A Minnesota Game Creator Brings Card-Based Space Battle Dreams to Life

Creating a new game can be as easy as grabbing some index cards and a pen. It’s how some of the most popular card-based games got their start, including Magic: The Gathering. Through numerous playtest sessions, a game can go from being just an idea to a finished, enjoyable product.

Christopher Smith shows Riley Lawson and James Knowlton how to play Seize the Imperium.

From left to right: Christopher Smith shows Riley Lawson and James Knowlton how to play Seize the Imperium during a playtest session in March 2019. Madeleine Vasaly

It’s a long and arduous process, and not every game creator has the fortitude and determination to see it through. At a playtest session in the beginning of March, I learned how local first-time game creator Christopher Smith is turning his dream into reality.

Inspired by his love for Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (V:TES), Smith wanted to create a multiplayer game where people could affect the game state by playing cards that help form alliances with other players, something he feels is missing from card games in the current marketplace. Unlike a Magic game of Commander, however, Smith was also looking for a game where an entire group could simply pick up a few decks, play the game immediately, and everyone would have an equal chance of winning.

Though he also enjoys the Star Trek and Star Wars–branded games produced by Decipher, Inc. and local game developer Fantasy Flight Games, Smith says he also feels limited by them because play decisions can be restricted by the already-popular characters’ established backstories and personalities. Since Magic had their world set firmly in the fantasy genre, Smith decided to take his card game to the stars.

Decks of cards and yellow playing pieces sit alongside Imperium's Emperor's Starter Guide to ruling the Galaxy (the rules).

Everything you need to play Seize the Imperium in one place. Madeleine Vasaly

The Explanation

In Seize the Imperium, players are leaders of factions fighting for control of the humanity-based Imperium, recently left leaderless after the death of the Emperor or Empress. Players build up their armies and defenses using resources generated by the planets under their control. In order to attack planets controlled by the other players, players need either Fleet or Troop cards, while Orbital or Installation cards will help defend planets against these incursions.

Players can also receive the help of key personalities within the Imperium system, such as Admirals, Generals, Politicians, and Engineers. These characters can influence any phase of the turn or even eliminate other characters. Finally, there are Artifact and Reaction cards. The former are played upon planets and provide unique boosts, and the latter can be played as a reaction to someone declaring an attack on your planet.

Each planet is worth a certain number of Victory Points, and the first person to earn 20 points wins the game. A game could be played by only two people, but Smith says it shines best with three or more players. A more detailed explanation of how the game is played, as well as examples of some of the cards created for the game, complete with finished art and flavor text, can be found on the game’s website.

One of the things Smith feels separates Seize the Imperium from other card games that have been or are currently running on Kickstarter is the art direction on the Asset and Systems cards. As he was preparing playtest cards, Smith realized that science fiction art tends to be oriented in landscape rather than portrait format. “I made a conscious decision somewhere during the playtesting to go to [that layout],” he said, stating that every time he tried to fit temporary art into the card frames, he would end up having to crop out the sides of the images. “There were pieces of art I threw away because I couldn’t even use them. The characters maintain the vertical.”

Using his fine arts degree, Smith reviewed portfolio after portfolio on Upwork before sending project proposals to the people whose art he liked the most. In the end, 33 people from 21 countries, including Romania, South Korea, and the United States, responded and provided the art for the game. An interesting result while contracting the work was that even when he described what he envisioned for the cards, sometimes he ended up paying for work that wasn’t quite what he’d intended. “I hate [when] there’s no correlation between the art and the rules,” he said. “I want them to look like they associate with each other and have their own story.”

One example was the character Ajee Delere, an artificially intelligent being who was painted by Vyacheslav Shevchenko. If you control Delere, every World you play from your face-down pile costs one fewer resource point and she can be depleted (turned 90 degrees) to grant a single world a +4 defense bonus once during any player’s Conquest phase. Smith explained that these mechanics were based on those of the idol singer Sharon Apple from Macross Plus. “Our modern-day rock stars have the ability to sway [their audiences]. Now you [give that ability] to an AI who could alter its program to figure out how to control the most amount of people,” Smith said. Using these abilities, Delere is able to convince a planet’s government to join a player’s rising empire or can incite a planet’s population into rising up in defense when it’s being attacked.

Something else Smith found interesting while commissioning art was that sometimes he felt like he needed to specify to some of the international artists what race the characters were in order to reflect the diversity of characters in his game. “It’s easy to be blind at it,” he said. “It’s really interesting—I just said ‘international artists’? If I don’t tell them, I get nothing but white people.”

Cards from the game: Ajee Delere, Core System - Calendra, Vice Admiral Zinn Garnath, and Athar Maikeniik.

Card art from Seize the Imperium was created by artists from all around the world. Christopher Smith

Despite being a science-fiction, there are no alien races—at least not yet. If successful, later decks will include more references to the Ancients, the outer planets of the Imperium, and different types of characters like saboteurs and terrorists.

The entire process has been very fulfilling for Smith, even after learning that Black Chantry Productions acquired the license to reprint Vampire: The Eternal Struggle, which can be found in game stores and purchased online. “In the end, if Seize the Imperium isn’t the next Magic, I’d still feel accomplished that it was the next V:TES, with an eternal following pulling out the game again and again,” he said. “Magic has survived staying more a card game than a novel or TV series, which come and go. I would like to attain longevity the same way.”

The Gameplay

I playtested this game in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 7, 2019, along with long-time playtester Michael Bernabo and fellow newbies James Knowlton and Riley Larson. While we noshed on complimentary pizza and beverages, Smith spent the first 20 minutes explaining how to play the game and Bernabo demonstrated what a first turn looks like.

Knowlton couldn’t exactly remember how he heard about these playtest sessions, but after reading about the game on the website he was really drawn to the art, and the mechanics he read on the cards themselves were intriguing to him as a Hearthstone player. “I thought it would be really cool to get the opportunity to come and test out something brand new,” he said.

Larson was similarly drawn to the art, which Knowlton had shown her, but unlike him, she didn’t read the rule book or the Print and Play cards available on the main website. “The cards look super professional,” she asserted. Another incentive for her to come to this playtest session was a chance to beat Knowlton at a new game, something which apparently happens a lot between them.

This playtest session was no different, as our game ended when Larson conquered one of Knowlton’s worlds, giving her the last victory point she needed to win the game. However, if she had  played the version of the game that Bernabo had played two months ago, the game could have ended in a different way.

Bernabo has the distinction of being the first playtester in three years to be eliminated from a game when all of his Worlds were conquered by the other players. However, that game session also earned him the more prestigious achievement of having his feedback cause a major change in the rules. As a result of Bernabo’s elimination, once a player is eliminated, the planets from their deck are removed from the game and are no longer viable sources of victory points, even if they’d been conquered by another player at the table.

“Under that rule, eliminating a player becomes a strategic choice; if I have his planets I want him to stay in the game, while someone else could take a lot of my points away by taking him out,” Bernabo said when asked how he felt about the rule change. “I was kinda proud of myself. You come to [playtest sessions] trying to break the game,” he added, saying that throughout all the other playtest sessions he’s done for local game developers and with Star Wars: Destiny and KeyForge, he’d never had a rule change happen because of something he did.

Players sit at a table with cards in out in front of them, learning how combat works in Seize the Imperium.

Michael Bernabo (left) and Smith demonstrate how combat works in Seize the Imperium. Madeleine Vasaly

Another major change to how the game was played was created during this March playtest session, when I played out a World from my deck that was also controlled by Knowlton but was not currently named as his Throne World. (He’d lost that World three turns prior to Larson.) I thought I had carefully read the condensed rules cheat sheet and was allowed to do this, but Smith had to make the decision on the spot that any World in dispute was not considered “controlled” by either person as a state-based action, regardless of whether the card was one from their deck or one that they conquered. As a result of both of us claiming dominion over the world, it would continue to be the Regent’s choice to determine who actually controlled it.

Normally, a playtest session for Smith and one or more of his veterans would take four to six turns. Our session lasted well into three hours, mostly due to my gathering information at the same time. However, the game was so intriguing and we played so competitively that it was not boring for the rest of the table to wait while Smith explained card functions during our turns. In fact, Smith and Bernabo confirmed that we were the first playtest group who immediately attacked our opponents’ systems when play came back to Bernabo again.

It took me a while to rid my brain of the Magic terminology I’ve been using for the last five years, but before long, I was depleting and undepleting Worlds and Fleets as confidently as Bernabo. I was also able to conquer one of Larson’s Worlds, but her Drone deck was too powerful for me to consider attempting to take another.

Cards are laid out on a table, demonstrating a combat phase in Seize the Imperium.

In Seize the Imperium, the vertical cards in front of players are considered “depleted” and cannot be used again until the player’s next turn. Madeleine Vasaly

One of the things that stalled my game for a very long time was the fact that one of the World cards I had in my face-down pile was the same as Bernabo’s Throne World, meaning that as long as it was his Throne World, I had a dead card. Another problem with my deck, which was the Carriers deck, was that so many of the Asset cards I drew in my first hand cost way too much for me to play out on my Worlds, which could at best give me up to 8 points to use. That meant that instead of being able to play out my Assets in order to draw more Fleet and Troop cards, I was struggling with a way to be able to defend my Worlds with the low-defense and attack cards I could play with my initial points.

With a different starting hand, the Carriers deck could be a powerful one. I do see, however, that the idea of being able to replace some cards from the prebuilt deck with some from the other decks is very appealing. I’m sure that if I were to attend another playtest session with a deck I had built myself, I’d be able to conquer more Worlds and earn a few more points.

Since that playtest session, Smith started and cancelled a Kickstarter for Seize the Imperium, earning only $4,569 out of its $24,500 goal after 14 days. In a newsletter sent out to the playtest mailing list, Smith wrote, “In the final analysis the follower base and email list was not as large as needed, particularly for a $24,500 project. My desire to keep the unit cost down set the goal at too high a level for a first-time creator.”

He added later that he would continue to conduct playtesting sessions at events such as CONvergence, Protospiel, and 2D Con, and signing people up for monthly playtest sessions in St. Paul via his website and BoardGameGeek. If all goes well, Smith plans to relaunch the Kickstarter campaign in six months to a year.

However, even as far back as that playtest session in the beginning of March, Smith said that he’d learned a lot about how to run a Kickstarter, conflicting advice from his playtesters and backers and all. For him, launching and maintaining the Kickstarter had been the most difficult part of the game-design process. “Designing a game for three years is easy; it’s the Kickstarter that’s the hardest part,” he said at the time.

To playtest Seize the Imperium for yourself, you can read the rules and download the Print and Play version from the main website, or attend the next playtest session with the Twin Cities Playtesting Guild on May 15, 2019.

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