In the Shadow of the Emperor Review

In the Shadow of the Emperor game in play

A neat little game that I got in a trade is In the Shadow of the Emperor.

In the Shadow of the Emperor is an interesting political game in which the different players attempt to gain the most victory points by moving their house forward in different areas.  Each turn, the players start by collecting money based on what they control.  Next, all of the aristocrats (pieces) on the board "age," and if any of them die as a result, then they are removed from the board.  Third, all of the players check to see what kind of descendant they have produced - this is based on what action cards you selected in the previous turn.  Finally, the bulk of the game begins - the action phase.  Players alternate turns selecting from a limited number of action cards.  In order to take an action, you must first pay the amount of money listed, and then take the card.  These actions can help you get more people on the board, move people, place knights, build cities, marry foreign princesses, and attempt to become the new emperor.  After everyone has completed their actions, each of the different areas of the board is scored to determine if there is a new elector (thus giving the new player both the elector spot which provides an extra power, a vote in the emperor phase, and two victory points).  Once all the electors have been decided, then the players get to vote on a new emperor.  The winner of this election becomes the emperor (if he wasn't already), and he gets to take the emperor actions (which generally consist of collecting victory points, but may also give him another bonus).  At the end of five rounds, whoever has managed to score the most points through careful advancement of his aristocrats wins the game!

Aging pieces for the game In the Shadow of the Emperor
Different ages for aristocrats
The first thing that I like about In the Shadow of the Emperor is the aging mechanic.  Each aristocrat has the numbers 15, 25, 35, and 45.  When they come onto the board (aside from initial placement), they come in at age 15.  At the start of each subsequent turn, they will advance to the next highest number, and if they age beyond 45, then they will die.  However, there is also an action in the game (the "doctor") that allows you to either make a piece older or younger by one turn.  This can be very important as you can kill off some of your opponent's older pieces that are challenging you in various places (or protect some of your crucial pieces); and, since the number of actions is limited, you may even be able to take this action and prevent him from being able to retaliate.

The next series of pros that I have all center around the actions, and the different strategic elements that go into choosing which action you want to take.  First, I like that the actions are very limited.  Some of the actions only have one card, some have two, and some have more.  So, when performing an action, you must decide which one you want to take, and when doing so, you realize that there is a good chance that many of the other options will no longer be available by your next turn.  Additionally, actions cost money.  This gives you a bit more knowledge on what may be available on your next turn.  If you have significantly more money than your opponents, then you can expect that the higher cost actions may still be around on your next turn - so, you might be better off selecting a lower cost action that will run out instead of the higher cost action that is more critical (but will still be available).  Balancing these decisions is a wonderful aspect of this game.

But, there is another element that factors into making these decisions - the actions that you take determine what kind of descendant you will produce.  The actions are color coded either blue or pink.  If you select more blue actions than pink actions, then you produce a son, and you can place a new aristocrat on the board at the start of the next turn.  If you select more pink actions, then you produce a daughter, which you can attempt to marry off to one of the other player's aristocrats (helping them because a married couple is worth two influence instead of one, and helping you by scoring victory points), but if you are unsuccessful, then you get a few coins (as she becomes a nun).  Whereas I won't really judge how this works thematically, strategically it is brilliant.  It really encourages you to take actions that you might not otherwise consider.  In addition to their listed bonus, the different actions might also give you the bonus of a new aristocrat on the next turn.

Different actions in In the Shadow of the Emperor
Blue/Pink Actions
The last pro that I will mention for In the Shadow of the Emperor is that I like that you score two victory points when you become the new elector for a region.  Holding on to an elector position is still good - it gives you a vote for the emperor, and you can use the elector's ability (which can be very powerful).  But, because you gain victory points for taking an elector space, it really encourages you to move your aristocrats around and repeatedly take different positions (even at the cost of losing ones you already controlled).  Balancing taking the new positions, losing your old ones, and maximizing the benefits of whichever power you have at any given time are the keys to winning.

However, though I really like In the Shadow of the Emperor, there are a few cons that I will mention.  First, the rules are awful.  I will admit that I didn't learn this game from the rulebook - but I have consulted them throughout my games.  However, the person that I was learning the game from had several important rules highlighted in his rulebook so that he could actually find them later, as certain rules aren't where you would expect them.  Plus, the copy that I have came from a trade - and it included "How the game works: An explanation in plain English," as the previous owners of it had apparently also struggled with the rulebook.  The game is worth playing, though, so I'd encourage you to persevere through this issue.

My second con is that I think that there is quite a first player advantage in this game.  Or, more specifically, I think that there is a last player disadvantage.  To start the game, a first player is selected.  That player becomes the emperor.  Then, in turn order, every other player gets to select an electorate to control.  After this, the game begins, starting with the first player.  So, the last player gets both the worst elector power and has the last choice on actions.  Whereas this disadvantage isn't large enough to cost them the game, it is still a bit more hefty than I would like.

Finally, I'm not sure how well this game plays with less than four players.  Why?  Because my group has played with less than that and refuses to do it again.  So, I take that to mean that it doesn't play especially well with less than four.  (And, looking at the game and how the tension plays out in a four player game, I can see how that would be true.)  But, again - my games were all four player; if you've played with less, feel free to relate your experience in the comments.

Overall, I give In the Shadow of the Emperor an 8.5/10.  I enjoyed the game quite a bit, but one of it's main drawbacks is that it is hard to get to the table.  However, each time that I have managed to play it, I've enjoyed it quite a bit.

If you're interested in other games with a political nature, you might also check out Twilight Struggle, Quo Vadis, and 1960: The Making of the President.

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