I play more games than most and fewer games than others. Most of the new games I come across are average at best. At times I’m baffled at the popularity of games I consider nothing more than mediocre. Maybe my standards are too high or maybe that’s just a roundabout way of saying I’m cynical and jaded? I couldn’t rightly tell you as that would require an amount of introspection that my emotion-fearing self has been avoiding for much of my life. So why do I continue to seek out and play new games if I’m relatively certain that disappointment is a very likely outcome? I play new games because when I do come across a great game, a game that speaks to my sensibilities, it’s exhilarating. It worms its way into my brain, occupies my thoughts, and reminds me of why I love gaming. It’s ironic that it’s a game that was originally released in 2013 that has ignited my gaming fires.
How it Plays
Impulse is a space game that has you exploring planets, researching technologies, blasting enemies, and mining for resources. To understand the game is to understand the impulse. The impulse is central a row of up to 4 cards that dictate the actions of every player’s turn. You will activate the cards in the impulse one at a time in the order in which they were added to the impulse. Nearly every action you do in the game revolves around the cards in the impulse.
On your turn, the first thing you do is add a card from your hand to the end of the impulse. Then, you can use one of your two technologies. Every player starts with a unique technology and a shared one and using them is optional. Next you will work your way down the impulse, activating the cards to take actions. There are 10 different action cards represented on the cards that range from building ships, mining resources, researching new technologies, and more. In addition to the action, each card has a color and gem rating from 1 to 3, which I’ll get into later.
After running through the impulse, you can activate your plan which you can think of as a your own personal impulse that, once activated, will be discarded. Then you will score some points if you have ships patrolling the central sector core. And to end your turn, you will draw 2 cards and discard the last card of the impulse if there are 4 cards in it. The first player to reach 20 points immediately claims the victory.
I originally wrote off Impulse when it was released nearly 5 years ago because, well, it was ugly. (How someone who looks the way that I do can be so shallow is beyond me). It received some critical acclaim, but I couldn’t look past the poor artwork, so I continued on my merry way. And then this happened. A fan took it upon himself to give the game a graphical facelift and it was gorgeous. The reception was overwhelmingly positive and even garnered the attention of some publishers. Fast forward a couple of crowdfunding campaigns and here we have a beautifully reimagined edition of one of the best games I’ve ever played. I’ll admit, it’s not a game for everyone. It’s strange and it’s odd and it’s not immediately intuitive, but it speaks to me. Hopefully I can heap enough praise on it for you to at least give it a shot.
First and foremost I love combos. Chaining together abilities, triggers, and effects gives me a true endorphin rush. Putting together two or more abilities to further my position in the game makes me feel like the smartest person in the room and that rarely happens in my day to day life. I know intellectually that the designer painstakingly crafted and honed each individual card to create these interactions, but when I pull them off I feel like it was all my own doing, like I discovered a secret and I’m somehow getting away with it. When I’ve got a handful of cards and more cards in the impulse and on the board it’s like staring into the Matrix. Stringing together a combo is my “Whoa” moment. Let me give you an example.
Let’s say one of my opponents is encroaching on my home sector gearing up to wipe me from the map. My forces are weak and my position weaker still. It’s my turn, and I have to decide which card from my hand to add to the Impulse. I study the cards already there: Plan, Command, and Build. Planning is nice. Maybe I can add something to my personal plan in order to take a mini-turn. Command would be helpful if I had more actual ships to command around the map, but movement isn’t solely about position. Whenever you move a transport ship onto another sector, you activate that card. Did I not mention that the map is made up of the very cards you play from your hand? So maybe I’ll move over the build card so that I can immediately follow it up with the other build card in the impulse. If I throw another command card on the end, I can move my newly created fleets in for a decisive strike. Or maybe instead of building my forces to attack, I turtle up and drop a sabotage card for long range defense. There are many ways to pickle this pear.
It’s a simple example, but it illustrates what Impulse does best. It drops delicious little bread crumbs throughout the deck and asks you connect them in the way you deem best. But that’s not all Impulse does. Plenty of games offer up card and ability combos, but Impulse adds more to the equation. In the brilliant way that creator Carl Chudyk often imbues into his designs, the game plays with the notion of what you think a card game can be. Cards work as locations, actions, tableau, combat resolution, and resources. So as Impulse explores the traditional notions of exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination, it strips them down to it’s barest form and delivers on them in fascinatingly unique ways.
The game map is set up with a random layout of face-down cards from the main deck. As your transport ships move into an unexplored sector, you draw the face down card and replace it with any card from your hand (including the one you just drew). Not only does this serve as a card draw, it allows you to seed the map with actions you can repeatedly take advantage of. Sure, playing a card into the impulse guarantees you’ll be able to take advantage of it, but it also gives your opponents a chance to use it too. But if you tuck away a valuable action near your home base, now you have an action in your pocket that is very difficult for others to access. Exploration has real strategic considerations and mixes a bit of luck in the card draw with a healthy dose of control when you replace the card. The decision of when to explore and which action card to place is impactful and meaningful and the full ramifications of them are only fully understood after multiple plays. Placing a build action card might not make much sense if most of your ships are already placed. Placing an early trade action can dictate your strategy for the rest of the game. What can seem like a simple card lay ripples out throughout the game session.
The idea of territory control is fluid in Impulse. If you have a ship on or patrolling a sector, you have some notion of control over it. If an enemy moves in and takes out your ship, well, now they have control. But control isn’t as important as the notion of position. Cutting off opponents from valuable actions on the map can put a huge damper on their overall game plan. Control does come into play, however, when talking about the Core Sector. In the center of the map is the Core Sector, which awards victory points if you manage to land your transport ships on it or patrol it with your cruisers. It’s the most apparent route to victory from the game’s onset and it creates the tempo by which all players will judge their actions. You can can earn points for every ship you destroy in combat or refining minerals, but if you’re not making as much as you would by simply controlling the sector core, you’d better rethink your strategy. The Sector Core keeps things moving at a brisk pace and gives every player a point of focus that can make for some glorious space battles.
Now things get weird. Every card in Impulse has a number that can be modified. It’s called Boosting. For example, a Command card might allow you to move a fleet 1 space, but if you boost it, now you can move it 2 or 3 spaces. That’s power! The simplest way to boost a card is to land multiple transport ships on a planet, but it requires moving and can sometimes be difficult to do. If you want to boost reliably you’ll need to mine some sweet, sweet minerals. Every card, in addition to its action, has a color and gem rating from 1 to 3. If you utilize the Mine action, you’ll be able to place cards under your player board and for every 2 gems you’ve mined, you will be able to boost that color’s actions by one. If you’ve collected 4 blue gems and activate a blue Build action, you’ll be pumping out ships like there’s no tomorrow. It’s growth with real, immediate benefits. By building your mining empire, you’re relying on future big turns to propel you toward victory. But you’d better hope there’s enough time left in the game for it to pay off. It’s a precarious balancing act and one that I’m more than happy to participate in.
Space battles in Impulse are swift and brutal. It’s a winner takes all contest in which the victor claims a victory point for each ship destroyed and another for winning the battle itself. This can cause huge swings in board position as well as introducing a large influx of victory points. Combat is resolved via a mini game of War in which you reveal a number of cards off the main deck for each ship you have in combat. Each gem revealed will add to your combat total. Additionally, you can reveal cards from your hand, and if they match cards in the impulse, you’ll get additional combat strength.
I’ll be honest. I haven’t quite wrapped my head around the strategy behind combat aside from amassing a horde of ships and swarming my enemies. I can sense there is more to it than that by timing your attacks when you have the right cards in hand. Whether or not I will get comfortable with it will be proven with more time. Or maybe it won’t. The thing is, it doesn’t bother me that I don’t have a grasp of it. I’m not dismayed. Instead I am intrigued and the fact that there are so many other areas to grapple with means I can put my focus elsewhere until it clicks.
Yes, these are the 4 eX’s most people would associate with large scale, table sprawling, space epics like Twilight Imperium or even Eclipse but to describe Impulse as a 4X game would do it a disservice. It sets up expectations that the game can’t live up to. Instead take it for what it is, a combo seeking, hand management game with a fascinating action resolution system. Impulse is a game driven by the impulse. Every card you add to the line is a petard lobbed into the fray by which you can potentially be hoisted. It’s not enough to consider how a card will help you win. You have to consider also what it will do for your opponents as you will see it being leveraged against you the very next turn. Play a card to build a fleet of ships and expect your opponents to follow. Start mining some gems to get your economy going, guess who’s right behind? The decision of what card to add to the impulse has immediate and meaningful ramifications. Play your hand poorly and you may end up helping your opponents more than you help yourself.
It’s a shame that the new edition is so difficult to acquire. I only managed to get a copy because I was foolish enough to back a company with only 1 previous Kickstarter campaign, and there doesn’t appear to be any plans for a retail presence or further printings. Unfortunately, the first editions art design doesn’t live up to the ingenious game design held within the box. Maybe you’ll be able to find a copy on the secondary market, but I know for certain it won’t be my copy up for sale.