The game with everything: Twilight Imperium
It finally happened. I finally got to play the big one. I finally played Twilight Imperium and let me say that it was an experience. I first heard about Twilight Imperium a few years back when I was first getting into tabletop gaming. All I really knew about it then was that it took a long time to play. Hearing more and more about the game, though, I knew I had to experience it at least once. If there’s a board game equivalent of Star Wars, it’s Twilight Imperium. It’s an epic sci-fi game that takes place with an entire galaxy as the backdrop. Sure, it takes at least four hours to play, but it’s got a cantina-scenes worth of aliens duking it out. If you’re willing to make the commitment to it, you won’t be disappointed.
Twilight Imperium is what is known as a 4X game, which stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. This means that players will be building galactic empires through these methods. Unlike other games, which tend to focus on one thing, such as economic, in 4X games players are free to pick and choose which method works best for them at any given moment. Appropriately, then, Twilight Imperium mixes in elements of many different types of games. It’s got hidden objectives, trading, resource management, combat, a little bit of everything. It should be a mess. Somehow, it’s awesome.
The first thing I like about Twilight Imperium is the board setup, which I think is the first and only time I’ve ever said that about a board game. Instead of having a fixed board, here you start the game by taking turns laying down tiles that represent systems. Most of these tiles have planets on them, but some are just empty space or other areas of space like supernovas. As planets contain valuable resources and influence, Twilight Imperium gets you invested in the construction of the board as you attempt to place the most valuable planets closest to your starting sector. It’s a novel idea that pays off. Suddenly, you and your friends have a custom-made galaxy to explore and fight over.
Twilight Imperium capitalizes on this strong start, too. I don’t want to get too bogged down in a rules explanation here, but, at its core, Twilight Imperium employs an action point allowance system. You spend points to perform certain actions, like building new spaceships, colonizing planets, developing new technology, and moving into new systems. This system itself is pretty elegant, as you manage your number of actions trying to maximize your gains for any given turn.
What I really like about Twilight Imperium, though, is its sense of progression. Early in the game you’ll be in your own little corner of the galaxy, happily developing your unique alien race. You’ll begin with a sense of wonder at the vastness of space and the galaxy will seem huge as you slowly progress out from your home system. But, sooner or later (but not too soon, as the size of the game is just right), you’ll start bumping up against your opponents. This may lead to conflict between you, but it could go in any number of directions. You could have a powerful trade agreement with your neighbor that maintains the peace. Or you could mass your forces and invade. The point is that there’s a point where Twilight Imperium goes from feeling almost like a Eurogame with minimum player interaction to relying heavily on the interaction amongst players. That it does so almost seamlessly is a real testament to the game.
But that’s not the end of it. Shortly after players come into contact with one another, someone is going to start scoring victory points and you’ll all remember that’s the whole point of the game. This will trigger a mad scramble to score points in any way possible until somebody emerges as the victor. Being such a long game, it’s nice that Twilight Imperium does this. Unlike other long games like Risk, there’s nice variety that holds your interest. You won’t get bored doing the same thing over and over again seeing as the circumstances have gradually been altered. It keeps you engaged and, better yet, makes you feel like you’re a part of a galaxy-spanning epic.
I’ll be honest, Twilight Imperium isn’t for everyone. It’s long playtime and dense 40+ page rule book are enough to turn off the hardest of the hardcore. But if you’re willing to invest the time, it’s at least worth a try, if only once. If you do, the galaxy will be yours. Good luck out there.