- Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition
- Fantasy Flight Games
- Designer: Christian T. Peterson
- Head Artists: Scott Schomburg, Brian Schomburg, Tyler Walpole
- 3 – 6 players
- Playtime: 3 – 5+ hours
- Reviewed by: Luke Muench
With three editions, a fourth on the way, a suggested five-hour + playtime, and the highest complexity level I’ve seen on BoardGameGeek to date, Twilight Imperium is one of the more polarizing and intimidating board games a person can play. Sitting at the 42nd best-ranked board game of all time as of writing, this was a game I knew I had to sink my teeth into at least once, if for no other reason than to say I had maneuvered the treacherous expanse of space and the war that comes with it. Below, I have done my best to recount my first experience of Twilight Imperium while providing observations and feedback along the way.
I arrived at my friend’s house at 10 a.m. to prep for the all-day affair that would be our six-player match. None of us had played the game before, and while we had all attempted to watch instructional videos online, we knew that the only way to truly grasp the game was to play it ourselves.
We first discussed the rules, a task that can be a chore in and of itself. This is perhaps one of the first things that will stand out to anyone looking into Twilight Imperium; there are a lot of rules. That isn’t to say that they are there without purpose though. Each is important in laying out the pertinent information in a way that feels methodical, almost militaristic. Rather, the problem is consuming and digesting so much information. Early on, it was determined that each player would have a mulligan of sorts in the case of someone botching a rule here or there, an inevitability we all accepted.
Once we glossed over the rules, we decided to run through a practice round, giving each person an idea of how a game might play out. Everyone was given a random alien for the purposes of understanding how the game worked, yet I immediately found myself growing attached to the species I was provided, the Yssaril. This is likely to be the game’s biggest strength; if you play Twilight Imperium, you will become incredibly attached to everything. Your species, ships, planets, anything you possess will become abnormally important and precious to you. Much of this comes down to the length of time you’ll be investing in these plastic pieces and cards, as the stakes in the game climb with every passing hour. But even from the start, I felt a twang of excitement seeing the greenish, Gollum-like creatures that had come to represent me.
After a brief recess for lunch, we began setting up for the official game. The game doesn’t have a good way of determining the first player for the starting round of the game. Additionally, many of the players didn’t like the idea of being dealt a race at random and being stuck with it. So how we went about this is, after rolling dice, five players received two races to pick from. The last player would receive a couple of the leftovers to pick from and then get to be first to place planets and initiative tiles.
I cannot describe my excitement as the Yssaril returned to me, and I selected them without earnestly considering the Xxcha. While this may come across as narrow-minded or unwilling to embrace the new, I had grown fervently fond of the Yssaril, and I noted that many of the other players latched onto races that they had tested earlier to eyed when sorting through the races prior to the game.
Each race has a unique set-up, so much so that it becomes a bit absurd. That race’s starting planets will push players to have a certain number of resources to begin the game, with the number of planets on your starting tile and the stats of those planets playing big factors into this. Then, each species begins with a different sort of fleet, units of various types and numbers doled out liberally to each. With eight different military units to stipulate for, this can sway the game in one direction or another very quickly. Races receive 2 unique trade cards, which will get to in a bit, but determines how many resources you’ll likely get from making trades. You also start with two technologies pre-built, with the selection being determined, again, by your race. Twilight Imperium features a tech tree that we’ll talk about later, but needless to say is complex and winding, though not terribly difficult to wrap your head around. Lastly, each race has its own set of abilities, each as mind-blowing as the last. None of them feel overpowered per say, but each has incredibly utility and strength associated with it.
At the start of each round, players vie for the different strategy tiles, each of which determines the order of player initiative and a special ability that they must use before passing that turn. In order to best layout the aspects of the game and my thoughts on them, I will work my way through each tile, but note that, how a turn works, is as follows:
After taking initiative, each player will get to take one action on their turn, with everyone taking actions until they choose to pass. Actions involve using your strategic tile, activating a sector of space, transferring units between two neighboring locations, or passing. Most actions will fall under the “activating a sector” action type, allowing you to move your units, build units, and attack others. An important detail worth noting is that once you activate a given location, you can no longer activate that spot again this round, nor can you move units out of that location for the rest of the round. Others, however, can still move to that spot, leaving you open to attacks. When a player passes, they can no longer do actions or contribute for the rest of the round, although the initiatives may still allow them to participate in different ways.
An important thing to note about my race, the Yssaril, is that they have the ability to wait; rather than taking a traditional action, the Yssaril player can skip their action without passing. This can be done every-other turn, but not two turns in a row. In many ways, this is an incredibly subtle but useful tool, allowing you to see how the others players are moving or acting and allowing them to spend all their resources before striking.
Initiative 1 is powerful in its simplicity and elegance. While allowing you to take the first action of the round, this tile, called Initiative, also allows you to utilize the passive abilities of all other initiative tiles for free. Normally, players are forced to spend a particular currency, called a strategic allocation, in order to activate a specific passive ability when another player uses their initiative primary ability, limiting your options in terms of what you can and can’t accomplish on a given turn. Otherwise, this tile has a few other unique factors; it is the only tile without a secondary ability for other players to use (but never the primary user of the tile), it factors into the order in which other abilities take effect, and it’s the only tile you are not allowed to pick twice in a row, meaning that this tile will constantly be shifting around the table.
This is possibly one of the best ways I’ve seen the first turn marker be used in a game in some time now, as it gives that player flexibility for a single turn before passing it off to another player, preventing the issue that many worker placement games face of one person constantly claiming the first player spot at the start of each turn. That being said, one frustrating thing I can say about this mechanic is that the order that people claim their tiles in isn’t determined by all players’ initiative tiles, but by who has the Initiative tile, with players claiming clockwise from that player. This leads to a rigidity that, once players have made alliances or rivalries, can make the initiative claim feel lopsided, whereas having tiles 2 or 3 results in you picking 2nd or 3rd in the next round might make certain tiles much more useful and desirable.
Initiative 2 was by far the least popular and most often ignored tile in the game I played. Called Diplomacy, this tile allows a player to state another at the table and prevent either of your from interacting with one another on the board. This largely has to do with the general lack of militaristic action in the game I played. This game group was rather hesitant to fight one another, both because we were learning the game and the permanence in such actions that would eventually lead to some heated arguments and swift retribution, but we’ll get back to that in a bit. Needless to say, the first 4 of the 6 rounds our group made it through saw this tile ignored, accumulating a ton of Bonus tokens (basically a wild currency). Its passive allows players to spend 1 strategy allocation and 3 influence (one of the two currencies each planet provides) to refresh up to 2 tapped planet cards, a situational ability at best that was rarely found to be useful.
So yes, for the most part, this tile was left to the wayside, and with fairly good reason. If no one is fighting, who needs a war deterrent after all? Again, if this tile then got to choose initiative tiles 2nd in the following round, this would become an infinitely more useful tile in my opinion. That being said, this reflects our game, and I do have some choice things to say regarding war later on, so let’s keep moving along.
Initiative 3, Assembly, sees players getting involved with politics… no, NO, don’t click away. When I say politics, I don’t mean current politics, nor the dreary space politics of the Star Wars prequels. Rather, when this tile is activated, players will be forced to debate over a new law or ruling that must be passed immediately. These political agendas can be either laws, effects that will change the rules of the game for the rest of the game, or instant effects that provide players with an immediate and temporary effect. These cards will also take two forms, either voting for the “for” or “against” effects or electing a specific player or planet to receive the effects. Regardless of which card it is, players will have a chance to debate before weighing in their political power, determined by the amount of influence provided by the untapped planets a player has in front of them. If a player has no untapped planets, they still get a single vote, but likely won’t be able to change the proceedings much. Additionally, note that if someone votes for one side or another, they must use all their voting power available, but does not have to tap their planets for the effect, unlike most currencies. Voting in this way always starts to the left of the Speaker (aka the person who has Initiative 1), and thus ends with the Speaker.
After whatever ruling has been made, the player who used Assembly then receives 3 more political cards, picking one of them to be the next subject voted on, left on top of the deck for the next round.
Additionally, the person who takes this tile gets to draw 3 action cards. Action cards act as the take-that and wild aspects of the game, providing random and crazy effects that, when played, can change the scope of the game.
Many players had mixed feelings on the cards, but as the Yssaril, I by far had the most experience with them. The Yssaril’s other ability is that this player gets an additional action card at the end of each round (2 instead of 1), has no hand limit for these cards (normally 7) and can look at another player’s hand of action cards at the start of each round. Because of this, most of the game saw me holding 5 or more cards that could sway events in my favor in big ways… if I drew well. Some of my cards allowed me to ban someone from voting on a political card, spawn free units in specific ways, do automatic damage to enemies who dare attack me, each with their own incredible and exciting ability. Others were incredibly specific, so much so that I never saw a use for them. One required me to have the Warsun, a specific military unit that requires multiple technologies to even consider building and 12 resources to create, by and far the most expensive thing in the game. And because I wasn’t aiming for a militaristic angle, this never had the chance to see the light of day, a dead card residing in my hand for literally hours. Other players complained of receiving hands of bunk action cards, and I’m somewhat inclined to believe, without the power of the Yssaril, action cards could easily be the boon of others will screwing you by the luck of the draw.
The tile’s passive ability is that players can spend a strategic allocation to draw an action card, an ability rarely used by anyone except those who held the Initiative tile and would get it for free.
Space politics was by far the most interesting part of this game, as I had never really seen anything like this appear in another game prior. The effects are sweeping and have dramatic effects, with each player struggling to vote one way or another depending on their personal plans and concerns over other players. For much of the early game, I became a political power that could sway the entirety of a vote, meaning that I had people vying for my political strength, buying me off with resources to get laws passed. Late game, politics became aggressive, even nasty, with people fighting bitterly for certain agendas to be passed in hopes of sabotaging or hamstringing others. Taking the tile is interesting and exciting, giving you a chance to change the events of future turns will providing you potential resources immediately. It’s a bit of a gamble, honestly, but that’s a part of what makes it exciting.
Something to note, though, is that this can easily make the game more complicated in a rather forgettable way, specifically via the laws. Any permanent law that changes how the game is played can get lost in the hustle and bustle of events, leading to lengthy and frustrating retcons of certain events. The most notable moment of this for our game is when a massive attack on someone’s homeworlds took place, successfully might I add, only to realize that a law would have required the attacking player to pay a resource that he didn’t have to attack any sectors with a planet claimed by someone else. While it was fairly easy to rationalize and backtrack accordingly (as he had bought extra units on that turn which he wouldn’t have had he known the cost of attacking), these moments are impactful and disruptive to the game’s flow, but are hard to avoid due to how much needs to be kept in mind, especially when you’re new to the game.
Initiative 4, Logistics, allows its user to take 4 command counters immediately. Command counters are a currency that determines how many locations a player can activate on a turn, how many strategic allocations a player has to spend, and how many ships that player can hold on a particular location. All players start the game with the same number, but as different players spend them on different things, this can quickly change. Additionally, players only receive 2 command counters at the end of each round, regardless of how many they used. Between rounds, players can put their counters in any of the three appropriate locations, customizing their boards according to their needs. In this way, Logistics allows players a bit more longevity, both on this turn and future turns, enabling a player to have the ability to do more.
One of the only passive abilities that doesn’t cost a strategic allocation, this tile allows other players to spend 3 influence for a command counter. Players can do this as many times as they want as long as they have the currency to spend.
Logistics I feel is self-explanatory in its use, allowing players to have more opportunities, ultimately a tile that everyone will likely need at some point over the course of the game.
Initiative 5, Trade, allows players to make trade agreements with one another. Each race starts out with a unique set of 2 trade cards with values that fluctuate between 1 and 3 resources. When this tile is activated, players may openly make trades with one another, swapping trade cards to allow for trade goods to be obtained. Trade goods can be used as either resources or influence when purchasing other things, but cannot be used as votes when voting for the political agenda. Each player may make one trade each time this tile is activated, but those trades must be approved by the person activating the tile. The primary player also gets 3 trade goods immediately.
Alternatively, a player may cancel all trade agreements, resulting in a hard reset in regards to what resources each person can get. This was never used in the game that we played though, as the benefits of doing this, in our eyes, was negligible at best, largely because any trade can be canceled at any time by either player who is participating in a trade or if those two people go to war. Additionally, the player using this tile is the sacrificing the 3 trade goods they would get otherwise to reset the trades everyone can get, so unless the player in question has a massive stock of trade goods to rely on for a while, this action seems somewhat anti-productive for most strategies.
The passive ability allows players to spend a strategic allocation to get the trade goods permitted by the trades they have made, thus cashing in on the deals. This does not cancel any deal made, simply allowing you to earn the currency your trades provide. This is done in clockwise order from the player who activated it, as trade goods can run out, resulting in players being unable to take this action.
Trade can be useful in allowing players to have a nice pool of useful and malleable currencies, but often cannot be relied on due to the fluctuation of the market, action cards that can steal tons of trade goods, and racial abilities that can allow players to steal some trade goods from others. One notable moment from the game I played was when I played an action card that allowed me to steal half of the trade goods (4 of the 8) from someone who I had a trade agreement with, curbing his progress in a big way. Another thing to note is how infrequently players would cancel or alter their trade agreements unless specified by a battle. Players saw no reason once they had established trade routes to alter them unless absolutely necessary.
It is worth noting that, at the start of the game, we botched this rule, as we thought players could make both trades on the initial action, thus making the start of the game skewed with more trade goods in play than normal. That being said, trade felt somewhat useless after the first couple of uses generally, as until players are more familiar with the game there appears to be little reason to make new trades. I also feel as if in the scenario that a player cancels all trade agreements, they would likely become a hated enemy of most players at the table, making that an action with little benefit and a lot of risk moving forward. Why would players not just reclaim the same deals they made previously unless one player repeatedly took the Trade tile to prevent this from happening? Doing this would be incredibly costly to that player, sacrificing turn order and options for a marginal benefit.
Initiative 6 is the Warfare tile, representing by far the most difficult aspect of the game to tackle. The tile itself is pretty self-explanatory; the player activating it may remove a command token from a location they have already activated this turn, thus allowing them on a future turn to move that legion of troops to potentially attack another neighboring sector. The passive ability is pretty tame in comparison, allowing players to spend a strategy allocation to move a cruiser or destroyer ship to an empty neighboring sector while exhausting that sector for the round. The passive was often ignored by most, even those with the Initiative tile, simply because there was very little use to leaving a handful of units out in the open like that.
But this opens the conversation of military and war in regards to this game. Much of the game hinges on warfare, with most player’s secret objectives requiring some form of war, with players needing to fight over planets and the resources that are provided by them, and with most of your resources, technologies, and ships being solely useful for fighting others to turtling to prevent others from fighting you. By and large, this game feels like it forces warfare on everyone. Yet, in the game that we played, most players tried avoiding it, at least for a while.
Fighting others isn’t appealing in this game for a few reasons, but most of them can be summed up in two words; emotional investment. When you’re playing a game for 6 or 7 hours, it’s unavoidable to feel attached to what’s going on. And unlike in most other games, fighting over something doesn’t mean you just lose the opportunity to do that thing. In Twilight Imperium, fighting means you are risking EVERYTHING. Every ship you lose is felt, as it opens you up to lose more and more. Every planet lost to an invasion is devastating in terms of what resources you do and don’t have access to. So, when someone attacks you and is relatively successful at it, the other player will likely feel so hurt, so pissed off, that they’ll throw their plans away in hopes of getting vengeance. I saw it happen multiple times here. Hell, I succumbed to it for a while, only to realize that I didn’t have the troops to make the fight worth gunning for. This is a game where if you lose a battle, you risk it all, and battles are determined by, you guessed it, rolling dice. Each ship has better or worse odds of hitting, sure, but at the end of the day, dice are fickle and can screw even the most skilled of players.
And this can easily result in player elimination in many fashions. Sure, you can hunt down and eradicate a particular player, much to the upset and irritation of everyone at the table, and that in such a drawn-out game can be upsetting and uninteresting in its own right, but you can also knock a player out of the game simply by reducing them to next to nothing. If a player loses enough stuff, they have no chance of coming back, and everyone knows it, especially them, meaning players start playing irrationally due to the game now becoming tedious for them. They are no longer interested in playing because they cannot win, and will thus do things that make no strategic or logical sense because nothing matters to them and they just kind of want the game to end. By the end of our game, two players had basically given up, resulting in two massive military forces sitting around doing nothing while other players vied for the win, even if most of them couldn’t at this point.
To place the cherry on top of this teetering mess, some species, if unchallenged by militaristic invasion, will win no matter what. The winning player of this game controlled the Jol-Nar, a technologically driven race that, while having a -1 debuff to all fights, could obtain one free tech every round and an additional one if they had the resources, regardless of who claimed the tech tile. This basically handed him the win, and we only realized it when it was far too late and he had an armada of dreadnaughts at his doorstep waiting for invaders.
But this begs the question; should players be forced to march on and attack someone from the start of the game because, if left unchecked, they will dominate? I don’t find that to be a fun or fair experience, but that’s more or less what that race asked of us in terms of this game, and that leaves me with a confused, sour taste in my mouth, making one of the key elements of this game the most difficult to stomach.
Initiative 7, the aforementioned Technology tile, allows the user to build a tech for free, and others to build one for a strategic allocation and 8 resources. With 4 different tech focuses and many of the techs having prerequisites, this tile can be rather useful to pushing forward certain plans, but never feels too overpowered… unless…
So Initiative 8, Imperial, is perhaps even more controversial in my eyes than the warfare of this game, and for one very important reason; winning. Notice that I haven’t mentioned how a player wins the game yet? Sure, there’s a lot of interesting and exciting stuff going on in terms of the universe and how everyone interacts, but how does one actually “win” this epic space opera?
Well, by getting 10 points of course.
… Okaaaaaaaaaay, but how does someone get points?
Well, there are three ways to get points; through a player’s secret objective that always provides 2 points, through claiming the Imperial tile which gives the active player 2 points for free, or by accomplishing public objectives which are revealed through the Imperial tile.
So, other than a player’s secret objective, the only way to WIN the game is by taking the Imperial tile every chance you get.
… That seems a bit anti-climactic, confusing, and frustrating.
It certainly is. Most of the other tiles, in retrospect, start to appear useless in this regard, as a free 2 points is a HUGE deal in this game. The public objectives, in the early game, provide 1 point a pop, but you can only accomplish one each turn, meaning you’re at the fate of what order they come out in. In our game, the first three that appeared were all tech-oriented, meaning the Jol-Nar player quickly took a dominating lead. And while the late game public objectives can provide up to 3 points, they often require INSANE requirements. Take over Mecatol Rex and all 6 surrounding sectors of it for 3 points? Good luck with that.
What’s Mecatol Rex?
Oh, just the center tile of the board that is a prerequisite for 80% of players to achieve their secret objectives.
So everyone is constantly fighting over it?
Either that or stationing troops all around it in hopes of scaring off anyone else who wants it.
In other words, unless you are planning on going to war for the measly 2 points the secret objectives give you for substantial effort, taking the Imperial initiative every chance you get is the only strategic way to win. Sure, you can get a public objective here and there, but only if the objectives that come out are achievable by you. Hell, some of the secret objectives can become nearly impossible depending on the board state. And if you wait too long for some good public objectives to appear, certain “objective cards” just end the game, meaning that the person claiming the Imperial tile is not just advancing towards the win, but forcing other players to worry about the ticking clock that will eventually force the end-game.
As a brief aside, the passive ability of this tile allows players to build units on a tile that is already exhausted or without exhausting said tile, allowing players to stock up on more troops.
So, with all that said and done, after 7 or so hours of playing the game, we didn’t actually finish the game. That’s right, while the “winning” player hovered at 9 points, we saw that the clock struck 10 p.m., with most of us having a ways to go to get home. This can certainly be attributed to us learning the game and not knowing optimal strategies, sure, but at the end of the day, this isn’t a game to play if you’re looking to win. After discussing it with some of the players, I came to the conclusion that this game often ends in the same way as Citadels; the player that is quiet, doesn’t piss anyone off, and is able to remain in the shadows for long enough, wins the game automatically. Unless players are willing to get their hands dirty and commit to a war-mongering playstyle, certain races and players will win every time, no matter what.
This is a story-telling game through and through, providing an adventure that players will remember, full of space battles and intense fighting, both on and off the game board. It’s a game that becomes personal fast, and for that reason alone it’s a game that’s not for everyone. Hell, I don’t know if I’d play it again myself unless invited. It’s an investment, both from a cost perspective and a time perspective, and that can’t be overlooked. The scoring system is inherently flawed in my opinion, and due to the personal stakes of the game, it’s hard to play it optimally without potentially damaging friendships depending on who you play with. It’s a brutal but expansive experience that you need the right circumstances for, and in that way, it is hard to recommend. Still, I think this is a game that everyone should experience in some way or another in order to at least say that they have, as Twilight Imperium is undoubtedly unlike anything else I’ve played.