Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Twilight Imperium: Déjà Vu All Over Again

This is a great big game with lots of little plastic bits… and as I played this game for the first time, I had a multilayered sense of déjà vu. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen it you tried to retool a monster “Ameritrash” game like Axis & Allies with just about every gimmick we’ve learned about game design since the German designer board game invasion, then this is the game to play. While Cyclades perhaps one-ups it in terms of raw design elegance… Twilight Imperium gives you every nerd’s true desire: massive space fleets, worlds to conquer, and byzantine political intrigue.

From Settler’s of Catan we get the trick of using large hex tiles to produce a different game board for each session. Also… to eliminate player downtime and keep everyone engaged, a “command point system” is used that forces large actions to be broken down into several small steps. These micro-turns are usually very quick to play… and give opposing forces a chance to react to threats as they appear.  This system functions very similarly to Catan’s trade and production dynamic in that they keep everyone engaged pretty much the whole time.  The only thing that breaks up the tempo there would be when a new player has to calculate what he wants to build.

From games like Puerto Rico, Citadels, and Race for the Galaxy we get various roles to choose from each turn. This determines what special powers you get to use each turn and also help to vary player turn sequence. Finally, from classic games like Dune, Illuminati and Cosmic Encounter, each faction gets their own bonuses and “rule benders”.

There is one last game element that… while maybe not invented with Munchkin, has certainly made infamous by it: victory comes when any player collects the required ten victory points. And just as with Munchkin, this apparently simple objective is modified my a mind-numbing amount of “special effect cards” that interact in strange ways. In its favor, Twilight Imperium appears to not be quite so afflicted with the tiresome “take that!” approach to game balance where players save back their bad cards to pummel anyone that is close to winning. I didn’t see anything that took away victory points once they were scored… and the special cards generally had to be used in certain narrow contexts, making it difficult to bust out the board game equivalent of an Uno “Wild Draw Four.”

Endgame: Whos queued up for getting the Imperial Strategy card next?

The three player game I played last night began with an opening colonization phase where players took over the worlds next to their capitals as they set up the initial boundaries between the empires.  Here are a few random notes about the game:

  • One thing that us new players had trouble doing was colonizing the nearby worlds in such a way that we’d have fleets in position to continue sallying forth later on.  The experienced guy seemed to grok how to use the Warfare and Logistics roles just so to accomplish this and could coordinate his forces much more dynamically.
  • I had no idea what units to build.  I spent huge amounts of tech to get my carriers at move-two… but then stupidly used my massive amounts of cash to purchase a couple of move-one dreadnoughts.  Not only were those monster ships dreadfully slow, but they are mostly just sitting ducks if they don’t have any fighters to provide cover for them.  A better move would have been to load up on fighters and carriers early on… with destroyers to counter enemy fighters and cruisers to provide some attacking power.  (It is very easy to wiff on an attack round, so lots of units with any tech bonuses you can muster is the way to go.)  I needed to pull the Logistics role earlier in order allow for a larger fleet… I should have built an extra space dock earlier in order to allow for additional fighter and destroyer production… and I should have built a third space dock as far forward as possible and produce my dreadnoughts and PDS’s there.
  • There are political thingies that you get to vote on.  They seemed largely useless in this three player game, but the action cards that you can get by choosing the Political role can be devastating if you have a Baron Harkonnen bent.
  • The dude teaching the game told us that if any of us attack each other, that it was probably going to throw the game to the odd man out.  Yeah, that’s often a factor in three player games.  Heck, it just happened in a CAR WARS game a couple of weeks ago.  What made it worse here was that there was plenty of stuff to do nearby our home systems… and most of the victory points were easy enough to pull down without traveling into opposing territory.  So… we had a monster fleet strategic space combat game… without any freakin’ space combat!  Not one shot was fired in anger throughout the entire game except for some lame “what if” experimentation at the end.
  • My faction’s special ability was a bonus in combat.  There was no combat in this game.  (Did I mention there was no combat?) Lame!
  • The Imperium role gives two victory points to whoever takes it.  Usually the next person takes the Initiative role so that they can choose the Imperium role the next time around.  If everyone stays more or less in sync with the other victory points that are based on objectives (both secret and public) then the game is decided in favor of the first person to draw the Imperium role.  I had no understanding of this… uh… design flaw, so I chose the Technology role on my first turn when I could have chosen the Imperium role instead.  This one ill-informed move cost me the game.
  • No.  Space.  Battles.
  • NO SPACE BATTLES!
  • ARGH!
So that was my first exposure to Twilight Imperium. After that, I can’t help but reflect on how similar games dealt with these issues and kept the tension high while encouraging people to take risks:
  • Axis & Allies had the classic US/Great Britain/Russia vs. Germany/Japan team ups.  If you were stuck with three players, then two take the Axis and the third player plays all of the Allies.  Also… there is a bit of a clock on the game in that the Axis has to win before the Allies can overwhelm them with their economic production.  But… to win… you still had to… uh… fight… and take over territory and capitals.  No problems with a three player game here!
  • Samurai Swords (aka Shogun) had daimyos leading the armies.  Each time they won a battle they gained an experience point.  If they gained enough of these, they could make multiple moves and attacks in a single turn.  This theoretically increased the chances of players to win the game in one decisive stroke, but canny use of the ninja could take down a particularly pesky daimyo.  The economic system in this game was implemented with secret and simultaneous bidding– and players bid not only for turn order, but also for ninja and ronin.  A very dynamic game.  Three player games of this will see lots of small battles at all times– battle experienced daimyo’s are too valuable for players to just sit back and be passive the whole game.
  • Final Frontier….  This one is a bit dry, but its playing time is much quicker.  Players build their colonies right on top of each other.  The person that has an economic edge can run away with it forever.  But each time one of the three types of combat are used for the first time, everyone gains a bonus to economic production and (possibly) speed– with the target of the attack gaining more of a bonus.  When you choose to attack… you have to choose your method(s) carefully– and if you don’t make that blow a decisive one, your actions can hurt you more than them!
  • El Grande— limit players to a few options that cause them to hurt and/or help several players at once.  Reward players that spread out to put just enough resources into several things at once– as opposed to the war gamer mentality that always things to concentrate forces into one giant overwhelming force.

Ah well…. The déjà vu here was three fold: I’d seen these euro mechanics before… I’d seen these 3-player game issues before… and… finally… I’d played this style of Monster “Ameritrash” game before as well.  There was way more extraneous detail here than I could comprehend in a first session, but I am somewhat annoyed that the game seems particularly broken with three players even though it is in its third edition now.  Honestly, I’d rather have played two or three Killer Kart duels in the same amount of time that it took to do this.  But this is Jeffro’s CAR WARS Blog, after all, so I imagine you already expect that…!

Still… I don’t like expansions or house rules unless it’s a game I’m going to play over fifty times.  There are so many games and it takes so long to learn and teach them well enough that you can get a good experience out of them… I like to leave new games at the core base game for as long as possible in order to facilitate the assimilation of casual gamers into the hobby.  While I’m pretty sure the game teacher slipped in some non-combat victory point objective cards from a later expansion, that alone does not explain the turkey-ness of this game session: it appears that expert Twilight Imperium players are quite familiar with the inherent lameness of the three player version of their game.

The verdict: I despise games that force me to engage in the actual work of game designer.  No, I’m not going to go develop a good 3-player variant scenario for Twilight Imperium after just one play!  Though I can think of a couple of tactics to play to maybe deal with the flaws, this one is probably not coming out again unless there are four players at the table. Even then, I’m still not sure that I want to see that stupid “Imperium” strategy card in play no matter how many players we have!

Update: I actually did play this monster game again.  Three players, too.  Probably with some sort of expansion.  Read all about it here.

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