A first game of Twilight Imperium

Twilight Imperium is advertised as “an epic boardgame of galactic conquest, politics, and trade”. The advertising doesn’t lie – the games in progress I’ve occasionally tripped over at SF conventions were sprawling affairs with huge fleets of starship models swirling about on a tile map representing the explored galaxy of a far future. Designed for six players, and play sessions commonly run seven or eight hours (!).

The coordination cost of setting up such a game is high, and though I’d wanted to try it for years I was never present at exactly the right time. Until this last weekend, when a bunch of the harder-core types from my Friday night gaming group got it together to play a game Saturday. It was quite an experience.

To minimize setup time we used one of the balanced map templates from the TI rules rather than going through the normal drafting phase where players accrete tiles representing solar systems and other features (nebulas, supernovas, wormhole entrances and exits) in concentric hexagonal rings around the Imperial throne-world of Trantor Mecatol Rex.

We’d planned for the regular six players, but because Rob brought along two of his kids we actually had eight. Each of us got a homeworld on the periphery of the extra-large map. The premise of the game is that the players are species contesting for dominance of a galactic empire abandoned by its masters, the Lazax of Mecatol Rex. Each of us randomly got a species card conferring some limitations and special abilities that slightly bend the basic rules of the game.

As it happened, I got the humans – the Federation of Sol, with the blue pieces. The main human special ability initially seemed unimpressive; my expendable command tokens, controlling how many actions I can take per round, refreshed at three per round rather than the normal two. But I was to find that this was actually very useful, as other players stalled out for lack of them and (unlike me) had to spend precious strategy actions gathering more.

To my left was my wife Cathy with the Yssaril Tribes (green), a race of slippery Gollum-like critters with the main ability to draw two action cards per round rather than one; this too could be significant, as action cards could be used interfere with other players’ tactics, score critical hits on other players’ starships, cancel political and trade actions, and so forth.

To my right was Rob Junior, one of the kids, with the Brotherhood of Yin (purple). Kamikaze monks, basically; their main ability was to be able to suicide a destroyer during a fleet battle to inflict a second, killing hit on a Deadnought or War Sun. Since War Suns (er, yes, your basic Death Star) are very expensive to build and likely to be the pride of a fleet, this is a significant threat.

To Cathy’s left sat Tom, with the Clan of Saar (orange). These guys are nomads. The rule they get to break is that their spacedocks (floating shipyards where you produce all your other units) aren’t tied to orbiting the planet where they were built. They can move with the Saar fleets. Tom would make effective use of this during the game.

Eight races is a lot to keep track of and I don’t remember the four further across the board from me, except that I was definitely keeping an eye on the Embers of Muaat (red) being run by Marco, the owner of the game. He was running them as brute militarists, which works because they start out with the ability to buy War Suns and producing other warships at a ridiculous rate. I knew they were going to be serious trouble if the game ran long enough for their fleets and mine to be in contact.

Everybody also got a random Secret Objective card. Winner of the game is the first to reach 10 Victory Points, and you get most of your VPs from fulfilling publicly-visible objectives – “Control five systems other than your homeworld”, “Have five technology advances”, “Spend six trade goods”, that sort of thing. The Secret Objectives mean that each player has a special goal that nobody else knows about.

Mine was “Control six worlds with Technology Specialties”. This was lucky for me since the five planets adjacent to my homeworld (two doubles and a single) all had a tech specialty. This is indicated by a little colored icon that gives you a discount equivalent to one resource point when buying one of the four classes of tech – General, Military, Biotech, and Propulsion. This told me two things: (1) that my first tactical goal had to be to seize one more system with a tech specialty, and (2) my overall strategy should be to focus on climbing the technology tree, which I could do probably faster than anyone else in the game due to that large concentration of specialty planets.

This further implied that I would be trying to avoid early conflict with my neighbors, because warfighting would suck away resources I should be using for tech development. My diplomacy would be full of absolutely sincere assurances that my neighbors’ borders were safe from me and egging them on to fight other species further away. That is, until I had developed an unstoppable tech advantage and could crush their primitive fleets like toys, bwahahaha!

Unbeknownst to me, Cathy was eyeing my near worlds covetously because her Secret Objective card specified controlling three worlds with the same tech specialty, and her stellar neighborhood was tech-poor with only one blue-specialty world. I had two blue-specialty worlds next to my home system. This neatly illustrates the important role of the Secret Objectives in stirring up trouble.

The turn mechanics of the game are kind of like a fusion-powered version of Puerto Rico. At the berinning of each round, the Speaker picks one of eight strategy cards; then the other players choose from the remaining strategy cards in clockwise order (and one of the cards selects the next Speaker). Each strategy card gives a substantial advantage for a particular kind of player action – warfare, trade, technology research, etc. – via its Primary Ability. But when that Primary Ability is used, all players get to exercise the Secondary Ability on the card.

For example, the Technology card gives a player the Primary Ability to buy a technology advance for free. But all other players then get to buy a technology advance for six resources, which they can pull together by exhausting controlled planets for the round or by spending Trade Goods. As in Puerto Rico, it’s important to time actions so you get maximum benefit from them while other players get the minimum.

But there are other things that go on during a round, of which the most important are fleet movement and battles. The mechanics are cleverly designed so nobody has enough downtime to get bored, even in an eight-player game. After strategy cards have been chosen, you go around repeatedly with each player having the option to either invoke a Strategy Card, move a fleet, or pass. Fleet movement can trigger a space battle or planetary invasion. This continues until everyone has passed. Then you have a Status Phase during which victory objectives are claimed, planets are un-exhausted, and various other game-mechanics housekeeping takes place.

In the first couple of rounds everyone is naturally preoccupied with seizing control of the neutral system tiles immediately adjacent to their homeworld. To do this, you need to either have or build a ship type called a Carrier, which can freight up to six each of Fighters, Ground Forces, or Planetary Defense Systems. To grab a planet, you need to drop a Ground Force on it. If you think someone might try to take it away from you, you might also want to drop a PDS (Planetary Defense System) on it. These can do a pretty good job of shooting the crap out of enemy fleets entering the system.

Fighters don’t individually pack much of a punch, but swarms of them are quite effective. And yes, there is a special mechanic for fighters attacking Death Stars War Suns. Destroyers are relatively light warships that are effective against fighters. Cruisers have a good balance of range and combat powers and are often used for surprise attacks or blockades. Dreadnoughts are your basic Imperial Star Destroyer, big and slow but hard to kill and dangerous to all lesser ships. And the aforementioned War Suns are even more so, with delightful capabilities like saturation planetary bombardment.

Not all units of a type are necessarily equivalent; this is where tech comes in. For example, if you have Cybernetics (which Sol Federation starts with) your fighters get +1 in combat; if you have Hylar V Assault Lasers (which Sol Federation doesn’t start with but militarists like the Sardakk N’orr do) your cruisers and destroyers get +1 in combat. Propulsion technologies can also boost the ranges of your ships.

The first war to break out began when Dan, two places to my right past the Yin Brotherhood, unwisely jumped a border system of the Embers of Muaat to his right. He had been unlucky in his astrography; his near systems were resource-poor, leaving him few options other than aggression. The Embers and the Yin Brotherhood promptly attacked him from both sides. This suited me just fine, as the Yin Brotherhood’s other aggressive option – fighting me – would have interfered with my plans.

Meanwhile, on my left, the Yssaril and Saar were both pushing straight inwards towards Mecatol Rex. I had an inkling that Cathy was thinking about turning to stab me in my left flank, but I forestalled that my putting one of my two task groups there. My other task group drove inwards, not directly for the Imperial throne world but rather for the double-planet system of Starpoint/New Albion and the sixth tech specialty I needed.

Three places to my left, past the Saar, was Rob running the black pieces (update: Cathy tells me he was the Lizix MindNet); his younger son Will, who couldn’t have been more than about eight years old, was on the other side of him with the gray pieces (update: the Xxcha Kingdom). I never quite figured out what Rob was doing; I don’t think I saw him fight anyone, and something he said at the wrapup implied that he had been pursuing a tech-centered strategy similar to mine.

Will, Rob’s younger child, was having a high old time with the blow-shit-up aspect of the game. He too attacked the Embers of Muaat, but unlike the hapless yellow player he actually had enough ships to pose a real threat to them. He did remarkably well, playing intelligently with minimal help from his dad and showing more sitzfleisch than I really expected in a kid that young. There was actually a point at which by copping a particularly difficult public objective (“Have more political influence points than both your neighbors put together”) he managed to surge to a 2VP lead over everyone else. This was really substantial, as normally you can only claim one victory objective per turn even if you could qualify for more than one.

Dan the hapless yellow guy had to leave early but his last move was a beauty. He built three PDSes on his homeworld. What made this effective was that his tech included Deep Space Cannon, giving the PDSes the ability to shoot into systems one hex away. This made the bubble of hexes adjacent to his homeworld a death trap for anyone incautious enough to send a fleet in. Nobody did. Even the Embers of Muaat backed away from that action.

Marco’s Embers of Muaat had better things to do, anyway, like cheerfully trashing the Kingdom of the Xxcha. Oh yes there were serious battles, War Suns against capital-ship fleets. I knew I would catch some significant grief if Marco’s empire expanded enough to touch mine. Tom, running the Saar clan, made that a bit less likely by seizing Mecatol Rex and parking a spacedock and a ridiculous number of capital ships on it (obviously this had something to do with his Secret Objective). Cathy visibly wavered between attacking Tom or me, and didn’t commit soon enough to do either before we hit our time limit.

I eventually won in a sneaky and half-accidental way. I noticed that if I bought a red technology advance I would qualify for both “I have 5 advances” and “I have an advance in each of the 4 colors”; I also had 7 trade goods, enough for “I now spend 6 trade goods”, and by seizing Starpoint/New Albion I could gain a sixth tech specialty and achieve my Secret Objective.

So I took strategy card #8, Imperial Leadership, which gives you the ability to claim multiple victory objectives in one Status Phase (and a bonus VP for control of Mecatol Rex, if I’d had that). This scored me 4VP in the fourth Status Phase, putting me 2VP up on the next nearest…and it was 20 minutes before the game store’s closing time. No time for another round, barely time to pack away the pieces.

The session lasted nine hours, with maybe an hour spent on setup and basic rules instruction and 45 minutes or so for a dinner break. We played four full rounds in seven hours and change, which by what I’ve read online is pretty impressive considering we had six raw newbies including one young child and only two people (Rob and his older son Rob Jr.) who’d played once before.

Everybody, including Dan the Doomed, had a good time. Cathy, who had been a bit dubious about a game that marathon-huge up front, enjoyed it. (In retrospect I figure she probably should have attacked me; Tom, preoccupied with taking and holding Mecatol Rex, probably wouldn’t have jumped her from the other side before she could reposition. Rob Junior never knew it, but I had his Yin Brotherhood picked as my first victim if and when I went aggressive.) Will the seven- or eight-year-old kid actually stuck to it for seven hours of play, which says a lot about the game’s ability to hold player interest.

The best news about Twilight Imperium is that it actually backs up the brag it makes on its box. The designer was clearly out to create an epic-scale slugfest that would evoke every classic of space opera from Doc Smith’s Lensman novels through Star Wars to Walter John Williams’s Dread Empire’s Fall. The homage to the genre is pretty explicit, and it works.

The mechanics, too, are clearly derivative of previous games. The species-varying powers of Cosmic Encounter; the role/round mechanic from Puerto Rico; the geomorphic variable tile layout from Settlers of Catan; the tech tree and much of the overall feel from Masters of Orion. But the effect is of judicious quotation rather than uninspired imitation; the whole hangs together well, and the game theme never gets lost in the machinery.

I think this game also exemplifies the sort of good things I have previously (in The Golden Age of Wargaming is Now) noted can happen when old-school simulationism hybridizes with new-school Eurogame design. I haven’t seen it, but the first addition of TI, from 20 years ago is reported to have been a much fiddlier game, closer in spirit to the elaborate simulationist games I cut my teeth on in the 1970s. The designer says in his notes that he consciously rebooted the game to take advantage of the design tropes that have developed in the Eurogame community, and that works, too.

I’d play it again. In fact I almost certainly will…as early as next week, maybe. There’s talk of a second session this coming Saturday, and since several of us grasp the mechanics it seems likely to go faster. We might even *gasp* finish the game this time.

23 thoughts on “A first game of Twilight Imperium

  1. I’ve played TI exactly twice, both times several years ago. As I currently lack a regular gaming group, much less one with the size and stamina to play TI, it’ll probably be a long time before I’m able to play again, and this was a fun and exciting bit of reminisce for me. And I think your review gets it exactly right: the game’s homages are very explicit, but the result hangs together very well, and it’s a blast to play.

    In my first game I played as the Universities of the Jol-Nar, who (as their name suggests) have a tech advantage but a military penalty. I scored a coup on my very first turn by pushing through a galactic resolution that made all military tech significantly more expensive, but unfortunately I failed to capitalize on it effectively. I made the same mistake I usually make playing Civilization: I teched too hard and neglected my military, leaving me to be squashed like a bug in the late game.

    Ah, memories.

  2. I much prefer the Starfire game series, which is sadly a very long time out of print. It let you design your own ships.

  3. >So you’ll be bringing this to TCEP, right?

    Er, no. I don’t own a copy. And acquiring it isn’t trivial – with the “Shattered Empire” expansion (which you need to fix some known bugs in the original – we were using the Shattered Empire strategy cards) we’re talking $140 or so.

    Besides, you know damn well I already run one eight-hour marathon game every year at TCEP, the Midnight Ultimate Zombies event. What kind of nucking futs do you think I’d have to be to organize a second one?

    I could try to talk Marco into bringing his copy, though. You’d like Marco. Pretty hard-core gamer and SF fan he is, and pleasant company too.

  4. Sounds like an interesting addition to Munchkin Night. Munchkin games can go for 2 hours, Munchkin Quest can easily go for 5.

    Considering how merciless we get when people get to level 8, this is probably right up our alley.

  5. Will was playing the Xxcha Kingdom. Rob Senior was playing the Lizik Mindnet. I was able to reconstruct this from the race list in the rules and my recollection of the game.

    In retrospect I figure she probably should have attacked me; Tom, preoccupied with taking and holding Mecatol Rex, probably wouldn’t have jumped her from the other side before she could reposition.

    In actuality I needed to attack both, and was insufficiently armed to attack either. My Secret Objective was to control 4 planets that specialized in Blue technologies. I was able to get two with no problem. Tom (see E’s description above) had one in his area, and Eric had two, but the second of Eric’s blue planets was right next to his home planet, where I really wasn’t likely to survive.

    My real problem was partly catching wise to how building really worked too late in the game and partly a shortage of command tokens, as E. said above. My racial advantages all related to Action cards. Again nobody (including me) appreciated the utility of action cards until very late in the session.

  6. I’m thinking that this calls for both a review and a session report on Boardgamegeek.

  7. >I’m thinking that this calls for both a review and a session report on Boardgamegeek.

    Ah, Mr. Baskin! I was actually thinking of you as I wrote that report. The tenor of my thoughts was approximately “Damn shame he couldn’t have been here for the session, I know he’d have enjoyed it.”

    The Friday-night gang misses you, dude.

  8. >Dude, you’re playing a game called “Twilight”?? What’s happened to the Eric I knew??

    Trust me, Russ, there is a complete absence of sparkly vampires in Twilight Imperium.

    Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion and C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser gate, yes. Sparkly vampires, no.

  9. Nice writeup. Came at a particularly good time for me, as I’ve been spending the last month or so catching up on Honor Harrington (I was about eight books behind, counting all the anthologies and side series), so phrases like “Planetary Defense System” and “capital-ship fleets” have rather more resonance for me right now than they would normally. Modulo the aliens, this actually sounds a lot like the Honorverse….

  10. I much prefer the Starfire game series, which is sadly a very long time out of print. It let you design your own ships.

    A “revamped” version of the game (i.e. not exactly the same but enough there that you’ll easily recognise it) is available as a digital purchase/download at http://www.starfiredesign.com/starfire/index.php .

  11. >Modulo the aliens, this actually sounds a lot like the Honorverse….

    It’s actually a lot more like the universe of Walter Jon William’s Dread Empire’s Fall, with resonances back to Asimov’s Foundation novels. There are obvious nods to Star Wars as well…”War Suns”? Really? How much more obviously can you not be saying “Death Stars”? Not so much like the Honorverse because the fleet mixes are different; more carriers and battlestations, fewer “ships of the wall”. Also there’s no Eridani Convention; planetary bombardment is an option, and sometimes an important one.

  12. which you need to fix some known bugs in the original – we were using the Shattered Empire strategy cards

    The part that always kind of weirded me out about the standard strategy cards was the “turn over a new victory card and get 2 VP” one. VP for free always seemed like it was pushing the first two card picks to always be the same (first person picks up the VP card, second person picks up the speaker card) and then I read (somewhere, can’t find the link) that that was actually by design… very weird to me.

    These guys are the game’s brute militarists, starting out with the ability to buy War Suns and producing other warships at a ridiculous rate.

    GEEEBUS… Starting out with the ability to buy War Suns?? Thats a different Sardakk Norr to what I remember. The N’orr i remember got a +1 bonus to their attack rolls and two techs on the way to War Suns. War Suns were nasty as hell. For those who haven’t played, the not so stealth parallel to “Death Star” is not accidental (down to optional rules for fighters attempting trench runs).

  13. …the first addition of TI, from 20 years ago…

    Nitpick: Editorial correction is called for here.

    And just one small thing not noted in your review: the ‘core’ box of Twilight Imperium only supports 6 players; Shattered Empires (the expansion) raises this limit to 8. (With fewer players you still use all 8 strategy cards, so you may not see a given card for several rounds.) In addition, Shattered Empires also gives variant strategy cards; for instance, with that expansion there are three mutually exclusive “Imperial” cards for your game. Between all of these options, extras, and other “knobs” in the expansion, games played using Shattered Empires can feel very different than the basic TI.

  14. (Let’s just say the learning curves seem similar…)

    I found the learning curves on Twilight Imperium to be…. odd.

    So long as someone can guide you through setting up the board, almost all of the game rules are actually quite simple. The complexity comes not from 17 pages of rules about how to calculate line of sight but from the sheer breadth of very simple options present at any given decision point.

    Granted… adding optional rules adds to that load a little.

  15. >I read (somewhere, can’t find the link) that that was actually by design

    And that’s the bug I alluded to. :-)

    >Starting out with the ability to buy War Suns?? Thats a different Sardakk Norr to what I remember.

    I just checked with Marco and I had his race wrong. He was playing the Embers of Muaat. They do start with War Suns. I’ll correct the report appropriately.

  16. >So long as someone can guide you through setting up the board, almost all of the game rules are actually quite simple. The complexity comes not from 17 pages of rules about how to calculate line of sight but from the sheer breadth of very simple options present at any given decision point.

    Yes, that’s quite true. None of the individual mechanics are at all tricky, but there’s a lot of game state and option-tree complexity to keep track of.

  17. Hmm. How well would this work for 4 people? I don’t have a regular gaming group, but my wife and I occasionally get to game with another couple who are old friends. We *love* Puerto Rico, but we might be looking for something new to mix things up a little- we’ve gotten so familiar with the game and each arrived at such well developed personal strategies (complete with contingencies) that the thing that most effects game outcomes is seating arrangement.

    So, how well would the game work for 4?

  18. >So, how well would the game work for 4?

    It’s designed for 6 but they do include 4-player rules with a slightly different board layout. I think it would work OK., though it’s definitely one of those games where more players is better.

  19. This sounds like a blast. I wish I had the time and opportunity to indulge in this game or something similar once in a while.

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