I look down at the plastic spaceships launched in an attack in front of me, survey the rest of the board, and silently calculate costs.
“I think I’ve made a mistake here”.
“You think?!” Jeff exclaims.
He’s the victim of my ill-conceived attack and has spent 3 rounds trying to get me to back off. The problem was that I hadn’t calculated the extent of his defenses. My offensive technology was unparalleled anywhere in the galaxy. I had two of the mighty War Suns, which made me feel unstoppable. But Jeff had placed a number of planetary defense systems on the planet between his home system and mine, and he had spent his resources upgrading those defensive structures. I easily wiped out his fleet, but to destroy the PDSes I had to defeat his ground forces. Jeff’s ground forces were better than mine, and after wiping out my first attack wave, the only remaining forces I could mobilize were outnumbered 4 to 1. Each round I kept my ships hovering above this planet, Jeff got a free volley from his PDSes. I had made a mistake.
In addition, on the other side of the galaxy Orion had grown strong. While I had been hasty to attack once I was able to build War Suns, Orion had slowly expanded his domain and had a defensive fleet at every border. Already, former enemies Ben and Amber had put aside their differences to try to slow down Orion.
Quickly I was able to strike a deal with Jeff–I had to remove my forces from his space at the first opportunity, I had to respect our former border agreement, and I had to direct my fleet at Orion. Some people might have harbored resentment, but Jeff knew that his only chance at winning was working with me. Similarly, I knew that I had nothing to bargain with and needed to let him take the lead in slowing down Orion’s fleet. Plus, maybe this would give me an opportunity to take control of Mecatol Rex, the center of the galaxy, and quickly fulfill my secret objective…
Epic Story Creation Machine
This is Twilight Imperium, a game unparalleled in creating stories of epic proportions. It’s not an elegant game (though the mechanisms are tighter than you might suspect)–it’s an extravagance. The box is two feet long and adorned with fantastical images of strange alien races straight out of an 80’s Sci-Fi movie poster. Along the bottom the words “Pax Magnifica Bellum Gloriosum” are displayed without a hint of irony. The game takes about 8 hours to play and fills up my 6’x3’ table.
Inside the box are nearly 350 plastic miniatures and hundreds of cards and counters. Everything is beautifully designed with terrific art, as you would expect from a Fantasy Flight production. But it’s the extras that really stand out–the fact that not only is every single planet in the game individually named, but that after a while you start to notice patterns in the naming that suggest a history between these planets and specific alien races. Also, on every single planet card, in addition to the necessary stats pertinent to the gameplay, there is a brief description of that planet’s climate and geography. In the back of the rulebook there is a multi-page narrative that establishes the galactic turmoil on which the game is set. On the flip side of every player board is a full encyclopedia entry about that race’s history and culture.
These examples show the care and love that Christian Petersen put into this game. And no wonder–this is the first game he published when he created Fantasy Flight. 20 years and 3 editions later, it is still a singular board gaming experience.
Those not scared off by the nearly $100 price tag and 8 hour run time are probably wondering if the effort is worth it. Sure, it looks nice, but they’ve been fooled by ameritrash nonsense before. Is there any real meat to the game, or is it merely a garish, dice-rolling waste of time?
Beyond The Plastic
While those who prefer the mathematical optimization puzzles of pure euro-style games might find Twilight Imperium too random, I believe that there is a lot more strategy and less luck here than it might appear, and that the randomness in the game is not a negative feature.
Let’s take as an example the strategy cards that provide a meaty portion of Twilight Imperium’s gameplay. This part of the game was directly inspired by the modern euro classic Puerto Rico. Before each round of the game, there are 8 different strategy cards the players must choose from. On each card is a primary strategy, a secondary strategy, and an initiative number. Each player must choose a strategy card, and at some point during the following round, they must play the primary strategy printed on the card. When they play that primary strategy, all of the other players then have the option to execute the secondary strategy portion of the card. Often the secondary strategy is a weaker version of the primary ability. For example, the technology card allows the active player to receive a technology for free, and the secondary strategy allows the other players to purchase a technology for 8 resources.
When trying to decide which card to take, the player must take into consideration a number of factors. Which strategies will actually benefit my plans this round? Do I need to have a higher initiative than another player in order to prevent them from attacking my forces before I have time to build up a defense? Do I need to block another player from receiving the primary strategy power of one of the cards? Will taking a particular strategy card give away secret preparations I’ve been making and ruin the advantage of surprise?
And that’s only the first choice of each round. After that, you’ve got to figure out when to play your strategy card while you and other players build, explore, attack, and otherwise work towards objectives.
Objectives! This is how you win the game, although in the midst of trying to figure out the best fleet composition, worrying about how many resources you have, and eyeing your neighbors suspiciously, you can be forgiven for forgetting about the objectives. The problem is that they’re entirely random and somewhat unmemorable. The other problem is that I don’t know what a better system would be. Everyone receives a single secret objective worth 2 points, and gradually throughout the game, public objectives are revealed. At the end of each round every player can qualify for one objective. First to 10 points wins. Unless you play the long game, or are using particular strategy cards in the expansion, or are playing one of the various optional expansion modules…
The point is there are a lot of options for how objectives work, and while all of them are better than the horrible “Imperial” card that comes in the base game, none of them make the objectives particularly interesting. I frequently feel like that the objectives are what you think about occasionally while the actual game plays out. They’re necessary to provide competition and an end point to the game, but they never feel adequately epic or interesting.
The rest of the game is substantially better. There’s an elaborate tech tree with all sorts of exciting upgrades, trade agreements which add spice to the already tense diplomatic proceedings, and politics cards that players can vote on to literally change the rules of the game. A fun twist on in-game democracy: each planet has both a resource value (for building things) and an influence value. The total influence value of your planets determines how many votes you have whenever a law change is on the docket. So a player who may be short on resource-heavy planets might have an iron grip in the political realm. This is a difficult position to be in, but a shrewd politician can use it to their benefit–there’s nothing more scary than a law emerging in the council that completely cripples your plans, and the person with more influence than three of the other players combined is the person you’ve been beating up all game.
Star [Cold] Wars
Ultimately, the entire game is one of politics. Underneath all of the flair–the alien races, action cards, laws, technologies, war suns, etc etc etc, this is really just an interstellar game of diplomacy. For the early to middle portions of the game, there is not going to be a way for any player to effectively wage a large-scale two front war. So if someone is going to attack their neighbors with any amount of enthusiasm, they are only going to be leaving themselves exposed to attack from the other direction. The problem is that to acquire objectives (particularly those prized secret objectives), you are going to eventually have to attack. Alliances, dealmaking, and that horrible feeling in the gut of your stomach when you know that Matt across the table, despite your trade agreement has the perfect opportunity to cripple you, and that by any reasonable measure he should take this opportunity, but you hope that maybe, just maybe he doesn’t see this chance, or that he does actually prize your in-game friendship, and later on in the game you can make it up to him in some key political vote, or–.
That feeling. That’s the heart of Twilight Imperium. I don’t know of any game that does it better. There are games that capture the same emotions, but not in the same intensity. Yes, it’s a game that takes an entire day to play. Yes, it’s overwrought and will make you wish you had purchased a larger table. And yes sometimes timing problems and bizarre card interactions require a mid-game trip to the FAQ or BoardGameGeek forums. But all of that creates a completely unique experience in boardgaming.
Think about it this way: When a player stands up 7 hours into the game and gives a rousing speech to the table about how another player has manipulated herself into a winning position in the next round, and that everyone needs to join together to stop her. When that speech references the details of a 2-page full-sheet technology tree and provides detailed examples of events that happened 4 hours ago. When, during the middle of that speech, you see the realization appear in the other players eyes, that yes, we do need to put aside our petty squabbles and join together for the good of the galaxy (and to keep any chance of winning ourselves)–it just doesn’t work in a smaller, more streamlined game.
Twilight Imperium works so well because of its size and imperfections.
A Note On Expansions
Shattered Empire is the best board game expansion I’ve ever played. I wholeheartedly recommend it, although I would not call it necessary to enjoying the game. This comes with the caveat that you look up its rulebook and house-rule two very important parts of that expansion–the Imperial II strategy card, and the tactical retreat rule. Before I owned the expansion I just wrote out the text of the Imperial II card on an index card. The tactical retreat rule just changes the rules for retreating in combat to what they should have been in the first place. As they’re written in the base game it’s extremely difficult to be in a position to retreat unless you plan for it, and why would you go into a battle planning to retreat?
That said, I wholeheartedly recommend buying the expansion. This entire game is almost like a DIY project. The base game comes with 5 optional modules, and Shattered Empire adds in over 15 more. In addition to the two mentioned above, I particularly enjoy playing with the race-specific special technologies, the extra-powerful shock troops, the wormhole planet that sits outside of the rest of the game board but has every wormhole leading to it, and artifacts, which are essentially extra victory points tied to planets that sit towards the middle of the galaxy.
Shattered Empire is pretty much a perfect expansion. It fixes problems in the base game and adds a mess of new, almost entirely modular content that does not significantly clutter the game or confuse the rules.
Fantasy Flight has also made a second expansion called Shards of the Throne. I have not gotten the opportunity to play it, though I hear that it’s a fine expansion, just not quite as good as Shattered Empire.
+Simple core mechanisms make it easier to grasp than expected
+Nearly every one of the varied aspects of the game are interesting
+Full of thematic flair that sells the universe
-Objectives are somewhat dull
-Can take a long time and is best with at least 5 players