I’ve written up a couple in-depth after-action reports of Twilight Imperium before. I’m willing to do it again for the game that happened yesterday, but I find myself spending time and brain-power analyzing the game in terms of its structures, house rules, and interaction with the players. I’ve only played the game a few times, so I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve seen a variety of races bounce off of one another, and I’ve tried bringing different sets of rules to the table.
Our galaxy on 6/21.
One of my favorite discoveries is ‘Star By Star’. Part of the fan-created set of mods called Shattered Ascension, ‘Star By Star’ modifies the initial setup of the galaxy. Instead of everyone’s Home System sitting on the outermost rim of the galaxy, the hex containing that system is in with all of the other hexes, which are dealt to all players and held like a hand of cards. This allows more dymanic placement of systems and intriguing gameplay. You can’t put your home right next to Mecatol Rex, the former throneworld of the Lazax Empire, and the Embers of Muaat need to start on the outermost rim.
The other major change in house rules that I feel makes the most of the game is the modified nature of the objectives. Normally, Preliminary Objectives are dealt to players in private, and Public Objectives remain in their deck face-down until the Bureaucracy strategy reveals one. And in that case, the person with that strategy can reveal an Objective that very suddenly ends the game. There is an option rule called Age of Empire that makes Public Objectives… well, public… from the very start. I modified our Bureaucracy strategy so that the Objectives are tied up in ‘red tape’, requiring them to be ‘unlocked’ before they can be scored. Additionally, the Preliminary Objectives are shuffled up and one for each player is set out. Any player can claim any Preliminary Objective, allowing them to score a Victory Point and draw a Secret Objective, but each player can only score one Preliminary Objective. This is a bit more balanced and allows players to play to their strengths and positions, rather than wasting time and energy on something that’s outside of their plans.
A clash between the Barony of Letnev (red) and the Federation of Sol (blue)
I’ve played Twilight Imperium with several different players. While the randomized nature of the procedurally-generated galaxy, the Objectives, and race selection always ensure that every game is a different experience, it’s become clear that some races favor a particular style of play. Those that give advantages in terms of combat strength, such as the L1z1x Mindnet, Barony of Letnev, and the Mentak Coalition, seem to shine under the control of an aggressive player, while others like the Emirates of Hacan, Xxcha Kingdom, and Universities of Jol-Nar reward more patient play. There appears to be a balance between those types of races in the base game, with the Federation of Sol right in the middle.
As for the expansions, it may seem that the Embers of Muaat are incredibly overpowered, but the advantage of their starting War Sun can be blunted by players on the lookout as well as those racing towards War Sun technology of their own. Some of the races favor a longer game with patient play, such as the Arborec or the Ghosts of Creuss, while the Nekro Virus rivals the Mindnet in terms of naked aggression. There are a few races I haven’t seen in action yet – the Clan of Saar, the Winnu, and so on – but they’re certain to make an appearance sooner or later.
The Barony beating out the Arborec (gray) for the win.
Regardless of the races in play or the rules you use, I have yet to play a game of Twilight Imperium that’s disappointed me. Every one has been a day-long experience, every one has left me intellectually drained, and every one has been deeply satisfying. I love that it can both play right into your individual play-style and push you to try new things, as well as providing ways to get to know your friends. Who will stab you in the back while you’re pursuing a particular Objective? Who will send a Spy to the Galactic Assembly when they’ve been talking about making peace? If you have the time and resources, I highly recommend playing it at least once. Despite its scope and complexity, it is an excellent game; perhaps one of the best that I have ever played.
There are a few games out there that promise a different play experience every time you unpack it. I’ve played a few that do vary from session to session, but after two games of Twilight Imperium, I can say that every game is, in fact, different. Tactical actions are done the same way, and the strategies were the same, but everything else was different. Even though we opted for another pre-set map, rather than taking the extra time to distribute the system tiles per the rules, the map was completely different. I did not expect all of the tech specialties to pepper our galaxy the way they did. For the most part, we chose our races at random. My father chose the L1z1x Mindnet (blue), my neice represented the Federation of Sol (purple), my brother-in-law lead the Yssaril Tribes (red), and I drew the Embers of Muaat (black).
I chose to include the options of Custodians of Mecatol Rex and the Wormhole Nexus, as the last time we played, it was far too easy to steam right to the capital. My neice began taking advantage of Sol’s racial powers right away, spawning extra Ground Forces on planets she occupied. My father industrialized quickly, pushing out from 0.0.1, while my brother in law and I established at least a casual alliance as he took sped out from his own home systems. My War Sun, hampered by slow movement, was at least able to claim the rare triple-system near Muaat. The newcomers got a handle on how the turns and actions worked, and by the end of round 2, we all had a good idea of how to proceed with our various plans.
As round 3 moved forward, my father essentially blocked off my neice’s advance towards his systems, and she seemed put off by the approach of my War Sun, now armed and fully operational. My brother bolstered his position on one side of Mecatol Rex, and the War Sun moved into the other side. For most of the rest of the round, each of us tried to determine who would actually go for it. I took the Diplomacy action to prevent my nearest system from getting trounced by either my neice’s growing armies or my father’s dreadnaughts. With that peace of mind, I rolled into Mecatol Rex, the public objective for which had just been revealed. At this point, the game was very close, with my father and my neice tied for first at 2 or 3 Victory Points.
My dad’s a bit notorious around our gaming table. With his massive fleets and aggressive expansion, nobody trusted him. At one point, he asked “How did I make 3 enemies in a 4 person game?” My brother and I were sort of glaring at one another as his Flagship occupied space near my War Sun. As Sol and the Mindnet also glared at one another, there was a palpable sense of tension around the table. It felt very different from the previous TI game, and as my brother swept into my father’s space, I knew that our erstwhile alliance was coming to an end.
Sure enough, the Yssaril Tribes moved in on Mecatol Rex. A great deal of fire was exchanged, but at the end, I was still able to complete my Master of Ships secret objective. The lead that afforded me was tenuous at best, as both my brother and my neice were right behind me. We had agreed to play to 8 victory points, and my objective put me at 6. This was the point in the game where the Diplomacy strategy could almost be used as a weapon or a means to limit an opponent’s choices, and the Bureaucracy strategy became more and more attractive.
By this point, my father had caught up to me in terms of tech. He, too, could construct War Suns. I knew I had to deal with him, but I had to do so in such a way that neither my niece nor my brother could capitalize on my focus. I needn’t have worried, through, as it was at around this point that the Yssaril invaded Muaat. Knowing that I could not claim any more objectives if my homeworld was occupied, the bold move was meant to forestall a Muaat victory. I now had the choice between going after my homeworld or taking my brother’s as he had taken mine. Before I could decide, my brother activated Diplomacy, declaring his home system a DMZ.
With no choice, I steamed home, abandoning Mecatol Rex, and fought to reclaim Muaat. There was some confusion over the proper use of the Gen Synthesis technology, but in the end, Muaat remained in the hands of the Yssaril. The other players were closing in, aiming to destroy my remaining space docks and possibly knock me out. However, during the Strategy phase, I had chosen Bureaucracy. When I activated it, the Imperium Rex card was available, and I played it, ending the game.
Twilight Imperium is quickly becoming one of my favorite board games of all time, and not just because of this win. The variety and depth of the game is staggering, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. I have yet to play with Mercenaries, Political Intrigue, or Leaders, to say nothing of Distant Suns, but I know they’re on the horizon. My niece, at the conclusion of this game, asked “When are we playing again?” in a very eager tone of voice.
Even if I’d lost, I couldn’t have asked for a better victory.
Twilight Imperium is, in a word, massive. It is a box full of galactic hexes, plastic ships, embossed cards, cardboard counters, and reams of rules, all with one purpose: to recreate a space opera on any flat surface that has the space to accomodate it. I often refer to it as “Game of Thrones in space”, as it relies just as much on political intrigue, backroom dealing, table talk, and canny positioning as it does strategic war planning and tactical combat. I finally had the chance to sit down and play a game, graciously hosted by Jay of Goblin Artisans. Joining us were Josh, who does board game reviews, and my father, a man who’s been playing wargames since around when Tactics II came out in 1958.
We began with a pre-generated semi-randomized galaxy, rather than taking extra time to indulge in the interesting but time-consuming minigame that allows players to set up the systems, hazards, and resources around the capitol, Mecatol Rex. We then chose our races, with me dealing two home systems to each player and letting them pick one. Josh chose the Xxcha Kingdom, Dad picked the Sardakk N’orr, Jay selected the L1Z1X Mindnet, and I settled on the Mentak Coalition. After a brief tutorial on tactical actions and how play would proceed, we sat down for the first round.
Spinwards from top left: Xxcha in yellow, Sardakk N’orr in blue, L1Z1X in green, and Mentak in red.
Since none of us had played Twilight Imperium before, Round 1 was very much a round of getting familiar with the mechanics of the game. There was a touch of confusion regarding the relationship between the strategy cards and one’s choices; I had to reiterate that one does not have to execute a strategy card immediately on its priority number. For the most part, the round consisted of all four players claiming systems in their immediate environs. The Xxcha Kingdom extended an olive branch to the Mentak Coalition right from the beginning, and began what was, for most of the game, a very cordial and peaceful relationship. The Sardakk N’orr began its spread relatively quickly, and the L1Z1X Mindnet began churning out dreadnaughts. None of this was surprising, and by the end of the round, all of the players had a much firmer grip on not only the rules of the game, but how to go about earning their first Victory Points.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…” The Mindnet invokes Warfare.
Given the semi-random nature of the pre-set galaxy, it was by sheer dumb luck that most of the planets within easy reach of the Xxcha were heavy on influence. They begin exerting it almost immediately, dominating votes and earning one of the first public objective’s victory points. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The L1Z1X was already in a threatening position, using Warfare to intimidate their Mentak neighbors while also eyeing up the encroaching Sardakk. The Sardakk, for their part, occupied Hope’s End, training their first Shock Troops and preparing for what would either be a massive invasion of Mercatol Rex or a thrust into L1Z1X or Xxcha space, depending on which race looked at them funny first. Still, at this point in the game, no major battles had been fought and the galaxy was relatively at peace. This, however, was not meant to last.
Mecatol Rex is temporarily dubbed “Space Tortuga.”
In a bold move worthy of audacious pirates, the Mentak seized Mecatol Rex during this round. While this was undoubtedly a victory for the privateer coalition, the annexation of planets by the Xxcha even closer to their borders would be a telling weakness that was not immediately recognized. The forces of the L1Z1X continued to build on the very doorstep of the usurpers, while the Sardakk continued building military might of their own, right on the doorstep of the Xxcha. Tension was building throughout the galaxy, and it was only a matter of time before implied threats would have to be answered with irrevocable action. The Mentak scored the Defender preliminary objective, which put them in the running for the lead with the Xxcha, while both the L1X1X and the Sardakk scraped what VPs they could out of their preliminary objectives.
Pirates and cyborgs fight as turtles mobilize and bugs threaten.
The Xxcha, a race not known for quick action, began to mobilize in the direction of their bellicose neighbor, the Sardakk. Considering the size of the Mentak force occuping Mecatol Rex, the Xxcha had no desire to break their non-aggression pact. The Mentak, for their part, could not leave the fleet of L1Z1X dreadnaughts in a position to strike their systems, and thus struck first, their flagship leading the way and destroying the fleet. However, considering the growing number of Sardakk shock troops on the doorstep of Mecatol Rex, the Mentak could not bring any troops of their own along, and thus did not gain any territory from this action, nor did they qualify for the public objective that required an invasion of an enemy world. The Xxcha were free to make their maneuvers and enforce policies that benefitted them. Only by working together could the other three races oppose them politically, and accusations began from the Sardakk and L1Z1X calling the Mentak a ‘puppet’ of the Xxcha. With relations continuing to sour, and skirmishes breaking out, the possibility of a total galactic war began to grow. The Mentak’s occupation of Mecatol Rex qualified them for the Usurper secret objective, sliding them into the lead just ahead of the Xxcha.
The Xxcha fully emerge from their shell!
Needing the objective that requires invasion, the Xxcha began maneuvers against the Sardakk N’orr, as DMZs began to be declared in the neighborhood of Mecatol Rex. The forces of the Sardakk on Hope’s End continued to grow, with deadly insectoid warriors covering the planet, and now looking at both a loss of one of their systems and the continuing threat of the Mentak fleet orbiting Mecatol Rex. The Mentak abstained from a key vote in the Assembly, souring relations with the Sardakk and the L1Z1X even further. Perhaps in response to this, as the center of the galaxy saw warfare and tension, the L1Z1X quietly built a space dock at a world near the B wormhole. The Xxcha and the Mentak were now tied for the lead, with the Sardakk and the L1Z1X also tied at 3 VPs apiece.
Despite the continuing build-up of forces and advancement of technologies, the positions of the races remained static for the most part in this round. Instead of leaving the relatively comfortable position they had from occupying the capital, the Assembly action prompted the use of a political sanction that, after several discussions, wiped out the huge buildup of Sardakk forces on Hope’s End. While all of the fallout from this played out, the L1Z1X built more of their signature dreadnaughts on the Mentak’s doorstep, while the usurpers focused on protecting their ill-gotten gains. The Xxcha retreated from Sardakk space to allow the bugs to retake their world, keeping to the goals of the game and qualifying for another public objective.
The plan of the L1Z1X came to fruition when they made their incursion into Mentak space, destroying the fleet around their homeworld. The Mentak began to struggle to muster a response as the Sardakk surged towards the Xxcha, who are themselves shifting their forces towards Mentak space. After five hours of play, the players moved through their turns more quickly and efficiently, executing strategies to move towards Victory Points, with the L1Z1X and Sardakk working to catch up and the Xxcha nudging ahead of the Mentak by a single but vital point.
After hours of cordial relations, the Xxcha finally broke their treaty with the Mentak. With plenty of warning to their former friends, their forces entered Mentak space and seized the Tsion station to destroy the space dock there. As the Mentak reeled from the last few rounds’ incursions and geared up to retake their home world, the Sardakk aimed to push back against the Xxcha while the L1Z1X waited to take advantage of chaos to strike towards Mecatol Rex. However, the Xxcha executed the Bureaucracy strategy and played the public objective for which they had just qualified by destroying the Tsion space dock. This earned them their 9th victory point, ending the game.
The Xxcha Kingdom wins!
Twilight Imperium is not a game for everybody. While the mechanics of tactical actions are not in and of themselves complex, and make up the bulk of what you’ll be doing, they are at the core of what is a fairly complex and balanced system. Part of the game’s beauty is in its starting random elements. Unless a house rules system is in effect, no player can walk into a game of Twilight Imperium know who they will represent, what to expect, or how they will work towards victory. The game demands a profound commitment: not only will it eat up several hours, if not an entire day, it requires your full attention at all points. Our session lasted around seven hours, and at no time was I either bored or uninterested in what was happening, focused entirely on my forces and strategies. There were moments of confusion even late in the game, and smart players can take advantage of this. Just like in any political arena, like the noble houses of Westeros or the star-spanning Lansraad of Dune, confusion can be either your unspoken ally, or the final nail in your coffin.
While the commitments might be intimidating and the challenge daunting, the game is very fun to play and very intellectually stimulating. More than any Fantasy Flight game I’ve played, it is steeped in atmosphere, with everything from the nature of the races to the progression of technologies to the bickering in assemblies all creating a thick and lush tapestry of storytelling among the stars. And every story is going to be different! For what it’s worth, I consider myself hooked on the game. It requires planning ahead to play, a setting aside of time and a satisfaction of earthly commitments so you can play with a clear conscience, but if you can get a few friends to take this journey to the Twilight Imperium with you, and at least one of you takes the time to nail down the basics of the rules so nobody’s spending precious game time bent over a rulebook, the journey will be well worth the taking.