Twilight Imperium 3rd edition was released this year, updating a Fantasy Flight Games classic to adapt some more modern ideas in board gaming. I own the second edition, and played it twice, but it hasn’t really left the shelf in many years, due to time and complexity involved. I have now played the 3rd edition twice (16+ hours of gameplay) and have to say that if I had bought it, it would probably remain on my shelf or be headed for Ebay. (Warning: the following review has a number of crudely shot cameraphone pics of the game being played)
Through no small amount of effort, we were able to wrangle up a group for what was my second game of Twilight Imperium 3rd ed. I really wasn’t happy with the first playing, but I was willing to give it another try. The first playing had a lot of factors going against it: we started around 10:30 at night, we had to learn the rules, and a number of crucial rules had been mistaught. So Dennis (who had laid down the money to buy it in the first place) convinced me to give it another shot. We also recruited Scott, Justin, and Gavin to play. Scott and Justin had played in the last game I had played in, whereas Gavin was a new player. By the time I arrived, pieces had already been sorted out and races assigned (everyone gets an alien race with their own special abilities, homeworlds, and starting military.)
The next step was to create the galactic game board we would be playing on. This is done by laying out hexagonal tiles. Each tile is a piece of the board: either empty space, a planetary system that provides resources, or some natural space disaster. A central planet, one that is important to a number of in game objectives, is placed in the center, and each player’s homeworlds are laid out at a distance to the center. Everyone is dealt out a number of tiles to fill in the board from there. Which was the first thing that really got me. I remembered that the first time we played a number of players were unhappy that they had been given crappy tiles to place, which means they were at a disadvantage in terms of being able to place good planets near themselves. I voiced these protests, saying how unsatisfying it was the last time. I was resoundly shot down as the other players didn’t remember there being such a problem. Well, I was dealt my hand, and guess what: 3 natural disasters, 2 planets, and 1 wormhole (the wormholes, sadly, being fairly worthless.) So, having been the group’s Cassandra, I decided to prove my point (or self-fufilling my prophecy) and placed all the natural disasters in between Dennis’s homeworld and the important planet in the center.
I was the blue player in the lower left side, the mass of red outlined hexes on the right is the natural disaster tiles placed in Dennis’s way. This lead us to talk about the “Creation Myth” phase of the game where the gods of my race tormented his sector before sentient life had even formed, and we were rivals on a theological level.
Then, with all the setup complete, and some semblence of the rules having been explained to Gavin, we tried to begin the game. I say tried because there doesn’t appear to be a rule for who goes first, and turn order is EXTREMELY important to the game. (I think a really obvious thing to do is to somehow tie who starts with who started placing tiles first. But even something along those lines wouldn’t fix the deeper problem of turn order in the game.) After a frustrating look through where it should be in the rules, we did the tradition high roll contest, and Scott scored a 10 and won the roll-off, earning him the first pick of Strategy cards.
Scott and Justin, Imperial and Initiative on Turn 1
How the Strategy cards operate, and one of the main thrusts of the game, is similar to what you’d see in Puerto Rico or San Juan. There are 8 strategy cards, and starting with the “Speaker”, each player chooses one. Each of the Strategy cards has a primary effect that the player who chose it gets to use, and when it is activated, each other player gets a chance to use the card, albeit in a lesser way.
Did I say that each player chooses one? That’s not really correct, since there really is no choice involved for two players each round. The player who picks first always chooses Imperial, and the next person chooses Initiative so that they can get Imperial next round. In this way the Imperial card rotates around the table clockwise. The Imperial card is the most desirable card: it gives you an automatic 2 victory points when you’re racing towards 10. It also reveals new objectives that give everyone more ways to score points and drive the game forward. There are two big problems with this system however. One is the aforementioned turn order. It is very likely that some players will get to use the Imperial card more often than others in the game, based on where they are seated and how many turns an average game takes. Secondly, and this is more personal than anything, I really dislike when a game takes away interesting choices and force feeds you an obvious choice. The game designer even admits that 95% of the time you’ll pick Imperial. I find this very sloppy, and I’m not alone- many of the game’s players dislike this mechanic and have made a lot of suggestions to tweak the game to still drive along but make choices for everyone.
So, the first player having been determined/first player advantage having been assigned, we began play. The turn order is determined by the Strategy cards picked. In each turn, you pick one action: move your ships, build in a system with a spacedock, or activate the primary ability of your strategy card. If you don’t want to do anything else, you pass, and you don’t make any actions for the rest of the turn. Before you can pass, however, you MUST activate your Strategy card, giving yourself some benefit and everyone else gets a chance to do something. The multiple turn order thing can cause the game to slow down pretty dramatically since it’s difficult to keep track of whose turn it is. Often one player will have to police the turn order, or else the players who have downtime get to talking, and the person ahead of them don’t indicate who should go next, they just declare “Next.” And the turn order goes two different ways: by strategy cards for normal turns, and by clockwise order for secondary ability of strategy card turns. In Puerto Rico this isn’t a problem since everything is clockwise, and so when it gets back around to the person who took the card it’s the next clockwise person’s round. Puerto Rico is entirely driven by the card selection as well, instead of having these seperate turns, making it a much cleaner mechanism.
Dennis doesn’t trust Gavin on his borders
I also found that many of the rules were just hard to keep track of, and ended up breaking many of the rules without realizing it. I’d say building is the worst offender. You must build at a spacedock, which must be attached to a planet. You must pay the cost of what you want to build by “exhausting” (tapping) planets for their resources. All these things are fine, and easy to understand. But then you get into the fiddly details. You can only produce a number of units equal to the planet’s it’s attached to resource value +2 each turn. Certain units that are produced need to be held by other units. Certain units come 2 at a time. You can only have a limited number of ships in each hex. You can’t produce when someone has you “blockaded.” The reference sheet that lists the cost for production for each player has a misprinted cost. And I can’t tell you how many times I had to answer “Can I build a space dock here?” due to how many rules there were for placing them. Oh yeah, and there are 9 distinct unit types, each with their own niche and abilities, at least two of which become utterly useless about halfway through the game.
Some of my units in play
Despite this and pretty regular trips to the rules, the first few turns proceeded fairly quickly. It took a while for fleets to actually engage, the void of which we filled with elaborate posturing. “If you take a potshot at me with your deep space cannon, I will retaliate!” “Well, duh.” “What’s your plan with those ships on the border? “To protect me from your fleet” so on and so on. I even allowed Scott quick access to the central planet so he could fill his objective.
The only time I really worried about the game was when the full coke cup was placed near the board by someone not playing.
Then, finally, some battle broke out. Dennis, constrained by my placement of supernovas and asteroids, boxed in by Gavin’s and Justin’s fleets, decided to take the initiative and break through to Justin’s homeworld. It was around this time that we realized Scott was poised to win. The initiative card had worked its way all around the table, and while most of us were fairly equal in points, Scott would grab the free two points Imperial would give and let him push for final victory.
Justin doesn’t realize Dennis is about to pwn his homeworld.
So it became a big “stomp the leader” game, as these type of wargames with open scoring often do. (He had already scored his secret mission card, so all of his points and potential for points for open on the table.) This is when the game started to take a while. And instead of being a really tight battle where we card about the result of every die roll and our actions were tightly planned out to be executed in a mass of strategy finally coming to fruition… it mostly came down to hidden action cards and obscure rules. A combined strike force of Gavin and Dennis mostly dislodged Scott from the central planet. (Well, not really combined… Gavin moved in to take out the space forces, and due to the weird retreating rules, had to have his Death Star I mean War Sun take a hit to be able to leave the system to let Dennis’s ground forces come in and try to dislodge Scott, ultimately to no effect.) Meanwhile, I played a series of action cards to come out of nowhere to sweep into the heart of Scott’s empire to prevent him from winning that turn. It was fairly upsetting for Scott to have these plans destroyed mostly through use of random cards, and his only defense would have been to draw cards that let him cancel other cards.
The game ended on the next turn, with Scott, while bemoaning his loss, sneakily scooping up the last things he needed to win the game. I myself was within a turn or two of winning, but misunderstood how one of the obscure strategy cards worked which let Scott stop me from stopping his win and setting myself up for an eventual win. Dennis also said he was within a turn of winning… but of course, both he and I were at a disadvantage due to who the Imperial card started with. You should have rolled better in the roll-off, Dennis!
I’d like to say that our endgame was unusual, but it was almost exactly how our last game had played out, and based on the game system, I can’t see it ending differently. Maybe if we played it more often we’d have a better grasp of the obscure rules and combinations, but the Action Cards remain a huge and random part of the game.
What’s the final verdict? I think you can probably tell that my response to this game is pretty negative. I will put a disclaimer that I don’t particularly like wargames, or long games. There are a lot of rules in here that I would call “band-aids”: extra rules that you have to remember to fix some problem with the game, but instead of changing the rules that already exist to fix the problem they add extra rules to fix holes in the rules. There’s a lot of that going on, and it makes it very difficult to remember every single rule. There’s also a lot of random cards that come up (both in the Action Cards and the Political Cards which rarely get used.) The central mechanic, one that is very interesting, is underused by making a lot of the choices relatively obvious.
I will say that it’s a step in the right direction in wargames for me. Make some more interesting choices outside of the game that aren’t pure numbers of troop placement. And I would dearly love a game that emulates Masters of Orion or Alpha Centauri where you’re managing fleets, making political alliances, and researching technology. Unfortunatly, Twilight Imperium isn’t quite what I want.
THE FINAL SCORE: -10. While a great concept with some interesting choices, the lack of polished game play, turn order issues, and excessive randomness all detract from the experience. I think somewhere in there is a good game that could be brought out with a pretty heavy rewrite, it would require too much effort to be worthwhile when I could just play another game.
Dennis with his more positive rating than mine