Monday, 24 November 2014

Twilight Imperium: First Impressions

Twilight Imperium is a long game. Veteran boardgamers look at the three to four hour playtime printed on the box with a wry smile. Nine and a half hours later, and with our game probably only three-quarters complete, it is easy to see why.

Part of the reason is that Twilight Imperium is packed full, both physically and conceptually. There are stacks of cards, buckets of tokens, an armada of brightly coloured plastic ships and thirty-seven hexes that form a map of the known galaxy. There are unique races with their own rules and playstyle; player roles in the form of strategy cards; systems of production and building; tech trees to research; politics and laws to enact that change the base rules; and the focus of the game – launching fleets of your ships into space combat against other players, to win worlds and hopefully bring you closer to victory.

Starting out - my little fledgling empire

I say hopefully, because victory in Twilight Imperium comes from meeting the requirements of objective cards; each player starts with a juicy secret objective, and more public objectives are revealed periodically, and could be completed without you coming to blows at all - though this isn’t likely. The whole engine of Twilight Imperium is built around the core of aggressively conquering your neighbours’ systems - you expand to gain resources - resources are spent on ships - and ships are used to invade. The tech-tree upgrades help in combat, and the politics cards often affect the military situation.

The start of our game began as I’d imagine many games of Twilight Imperium begin, with each player tentatively expanding out into their adjacent systems, gobbling up the easy fruit within reach. Or – not, in some cases, as the in-box expansion we played with introduces interesting things to find on the assimilated planets - angry locals, a radioactive or biohazardous environment, or a wealth of goods just there for the taking. Because each player starts with limited command counters - used in the game’s activation mechanic - the early turns feel very similar to Archipelago, where you wrestle against a limited pool of actions to achieve all of your objectives in a turn. For me, this initial exploration phase felt the most exciting, interesting part of the game, especially when people eventually began meeting objective requirements.

After a few turns, our empires push into unknown space

As the game progressed, it became obvious that our expanding empires would come into conflict, and it would soon be time for some space battles, and it is these that are the least enjoyable element of the game for me. The combat in Twilight Imperium, in many respects, is Risk. There are some differences - each class of ship has their speciality, and scores a hit on a different number - but as except for a couple of classes each ship has one attack and one hit, combat comes down to rolling a big handful of dice, taking hits, and repeating until one side is wiped out or chooses to retreat. There is strategy - moving your fleets to the best hexes to protect your systems - but no tactics beyond trying to fill your opponent’s system with more of your ships than theirs.

Enemies mass on our borders!

The box calls Twilight Imperium a game of “galactic conquest, politics and trade”, and I think it is fair to say that the game prioritises those elements in that order. Looking beyond the combat, the politics feels nicely robust, with players having to decide whether to use planets for their production now at a cost of their potential political heft later in the turn. The laws – which must be decided on when drawn - generally force players to choose between an immediate or ongoing effect, casting their vote according to how they predict this will affect not only their own strategy but that of their opponents also.

The trade element of Twilight Imperium is a little more anaemic. There is a mechanic to swap trade agreements, which could result in an offer that is worth more to one player than to another, but nothing to either unless the deal is struck; these decisions are interesting, but would be so much more so if there was more than one sort of resource to barter. The game would be richer if the decision to annex a neighbouring system could come at the cost of your only access to valuable space-minerals.

The enemy has almost taken our home system!

Twilight Imperium has its spot in the board-gaming canon, and definitely revels in its status of being that game – “you know, the one that takes all day to play”, but ultimately, none of the layers are superfluous, or could be excised without leaving the game feeling much shallower or incomplete. Conversely, as it feels like it has reached critical mass, I would look forward to playing Twilight Imperium with some of the expansions as I don't think that the addition of more layers and complexity would dramatically increase the playtime, and would add that extra depth to the weaker areas of the game.