their specialties of farming the lush islands and traversing between the islands in their canoes fit the mechanisms of oceans and other region icons we’d been leaning into with the new commons cards.

After a long discussion with Jason, the story that we could tell of the Taino emerged, and the tools of Imperium were “naturally” mapping to mechanisms by then: about their lives in the villages (resource management, fertile and ocean icons), their beliefs (unrest management), their daily lives and entertainment (ball games – a card familiar from both the Mayan and the Olmec deck). Since they, too, are a Central American civilization, we stuck to having most of their utility cards be pinned to lightly remind you of the other two nations, but the masks were not part of their focus. Instead, we dug up a mechanism used on only one card before, “Pottery” in Legends: putting resources on cards (in this case representing the food collected for the village or the warriors pledged to the chief), and instead of making it hard to get resources, we made it tough to decide which card to put them on.

One thing that Jason highlighted – and it was to come back later – is that people who are still alive today really don’t like their immediate ancestors to be called “barbarian”. We’ve shown him (and everyone else who brought this up) our statement from Classics saying that these crude terms are insufficient to properly describe the richness we’re modeling, but he suggested that we especially avoid it when creating decks for still existing, often endangered cultures. Plus, the fact that the Taino never really wanted to build an empire in the “Eurasian sense” made it inappropriate in multiple ways to give them a barbarian/empire state card.

This is when we realized just how much potential the Inuit summer/winter idea held: We could make custom state cards whenever needed. Jason’s suggestion was to name the Taino’s state card “Free Tribes”, put the red axe symbol on for gameplay reasons (without the word “barbarian”), and make both sides of the card the same. This provided us with an amazing new twist on gameplay: None of the Taino’s cards have barbarian or empire symbols, and when they reach their accession…nothing changes. They just gain access to their developments.

I tell this story to explain that while it took us dozens of playtests to ensure the Taino resource engine doesn’t result in scores well above 150, the most interesting part of designing these fascinating decks was not tweaking the cards, but figuring out how to map the history to the game mechanisms we’d already laid down in as natural, respectful, and accurate a way as possible.

To complete our civilization list for “New Horizons”, we added the two “fictional” civilizations we’d been carrying for a while — the anti-utopian Cultists and the gadget-oriented Martians — then presented the list to Osprey.

Part 3: Do What You Love – and Those Days of Hard Working

We now had six nations for “Merchants” (Abbasids, Aksumites, Gupta, Sassanids, Tang, Wagadou) and six nations for “New Horizons” (Mayans, Taino, Inuit, Japan, Cultists, Martians), so we asked which we should do first and whether they wanted the other batch for “Imperium 4”. We expected them to bargain down, so imagine our surprise when they suggested doing all of them and putting them into one big box, now titled Imperium: Horizons.

We assembled a team of experienced Imperium players online, recruited Mark Hutchinson (commonly known as the author of the excellent scoring app for Imperium) to help us out with an online testing rig, and we were off. You can read more about the process in the excellent write-up from one of our leads, Joshua Potter.

While the gang was testing, the two of us set out to do possibly the most fun part of working on these games: writing the art briefs to the Mico. After a few more emails back and forth with our wonderful consultants (history professors, most of them), we assembled quite a list, mostly focusing on sailing, trading, and the faraway civilizations we wanted to explore.

During development, we realized that the mechanisms asked for one more nation. We’d introduced the “hunting grounds” icon and made one or two commons cards that refer to it, but other than a few Inuit cards using it to hunt for seals in the winter, we hadn’t done any nations that focused on it. If hunting grounds represent these large, open swaths of land where you can track down animals, then logically we were looking for a civilization from the Asian steppes.

By this point, we were reverse engineering the thematic mapping: If fertile works this way, then the new icon must work that way. After deciding against Attila the Hun (as his barbarian cards would be pretty copy-paste of the Scythians, and his empire cards would be pretty Roman-like, so no fancy new mechanical dilemmas), Nigel almost jokingly asked Dávid: “Why don’t we add the Hungarians?”

Since the predecessors of the Hungarians arrived in Europe in the 8th-10th century from the east, they fit our time range perfectly! Pulling on what little Dávid could remember from ancient Hungarian myths he read as a child, he created a deck – and since this made the Magyars’ deck the chronologically most recent of all decks (save for Harold Hadrada’s Vikings), they needed a really long nation deck. (As we’ve often said, the length of a nation deck corresponds to the relative age of a civilization.)

When pairing this with the historical fact that after a few hundred years of raiding Europe, the Magyar tribes settled down, converted to Christianity, and founded the Kingdom of Hungary, this provided the perfect mechanism: their strongest cards and their glory can be used only as barbarian, and they have very few empire cards, all very high scoring. This was yet another example of historical accuracy almost automatically translating into an interesting twist on gameplay. We ended up still consulting with a Hungarian historian to make sure we got their clothing and weaponry right, but this deck came together at record speed.

The last deck was the biggest challenge, one we gave up on several times. We wanted a “seafaring” nation (remember the cancelled Phoenicians?), and while both the Taino and the Inuit touched upon the ideas we had about grabbing regions by sailing, we felt there was a lot more we could do. The obvious choice, the culture most different from everything else we’ve done before, was the Polynesians (meant as a collective term for Samoans, Maori, Hawaii natives, etc). We spared no effort searching for Maori consultants whom we could talk with to learn about their story and explain it in the limitations of the game.

We knew one part from the basic history, and it inspired the first main mechanism of the deck: The Polynesian diaspora of the Pacific Ocean happened in waves because whenever they found a nice new island, they settled, grew food, and lived for generations. When their gradual overpopulation led to the island not being able to sustain them, they took to the open ocean again, looking for new islands.

If, dear reader, you have been paying attention, you can figure out where this is heading. By putting the Inuit changing state mechanism, the custom state cards, the “no barbarian” concept, and the theme together, we created the island-bound/voyaging states for the Polynesians. In one state, they play almost like a regular deck, but cannot play their strongest cards (the ones thematically about open sea sailing and grabbing land), while in the other they can do the big moves but cannot draw cards at all. (You can’t really pick up some help in the middle of the Pacific Ocean now, can you?) But unlike the Inuit, where the switch was done each turn, here it was the player’s choice to time it right and ensure they have enough cards to make it to the next island.

One of the consultants inspired the other main mechanism: the concept of “mana”, which in Polynesian culture is a sign of power, respect, and the ability to command. (This is where the word used in modern fantasy originated from.) In game terms, this translated to “giving up” some of your cards (sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently) to show that you have enough mana to do it. We added another touch that runs through civilizations that didn’t rely on written historical traditions: They don’t have a history pile. Once we knew what we wanted from the deck, it took “only” two-and-a-half fundamental redesigns to get it right.

The usual process — for the Polynesian deck and for most complex decks — was:

1. Once the theme is agreed upon, Nigel and Dávid create a list of card titles together.

2. Dávid comes up with a crazy “overall mechanical theme” that the deck is trying to hit and creates a first cut of the cards. This deck probably breaks down on first play, sometimes it lasts a handful.

3. Nigel redesigns the deck from scratch, aiming for Dávid’s intentions.

4. Playtesting ensues.

5. Some of the cards aren’t as fun as Nigel intended, so Dávid tinkers with them.

6. One of us notices a card effect or two that the other horribly overcomplicated, and we cut some stuff. We redesign some cards to make the intentions more understandable.

7. More playtesting ensues. The lead testers suggest a few more changes for card balance.

8. Nigel takes the core drivers of the deck and maps it into a bot with the intention of giving the feel of facing that particular civilization in solo.

However, once we had 25+ decks done, picking specific individual card effects for the last few decks were surprisingly easy because of Imperium’s greatest feature: the thematic parallel mechanisms. We’ve already established some things in Classics/Legends, but with Horizons the “rules” of thematic card design got even clearer:

• Anything to do with writing thins your deck.

• Anything to do with mathematics increases your hand size.

• Anything to do with a religion is about unrest or action management.

• Open sea has no effects.

• And so on…

But we managed a few more nice ones, such as how the kayaks and the canoes across the Taino and the Inuit decks are both about committing population to grab new regions (despite being so different in practice), or how both cultures interacting with the Berbers of North Africa (Carthaginians and Wagadou) use their help to set up combos with materials on market cards.

Part 4: A Good Look in the Mirror

The last part of the process of creating Horizons that made it a unique experience for both of us was the opportunity to go back and make good things better.

One feature we knew from the start that we had to do were the large bot cards. Our whole fanbase was using fan-made ones printed from BGG, so this meant we had to read all the old bot charts again, which meant first we corrected some inconsistent wordings, which eventually motivated us to look at the overall balance and play style-consistency of all of them. In the end, out of the sixteen existing bots, nine of them were meaningfully edited, and the Scythian and the Atlantean ones essentially redesigned.

This also allowed us to sneak in “new tricks” we’ve since learned: The bot returning unrest was just a rule in Classics and Legends. When we were designing the bots for the new decks, we came up with the idea of having some of them do something when returning unrest, for example, the Tang bot places population to the market, simulating all the unrest management “tricks” the deck has up its sleeves in the hands of a live player. This worked so well that we wished we knew this trick when designing the Carthaginians or the Qin…

Well, guess what? We have revised the charts for these civilizations and added better solutions to them. Enjoy!

Then, there were the replacement cards. We’ve already written a big blog post about it, so I won’t re-iterate, but our dev team certainly took joy in rotating the three different commons decks while testing the new nation decks, in addition to playing old nations to see how they cope in the brave new trade world.

Onto the rulebook: Many said the rulebooks of Classics and Legends are not helpful in learning the game (and are better as a reference), so we’ve included descriptions of the core concepts of the game, as well as a complete turn example for both the player and the bot. We also rewrote the appendix and moved a few rules that might seem critical (about spending resources and buying cards) ahead of it, so that nobody tries to play the game without knowing what they are. Finally, we completely rewrote the paragraphs about reshuffling your deck, gaining cards from your nation deck, and developments (and changed a tiny edge case rule for elegance while at it).

So all in all, for those of you who played the game before, it’s the same game — we’ve just made sure that all dust is wiped off from the cracks. For those of you who didn’t dare or haven’t yet tried to play, Imperium not only got better, it also got easier to learn.

Armed with new tools – the bot simulation web app from Mark, the play data of our 700+ playtests, and all the games of Classics and Legends the public community logged through the scoring app – as well as with our dedicated team, this was one hell of a journey. We started on Horizons in October 2021, made the last card change in November 2022, and the game went to print in mid-2023. We’re so excited to see you all play!

David and an invisible Nigel cheering the first production copy at SPIEL Essen 23

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