WBG Score: 9.5
Player Count: 3-6
Published by: Fantasy Flight Games
Douglas Adams once wrote “Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.” Wise words of course from the great man himself but it’s clear to me that he obviously hadn’t seen an eight player game of TI set up on the table!
Years ago when I first got into gaming, a friend told me about a game he really wanted to play. It was a big, sprawling, space game about war, politics, trade, negotiation and diplomacy that took anything from eight to twelve hours to play. I looked him firmly in the eyes and I said…………”well there’s now way I’m playing that!!” That was Twilight Imperium 3rd edition. The fact that I’m here now reviewing Twilight Imperium 4th edition and you’ve seen my score teaches me one lesson about gaming. Never Say Never!!
How to control Mecatol Rex
In Twilight Imperium you are all battling for control of the galactic council on Mecatol Rex. The player who reaches ten victory points first will win and claim control.
Before a round starts each player, starting with the speaker, picks one of the game’s eight strategy cards (two in a four player game). These will give you a powerful ability and also determine turn order for the round.
On your turn you will perform one action. You can play a faction ability or a card that says ‘action’. You can play your strategy card. This will let you use the main ability on it which will include things like letting you get tech, money, specific units you can only get from these cards and command counters. Once played every other player will be able to play the secondary ability on that card if they use a strategy token from their pool. These abilities are usually less powerful versions of the main ability but well worth using if you can. You can pass, but only if you’ve played your strategy card.
The last action you can perform is going to be the main action you’ll be doing across the game. This is the tactical action. This action has five steps that you follow in order. Basically during this action you’ll activate a system using one of your command tokens then you can choose to move ships into that system following movement rules. Then any combat will take place, then invade the planet, then you can choose to produce in that system if you can. This may sound like a lengthy process and you will be forgiven for thinking that this is probably the reason the game takes so long but you won’t be doing every and you start to see moving and producing as almost separate actions and not part of one larger one. Production for example, is something you tend to do on its own so you just skip right to it.
Once everyone has passed there’s a scoring phase. At the start of the game only two public objectives will be revealed. Here everyone can score one public objective and one secret objective as long as they qualify for it. Each player can only score three secret objectives per game. Then a new public objective is revealed. After scoring, as long as no one has won, one of two things could happen. Either a new round starts or, when a player takes control of the planet Mecatol Rex in the centre of the board, there will be an agenda phase before the start of each new round.
In the agenda phase the player with the speaker token will draw an agenda from the deck and read it aloud. Players will then vote on it. These could include voting for laws to be put in place that will affect the game going forward.
That’s a very basic rundown of how the game plays, I’ll get into a bit more detail of some of these in the rest of the review. However if you do want a full rules rundown I’d recommend checking out the brilliant RTFM rules video on youtube. It helped me learn the game and it's entertaining. If you want to see someone play TI4 with clones, it's well worth a watch and it's the shortest How to play video for TI4 out there.
Send someone in to negotiate!
When you look at the rules for Twilight imperium it’s easy to see this as another nuts and bolts, score objectives, build units and tech, area control game. Now while that is the case for the most part, especially since the original game was designed in 1997, there's so much more to it than that. There's one mechanic that elevates this game to so much more than that. Negotiation! I know that very word will strike dread into the hearts of some gamers and for good reason. It’s one of those mechanisms that requires you to bring in an outside skill that not everyone can do well with, like dexterity or making a soufflé. It's the mechanism that for me really opens this game up and lets it shine like a well lit war sun.
Most area control games will see players building up fleets, taking areas by force and the biggest fleet usually wins the game. There’s absolutely nothing stopping you doing the same thing here of course? The beauty is that you don’t have to. Units are precious in this game, trade goods don’t exactly flow and planetary resources can just as easily be lost before you get a chance to spend them. So the last thing you want to do is spend more money on ships you lost trying to take systems from other players. So instead of going in all guns blazing you can turn to your opponents and make a deal. Deals can take many forms, like asking someone to play their strategy card action at a particular point, paying someone to not attack you or it could be giving someone money to move from a planet so you could move in. If all goes well no units are lost from either side. The other advantage of course is that no one’s forces are weakened for an unsuspecting attack from another player who’s waiting to move their fleet in as soon as the winner is left limping around the system.
Deals don’t have to be friendly of course. If both sides of a deal don’t resolve immediately the other player could just as easily take the money and put it towards placing a big old war sun in a system instead and refusing to leave.
For me this is the genius of it, just giving people that little nudge to engage with and talk to each other gives so much freedom. Rather than doing the customary thing of sitting and endlessly staring at your player board, this gives players an excuse to start a conversation. Whether it be about in game negotiations or just a chat about what everyone has been up to. It really paves the way for some great in game banter. This is the beauty of the game. Yes it’s eight plus hours, but because of a little bit of negotiation it's now an eight plus hour game that you get to play while having a laugh with your friends and that, above anything else is why this game really sings for me.
It takes how long!?
Let's talk about the big looming war sun in the room. The game length. If Twilight Imperium is famous for one thing it’s for how long it takes to play it. If you don’t set aside at least eight hours to play this game then you're either playing a three player game with experienced players, you’ve seen the big ole space lion on the cover and brought this game on a whim, or you’re just adorably optimistic. The best thing about TI though, is that in all my games, I’ve never felt the time, it’s always flown by. The main reason for that boils down to one thing. The player interaction. It’s such a simple thing but the way interaction works in this game just makes the time fly by (with caveats of course)
I’ve only played Fourth Edition so I can’t speak for earlier editions but the whole game seems to have been designed to keep people talking and keep them engaged in the game. Whether it’s through table talk, using secondary actions on strategy cards or just the fact that when you're not planning your next turn, you're keeping an eye on the game itself, because sooner or later everything could have an effect on what you're doing and what your future plans are. Keeping your eye on your immediate neighbours is one thing but you’d do wrong to ignore that big fleet being built up on the other side of the table. I’ve not mentioned it in the rules, but wormholes and upgraded movement are a thing in TI. So just because they can’t get to you now, it doesn’t mean that they won't have their sights set on you in the future.
I've lost the bleeps, I've lost the sweeps, and I've lost the creeps.
So it seems like I’ve gone on about the interaction and negotiation for a while. But what about if you were to remove that from the game? Does it still hold up? Yes, absolutely! Twilight Imperium isn’t just about control. In the base game only eight of the 20 public objectives are based on controlling planets. The rest are either tech or resource based objectives. There are a few more within the secret objectives and a few combat focused ones but again these balance out with the others.
Rather than all of these objectives being disjointed from each other everything feeds into everything else. So while you are gaining planets to get a control objective this will definitely help in working towards resource and tech objectives as some planets will give you tech symbols to use, these planets in turn will help give you resources or influence to help with those objectives.
If there’s one thing you won’t be short of in this game it’s strategy. From round one you’ll have at least three possible objectives to shoot for and new public objectives being revealed each round, as well as any other secrets that you pick up during the game. How you do these and in which order is down to you but it opens up so much room for a variety of different strategies that you’re never really sure what your opponents are up to until they do it.
If you haven’t guessed by now this game has a ton of replayability. We draft races each game and for the most part we try and pick ones we haven’t been before This means that every game is going to be different just based on the races alone. Your play styles will change, how you interact with other players and their races, what alliances you’ll make. Couple that with the map that changes every game we play and you're constantly kept on your toes in terms of strategy. What I like about this is that new players, while initially overwhelmed, have a better chance of keeping up since the chances are that the rest of us are trying to get a handle on how best to use this new faction. There’s sometimes nothing worse as a new player than playing against someone who has played the same faction time and again and who can play them and destroy you with them in their sleep.
Space politics is boring!!! right?
Right, I’ll admit it. Even when I was getting myself excited to try this game, this wasn’t a phase I was particularly looking forward to. I mean, it’s space politics and to anyone who’s seen the phantom menace, we all know how thrilling that is. Man was I wrong though. It’s not until you really get into this phase that you find out how much fun it is. As the speaker reads out the first agenda there’s more than likely going to be an audible ooooh! as everyone starts to plan which way they want to vote. Then the discussions start and the game turns into a mix of parliament, a reality tv show and dragons den. It will soon turn into a phase that you initially shrugged off to possibly being one of your favourite parts of the game. There’s a mix of cards that will see some ships getting destroyed, players earning points and also a few game changing events. Planning on using that wormhole to attack me next turn? Too late we’ve voted to close them all off!
Witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational D10.
Combat is, in essence, fairly straightforward. There are a few little steps such as firing cannons, anti fighter barrage and bombardment in between the main combat but all forms of combat involve you just throwing some dice. You each throw dice for the ships you have in the fight and each ship has a number by which it hits. Damage is assigned simultaneously and destroyed ships removed. If no one retreats then combat continues. You can upgrade ships and ground units to give them better abilities. It’s a really simple design and one that probably is reminiscent of when this game was designed. But it’s so much fun, yes some people will probably find it too random but there’s something so fun watching someone take their fairly sizable fleet into an opponent's pretty weak looking army and generally not knowing how it’s going to turn out. A huge fleet of fighters may look intimidating but given that they only hit on nines on a D10 means that they’re as much use as a stormtrooper in a sleep mask. Watching the underdog slowly chip away at the fleet is such a stand up and cheer moment for everyone around the table and and even bigger “aaahhh” moment when they lose. Yes it’s open to randomness, yes it may not be fun for the person who is slowly losing they’re hard earned army, but sooner or later the roles may be reversed and personally, whether it goes in my favour or not, I can’t help but have a lot of fun with it.
There’s only one game that dares give me the raspberry.
Unlike a popular movie franchise, sometimes, in space, people can hear you scream. That’s probably because this game isn’t for everyone and despite the high score I do concede that this game isn’t for everyone.
As I said earlier, this is a long game and that’s going to cause what would normally be minor problems to be bigger ones. If the theme, the length in itself or any of the mechanics I’ve mentioned aren't something that you enjoy, even in a shorter game then I would advise you steer clear of TI4. I always want people to have fun when they’re playing games and not enjoying yourself in a short game is one thing, but in an eight hour plus game! I certainly wouldn’t want to put anyone through that.
Something that you may not know is that TI4 has player elimination. Now before you run away let me just say that there is no reward for eliminating another player or is it encouraged at all by the game itself, it’s just something that is a possibility. In all my plays I’ve only seen it happen once and that was in the last couple of turns in the last round. You have to be really trying to do it to someone and it’s a pretty harsh thing to do to someone. So much so that I would be unwilling to play with someone who would go to those lengths to finish someone’s game like that.
This leads onto another point. TI is kind of group dependent and to that end, you dependent as well. If you have a group that doesn’t do a lot of table talk then you may ot have a fun time. Similarly if you’re new to the game and you have an overly fighty group who are willing to take advantage of your newbie status then again you may not have the best of times.
Twilight Imperium is an event game. Some groups (of whom I’m insanely jealous) get to play this game on the regular but for us it’s probably a bi-annual occurrence but when it happens we make the most of it and make it something to get excited about. We draft races a couple of weeks before, we build the map when we arrive and we just make a fun day out of it and we also find ourselves quoting one of the best space movies ever made…..Spaceballs. I’ll play at any player count but this is definitely a “the more the merrier” type game.
This game is a beast in more than just box size but for me it’s one that highlights a lot of the things I love about playing board games. Its social, strategic, cheer inducing fun.