A Struggle Anew: Imperial Struggle and Its Older Cousin

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Imperial Struggle: The Global Rivalry Between Britain and France, 1697-1789 enjoyed an active social life in the last three months of 2017. With appearances at GMT Weekend in the Warehouse in October, and then at the San Diego Historical Games Convention in November, more and more players have been able to sit down with the game and give their feedback. And one theme recurs: “This game isn’t as much like Twilight Struggle as I had expected!”

It’s true. Twilight Struggle is more older cousin than sibling to Imperial Struggle. They share a dream, scope, and player fantasy; but mechanically they diverge quite a bit. How could they not? Imperial Struggle covers twice Twilight’s length of time, and encompasses four major wars between the two protagonists. More fundamentally, the Cold War mentality – and thus the player’s emotional experience – is not the same as the 18th century dream of glory.

The Similarities

But first, let’s think about what the two games have in common:

  • Two ambitious nations seeking to create a dominant legacy, not just to make their mark on history but to define it altogether, with the requisite – and perhaps controversial – abstraction of other important nations’ agency;
  • Global scope, where virtually no corner of the world falls outside the players’ interest;
  • Point-to-point maps, where the connections between spaces represent more than just geography;
  • Cards to model important historical events, hidden in the players’ hands and ready to spring as part of your plan each turn;
  • Action rounds and action points, to spend on the numerous opportunities for strategic advancement any given turn presents;
  • A small set of available action types. Twilight Struggle has three core action types: Influence placement, Coups, and Realignments. Imperial Struggle has four: flag placement (which is much like influence placement), alliance activation, military spending, and conflict removal.

Instead of numbered Influence points, Imperial Struggle uses Flags to mark control.

That’s a lot of conceptual and thematic overlap. Twilight Struggle players will feel comfortable jumping right into this game. They’ll need the rulebook and the playbook, of course, but the dashboard will look awfully familiar. At events like the Weekend in the Warehouse, it was common for a player to stop by and spectate for a little while, nod knowingly at the board and pieces… and then ask a question about the differences that emerged.

One Key Difference

One question that consistently comes up when players encounter Imperial Struggle: for a Twilight Struggle veteran, will learning Imperial Struggle resemble a COIN veteran’s taking on a new COIN title? The answer is “no”: the differences here are more pronounced, even though the two games have similar aspirations.

The first major difference is that Imperial Struggle presents a variation on the card-driven game model, by separating events from action points (called Influence in Twilight Struggle, and Command Points or Operations Points in other card-driven games). Instead, Events are more like the ones in COIN games, where each has two variants (one pro-British, and one pro-French). Furthermore, event variants generally have a Bonus effect, which give them even more power – but require additional tactical set-up to reap.

This Investment Tile provides a Major Military Action, and a Minor Diplomatic Action.

In contrast, Action Points are given by Investment Tiles, which are dealt each turn face up in a pool available to both players. Each Investment Tile grants two actions: a major one with several Action Points, and a minor one with only two. The players take turns picking Investment Tiles and spending the Action Points; playing Events is only possible with certain tiles. (For example, you can’t play an Economic event unless you pick an Investment Tile where the major action is Economic.)

There are many other differences – for example, a space can only have one flag total in it (or none at all). There is no stacking Influence in spaces, nor can both players have influence in the same space at the same time. Spaces represent a much wider range of concepts and opportunities than in Twilight Struggle: diplomatic understandings with other European countries, forts, local naval advantage, and crucial commodity interests.

A Different Mentality

Why this system instead of a more traditional card-driven system like the ones in Twilight Struggle or For the People? First, I wanted to reduce the effect of poor card draws on game flow. Typically, in CDGs, cards with high action value also have powerful events, so the choice between action and event is meaningful. But this still means it’s possible for the players to have hands of widely varying power levels, which can feel bad. That can be fine – all games need variance, or replayability will become an issue – but I wanted this variance to apply only to Events, not to action points, since it’s more fun to have surprise Events that turn standard moves into power moves.

Moreover, the target player mentality differs between Twilight Struggle and Imperial Struggle. In the former, Jason and I wanted to inculcate a perpetual sense of crisis and looming disaster. Uncertainty as to when any given region will get scored, and the fact that opponents’ events are foreshadowed in your own hand, means that the cards you pick up can be a curse as much as a benefit. But your foreknowledge will allow you to play them out to minimize the damage. And intellectually, you know that your opponent faces the same dilemma… but since the cards are concealed, it’s always tempting to imagine that his hand must be better than yours.

This mentality is entirely appropriate for the Cold War. Not so with the 18th century; what we want to get at in Imperial Struggle is that the world is there for the taking. The Events are the wild cards that can turn a marginal play into a thunderclap, but here the agony is not how you’ll manage the disaster that lurks in your own cards. Instead it’s about whether you can make the best of the opportunities – hidden and public – compared to your opponent.

North America, with its abundant Fish and Fur markets, is a critical asset for both sides… but can you maintain your grip on such a vast and wild place?

Wars Not By Proxy

In Twilight Struggle the two player nations never fight in the open. The players conduct all of their military conflict indirectly: through covert assistance and proxy relationships. That’s not the case in Imperial Struggle, where Britain and France fight four major wars with one another, and get involved in a host of other conflicts with other European nations – as interested parties, committed allies, or treaty brokers.

So don’t be fooled by Imperial Struggle’s seemingly-meager six turns (compared to TS’ ten). Imperial Struggle has four sub-turns in which the players will fight wars across the globe, and then negotiate the resulting treaty and its spoils. One of the biggest challenges in designing Imperial Struggle was creating a system to handle these wars with the right scale of decision-making for the players, who after all represent monarchs (and Parliament) without obliging those players to learn two different games. I believe the Imperial Struggle approach succeeds at that.

In Closing

Imperial Struggle has a lot in common with Twilight Struggle, especially when it comes to scope and player roles. Hence the similarity in titles. It also aspires to take its place in the GMT library as a short and playable game, one that has a lot of strategic and historical depth but which players can set up and finish in an evening. But it’s aiming for a different player experience, both intellectual and emotional. I think historical gamers and Twilight Struggle fans would settle for nothing less.

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4 thoughts on “A Struggle Anew: Imperial Struggle and Its Older Cousin

  1. Love games that involve planning both politically, economically and militarily. Looking forward to getting this and playing it on its own merits. No need for comparisons with other great games like TS.