When we talk about “roll-and-writes,” the genre that’s going through a minor renaissance, we’re really talking about two slightly different things. Roll-and-writes, in which you roll dice, and flip-and-writes, in which you flip a card. Generally, both see everybody at the table using those identical inputs on their own board. It’s easy to see the appeal. The action is simultaneous, fast-playing, and highlights why “input luck” doesn’t feel unfair the way “output luck” does. Here’s a random number: put it to good use. (Unlike output luck, which says, Take your action: now here’s the roll to determine its outcome.) As a bonus, everybody gets the same number.
The biggest distinction between the two has everything to do with how that random input is curated. In a roll-and-write, you’re using dice. There’s more wiggle room to its randomness. In theory, an entire game could pass without a certain roll ever appearing. In a flip-and-write, drawing from a deck means you’ll eventually see a selection of possibilities. That’s less randomness, but more predictability. Yes, that can be a weakness. Neither system is inherently better than the other; they just have different ideas about how to best generate their inputs.
James Kniffen’s Twilight Inscription is both a roll-and-write and a flip-and-write. On one level, that isn’t surprising; it’s an adaptation of Twilight Imperium, that famously gargantuan game of stellar conquest. On another, it creatures a leviathan of its own, one that’s spread across four interconnected games.
Before we get into Twilight Inscription’s four boards, let’s very briefly examine its inputs.
Every round begins with a flipped card. Sometimes these flips stand on their own. Four times per game, a card will trigger a war with your neighbors. Three times, your industry board will generate trade goods. Also three times, another card will be flipped and everybody will vote on one of two outcomes. When one of these cards appears, the result is almost perfunctory. Such events are about resolving what’s come before, not about laying groundwork.
More often, the flipped card is a strategy card. These are the groundwork, and they’re where the meat of Twilight Inscription is found. Every strategy card shows one to three icons, basic resources that everybody spends alike. To do so, you select one of your four boards. That board is now active. You spend your resources on that board and that board alone. When everybody is done, you roll a handful of dice. This is a second shared input. Like before, you’re tied to a single board — except this time, you’re stuck investing these random resources on the board you chose earlier in the round.
It’s a peculiar system at first, breaking every strategy card into two distinct halves, but it takes all of ten minutes before it settles into a natural (if always slightly jerky) rhythm. It also upgrades the roll into both input and output at the same time. The deck is curated — so carefully curated, in fact, that it’s not only broken into five distinct eras, but also alternated between blue and black card backs, designed to prevent any of those warfare, economic, or voting events from appearing without a strategy card in-between. By contrast, the dice are only rolled after you’ve chosen which board you’ll invest their resources into. There aren’t many situations where you won’t be able to use a roll in some fashion, but it’s still possible to suffer through a dummy turn when the dice don’t cough up something immediately useful.
By combining both roll- and flip-, Kniffen does something noteworthy. Every turn offers both a sure thing (from the flip) and a minor guessing game (from the roll). It pulls your headspace in two directions at once, only to find that they complement nicely. There’s some soft buyer’s remorse at play. When you choose a board for the sure resources provided by the card, there’s always the off-chance that the roll won’t prove as useful as you’d prefer. Or conversely, that you’ll get exactly the roll you needed on another board. The tradeoff is that it’s borderline overwhelming, with so many boards, icons, and special effects that it threatens to bully newcomers into surrender before they realize it’s really a teddy bear.
Which brings us to those four boards. Let’s look at them exactly the same way they’re best taught: one by one.
Game #1: Navigation
I like teaching Navigation first. Mostly because it does exactly what it looks like. Chances are you’ve played a game like this before — not necessarily in the same format, but a game about tracing lines between planets or other destinations. It’s a simple game. Depending on your resources, you either draw lines from one place to another, gradually linking explored systems, or you circle a system you’ve already explored. This latter option earns a system’s printed bonus. Easy.
Well, not entirely easy. The Navigation board also introduces a truism that will apply to every one of Twilight Inscription’s multitude of icons. If its circle is dotted, you gain that reward immediately. If it’s dashed, you hold onto it until you decide to spend it later. Inevitably, this is a rule that bears repeating multiple times.
There are also a few icons that are particular to Navigation. There’s Mecatol Rex, the planet everybody in the Twilight universe has decided they care very much about occupying. Reaching it first awards a few extra points and votes. More on those later. There are special planets that help with warfare against your neighbors, a couple that allow you to draw a special artifact card for a one-time bonus, and quite a few that grant commodities, another trio of color-coded icons that aren’t the same as the color-coded icons for your basic resources, and definitely aren’t the same as the color-coded icons for the advanced resources. Neither of these are of immediate importance to Navigation.
Incidentally, this highlights the hurdle with learning Twilight Inscription. From a certain perspective, every board game is an exercise in learning a new language. That language may include verbs (the actions you take), nouns (icons and symbols), and adjectives (measures of intensity such as auctions or combat strengths). The immediate issue here is that there are so many nouns, many of them specialized, some of which don’t have obvious applications until we reach the third or fourth board. It’s a step below the iconographic broadside of Bios: Origins, but not an especially deep step.
Still, Navigation is straightforward enough, like a dissected version of The Guild of Merchant Explorers. Every board includes two optional technologies you can unlock; both options here are intuitive fits, letting empires skip between wormholes or gobble up minor planets for free. You might even begin to believe that Twilight Inscription will be easy to learn after all.
Game #2: Expansion
One of the most common icons on the Navigation board is the planet. What does a stellar empire want a planet for? Nothing other than Expansion, of course.
Right away, the Expansion board is harder to parse than Navigation. For one thing, it’s largely dependent on an icon it can’t provide for itself. When teaching, this is a useful segue to the notion that you can spend icons from anywhere even though you’re only allowed to add new marks to your active board. In this case, the planets you earned on Navigation are spent to unlock the grids of Expansion. Resources are then spent to earn rewards in those planets’ rows and columns.
The result isn’t exactly a difficult game conceptually. The issue is that Expansion hits its players with so much information up front. It’s a question of investment. Reaching a handful of planets is easy; choosing which one to unlock means potentially trapping yourself on a planet that won’t yield the stuff you need long-term. There are commodities again — don’t worry, we still haven’t talked about what they’re for — and population, which is how you run up Expansion’s score. But you’re also asked to consider votes, special resources, and extra dice, often in peculiar combinations since most are spread out across those planets. It’s a lot to take in even for seasoned players.
Here’s the big one: extra dice. Normally you’re only allowed to use the three gray dice, but they’re joined by three more that can be unlocked for bonus resources. The trick is that these are severely limited. When you unlock, say, a pink die, it guarantees extra materials — the pink basic resource — but only on one board of your choosing. It’s a tough investment because it’s both considerable and limited.
Oh, Expansion is also a little tougher because one of its techs, Self-Assembly Routines, asks players to make a sacrifice. Once researched, you can sacrifice an asset — one of the icons you earn by crossing out a row or column of resources — in order to mark off a couple of resources there. You’re lowering the cap on how much that planet can produce in order to produce faster. That’s a smart trade-off for a game about rapacious stellar empires! It’s a great deal, too, especially since you’re very unlikely to mark off all those resource requirements.
On the whole, though, Expansion is the thinnest of Twilight Inscription’s four boards. It bombards players up-front with information, locks them into their decisions, but doesn’t ask much of their per-play strategy beyond that. It’s an important board to visit, spilling out bonuses for every other board, but tends to be the least engaging destination. Like an office park instead of an exotic starport.
Game #3: Industry
Here’s the thing I’ve discovered about Industry: it’s the one that’ll make a newcomer’s eyes glass over. Also, it’s the strongest board of the four. Also also, it highlights a significant problem with Twilight Inscription’s probable marching orders in adapting Twilight Imperium.
The core system of Industry is its array of commodities. Like Navigation, resources exist to allow the player to make different types of marks. There are two: trashes, which X out an icon but spread your ability to mark other icons, and claims, which circle the icon and award its asset. The problem is that claims can only be placed next to trashed icons, while trashes can be placed next to any mark. In short, to expand your industry you’ll need to make sacrifices. Lots of sacrifices.
Even more than Expansion, Industry reads like a coherent expression of a galactic empire’s specialized economy. Every pip of income, usually in the form of commodities, is built on the shoulders of something else that will never be claimed. Speaking of commodities — finally — they’re marked on the bottom portion of the board. These gather points if enough are accumulated. More importantly, finishing columns of commodities will award trade goods three times per game with the appearance of the deck’s production events. Trade goods can be saved for points, but that’s only if you leave them as a pity prize. They’re far more effective as wild resources. Crud, as wilds they’re sometimes game-breaking, letting you evade the downsides, limitations, and trade-offs of all three boards altogether.
But only if you gather enough of the things. Which, again, is where Industry excels, even though the necessary commodities can also be gleaned from Navigation and Expansion. This is the source of the game’s biggest gaps between inexperienced and veteran scores. Industry is easy to neglect because its returns are distant, but it’s also the board that keeps on giving.
Most of it, anyway. Like trade goods, it also contains a track that slowly increases your pool of available votes. Thrice per game, a council event flips from the deck. When that happens, the entire table holds a blind vote for which of two options will go into effect.
Of course, this has been faithfully lifted straight from Twilight Imperium’s formidable armory. Too bad it fizzles mid-flight. Of everything in Twilight Inscription, this is the closest to a vestigial organ. You will vote in Twilight Inscription because Twilight Imperium had voting. The process is often awkward. Council effects are wordy enough that everybody needs to have the card not only read but spelled out, maybe even passed around, and in many cases the vote won’t matter to most of the table anyway. Unlike trade goods, votes aren’t worth anything at the end of the game. I suspect that’s deliberate, a means to encourage players to spend the things rather than let them go to waste, which speaks volumes of how little value they actually hold.
Honestly, it’s a pity. Twilight Inscription strikes out in many directions, but its diplomatic options are so obviously an afterthought, an inclusion for inclusion’s sake, not a muscle you’re ever meant to flex, limited to a track on the Industry board when it could have been shoehorned into any spare corner. Yes, votes were also a part of the original game. But so were uncomfortable alliances and tense borders and fickle allies. Those are the most conspicuous casualty of this adaptation — a curious omission, given the disclaimer in the front of the rulebook about the game’s parallels to real-world colonialism. It’s a minor thing, but it never lets the real focus stray far from thought. I’m speaking, of course, about the serious business of hull armor and missiles.
Game #4: Warfare
After Expansion and Industry, Warfare is downright legible. The idea is that you’re always preparing for the next war, but only against the neighbors to your left and right. By investing resources, you build ships by drawing them onto a grid. It’s possible to pick up a few extra points or population along the way, but the real meat of Warfare is the contest between neighbors itself. Whichever side has invested more pips on its grid earns a reward; the loser marks the space that subtracts points at the end of the game.
To some degree the entire thing is a false front. Bigger ships are more powerful, but only because they fill more pips, not because they’re inherently tougher or anything like that. Every ship’s strength-to-size ratio is identical, one point per marked pip, and although there are occasional blips to draw around and the aforementioned bonuses to pick up, one gets the sense that this could have been streamlined down to raw numerals.
I’m glad it wasn’t. Despite the flimsiness of its spatial puzzle, Warfare represents Twilight Inscription at its most, well, roll-and-write-y. On every other board, you’re keeping books. On Warfare, you’re making tactical decisions. Minor tactics, but still. You can, for instance, draw a War Sun so that one of its wings (do War Suns have wings?) spills over the border between one flank and the next, splitting its combat value across two theaters. Or you could draw a Cruiser so it peeks above the current war’s line to contribute the bulk of its strength to the war after that. The techs lean into this tactical space. Fleet Logistics awards a +3 in battle, but only if you’ve deployed two non-infantry units into that flank of the war, turning a big investment into a honking big investment. Transit Diodes lets you place free infantry, but in a decidedly supporting role. The decisions are crisp because the visuals are legible. In fact, this is probably where the game best justifies its bright orange markers. They’re signals on the HUD of a capital ship, letting you estimate a neighbor’s investment in the upcoming fight at a glance.
Put all this together and what do you get? The current reigning champ if “big” is the benchmark. Everything about Twilight Inscription is big. Its Rosetta Stone reference cards. Its chunky dice. Its deck of events. Its table footprint. I haven’t yet played it at the maximum count of eight players, but I don’t believe I have the room.
But it’s an odd duck for a roll-and-write, a mechanical genre that has hitherto trended toward the brisk. Turns in Twilight Inscription can be quick, but they bulge outward as the game progresses. Once players start adding extra dice, accumulating trade goods, and spending resources from non-active boards, it isn’t uncommon for the entire group to wait around for those whose logistics vessels apparently travel at sublight velocities.
Its more serious offense is its emphasis on optimization over everything else. Where its first plays are fumbling thanks to its wealth of boards and icons, later plays become merciless exercises in cutting cruft and apportioning bonuses, and these are exercises with preferred solutions at that. Choosing which board to use an extra die on, for example, isn’t a matter of preference; it’s a matter of which resources are most useful in which sector of your empire, which is pretty much identical because it’s based on generic boards rather than on how your faction might prefer to fold their laundry. This isn’t a complaint that it’s not balanced, although it most certainly isn’t, especially when it comes to the various factions. Rather, it’s a complaint that its dominant approaches tend to be so all-encompassing. It insists on preserving non-essential details (voting) while jettisoning the lobster bucket appeal of the original game. In a heads-down environment, there’s no recourse against a leading player, no teaming up to dislodge a vital foe, no such thing as having to keep a low profile lest you turn allies into adversaries. Running a galactic empire requires a deft touch in many arenas. Running Twilight Inscription requires far fewer arenas, to its detriment.
Maybe I’m making it sound like there isn’t much to recommend Twilight Inscription. That isn’t the case. It’s a solid and impressive piece of work, one that keeps four minigames aloft, and more as a juggling act than a tumble down the stairs.
But I’m still waiting for one of these big roll-and-writes to knock me off my feet rather than leaving me feeling like its main draw is volume rather than baseline quality. True, it takes longer to understand, to pick apart the knot, to see certain approaches emerge dominant. But the pattern is there in the noise, waiting. The result is a game that’s easy to feel affectionate about in the moment. But it’s a watchful affection. Unlike its namesake, I doubt I’ll remember its most exciting plays years from now. I can barely remember them from last weekend. Instead, it leaves a broad impression. Icons, icons, the occasional combo, icons, and as many trade goods as I can slap together.