I know this discussion has been started several times before, but not recently, and I feel like I have some new insights to the eternal question: Imperial II or Bureaucracy?
Note: I’m not going to discuss Initiative/Political/Logistics vs. Leadership/Assembly/Production. They are pretty comparable, really, with just a few nuances that matter. The decision between Imperial II and Bureaucracy has much larger ramifications for how the game is played at its core, so I will limit my comments accordingly.
First, some background. Feel free to skip ahead to the relevant stuff if my personal history with TI3 bores you. I owned TI3 before Shattered Empire came out, but I never got a chance to play it until after. So, my first game of TI3 used the base set of Strategy Cards, with Imperial thrown out in favor of his younger brother, Imperial II. I cut my TI3eth on about a dozen games of Imperial II before my game group mustered up the courage to try Bureaucracy. Part of this trend was the nature of our group; it was fluid, with people coming and going, so it seemed that there was always a rookie or two to teach, so Bureaucracy’s grand entrance into our lives kept getting delayed.
Finally, though, the moment arrived. Bureaucracy came in, all sparkly and new, looking very modern compared to his provincial cousins, the Imperials. Plus, he brought his friends along: Leadership, Assembly, and Production. Man, this was the TI3 we’d been missing. Still, something was off for me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it… Bureaucracy didn’t quite sit right in my mind, and the games seemed less satisfying. Was I just stubborn and unwilling to embrace change? Or was there really something amiss?
Now, I’ve played many games with Bureaucracy. I understand him better, and I understand TI3 better. I’ve come to some Conclusions.
Conclusion 1: Bureaucracy makes for a Tactical game. Imperial II makes for a Strategic game.
Explanation: Imperial II forces Age of Empires on you, whereby the Public Objectives are known by all players from the very start. On turn 1, you can (and must) begin planning your strategy for claiming Objectives, balanced by the viability of scoring your Secret Objective and/or claiming points for controlling Mecatol Rex. There are very likely some Objectives that you can score on Turns 1 or 2, and some that you will have to work towards. So, you develop a plan for pursuing the short term goals and the long term goals. It’s cerebral and exhausting, but it’s also difficult to get totally boned by the Public Objectives. You have options, and you can even purposefully fall behind in the race, make a plan to claim Imperial II to score several Objectives, and catch up (although, as I discuss below, this is risky). In any case, it’s strategy all the way.
Bureaucracy, on the other hand, rewards tactical play. You don’t know what the Public Objectives are, beyond the first one, so claiming Bureaucracy early to gather information is important. In the meantime, if you are lucky, the first Objective or two are nice to you, and you can score them quickly. If they aren’t… well, frankly you are a bit fucked, and you need to get your hands on Bureaucracy ASAP for damage control. In the meanwhile, you try to expand, to research, to collect Trade Goods, to build ships… all the usual stuff, but geared towards what Public Objectives your gut tells you will come out later. It’s guesswork, but doing a bit of everything will keep you flexible for when the flop finally favors you. You are playing a tactical game where you need to seize opportunities as they are presented, roll with the punches, and change your plans as new shit comes to light. If you fall behind, Bureaucracy will help you catch up a bit, but it’s less forgiving than Imperial II, which brings me nicely to my next Conclusion.
Conclusion 2: Bureaucracy as a catchup mechanic is too weak for a game where you need it more. Imperial II as a catchup mechanic is too powerful for a game where you need it less.
Explanation: In the Strategic Imperial II game, players should have a plan if they wish to be competitive. That plan could include a late-game Imperial II grab to score a bunch of points for the win, but that really only works if the other players are asleep at the wheel. Imperial II has less need for savvy players to make that big comeback. They knew what the Objectives were all along, and they knew how long they had to score them, so they either made a bad plan or didn’t provide enough disincentives to keep the others from wrecking their plan. A really efficient player can sometimes use Imperial II to jump out to a lead by scoring an extra Objective in addition to scoring one every round. That’s a tough lead to catch up to, so Imperial II rewards good play. And even if you don’t hold Mecatol Rex and don’t have any extra Objectives to score, then Imperial II’s Secondary-as-a-Primary is a decent booby prize. Not terrible, but not great, and at least it doesn’t benefit your opponents.
In the tactical Bureaucracy game, usually a few people are going to be behind the pack. Some players will find that the Public Objectives score themselves based on starting resources or galaxy layout. Others will have to wait for their big moment, as the initial few Objectives are risky, expensive, or flat-out impossible to score early. However, Bureaucracy only lets the holder score one extra Objective. Sure, it’s outside the normal procedure, so in the late game it can create a bubble victory, but as a catchup mechanic, it will only make up for one bad turn. And since Bureaucracy is so powerful at every phase of the game, it’s unlikely one player will get it more than once. In the early game, you use it to tweak the Objectives, and in the mid- to late-game, you use it to win via out-of-Status Phase scoring or Imperium Rex. Bureaucracy just doesn’t reward solid play as much as Imperial II does; a player’s success depends a bit more on the whims of Fortune. Again, segway.
Conclusion 3: Bureaucracy introduces more luck into TI3 than Imperial II does.
Explanation : As discussed above, when playing with Bureaucracy, the Objectives in the early game can set a player ahead or back based solely on luck of the draw. One player per turn can possibly mitigate this by claiming Bureaucracy and deciding which new Objective comes out. But even this is a gamble. It sometimes happens that the choice comes down to the lesser of two evils, if that. If both Objectives are bad for the phasing player, then he can try to pick one that helps the fewest number of his opponents, or maybe just the one(s) in the lead.
Granted, with Imperial II, the Objectives are rarely balanced for all players; some are going to have inherent advantages based on race and board positioning. Still, the underdogs know this from the outset, and there is always holding Mecatol Rex for a VP a turn to make up for any shortcomings in the spread. The poor bastards behind the 8 ball at least know their situation, and they can craft a daring plan to reverse it. Pulling off a win this way is extremely satisfying, and even just staying competitive is rewarding.
With Bureaucracy, you may not know just how screwed you are until it is too late to do anything about it. In the meantime, you drift rudderless, posturing with your opponents and going through the motions, hoping that at some point, a game shows up.
Final thoughts: Which card is better for you and your group? That depends on what you like. Do you prefer drier strategic games with limited luck factor and more of an emphasis on planning and efficiency? Or do you prefer a dynamic game that throws you a few haymakers along the way, forcing you to adapt to a changing situation where victory can often hinge on a card draw?
Jon (on behalf of The Muskegon Area Gamers and the Gaming Annex)