Monday, March 30, 2009

Twilight Imperium

Twilight Imperium is a board game of space-faring races clashing over the shattered remains of an old stellar empire. Each player has a race that they control. Starting from one star system, they must dominate the galaxy and exert their will on the others. The board itself is semi-randomly determined each time. The Mecatol Rex system is always in the center, the player home systems are always evenly spaced around the edge, and then the players are randomly dealt other system hexes to place. You, of course, want to put systems with good planets close to you, while putting lousy systems (say, the one destroyed by a supernova) by the other players. Once the board is set, the game begins in earnest.

On its face, Twilight Imperium resembles those old 4X computer games where you start on one planet and then conquer the galaxy. There are many similarities: you start with a home system, some ships, and some basic technology. As the game progresses, you can develop new technologies, conquer new planets, and fight interstellar battles with the other players. There are, however, some differences that make this game different from its computer-based forebears.

First, you have limited actions each turn. You have a certain number of command tokens that you can use to perform actions. Maybe you use one to move ships, or you use one to activate a special action. But you rarely have as many as you would need to do everything you want. Second, each turn each player picks a specific Strategy card that allows them to perform a specific action. Maybe you get a free technology, or you can institute trade agreements with other players, or you can gain new command tokens, etc. Third, there are action cards, which allow you to break the game in various ways that benefit you or your allies. Maybe you can instantly destroy an enemy ship, or you can wipe out another player's colony, or your ships can move faster for one action. The action cards add an air of unpredictability to the proceedings. Let's be honest, if your buddy picks the Technology strategy, you know he's going to be developing a new technology. But you never know what his action cards will let him do until he pops one on you. Fourth, you would think that you win by just blowing up the other player's forces, but trying for that will probably result in failure. Instead, you win by collecting victory points. Each player has a secret objective that nets you a few points, but most of the time you get points by fulfilling public objectives, which are slowly revealed as the game progresses. For example, "I now spend 10 influence points," or "I have all three of my space docks in play." Various developmental or political goals are what usually get you victory points. I've even played in a game where the winning player never fired a shot in attack or defense the entire game.

I really like this game, but it does have its downsides. First, it is better the more players you have. However, the more players you have the longer the game takes. I have played in games that took over eight hours to play, which is a lot, even for me. Second, the game is not cheap. Third, it takes up a lot of table space. So, this isn't a game that you are likely going to have out on the table all the time. When you do get to break it out, though, it is going to rock.

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