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23 out of 28 gamers thought this was helpful

This is a game that intrigues and befuddles me in equal measure.

At it’s core, In the Shadow of the Emperor is an area control game. It shares features with the canonical area control game, El Grande, in particular its public card selection and dual use of cards. It has an income track that determines how many actions you can take. It has an election for emperor in which you can employ dirty tricks. And it has a plethora of special powers, each of which requires skill to use effectively.

Most of the mechanisms in the game are motivated by the theme. You try to gain aristocrats, arrange marriages or obtain position in the church, attract knights, and build castles and cities, ultimately hoping to gain control of electorates (the regions in the game) and the emperor’s throne. Nonetheless, the mechanisms feel quite abstract
— except when you manage to “age” (i.e. kill, probably by poison) one of your opponents off the board.

It is hard to for me to put a finger on why the game feels so abstract. I think in part it is the game board. The board is colorful and communicates a lot of information, but it looks like a medieval version of a spreadsheet. There is no map, just tracks and boxes. In addition, there are only 5 turns, so you do not really have a sense for the passage of history.

Some of the actions are hard to flesh out thematically. Are cities really being built, or are they being chartered, taxed, designated, or just allied with? How does a doctor card allow you to age a married couple by 15 years (this does not always kill them)?

The way you control regions and the way these translate into points, money, and votes are quite intricate. Each electorate has its own powers and its own distribution of influence spaces. The emperor has a different power every turn. Victory points are earned by voting for the winning candidate, but not for being him –until the next turn. Victory points are earned for taking control of electorates but not for holding them, with an exception — there are exceptions to everything.

I don’t know enough history to say whether this provides a good feel for the way the Holy Roman Emperor got his job, but it seems authentically convoluted.

The least thematic mechanism in the game is also one I find very difficult to manage in play. The special power cards you buy come in two colors, blue and pink. Whichever color you have more of at the end of the turn determines whether you give birth to a daughter or son on the next turn. (Apparently “pink for girls” and “blue for boys” is not a medieval concept; I recently read that the idea belongs to the latter half of the 20th century.) Girls and boys have different uses in the game, and it can be hard to balance, for example, one’s desire for a girl with the unrelated actions that the cards give.

Despite having played this game several times, mostly online, I can’t say that I understand it. The game seems balanced, but due to the many details skill can come only with practice. This is a gamer’s game, but not this gamer’s game.

Go to the The Hanging Gardens page
15 out of 17 gamers thought this was helpful

The Hanging Gardens is a mellow, deceptively simple tile-laying game. (The “tiles” are in fact cards.) The box says 2-4 players, but 2-3 is the sweet spot.

The principal mechanism is the laying of cards to build large connected areas of identically colored-squares, which when created allow you to take a scoring tile. The scoring pieces come in different colors and values, and sets of the same color increase in value substantially. The larger the connected area you form, the greater choice you have of available scoring pieces.

The placing of the cards is very puzzle-centric. There are six square spaces on a card, but at most 3 will be colored in different combinations of colors and layout. Colored squares must always be placed above parts of already-placed cards, including your starting card. Placing the cards becomes more difficult after you start scoring regions, because you must place a wooden marker on a square in the region, and you cannot place cards on the markers.

At any given time, there is a small set of cards and scoring tiles available, so turns often feel reactive and tactical. With practice though, you start to get a sense for how to lay cards to set up big plays at later times. The style of play and learning curve remind me of playing cribbage, although arguably there is more strategy in THG because your card placements are permanent, and the deck continues to shrink.

In my experience the game encourages contemplative play. It is fairly short, running about 45 minutes per game, although it is possible to play much faster with experience. It is a pleasant way to spend some time with a friend or two.

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