Last year, Portal Games released their excellent engine building game Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North. This was a follow up to their wildly successful, and award winning, Imperial Settlers game. I’m still on the fence about which game I like more, Empires of the North or the original (still leaning slightly towards the original I think), but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to try each new faction for Empires of the North.
Which brings us to today’s review of the Japanese Islands expansion. This adds two new clans to the game and a few other small bonuses. So let’s see what this expansion has to offer and if its a worthy addition to the game.
Empires of the North: Japanese Islands comes with two new clans, a handful of new island cards, and some ship tokens—which are now color coded! One of my minor gripes (very minor really) with the core game was that it wasn’t easy to tell which ship belongs to which player. These new ones are colored, which is awesome (and how it should have been from the start).
But the star of the show here are the two new clans. As is usual with games designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek, these aren’t just simply rethemes of the core clans. The first new one is the Saikoro clan. Their unique niche is that they gain benefits by interacting with their opponents. Using their buildings to gift or exchange resources are ways the Saikoro can earn victory points or other benefits.
The second clan is the Umineko Clan. They actually add two new phases to the round, a storage phase and a docking phase. This clan has cards that let the player store goods on them, and during the storage phase, they will earn points if they hit certain thresholds. During the docking phase, they gain some of the goods pictured on the island cards, storing them on their docking cards. They can also transport goods, moving them from one card to another. There is definitely a lot going on with this clan.
Game Experience with the Expansion:
I’m pretty impressed with how Portal Games handles its empire expansions. Ignacy never seems content to just roll out a new empire with some minor benefits. He always tries something new with each one, for good or bad. And so was the case with Japanese Islands. The two clans couldn’t be more different from the ones in the base game (or even each other). But how do they play?
My favorite of the two is definitely the Saikoro Clan. Not only are they the easier of the two to use (despite the complexity rating in the rulebook), but they also add some nice player interaction to the game. Empires of the North has always been heavy into the multiplayer solitaire (which is fine), but it’s nice to have a clan now interacts with the other players—in both good and bad ways.
The other clan tends to break my cardinal rule for game expansions. I want added variety without so much complexity that I feel like I’m learning a new game. And since the Umineko Clan adds two new phases to the game and lots of cards referencing other cards, it definitely has a bit of a learning curve. At times, it feels a little fiddly. While it never got so bad to be overwhelming, I definitely had to read the rulebook a couple of times and look through the deck before I felt comfortable enough to play the clan.
Finally, I was happy to see more islands added to the game. We tended to churn through the islands pretty quickly in our games, and usually, we had to reshuffle the discards at least once during the game. So having a few more islands to thicken up the deck was a welcome addition.
Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North – Japanese islands is an easy choice for fans of the game. It adds some nice quality of life improvements—colored boats and more islands—while also giving players two wholly unique clans to try out. Whether you are looking for a bit more player interaction or something where cards bounce off each other, Japanese Islands does a good job adding replay value to the game. Just be aware that the new clans do come with a bit of a learning curve.
• Bit of a learning curve on the Umineko Clan