Interview: Nigel Buckle, designer of Imperium: Classic and Imperium: Legends

Nigel Buckle, designer of Omega Centauri, joins Diagonal Move this week to discuss his latest, dual-box, release: Imperium: Legends and Imperium: Classics.

DM: Hi Nigel, many thanks for joining us today. You’ve been a game designer for a number of years. Can you tell us what inspired you to become a designer and about the early years of your career?

NB: I’ve been playing games for as long as I can remember – and back then there was far less choice, so if a game didn’t suit my tastes I’d come up with ‘house rules’ to change it. Actually designing games grew from that. Of course having an idea for a game is the easy bit – turning it into a playable game others want to play is more challenging, and then actually getting it published is a whole different story.

DM: Currently, your most well-known game is Omega Centauri, a sci-fi take on civilisation building. Can you tell us about that design?

NB: Omega Centauri was my second published design. I’ve always enjoyed space 4x computer games but the board game versions were all rather long and often ended at the point you researched all the cool stuff. So I decided to design a space empire game that plays in a shorter time and has a far flatter technology tree, so you can get to use the tech you research. To get the play-time down, a major part of Omega Centauri is deterministic combat; you can work out what the result of a conflict will be before fighting.

Nigel Buckle David Turczi
Nigel’s latest game, the civilisation building twin set: Imperium

DM: Your latest game, the twin set Imperium: Classics and Imperium: Legends, also has a civilisation building theme, this time centred around the civilisations of ancient history and myth. What is it about civilisation building as a theme that inspires you?

NB: I have an interest in ancient history – and when I played Dominion back in 2008 I thought the mechanic of actually building a deck as you played was amazing. I was not so gripped by the theme or the rest of the game though. I decided to try designing my own deck builder and to give it a civilisation theme, so making each deck very asymmetric. Of course that is far easier to say than actually do, it’s taken over a decade!

DM: Civilisation based games tend to focus upon the civilisations that bordered the Mediterranean Sea (Rome, Carthage, Egypt, for example). Imperium casts its net wider than this to include the civilisations of the Americas and Asia. How did you decide upon which civilisations to include? Were there any that you wanted to include but couldn’t?

NB: My original design had 4 civilisations (Rome vs Carthage and Greeks vs Persia) and you played them in pairs as a 2-player game. As I developed the game it turned into a multiplayer game and I added more.

To add a civilisation, I researched its history and then thought about what mechanics would represent this civilisation and at the same time give a new strategic puzzle for the players to solve. I really wanted each civilisation to be unique and moving beyond the Mediterranean Sea is certainly one way to do that. Furthermore there is a timeline in Imperium – the earlier a Civilisation comes in history, the more likely it will become an Empire first in the game. So Egypt is the earliest civilisation and so has the least nation cards and most development cards. The Vikings, on the other hand, are the latest and never actually become an empire at all in the game.

The civilisations we’ve included all fit into the timeline (rise of Egypt around 3000 BCE through to the failed Viking invasion of Britain, 1066 CE), apart from the mythical civlilisations of course. I’m sure we could design more if Osprey wanted us to.

Imperium has playable factions based on civilisations from around the world

DM: How closely do the play styles of the civilisations in Imperium reflect historical characteristics of the societies depicted?

NB: Obviously there are limitations – each deck is around 23 cards which restricts what aspects you can feature. However, we have tried to give each civilisation a unique deck and link it to the history of that civilisation. For example, with the Olmecs you’ll find Giant Stone Heads, Step Pyramids, stone masks and Cacao, all coming together in a deck unlike any other.  The Scythians are nomadic and we’ve tried to represent that lifestyle in their deck. I think playing these two civilisations will feel very different – and for that reason we recommend players look through their deck before playing as a strategy that works for one civilisation may well not work for another.

DM: You also include Atlantean and Arthurian legend into the game. What was the reason for extending the scope outside of a purely historical theme?

NB: Atlantis came about because we wanted to offer the players the challenge of a civilisation that starts as an Empire. This means, in our timeline, this civilisation had to come before Egypt! That was a challenge, so we settled on a legendary early empire instead, which certainly offered more creative freedom. After some initial playtesting it was clear some sort of personal trash pile (the History pile even though Atlantis is not exactly historical) was needed and a twist beyond ‘start as an Empire’ was also needed to make them interesting. This was solved by replacing their History with a sunken pile and having the mechanic that Atlantis sinks its regions with some of the cards in its deck.

The development team at Osprey decided to divide the civilisations into two boxes (rather than release a large game, or remove half of the designed decks). There was some discussion over what split made the most sense and eventually they settled on Classics and Legends. The problem was, at that point, the only ‘legend’ we had was Atlantis, and a hint of legend with the Minoans and their Labyrinth.

Imperium legends
The stuff of legend: King Arthur’s court

So we set about designing two more mythical civilisations – the Arthurians and the Utopians. Being free of history meant we could push the design further than we had done with Atlantis. For example, the Arthurian deck introduces knights and questing and not wanting to continually cycle your deck. The end of the nation deck for the Arthurian’s means you are fighting Gwaith Camlan (The Battle of Camlann) and that’s far from ideal. When playing the Arthurian deck you really want to complete your quests and find the Graal before that final battle starts.

We pushed this idea of not wanting to cycle your deck even further with the Utopians. When you play this civilisation, every time you empty your draw pile you have to add an unrest to your hand – and unrest is bad, it is a junk card that scores -2 victory points. The Utopians only have a starting deck so no private market of cards at all. Rather they have 2 double-sided journey cards representing your journey to the mythical city of Shangri-La. The Utopians are totally different in play style and goals from all the other civilisations in Imperium.

DM: Mechanically, Imperium is a deck-building game with both hand management and tableau building elements. From a design perspective how did this combination of mechanics evolve into the game we see today? Natural evolution or deliberate early design choice?

NB: My original design of a deck builder included a draft rather than tableau building – but as soon as I tried this out with players beyond my usual playgroup it was clear the game was too difficult to learn. You had to know what you were doing to draft sensibly. So that aspect was dropped and tableau building added.

Tableau destruction (either by opponents or yourself for the powerful Fame cards) was added after I’d pitched the game to some publishers and the feedback was that the tableau needed to be more dynamic.

DM: There are 16 civilisations across Imperium: Legends and Classics each of which can be played multiplayer and solo. Can you describe the process of developing so many playable factions and modes?

NB: A secret to game design is using spreadsheets. For tracking the results of playtests – what cards get played, what cards are ignored, what are the scores. But also for tracking the various decks and what the latest card text is.

I started with 4 civilisations and they became the baseline – any new civilisation was played against the original 4 initially and adjusted as necessary.

The solo game included in the boxes came later. I had a solo mode for testing. I do not like inflicting prototypes on my playtesters where I know things are not working, I much prefer to think they work and my testers prove me wrong. My solo mode was fairly rudimentary, it worked for testing but I certainly didn’t give the same experience as you get playing against a human opponent.

When Dávid Turczi joined me as co-designer, looking at the solo game was one of his first priorities. David has an approach to solo game design, the game needs to work as a multiplayer game first, then you identify what aspects of your opponents actions matter to you and then try to replicate that feeling in a simple to manage solo BOT.

Imperium Classics
Through the Ages: the Persian ‘Conquer’ card from prototype to finished design.

DM: With the design challenges of a multi-factional, card based, game in mind, how did you find the design, developing and publication process for Imperium as whole?

NB: It has been a very long road. My original concept is rather different to what has been published by Osprey. In the beginning I had no thought about publishing the game, I was designing a deck builder as a challenge to myself and to play with my regular gaming group. It’s only after showing the game to others and the positive feedback I received led me to try to get it published.

That proved rather challenging – my initial pitches were unsuccessful, although I did get some helpful feedback. Eventually NSKN (now Board and Dice) signed the game in 2014. They had a full schedule so it was not due to be published for a few years, which gave me time to make more changes and add more civilisations. They also brought Dávid Turczi on board.  

They intended to Kickstart the game in 2018 but unfortunately the project did not get a good start and the campaign was cancelled. NSKN gave the rights back to me and generously included the art they had commissioned for it and also agreed that Dávid could continue to work on the game with me in his own time.

We showed the game to Osprey and they loved it and the art, so agreed to publish the game and keep the art and, in fact, added a whole lot more.

DM: The civilisations in Imperium are available across two separately available boxes: Classic and Legends. Can you describe the differences between the two boxes and what players should keep in mind if they can only purchase one?

NB: Both boxes are the same game – they share the same rulebook. The differences are the mix of civilisations in each box and the common market cards. The two can be combined; at a basic level by just taking civilisations from both and playing them. You can also mix and match the common cards from either box too for more variety.

All the civilisations are very different – so picking a box that includes the civilisations that appeal to you is a good start. The civilisations also vary in complexity, we have included a difficulty rating for each civilisation in the rules and the higher difficulty civilisations are definitely harder to play. The Legends box has more of the complicated civilisations, so players seeking a more challenging game may want to start there. On the other hand, if you are less experienced with deckbuilding games or want an easier version to teach new players then Classics is probably a better starting point.

DM: You’ve clearly had some success in designing an historical game. Do you have any advice for new designers looking to embark on an historically themed game design?

NB: Research your history first, and have a vision about how you want to represent that history in your game, and what role you are expecting the players to take. Then think about mechanics that will best reflect that vision. Otherwise you run the risk of people commenting your theme feels pasted on.

DM: On final question: can you tell us about any other projects you have in the pipeline?

NB: I have thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration process with Dávid. I am proud of the game we’ve produced between us and I think it is better for our joint involvement. We work so well together that we’re repeating the process, but nothing is at a point where I can say very much. I’m sure news about the next Turczi/Buckle game will be forthcoming when the publisher is ready to make an announcement.