Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North

27 September 2019
As the world of Imperial Settlers expands to the Empires of the North, Ignacy Trzewiczek looks back – and forward – on five years of his civilisation-building card game

At Gen Con 2014, Ignacy Trzewiczek was terrified. “Really, really terrified.”

His company, Polish publisher Portal Games, was exhibiting with a booth at the massive US convention for the first time. Making its debut was the designer’s latest game, Imperial Settlers, which allowed players to build up civilisations from throughout history by adding cards to their individual tableau. Each of the game’s factions had an individual deck of cards that combined with a central deck of common cards to recreate the constant expansion and technological progression of the civs. It was ambitious, inventive – and, even for an ‘obsessive’ playtester like Trzewiczek, a massive challenge to get right.

The designer had played day and night, carefully tweaking card combinations and abilities over hundreds of matches. But within a few days of Imperial Settlers’ launch at Gen Con, hundreds of players would play thousands of times. Within a few weeks, even more players would have experienced the game, drawing and playing almost every possible combination of cards between them. It was the ultimate stress test.

“This is a nightmare I guess for every designer,” Trzewiczek confides. “Even though the designer does their best trying to balance stuff and trying to find all these combos and synergies, then there’s the release of the game and we are all scared because there is always this one dude who will have this incredible luck – the synergy of the cards – and will come with this amazing combo, and then he will post on BoardGameGeek that he got 200 points and the game is broken, and you will be crying.”

Despite his worries, Trzewiczek’s efforts paid off; Imperial Settlers quickly garnered a positive reception from players and established a reputation as one of the designer’s best-loved games. Five years on, the game’s fantasy-historical world has been expanded further by several expansions, this a roll-and-write spin-off and, most recently, spiritual sequel Empires of the North. That foreboding Gen Con now holds a special place in Trzewiczek’s heart.

“It was an absolutely magical moment,” he says. “I have only good memories from 2014.”


State of Affairs

The story of Imperial Settlers had actually begun long before that momentous Gen Con. It had begun with the story of 51st State.

Trzewiczek’s 2010 game was set in the ruins of the United States and saw players attempting to establish a new sense of order in the wake of a devastating war. Like the later Imperial Settlers, the players controlled one of a number of factions, including mutants, merchants, New Yorkers and the Appalachian Federation, but drew all their cards from a shared deck.

51st State proved popular with fans and critics alike, earning awards and nominations and receiving two expansions. With an enjoyable loop of producing resources and building locations at its centre, the gameplay would inspire Imperial Settlers’ more whimsical spin on the format.

“My wife loved the game and she convinced me to try to use this 51st State mechanism, but do it in a fantasy world because fantasy is much more popular than a post-apocalyptic one,” Trzewiczek says.

Trzewiczek created a simple version of 51st State at home for his children. Buoyed by the potential for a similar game that was easier to play and had a more attractive theme, he showed it to his Portal colleagues. He soon fell down the rabbit hole.

“We decided in the company: ‘Let’s do a fantasy version of 51st State because it will be more popular and have more chances to be a success.’ I said, ‘Okay, I can do it in a few weeks’ – and then a year later it turned out it was not a few weeks of work,” he laughs. “Because when I started dwelling on it and thinking on it, I came up with this idea for the factions and then I came up with this idea for different things. Suddenly this few weekends’ job turned out to be a full-blown board game and it took me a year to finish.”

Trzewiczek found particular inspiration in The Settlers, a medieval city-building computer game he had played in high school. 

“To be super honest, I basically stole this whole idea from the amazing, amazing game from the nineties, The Settlers,” he admits. “When we decided to create ‘51st State: Fantasy’, somehow from the fantasy it very quickly became, ‘Okay, so the Settlers setting is super cute, we all have these great memories from high school when we were playing Settlers I, II, III, Anniversary Edition and all these video games.’ So it was inspired by the video game.”

In place of gangs of wasteland scavengers, Trzewiczek created Roman, Egyptian, Japanese and barbarian factions for Imperial Settlers, each with their own unique deck of buildings and divergent play styles. The gameplay was recognisably built on 51st State’s ideas of tableau- and engine-building – “There’s a lot of people making fun of me that basically I designed one game system and then used it for different games,” Trzewiczek laughs – but, thanks to the faction-specific decks and cartoony historical theme, stood alone as a distinctly different experience. 

“You can go to the BoardGameGeek forums and see players arguing which game is better: ‘51st State!’ ‘No, Imperial Settlers sucks!’ ‘The factions are so much better than 51st State!’” Trzewiczek says. “And actually, it’s the same system, the same genesis, right? But the outcome is slightly different and fans really argue, which is very fun.”

Despite 51st State keeping a devout following of players, Imperial Settlers’ historical-fantasy setting helped the newer game surpass its predecessor in popularity. It also gave Trzewiczek endless ideas for new factions to bring to the game, starting with Amazons, Aztecs and the mythical Atlanteans – fans quickly jumped on the suggestion of a comprehensive alphabetical tour through civilisations.

“That was an accident that became viral,” the designer laughs. “Now, yes, we are doomed: we have to release a faction starting with B now. We literally get emails from fans with propositions for the B factions.”

Imperial Settlers’ success even led to one of the developers behind The Settlers, Andreas Suika, contacting Trzewiczek as a fan.

“He plays Imperial Settlers so this is like a very funny circle,” Trzewiczek says.


Settle for More

As Imperial Settlers’ popularity continued, its creators began to realise it was something special. 

“For many games, when you release the base game and then when you release expansions, over time every single expansion sells worse and worse and worse because there’s less interest,” Trzewiczek says. “With that, we didn’t see that much of a drop. We still saw players buying these expansions and enjoying this world.”

The spark for the next game in the Imperial Settlers universe came to Trzewiczek in October 2018, during a long eight-hour drive home from the Essen Spiel convention in Germany.

“All my team, all my people, were in the car with me sleeping because they were tired from the convention,” he says. “So I was driving for the eight hours in complete silence trying to not fall asleep and kill us all. When I reached home after this eight hours, I had this game ready. Basically I was driving thinking and building this game in my head. We reached home, I just made some notes and this game was more or less working from the very beginning. It came very naturally.”

Imperial Settlers: Roll & Write swapped the original game’s cards for pads of paper and dice; instead of drawing cards, players rolled to generate resources and workers, using them to purchase buildings and earn bonuses by crossing off boxes on the sheets. Just as Imperial Settlers had been moulded by Trzewiczek’s high school love of The Settlers, its roll-and-write offspring came about as the result of the designer’s long-standing enjoyment of the recently in-vogue genre.

 “Now we have this hype train and this craziness about roll-and-write games; I loved them for a couple of years already and I had quite a collection of these games at home,” he says. “At some point it was obvious for me that if I loved this genre so much, I will make a game with this mechanism.

“It happened accidentally – it’s incredible how many things happen just by accident, and then of course every publisher creates a story to back it up.”

Since Roll & Write’s release, Trzewiczek has created a number of new building and ability sets and boards for the game, making them available at conventions and releasing them for free online. While the designer is the first to accept that the game’s lighter rules means it might not have the 

staying power of the original, he’s keen to enjoy his diversion while it lasts.

“I can see myself being tired of this design in upcoming months and I will say no more, it’s done,” he says. “[But] it’s fun, it’s just fun. Engine-building, roll-and-write, Imperial Settlers: it was just natural.”


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The Empires Strike Back

The latest entry in the Imperial Settlers series returns to the original game, before leading it in yet another unexpected direction. Empires of the North combines Imperial Settlers’ civ-building cardplay with a new sense of exploration as players send out ships to explore islands near and far. There’s also a new gameplay twist, in the form of a circular rondel of actions that players can perform by placing two discs each round. It’s a mix of familiar elements from Imperial Settlers and brand new ideas that comes together neatly on the table, but Trzewiczek reveals that the journey for him and Empires co-designer Joanna Kijanka was far from smooth.

“When you look now at this game it is ready, it works, it all looks like it matches perfectly,” he says. “It was a mess, it was not that easy to have this final result.”

In the middle of December 2018, Empires of the North was “so far away from working” that the Portal team met to discuss a potential backup plan for their big release of 2019 if the project fell through. Trzewiczek says he was “panicking” and “terrified”. An ultimatum was reached: the game would need to be working, with its gameplay and rules finalised, by the end of the year. The pressure mounted.

“Days are passing, you’re playtesting it; it sucks, it sucks, it sucks, and you see the deadline is coming,” Trzewiczek says. “It was much more stressful, it was much more work, than people can think. It was so many different variants and variations of this game.”

The designers experimented with an endless stream of ideas. After being impressed by Vladimír Suchý’s Underwater Cities, Trzewiczek introduced new mechanics. A wheel of actions was added, but felt clunky and dull. The production phase would function in one prototype, then fall apart in another. The card-drafting was changed to force players to spend workers to keep cards. Every possible combination of rules old and new was tried, tested and tweaked.

As the deadline loomed, in Trzewiczek’s words: “It just all clicked.”

“Suddenly it turns out that we can play without production, that the draft is really challenging when you have to decide if you keep the meeples: if I keep them for the action or I keep them for the draft,” he explains. “Suddenly the wheel worked.”

Right at the centre of the working game was that wheel of actions. For most of that decisive month, the designers had allowed players to select two actions on the rondel. Simple – and boring. Then, Trzewiczek had an epiphany. He decided that players could spend one of their food resources to re-use each token on the wheel, moving it to perform an adjacent action. Two actions became four, with the added consideration of where you might move next.

“You see that this wheel of action has potential, it’s interesting, but only two actions a round is not enough to make it really interesting,” he explains. “One day I came up with if you spend an apple you can free this token and you can use it again. Suddenly, wow, that was the most crucial decision.

“It was [the same] for every single rule in this game. We saw potential, it has potential, but it sucks. We see that it may be something, but now it’s very boring. And step after step, step after step, we were just struggling – and at the beginning of January, the game was finally working.”

Empires’ sailing went on a similarly choppy voyage. In the final game, players can select the sail action on the wheel to send a ship to a nearby or, if they have the fish resources to keep their crew fed on the trip, distant island. At the end of the round, the players can pillage islands for instant resources or – if they sent them out with a raze token – conquer them for ongoing abilities and victory points. But it’s first come, first served: players who send forth their boats earlier get first pickings, while those at the back of queue may end up empty-handed.

“The number of different variants for the sailing is insane,” Trzewiczek says. “It’s ridiculous how many versions we had.

“We needed a set of rules that would work for every single faction. For that, we had so many rules – at the beginning, each player had their own port and in this port they were building these ships, so you had to build the ship and then send it out, and there was spacing that in each round each ship can move one space and depending how many rounds you play the ship can go far away. But it was all fiddly and slow and so many rules just to grab some loot. So you had to build the port, build the ship, send it – just to get a couple of apples. That was a struggle. The final version is smooth. It’s quite abstract, because we are just sending these ships to the expedition board and then at the end of the round we can conquer or not.”

Empires also sees Trzewiczek delve deeper into a single-player mode, after creating a solo variant for Imperial Settlers. The designer only discovered solo games in 2012 after the surprise success of his island survival game Robinson Crusoe among solo players; “I got an award for the best solo game, which was very confusing for me because I didn’t know that there was something like that!” he says.

Now, he’s a convert, waxing lyrical about his “beloved” Arkham Horror: The Card Game and exploring more complex and story-driven solo modes in his own Empires of the North and Roll & Write, which offers a unique set of buildings on every sheet for lone players.

“Today I know so much more about solo games than five years ago, so that’s why the solo variant in Empires of the North is – being super honest – better than Imperial Settlers,” he says.

“I think we will see for one of our games, and probably for Imperial Settlers, some solo game. Because the whole premise of you building your empire, it is so interesting and there’s so many interesting choices you can make.”

Even as Empires of the North takes Imperial Settlers into uncharted territory, the designer expects its lineage to Imperial Settlers and 51st State to reignite a familiar battle among players.

“They will have more topics to argue because now they have three games to argue over,” he jokes.

More to Explore

One of the first things that players encounter when opening Empires of the North’s box is a map of the Imperial Settlers world. The stylised Earth show historical and fantasy factions both familiar and unfamiliar, a reminder that there are plenty more corners to be explored. 

“We will have something new for Imperial Settlers next year; it is not yet decided what exactly,” Trzewiczek confirms. “We want to show and send a very clear message that releasing Empires of the North is our plan to grow the family, not to kill one member to introduce a new member.”

Imperial Settlers and Empires of the North aren’t separate corners of the world, either. The first expansion for Empires will bring the familiar Imperial Settlers faction of Japan to the game, while the designer hints at taking Empires factions such as the Inuit the opposite way.

“This expansion is going to show players that this world interferes together,” he says. “We want this whole world melding together, mixing together. This map is exactly our message to fans: treat this as a world.”

Trzewiczek’s own passion for the Imperial Settlers universe is a key part of its future, but the enthusiasm of its fans is just as important for the designer.

“Saying these nice words about the games you like really helps,” he says. “Some of these words, at some point, somehow, reach designers and it is good for them to hear people enjoying the games and then it is so much easier for us to sit during the weekend or in the night or in the afternoon and come up with new content.

“Hopefully there are already enough fans of Imperial Settlers that they want more games in this line – not just another expansion for Imperial Settlers, just another game! We will see more in a couple of months, but so far it looks like we were right.”

With a whole world to explore and more and more players interested in seeking out the corners of its fantasy universe, Trzewiczek is optimistic about Imperial Settlers future.

“I would love to see in five years that my dream came true,” he says. “Like, people really talking about Imperial Settlers games like today people talk about Pandemic games or Ticket to Ride games.

“If in five years we can have on board game store shelves six or seven different games with this IP and we see that people are enjoying this whole brand, I will be very happy. We all have a great time promoting this game, creating this game. And if in five years this game is still alive and we have more games I’ll be very happy.” 


Words by Matt Jarvis

This feature originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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