“I feel as if the galaxy is waking. As if an ancient beast stirs from slumber in a dark cave. The day will soon come when a new empire will rise. For the sake of all, may the new emperor not only have the power to seize the throne, but the strength to conquer the peace. If not, I fear that a sea of desolation will drown us all.”
These dramatic words conclude the ancient tale behind the universe of Twilight Imperium and prepare players to launch into their own epic tale. Thousands of years of darkness and chaos followed the fall of the once great Lazax, the ruling race of an ancient galactic empire that has been all but completely lost. Now, alien races who have stayed hidden and patient as they licked their wounds and repaired their own worlds are starting to expand. Some of these races were once part of the great empire, others have only recently made themselves known, but it doesn’t matter where they come from. It only matters where they’re going; to Mecatol Rex, the center of the ancient empire, the home to the galactic council, and the seat of power in the galaxy.
Will anyone be strong enough to take charge, rebuild the empire, and rule the galaxy?
[Ed. Note: Some photos contained in this review show elements of expansions to the core game of Twilight Imperium. Everything mentioned in the review, however, is only from the core game.]
How It Plays
Twilight Imperium is an incredibly complex and multilayered game with a lot of freedom to do what you want, however you want to do it. It is a 4x space game–a game in which you start out with a fledgling empire and then explore the galaxy, expand your rule, exploit planetary resources, and exterminate your enemies in deadly combat. It’s a lot more than that, however, but I’ll try to avoid giving too many details and just give you a brief overview of the flow of the game and the major elements.
The goal of the game is to reach 10 points. These points are generally earned by completing objectives, which are revealed slowly throughout the course of the game. These objectives generally involve things such as researching a certain amount of technology, spending a significant chunk of resources, controlling a certain number of planets, and controlling Mecatol Rex.
The game is broken into rounds, generally with a maximum of ten rounds. Each round has three phases: Strategy, Action, and Status.
In the Strategy phase, players take turns choosing one of eight “strategy” cards–this is essentially role-selection. If you’ve played Puerto Rico, you would immediately recognize the mechanism. Each strategy card has a primary ability for the player who claims it and a secondary ability the other players can use. These strategy cards activate a number of different activities, from allowing players to establish trade routes with each other, to getting extra resources and time to build units, to researching new technology, and even engaging in political votes that can add new laws and abilities into the game.
The core of the game’s activity happens during the Action phase. Players take turns performing one action at a time. Actions primarily involve moving ships from one place to another. However, players will also spend actions to activate their strategy cards, play action cards from their hands, and utilize racial powers and abilities.
The “tactical” action allows players to activate one system (a single hex tile on the board). Ships in range can move to this system, fight any enemies there, invade or land on any planets, and build new units. Combat is generally a back-and-forth dice fest until one player retreats or one side’s ships are completely eliminated. Ships range from tiny fighters to cruisers to dreadnoughts to the deadly and fearful War Suns.
The core system of managing actions on the board is through use of Command counters. Each round, players receive a few Command counters that can be assigned to three areas on their race sheet. Players can allocate their counters however they wish (and can earn extra command counters in other ways, such as the use of the Logistics strategy card), but each area has a different purpose. Command counters from the Command allocation area are used to activate systems on the board for the aforementioned Tactical action. These counters also serve to mark the systems that have been activated (each system can only be activated once). Command counters in the Fleet supply area limit the number of ships a player can have in a single system at once time. And counters in the Strategy allocation area are used to activate secondary abilities of those strategy cards–unlike Puerto Rico, players generally do not automatically get to use the secondary ability of a strategy card.
In the Status phase, players can claim one objective, repair their damaged ships, and refresh exhausted planets. (Planets are exhausted to use the resources they produce).
As mentioned earlier, players have the ability to research new technologies to enhance their military, economic, and research abilities. They can establish trade routes with other players to produce extra resources (which, incidentally, can be exchanged freely as bribes). They can call sessions of the galactic council wherein players vote for or against new laws that can change conditions of the game, or even elect players to certain political roles that gave give that player an extra benefit.
A few optional expansion variants are included the box. “Domain counters” add random conditions to unclaimed planets that could be deadly (such as wiping out all landing ground forces) or beneficial (such as offering free ships). Leaders give each player three leaders with special bonuses, but leaders can be captured by enemies and either killed, or ransomed back, or returned as part of a peace treaty. “Long War” options suggest playing to 14 points instead of 10, and “Age of Empire” puts all Objective cards face-up at the start of the game instead of revealing them one at a time. Finally, rules for sabotage runs allow fighters to make suicide attempts to destroy an enemy War Sun before a battle starts.
The game ends immediately when a player scores their tenth point, or when the “Imperium Rex” objective card is revealed (which can happen any time between rounds seven and ten).
The Rise And Fall of the Empire
Twilight Imperium is an enigma to many gamers. Clocking in at around eight hours minimum, many wonder how any game could possibly deserve that much attention all in one go. Certainly adding to this is the bewildering number of rules. Perhaps even more confusing is the sheer wave of dedication many gamers put toward this wonderful, immense, terrifying game.
The game is perhaps the most epic of all epic games, signaled in no small part by the dramatic introductory fiction compounded with detailed origin stories for each playable race. The first mistake a non-player tends to make is in thinking that Twilight Imperium is a war game, but this is far from it. While you can indeed make war, the combat element of the game is far from central. Instead, this is about truly unraveling a galactic tale of intrigue, betrayal, politics, and, yes, war.
By no means is this the most streamlined ruleset of all time. This is actually the third edition of the game. Fantasy Flight Games went from a mediocre comics publisher to one of the biggest players in the board game industry starting out with Twilight Imperium, but this edition is the culmination of years of production, listening to feedback, learning and growing in the world of board games. The latest edition is certainly the most refined, but this doesn’t mean all the dozens of little tiny bits you need to remember have been squirreled away. In fact, in many places the rules are downright clunky, and there are a number of small details that everyone always forgets during the game and remembers afterward, because there are just so many rules and it is so hard to remember these little details when you are focused on just keeping your neighbors at bay just a little while longer.
So, while Twilight Imperium may be somewhat of a clunky, horrendous rule contraption compared to, say, the well-oiled machine that is Eclipse, the game borne out of these rules is something particularly special. I like to describe the game as filled with life, because that’s what it is. Every game played is a wild and untamable creature, a living and breathing organism that carries the players through trial and tribulation, through fire and water, and at game end you feel like you’ve been a part of something amazing. It’s a game that is far more than the sum of its rules, a game that is a fantastic experience.
Yes, there is a lot to chew on but the core of the gameplay is absolutely masterful. In a note at the end of the rulebook, the designer admits to seeing excellent, mechanically streamlined euros sprout up and drawing upon their influence to take a great game and make it better. The command counter system is brilliantly executed. While many similar styled games, and war-games especially, have players take their entire turn, move all of their units, build all of their builds, and all of this at once making for long stays between turns waiting for the other players, command counters in Twilight Imperium make for a much more dynamic, tense system of play. You cannot execute all of your plans at once; the pieces on the map will change fluidly as a round moves forward. One move at a time is all you get, and your command counters are not unlimited. This system also serves brilliantly to mark “used” systems and ships, allowing for the more rotational dynamic yet preventing players from overwhelming a particular system or skipping their fleets across the galaxy. This system inherently forces a logistical element to gameplay as well; every action you take is an action you can’t use again, since you only regain a limited number of counters at the end of each round. You’ll need to plan carefully and manage your resources, often spending your planetary Influence to gain more actions. You can’t just fly around willy-nilly, and there will be many very tense moments as you see your command supply dwindle and yet there is a lot more you want to accomplish. The fact that your counters must be split between tactical action, fleet logistics, and valuable secondary strategy counters just adds to the tension.
The strategy cards fortify the dynamic nature of the game by bringing in a number of extra phases – the establishment of trade routes, the researching of technology, the galactic council’s political agendas – with well defined rules but dynamic and unpredictable activations. No strategy card is played at a dictated moment, other than it must happen before the end of the action phase. Players must weigh the benefits of playing their strategy card immediately to gain the benefits early and have room to maneuver, or to draw it out in hopes that other players will expend their resources and get little benefit. These extra phases could be tedious steps to perform every turn, but instead they fit in neatly as part of the game play and it is a whole lot of fun.
I know I can go on and on about this game, so I’ll try to cut myself a little short, but I want to finish off with what really sells this game for me. I mentioned in passing, above, the political phase, the technology phase, trade routes, and the fact that this is not a war-game. Sure, you’ve got dudes-on-a-map as Jason likes to call it, but the key thing here is that you can win a game of Twilight Imperium without ever engaging another player directly in combat. Most of the objectives are about spending resources (which means both building up your resources through expansion and trade, and managing them well enough to have a sustainable empire that can afford to blow the resources needed to score the points) or having certain sets of technology. Combat is not required, but most importantly, the game does not FORCE players into combat. In fact, getting into war with another player is rather costly and can be devastating, even if you win, because it drains your resources. Fortunately, the game gives you the tools to work with other players outside of combat. You can bribe and negotiate; offer concessions; make war pacts, or just nonaggression treaties. This is all “meta” – there are no rules for making a treaty with another player, you just agree to make one because the game creates a world in which it makes sense to do such things to survive. You do not WANT to engage in war, but you do want to look tough enough so that others will not see you as weak and try to invade you. It creates a sense of realism, of caution, that players cannot and do not just attack each other on a whim; if you start invading you better have a plan or a purpose. In the meantime, success is more about planning well, about expanding, claiming planets and holding them, and looking at the objectives that come up so you can focus your attention on accomplishing those goals. It’s a brilliant system that encourages player interaction. Fortunately, the system also does not reward players teaming up against one other player; it is nearly impossible to coordinate attacks since two players cannot coexist in the same system without engaging in combat, and fleets that engage in combat will likely both be heavily weakened at the end.
Interestingly, combat is exclusively dice-based. Different units have different chances of success, and technology advances can improve your odds, but its still the luck of the dice that determines the outcome. While pure dice combat isn’t my favorite (I like to have some ability to gain a strategic advantage), it actually fits perfectly in this context. As a player you are less of a fleet commander and more of a commander-in-chief; you’ve got to worry about your whole empire, and when you send your fleets into battle you rely on your commanders and soldiers to fight effectively. The dice represent that they won’t always do that.
As I mentioned above, Twilight Imperium does have a lot of rules, far more than many will be comfortable with. Despite the fact that the third edition incorporates Euro-style elements, such as the role selection and the action management system, this is far from any sort of Euro game. Even as a fan of so-called Ameritrash games (I prefer the term ‘thematic,’ but Ameritrash is the vogue) there are a lot of minor details that I always forget or that slip out of my mind because they are so rarely used (but still, rather useful). I have spent hours outside of the game finding, printing, and even creating player aides to help with the details. Some elements are a little clunky. In such a huge game, that is bound to happen.
The part of the game that is most at odds with the otherwise excellent quality of just playing the game, though, is the implementation of the Imperial strategy card. Strategy #8, “Imperial,” does 2 things; it reveals 1 Objective card, which is useful but not a particularly individualized benefit, and it gives the activating player 2 points. Straight up, just 2 points. For doing nothing. You don’t even need to be controlling Mecatol Rex to claim these points. You just get them if you pick Strategy #8.
I did some research and dug into this to see what others thought, because to me this is a huge disconnect between gameplay and scoring points. The only thing you need to do to score 2 points – out of 10 points needed to win – is be the first to choose your Strategy card. That is a significant chunk of points that is not tied to anything else going on in the game. The designer’s response to questions about this strategy card is that it is designed one, to keep players choosing the card and revealing Objectives, and two to create a more predictable flow of strategy card choices. Obviously any player will choose the 2 points whenever it is available; to do so they must set themselves up in the previous round by claiming #1, Initiative, which is simply first in turn order. The nature of this would cause #8 and #1 to essentially pass around the circle of players while freeing up other strategy cards to be used more evenly. This makes sense, but I (and many other gamers) still don’t like the disconnect between scoring 20% of your points and, you know, actually playing the game. Fortunately, Fantasy Flight Games seems to listen to their fans at least a little bit, and they released an official variant to Strategy #8 which gives 1 point if you control Mecatol Rex and then allows you to score any number of objectives immediately, rather than the 1 objective at the end of the round. This is a much preferable option, later released as in the Shattered Empires expansion as a token, but I still count it for the base game since an official variant was released for free online.
I’ll wrap this review up by mentioning the components. The artwork in this game is top notch, with beautifully detailed and unique alien races, artfully depicted planets and space tiles, and strong graphic design. Cardboard is thick and durable and, oh yes, you get dozens and dozens of detailed miniature starships. All of the pieces jive perfectly to enhance the feel of the game by making it look, simply, cool.
In summary, Twilight Imperium is a huge game in a huge box. It’s got more rules than you know what to do with and more time to play than you have to give. But it is a brilliant galactic simulation that lets you build your empire and interact with the rest of the galaxy on more than just the battlefield. If you love thematic games and you have the time to spare, Twilight Imperium is worth every minute of playtime. The detail and life that goes into the game filled the hours with excitement and tension and despite the game length I have often found at the end of a game that I wish i could play more, just a bit longer, just one more goal to accomplish. It’s not a perfect game, and in many ways it is mechanically clunky, but it is a brilliant, wonderful game that is a ton of fun to play.