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Dulce et Decorum Est

Imperium

By Mark Miller, Frank Chadwick & John Harshman 

3 Jan, 2021

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You

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1977’s Imperium , designed by Marc W. Miller and developed by Frank Chadwick and John Harshman, is a two-player science fiction board wargame. It depicts the struggle between the unified might of the Terran Confederation and the forces available to a small border province of the Imperium.


Contained in the cardboard box: a sixteen-page rule book (only twelve pages of which were rules per se), charts to consult during the game, two sheets of 176 paper counters depicting various ships and other resources, a folded map of Sol’s interstellar neighbourhood, and dice. 

As one might expect from the same company’s Traveller roleplaying game, the star map is two-dimensional. On the one hand, this is unrealistic. On the other, it is easy to read and it does not require the players to do three-dimensional geometry, as did SPI’s StarForce or West End Game’s Web and Starship . The map is marked off in small hexes, each hex representing half a parsec in distance.

The rules themselves are fairly straightforward. Each turn covers two years. Roughly speaking, half the game is combat, Imperial forces versus Terran deciding who will control worlds and the space around them. The other half of the game is economic, as each side builds the military assets needed to fight the enemy. Terrans are limited to the resources of the worlds they actually control; the Imperial player has the resources of the worlds they control, in addition to an annual Imperial budget, and the somewhat risky option of appealing to the Imperium for more support.

While the game could be played as a one-off — victory being determined by the gain or loss of glory points by the Imperial governor facing off against the pesky Terrans — the intention was that the players would play campaigns, game after game until one side or the other controlled the whole board. An individual game might take an hour or two. The campaign would be much longer. 

~oOo~

One may not associate the term hilarious” with what is essentially a military-economic game, but the situation of the unfortunate Imperial is grimly hilarious. Off-board events ranging from depressions to economic booms can affect the game, as can actions of the central government (active support or diversion of resources to problems elsewhere). What happens is determined by roll of two six-sided dice plus applicable modifiers once per two year turn on the Imperial intervention table. 

2

3

Depression

4

Boom

5

Imperial succession

6

7

8

Imperial attention

9

10

11

Frontier crisis

12

Token reinforcements

13

Reinforcements

14

Mandated offensive

15

Recentralization

The Imperial player can therefore find their plans assisted or impeded by events beyond their control.

Additionally, one can appeal to the Imperium, which spans dozens of star systems (more on that later), for more resources. At minimum this costs the Imperial player a glory point (thus increasing the chance that the Terran will win the game in hand). It can also result in Imperial disfavor and a cold shoulder to subsequent appeals. So, it’s risky. 

Imperium was released the same year as GDW’s roleplaying game Traveller, but there was at this time no connection between the board game and the RPG. GDW only belated decided their generic SFRPG needed an official setting, at which point they drew on Imperium for inspiration for their game’s backstory1. There are some important differences between Imperium s setting and the version of that setting that Traveller used. In Traveller , for example, ship can rather implausibly skim fuel from gas giants. In Imperium , they can skim stars. (This is James’ incredulous expression.) In Imperium , sub light interstellar travel can be an important part of the game (because turns are two years long, ships can cover a hex in a turn). Sub light interstellar travel is not a particularly common event in Traveller . In Imperium , FTL only works from star to star, which is not true of Traveller (although some people…me in particular… insist on behaving as though it was). 

Terraforming is simultaneously easy and impractical in Imperium . Players need only invest three resource units (enough to buy one destroyer, a fairly minor ship) per turn for fifty turns. Fifty turns are a long time to invest resources from a player’s perspective and they might well miss those fifty destroyers. At the same time, fifty turns are only a century. Transforming planets into garden worlds in less time than it took pre-spaceflight humans to build some cathedrals is pretty impressive. Traveller s Third Imperium doesn’t seem to go in for grand infrastructure efforts2 and I don’t recall any references to terraforming in the official sourcebooks I used. 

Perhaps the most important difference between the boardgame and the RPG is that the Imperium as originally imagined in 1977 was much, much smaller than Traveller’s analogous Ziru Sirka: seventy stars to the Ziru Sirka’s thousands. I don’t know why GDW opted for their vast empire hemmed in on all sides by other empires, unless perhaps it was because of the prolific way in which they licensed other companies’ Traveller supplements. You can’t give FASA and Paranoia Press and what have you their own sectors to develop unless there are a lot of sectors. As a consequence, Imperium s Imperium had frontiers in a way Traveller s settings can’t. Which makes me wonder what Traveller s scouts were scouting. 

Twelve pages does not allow for a lavish backstory. In fact, the only hint of a connection between the Imperium and Earth that I can see is that the Imperium for some reason uses Sumerian names. 

I bought this game in the hopes it would be more playable than SPI’s Outreach had been. It was, in that I figured out how to play it solitaire, not having anyone else interested in playing an SF board game with me3. I never played a campaign because we had cats and I didn’t want to go to the bother of writing down where all the pieces were at the end of each game. My impression from individual games is that the Imperial side was more likely to win but, thanks to the Imperial intervention table, if the Imperium did lose, it would lose big. In any case, I had fun playing it. 

Imperium is, as far as I know, currently out of print. 

1: The second edition of Imperium took into account the connection between Imperium and Traveller .

2: What exactly the Third Imperium does, aside from fight incessant border wars with the Zhodani, is unclear. It certainly does fuck-all to limit piracy even though most space travel before and after jump is within a hundred diameters of the individual worlds. It may be that despite the Ziru Sirka’s entrenched conservatism, there were things it did better than any of the successor states that followed it could or can do. 

3: More accurately: it didn’t occur to me to ask anyone at school.