Manufacturer Rio Grande Games
Hans im Glück
999 Games
Year 2004
Designer Ralf Burkert
In the Shadow of the Emperor Box Cover

In the Shadow of the Emperor


Political maneuvering and intrigue in Germany during the middle ages.

Background

In the Shadow of the Emperor, (Im Schatten des Kaisers, or ISdK) is the latest game from Ralf Burkert, in which players represent factions of Barons and their wives, attempting to wield the most control over seven regions within the empire.

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The Gameplay

The goal of the game is to amass the most victory points by game end. These can be gained in several ways, the most common being having one of your Barons or Couples elected as the elector for a region.

The board shows seven regions, segregated into three "Religious" electorates, and four secular electorates. Each electorate is made up of an Elector, "aristocrat" spaces, city sites, and potentially castle sites.

Each player begins the game with seven double-sided aristocrat tokens, showing a baron on one side, and a married couple on the other. Also, each side is marked along its edges with four ages, (15, 25, 35, and 45), which represents the current age of the baron or couple. As the game plays, a player's aristocrats will age, dying if they advance beyond 45 years of age. Each player also has three knight markers, and three city tokens. All players begin the game with 7 thalers which are used to purchase various actions throughout the turns.

When the game starts, one player is randomly chosen as the starting player, and they place on of their barons, (age 45), in the Emperor's throne, and gets to place one "Empire City", in any of the city sites on the board. An Empire City functions much like a player city, (see below), but doesn't generate any income, and gives its influence to whichever player is the Emperor. Each player then places one 45 year old baron as an elector in one of the seven regions. Players then place a 35 year old couple in an aristocrat space, then a 25 year old baron, and finally, a 15 year old couple. Players may then place a knight in either an aristocrat space or into one of the castle sites. The game then begins.

The game is played over 5 turns, and each turn, (other than the first, more on that later), follows a set sequence. The first two phases are skipped on the first turn, and will be talked about below. The heart of the game comes in the action phase. During this phase, players take turns, in player order clockwise from the Emperor, choosing an action card from those on display. These cards are either pink or blue, and each allows the player to perform the action on the card, assuming the player has the thalers to pay for it. The cards are limited in numbers, so a player really needs to decide whether or not the actions they want to take during a turn will be available by the time their next turn comes around. The decision is further complicated by the costs, as rarely will players have enough money to do everything they want to during a turn.

A player may also choose to forgo taking a card, and instead, execute the "Privilege" of any one of their barons or couples who is currently an elector. These can include such things as gaining a free aristocrat, gaining a victory point, aging another player's aristocrat, (or unaging one of your own), and some other more esoteric abilities. Finally, there is one card, which when chosen, allows the player that took it to challenge the Emperor for the throne, though ending that player's ability to take any further actions. Once all players have passed on choosing a card or executing a privilege, the action phase ends.

Within each electorate, an election is then held to determine who the next elector will be. Each baron provides one power point to a faction, and each couple provides two. Each city a player has provides one, as does a knight. Whichever player has the most power points gets to become the elector, and moves an aristocrat into the elector's spot, and gains two VPs. If the current elector's faction wins, then no change takes place, and that player does NOT gain any victory points. In addition, the three religious electorates cannot have a married couple as the elector. Any ties are broken by the current Emperor.

Once all seven electorates have been evaluated, if the Rival card was chosen, then there is an election for Emperor. Each elector receives a vote, and the player(s) who are not the rival secretly choose which side they are supporting. Their cards are revealed, and each of these players who voted with the winner gains a VP.

Finally, the current Emperor gets the spoils of the position, gaining VPs, getting to place an Empire City, and gaining income. The turn marker is moved, and the next turn begins.

Each succeeding turn after the first has three phases that I haven't yet discussed. the first is an income phase. All players gain 6 thalers. Plus, each of your cities you have on the board gains you a thaler, and each opponent's city that is within an electorate in which you are the elector gains the elector's faction one thaler.

Next, is the aging phase. All aristocrats and electors and the Emperor are aged one step, with any that are already on 45 years of age dying, and being removed from the board.

Finally, each player's faction has a descendant. If a player chose more blue cards in the preceding turn's action phase, they gain a 15 year old baron, which they can place in any vacant aristocrat space. If they have more or equal numbers of pink cards to blue cards then they have a daughter instead. A daughter can either be offered to another player's baron in marriage, or sent to a convent for an extra thaler of income. If the marriage offer is accepted, the player offering the daughter gains a VP. The cards are returned, and the action phase begins again.

The Scoring

As mentioned above, scoring simply involves counting up the VP cards you have acquired throughout the game.

Why this game is so great

I think what makes this game great is that it is a very "heavy" game, with many subtle, and other not so subtle, things going on at the same time. There are just so many options on your early action card turns, you must really weigh your needs against those of your opponents, all the while trying to keep an eye on both your thalers and the ages of your aristocrats. At its core ISdK is just an area majority control game, as you are trying to have the most power in a region so that your aristocrats move up to the elector spot and you can gain 2 VPs. But the aging rules, coupled with the prohibition on couples being promoted to elector in religious provinces, coupled with the fact that holding on to an elector's seat gains you no VPs leads to a very fluid game. You rarely want to hold a province for multiple turns, (except for those with the most powerful privileges), but moving aristocrats between provinces is pretty costly, and often it is better to let one of your older aristocrats die, while attempting to produce a male descendant in the next turn, so as to repopulate a different region. Taking the Emperor's throne is a powerful position to be in, yet doing so reduces your ability to have aristocrats available to gain VPs in the provinces. More than once I have seen players unable to exploit a powerful province due to their lack of aristocrats available to place on the board.

In the Shadow of the Emperor is a solid heavyweight game, filled with decisions, yet based on a simple set of rules. It is also one of the best values for the money, as you get a lot of game for your money. It has a fairly steep learning curve, and new players shouldn't stand much of a chance against those who have played a few times.

Why others don't agree

Many people have remarked that in spite of there being a lot going on in this game, it is lacking in fun. I can see this in some way, as there is quite a bit going on, and it does all interrelate, so the overload that can occur can make the fun factor decrease.

Others remark that while it looks like an election game it really isn't, and while there is an election most every turn, oftentimes the outcome of the election isn't in doubt, as it is clearly in the player's interest to oust the current Emperor. Such is the case as with Evo, which looks like an "evolution" game, or perhaps a majority control game but is really an auction game at its core.

Others have complained about the fiddlyness of the game, as every turn you have to age all of the aristocrats and electors, there is money that has to be adjusted constantly, etc. I've found that while it appears that there's going to be a lot of fiddlyness, in reality it doesn't take that long, and it's fairly simple to do the aging, (I suggest one person does it, while the others watch and make sure aristocrats aren't skipped).

Another potentially bigger issue is that of "churning". Given that taking an elector seat gives VPs while holding one doesn't, two players can make an "agreement" to churn a province by taking turns winning the elector's seat. This is a very solid way to produce points, but if the non-involved players allow that to happen, they deserve to suffer, or they should be able to do the same thing in other provinces.

Finally, there are certain "runaway leader" issues, as buying cities as soon as possible is almost always a good thing, as cities are permanent power in a region, provide VPs, and provide money. There are only three city cards available each turn, so not getting one on the first turn, (as would happen to the fourth player), can be a really bad thing. Turn order can be pretty important, so going last on the first turn, (which is determined clockwise from the Emperor, which is chosen randomly), can be a really bad thing.

Recap

Strategy:  9
Complexity:  8
Fun:  6
Overall:  8

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