Five Beginner’s Notes on Twilight Imperium
When it comes to Twilight Imperium — which has now been around in one form or another for twenty years — I’m an absolute newcomer. Whether it was the game’s intimidating play length, my soft fingers’ inability to punch out the third edition’s bazillion plastic sprues, or my nagging ailurophobia setting my hair on end whenever I glance at the cover, it wasn’t until the last couple weeks that the brand new fourth edition caught my fancy.
But hoo boy, has it. Caught my fancy, I mean. And while I’m certainly not qualified to deliver a review on this sprawling monstrosity, what follows are a few of the things I’m delighted to have learned after only a short time in Twilight Imperium’s presence.
#1. It’s Not That Long — But It’s Still Pretty Long
Eleven hours. That’s what I’d heard (perhaps falsely, but still) about the third edition’s length. Hours on end, a whole day’s worth of the things, stacked together in a precarious heap. You could get lost in a pile of that size.
For years I’ve been arguing that we’re too quick to dismiss long games. It’s one thing to streamline a game, but another matter entirely to strip out everything that gave it breadth and crafted it into a memorable experience. Later this week, I’ll be writing about a game that would have worked a lot better if only it had been bold enough to stick around for an extra hour. Still. Maybe my hypocrisy is showing, but it was hard to conceive of even stringing together eleven uninterrupted hours, let alone spending them on a single title.
Which is why I’m happy to report that the fourth edition of Twilight Imperium does not take eleven hours to play. It doesn’t even take the more realistic projection of eight hours.
Five hours. That I can do. That’s about the average length of a Friday game night anyway.
That’s still a decent chunk of time, but the tradeoff is immense. Twilight Imperium is one of those games that needs room to breathe. Our first game alone contained tense space battles, harrowing land wars, tenuous alliances sundered by betrayals so ignoble that the bile ate at the back of my throat just to witness them. And to cap it all off, a grand final struggle against the ascendant power as she fought to summit the last inch of the throne. It was grand — I think the popular kids call it “operatic,” like they’ve ever seen an opera — and earned every last minute of its five hours. Other than the minutes Geoff spent calculating his battle odds, anyway.
#2. Gotta Manage Those Strategies and Commands
It’s hard to say what I was picturing before I learned the rules. Maybe something with silly wargame depth, where every spaceship laser needed its fuel cells intermittently topped off or you’d run out of bang-bang juice. At the very least, I figured it would be more sandboxy than it really is. For some reason, I pictured a sideboard with a stock portfolio.
In practice, the rules themselves are fairly straightforward. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to track, but we’ll talk about that in a minute. For now, the point is that most things come down to strategies and commands, and both are easy enough to come to terms with.
Let’s start with strategies. Each round, everybody drafts a single strategy card that determines the course their space-government will take for the next short while. Need to upgrade your ships? Take the Technology card. Want to spend more time moving and less time waiting? Warfare. Feeling threatened on multiple sides? Use Diplomacy to declare a system a no-go zone. Feeling the pinch of a sprawling bureaucracy? Leadership will give you a few much-needed command tokens.
Every pick is commendable in its own right, but also opens up options for your rivals. While you alone have access to a strategy card’s primary ability, each one also triggers a secondary effect that anybody can take. For example, while you’re bullying the space-senate with the Politics strategy, everyone else can optionally spend one of their strategy commands to draw some extra rule-bending action cards.
That’s if they have commands to spend, though, so let’s talk about those. Every round sees you picking up a couple commands for free, and you immediately assign them between three stations. The tactics pool are where commands go when you want to produce units, fly from one system to another, or begin a star-ruckus. There aren’t really multiple tactical options so much as one huge umbrella action that lets you fly, fight, and fabricate all in one go, provided you have the right units in place. And other than that, commands can increase the size of your fleet or sit around in your strategy pool to trigger the secondary effect of other players’ strategies.
The beauty of this system is that it condenses a whole lot of detail about governance and culture into three pools of tokens. There’s a big difference between tactical preparedness, fielding a huge fleet, and the flexibility to use anything your enemies throw at you, but they’re all handled via the same system with total ease. In short, it boasts a lot of potential for very little overhead, which is perhaps the last thing I expected from a game famed for its sprawl.
#3. Not All Factions Are Created Equal, and That’s a Good Thing
Balance is one of those things I don’t usually write about, if only because it always comes across more as whining over a defeat than a reasoned critique. The same goes for Twilight Imperium. Are the Clan of Saar more innately powerful than the Embers of Muaat? Frankly, my dear, that’s a boring question. The better question is, which would you rather command?
A lot of the fun of Twilight Imperium revolves around its huge selection of races. There are 17 to choose from, and every one of them feels largely distinct. There are the bug-people who don’t really do technology very well, but are great at fighting, and leading them to dominance requires a very different set of skills from the university dudes who can learn everything science has to offer while still losing battles. There are something like three different Borg-type races, each with a different version of assimilation, whether seizing control of buildings, stealing otherwise unique technologies, or mind-controlling infantry and using suicide ships to turn the tide of battle. One of the factions begins with a War Sun, this game’s equivalent of a Death Star, and spends much of their time bulking up its protective fleet before unleashing hell on the galaxy. There’s even a team that lives in a wormhole and pops out like a haunted house mannequin to holler boo! and brutally conquer your planets.
When you get right down to it, all these factions add a lot of depth to plumb, and there’s nothing quite like some light roleplaying during a trade settlement or senate vote to keep things lively. I’m not saying you need to speak only by swapping bodily fluids the way the Sardakk N’orr do, but behaving like a xenophobic ass because that’s what your faction would do is not only enjoyable, it’s also appropriate.
#4. The Fiddly Part Is Technology
This is the part where my preconceptions are validated, because I absolutely pictured Twilight Imperium suffering under the weight of a big mess of cards.
There are two broad types of technologies. The simpler type is the ship upgrade, which slides over your player mat and shows your ship’s improved stats. Huzzah for simplicity. Regular techs, on the other hand, provide all sorts of perks, ranging from production discounts to exterminating everybody on a planet with a biological weapon, and they’re liable to pile up. Most techs require certain prerequisites, usually from other techs but also sometimes from planets, and it’s a stroke of good fortune that it isn’t too hard to tell at a glance what you’ve already learned.
It only becomes a problem when all your various card stacks begin piling up. In addition to techs and your strategy card, you’ll have special actions — for breaking the rules at key moments — all those planets you’ve conquered, and sometimes diplomatic bonuses from making nice with your neighbors.
All in all, this isn’t a gamebreaker by any means — you’d be insane to think a game like Twilight Imperium could get away without having loads and loads of stuff — but it does take some time to figure out how to best sort it all, and abilities from researched technologies will almost certainly sometimes go forgotten. So it goes when your government spans the stars.
#5. The Path to Victory is Paved in Proactivity
For all its mountains of plastic, cardboard, and cardstock, the goal of Twilight Imperium is surprisingly simple: earn ten points. That’s it. Ten. I’ve played games that last five minutes that result in higher scores.
There are also plenty of ways to pick up points. Public objectives are revealed every round, and secret objectives keep things unpredictable and might explain why an otherwise benign neighbor keeps trying to slag your flagship.
Keep in mind, though, that the low threshold for victory means that somebody can jump up the score track mighty rapidly. You’re normally restricted to accomplishing one public and one private objective per round, but there are ways around that, and nabbing a measly three points isn’t quite so measly when you realize it’s a third of what you need to win.
The solution is simple: be proactive. Get out there. Start fights with enemies who were being nice, and seek peace with belligerents. Pursue objectives with single-minded fury. Don’t cluster around the edges like a teenage boy at the middle school homecoming. Ask that pretty redhead to dance, swap diplomacy cards and trade commodities, then atomize her dreadnoughts and conquer her industrial planets. No euphemism intended.
And that, in a nutshell, are the things I’ve learned about Twilight Imperium after just a few
short plays. It’s as bold as it is long, providing sweeping drama and crushing disappointment, chancy battles that rely on both luck and strategy, and all the trappings of a trashy sci-fi epic. It’s stellar.