Friday, 1 October 2010

Twilight Imperium: an epic classic, but with some flaws


Twilight Imperium, by Fantasy Flight Games, has the reputation of being something of an epic. I have now played it three times and feel qualified to offer some comments. I’ve never won it, mind you.

I love Frank Herbert’s book Dune, and TI (or TI3, as this is the third edition of this game) has the feel of Dune. It is an epic, galaxy-spanning power-politics boardgame, and there are a lot of things to like about it.

Number one is that no game is ever the same. Not only are there eight alien races for players to choose from, but at the start of the game, players build the board by laying hex tiles in a series of concentric circles around the capital planet, Mecatol Rex, leaving their home systems until last. Ironically, this is one of my favourite parts of the game, as you debate which of your ‘hand’ of five tiles to place next. You ideally want to place neutral planetary systems within convenient striking distance of your home world(s), while using other tiles like asteroid fields and empty space to make it harder for anyone to attack you.

There is a LOT to this game. To win, you need 10 victory points, and you acquire these by achieving objectives that, again, will differ from game to game. You also have a secret objective. Most objectives will score you one or two VPs. Some of these objectives can be extremely hard – for example, occupying another player’s homeworld seems a very tough one to achieve. In three games I’ve not seen it done. Many objectives centre around Mecatol Rex, the imperial capital, which often throws players into contact with each other.

While you have at your fingertips a sophisticated array of military units, like cruisers, destroyers, ground units, planetary defence systems, and so forth, players do not seem to come into direct conflict with each other much, even with the emphasis on controlling Mecatol Rex in some objective cards. There are action cards you can play to make other players’ lives harder – one of my favourites is Plague, which can ravage another player’s planet and wipe out 1d6 ground units – but actual fleet-to-fleet conflict or planetary invasions against other players (as opposed to simply turning up and occupying a neutral planet) does not seem to happen that often. This is odd, given the amount of juicy hardware your alien race controls.

Play proceeds by taking strategic actions, of which there are eight in the game represented by large card tiles. These let you do a number of things, for instance helping you go to war, build new units, calling the galactic senate to session, or trading with other players.

Trade works by exchanging one of your two trade contracts with another player. After that you pick up resources every time a player goes for the trade strategic action. In all the games I’ve played, the contracts get sorted out early on, and then players generally seem happy to sit on them and cash in. I once managed to successfully browbeat another player by threatening to terminate their trade agreement with me if they did not vote with me in the senate, but generally trade does not seem to have been much of an issue.

In some ways, Twilight Imperium reminds me of Supremacy, in that you need to think hard about what you want to do each turn, and try to work out what the opposition is likely to do. One problem we encountered was with the Imperium action, which automatically grants you 2 VPs if you take it. We ended up with everyone effectively taking it in turns to go for it (using the Initiative action beforehand which then lets you choose first which action you want next time around). One suggested fix for this is reducing it to 1 VP.

TI3 has the reputation of being a long game, nay, an epic exercise to play. Yes and no. I’ve now seen it played in about four hours, although one four player game took about six to complete. We found that by introducing a strictly policed two minutes for each player to take their turn, the game motored along. This encourages you to think ahead to what you’re going to do next, allowing you to leap into action when it is your turn. If you leave players all the time in the world to decide what they want to do, because of the many options at their fingertips, and the way this game functions at a number of different levels, you can expect it to take a long time. But we had five players finish two games of TI3 in eight hours, with breaks for pizza, so it shows it can be done.

Finally, according to many pundits out there in cyberspace, there are many changes to TI3 in the Shattered Empires supplement which FFG have published for this. Tragically, it is now out of print.

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