This is one of those moments when I grab a game to review based on no information whatsoever aside from the box cover. Imaginarium boasts one of the most obscure box covers to come from a board game in history, enough to catch the eye of anyone remotely interested in games when it’s sitting on the shelf.
On closer inspection I notice it’s done by the same combination of designer and publisher that brought me Abyss, one of my Top 100 games that is steadily becoming a Top 10 contender. Now of course as the old Huey Lewis song goes, “Lightning never strikes twice” – but we can hope right?
Designer: Bruno Cathala
Time: 90 Minutes (can be more though!)
From the publisher:
Through the mist, you can just about see the gigantic form of the factory. This is where the essence of dreams is shaped! We will enter the factory through the grand entrance. Here are the famous machines! You can repair, combine or dismantle them. They will produce the resources needed to repair more powerful machines. I am sure that you will quickly make the best use of your resources and the space available in your workshop to carry out the projects of the design office and gain Victory points!
Created by Bruno Cathala and Florian Sirieix, Imaginarium is a strategy, combination and development game with a race to objectives, for 2-5 players. Felideus Bubastis, brings fantastic animal figures together with the factory’s steampunk atmosphere in surprising and daring illustrations.
COME WITH ME………
In Imaginarium, you are going to repair, dismantle, combine and use curious machines to receive charcoalium (the local currency) and resources (wood, copper, crystal) that will allow you to repair other, even more powerful machines. You will be able to complete projects and earn victory points by managing your resources, your combination of actions and the space available for the machines in your workshop.
You’ll first check out the conveyor belt on which broken machines go past and place your handyman either in front of one of them to reserve it, or in front of an extractor to earn some charcoalium currency.
Then when it is your turn, you can:
– Start up the repaired machines in your workshop;
– Buy the reserved machine, if you have enough charcoalium to pay for it. It is then stored next to your personal workshop while it waits to be repaired.
– Carry out 2 of the 6 actions in your personal workshop.
At the end of the turn, you stop off at the design office to validate your projects. This is the best way of earning enough victory points to win the game, but there are diminishing returns for being too slow. The first to earn 20 victory points ends the game.
IF ART COULD DIVIDE US
OK, the obvious thing already with Imaginarium is just how gorgeous and yet weird it looks. There’s just something about the French when it comes to gorgeous artwork, they have a knack for it clearly. However it’s also a bit divisive. This is a very odd world that the game is building here and some of the art can come across as rather creepy. I personally like it but would not be surprised if someone I showed the game to thought differently.
Component wise though, everything feels the part with big player screens, resources cubes that aren’t just plain and boring, coal pieces and some over-produced miniatures for each player that could have easily been substituted for a token or smaller standee. They even provided a box to store all the resources when the game is in progress and I applaud Bombyx for that. . . . however they should note that some people like to store games vertically and the dividers inside that box don’t work well with that unless you bag them up in advance.
CENTURY SPICED MEAT
The best way to describe Imaginarium is by making a stretch comparison to another game called Century Spice Road. Both are engine builders where you collect cubes in order to turn them into different cubes in order to claim victory points. Think of Century as the lighter alternative and Imaginarium as the more involved version. Here it’s all about building up an efficient engine of machines in order to meet the criteria of those projects for victory points. You can claim points in other ways but they are really the focus you should be aiming for in order to actually win.
There’s a heavy emphasis on planning ahead as you have very limited space in your workshop for machines and this will quickly run out if you’re not careful. Combining machines is a good way to mitigate this, but you need to know what you need ahead of time before you start repairing everything in sight and risk clogging up your workshop. It’s a fun little puzzle that won’t burn your brain cells, but certainly offers something more involving than Century did.
The helper cards help to sometimes guide you to a particular route or way of earning points, however I’m curious to the balance of some of them. Many are useful but some seem cheap for what they give you, particularly in the way of permanent upgrades. A few others are based on triggered events and aren’t even 100% reliable yet their cost doesn’t reflect this. It’s a small niggle and the deck is big enough that you won’t see balance issues too often, but one to take note of.
IT’S SIMPLE, EXCEPT WHEN IT ISN’T
Teaching Imaginarium is a relatively straightforward process as the reference guide on your personal sceen provides a very useful backdrop to work from. That being said, the rules for combining machines are a little fiddly to grok at first and the screen resorts to iconography rather than text to explain it. This can throw off new players and might result in some confusion to begin with. Once you’ve done it a few times, it all makes sense though.
The other actions are pretty self explanatory, though I felt that with the clock face being restricted in how it moved, many “pairs” of actions you saw being repeated a lot through each game. Rarely do you need to dissemble a machine if you’ve planned right and combining will only happen every so often. So usually you find yourself constantly visiting the market, repairing and collecting more money, which gets a bit repetitive after a while.
We have to address one big elephant in the room though and it’s got two heads and wears a pink tutu. Hey, in this universe don’t tell me that isn’t a possibility! This is one of those occasions where you can tell the publisher stuck in a 5th player option just to make it sell to more people. Though in this case I struggle to think why it even has 4 on the box. For what is a fairly straightforward affair, the downtime between turns can get to silly levels at times especially with 4-5 players.
That’s because all the steps of a turn have to be done before the next player begins and that’s usually a weakness in most games. And if you’ve got that player who can’t think what to do before it’s his turn you’re in for a long wait and a dragged out game length. There’s also very little player interaction besides reserving their machine or getting to a project first. You’ve got the “attack” machines but they’re pretty ineffectual most of the time. So there’s little to no reason to play Imaginarium with more than 3 players and even then, it’s probably at its best with 2. The variant rules are easy to implement and actually work quite well. But who out there dares to play this with 4 or 5 players? There’s no scaling involved other than how many projects are laid out. More and more games are coming out where scalability for players “time-wise” is overlooked and it really needs to stop.
You’re looking at a 90 minute game typically, but potentially shorter with 2 players or 3 who know what they are doing. But it’s easy for the game after teaching/setup to easily extend beyond this and for a slightly meatier version of Century, that’s too long even though I prefer this to Century just because of the theme and that extra bit of meat.
VERDICT ON IMAGINARIUM
If you’re looking for something a bit more meaty than Century Spice Road then Imaginarium may just suit you well. It can’t be denied that it draws some paraells with regards to taking cubes, using them to gain more machines and cubes and then turning that into victory points. However adding the extra meat means you’re also adding more time and not everyone is going to be keen on that. The biggest problem with Imaginarium is its downtime between turns and lack of sufficient player interaction to justify any player count above 3 players, possibly even 2.
That being said, if you aren’t creeped out by the imagery, Imaginarium is extremely well produced with care and attention to the theme. It still provides a good amount of choices, some variety (though could be better) and fun puzzle solving. I feel that there is a market for this, but you’re going to have to consider whether this will be a go-to 2-3 player game for you because if 4-5 is your typical setup, you may want to reconsider.
Personal Rating: 7 (with 2-3 players only, 6 otherwise at best)
YOU WILL LIKE IMAGINARIUM IF:
You keep the player count to 3 max and not one of them is AP prone.
You like the imagery and theme surrounding the mechanics.
You like efficient engine builders and puzzle solving.
YOU WILL NOT LIKE IMAGINARIUM IF:
You hate downtime and regularly play with more than 3 players.
You’re happy with Century Spice Road as a lightweight alternative and don’t need more meat.
You find the abrupt endings to be a put-off.
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I'm known as The Broken Meeple, a blog, podcast and YouTube channel devoted to board and card games. I live in Portsmouth, UK, working as a Chartered Tax Advisor and I enjoy playing games of many genres and varieties with as many people as possible.