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Review: Twilight Imperium (4th Edition)

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My oh my, what a journey we’ve been on.

If you’ve followed me much on this blog, or twitter, or real life, you may know that I’m a huge fan of Twilight Imperium. Despite the hefty day-long gameplay and thick rulebook, it has been one of my favorites since I picked it up 5 or 6 years ago. I’ve spent more hours playing Third Edition than any other single game (save, perhaps, Dominion, but it’s gotta be close).

So when I heard about the 4th edition release, I was thrilled. Fantasy Flight Games has come a long way since 2008, in terms of design and development skill, not to mention quality control. But a big question hangs above everything: is TI4 worth the upgrade?

How It Plays

Twilight Imperium is an epic 4x strategy game (well, technically 3x but let’s not quibble over details) wherein players compete to expand their galactic empire, conquer planets, exert their influence, and ultimately prove the worth of their people to rule the galaxy from the throne on Mecatol Rex.

in SPAAAAAACE

There are pages and pages of rules, so allow me to focus on the core tenets of the game and highlight changes from the 3rd edition.

There are two major elements that TI is built on: Strategy Cards, and Command tokens. These effectively function the same in 4th edition as 3rd.

At the beginning of each round, players select 1 Strategy card out of the 8 possible. These cards grant their owning player a valuable focus, but each other player can activate a limited version of that ability when the time comes. Leadership provides command counters, essential for managing your fleet and performing actions on the board. Diplomacy can protect a sector from aggressive action from other players. Politics lets you change who is Speaker (and thus who goes first during strategy selection and breaks ties in votes), grab some action cards, and influence which laws will be voted on in future phases. Construction builds Space Docks and PDS (useful for building more ships and defending your planets, respectively). Trade refreshes commodities, which players can exchange freely with each other (more on this later). Warfare lets you retrieve a Command token from the board, freeing up ships for additional movement. Technology is how you research new technology cards, and the Imperial strategy card lets you claim an objective early, in addition to scoring a point for controlling Mecatol Rex.

Choose your strategy wisely

These Strategy cards aren’t activated immediately; instead, they can be played as an Action during the action phase. Speaking of which…

During the Action phase, players take turns in initiative order (determined by Strategy Card) taking one action at a time. While some action cards and race abilities require an Action, most of the time players will use Command tokens to perform Tactics actions on the board. This is the 2nd major element.

To perform a Tactics action, a player takes one of their Tactics command tokens and places it on a system tile. Then that player can move any of their ships to that sector as long as they have the movement range. Space battles will be fought if two opposing fleets coexist, followed by planetary invasion (and ground combat, if necessary), and then production at Space Docks. Everything happens in the activated system.

You can’t activate a system again if it has one of your command tokens in it (hence the usefulness of the Warfare strategy card), and you also cannot move ships out of a system that has one of your command tokens in it.

Players take turns taking actions, until everyone passes. Then there is a status phase when ships and planets are refreshed and objectives can be claimed. Later in the game there will be an Agenda phase where voting takes place.

The game goes until someone has scored 10 points, at which point the game immediately ends. Points are scored primarily by claiming public and secret objectives, but there are other ways.

Now, on to what’s different in the 4th edition.

For starters, you get this cool “lore compendium” with background stories and awesome sci-fi art

The biggest sweeping change is the Agenda phase. Politics has always been a part of Twilight Imperium – not just players arguing, but an actual game mechanism that involves voting in new laws that can have pretty drastic effects. In 3rd edition, this phase happened whenever someone activated the Political strategy card. Now, the Agenda phase only happens once someone has claimed Mecatol Rex. From that point on, after the Status phase, players vote on not one, but two agendas.

Players get to refresh all their planets before and after the Agenda phase, allowing them to use all their influence in the voting process, but any votes used on the first agenda can’t be used on the second agenda. The Politics card allows you to look at the top two Agenda cards and either rearrange them or put them at the bottom of the deck (or both), giving you some advanced knowledge and influence over what’s going to come.

Trade has also been massively overhauled. Previously, using the Trade strategy card players could exchange a Trade Route card with another player. In future rounds, each player would receive Trade Goods based on the value of the card they received.

Fighters, infantry, and trade goods/commodities

Now, players have Commodities – useless to themselves, but they convert to Trade Goods when given to another player. Everyone has a limited supply of Commodities, and when Trade is activated that supply is refreshed to a maximum (not added to whatever you’ve stored), so everyone is motivated to use those commodities. You can only initiate transactions (the term for an actual exchange of goods) with players if you share a border; that is, if you have ships and/or planets in neighboring sectors. Beyond that, you can make whatever deals you wish with players.

The Trade strategy card refreshes your own commodities, but it also allows you to choose any other player(s) who can freely refresh theirs. Everyone else has to pay a Strategy command token to refresh.

Technology has been tweaked. In 3rd edition each tech card has specific prerequisites. Now, the tech cards require a certain number of symbols from their branch of technology. Planetary tech specializations, rather than providing a cost discount, satisfy one tech symbol for a prerequisite. Unit upgrade cards require a mix of colors (unlike normal tech) and do not provide additional tech symbols for future research.

Beyond that, there are a number of small tweaks scattered throughout the game. Some familiar cards have new abilities, and there are new tech cards and action cards coming into play. Mecatol Rex, rather than the combat-oriented Custodians of the 3rd Edition expansion, requires 6 influence to claim the first time, and also awards a point for doing so. Retreating from battle is easier. Space Docks and PDS are no longer built during the Production phase, instead using the Construction strategy card.

Promissory notes, which were introduced in the Shards of the Throne expansion as a tool in the political phase, are back in a much broader way. Each player has 4 common cards and 1 racial card, and these can now be exchanged for any reason, not just votes. These cards give another player a specific advantage (usually against yourself).

Time for a tech upgrade

The Dawn of a New Empire

Do you need to upgrade Twilight Imperium from the 3rd edition to the 4th edition if you have it, know it, love it? Probably not. I mean, need is a strong word.

Is it worth it? Almost definitely.

If you’ve never played Twilight Imperium, but the concept interests you and the game length (approximately 1.5 hrs per player) doesn’t run your interest aground? This is it, man. It’s time to jump in.

This War Sun is coming for you if you don’t

I mentioned above that Twilight Imperium was one of my favorite games. That was before. This is now, and now, Twilight Imperium 4th edition is my favorite board game of all time, bar none. The changes made serve to streamline complexities and enhance interaction between players, while retaining the core gameplay elements that made the game what it is. In short: this is still Twilight Imperium, and it’s a much better Twilight Imperium.

The graphic design updates alone make a significant impact on the game. Putting unit stats in card-sized blocks on the race sheets was a fantastic move. Not only is the information clearly laid out in a readable way, but your unit upgrade cards just slap right over the top, updating the stats and abilities as necessary. Easy-to-forget rules like Space Dock production limits are now printed right there on your sheet.

So much tech upgrade goodness

Creating separate player-color attachments for all your command tokens was another stroke of genius. In fact, before our first game of 4th edition, a friend of mine was saying how he always tried to pick a color that matched his race sheet, because it’s easy to look down at your sheet and think you’re a different color. Adding the player color to the race sheet eliminated that confusion for him. It’s nice that you can slide the rules aid section out of view to save space, although overall the race sheet does take up more space.

Many of the changes are a massive boon to teaching and learning the game elements. For example, 3rd Edition had Command Counters separated into 3 pools: Command (for Tactics actions), Fleet Supply, and Strategy. How many times did I have to re-explain to people that they had to spend command counters from the Strategy pool for secondary Strategic actions, and command counters from the command pool for tactics actions? A lot. So many times. Now that “Command” section has been changed to “Tactics” (You know, for Tactics actions) and the confusion is eliminated.

The complete race sheet setup

Setup is simpler, thanks to color coding on the back of system tiles. Everyone gets 4 planet tiles and 2 special tiles and you take turns placing them on the board. Much less time spent collecting and shuffling the appropriate number of system tiles and dealing them out, and no rules about alternating planet and special tiles. It’s stuff like this that just gets the game going quicker and smoother with fewer questions to start things out.

Technology is so much nicer to deal with. You can easily figure out which technologies are the most powerful, and exactly how to get them. No more following a chain of prerequisites back to figure out what you’re missing, or trying to figure out the absurd tech trees.

The unique race tech cards are pretty awesome too

Even building Space Docks and PDS have been simplified by putting them on a Strategy card.

Then you get to the big rules changes. Trade is huge. I mean, huge. In 3rd edition, it was always kind of this passive thing. Trade cards would get traded around as soon as possible and basically be set from there. The races that were supposed to be good at trade would essentially get the short end of the stick, giving away their very valuable trade cards (offering 2 or 3 trade goods) for much less – but what could you do? With the new Commodities system, that same player now has a lot more power when it comes to trading, able to make more deals each round or outbid someone else for a deal.

Anyway, we had so much trading and dealing going on, it was wonderful. There’s no reason to hold on to your commodities, so every round players are trying to figure out what they can pay someone else to do for them. We had players paying someone for a planet, paying someone not to fight them, paying someone to fight someone else, paying someone for a promissory note, trading commodities for trade goods so you can afford that dreadnought… It all creates a dynamic interplay that is so quintessentially Twilight Imperium it makes my heart pound just thinking about it.

Promissory notes are oh so useful… but oh so dangerous

The new Agenda phase is a blast. It’s just like the old Political phase, but better. Used to be, the player with the Politics card would try to hold off on activating it until people had spent their planets; when the political card was drawn, there’d be some arguing and cajoling but often one player had enough votes to outdo everyone else combined. Allowing everyone to refresh their votes ahead of the phase ensures everyone can participate, and one player rarely has enough to outright control the outcome.

Compounding this in a good way, you vote on two agendas in a row instead of one, and spend your votes when you use them. That adds a heck of a lot of weight to every vote you choose to spend. Even if one player can outvote everyone on one agenda, they must choose – do they lock down the first card in the way they desire, or save some votes for the next round? This also makes using the Political Strategy card invaluable, because if you know what’s coming you might know to save your votes (or that the second vote isn’t as big of a deal).

What laws shall we make today?

Speaking of invaluable strategy cards… every strategy card in this game is now invaluable. In 3rd edition – depending on the expansion – things weren’t particularly broken, but some cards were definitely more powerful than others. Warfare II was pretty useless early on, and Politics wasn’t generally the most desired. While Leadership, Trade, and Technology are still popular, every Strategy card seems incredibly useful. Almost every turn I had to give some serious thought to what would serve me best, because 3 or 4 options would still be good even if I was last to choose.

Another smart update can be found in Objectives. Setup is simplified by removing the Imperium Rex card. There are 5 stage I (1 point) objectives and 5 Stage II (2 point) objectives in each game. The game no starts with 2 objectives revealed, which immediately gives a direction to the players. Most of the time the biggest challenge, especially for new players, is remembering to go for points instead of just building your space empire. Having some idea where to go right from the start aids in this aspect of learning. The game still ends when someone reaches 10 points, but it also ends if there are no more Objective cards to reveal – so, after 8 rounds.

Secret objectives have been revamped in a great way, too. Everyone starts with 1 as usual, but you get to pick between 2 at the start of the game. You can also gain more secret objectives throughout the game thanks to the Imperial strategy card (and other things, like action cards). If you get stuck with one that is impossible for you to complete, you can eventually swap it out for a new one, and you’re allowed to possess up to 3 (including completed ones).

You gotta put in the time

To wrap up my talks about mechanics, there is one very small change, one hardly even mentioned in the marketing (if at all), that actually had a huge impact on the overall game, and that is the Retreats rule.

In 3rd edition, Retreating from combat was nigh-on impossible. You had to have an adjacent sector that you controlled that already had one of your command counters there – which means you couldn’t even retreat to the sector you came from. As a result, retreating never happened. In a later expansion, a variant was added wherein you could spend a strategy token to mark a sector and then retreat there, but that’s a hefty price to pay when you’re not even sure your ships will survive the encounter. Mostly people just saved their strategy tokens for strategy cards.

Now you can retreat into any adjacent sector you control – and you mark that sector with a token from your reinforcements, not any of your token pools. Let me tell you, we had a lot of retreating going on in the game, and it messes with things. Fleets I was assured of wiping out instead retreated, half-intact. Players consolidated their front lines. I once bought a planet from another player and rather than have him use up a precious Tactics token to move his ships, I flew in, he retreated. Instead of scrambling to rebuilt fleets from scratch, players were sending in reinforcements. It made for some very interesting, sticky situations, and I liked it.

Tasty, tasty ships

Playing Twilight Imperium 4th edition was one of the best gaming experiences of my life. Now, it’s not perfect – there are a few misprints, like the technology card that let’s players “take 2 command tokens in the Status phase instead of 1” when it should say “take 3 command tokens in the Status phase instead of 2” or, even better, “take 1 additional command token in the Status phase.” There’s already a forum post on FFG’s website with a list of situations that lack clarifications in the rulebook, but for a game this massive that kind of thing is bound to happen. I haven’t looked at every single action card or studied the technology boosts or racial powers, so I can’t say with certainty that anything is over or under-powered. From what I’ve seen nothing is obviously off course, and every race I’ve seen played has it’s own uniqueness and flavor and power that can be utilized. Twilight Imperium can never truly be balanced perfectly anyhow, given the level of social interaction at play.

I know some players will not be eager to drop the $150 if they already have 3rd edition. In my mind, 3rd edition was complete. It was already bloated with options and expansion material with all kinds of rules conflicts and confusion, and components from the base game outdated. What the game needed was a revamp, something that could clean up all the rules and make things… better. Perhaps an expansion could have re-written things, but it would still have to negate a lot of the earlier content in order to clean things up.

Cannons away!

A 4th edition is like a clean slate. It’s so much easier to teach, and the new rulebooks (the now classic learn-to-play and rules-reference booklets separate) are much better references. The updated graphic design just makes the game easier to play. The new rules enhance everything that makes the game fun. Yeah, it sucks if you just recently bought the 3rd edition, but that doesn’t mean the 4th edition is a bad choice, and it’s a much better starting place. And, it includes some of the best stuff from 3rd edition expansions; the full set of races, capital ships, race technology, promissory notes, the better Strategy card variants. The plastic ships are so high quality, and very intelligently designed with unique silhouettes when looking down at them from above.

And I did some math. My first game of 4th edition lasted about 7 hours, with 5 players. At $150, that’s $30 per player, and about $4.20 per player per hour for some of the best fun I’ve had in my life. I plan to spend a lot more time with this wonderful universe.

And that’s what makes Twilight Imperium Twilight Imperium. It calls to you, it begs you to return to its colorful stars, to live the epicness again and again. Each time you play it’s like its own Star Wars trilogy, with the rise and fall of massive empires in a sweeping tale of glory. Planets will be won and lost, alliances declared, Mecatol Rex conquered, and victory claimed. There’s nothing like it, and Twilight Imperium: 4th Edition elevates the game to the next level. It’s time to get started.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Fantasy Flight Games and Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of Twilight Imperium: 4th Edition.

Bonus photo: this box is absurdly huge
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Summary

Pros

Fixes, streamlines, and eradicates much of the clumsiness from 3rd edition
Retains the core, highly interactive gameplay
Fantastic components and art
Includes all 17 races from the the 3rd edition core game and expansions, plus a lot of the best content
New updated rules like trade and politics enhance the gameplay to infinity
Graphic design is incredibly user friendly

Cons

At least one card misprinted

10.0 Perfect

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

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