Thursday, August 4, 2011

Twilight Imperium, Third Edition. Not a cheap game or a short one, but worth the time and money.

The line of thinking that led me to yesterday's article on Babylon 5 persists, as I continue to have a head full of space stations and politics, intergalactic war and diplomacy. This brings to mind a question similar to the one that put me back into a B5 mood: What is your favorite game? For me, this question is overbroad. It would be much easier to answer favorite food, favorite music or any other of a number of questions that a reasonable person might say “can we narrow it down a bit?” It is impossible for me to compare all the card games, roleplaying games, video games, board games... so let's concentrate on that last one. I can, without moving my head much, see over 150 board games from where I'm currently seated. Surely, amongst those, there must be a favorite. That's not a particularly difficult question, especially considering that I have galactic conquest on the brain anyway. My favorite board game is Twilight Imperium.

Flat out amazing, and not nearly as complicated as it appears at first glance. Everything is
exceptionally planned here, from rules reference to space for component storage.

Published by Fantasy Flight Games (in fact, the 1st edition was their first product,) Twilight Imperium is a board game of Galactic conquest, politics and trade. There is a genre in PC gaming that sums up what TI does so well called “4X,” pioneered by games like Master of Orion, the strategy titles call upon an empire-builder to do four things well. Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate. In an unstable galaxy, each player controls a civilization bent on stabilizing the universe under their own control. There are many paths to victory, military conquest, the research of advanced technology, political maneuvering, effective trading... the most successful race will master more than one of these and be crowned victor. Though it has many, many pieces representing capital ships, marines and fighters, focusing on war to the exclusion of all else is a very risky strategy, as a potential tyrant may see a weaker foe claim a political victory before he can be completely wiped out.

Let's start with some of the basics. This isn't an inexpensive or short game. Twilight Imperium, Third Edition will take 4-8 hours for the recommended 4-6 players presuming everyone has at least a passing familiarity with the rules. Regular retail price is $89.95, but a look at the components tells you why. There are over 350 plastic figures for space and ground units and structures, well over 400 cards and many durable full-color counters and board tiles, as well as the reference cards and playsheets for each of the 10 playable races. The massive 12”x24” box has more than enough room for everything, and can accommodate a basic storage system to keep it all organized for faster setup for the next game. Victory conditions are determined at the start of each game, with some public goals that everyone works toward, and some secret goals distributed at the start of the game.

Layout for a full six-player game found over at BoardGameGeek.

With the different special abilities presented by each race, the somewhat random victory conditions that might include researching a particular technology, controlling a certain number of planets or building a number of a specific unit, and the board setup, the game will be different every time. The galaxy is created with tiles placed semi-randomly in a specific arrangement around Mecatol Rex, the political heart of the galaxy. This “Settlers of Catan” style board setup has players all involved in setting up the board so the strategy begins before the first turn. In addition to each race having a unique mechanical ability, they start with slightly different technologies and military units, making the play of each one distinct. Theme reigns supreme in everything, from these mechanics to the uniformly gorgeous art found throughout.

In a game like this, typically you'd have one player taking a long turn managing their empire, making units, collecting resources, executing actions and rolling dice for battles, while everyone else sits there bored and waiting to play. What makes this my favorite game is that this does not happen. Taking a cue from the Eurogame Puerto Rico, at the start of the active player's turn, they select a strategy from the remaining options left in a communal area. This strategy token allows the active player to perform a specific strategic or tactical action, such as building or moving units, seizing first choice of strategies for the next round, or simply gaining a victory point. The strategy token also allows every other player to optionally take a different specific action from the one the active player took, also printed on the token. Everyone is involved on each turn, and everyone stays interested.

These tokens push it over the top from "good game" to "amazing game".

From there, players explore and colonize planets, build bases and starships, research technology that may be deadly, like new weapons or ships, utilitarian like improved engines, or both. Players enter into trade agreements, make and break alliances and get involved with politics, casting votes on measures that introduce rules encouraging or imposing sanctions on military action or expansion, or a host of other mechanics including political titles. Players careful to build their alliances and not appear overly threatening can build quietly toward victory, or snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with a well-timed and surprising vote, trade agreement or completion of secret objective. Frequently games end with someone who is apparently in third place or worse declaring victory at the end of their turn, making it difficult to know when to make or break alliances and with whom.

Combat plays out like an advanced version of “Axis and allies” with long range orbital lasers and War Suns (think: that's not a moon, its a space station) providing heavy support for capital ships and waves of fighters. 10-sided dice are used in conjunction with tactics cards to set to-hit numbers to cause casualties on the enemy side, and there is even a card that allows for the possibility of a “trench run” for a single fighter to find and attack a War Sun's weak point. Ground combat is more of a “soften them up with an intial shot from space and send in the marines” affair, with strength of numbers and good dice rolling forming the bulk of the action. A player who either ignores their war machine or concentrates on it to the exclusion of all else does so at their peril. War as a primary path to victory is a difficult one, but it should be nearly every players second priority.

There's a lot of plastic in that box.

I've played this nearly a dozen times, and we still haven't even used the variants featured in the box itself that include “great leader” tokens and random events for each planet that you can land on before colonization. There are two expansions now, one brings the maximum player count up to eight and adds new races, mines, shock troops and artifacts; the other adds flagships, race-specific technologies and alternate strategy tokens as well as scenario-based play. Both expand the stock of components with more cards, tiles and tokens to keep gameplay fresh for anyone who is becoming overly familiar with the base game elements. Though it requires that I set aside a Saturday and quite a bit of space to set up and play, I can't remember a session where anyone was dissatisfied.
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Electric Addict said...

i've never seen a board game like that, crazy

Alpha said...

I want this game so badly...

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