In the Shadow of the Emperor seemed pretty cool when it came out. It was touted as a real gamer’s game with clever new mechanics. However, for some reason I played it twice and forgot about it afterwards. What happened?
In the Shadow of the Emperor is set in Germany in the late middle age. Players represent powerful dynasties fighting over the title of the emperor. To be an emperor, you need the power of the electors, who decide who gets to be the emperor. To become an elector, you need to control the electorates: the kingdoms, counties and the archdioceses of Germany. Thus, your task is set.
The dynasties are made of barons. Barons hold positions of power and hopefully advance in the ranks, up to becoming the emperor. They also behave like humans do: they age and eventually die, marry, have kids… The players are managing a family. This is definitely the most interesting side to the game.
The game is essentially an area-control game. Each turn players perform actions, trying to get power points in the different regions. The player with the most power points gets to be the elector of that region. If someone wishes to challenge the emperor, there is a vote and the electors choose, who will be the emperor.
The game tries to represent an environment of fluctuating power. Therefore holding power doesn’t score. Gaining power in a region is worth points, but not keeping it. As the different electors get useful powers, keeping a seat might be good, but pointwise it’s best to move on and take over someone else’s seat. Being emperor is, of course, highly beneficiary.
The game is played with action cards. They offer lots of different actions: lots of meddling with barons (moving them, getting new ones, marrying them) and the emperor elections (influence from the Pope, excommunication, things like that). One of the interesting mechanics in the game is how the action cards affect the gender of the offspring.
Each turn players get one free child in their dynasty. If most of the action cards the player played last turn were blue, it’s a boy. In case of tie or more pink cards, it’s a girl. Boys are a bit more useful, as you get a new baron piece. Girls get married to someone else’s baron or sent to a convent. However, getting a boy requires either spending lots of money to play more blue cards or avoiding pink cards — that’s not easy, as the pink cards are very good. This is one of the game’s highlights, I think.
So, why I don’t like the game? Well, I do. It’s a good game, and serious gamers should check it out. It’s a bit dry, though, and definitely shines with experience. Played occasionally it simply isn’t at it’s best. The game feels like a four-player game — I haven’t tried it with three, but I don’t think it’s that good. People seem to be praising it as a very Chess-like two-player game. Don’t know about that.
Anyway, as far as area control games go, In the Shadow of the Emperor is one of the better ones. It’s a clever game and just a bit too complicated for my needs.