Imaginarium: The Dream Factory review

18 September 2018
Imaginarium-main-47102.png Imaginarium: The Dream Factory
Construct your own contrabulous fabtraptions in a steampunk fantasy plant

Bruno Cathala has been on a roll for the past few years. Going from the djinn-summoning joys of Five Tribes, to his ingeniously addictive Duel remix of Antoine Bauza’s 7 Wonders, to the elegantly simple Spiel de Jahres winner Kingdomino, the French designer has proven himself a bona fide A-Lister of the Eurogaming world. Which perhaps puts unfair pressure on any of his new titles, in terms of inflating expectation to a point where, should anything fall below his usual high benchmark, your disappointment is only compounded.

This, sadly, is the case with Imaginarium: The Dream Factory, which Cathala co-designed with Florian Sirieix (Oh Captain!). It is, admittedly, a highly impressive production, realised with true visual novelty. On a fantastical factory floor, two-to-five eccentric ‘handymen’ compete to construct a set of synergising contraptions in order to meet the demands of various, VP-earning projects. Artist Felideus Bubastis (who also lends his name to one of the handymen) uses surreal collage techniques to mash up animal imagery, clockwork mechanisms and smoke-spewing industrial elements, creating a visually busy play area that feels like a cross between Heath Robinson and Terry Gilliam. 

The components are beautifully rendered, with baroque plastic busts representing each player’s handyman (two of whom are women), a central storage box to allow for easy access to the game’s resource cubes and appealingly lumpy-textured currency ‘charcoalium’, and chunky player boards which allow you to track your two-per-turn action selections via a double-handed dial. Slap it all on a gaming table and it’s sure to elicit coos of approval. But once you actually start playing…

Imaginarium is an engine-builder which is literally about building engines. But for all the gorgeous steampunk flourishes, the actual gameplay mechanisms suffer too many small moving parts, making it slow to absorb and frustrating to learn. One of the hardest things to get new players’ heads around is the machine-combination system, essential to success and represented by alphanumeric codes on each machine card. 

At least each player’s screen (designed to hide your resources, but all too easy to knock over) has a crib sheet to help. However, the graphical representations of the assistant card effects (which grant bonus abilities), workshop actions and project tile requirements are tough to decipher, meaning you’ll spend much of the first few sessions parsing the rulebook.

In terms of play time Imaginarium outstays its welcome, and could have benefitted from a quick-play mode (though of course you can cut the 20 VP end-game threshold to whatever you like). It is also better appreciated as a three-to-five player experience, the two-player mode adding in a ‘saboteur’ element that doesn’t quite gel. Plus, with each player using their machines, then picking up a new machine, then carrying out two actions on their turn, it allows rather too much downtime between goes – especially with all that decryption and deciphering going on.

Once you’ve reached a stage where everyone’s finally familiar with the rules and clicked into the knotty mechanisms, the satisfaction level will dramatically increase. There is, to Imaginarium’s credit, a lot of depth and an incredible amount of tactical variety that will reward those willing to invest the hours and effort. But with so many great titles out there vying for your precious attention – many of which are Cathala’s own brilliant creations – you may not want to spend all the time required to get a proper handle on this fiddly contrivance.



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Imaginarium is a visually impressive but complex machine that takes time to warm up and could have done with a little more oiling.

Buy your copy here.

Designer: Bruno Cathala, Florian Sirieix

Artist: Felideus Bubastis

Time: 90 minutes

Players: 2-5

Age: 14+

Price: £40


This review originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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