Imperial is a German-style board game designed by Mac Gerdts in which the object is to accumulate wealth in the form of bond holdings in successful countries and cash. Players take on the role of international financiers who purchase government bonds in the six pre-World War I empires of Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Russia. The principal bondholder of a nation gains control of its government and can order importation or production of armaments and ships; maneuvering of military units; construction of factories; and taxation. During play, an investor card is passed around which allows the purchase of additional bonds. A rondel – a wheel-shaped game mechanism with eight different options – is used to determine the options available to a country. The game box states that it is for 2–6 players, but a developer-supported variant allows play with seven.
Players gain money by (1) earning success bonuses from countries they control, (2) earning 2,000,000 when the investor card they hold is activated, and (3) reaping dividends from their bonds. Treasuries gain money from taxation and when players buy bonds. So, gaining money can be a two-step process – one must first enrich a country's treasury and then get that money out of the country and into their own pocket by passing or landing on the Investor field. A country only spends money on two things – importing military units (1M apiece) and building factories (5M apiece) – so most money put into a treasury becomes available to pay back to investors. Money left in a country's treasury at the end of the game does not count toward helping any player win.
In the taxation phase, a country's treasury receives 2M for each unoccupied factory, plus 1M for each tax chip, minus 1M for each military unit. The country's octagonal game piece is moved to the appropriate number on the power chart, and if the country has moved up on the tax chart, a success bonus is paid to the player who holds that country's flag. When a country reaches 25 points on the counting chart, the game ends.
Military units move in a similar manner as in Diplomacy. Armies can be transported over bodies of water by convoys. Fleets and armies destroy each other in a one-to-one ratio. Fleets are always moved first; then armies. Each imperial power has a railroad network within its borders by which its armies can rapidly deploy to the battlefield. For example, in one turn, Germany can move a fleet into the North Sea, and then move an army from Munich to Norway by (1) traveling from Munich to Hamburg by railroad, and then (2) traveling from Hamburg to Norway by convoy. In Germany's next turn, that army can make the return trip by the same means. Chains of fleets in contiguous ocean territories can transport armies over long distances in one turn, but each fleet can only carry one army per turn.
Armies traveling through other empires can be either passive or hostile. A hostile army is placed upright and a passive army is placed on its side. Hostile armies shut down the occupied province's factories and railroads and prevent imports and factory construction in that province. The rules do not allow opponents to occupy (or destroy) all of a country's factories, though. If a country is down to its last operating factory, then other countries' armies entering that province must be placed on their side as passive armies.
Three armies can destroy a factory (and themselves at the same time), but this is rarely done. A reason is that a player with three armies at his disposal has the alternative of shutting down three factories, which can immediately severely hamper an opponent's ability to raise funds and military units needed for a counterattack. To get back to full industrial capacity, the opponent must expend turns and armies destroying the occupying armies. Another disadvantage of destroying factories is that the three invading armies are lost, and therefore are unavailable to be recalled to defend the home country. An offer to withdraw occupying armies can be used as a bargaining chip to get a country to take a certain action. But when a factory has been destroyed, the invader has no way to undo the damage, and therefore has nothing to offer in bargaining (and is also three armies shorter).
Austria-Hungary gets two more armies than the other empires, and Great Britain gets two more fleets.
Each great power has five home provinces where factories can be built. There are fifteen other land regions and nine ocean regions. The regions that can be occupied are:
Switzerland is a neutral country that cannot be occupied. Along the right side of the board is the power chart. Along the bottom is the counting chart. Once any country reaches 25 points on the counting chart, the game ends. This is the mechanism by which game time is intended to be limited to approximately 2–3 hours.
Each country has eight bonds. The bond values are as follows:
It is also important to take note of where other countries are on the rondel. A country whose next logical move would be to tax, invest, build a factory, or do some other innocuous activity is likely not an immediate military threat. On the other hand, if an opponent's country is about to move to taxation and end the game, it may be desirable to shut down its factories or otherwise reduce its tax base. Similarly, if all the pieces on the rondel have just passed investor, and every player has a country, one can make his move without fear of his own country immediately being bought out by someone else, because it will be awhile before anyone has another chance to invest.
A popular strategy is to gain control over two neighboring countries (e.g. Germany and Russia) so that each has a front covered and can launch offensives without worrying about an attack from that direction.
Players' bond holdings are open to public scrutiny, but they are allowed to keep their cash on hand secret. It is usually wise to avoid divulging this information because opponents can use it to gauge whether a hostile takeover is likely.
Sometimes players will buy out a country that has undergone expansion just as it is about to land on Taxation, in order to reap the success bonus. To prevent this from happening, a player on the Maneuver space next to the Investor space may pay the extra 4M to move ahead to Taxation. A player wanting to get rid of a country can begin building up its military, increasing its tax and factory bases, accumulating cash, and in general acting in ways that make other investors want to buy it in order to neutralize it as a threat and/or cash in on its profitability.
The game went through decades of play-testing before it was commercially released. Many variants were created during this period.
One popular variant, mentioned in the rule book, removes the investor card. The rule book notes that this creates a somewhat less exciting but more strategic game. It tends to prevent hostile takeovers before a country's first turn.
A house rule promulgated by the designer allows a player who controls no countries to collect $1M from the bank if he chooses not to invest when the investor card is activated. This may be particularly useful in 7-player games. It may also be a way to prevent less experienced players from getting "stuck" when they find themselves with no flag and little money.
The designer also suggested a "negotiation" variant in which a country's decisions are made by a vote of its bondholders, with players holding more/higher bonds having greater influence. Specifically, each bond value point (the big numeral on the upper right corner of the bond certificate) counts as one vote. Players can lend and give one another money, but the bank and treasuries still cannot give or lend money in any way. Because a nation can go onto the Investor field against the will of the holder of the flag, the government is not forced to pay out every bond. Rather, the treasury pays as much interest as possible, beginning with the lowest (2M) bond and then up from there. In the event that the investor card is still used, it is unnecessary to allow extra investment by players who do not have a flag, since they are still able to participate in governance through voting. Gerdts notes, "You do not need a government to lead a country anymore. What you rather need is majorities for your ideas, and the right coalition-partners in critical situations! It's all about negotiation and backstabbing now... The gameflow can be described as follows:
The Swiss Bank variant, designed to benefit players who lose their last government, makes it possible to force a nation in which the owner of the Swiss bank holds bonds to stop on the investor field on the rondel. The blank cardboard tile included with the game indicates ownership of the Swiss bank. If the nation's treasury is not sufficient for all payouts, the nation cannot be forced to stop on Investor.
The game has a regular and advanced set of rules for beginning the game. Under the regular rules, each player starts out with control of a given country and also acquires two bonds in other countries. The game is generally regarded as "broken" under this set of rules because a player can have his country bought out from under him in the first turn, and end up sidelined from the action before he has even had a chance to act: this is offset by the rule that states that any player bought off the rondel receives $1,000,000 from the buying player and then has the immediate opportunity to buy any available bond. Each time the investor space is passed, the player-without-country again has the chance to buy any available bond. This remains the case until the player-without-country has a majority share of any country. This is a strong position to hold because small bonds pay better percentages than large ones, so the frequent opportunity to buy means that the player would acquire many small bonds. The advanced rules call for a series of opportunities for each player in rotating order to purchase one bond of any available value from each country at the start of the game.
Drinking variants typically involve a different drink for each country; e.g. beerenauslese for Austria; strega for Italy; champagne for France; gin and tonic for the United Kingdom; Kölsch (or other German beer) for Germany; and vodka for Russia. Drinking can be required when certain events occur in the game, such as losing a flag or a territory.
Greg Berry created an Asia Expansion map that was approved by Mac Gerdts. The map is based on the Avalon Hill Colonial Diplomacy map, designed by Peter Hawes. The six imperial nations that appear on this map are China (Yellow), Japan (Green), French South East Asia Colonies (Blue), U.K. India colony (Red), Turkish Empire (Black) and Russian Empire (Purple). As in the regular version of Imperial, there are also territories and sea regions that can be taken over. There are certain neutral countries and sea regions that, like Switzerland in the regular version, cannot be taken over. The Java Sea and Timor Sea are passable but do not score for any country possessing them in the taxation phase.
In, Imperial the player-bankers control every aspect of how a country operates - a view not foreign to some people of the time, who believed that bankers such as the Rothschild family had significant influence over the politics of the Great Powers. More controversially, the player bankers also exert ruthless terms of interest from the powers, wringing their economies dry in exchange for the initial investment. The mechanics of the game allow for quick internal movement within a country's borders by rail. This would allow for something like Germany's Schlieffen Plan, for instance; the plan called for a quick attack to seize Belgium and cripple the French army. After the attack, the German army would rush east by railroad to face the slowly advancing Russian forces. Some have suggested that the ease of conquering certain countries, such as Spain, is unrealistic. This appears to be a case in which historical accuracy has been compromised for playability; "The military situation on the board is an abstraction - a simplified palette, if you will - on which the desires of the players are expressed, in order to realize their economic objectives.