Cast Iron Game Review – Pocket Imperium

Pocket Imperium

War has erupted across the Imperium! Up to four space faring races must struggle for control of the most prosperous systems in this micro-4X game from creator David J. Mortimer, Ludicreations, and Passport Game Studios. The 4X game category, for those who aren’t familiar, is a system in which players actions consist of four “Ex” actions, “Ex”pand, “Ex”plore, “Ex”terminate, and “Ex”ploit. Most 4X games consist of hundreds of components and take several hours to play through a game. Some examples are Eclipse and Twilight Imperium (no relation, aside from the 4X thing). Sometimes you want the strategy of a 4X game, but you just don’t have the time or table space. Pocket Imperium distills the system down to a game that takes just 45 minutes with 2-4 players, without sacrificing strategy, so you can get your 4X fix anytime and anyplace.

How the Game is Played

Pocket Imperium is played over six or eight turns depending on the player count. Each turn is broken into three phases; Plan, Expand/Explore/Exterminate, and Exploit. The board consists of seven tiles, each made up of seven hexagons. They are placed with one (Tri- or Quad-Prime) at the center, and the remaining six surrounding it. Aside from the Prime, each tile consists of three “system” spaces worth one or two points each, and four “empty space” spaces. Each player is going to receive a set of action cards (each player has the same set) and twelve ships in their color. To set up the starting position the start player places two ships on an unoccupied, single point system. Each player does the same and then in reverse order, each player places a second pair of ships. Now the game can begin!

In the Plan phase each player is going to decide the order in which to complete three tasks. Each turn, each player will complete all three of the actions with only the order in which they are completed changing from player to player. The three cards are placed face-down on the table, in order, and then the first one is revealed when all players are ready. The actions (Expand, Explore, and Exterminate) are numbered, and regardless of player order, expand will always be done first, then explore, and finally exterminate. In addition, the number of players that use the same action at the same time will determine the efficiency of that action. If just one player uses an action, that player gets to perform that action three times. If two or three players use the same action, then each player only gets to perform the action two times or one time respectively. Only your neighboring players are checked in a four player game.

PI-Cards

The Expand/Explore/Exterminate phase is where you perform the actions that you have programmed for the turn. Expand is simply adding ships to the board, but you may only add to your pre-existing fleets (group of 1+ ships), and only when those fleets are on systems, never in empty space. Explore is moving your fleets around the board. Each action lets you move a fleet up to two spaces, and each fleet may only be involved in one move action per turn. Fleets may pick up or drop off other ships mid-exploration, and if a fleet moves into Tri- or Quad-Prime, then that ship may not move again that turn, even after moving only one of their two allotted spaces.You may also never explore through an enemy fleet, whether in open space or in a system. Finally you may exterminate your competition! The exterminate action lets you attack a system containing an enemy fleet that is adjacent to one of your fleets. You simply move the number of ships from your fleets into the adjacent space containing the enemy fleets and remove a ship from each fleet until only one color of fleet remains. Like exploration, you may not exterminate an enemy fleet that is occupying empty space.

In the Exploit phase, first each player checks their fleets to make sure that the space they are in can sustain them. Empty space can sustain a one-ship fleet, a single point system can sustain a two-ship fleet, a two-point system can sustain a three-ship fleet, Tri-Prime can sustain a four-ship fleet, and Quad-Prime a five-ship fleet. Then scoring can begin. The start player is going to select a single sector (piece of the board), excluding the prime space, and they will score that sector. Every system in that sector will score points for whomever has a fleet controlling that system, regardless of who chose to score it. For example, blue has control of a two-point and a one-point system in a sector, but yellow controls the other one-point system in that sector. If blue chooses to score that sector, then blue would collect three victory point chips, and yellow would collect one victory point chip. Each player must score a sector each turn, and may not choose an empty sector. If you control the prime, then you may not score the prime, but after each player has chosen and scored a sector, the controller of prime must choose and score a second sector. They may not score the same sector that they already chose that turn, but they may score a sector that another player has chosen that turn.

Finally, the play marker passes, and each player collects their action cards to begin the next round. After six rounds in a two or three player game, or eight rounds in a four player game the game ends. The final task is to score each and every system that has a fleet controlling it, including the prime system, and whoever has the most points is the winner.

The Review

Packaging/Components

When I first saw the box I thought “that won’t fit in my pocket!” Granted, there are pockets of many shapes and sizes, so it will fit in someone’s pocket, but the point is that the box is a little bigger than I expected for a “micro” game. However, it is not quite big enough. With nothing extra in the box, it takes a bit to be able to get all of the components stuffed in there so it closes properly. I have the Mech Worlds expansion tile, and I just have to accept that my box won’t close properly. The box quality is great, as the artwork is vibrant, the text clear and legible, and the box is not flimsy in the slightest. The real surprise came when I opened the box. The first thing that caught my attention was that fact that each of the four player colors was represented by a different laser-cut ship token! In my experience different players are usually represented by the same figure, but with a different color. Here they went the extra mile to make the different players more unique. The rule book is a thick glossy paper, and the board pieces and chits are of a good quality, thick chipboard, which is especially great as all of these pieces are double sided!PI-Game

Rulebook

The rulebook for Pocket Imperium is printed vibrantly on glossy, thick paper. It is laid out well and relatively easy to read. The rules are easy to follow and my only complaint would be that the terminology was confusing from time to time. For example, the use of fleets vs. ships can be confusing. Eventually I realized that no matter if it was one ship or many, it could be referred to as a fleet, but as a fleet moves it may pick up or drop off ships, which then become their own fleets. Systems were a little confusing at first as well. Since the picture on a system space is a planet, it seems obvious to just say planet. Additionally, they could have come up with a name for the Expand/Explore/Exterminate phase… maybe call it the Action phase or Command phase?

Gameplay

There is a lot of gameplay in Pocket Imperium. On the surface the phases and game-play itself are relatively easy to learn, but there are a lot of intricacies to pick up, and minor details that can add up to make a big difference. However, the game-play itself is pretty tight, and while there are quite a few choices, the AP is limited because you can’t really plan ahead too far. Your plans could change because you had only one expand action rather than the three that you planned on. Each time that I have played Pocket Imperium, I have been surprised by the level of tactics and strategy that can go into the game. It just isn’t something that you see in such a small box.

Strategies

I haven’t yet determined if there is a “best” strategy for Pocket Imperium. There are certainly a lot of choices to be made; do I try to get Tri-Prime? If I do then I have to hold Tri-Prime and two other sectors. If I don’t then I have to keep the opponent from maximizing their score, so do I ignore Tri-Prime and try to get as many systems under my control as possible, so that my opponents are forced to give me points when they score a sector? I could also try to keep whoever has Tri-Prime confined to just one sector, and as such when they are forced to score a second one, they have to choose mine (or another opponent’s). Do I spend fleets trying to clog up empty space and limit the opponent’s options? Or is that a waste of resources and take away from protecting my own systems. If I am holding Tri-Prime and trying to hold two other sectors, then at the end of the game do I lose out on points because I am not spread out enough to benefit from the scoring of the whole board? Or do the extra points from the Prime make up for that?

Players

Pocket Imperium is made for two to four players. With three or four players the game works very well, and has a Small World kind of feel, as there are a lot of fleets moving around and not really enough space for all of them. This is a good thing, as I would hate for a turtle strategy to be viable. The game played smoothly with either three or four players, and the downtime wasn’t bad in either case. The two player game is interesting. They provide alternate rules which give both players two sets of cards. Therefore each player does each action twice in each turn, flipping up two cards at a time. For the purposes of multiple uses affecting the efficiency of the action, the only real change is that if both players choose the same action for both of their actions at the same time (i.e. all four cards come up explore), then nobody gets to do anything. With two players the game was a little more spread out, and there was more space on the board. It was interesting to try and figure out which order to take actions in so as to maximize efficiency. While this was interesting with three or four players, with two players it was even more-so due to the fact that you were choosing the order for two of each action. I enjoyed the game with each number of players, but it seemed a bit more strategic with just two players.

Replayability

Pocket Imperium is incredibly replayable. Not only can you change the relative position and rotation of the sectors, they are also double-sided, so that there are many, many possible board layouts, with each affecting the strategy. Additionally the “B” side of the board adds some interesting gameplay elements with the addition of an asteroid belt and a black hole. Aside from that, as I mentioned above the style of game changes somewhat with two players compared to three or four. So if you want a more strategic, tactical game, then play with two players, but for an all-out brawl then four players is the way to go.

Winning the Game

The goal of the game is points. You collect points during each turn, but you are limited in that you can only get between zero and four points, or zero to eight points if you control a prime. So you have no need to really spread out, but then the end game happens and the entire board is scored, so you want to be as spread out as possible. As the game end nears you have to consider that. Additionally, throughout the game, the victory point chits that you receive are kept face-down, so your opponents, unless they have an eidetic memory, won’t know exactly how many points you will have. This didn’t seem to play too big a role, however, I could see someone spending a lot of time trying to determine exactly how many points they need to win and really ramping up the AP if the points were known information.

Rating system

As this is my first full fledged review, I thought I would go over my rating system. I will give a game anywhere from one to five meeples, and the meanings of the ratings are essentially based on whether or not you should buy and/or play the game. I reserve the right to refine this system as time goes on and I get more reviews under my belt.

  • 1 Meeple – Pass. No need to buy or play
  • 2 Meeples – If the game sounds interesting to you, give it a play, then decide on a purchase.
  • 3 Meeples – Even if the game doesn’t sound interesting to you, give it a play, then make a decision on purchasing.
  • 4 Meeples – Get a copy into your game group so that it goes into the rotation, but only buy it yourself if nobody else is willing to.
  • 5 Meeples – Buy it, play it often!

Conclusion

Ok, it’s time for full disclosure. I was brought to GenCon to demo Pocket Imperium. I was supplied with a copy of the game so that I could learn it. That said, you will just have to trust that if I don’t like a game, that I will give it a low rating. As for Pocket Imperium, I was nothing but impressed. Aside from the few minor issues with the rule book, I found the game to be great! Every time that I get it to the table, I want to play it again as soon as I can, and I feel compelled to try and figure out the best strategies that I can, and try new things. To sum it all up, the game packs a wallop in the strategy department and feels different (in a good way) depending on how many players there are. It packs a relative ton of high quality components (when they could have gotten away with a lesser quality) into a very small box and for a reasonable price (had I not seen the game in person, I wouldn’t pay the retail for it, but having played it, I would easily buy it if I didn’t have it alreadyd). Finally, due to the nature of the configurable, double-sided board pieces, as well as the range of potential strategies, the game has a massive amount of replay-ability. It is in my collection to stay, and if it wasn’t then I would seek it out.

Cast Iron Rating:

Meeple-5-PI

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