So this is going to be one of the big ones. And I mean, really, just very, very big. Twilight Imperium is not like any board game I’ve reviewed so far. It’s probably not like any board game you’ve ever played. Hell, it’s probably not like any board game you’ve ever heard of.
When people think of board games, they tend to think of games like Monopoly, Sorry, or Yahtzee. They tend to think of games with fairly abstract mechanics. Those games don’t have much theme, aside from monopoly, and they aren’t terribly deep. There’s usually only one thing you do every turn.
You might make some choices, depending on your game. Yahtzee has some, Monopoly has fewer than you’d think. Sorry has exactly one. These choices matter of course, but at the end of the day these games are almost entirely dominated by luck.
Designer board games, the kind I talk about on this blog, are just the opposite. Luck is still a factor, but the game revolves around important decisions. If you lose the game, it isn’t because of unfair dice rolls or an unlucky card draw. It’s because at some point during the game you made a choice and that choice was the wrong one.
By degrees, of course. You might still lose because of a single bad die roll at a pivotal moment, and you might still lose because of a bunch of bad dice rolls throughout the game. But in general it comes down to the decisions you and your opponent make.
No game, in my mind, exemplifies this better than Twilight Imperium. The game is one of the flagship titles of Fantasy Flight, one of the largest board game publishers around. You might recognize them for Fury of Dracula, the first board game my blog every reviewed. The company makes very good games, and Twilight Imperium is no exception.
So what is it exactly? Twilight Imperium is what the gaming industry refers to as a 4X game. It’s both a style and genre, with the four aforementioned X’s being explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.
It refers to games that allow players to build and develop communities, nations, or empires. They grow and expand, learning new technology and creating new units and structures. They use these to expand further, collecting new resources and, probably, go to war.
Twilight Imperium takes this concept into space. Players represent spacefaring civilizations living in the Milky Way galaxy. The powerful aliens who rules over a galaxy-wide empire have vanished. Now it’s a race to see which of the remaining aliens can secure enough power and prestige to take their place.
The game progresses in a series of rounds, each with two distinct phases. In the first phase players take turns drafting strategic cards numbered one through eight. In the second phase, players take actions to manage their empires.
The actions each round proceed in the order listed by the strategic cards. The player who drafted the number one card gets the first action. The player who drafted the number two card gets the second action, and so on. If there are four or fewer players, everybody gets two cards, taking actions at the appropriate moments. The sequence repeats, with players continuing to take actions until everybody decides to pass.
There are two main actions players can take when they’re presented with the option. First, they make spend a command token to activate a star system on the map. When they do so they have the option of moving ships into the system or building within the system if they control it. Systems cannot be activated more than once. Ships that are fast enough can move through activated systems, but they cannot exit systems that have already activated. This is noted by placing the spent command token in said system.
The second action is to play one of their drafted strategic card or cards. These typically have a powerful effect, but each can only be activated once per round. When a strategic card is used the player who used it gets the primary effect. At that point all the other players have the option to spend strategic tokens to trigger a secondary effect for themselves.
Players are able to construct fleets of ships they can use to move about the galaxy. These ships transport ground forces which are used to capture planets. Planets grant resources, which are used for building, and influence, which I’ll talk about in a moment. A player can only have so many ships in a system at a time, determined by the number of fleet tokens they have in their fleet allocation.
Influence is used for political actions. Once per round, triggered by one of the strategic cards, the players will draw a political card. This will detail a possible law or act that would effect the entire game in a broad way. The players are collectively called upon to vote on the act. The player’s vote is worth more the more influence they have.
These political cards can have severe immediate effects, such as forcing whoever has the most resources to give half of them to whomever has the fewest. Conversely, it can be a change to the core rules that lasts the entire game. This could mean forcing players to distribute trade goods amongst each other every turn.
Various objectives will score players points. Some of these objectives are public, revealed one by one every turn. Any player can complete these, even if other players already have. They include simple things such as capturing three planets in a single round, or more complicated things like capturing and holding the center of the galaxy. In addition to the public objectives, players are each given a single secret objective at the beginning of the game. These are usually harder but are worth more.
The game continues until one player has scored enough points or enough rounds have passed (with the winner being the one with the highest score) at your preference.
Whew. So that was a mouthful. Honestly, I didn’t even come close to explaining all the rules. This was so slapdash it’s actually a little frustrating. But now that you have at least a rough sense of the game, let me tell you what I think of it.
I love it.
Seriously, it’s hard for me to talk enough about how much I love Twilight Imperium. Yes, it’s dense as hell. Yes, it can take an entire day to play it if you have enough people. (I’m not joking, our last game took ten hours)
But none of that matters, because the game is obscenely satisfying. There are over a dozen races to choose from, each with meaningfully unique differences that make them feel very distinct. Players are constantly faced with a myriad of choices constantly. There’s so much there to analyze, and for gamers like me that’s awesome.
Building an empire in Twilight Imperium is incredibly fulfilling. Finishing a successful round and sitting back to look at the board can feel really good. You’re fleet is expansive and positioned well. You control dozens of planets. Your progress up the technology tree is advanced to say the least. You are juggling a lot of things, but you’re doing it well and things are looking good.
The mechanics of the game are absolutely brilliant as well, lending themselves perfectly to the overall feel. Drafting the strategy cards every round is unique and feels good. Each of the strategy cards represents entirely different shifts in your civilization’s overall industry.
Managing these strategy cards is tricky too. Previously I mentioned command tokens, strategy tokens, and fleet tokens. These all function independently, but they all come from the same pool. You get more tokens every turn, but you’re constantly spending them at nearly the same rate. Balancing the different needs of your empire is difficult and, frankly, enthralling.
Now obviously, this game is not for everybody. It’s complicated. Incredibly complicated. And it takes a long time. An incredibly long time. But if you have friends who enjoy this extreme level of empire building and willing to spend an entire day with you? You will not find a better game than Twilight Imperium.