Imperial Settlers Solo Campaign Review

Imperial Settlers with expansions and campaign mode

I've started playing solo games a bit more regularly lately.  So, when I first heard people talking about Imperial Settlers, I heard that it had a solo mode - but also a solo campaign mode (note that the link is to Portal Games' dropbox where they uploaded the rules for the campaign).  I was intrigued, so I went to check it out.  This review will focus on that mode of play, and is going to completely ignore the multiplayer (normal) mode.

(If you've never played Imperial Settlers, read this paragraph, otherwise, you can skip to the next one.)  In Imperial Settlers, you play over a series of rounds in order to get the most victory points.  You gain these in a few different ways - but typically by building buildings.  You start the game with a few cards - some specific to your faction, and some common.  Each round, you gain more cards in the Lookout phase, you collect resources in the Production phase, you "do stuff" in the Action phase, and then you discard any excess resources and reset your buildings in the Cleanup Phase.  Most of the "doing stuff" consists of playing or activating cards.  With most cards, you can play them in a few different ways - as buildings, as "Deals," or you can "Raze" them.  There are good and bad aspects, strategically, of each way to play a card, and you balance this as you play the game.  That's really where the strategy lies.  After a few rounds, if you have enough victory points, you win the game!

Imperial Settlers solo campaign tracking
Tracking the solo campaign
So, the solo game of Imperial Settlers adds a "Virtual Player Attack" after the Cleanup Phase.  This is done by flipping cards from a special deck, and matching the Raze icons on your buildings - if a building matches, then it is destroyed.  At the end of the set number of rounds, if you have built more buildings than the Virtual Player (who gets everything they Raze, along with some in the Lookout Phase), then you win.  The campaign strings together several of these games (and makes them shorter - you play 4 rounds in the campaign instead of 5).  To start each game (after the first), you have an Event occur.  The Events typically shift some of the rules of the game - emphasizing Production buildings, making Food more scarce, punishing you for using Raze tokens, etc.  If you win a game, you add a Province to your kingdom.  This Province typically gives you a bonus, but also requires you to pay for it in goods during the game, as well as with victory points after the game.  Finally, the solo campaign mode adds Achievements - these allow you to get permanent bonuses to help offset the Events and the cost of your Provinces.  There is no "end goal" for the campaign - you simply build your empire and see how well you can do.

The first thing that I like about the solo campaign is that it makes your victory points matter.  In most solo games that I play, typically once I beat it, there's no real reason to play again.  And, for that matter, if I just played the basic solo rules for Imperial Settlers, it would fall into this same category (well, you might play solo with each faction, but that's about it).  However, with the campaign, it suddenly is different if I win with 10 VPs instead of winning with 95.  With 95 VPs, I can buy some nice Achievements - whereas with 10 VPs, I might not even be able to pay the Control Cost of my Provinces.  This has changed the game for me - instead of "phoning it in" late in the game, since I know I've already won, I am trying to maximize my VP output until the very last play.

The next pro that I have for the solo campaign can probably be said for Imperial Settlers as a whole - the factions play very differently.  As an example, the first campaign I started was with the Barbarians.  They are very straightforward - they get VPs primarily by building tons of buildings, but they can also activate some buildings to trade goods for points.  The next campaign I played was with the Atlanteans.  The Atlanteans don't get VPs from their faction specific buildings (other factions get 2 VP per faction specific building), but they get a lot of "technology" tokens, which improve common buildings.  This meant that I had to build a ton of common buildings (they also only win if they have more common buildings than the virtual player - instead of buildings of any type).  Building all of these buildings meant that I got buildings Razed by the virtual player almost every turn - but the technology tokens caused me to generate huge piles of resources to help offset those losses (and to feed into buildings to generate VPs).

Imperial Settlers Japanese faction in play
A growing Japanese empire
Though I've really been enjoying the solo campaign, there are a few points that I have been annoyed with while playing it.  First, I feel like the "hard games" I've played have been due to the (poor) luck of the draw.  With some of the Provinces, you have to pay an upkeep cost every round.  So, for instance, if you've won 5 games, you may have to pay 1 Worker, 2 Stone, and 2 Wood at the end of each round to pay for your Provinces.  However, if you start a game by not drawing any Production buildings, then there's a good chance that you won't be able to pay this cost - and there's nothing that you could do about it.  (This is worse with the Atlanteans, as many of their faction cards provide technology tokens instead of normal goods, so it reduces the chance that you will be able to get the goods a Province needs by making a Deal.)  Granted, the Achievements should help you offset the costs of your Provinces, but regardless of what Achievements you have, there will be some times that a bad draw can derail your empire.

The next con that I had for the solo campaign is that there is a lot of upkeep in different places, and so it is very easy to "cheat" without realizing it.  It's one thing to inadvertently cheat in a multiplayer game - when you realize it, you point it out to your opponents, and you collectively decide how to handle it.  But, when you inadvertently cheat in a solo game, it's much more frustrating (in my opinion), because you don't know if you "really" would have won the game.  I know that there have been several games where I cheated by forgetting to pay the upkeep, not remembering what the upkeep cost was, or forgetting the event.  At the same time, I've also forgotten things that would help me like abilities that a Province provided.  When you have built a large empire in Imperial Settlers (like 10+ Production buildings, along with Features and Actions), it's hard enough to track what all you produce, without having to also reference other sheets.  As you play, you get better at tracking all of this, but it's still quite a bit.  (I know of some efforts within the player community to try to convert the various aspects of the campaign mode into cards that can be printed off - well designed cards should help with this, but as far as I know, there is nothing official yet in this regard.)

Before the wrap up, you may have noticed in the pictures that I played this with both expansions.  Here's a quick rundown of what the expansions add to the solo campaign, so that you can decide if you want them.

Virtual Player expansion cards
New Virtual Player cards (shown with their faction decks)
Why Can't We Be Friends:
This expansion focuses mostly on the multiplayer game (though you could shuffle in the new buildings if you'd like).  However, for the solo mode, it adds 2 cards that represent the Virtual Player, and this causes your Virtual Player to play a bit differently.  One Virtual Player attacks 3 times instead of 2, and the other gets more locations - so both make the game harder.  These are nice, but I don't consider them critical.

The Atlanteans expansion adds... well... the Atlanteans.  They are another playable faction that can be included in solo or multiplayer.  It also adds a corresponding Virtual Player card that you can use for them in games where you're not playing as them.  They play quite differently from the other factions, so if you enjoy going through the campaign with all of the different factions, then you might want to pick this one up so that you can play through with a 5th faction.  However, you are probably safe holding off on this one until you've played the campaign a couple of times to make sure that you enjoy it first.

Overall, I give the solo campaign mode for Imperial Settlers an 8.5.  I really enjoy it, and I think that I'll play through it more in the future.  It hasn't dethroned my favorite solo game, but it is definitely in the upper echelon for me.

I would like to thank Portal Games for providing me with a review copy of Imperial Settlers along with its expansions.