Designed by Bruno Cathala and Florian Sirieix, and published by Bombyx, Imaginarium is an action-selection engine-building game of making cubes, converting them to other cubes and eventually earning victory points. Although there are countless games like this, there are many features that make Imaginarium distinctive. The steampunk theme is presented very strongly: you are a handyman working to repair fantastical machines, all with comical names and appropriately bizarre artwork by Felideus Bubastis. The four resources are represented by differently textured tokens, which is an excellent touch. The aesthetics are brilliantly worked, creating fantastic table presence, though some might consider the weirdness mildly disturbing!
The gameplay is challengingly strategic, as implied by the ‘14+’ age recommendation. Each round you will firstly decide on a broken machine to reserve from the conveyor belt (or gain some ‘charcoaleum’, the main currency), and this will also determine turn order. Your turn will consist of running your machines, then if you reserved a machine you must pay for it before choosing two actions to perform. There are six to choose from, such as paying resources to repair a machine, hiring an assistant to give you a powerful ability, trading resources, or dismantling machines for resources or victory points. The challenging catch is that your two actions must be next to each other on the selection dial, and you can’t choose the same two as in the previous round. This rewards forward planning, as efficiency is vital.
Some players may get caught up in Analysis Paralysis at this point but Imaginarium is at its best when played as a fast-flowing game. It’s normally possible to decide what to do on your turn without your plans being thwarted at the last minute, but at the same time you will always be interested to see what your opponents are up to (or your one opponent in a 2-player game, which still works very well). One of the main ways of scoring points in this game is by completing projects (based on producing certain resources or repairing combinations of machines), and the first person to achieve each one gains an extra point over anyone else who does so later, making it vital to see what others are doing. There are attack cards to be wary of as well, but if your group is not into aggressive ‘take that’ play styles you may find that they never get used.
The game ends when one player has racked up 20 points by the end of their turn, but since points and resources are kept secretly there is a constant tension towards the end of wondering who will get there first and will you have enough time to see your plans come to fruition. The player who triggers the end may not win though, as everyone will have a chance to finish the round and there are also bonus points for resources left over. There are many viable strategies in Imaginarium and you will no doubt find yourself playing in different styles each time based on the opportunities afforded by the assistants you recruit, the projects available, the choices of other players and even the starting condition you have (all five are subtly yet significantly different). While long-term planning is important, you’ll always have to be flexible when a new opportunity comes along.
Some have likened this game to Century: Spice Road (Plan B), and I agree to an extent (cube production & conversion), but it has been crossed with Scythe (Stonemaier) (limited action selection, threat of attack) with elements of Viticulture (Stonemaier) (tense race to the victory point target)! If you enjoy any of those games, this one will be well worth checking out, and if you think you see a one-dimensional strategy winning out the first time, see if it works a second time because I expect you’ll find there’s rather more to it than that. Imaginarium is a deep, tense, challenging and rewarding game!
(Review by Matt Young)