Sunday, June 3, 2018

Fighting off the "Flesh-Things" in Twilight Imperium

Last November, my friend Jeff and I tried out the 3rd edition of Twilight Imperium (as discussed here) in anticipation of the 4th edition that was -at the time- coming out. My friend Jim however, preempted both of us and bought the 4th edition of the game when it came out.

For those who don't know, Twilight Imperium is a 3X civ game on the grand strategic level, like the previous versions. I say 3X instead of 4X as there is no exploration in the game.  Galactic races expand, exploit and (possibly) exterminate each other, on a galactic scale. It has a weighty name that is a mouthful.. Twilight Imperium.. At the risk of sounding like a Roman history show-off, I just want to point out that an "imperium" means having military command by a military commander, an "imperator." I think the authors really meant to say "empire" instead, as the word Emperor comes from "imperator" as all Roman Emperors were imperators. However, I imagine most people would agree that Imperium sounds more weighty than Empire. Not sure what the reference to Twilight is.. perhaps the dimness of space... I don't know. Whatever the fluff,  saying Twilight Imperium sounds like a game to be taken seriously.. and it is.. at least in terms of length of time to play. The game is notorious for taking a long long time to play, so much so, that memes about it have sprung up.

It was not surprising therefore that for the next six months, for one reason or another, we couldn't block out 12 hours of time for just the 3 of us to play it until this weekend. Neither Jim, Jeff nor myself are 15 year old kids anymore but old coots with busy lives, so 12 hours of time was asking for a lot. Nevertheless, the stars seemed to align this weekend, if you'll forgive the play on words, and we ventured forth to finally try the 4th edition.

I'm told the rules in the 4th have been tweaked for the better and I could see that game components are a slight improvement to the 3rd naturally enough.. the minis are crisper..

and the planetary tiles and player boards have slightly better art...

I chose the Arborec race, which appears to be some sort of tree vegetation species, simply on their quote alone.. calling everyone else "flesh things." It allowed me to ham it up by calling Jim and Jeff "flesh things" all night and denouncing flesh things as war mongering expansionists.

The game takes up a large footprint, so we decided to use two 6' x 4' tables together to comfortably put all our stuff. We placed the tiles on a lava-themed game mat which made the game look even more outer space-ish.

Twilight Imperium has a lot of the hallmarks of civ games.. there is a tech tree with colour-coded prerequisites that can be seen at a glance on each tech card. The colour on the left is the prerequisite to get each tech. If I wanted the Dacxive Animinator, for example, I would need one prior green tech. If I wanted the Hyper Metabolism, I would need two prior green techs. The game has a lot of techs to pick and choose from. 

 The techs of course, allow you to build better ships, like I did here, upgrading my destroyer I to to a type II.. I needed two prior red techs to do so for example.

The player board shows what every ship and planetary gun and station tech prerequisites are needed at a glance, along with all species abilities.

Planets have two resources, industrial (a number in yellow) and political influence (in blue).. The most valuable planet is the one in the middle, Mecatol Rex, which has a lot of political influence compared to the rest. There also appears to have more victory conditions being on or adjacent to this planet, it seems.

Political influence is interesting, as at the end of every game term, players vote on directives and laws that could stymie other players, like say, banning the Death Star-ish type of ships, or "War Suns" as they are called, or in the case below, require you to halve your infantry garrisons. This could allow weaker players to outvote stronger players, provided they can agree. There is a large political deck, so no two games will be the same from that alone.

The heart of the game is picking what two actions (in a three player game) you will take in the game. There is the primary action that you alone can do, but everyone else is entitled to perform the secondary action. This mechanic I imagine tugs at the heart strings of most lovers of T.I.  It keeps you constantly engaged, even on another player's turn.

The game is won by being the first to reach ten victory points, which is done by scoring on public goals, which expand every turn, but also secret ones, like this one below. This allows you to do things the other players don't suspect until it's too late. Again, this is now a classic mechanism seen in lots of games.

I won't elaborate too much on the actual game. We started off in our respective corners with our little fleets, and slowly crept toward each other with more and more ships.

There were massive battles around the center planet  Mecatol Rex.. with Jim's green Earthmen vs Jeff's blue Jol-Nar race. At first, Jim won the first attack..

but Jeff counter-attacked with his War Sun and took Mecatol Rex..

While Jim was hurt on that side of the board, I surged forward in my galactic fleet to meet the Earth threat coming my way..

More battles ensued as Jim popped up in my and Jeff's rear through the use of wormholes, so there was fighting there as well.

Despite the valiant efforts to hold off the flesh-things, Jim won the game. There was something disquieting about how easy it was for his Humans to walk all over the board. Maybe the Federation of Sol is too powerful, maybe Jim got lucky in his victory conditions and resources. I don't know, but it seemed he had a cake-walk. Jeff pounded him heavily and Jim kept coming back with more and more ships and infantry. I'll have to look up what people are saying about game balance.

I thus experienced runaway-leader phenomenon in the game, which is the most dreadful dampener in any civ game, for at least 5 hours before it ended.  We started off at 10 am, with an hour and a half of setup and Jim explaining the rules. We thus really started at 11:30 am, and ended it around 11 pm, with an hour and a half of dinner. So about 10 hours of play, five of which felt like you were holding back the green ocean.

The game thus became an intellectual exercise for the last five hours to see how it plays, but it was realized early on that Jeff and I lost.

That being said, I like T.I. 4th edition. It has all the stuff I like about Civ games. However, the major drawback is the time length to play. As I get older, I am less willing to do anything for 12 hours. Ten-twelve hours feels like work that I should be getting paid for. This game is for teens with nothing to do to be honest.

Thumbs up on the experience however of at least saying I played it.


  1. Perhaps I was just the superior player! ;-) Having done a play through on my own gave me some insight on what things I should do early on and seizing as many systems as I could served me well.

    Regarding the Twilight side: we are all leftover races from when the Great Empire ruled all but ultimately fell. So we are all looking to seize control of the galaxy from that old empire that is in it's twilight before fading forever from memory. The game even comes with a booklet which contains the entire backstory of the old empire and how each of the races now vying for control fits into the picture. That conceit of a nonessential glossy 24 page booklet devoted to art and story alone is part of what contributes to the high cost of the game.

    I'm glad we finally played it and hope we get a chance again in the future.

  2. Wow! This looks like one impressive game. But I get the 'long-hours' bit. When you have responsibilities that need tending than long drawn out games can become a chore.

    1. Indeed.. too bad I’m not 15 again.:-)

  3. The game plays faster when players are experienced and don't have to look up rules all the time. The experience is also vastly different at 6 players, where everyone is much closer together to start and so you have to come to terms with your neighbors. Also there are 5 people to gang up on a "runaway" leader.