Game Review: Twilight Imperium

Well, if you're looking for an epic Star-Empires-like game involving space combat, political maneuvering, resource management, and technology advancements, here it is.  Twilight Imperium (TI) from Fantasy Flight Games is the mega experience you're looking for.

Twilight Imperium

The third edition of TI comes in a huge box and has as more fiddly bits than a jigsaw puzzle.  Up to six players control alien empires that compete with each other for victory points on a random map of star systems.  Victory points are claimed by achieving both public goals and secret objectives, and each alien race has its own special powers that allow it to break the rules in their own way.  In order to claim the victory points players must fight space battles with one another, establish trade agreements, upgrade their technologies, agree on galactic politics, and manage their planetary resources effectively.  Not surprisingly, TI takes a while to play.  We recently played a five-player game in just under six hours, and that's with everyone already knowing the rules.  


Each game turn is divided into three phases.  During the Strategy Phase, each player selects one of eights strategy cards, each of which gives its owner a special power and also allows the other players to perform a secondary action.  Strategy cards must be activated at some point during the turn, but knowing when to activate a particular card can be crucial, since players must often choose between spending resources now to get the secondary benefit of the card and saving those resources for actions later in the turn.


The Action Phase is where all the, well, action happens.  Players "activate" star systems on the map and maneuver their fleets into various combat positions.  There are nine different kinds of tactical units, from lowly ground forces to the devastating war suns, and players use these to conquer neighboring worlds.  Combat is a simple matter of simultaneous dice rolls to score hits.  The harder part is managing your fleet within the restrictions of the build and stacking rules.  During this phase the strategy cards are activated, and players also have a chance to upgrade technologies, vote on political referenda, and establish trade agreements with one another.


Finally, the Status Phase allows players to claim victory points for the turn, repair damage ships, and so forth.  Crucial in this phase is knowing how to allocate your control counters for the coming turn, since this allocation determines your maximum fleet size in one star system, as well as how many systems you can logistically manage.


What's Good


As daunting as it sounds, TI is a ton of fun.  There's plenty going on each turn for players to manage, and it's as important to watch your enemies' actions as well as your own.  And as tempting as it is to get into a slug-a-thon space battle with your neighbor, it's important to keep your eyes on the victory point prizes.  A savvy player can, for example, claim a world just long enough to fulfill a victory condition, then abandon it to his squabbling neighbors.  The various strategy and action cards can be played at just the right time to overwhelm your opponent or thwart their plans to overwhelm you, so, like any good galactic emperor, one needs to stay flexible as the turn progresses.  The game components for TI are all nice quality and look great spread out in galactic turmoil once the game gets going.  


What's Not So Good

There is a lot of bookkeeping in the game, but to be fair, once you've played a few turns you get the hang of things.  Most of the delays seem to stem from looking up some of the special conditions in the rules, which I think could be organized a bit better.  I'd like to see everything about combat complete in one section, builds in another section, and so forth, rather than scattered throughout the rules as they are now.  The plastic ships, while nice, are often too similar to distinguish at a glance, although, again you get used to it.  I think my biggest complaint is with the Imperial strategy card, which gives its owner two victory points outright. This card is meant to act as a sort of timer for the game, but instead just feels clunky and artificially steers player actions around it.  A common variant is to reduce the value of this card to one VP, but I think the game would be better served if it was replaced altogether with a more interactive card.


A word of warning: don't try TI with casual players or without sufficient time.  And never, never try to teach new players all at once with the eight-player expansion unless you want something like this on your dining room table for an entire day:


Eight-player Twilight Imperium

Fun Factor: 

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use the new cards

This was a 'get the expansion' post, but then I realized 8 players meant you were already there.

Well, bureaucracy gets nicely away from the problems of the Imperialism card. We almost always play with the new set. Although, we are talking about going back to the tweaked version of the originals in order to play an 'Age of Empires' session next time.

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